It is with poetry like with coffee: it is good when it is good
Interview with Danish Poet Niels Hav
Conducted by Shaker Alanbari
1- Could you give the readers a general picture of the Danish poetry now?
Niels Hav: Viewed under the microscope Danish poetry is a teeming jumble of many ideas and styles. Seen from the moon it's hard to spot this small country. If you want to get an overview of Danish literature from a middle distance it is obvious contemporary Danish poetry want to get involved with today's real problems - while the eternal existential issues are not forgotten.
Poetry is published in small print runs and poetry doesn't take up much space at the bookstores in Copenhagen - it seems that God has chosen a few hundred, or at the very most a couple of thousand, in each nation for the buying of poetry, it’s not often a poetry collection becomes a bestseller.
Among Danish poets Inger Christensen was unique. When she died a few years ago The Guardian called her “one of the most significant European poets of the 20th Century” – and states in the same breath that “She was Danish, and it is a misfortune for any great writer to be confined to a language with few readers.” That may be true, but Inger Christensen crossed the language barrier with “Butterfly Valley”, a requiem in the form of a cycle of sonnets of great beauty and existential insight.
Among the alive and kicking Henrik Nordbrandt is important. He challenges himself and the Danish language in miraculous ways. Søren Ulrik Thomsen and Marianne Larsen should also be counted among distinguished Danish poets, like Pia Juul and her poetry full of cruelty and magic.
2- In the Arabic culture there is an expresion called ( The poet of philosophies) and (philosophy of the poets) the middle age Arabic poet Abu al alaa Almoaari gained this description, I notes a spirit of philosophy behind of your pomes, what do you say about that?
NH: I am glad you mention Abul Ala al-Maari, his thinking and poetry is still controversial almost a thousand years after his death. Jihadist have beheaded statues of al-Maari during the conflict in Syria, it’s impressive when you know how busy the same people are killing living human beings. They show a surprising interest in poetry, to execute statues is a strange kind of respect, but at least this shows poetry is a serious part of the public discussions.
A poem should not be just flourishing metaphors for the poet's feelings and moods, but an intimate talk about the most important things in life. To love, to be abandoned, to detect the clock that counts the seconds within the body. What should a man do with his life? These are themes poetry have in common with philosophy, and I'm glad you noticed these aspects in my poems.
3- There are a lot of danish myths and Scandinavian, add to that the history of the Viking, does Niels hav used that in his poetry?
NH: We are surrounded by mounds/ barrows and other relics of the past, and no doubt we are carriers of the wild Viking's genes. It's not often this mythological stuff shows up in my poetry, but it does happen - for example in this poem
It’s simply ingenious
In many ways poems are different from sausages.
For instance, poems have the advantage over sausages
you can consume them –
and they are still there.
You can consume them again and again,
still, there they are.
Just like that pig from Norse mythology.
The attaché for trade at the embassy
couldn’t understand that.
It simply took him by surprise.
Ingenious, he said rubbing his hands together
as though he already sat in Valhalla drinking mead.
It’s simply ingenious!
(Translated by P.K. Brask)
4- Niels hav lives in Norebro, in Copenhagen, the region which represent a mixture of languages, cultures, colors, the dramatic changes happened in the last 30 years in danish society, how Niels, the poet and human deals with that?
NH: Yes, for centuries Denmark was a small homogeneous nation, but in recent decades we have benefited from immigration from all corners of the world. This has made Copenhagen - and especially Nørrebro - a much more vibrant and interesting place. A Babylon of tongues are spoken here, and foreign cultures and traditions get new Danish roots, that's beautiful. Our small farming-based culture needs new inspiration from the world's ancient urbanized regions. The Danish meatball is now in a tough competition with the Asian, African and Arab cuisine. Some of the emigrants arrive because wars and violence ravaging the globe, this is the sad part of the story.
5- In Arabic poetry the woman, femal, has always a high presence, what about Niels Hav?
NH: Love is the stuff of joy that keeps the heart muscle pumping.Women and the feminine is a very interesting topic, the electricity between the two sexes is the energy that makes the universe spins around. The women of Copenhagen are everywhere visible involved in public life, thousands of women bike around in traffic, they sit in cafes after work with friends over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Often more women than men are sitting in the cafes. Falling in love is very easy.
I know the traditions about these things are different in Arab culture. Poetry reflects reality; and when women are distant and unattainable, the imagination has free rein, often with beautiful results in poetry.
The key words here are freedom and respect. Women and men are entitled to the same freedom of movement and the same right to decide over their own bodies. This is obvious, but still not respected everywhere. Perhaps the struggle for women's rights globally is the most important battlefield these years.
I would suggest we tentatively give all political power to the women - let's say, for 100 years. As an experiment. Men have ruled this world for thousands of years without much success, confusion, wars and idiocy afflicting the globe. Maybe women would succeed in arranging a more peaceful world. Why not give it a try.
6- when I become blind), which Jamal Jumaa translated to arabic lately, remind us about Borges and the other Argentini writer Ernesto Sabato who wrote a lot about the blinds and their world, cheering the blindness is it in fact searching for the unknown, untouchable behind the senses? In other meaning, longing for the immortality?
NH: Yes, in the world literature since Homer is a tradition to reflect on blindness, Milton is important, as Borges and Sabato - but perhaps there is in Arabic literature developed an even more genuine philosophy on the relationship between blindness and insight; you yourself mentioned Abul Ala al-Maari, we could also mention Taha Husain. In my book I connect to this tradition with the phrase ”love makes blind” in order to establish a connection between love and insight. Love makes blind, but most people do not even use glasses, that's the problem. Without love no insight, I think this applies to all aspects of life, love is the condition sine qua non for a deeper understanding. This is the mystery of life.
I am grateful that Jamal Juma's highly acclaimed translations made it possible for my poems to be involved and in dialogue with Arabic poetry. The thing is, many Arab writers have the advantage over European colleagues, they read two alphabets; I do not know if the Arabs are more intelligent, or they are just born under a lucky star. I am trapped in the Latin alphabet and completely dependent on translators.
7- Some of your poems has events, it almost close to the short stories, while you write short stories do you colors it with poetry?
NH: It's true - many of my poems have elements of epic and a story. The crucial thing for me - both in prose and poetry - is the linguistic energy. That it sparkles and captivates.
8- Critic Frank Hugus from Canada called you in (The Litrarry Review) the most talent alive poet in Denmark, is it because of publicity, best seller, translation to other languages, ……??
NH: Thank you for quoting this statement with a humorous twinkle in your eyes. Poetry is not an Olympic sport, so let's just take these words with a large spoonful of humor. I understand that Frank Hugus is a Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Massachusetts, I hope he knows what he's talking about. It can not be because my books are bestsellers at home. It is with poetry like with coffee: it is good when it is good; there are no universal criterias. But like people poems have their own unpredictable fate; some of them are traveling around the world re-born in foreign alphabets - just like some people are uprooted and transplanted to other climate zones, where they develop new roots. It is a happiness when this happens to poetry. My publisher in Lebanon Bassam Chebaro, a partner in the Beirut-based Arab Scientific Publishers, came to Copenhagen with my newborn Arabic book, it was a celebration to see him here. I hope one day to meet him again in Beirut or other places where Arab writers and readers gathered about literature. We must not let the fanatical statue-killers ruin this pleasure.