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Rotten Flowers and Exploded Ballads: A Discussion between Two Poet-Translators

This is a conversation between two poets who are also translators, translators who happen to have translated each other. Johannes Göransson’s English-language translation of Helena Boberg’s SinnesvåldSense Violence—was published by Black Ocean this past spring, while Boberg’s translations of Göransson’s Summer can be found in the pan-Nordic journal Kritiker. This discussion starts out being about Sense Violence, but in the process of discussing the book, the two writer-translators bring in a wide range of topics, such as the kitsch of folk ballads and the kitsch of Henry Darger, the politics and beauty of flowery language, the insipidness of innocence, the mythical and the everday, Gertrude Stein’s queer flowers, and the resistance aesthetics of Chilean poet Raúl Zurita and US writer James Baldwin.

At this point, it’s a truism—though still largely unchallenged in mainstream discourse—that the translator has to be made “invisible” in order for a book to get a fair shake in US literature. They should be unseen, a servile figure who renders the text into English. In this conversation between writers who translate each other, the translator comes to the forefront: not merely as a neutral medium of transference, but as a site of intercultural exchange and dynamics.

Johannes: We are both interested in flowers, summer. My current project Summer—some of which you have translated into Swedish—dwells in a rotten, overripe Swedish summer. Your book Sense Violence, which I was translating when I began Summer, is also a very overripe book of flowers and summer, a violent summer in which the senses are assaulted. Flowers are of course also a cliché symbol of the poetic—or the too poetic, the kitschy, tastelessly poetic. Do you want to talk a little bit about your interest in summer and flowers and how you see these tropes working in Sense Violence?

Helena: Flowers are also a very feminine trope, used as a metaphor for femininity and beauty. Language-wise, it’s possible to pick someone as you would a flower, or to deflower her, etc.

Femininity is considered weak, so it’s got a degraded mythology and fragile metaphors, like flowers. And I think we all knows what happens to feminized bodies summertime, that’s statistically proven (at least in colder climate zones where summer bursts like an anomaly). I wanted to write about this abuse.

It’s a mixture of being offended by the methaphors and also fascinated with the beauty and secret life of flowers and such. In Sense Violence, the floral tropes are there to drag the reader in to the poem and makes it at least slightly pleasant to be there. Kitsch even attracts babies. It’s primitive and appealing. So I’m re-using something very worn. Listening to it. Which reminds me of your line “I can’t hear you la la la” which is repeated variously in your hypnotic poem.

I think that we have that in common—we take the kitsch seriously? In the moment of writing, I don’t reflect on the kitschiness of the text.

Often I want to be a different kind of poet, writing from a safer place (which excludes kitsch), but fail. Also, I have tried to be really expansive and transgressive, to create huge masses of form-inclusive material, to make a mighty, rich book of poetry. Failed that too. But to always want to achieve, create, or become something else, makes it more urgent for me to continue writing, write different and better, to try not to repeat myself.

There’s a lot of embarassment involved too, both in writing and in the kitsch that I’m using (and like). It seems appealing to be more restrained. But isn’t it even more appealing to create and be akin to other(s) poetry of experiences that’s not just safe and good? Poetry that’s not representing skilled verbality and educational resources, not being Valerie Solanas’s Daddy’s girls (of any gender)?

I am very interested in shame where I find it in literature and art, I’m drawn to art that’s working with it, which I think is possible to detect wheather it’s an obvious motif or not.

Johannes: Yes, Modernism is both very good at positioning itself against kitsch (for example Clement Greenberg’s avant-garde-vs.-kitsch formulation) and also (maybe because of this) highly susceptible to kitsch! They can’t help but include some naked Greek-god type, or swan, or lovely flower.

Swedish poetry over the past fifty years has been pretty austere, but the vein of it that I love is this undead Romantic vein with flowers and corpses. Mostly I don’t believe in national ideals of literature, but I feel a strong bond with this vein of Swedish poetry—or example Ann Jäderlund and Eva Kristina Olsson, two poets whose use of kitsch (flowers, swans, horses, pearls, angels) I find very evocative, alluring, brazenly beautiful. I mean, who writes a poem about encounters with angels? Not a good modernist, maybe a bad modernist. I guess I’m a bad modernist.  Can you see what I mean by this strain?

I think you’re right that we both have something in common (and in common with Olsson/Jäderlund) in that we take kitschy imagery totally seriously. I think perhaps you have to take kitsch seriously or it’s not kitsch. I think of all those postmodern artists with their ironic appropriation of mass culture. Often when I talk about kitsch, people immediately think that I’m talking about that kind of art. But I hate most of that art; its distancing irony completely loses me. Of course the most kitsch thing in the world may be Poetry itself: the flowery and sentimental language, the very idea of “the poetic.”

There’s also an interest in the “surface” in a lot of this work; and we are told that the important stuff is deep, inside the text. Your work is hard to translate because your syntax is complex and you use archaic language. I guess I’m coming back to Sontag’s famous critique of the critics who don’t understand “style” and that what happens on the surface is as essential to the work as any kind of deep reading.

Speaking of kitsch/art: In the Swedish original of Sinnesvåld, there’s a reproduction of a Henry Darger piece. What attracted you to Darger’s work? What made you feel like your book was connected to his art?

Helena: You’re right about the susceptibility to kitsch in modernist poetry. Was it compulsive? Didn’t it all even start with the swan kitsch in Mallarmé’s “L’après-midi d’un faune”?

