Pass the Word – Poetry over Football

Poetry over football at Café Haiti

By Mark Chamney Asch
Pass the Word, a two-day literary programme hosted by Reykjavík City of Literature during the PEN International Congress, continued on Tuesday September 10th with readings in four locations, including a night of poetry and politics at Café Haiti. The events served as a lead up to the Reykjavík International Literary Festival, offering readings by more than 40 local and international authors at the city’s cafés and bars. Host Kári Tulinius—who thanked the audience “for choosing poetry over football”, as the reading coincided with a stadium filled World Cup qualifier match between the national teams of Iceland and Albania—began the evening at Café Haiti by explaining the origins of the poem he promised to read shortly. The backstory, a timely anecdote about studying in the US during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and attending a mass protest in New York City, began to take on more and more poetic cadences, until it was unmistakably the poem itself, a semi-improvised ode to the colorful masses filling the city streets with their hopes. (A friend said she'd heard Kári deliver a different variation on the same poem at a reading earlier in the year. One wonders if his fans trade tapes.) The first reader was the Palestinian poet Hanan Awward, whose poems, read first in her own language and then in English translation, were richly alliterative mediations on passion and patriotism, with flourishes of repetition and natural imagery. They felt like love poems to a nation. Among the highlights of Þórarinn Eldjárn's reading was a sonnet called “Leda and the Swan,” “because every sonneteer worthy of the name must at some point attempt to write a sonnet about Leda and the swan.” In this version (read in Icelandic and in a delightful rhyming English translation by David McDuff and the late Bernard Scudder), Leda is a notorious local woman who rapes the birds at Reykjavík City Lake. Other poems—including a prose poem called “Gulliver Among the Houyhnhnms”—ended with observations that could be either parables or punchlines, depending upon the delivery. The Jordan-born, London-based poet Fathieh Saudi was a pediatrician before she turned to poetry: in the middle of her life, she explained, she turned from saving others with medicine to saving herself with literature. Her poems, read and published in English, were life-affirming in different contexts, both personal and political. “Beirut” mingles personal nostalgia with sadness at destruction, and “Vertical,” dedicated to Sylvia Plath, began with a call to prayer, and ended with Fathieh crediting the tragic poet as her inspiration to “stay vertical.”

We would be very small without translators

The evening's only novelist, Andri Snær Magnason,  began by acknowledging a couple of his translators in the crowd: “We would be very small without translators.” In that vein, he announced that he had just completed a new novel, “but it's in a secret language called Icelandic,” and read instead from his earlier novels The Story of the Blue Planet and LoveStar, both recently published in English. Both novels were actually written shortly after the turn of the century, but the selections Andri Snær read were conspicuously contemporary: from the dystopian parody LoveStar, a character's ode to the ideal of the world-conquering businessman-innovator; and from the fairytale-like Blue Planet, a magic-realist section about two children learning about the consequences of their appetites for flight and ease. Judith Rodriguez, an Australian poet, delivered brisk, forceful introductions to each of her poems, the subject matter of which was about evenly split between family and leftist politics. Poems about Hugo Chavez (a primo performer on the anti-imperialist stage) and young terrorists were dense with the language of political provocation; poems about her daughters and parents were appropriately knotty with memorable turns of phrase and resonant images from memory (one poem about her elderly mother beings, “My mother is crouching in the back of her mind”). Finally, the Estonian poet Kätlin Kaldmaa read several poems about travel and the heart; many were set in Iceland (or partly in Iceland: one love poem, quite lengthy, was structured as a list of places she traveled in 2010 and 2011, with many expected and unexpected generalizations about places like Berlin and Keflavík). The poem “My Icelandic Lover” ended with the line, “Time is the one thing we have here,” and Kätlin closed the reading by singing an Estonian folk song—with help, on the refrain, from the other Estonians in the audience. [gallery link="file" ids="3176,3175,3178,3177,3181,3182,3183,3179,3180,3184"] Photographs: Markús Már Efraím Sigurðsson