Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl: Mock Duck Mandarin
– the sound and the fury
Talk given at the Sound Poetry Seminar in Kuopio, Finland, 4 September 2010.
I tend to write three general kinds of poetry which I keep more or less separated in the writing practice, although the borders tend to blur before publication. First there’s the poetry meant for the page. As a rule, I approach this type of poetry as a solitary action – it is written in private and it is to be read in private and it functions more on an intellectual, lyrical or humanist level; there’s generally speaking less humour and less entertainment, or at least a different form of humour and entertainment, although this isn’t consciously made to be so.
Second, there’s the poetry meant for the internet – often my approach to this is a relaxed one; this is where I’ll put most of my found poetry, poetry that I find immediately relevant, but perhaps not meant for the long-run, and poetry that has either a social (interactive) function or a visual aspect I feel is better presented online than on a page. I also put all my video poetry online, but I feel it belongs to it’s own separate gesamtkunstwerks-category and should perhaps be published on DVD or some similar format. For technical reasons, this has not happened though.
Finally there’s performance poetry – the poetry I’ll try to present here. Most of this poetry employs some sort of conceptual gimmick: I wrote a series of short poems based on the names of dictators; a long collage from the poetic works of a 17th century Icelandic lunatic; a google-sculpture based on Icelandic nationalist rhetoric in English; I’ve written a sonnet based only on abbreviations; and I’ve written (or self-plagiarized) poetry to be performed in various Scandinavian accents (as they sound in the ears of the performer).
As I said, this is how it’s compartmentalized in my head – when I sit down to write – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how it ends up. Sound poetry might end up written in a book or as accompaniment to a visual poem online; page poetry might end up online or get read at a festival; and a provisional found poem might get published in a book and thus get granted some sort of extended life.
A worthy note: I usually perform my poetry for people who don’t understand Icelandic. Not only do I live in Finland, where only a handful of the inhabitants speak Icelandic, but I mostly perform at festivals in various countries outside Iceland – with a few local readings. My circumstances thus push the poetry performances further into the domain of sound poetry than they perhaps belong.
If we see sound poetry as the art of treating words as if they were inherently onomatopoeic – that the sounds in themselves represent “something” other than what it says in the dictionary, and thus a construction of sounds can result in a coherent creation, a collage of “somethings” comparable to a sentence, a piece of music or a painting, and yet devoid of the exceedingly obvious expression of “grammatically correct sentences” – that is to say, if we see sound poetry as the abstract painting of poetry, then most of my so-called sound poems don’t really count (although I’m not much of a definition-fascist, and truly you can call it want you want).
My “sound poetry” might be better described as verbal poetry – and it usually entails a conceptual theme. With a few exceptions it employs grammatically correct sentences, which sound poetry usually does not (opting for something closer to pure vocal sounds, which borders on what is called “sound singing”), in no way does it rely on improvisation – which is a key factor in much sound poetry – and I have never written anything which leaves the realm of the lingual for the purely vocal. Even though a few of my poems might be hard to put together, they all have a structure which reverts back to language, even the few ones that do not employ grammatically correct sentences.
Let me give an example. “Swing Ding Deng Xiaoping” is the first poem I wrote for the Dictator series – a series of poems based on the names of different dictators (actually, not all are dictators, or even evil – I never really gave the series a name, this one just showed up on it’s own). It has a little end-rhyming and a touch of scansion, but mostly it’s based on “ng” internal half-rhymes, assonance or alliterations. It is to be noted that in Icelandic the “ng” sound changes the vowel sound preceding it – thus “a” is normally pronounced [a(ː)] but after an “ng” sound it becomes [au], a sound which otherwise is written “á” – “a” with an accent – instead of writing l-a-n-g-a-r we write l-á-n-g-a-r. And so forth: “I” ([ɪ(ː)]) becomes “Í” ([i(ː)]), “E” ([ɛ(ː)]) becomes “EI” ([ei(ː)]), “Ö” ([œ]) becomes “AU”, ([øɪ(ː)]), and “U” ([ʏ(ː)]) becomes “Ú” ([u(ː)]). Swing Ding is thus for me a poem of vocal harmony, anchored in the consonontal “ng” assonance.
