Opinion / 11 March 2020

All signs from the past

Week of the Festival: Littfest, Umeå, Sweden

Every year, around this time, the task to curate Versopolis Review the week before Sweden’s largest literature festival Littfest in Umeå makes me think about not only where poetry is to be found today, but also about poetry’s relation to time and place more generally. I usually start the commission by choosing some projects, poets, books, journals et cetera that I am curious about, subsequently inviting people to write on these topics so that my curiousity can be satisfied. First in afterhand, having the four texts in front of me, I realise there is a theme that goes through all the contributions. This year I all of a sudden realised that all the texts were not only about the past, but about the past as it is reflected in the present.

In 1954 the Swedish poetry journal Lyrikvännen was founded, and this year, when the journal is a 66-year old senior citizen, Anna Lundvik and David Zimmerman, both born in the 90s, take on the mission of leading the journal into the 2020s. Lundvik means that since Lyrikvännen isn’t specialised in any aesthetic school or bound to any political ideology or specific geographical area, the journal becomes very broad, “open to all sorts of poetic expressions.” And Zimmerman, “humbled by the journal’s past,” wants to balance the new with the traditional, but notes that “in order to continue what Lyrikvännen has always been, development and change is required.”

In her review about Danish poet Andreas Vermehren Holm’s trilogy Alle tegn i samme natt (“All signs in the same night”), Norwegian critic Carina Beddari concludes that his poetry “touches on traditions that are deeply rooted in us.” In a review that borders on the essay, Beddari starts by reflecting about her own personal experiences of animal slaughteringat her parents’ farm: “the efficiency of killing still shocks me. There is no struggle. It looks like a perfectly clean act.” This “perfectly clean act,” bears some resemblance with Vermehren Holm’s writing, which has sometimes been viewed by critics as “too pretentious and insistent.” In Beddari’s reading of Alle tegn i samme natt it is in this very insistent and distressing tone, as well as in the images complementing the poems, that his uniqueness in the Nordic poetic scene lies. In his poetry the relations between human and animal, as well as between historical facts and myths of all ages, are central.

In Therese Ytter’s text on the literary organisation Textival’s programme series “Darlings,” I learn that we are sometimes closer to old literature than we are “to our own fragmented time.” During the fall of 2018, “Darlings” held its first four events, focusing on respectively the Italian lyricist Gaspara Stampa, the French prosaist Madame de La Fayette, the Swedish poet Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht and the Swiss travel writer Isabelle Eberhardt. Writers, artists and academics were invited to discuss the role of literary classics in an innovative way. “A classic is usually thought to be characterised by its ability to extend beyond its own time and speak to future generations,” Ytter writes and continues: “We also know that every text is historically situated, and that what we currently consider a classic is anything but permanent, and that such valuations are affected by contemporary politics.”

I bring forth these thoughts about the non-permanent classic and how what is considered a classic is affected by contemporary politics, to this Littfest week’s finishing essay, written by cultural journalist and novelist Elin Grelsson. Grelsson here traces a line in contemporary Swedish poetry expressing the postcolonial experience of writing in the language of colonial power. “How do you write without exoticising, without reinforcing stereotypes, without reproducing the gaze of power?” Grelsson asks. 

One possible answer, or rather strategy, to this dilemma is presented by Linnea Axelsson, whose Aednan (Sámi for “The Ground”) won the prestigious August prize in 2018, who weaves together Sámi subjectivities and experiences to form another view of Swedish history than is usually told by the majority Swedish society. David Vikgren on the other hand takes the language of the oppressor apart in his ninth poetry collection Materialvägensägen (for a discussion on the title see Elin Grelsson’s essay) (2019), and David Väyrynen’s Marken (Swedish for “The Ground”) is firmly rooted in the everyday speech of the mining towns of Malmfälten, and works with clichés in a way that makes the southerner a stereotype of the kind that the northerner has often been reduced to. Grelsson’s final example is Marit Kapla’s Osebol, which won the August prize the year after Aednan, where the voices of the village Osebol resonate throughout more than 800 pages, betraying “a collective inner dialogue over why anyone would want to stay in such a place, doomed by time and centralisation.”

That many people have wanted to stay in such a work field is apparent; all these books have been widely acclaimed, the poets received prizes and grants, and some, like Marken and Osebol, have sold much more than a regular poetry collection in Sweden does. So what is it that we are drawn to in these works? I can’t help but think that it might have to do with what Therese Ytter formulates about why we are drawn to classics. The cultural elite might not want to live in rural areas, but wants to experience it through literature, in order to escape, if only for an hour or two, the fragmented times.

This year's edition of the Littfest festival has been cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic.


Helena Fagertun

Helena Fagertun is a Swedish writer, translator and freelance editor. She has translated writers such as Kate Zambreno, Julie Otsuka and Shirley Jackson.


Photo by Pirjo Holmström