I was at the Singapore Writers’ Festival last weekend and was glad that even though this is my third time at the annual event, this year was only better than the last. The turnout was incredible (who knew people on our tiny island could go all gaga over writers and poets?) and certain events were packed with people such as those by British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid and Chinese noble laureate Gao Xingjian.
I found myself avoiding much of the crowd to have enjoyed immersing myself in a relatively small-group poetry-reading session with Nordic poets Aase Berg of Sweden and Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or more simply known as Sjón, of Iceland. As a huge fan of Scandinavian crime literature (read my confessions here), it was my first encounter with poems from the region and it proved to be surprising.
If Sjón’s name rings a bell, it is because he is a frequent lyricist for Icelandic singer Björk whilst wearing many hats as a popular writer and a poet. In person, he was exceedingly humorous quoting his first brush with modernist poetry was through the lyrics of David Bowie.
“His (Bowie) way with words prepared me for modernist poetry.”
As a practicing surrealist and feminist poet, Berg’s works contain the shock and awe factor that made them particularly memorable. The first poem she chose to read was titled “In the Heart of the Guinea Pig Darkness” falling under the category of what she called “Gurlesque” poetry, a combination of girly, gothic and dystopic poetics that borders on portraying living beings as machines.
Below is a short extract from this poem that was so visual in its descriptions that it made my skin crawl and face cringed a little as she read:
“Guinea pigs are swarming. They are born, they hatch, out of caves and holes. The guinea pigs are swarming and crawling around on the gigantic guinea-pig queen’s sensitive, swollen egg-white body. She gives birth and groans, she moans and bleeds. Everywhere the membranes, everywhere their bloated puffbellies.”
During the session, both poets read in their native languages as well as in English, though it is evident that they are more comfortable reciting in the former. It turned out to be an interesting experience for listeners as the poets spoke in foreign tongues that stripped away our conventional understanding and association with words, directing our minds to listen to the lyrical quality of the poems. I find it similar to appreciating a piece of music written in a language I cannot comprehend with but is filled with beautiful intonations and rhythms that flow to produce melodic sounds that resonate in the air.
I have uploaded a short audio recording of Sjón reading his poems in the Icelandic language from the session. Listen and enjoy!