Please note that the following translation is not completely literal.
Get the Flash Player to see this player.
Swing Ding Deng Xiaoping
Söng dreng, svöng mey,
Dreng söng, ung mey,
Stöng inn, stöngin inn,
Söng í spöngum, spangnagöngum,
Önghljóð anga leiðir langar
Swing Ding Deng Xiaoping
A boy was sung to sleep at night
A boy was sung awake
A pole goes in, goal! goal!
Resounds in perinea, perineal-tunnels,
A fricative stretches on and on
Now, the poem was written without giving much thought to what it would say, although I did want it be formulated in grammatically correct sentences – I wanted it to say something within the realm of the lingual, while primarily being constructed as song and sound. Additionally I wanted it to have a gimmick, a conceptual dimension – which in this case is the dictator-name, connecting the series together. The story itself wasn’t only secondary – it was in the fourth or fifth place, almost relegated to the dimension of complete non-significance, but it had to be there, that was one of the constraints. Ultimately, I found the result extremely satisfying.
“Swing Ding Deng Xiaoping” can be interpreted as telling the story of death, sex, perversion and love between a young man and either a servant, a young mother or a prostitute. The relationship starts on a caring note – a lullaby; passes through a sexual phase, which flirts with the slightly perverted (note: perinea is the skin separating the vagina and the anus); before ending in murder. It is thus a highly traditional tragedy – nearly Shakespearian, with an oedipal dimension and whatnot.
The storyline of the poem to a certain degree removes the dimension of the actual dictator, replacing him with someone “misnamed” Deng Xiaoping, who’s either the boy being sung to or a character in the song being sung. This removal of the actual dictator and his replacement with an unworthy namesake, which is implicit in a literal, word by word, reading of the poem, perhaps pulls it away from the political and towards the personal – pulls it away from the international arena of cruelty and political dogma and towards a more humanist story of woe: meaning less grand scale horror and more (deeper?) tragedy.
And the poem might the prompt the question, as somebody phrased it, if it’s about something truly holocaustal or merely genocidal, truly genocidal or merely catastrophic, truly catastrophic or merely disastrous, truly disastrous or merely harrowing, truly harrowing or merely tragic, truly tragic or merely lamentable, truly lamentable or quit your whining? That is to say, one might ask what this shift in presentation does to the poem’s ability to represent – if it at all represents – a victim or several victims. And isn’t it perhaps just cute to nickname a little boy “Deng Xiaoping” – a bit like calling him “a little terrorist”, a “Genghis Khan”, a hyperbolic way of saying the child is an energetic handful? And where does that leave the victims of Tiananmen square?
The whole dictator series is for me also a proposition or assertion – a statement of sorts – on dictators – and, granted, one that I’m not always particularly comfortable with. I’ve only once (knowingly) performed „Swing Ding Deng Xiaoping” in front of anyone chinese – the poet Tian Yuan, at the Copenhagen Poetry Festival 2010, and it made me surprisingly self-conscious and uncomfortable. I very nearly took it off my program. Regrettably I did not get his viewpoint on it afterwards, partly because he spoke no English and partly because I was too timid to ask his interpreter, afraid that I might’ve insulted his tender sensibilities with my loud western arrogance. He showed no particular sign either way, that I could interpret in my paranoid state.
Let me put it this way: for me the poem, like many in the dictator series, symbolises the madness of a dictatorship and the ridiculous, pure and simple outlandishness of cruelty. But I can very easily see how it could a) be construed as insulting a nation or an ethnicity, rather than commenting on a political situation b) be interpreted as “mock chinese”, as a joke on asian languages, one that is very common in humour based on racist stereotypes; although I’m not sure the mere western malformation of the peculiarities of a tonal language would constitute a racist comment, notwithstanding it’s use in racist commentary or c) be seen as trivialising the horror and cruelty of a repressive regime, rather than portraying it.
