Ulrikka S. Gernes – Poetry As a Language of Resistance

Ulrikka S. Gernes was born in Sweden to Danish parents and spent most of her childhood in Sweden. She has travelled extensively in Europe and Asia and now lives in Copenhagen. Her work has been highly acclaimed in Denmark since the publication of her first collection Natsvaermer (Moth) in 1984 when she was 18. She has published eight further collections. Her first book published in Canada: A Sudden Sky is a selection of her work translated by Patrick Friesen and Per Brask.


paulo da costa: You were born to a family of artists. Your father was a renowned Danish painter. How did that childhood atmosphere influence your artistic sensibility?

Ulrikka Gernes: I guess the biggest advantage of being born into a family of artists is that you know the insecurity of that way of living, you know not to expect a steady, regular income or just regular working hours. I think this can be a problem for someone who later in life makes a shift to live by his or her art.

Money is of course always a problem. As a child I was embarrassed about my family – I wanted to be “normal”, I wanted my father to shave like other fathers, I wanted us to have a leather sofa. It was only much later in life that I could see that the way my family lived was actually a lot more fun, a lot more lively and interesting. It was shocking for me to visit the homes of some of my schoolmates and realise that a lot of them didn’t even have books or paper to draw or write on. How could they live without those basic things? That was a mystery to me. One should always have paper within reach; one should always follow an inclination to create, to explore, and to express – that was second nature to me from day one.

pdc: You are also a visual artist. Where do mural paintings and poetry intersect?

UG: I often find a huge relief in working with visual art and doing murals – you see the result immediately. It’s so wonderfully concrete, you are using other faculties of your brain and your sensitivity and you are having a more immediate interaction with the world. The poem is in your mind and on the paper but the whole business, the whole damned wonderful struggle is between you and the pen. Sometimes it takes years before the poem is finished and ends up in a book so you can finally see the “result” and pass it on to the world.

A few times I have successfully painted huge poems directly on the walls and worked on making the text visually aesthetic as well as being a poem that you could read and gather something from. I guess you could call that a real, literal intersection between poetry and visual art.

pdc: You have called poetry a resistance movement. What did you mean?

UG: I think poetry can offer you a kind of asylum, a kind of protection from all the other languages that are constantly screaming and shouting into our faces. And I think poetry can give us an inner strength, a shield, an ability to hear our own inner voices. In that sense I think one could call poetry a resistance movement since it offers a language which can resist all the “official” languages; the language of commerce, the uncommitted and manipulative language of the politicians, the deafening noise of the advertising language and so forth.

In a fragmented and chaotic world poetry seeks connections, poetry has an ability to piece together different realities and contradictions, which can’t be done in prose for example. This has to do with a kind of poetic logic that is different from the logic of prose. Sometimes I think poetry cannot help but being subversive. It has become an art on the margins of society. It’s the other voice, and those who read poetry are dissidents: philosophical, sexual,

pdc: What is the state of poetry in Denmark? Are people reading poetry?

UG: Regarding the state of poetry in Denmark one could certainly wish for much more. For some reason poetry is a marginalised art form, it lives in the cracks and crevices, but it lives nevertheless, and it’s important not to loose sight of that. Poetry is being read, but the readers of poetry are not very loud about it. In Denmark one problem is that there is a 25% government tax on books, which makes especially small edition poetry books very expensive.

I’m always very pleased to see poetry being used in busses and on subways, poetry on the walls among the mind numbing advertisements. This is done in Denmark, as well as other places.

It’s good when poetry is being “sneaked in” in that way because it makes people read it who otherwise wouldn’t read poetry. In Denmark poetry seems to go in waves, all of a sudden poetry readings become popular things to go to. At the moment the tide is out, so to speak, but it will come back, maybe in a different form. For a while poetry slams were very popular. I’m not wild about them but I think it’s a good thing – it makes people aware of a different way of using language, a different way of thinking and viewing the world.

pdc: Is every new poem a hope for the world? And who is paying attention?

UG: Yes, it’s a beautiful thought, and I do believe every poem is a kind of hope because I believe that one cannot write poetry without having the deepest respect and care for the individual human being – this is a fundamental poetic condition. (Mind you, this does not make the poet into some kind of super human – you can meet poets who are arrogant bastards but their work can still be wonderful.)

The poet gives voice to the unsaid and the unsayable, the poet adds meaning and value to language, and manifests this meaning and value in the poetry. And as an art form poetry is completely free of financial investment – you cannot speculate in poetry. There is a kind of purity in that, which in itself is a kind of hope.

Exactly who is paying attention is hard to tell, but the readers of poetry are certainly out there, they exist and they are real, and I do think poetry is being taken in, being read, being lived with. I think that if my poetry can add a little beauty, add a little happiness to someone or just hold something together for a moment, then, well, that would be great. That is what I hope for.

pdc: You had an active role during the translation of your selected poems into English. What was that experience like?

UG: I feel incredibly fortunate to have been part of the “polishing” of the poems in the English translation, especially because it gave me a chance to “repossess” my own work in this other language. This was particularly important to me since I was going to tour Canada, reading from the book of selected poems. The poems had to fit into my mouth so that again they were part of me. It was a luxury that my two translators, Per Brask and Patrick Friesen, were able to take time out of their busy schedules to come to Copenhagen and spend time with me going through the manuscript, poem by poem, line by line, word by word. I think this is unusual.

Now, after having read the poems in English to audiences at several different writers’ festivals in Canada, it has become abundantly clear to me how close the translations are to the atmosphere of the originals, and I’m very happy about that.

pdc: Are the Danish rhythms transported to English?

UG: Well, this is the wonderful thing: Yes, they are, and who would have thought that would at all be possible? When reading at the festivals in Canada I made a point of reading a few poems in Danish so that the audience could at least hear the sound of the original language and to illustrate how well the rhythms had been preserved.

I didn’t think it was possible to transport rhythms from one language to another in that way. I think Per Brask and Patrick Friesen have done a truly remarkable piece of work with great sensitivity and profound respect. Translating poetry is a labour of love, and that love shines through the poems in the English translations. I’m so grateful for that.

pdc: What is the source of your inspiration, the spring that brings forth poem after poem?

UG: That is always a very difficult question – I wish I knew! Life offers you a well of material, but in order to make use of all this wonderful material you need inspiration. I once heard a radio interview with Leonard Cohen where he was asked a similar question about where the songs came from. He replied something along the lines of: “If I knew where the songs came from I would go there more often.”

Inspiration, well, when it happens it’s like getting a set of tools in your hands and with those tools you are suddenly able to write a poem. But you can only use them once, though. If you try to use them again they just dissolve in your hands, become dust. Those tools are of course intimately connected to the mystery of inspiration.

With time you learn certain tricks to do in order to at least get close to inspiration, but you can never force it. I actually spend most of my time preparing for the poem, trying to uncover the poem, to tempt it out of its hiding place, maybe to sneak up on it and ambush it. Sometimes it feels like living in a constant state of emergency. It’s something you cannot really control. It’s of course a very strange way of living and something very strange and frail and volatile to invest so much of your identity in since you are not always the one who is in charge, especially in periods of creative drought, believe me!!!

pdc: When you look at the world through your poetry what concerns come through your writing?

UG: I think if the poet has a kind of task or obligation it must be to care for the authentic voice so that it won’t drown in the noise of all the “official” languages. The poet serves language, and the poet is the instrument of language.

The poet should also be a guardian of language. I don’t mean morally, but because the poet has the ability to give meaning to language and to give language to the unsayable, the poet must also defend language from trivilization, pollution and brutalisation.

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