Friday, July 4, 2014

Randi Ward on Tóroddur Poulsen and Planks

Nearly thirty years have passed since a Faroese work won the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Following his fifth bid for the prestigious prize, Tóroddur Poulsen wished to be spared the inconvenience of losing again: “It’s really irritating that I keep getting nominated,” he vented during an interview on Radio Denmark’s literature program, Skønlitteratur, in 2011. “I’d rather be left in peace.”

The Faroe Islands, a self-governing archipelago under the sovereignty of Denmark, has consistently nominated literary works for the prize since 1985. This in itself is no small feat considering that the remote North Atlantic islands are home to 48,500 people whose standard orthography only just began taking shape two centuries ago. The first book published in Faroese was a transcribed collection of heroic ballads. A year later, in 1823, a translation of the Gospel of Matthew made its way into Faroese households but found little, if any, approbation; many considered it sacrilege to translate holy scripture into the vernacular. Faroese, long mistaken for a mishmash of Icelandic and Danish, was not officially recognized as the principal language of the Faroe Islands until home rule was established in 1948.

Last October, Tóroddur Poulsen blazed a new trail for Faroese literature when he became the first Faroese poet to have an English translation of his work honored by The American-Scandinavian Foundation. The award-winning collection, Fjalir (Planks, 2013), subsequently earned Poulsen his sixth nomination for the Nordic Council Prize; at present, he doesn’t seem inclined to forgo this latest nomination.

Planks consists of thirty-three poems, each of which is dialogically presented alongside a reproduction of one of Poulsen’s woodcut prints. The original Faroese title, Fjalir, connotes “boat, sloop” and “the front/back covers of a book” in addition to the literal “planks” and “to hide, disguise.” Among other things, Fjalir is a meditation on creative agency and the historical / ideological / cultural realities ingrained in language that structure subjectivity and experience. Poulsen’s conspicuous use of metaphorical plank motifs throughout the collection—bearing in mind that his homeland is devoid of timber resources—evokes dimensions of the national-cultural identity his people have engineered from selectively imported and remanufactured discourses. Moreover, Fjalir’s cover art illustrates Poulsen’s conviction that fanatic nation-building has had dreadful consequences in the Faroe Islands.

The self-portrait we encounter on the collection’s cover is so planked-up as to be nearly indistinguishable from its staged background. Still, it is with a depiction of his perceived self that the artist initially manages to confront the insidious dynamics responsible for his repression. This reflexive rendering serves as the collection’s point of departure. Poem by poem, xylograph by xylograph, the Faroese narrator pries his way back into the infrastructure of his consciousness to reconstitute himself amid nightmarish manifestations of fabricated consensus. Using the very agents that have thwarted him, he works his way through a stifling symbiosis of society, language, and self toward artistic and spiritual autonomy. Black and white geometrics gradually give way to more colorful prints, and the collection concludes with a poem entitled “Salvation.”

Bear with me, dear readers: this brief introduction to Tóroddur Poulsen and Planks is my way of contextualizing “Spoor” and “The Silence and I” (BPJ, Summer 2014) in anticipation of an upcoming blog post. Both of these poems appear in Planks and provide further insight into the collection as well as into formative influences on Poulsen’s pithy, thought-provoking poetics. I’ll be sharing examples of Poulsen’s pioneering poetry, music and art throughout July while occasionally offering my interpretations and translations of his work. Who knows? We might even be able to lure Poulsen into the Beloit Poetry Journal’s forum.


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  2. Randi Ward writes:

    Planks’ thirty-three woodcut prints were created at Steinprent, a renowned graphic workshop and gallery in Tórshavn, over the course of three years (2009–2012).

    Steinprent’s founding artists, printer Jan Andersson and printmaker Fríða Matras Brekku, have collaborated closely with Tóroddur Poulsen since 1998. Under their mentorship, Poulsen has experimented with a number of printmaking techniques (e.g., lithography, woodcut, linocut, drypoint) and produced approximately three hundred distinct works of art.