There is little representation in the dictator series (plus it’s all rather abstract) and there is no adjudication, which to some degree limits it’s political efficacy – it’s too interpretable to be good propaganda for anyone, and yet let me state that I wish it were, I wish it did in fact make a clearer statement against cruelty, I wish it, like me, would take a proper stand against inhumanity. But to write such poems, I need to find a way to bypass the putrid taste of the holier-than-thou type of moralism which does more ill than good.
Added to this I tend to feel uncomfortable about the series’ trend towards asian dictators in particular, and non-western politicians in general. This is mostly due to the fact that I find asian names (in particular) more resounding, and non-western names (in general) more exotic – and not to be seen as an indictment of the third world with an accompanying amnesty for western countries (and perhaps it’s proper to remember that Deng Xiaoping is most famous for taking China in a capitalist direction and “improving relations with the west”; he is a pro-western third-worlder).
I’ll come back to the “mock chinese” a little later.
One of the main things that initially interested me about the Dictator Series was the weight of the words – the political intensity of proper names of dictators – and I became more and more fascinated with this as I started understanding that certain names, or more specifically, a certain name proved impossible to use. I thought about it for weeks and months, but no matter how I tried to wrap my mind around it, I couldn’t find a place for Hitler within my series.
In western Europe – at least – there’s probably not one single word which conjures up so much … I don’t want to call it emotion, because Hitler doesn’t affect me emotionally more than Pol Pot. Maybe it’s the banality of repetition – so much has been said about Hitler – or the absolute appropriation of the name in political arguments and propaganda, obvious in both the famous logical fallacy Reductio ad Hitlerum (comparing someone to Hitler) and the use of the accusation Reductio ad Hitlerum as a means of not making anything comparable to Hitler, and thus propogating his inhumanness as well as the idea that modern day horror on a nazi-scale is not only implausible but utterly unthinkable and, perhaps even more so, unmentionable.
As far as language is concerned, the word Hitler simply means “evil”. Socially the word (or the concept) is a yardstick for evil, and one that must always be kept high enough so noone can surpass it, or even come close. And thus it becomes unusable.
What interested me about the dictator names was their weight, but I found Hitler simultaneously too heavy to carry and too light to flash, the word had too many connotations and it was too one-dimensional, and therefore there is still no Hitler poem.
As I mentioned in the beginning, another series, related to the dictator series, is based on accents – let’s call it “the Scandinavian series” – reading poems in Icelandic as if they were in another language. This series only contains three poems – one with a Danish accent, one with a Swedish accent (”skånska”) and one with a Norwegian accent; and with some good will we could add to the series two half-siblings, so to speak, both performed in the target language: An American English Google sculpture and a performance of a Finnish poem by Rita Dahl.
The Swedish one was written with this type of sound-performance in mind, while the Danish and the Norwegian were appropriated from older poetry of mine; one Google sculpture and one conceptual poem. I’d like to give you an example of the Norwegian one, the Google sculpture – which here is presented with a video accompaniment.
Kennara með köldu blóði
Nemandi stóð og kynnti sig:
mæta með byssur og önnur drápstól í skólann
ófötluð klappaði hundum og hestum
satt að segja taldi ég
og ljóð fórnarlambsins
mæta með byssur og önnur drápstól í skólann
(hvað er betra til stríðni en svona lagað?)
gamlingjar, unglingar og allt niður í 6 ára gömul börn
Fyrst og fremst er byggt á
geta nýtt sér stærðfræðileg
byssur og önnur drápstól
fá ekki að lækna
en geta útskýrt munnlega
Tilfinningin er ljúfsár.
móðir hans og önnur
að mála andlit með þökk, virðingu og söknuði
Nei, æruverðugu skólasystkin
A Teacher in Cold Blood
A pupil stood up and introduced himself:
The excitement grows
show up in school with guns and other murder weapons
The right hand
ablebodied patted dogs and horses
truth be told I found
and the victim’s poems
show up in school with guns and other murder weapons
(is there anything better for teasing than this?)
