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.