    Follow this link to view a slideshow of selected lithographs and woodcut prints by Tóroddur Poulsen:

    To enjoy the work of other artists affiliated with Steinprent, visit:

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    2. Click here to view a slideshow of selected lithographs and woodcut prints by Tóroddur Poulsen.

      Click here to enjoy the work of other artists affiliated with Steinprent.

  3. Words without Borders featured three contemporary Faroese poets in its August 2013 issue: Tóroddur Poulsen, Vónbjørt Vang, and Sissal Kampmann.

    “the expiration date” from Bræddur Firvaldur (Tarred Butterfly, 2011) by Tóroddur Poulsen:

    “on the bed” from Millumlendingar (In Transit, 2011) by Vónbjørt Vang:

    “The round table is the eye” from Ravnar á ljóðleysum flogi–Yrkingar úr uppgongdini (The Silent Flight of Ravens–Poems from the Stairway, 2011) by Sissal Kampmann:

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    2. the expiration date” from Bræddur Firvaldur (Tarred Butterfly, 2011) by Tóroddur Poulsen.

      on the bed” from Millumlendingar (In Transit, 2011) by Vónbjørt Vang.

      The round table is the eye” from Ravnar á ljóðleysum flogi–Yrkingar úr uppgongdini (The Silent Flight of Ravens–Poems from the Stairway, 2011) by Sissal Kampmann.

  4. Dear Randi,

    Thank you so much for sharing these woodcuts and poems. Woodcuts are one of my favorite forms because of the stark simplicity and movement that is often conveyed. The poetry and the woodcuts work so well together - both mirroring each other and also adding dark and light, lines and blank space. Kampmann's poem, 'The round table is the eye' captures the chiaroscuro of presence and absence, meaning and loss. And Tóroddur Poulsen's work is magical because of its simplicity and movement.

    Most dramatic and evocative are your own photographs that capture the geography of a people and place; the drama behind the sometimes serene, sometimes brutal quiet of the landscape.

    I have spent some time in the borderlands of Norway and Russia and in the islands off the coast of Norway and was really interested to see this issue of BPJ and your translations. I believe I found myself as a writer when I visited Norway and it inspired my early works a great deal.

    I look forward to reading the book and following your work.

    Warm wishes,

    1. Thank you, Leeya, for your insights and kind words.

      I enjoyed reading “The Abduction,” your wonderful introduction to your poem, and your excellent conversations with Christopher Woodman and Johan Huybrechts on BPJ’s forum this past May.

      July has gotten away from me, unfortunately, but I’d like to leave you with this poem from Poulsen’s bilingual collection Eygnaholur / Øjenhuler (Eye Sockets, 2010):

      when darkness suffocates
      i escape into language
      and breathe light

      when light suffocates
      i escape into darkness
      and breathe language

      when language suffocates
      i escape into light

      and breathe darkness

      that’s how i see everything
      and become the breath
      the suffocator breathes

  5. Ice Floe, originally a journal of circumpolar poetry, was revived as an annual book series in 2010.

    Tóroddur Poulsen’s poetry was included in volumes two and three of the series.

    “The Storm” (from Útsýni, 2009) appears in Ice Floe II.

    “the bound light” (from the bilingual collection Eygnaholur / Øjenhuler, 2010) appears in Ice Floe III.

    Ice Floe is available from the University of Alaska Press.

  6. Tóroddur Poulsen is the somewhat reluctant subject of Katrin Ottarsdóttir's film, Ein Regla Um Dagin Má Vera Nokk! (A Line A Day Must Be Enough!, 2008). This intimate documentary offers a rare glimpse into Poulsen’s day-to-day life in Denmark, his complicated relationship with his native archipelago, and his personal struggles. Ottarsdóttir not only approaches Poulsen on his terms, she structures the film in a manner that draws viewers into the rhythm by which he exists / communicates / creates. This temporal reorientation reveals key aspects of Poulsen’s personality and humor as well as the nature of his creative solitude.