old ones, young ones and right down to 6 year old children
First and foremost we build upon
can make use of mathematical
guns and other murder weapons
can not heal
but can explain orally
The sensation is bitter sweet
his mother and other
paint faces with gratitude, respect and a sense of loss
No, distinguished fellow students
The accent is of course “imaginary” – Norwegian people don’t really speak like that, the Swedish version is even further from actual Skånska, as I’m unable to produce the miraculous sounds of the inhabitants of Skåne, Sweden. The idea came from a conversation with Caroline Bergvall, Leevi Lehto and several others during a lunch break at a seminar in Biskops Arnö, Sweden, a few years back. Now, Caroline has of course been working with ye olde english in her Chaucer Tales, and we got to speaking about the role of pronunciation in sound poetry – with an emphasis on accent and dialect that actually exist (instead of sound poetry’s more traditional stance to seek out sounds and accents that exist outside of language or besides a language). Being a French-Norwegian who works in England, Caroline is naturally very much a crossnational creature in her poetry, who has turned her polyglottal ability into brilliance, much like Cia Rinne, although in a different manner.
Leevi had at one point informed me that although he could read French more or less perfectly he could not speak it or understand it spoken, and during this conversation he admitted that although he had trouble understanding some of the Scandinavians with their various forms of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, he had no problem understanding Caroline, who speaks Norwegian with a bit of a French accent. That is to say – he could not understand French with a French accent, or Norwegian with a Norwegian accent, but he could understand Norwegian with a French accent (as far as I know it remains to be seen whether he can understand French with a Norwegian accent).
I find all of this horribly exciting, as you can imagine, and for several reasons. To name one I have a one year old son whose parents’ native languages are Icelandic and Swedish, being raised in Finland, surrounded by his parents’ friends’ many of whom are foreigners who mostly speak English between them, but also Spanish, German, Czech and quite a bit of French – so he’s literally soaked in languages, and now is the time he’s starting to try and make himself understood. When he says “koo-kah” – does he mean “kukka” in Finnish (”a flower”) or “kúka” in Icelandic (”to defecate, shit”), or is it merely a different version of his old favorite word “titta” in Swedish (”look!”).
But at the time I wrote the Scandinavian Series (which is actually not finished, having been left mid-air, so to speak) I had no children and what interested me most, poetically speaking as well as politically, was a kind of creative destruction of the Icelandic language – breaking it, stretching it, trying to take it to places it’d never been. I’ve written more extensively about this in an essay entitled “The Importance of Destroying a Language (of one’s own)” – where I posited that writing in Icelandic, as opposed to English, was a privilege of sorts, given the fact that the language was so virginal, that so little had been done to stretch and disfigure it and there were still so many rules unbroken. I may have been mentally overcompensating bit, due to my envy towards those working in English, who not only have a strong international tradition to seek refuge in, but an actual audience of more than 7 people interested in the work. But the fact remains that Icelandic is a very homogenized language, seemingly just waiting to be heterogenized.
There are no different accents in Icelandic – at least none to speak of. There are no dialects worthy of the name. Hardcore theorists might disagree with me here, and I guess a trained ear could hear a difference, but outside of a tiny variation in pronunciation of a few words from the people who live around Akureyri – there are no dialects audible to the general public (which is the standard I apply, being an uneducated buffoon myself) – and definitely none that you could portray in a written text. There is certainly no equivalent of Rauman murre, Skånska, Trøndersk or Sønderjysk. Add to this the fact that until the late 1990’s Iceland had almost no immigrants, meaning that there’s very little tradition for foreign accents in the language – so little in fact that it’s almost never heard on the radio or on TV, a policy often justified with the argument that people wouldn’t understand it – in and of itself probably not untrue, but of course people simply don’t understand it because they never hear it. Their ears are only accustomed to a “pure” pronunciation, they are stuck on homogenized Icelandic. The situation is reminiscent of the Chinese American Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, who having been born in the United States speaks perfect english, which noone understands, and thus he’s forced to revert to the pidgin english people expect him to speak. It feels Icelanders are still one step behind Steinbeck’s America of the first part of the last century, when it comes to immigrants and language – instead of expecting immigrants to speak pidgin Icelandic, a nonexistent language (at least in official circles), we expect them to speak Globish, or what Leevi Lehto has termed, “Barbaric English”, and refuse to acknowledge non-Icelandic Icelandic.
