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Poet to poet: Gerdur Kristny on Iceland, where poetry matters

For Icelandic writer Gerdur Kristny, laments about the decline of reading make no sense

Photo: Gassi
Photo: Gassi

When Gerdur Kristny was growing up in Iceland, there was only one TV station, no TV in July, and no TV on Thursdays. “TV wasn’t important," she says. “Books were." Her parents, both in the medical profession, loved books, so she grew up in a house surrounded by books. Climatically, she reminds me, Iceland lends itself to reading. Summers are eternally bright, and what else are you going to do on those dark winter days?

Kristny is an award-winning writer of poetry, novels, short stories and children’s books. Questions about the marginalization of poetry and dwindling readership are met with blank stares. Her poetry is found in textbooks and read by schoolchildren all over the country. The previous president and current prime minister of Iceland have both quoted her poetry in their speeches. “I come from Iceland, where poetry matters," she says, simply. In Iceland there is no angst about leaving a 9-5 job to pursue the arts because artists, writers, musicians and designers get stipends. Kristny says there is nothing she likes better than to pretend she’s suffering from tuberculosis, climb into bed with a pencil and paper, wave goodbye to her husband and sons, and begin working on a poem.

Thirteen years ago, before becoming a full-time writer, she used to work as the editor of a magazine. Her beat was mainly crime, and she is still inspired by those stories. Her forthcoming book, Drápa, is a novel-poem about a woman who is murdered in the city of Reykjavik. The mood is contemporary Nordic noir, the form is Old Norse shield poetry. Kristny interviewed the husband of the dead woman when he came out of prison. He had moved back to the same house where he murdered his wife, which, she says, she found “rather weird". Later, Kristny found out that he himself had been murdered in the same building (in a drug-related crime). The building was given a plaque by the city of Reykjavik because it was renovated in a beautiful way, but nowhere was the murdered woman’s name on it. “I don’t think we should forget women who are murdered left and right in this world…. It should have had the name of the woman who was murdered there, the year when she was born and when she died, so that we can remember her," she says.

Another book, Bloodhoof, which won the Icelandic Literature Award in 2010, was a retelling of an ancient Eddic poem about the fertility god Freyr, who falls in love with a giantess, Gerdur. Freyr sends his servant to the world of giants in order to bring the giantess to him, but she does not want to go. Even though the servant bribes her with jewellery and golden apples, she says no. Finally, the servant threatens to kill the giantess’ family, so she goes. “This epic was always considered romantic," Kristny says, incredulously. “But she said no! It’s really sad that she has to leave her country and never go back there…. I wanted to give the giantess permission to say goodbye to her mother and country, and that’s why I rewrote it, and the reason why this old mythology caught people’s attention is because it has a modern twist—it’s the trafficking of women that is still happening today."

Iceland is present in Kristny’s work not just through the myths and sagas, the feisty female characters and Nordic crime overtones, but also in the landscape. “It could actually be a drinking game. I read a poem and people will have a strong sip of wine every time I say snow, for example—people would be very drunk, I promise you," she says. Kristny believes that Nordic countries must have more words for snow, if not the same number as the Inuit. Consider this, from Patriotic Poem: The cold makes me/ a lair from fear/ places a pillow of/ downy drift /under my head/ a blanket of snow/ to swaddle me in.

Iceland used to be a Danish colony until 1944, and Kristny tells me that much of the poetry that she learnt in school was patriotic poetry about how wonderful their country was. Her love of poetry began as a child, learning these poems by heart. Fascinated by their rhyme and rhythm, she wanted to write poems of her own. “Sometimes teenagers write poetry about love and the end of the world when they’re dramatic, but I never stopped."

Most books in Iceland are published in October and November, in anticipation of the Jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. Kristny tells me it’s a tradition which began during Iceland’s economic depression. There was nothing in the shops, so people would give books as Christmas presents. At 6pm on 24 December, people open their presents and everyone reads a book while eating some chocolate. “Lots of nations envy us because that’s what we do. We give books as presents, so that’s why they look as they do—rather beautiful, because they’re presents you buy for the ones you love, and everyone gets a book for Christmas. That’s just how it is."

Kristny cautions that while poetry and publishing in Iceland buck global trends by thriving as tenaciously as their national flower, the white dryas, there are still concerns. Technology has infiltrated. “Soon we’ll be talking to our cars, shouting at our refrigerators, ‘Give me butter now,’ and it matters if it’s said in Icelandic or some other language…. We have a vulnerable language that only 320,000 speak… and that’s why we get stipends as authors. Nobody wants us to write in English. We really have to write in our own language.... Literature is about language after all, and having something in common."

For Kristny, the best and worst thing about Iceland is how far it is from other countries. “We can’t just get into our car and drive over the borders or anything…. It’s good to stay there in peace and quiet, but sometimes you just need to get away." Poetry has taken her around the globe but what she worships when she returns is the calm. She vacillates between moving and staying still. “I used to be a gymnast when I was a child, and poetry is like gymnastics. It’s all about equilibrium, balance, strength and being limber. In the end you have to just land, you have to know how to end, and make everybody feel that it’s very easy. No one sees how many times you have to practise before being able to do this."

This is the conclusion of a three-part series where poets talk about their art and inspiration. Read the first two parts here and here.

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