    On her website, Ottarsdóttir candidly describes the process of collaborating with Poulsen and submitting to his “Tóroddian” pace of being: “Thoughts and ideas come in their own time. Words might not show up on the day you wanted them to, but they might come out in full force on a day when you hadn’t expected anything in particular. With Tóroddur, nothing’s predictable. He doesn’t open up to just anybody, and a camera doesn’t make you more or less appealing in his eyes. Tóroddur knows when he’s given a sufficient dose of himself, and he does it sparingly. Oftentimes, you don’t get anything out of him. And yet…! If you pay close attention, you’ll see that it’s there after all. All the Tóroddian things [that make Tóroddur who he is].”

    Click here for more information about Faroese filmmaker Katrin Ottarsdóttir and her production company, Blue Bird Film.

    You can purchase and stream Ein Regla Um Dagin Má Vera Nokk! here.

  7. Five poems by Tóroddur Poulsen appear in the Spring 2014 issue of Skidrow Penthouse:

    “Ears” (from Fjalir, 2013)

    “Heaven” (from Fjalir, 2013)

    “Suffering” (from Fjalir, 2013)

    “The Source” (from Avbyrgingar, 2012)

    “Church Bells” (from Rend, 2010)

    Skidrow Penthouse is a journal of poetry, fiction, and art founded in 1998 by poets Rob Cook and Stephanie Dickinson.

    Cook and Dickinson also operate Rain Mountain Press, a publishing collective that evolved from Skidrow Penthouse.

    Church Bells

    the church bells
    are ringing
    they want us
    to forget the time
    we heard nothing
    but church bells

  8. Fjords Review's Fall/Winter 2013 issue featured four poems by Tóroddur Poulsen and two poems by Guðrið Helmsdal.

    Guðrið Helmsdal was born in Tórshavn in 1941. When she released Lýtt lot in 1963, she became the first woman to publish a volume of poetry written in the Faroese language; her debut collection also signaled a modernist breakthrough in Faroese literature.

    Helmsdal’s trailblazing contributions to Faroese letters earned her the M.A. Jacobsen Literature Award in 1974.

    Her poems “Midnight Thaw” and “Heading Home” are from the collections Lýtt lot (Mild Breeze, 1963) and Morgun í mars (Morning in March, 1971), respectively.

    You can read more of Guðrið Helmsdal’s poetry in issue nine of Structo Magazine.

    The four Poulsen poems featured in Fjords' Fall/Winter 2013 issue, “Hymns,” “Attitude,” “Dusk,” and “Salvation,” are all from Fjalir (Planks, 2013).


    the angel
    got himself
    in the spider web
    while trying
    to help me
    get free
    but then a butterfly
    came along
    and saved us
    with some choice words
    about approaching rain

  9. Asymptote is an online journal of original writing and literary translation.

    The July 2013 issue of Asymptote includes three poems by Tóroddur Poulsen:

    “God’s Lamb” (from Bræddur Firvaldur, 2011)

    “To Eat The Angels” (from Eygnaholur / Øjenhuler, 2010)

    “Faces” (from Útsýni, 2009)

  10. The American-Scandinavian Foundation is one of the leading cultural and educational organizations linking the United States and the Nordic countries. Its flagship magazine, Scandinavian Review, presents aspects of contemporary Nordic life in order to foster cross-cultural understanding.

    The Spring 2014 issue of Scandinavian Review features seven poems and woodcut prints by Tóroddur Poulsen. “Dreaming,” “Longing,” “Evening,” “Assignment,” “Collar,” “Grass,” and “Catch” are all drawn from Fjalir (Planks, 2013).


    in this
    i’m dead tired
    on my way down
    a steep
    flight of stairs
    with a priest
    who keeps asking me
    how great it is knowing
    we also have eternity
    to look forward to
    and i keep giving him
    the same dispirited answer
    over and over again
    i just want to get home
    and go to bed
    because i’m totally beat
    and don’t want to hear any more
    talk of an eternity
    that only makes me more tired

  11. For the fourth consecutive year, EUNIC in Brussels has collaborated with the capital city’s intermunicipal transport company (STIB) to organize TRANSPOESIE. The poetry festival opens on September 26th, the official European Day of Languages, and lasts until October 24th.