All of which led to the Scandinavian Series – a distortion of Icelandic by filtering it through what I imagined to be a Norwegian, Danish and Swedish accent, a caricature of the Icelandic language, the Scandinavian pronunciations and my own poetic texts. Interestingly I always meant to do a more “proper” Swedish version – that is to say, not in the thick Skånska, but more the way my wife speaks, which is a kind of diplomatic Swedish between Östgötska and Västmanländska, but I was never able to tone it to my liking – I could never figure out how to do it, although this was the Swedish that I knew the best, the closest to how I speak myself. After much mindbending I eventually settled on that perhaps it’s hardest to caricature that which one knows at an intermediary level – and easier to caricature what one knows almost perfectly, like my Icelandic, or hardly at all, like my Danish.
And now back to the Mock Chinese – from Mock Scandinavian and Mock Icelandic, to Mock Finnish and Mock American. I’ll start by reading a poem about Iceland, called The Iceland Report on the Observance of Standards and Codes.
Iceland Report on the Observance of Standards and Codes
We interrupt this Iceland Report serial to offer up the following vocabulary trivia quiz.
Within an hour of Bork Bork
I am not yet defending those who are making stupid comments and unfunny jokes
Bork is happy and energetic - with borderline manic tendencies
and if you expect any fucking
YOU DON’T KNOW ME!!@!@!@!”
I’m from Iceland and I practice yoga every night, I shit you not…
With my body, you’d NEVER know I birthed 2 babies..
I am hot, people. HOT.
My secret? A diet of Juarez tequila and ho-hos, and a steady regimen of cock-sucking. Or is cock-sucking more like part of my diet? Either way, I have an ass like a 24 yr old. And now you know.
Do you know who Björk is?
She is in desperate need of some attention
I have panties, I’m telling you, three more innocent people died after watching her “Reaming an eskimo” video on MTV last night. She’s that desperate. That’s how cool she is.
She can use a gun to shoot herself in the face with, I don’t care, I’d still tongue-bork her.
I’m an Icelandic student, I’m broke and I’m not an attention whore.
You don’t like other people’s sweaty ball cheese odor in your delicate little throat.
But I got some ball cheese for you, right here.
Served, to the surprised delight of your girlfriend, who will say “Wow, I kinda had my doubts about this meal. But this is good! You done good, babe.” Awake the next morning to the strong smell pervading every nook and cranny of the house. If you have regrets, just remember that this is the smell of Christmas in Ísafjörður, Iceland.
“Ísafjörður?” (puzzled face)
“Last time I was there, in the 80s, I was stuck for five days because of snow. They couldn’t get an airplane out of there.”
The main industry in Ísafjörður, Iceland is cleaning the fucking kitchen.
Iceland, incidentally, is at war with Kebabistan for smuggling dolphins up their snatches. Fucking ragheads.
We killed “Free Willy”, and I don’t mean “we” as in all of Icelanders, I mean as in me and my dad fucking drowned that michelin-tyre-fucking dolphin, or whatever the hell he was. Now, that’s some proper existentialist symbolism for you.
I know I make it sound like Iceland is a fucking superpower. But it’s only funny, cause it’s true.
Trust me. Iceland is streaming in its entirety on YouTube.
Iceland is known as the NORDIC TIGER.
Of course, Iceland is hardly the ideal clime for peanut growing, nor does it have the economic clout to lord over a country that does. But nevermind you, we’ll do fine without your god-fucking peanuts.
I woke up this morning with fuck on my mind. Then I punched fuck into Google. I punched fuck long and hard into Google. Then I punched fuck once more, just to be on the safe side. What do you reckon showed up? Lo and fucking behold: Iceland.
We are the world, so fuck off.
