The Language of Inspiration

Gerður Kristný, Icelandic poet, says a single word can tell a whole story
  • Gerður Kristný, Icelandic poet
  • Gerður Kristný, Icelandic poet
Friday, 16. October 2015

Gerður Kristný is Iceland's best-loved poet today. This beautiful, quiet woman with her legendary and quirky sense of humour has already won most literary prizes awarded in Iceland. Her work has also been nominated for the Nordic Literary Prize. Gerdur's poetry has been translated into numerous languages; all the major Nordic languages, German, French, Dutch, Esperanto and English.

But, Gerður's talent is by no means limited to poetry. She has written novels and short stories, theatre plays, a biography and much-loved children's books. Most of her works have received or been nominated for literary prizes. Still, it is Gerdur's poetry that most certainly sets her apart from the crowds.

Poetry is by no means a mainstream literary genre and Icelandic is by no means a mainstream language. Writing poetry in Icelandic sounds like a tad farfetched idea.

Digging into ancient worlds​

"Oh no, not at all," says Gerður Kristný. "It is precisely this language that provides me with inspiration. Along with the Sagas and the Old Icelandic Poems. I find I can dig into them anywhere, anytime for inspiration and frisson. They are a well of plenty I can always turn to.  I think we Icelanders are immensely fortunate to be able to read and understand those ancient works."

Gerður's approach is not to mimic Iceland's ancient literary works. Not by a long shot. She is more prone to turn them upside down to find modern relevance in the ancient legends. She has dared to give a brand new meaning to ancient Icelandic poetry, the holiest of the holy in Icelandic literature across the centuries. Not only has she gotten away with it, but she is also much admired for it. But, why have the Icelanders always been so interested in poetry?

The traditional oral preservation​

"We consider poetry to be the origin of all literature," says Gerður Kristný. "It was the art form the public learned by heart. We had rhythm and alliteration and rhyme to make it easier to learn poetry by heart and transfer the poetry from one generation to the next. That is how our ancient poetry survived during the early middle ages; by oral preservation."

Some languages, like English, are considered to be very rich in vocabulary. The Icelandic language, not so. What is it like to write poetry in a language that does not possess a rich vocabulary?

"Well, it is not about the actual words, but the story behind the words. A single word can include a large story and refer to ancient times. Whereas poetry is concerned, the language is what ignites my passion. Therefore, I am never short of names for the terms I like to use. When you know your language well and know how to play with it, you can take it anywhere. A language is a great box of toys. It is my tools and toys, making my work full of fun. One simply must have fun."

A strong literary genre​

How does poetry rank in Iceland today?

"Poetry is still a strong literary genre in Iceland. We are very fond of our poets and delighted when they publish a new book. We embrace young poets and try to up-to-date on what is being published. Our poets may not be as well known as the novelists, and they are not selling, as many copies of their books, but those readers who get hooked on poetry, stay pretty loyal.

All the major publishers are publishing poetry even though they know quite well poetry books are not going to sell by truckloads. They are constantly on the lookout for good poets. Poetry matters and the people who work at publishing houses are very much aware of that fact. Of course, publishing poetry is always a risk, but where there is a will, there is a way. Books can be published in hard covers or as paperbacks. You can spend a lot of money on an elegant publication, or less money on an inexpensive one, albeit a beautiful one."

Apart from the above-mentioned languages, Gerður Kristný's poetry has been translated into 25 languages, including Hindi, Bengali and Chinese. But, how does a poem written in Icelandic travel from one language to another?

The importance of literature in Iceland​

“We have a literary institute, The Icelandic Literature Centre and our capital, Reykjavík, is one of Unesco’s Cities of Literature. That means we have means to promote Icelandic literature abroad. We know what an important export literature is. If I am, for example, invited to a literature festival to read from my books, I can have my travelling expenses paid for me. This understanding of the importance of literature in the big scheme of things is of immense help. Icelandic writers enjoy great support from the authorities in the form of artists' stipends. Stipends, like we enjoy in Iceland, are not that common throughout the world where you'll find writers and poets teaching in universities, colleges and all kinds of workshops.

Nowadays, we are fighting for authors of children's books to enjoy the same recognition as other writers.”

Introducing culture​

Gerður's poetry has been translated into numerous languages. Only one of her children's books has been translated into Norwegian, Danish and German. One can’t help but wonder why more of her children´s books have not been translated. But, do translations matter?

"They matter a great deal. When I was a child, I read everything by Enid Blyton and other translated authors. It brought me endless joy. We have translated the biggest Nordic authors of children's books into Icelandic, but I would like to see more. The Nordic writers are very good, and it is an asset for a small language community as Iceland to be able to read the great works being written in our neighboring countries.

It is equally important for us to have Icelandic children's books translated into other languages. It is part of exporting our culture, a part of introducing our culture to children living elsewhere. Furthermore, with increased tourism, it would be wonderful to offer a greater variety of books in our bookstores. Not just thrillers, but also other genres, not least children's books.”