    TRANSPOESIE offers a series of literary events and exhibitions that celebrate the linguistic /cultural diversity of Europe and the art of translation. During the month-long festival, the public space of everyday life is transformed into a venue for experiencing poetry and discovering new sources of inspiration. The thirty poems showcased by TRANSPOESIE 2014 will appear in various locations throughout Brussels, in the city’s metro system, and aboard buses and trams; each poem will be presented in its original language alongside French and Dutch translations.

    A poem by Tóroddur Poulsen has been selected for TRANSPOESIE 2014. “When the seagulls” is from Poulsen’s latest bilingual collection, Leyvið haldi eg / Løvet tror jeg (2014).

    Last year, poet and novelist Carl Jóhan Jensen represented the Faroe Islands at the festival.

  12. Poet Paul B. Roth founded The Bitter Oleander, a biannual journal of contemporary international poetry and short fiction, in 1974.

    The Spring 2013 issue of The Bitter Oleander highlighted Tóroddur Poulsen’s work with a thirty-eight page feature. The feature includes:

    - An introduction that contextualizes Poulsen’s life and career

    - Reproductions of Poulsen’s lithographs (courtesy of Steinprent in Tórshavn)

    - Film stills from Katrin Ottarsdóttir’s documentary, A Line A Day Must Be Enough! (courtesy of Blue Bird Film)

    - Eighteen poems selected from a number of Poulsen’s published collections

    - An extensive interview with Tóroddur Poulsen

    The Bitter Oleander has also published poetry by Tóroddur Poulsen on two other occasions.

    “The Rain” (from Bræddur Firvaldur, 2011) appeared in the Spring 2012 issue.

    “The Faith” and “Sunday” (both from Útsýni, 2009) appeared in the Fall 2012 issue.

  13. Tóroddur Poulsen’s avant-garde reading style and rebellious alter ego, Garage God Tóroddsson, have long since earned him a reputation as a pugnacious punk poet.

    Poulsen named his musical alter ego Garasjuguð (Garage God), because there's a bluesy, garage-band style about GG’s music; GG’s music is the kind of psychedelic church-punk that, Poulsen feels, could have been played in his grandfather’s garage.

    “My grandpa, Bus-Óli, owned a big garage and repair shop where I used to play when I was a kid. It was an exciting place to explore what with the repair pit and smell of motor oil. To this day, when I catch a whiff of oil, I think of my grandpa’s garage.”

    Poulsen and Garage God each have Facebook profiles and frequently banter back and forth on social media. GG often posts ironic or derogatory comments on Facebook, especially when other Faroese artists write about their accomplishments.

    It frustrates Poulsen that he is held accountable for GG’s actions. “It doesn’t do any good to try and explain to others that Tóroddur Poulsen and Garage God are two separate people. Father and son,” he said.

    Poulsen and GG share a hometown and birthday, but GG is eighteen years younger than Poulsen. Garage God was born in 1975, the same year that Poulsen enrolled at the Faroese Folk High School, and currently lists his occupation as “A Dreamer in Dreamland.”

    The following links show Tóroddur Poulsen and Garage God Tóroddsson in action.

    From the album Úr Maskinrúminum, 2007 (music Kaj Klein / lyrics T. Poulsen):

    "Ostínato pt. 1"

    "Ostínato pt. 2"

    "Ostínato pt. 3"

    From Katrin Ottarsdóttir's 2008 documentary film A Line A Day Must Be Enough!:

    "Gamlar samrøður við skivuna"


    "Havi barst við eitt træ"