Sanna Karlström

- Finland -

Sanna Karlström (b. 1975) is an author who lives in Helsinki. She has published five books of poetry, the first of which, Taivaan mittakaava (Heaven’s Magnitude), won the Helsingin Sanomat literature prize for the best debut work of literature in 2004.

Her third book of poetry, Harry Harlow’n rakkauselämät (The Love Lives of Harry Harlow, 2009) received the Tanssiva karhu poetry prize given out by the national broadcaster, Yleisradio, and the Kalevi Jäntti prize. The book contrasts the cruel animal experiments conducted by the psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950s with Harlow’s personal relationships.

Karlström’s poetry has been translated into ten languages. She has also written a novel, Multaa sataa, Margareta (Margareta, It Is Raining Earth, 2017) and a children’s book, Siilin laulu (The Hedgehog’s Song, 2016), which was illustrated by Marika Maijala.

Since publishing her most recent book of poetry, Alepala (2019), Karlström has started performing together with her partner, musician Janne Lastumäki, thus combining the performance of poetry with sound art and music. In Alepala, humans struggle through various stages of their lives amidst the mythical landscapes of Alepa, a popular chain of neighbourhood shops, and the Kalevala.


Alepala. Poems. Otava, 2019.

Multaa sataa, Margareta. Novel. Otava 2017.

Siilin laulu. Children’s book. Illustrated by Marika Maijala. S&S 2016.

Saatesanat. Poems. Otava 2014.

Metropoetica! Poetry and urban space: women writing cities. Authors: Ingmara Balode, Julia Fiedorczuk , Sanna Karlström, Ana Pepelnik, Zoë Skoulding, Sigurbjörg Thrastardottir and Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese. Seren 2013. 

Harry Harlow’n rakkauselämät. Poems. Otava 2009.

Päivänvalossa. Poems. Otava 2009.

Taivaan mittakaava. Poems. Otava 2004.


Awards and nominations

Runeberg Junior prize. Nominated 2017

Helmet Prize. Nominated. 2017

Runeberg Prize. Nominated 2009

Kalevi Jäntti Prize. Won 2009

Yleisradio Tanssiva Karhu Prize. Won 2009

Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize. Won 2004

A narrow space for feelings – On the minimalistic poetry of Sanna Karlström

Sanna Karlström (b. 12.8.1975 in Kokkola) is a Finnish poet who has published five books of poetry, a novel, and a children’s book. Her poetry is predominantly minimalistic, concentrated, and restrained in its use of language. It has been associated with the modernist aesthetic that broke into the mainstream of Finnish poetry in the 1950s. With an emphasis on the use of imagery, this strain of modernism was influenced by Imagism as well as classical Japanese poetry.

The first-person-oriented modernistic tradition in post-war Finland tended towards existentialism: the poet was often alloted the place of a tragic seer or an observant outsider. Karlström’s debut book, Taivaan mittakaava (Heaven’s Magnitude, 2004), which won the Helsingin Sanomat literature prize, used glass as a metaphor for distance: the speaker views the world through a window—one which is cracked in places. Through such archetypal characters as the architect or the chess master, the poems describe the futility of linguistic encounters, especially across gender boundaries. With gendered forms of experience founded on an ethos of constant technological improvement and an intellectual desire for victory, it is impossible to attain “heaven’s magnitude”, which cannot be designed or comprehended on merely intellectual grounds. This is precisely what poetic language aspires to.

Karlström’s subsequent poetic works are characterised by a carnevalistic, questioning attitude towards modernism’s sombre ethos. This is evidenced, for instance, by the use of unreliable first person speakers. In giving voice to historical figures with questionable reputations such as the magician Uri Geller in Päivänvalossa (In Daylight, 2007) or the psychologist Harry Harlow in Harry Harlown’ rakkauselämät (The Love Lives of Harry Harlow, 2009), Karlström creates space and opportunities for interpretation between the rhetorical and mimetic aspects of poetic language. Thus the poem’s voice is diversified and distanced from the observer-poet.

Harry Harlow’n rakkauselämät, which was awarded the Tanssiva Karhu and Kalevi Jäntti prizes is one of the central works of dramatic monologue in Finnish poetry. The book criticizes atrocities that are committed in the name of science and, ultimately, a world view in which artificial experiments are valued over inner experience. The psychologist Harry Harlow conducted experiments on rhesus macaques and used uncoventional terminology, writing, for instance, of “love” instead of attachment. By assuming the role of Harry Harlow, Karlström illustrates the absurdity of resorting to extreme cruelty in order to prove that love exists.

In her most recent work, Alepala (2019), the elevated trappings of high modernism are given an absurd hue as the speaker mostly roams the fluorescent corridors of Alepa, a ubiquitous chain of neighbourhood shops in metropolitan Finland: “There was lettuce. / There was light crowding the eyes, unrestrained as sand.” Despite their brevity, the poems in Alepala contain an astounding number of allusions and thematic excursions: among works evoked are Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala (as observed in the book’s title), and The Bible as well as other creation narratives. The first lines of the book combine the beginnings of The Gospel of John and The Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Alepa. / The future was without form and void.” The shop’s name, which brings to mind a discount sale (“ale” in Finnish), replaces the Logos as that which gives sense to the world, and the world’s creation is supplanted by its disappearance. Mundane forms of financial exploitation and the ecological crisis knocking at the shop’s sliding doors are connected at a mythical level.

Karlström’s poetry was first published in 1999 in the anthology for that year’s edition of The Great Poetry Competition (Suuri Runokilpailu), a now defunct event for unpublished poets, which was organised by The Finnish Cultural Foundation and the literary organisation Nuoren Voiman Liitto. Included in the anthology were others who would go on to become central figures of Finnish poetry in the coming decade, such as Olli Heikkonen and Mikko Rimminen. In the country’s main newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, the critic Tero Liukkonen commended Karlström’s flair for neologisms, mentioning her word “shutspeak” (“umpipuhe”) as an apt description of the humourless and densely metaphorical poetry of the 1990s: “‘Now listen to this shutspeak’, she writes, apparently with densely packed poetry in mind.”

However, “shutspeak” may also refer to the discomfort associated with emotional expression in a culture marked by reticence and matter-of-factness: speech cannot flow freely, when one’s inner life is sealed off. Karlström’s poetry abounds with touching descriptions of situations in which the speaker is forced the keep their emotions private. Poetry can provide partial relief or at least offer a space where feelings, in all their rigidity and pretence, can become visible: “How awful it is for humans to have feelings, / and to not have them, that, too, is sick. // Like mimicking a statue / on a plush sofa / whilst constantly almost falling off.” (Päivänvalossa).

Despite her occasional use of unconventional poetic devices, the themes of Karlström’s poetry are fairly traditional. The greatest of these are naturally love and death. Her book Saatesanat (Guiding words, 2014) is about a departing and, by the end of the book, departed father and his continuing presence in the speaker’s life. Applying all the precision and subtlety that the subject entails, Karlström allows the deceased to also speak—by keeping silent: “I say: the sky has fallen / and you say:” A child born soon after the bereavement is nursed with this sorrow: “Gradually I give you everything, / I didn’t know how much that would be.”

There are moments when shutspeak opens into joy, light, lightness.

By Vesa Rantama
Translation by Pauli Tapio