This poem is more in the spirit of my earlier poetry – to a certain degree performative, but based on a principle of transgression rather than sound. I quite literally find it horrifying at times – and I ritually jump over some of the lines while performing it. It was originally written for the Flarflist Collective in 2006. Now, Flarf – the inappropriate google-sculpture poetry, for those not familiar with it – has proved more or less impossible to produce in Icelandic, due to the fact that the Icelandic source-text (internet in Icelandic) is so tiny compared to the English source-text (internet in English). The English source-text is much more likely to provide wild and wonderful associations than is the Icelandic source-text – and without wild and wonderful associations, there isn’t much Flarf left.
So not being able to properly Flarf in Icelandic, I decided Flarf about Iceland in English instead (being the crazy nationalist that I am). And to drive it all the way home, I try to pronounce it in the only English ever native to Iceland: Military American. Since for decades a small portion of Iceland, the American military base in Keflavík, was for all intents and purposes considered U.S. soil. Military American is of course not a language – neither a written one nor a spoken one. But I think we can all imagine the way it sounds, just like we can imagine the Nazi-language (another English Hollywood dialect) or even Mock Chinese.
The final example I would like to take is a reading I did for Nokturno’s “In Another’s Voice” series, of a Flarf-poem written in Finnish by Rita Dahl. I recorded this in 2005, I think, when I was living in my hometown, Ísafjörður, and I rehearsed it quite a bit – since the Finnish words somewhat dumbfounded me. Walking back and forth, screaming in Finnish, I lived in constant fear of what my neighbours would think.
Get the Flash Player to see this player.
I had no idea what I was saying, outside of a few key phrases – “anti-capitalist”, “Eurovision”, and “helvetti” (”hell”) which is “helvíti” in Icelandic. I feel this poem belongs to the Scandinavian series in particular, and “my” sound poetry in general – even though the poem (the source-text of my performance) is written by Rita Dahl and the idea for me to read it (the conception of my performance) came from Marko Niemi – since it, to a major extent, fits to the themes presented in the other Scandinavian poems and it contains an assertion similar to those in my other sound poems, a statement like “mock chinese”, a transnational malformation of language – Finnish words with Icelandic pronunciation; it’s like the Scandinavian series run backwards.
My sound poetry might not always be a particularly deep analysis or commentary on language. It’s what is called in academic circles “taking the piss”. It’s foolish, childish and mostly pointless in the same manner as when comedians speak English with a “Nazi accent”. But perhaps, for me, the most interesting and enjoyable thing about sound poetry is this inherent immaturity of it – it is the way children play, although it poses as serious art for cultivated grownups, which I guess is the only way for us of getting away with it.
It’s a kind of perversion maybe, and perhaps one that results from societal inhibition, which teaches us to behave in public even when we don’t want to, as well as from the demands of intellectual rigour – rampant in avant-garde poetry circles – which lead us to live in a world we only partially understand, constantly striving to understand the complexities we willingly surround ourselves with and hardly ever making it. Which in turn creates a powerful sense of dissatisfaction accompanied by this need to break out, burst and explode in glossolalian nonsense. Making the nonsensical part of it, the part not meant to be understood, the anti-intellectual part of it, all the more attractive and enjoyable. Because to some extent sound poetry may be an expression of a common insanity which we habitually disown, a common need for a wonderfully simplistic stupidity to go with our intellectual posturing (or honest intellectual pursuits, if you will, they are just as trying) – an escape from the palpable pseudo-self-evidency of language, which is either nothing but subtlety or lacks all subtlety, nothing but depth and understanding or merely a cerebral charade, depending on how you see it.
But in an all too common mode of irony, this escape from the cerebral towards the sublimely stupid, intrinsic to sound poetry, has a tendency to produce a group of pregnant afterthoughts which all bear a million intellectual conversations hell-bent on dissecting, diagnosing and understanding the results of our need to behave like idiots. Which again, may be interesting, and will probably cause an increase in our pent-up need for glossolalia and divine idiocy.
Thank you for listening.