Rilke’s Duino Elegies for sure contains an encounter with an angel. I’m not sure Rilke was really subscribed to modernism, or if so when he wrote the elegies, which as far as I remember also are a critique of progress and the aftermath of technology.

I assume Warhol is included in “postmodern artists with their ironic appropriation of mass culture” that you mentioned. I’m reading a book that I appreciate very much, The Lonely City. Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (Edinburgh, 2016). It gave me a new perspective on Warhol, as a very sensitive, emotionally anxious person with a lot of self-contempt and sympathy for weakness. Also driven by a deeper and perhaps more desperate urge to express himself artistically than might be suggested by a brief glimpse at the mass-produced consumption-related kitsch he made.

The same book also draws a portrait of Henry Darger. I think that what attracted me to his works and made me want one of his pieces as the cover (but had to settle with having the picture inside) was the surface of it, with brutal, chaotic scenes of the Vivian girls with men, often military men, with rifles, threatening them, surrounded by huge colorful flowers and dramatic skies with thunderclouds. The girls are a collective and they’re reproduced thousands of times in his works, with subtle variations, for example in their very detailed dresses (often they’re naked, too, depicted with penises, a reminder of that “a girl” isn’t always tied to a binary conception of gender—also in my book). Just like the women and girls in Sense Violence are an interchangeable mass collective that’s limited neither to geography or history. The violence against them is structural. A structure that contains suffering individuals. Darger’s works are loaded with his tragic life experiences, even with a presumed element of being sexually victimized, or as a witness of it at the institutions where he was left as a child, and his works can be read as a kind of flight from reality, embellishing pain to endure it.

He’s not as well known in Sweden as I think he is in the States, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some American readers would have other aspects of his biography and works in mind, which may put them in another direction, but this is why I thought that his images had to do with Sense Violence.

Johannes: Sense Violence is a rewriting/rewiring of a medieval ballad. To what extent does this ballad work as kitsch? Can you talk a little about this song—why and how you chose to draw your inspiration from it?

Helena: The ballad of Liten Karin is a medieval Swedish folk ballad (“broadside ballad”?) about the servant girl Karin, a young maid at the King’s court who objected to being his mistress and therefore was tortured to death in a cask lined with nails by seven young men (“svennar” is an ancient word, today obsolete, for young Swedish dudes—so at the same time it’s got a nationalistic touch). Being a broadside ballad, the story is very stereotyped and reduced in a laconic way that makes it kitsch, I guess. A kind of cruel kitsch, since there’s no mercy or compassion for the maid and her destiny in it. It was probably used as both entertainment and a moral pattern for young women—to prefer being executed to being promiscuous, or rather, not to tempt the sex drives of men. At the same time I think that the punishment works as a metaphor for rape. If so, the maid is caught in a paradox—either way she’s damned, which also is an eerie aspect of the feminine role within the structure of patriarchy.

What’s the status of flowery poetry in America today (horses, pearls, angels)? My preconception is that it’s not very well considered, a preconception which seems to be reinforced by you mentioning that there’s an undead Romantic vein with flowers and corpses in Swedish poetry, which was quite entertaining to read. I agree that nationalist literary ideals are something to be suspicious of, not least considering where writers get their influences and that literature in a certain language contains translated literature from many different languages and geographic regions. Perhaps it’s possible to use locality as a metaphor for kinship or something like that, instead of maintaining the idea of a national literature or language. Literature from minor languages, like Swedish, tend to be more colored by literature translated from foreign languages and other geographic areas.

Johannes: American poetry has tended to be very suspicious of flowers—as sentimental, feminine, un-modern. I read constant articles telling poets to not be flowery. And even introductory students have learned this lesson: they come into classes saying they don’t want to sound “too flowery” or “too poetic.” But perhaps that account is too simple. After all, Stein’s most famous line is the one about the rose, and the supposedly hard-edged imagism is full of flowers, however hard-edged they may be. But it’s hard for even the worst critics to be entirely anti-flowery because flowery represents the poetic. To be entirely anti-flowery means to be anti-poetry. Which some critics are. More commonly, critics are middle-of-the-road. They don’t want poetry to do too much, which is exactly the poetry I am drawn to.

Yes, I also read The Lonely City, and I was also incredibly struck with by Laing’s drawing together Warhol and Darger (and Wojnarowicz)—in part because of their shame over not feeling confident in their drawing. I think a lot of the people I was referring to as appropriating kitsch would be people who were influenced by Warhol and took his work in a boring direction. But there were others under Warhol’s influence who really made charged use of the detritus of culture. I think for example of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose catastrophic, beautiful canvases are strewn with impressions of culture—from the picture of a boxer, to the history of racist violence against the Black male body.

Shame is an interesting affect. I remember the US poet Aaron Kunin talking about its incredible volatility. Perhaps this is why there’s a strong element of the grotesque in my writing. I didn’t want to feel shame so I baptized myself in disgust.

I like your description of the “Ballad of Little Karin” as the impossible situation. She seems strangely calm knowing she has zero options.

Helena: I think poetry is always an option, so probably she’s repeating to herself: “A rose is a rose is a rose”—or the more lesbian “Rose is a rose is a rose” which may be relevant, since the ballad also has been related and compared to the myth of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a martyred virgin, and there’s a tradition of regarding virgins in history as potentially lesbians.

Did you ever relate your works to mythology or make mythological references and is it embarrassing to do so?

I used some references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses in my first book, especially by trying to create a context for it, using the myth of Narcissus and Echo, but my poem is staging something other than a romantic situation. I just used the dilemma in the myth, that there is nothing like pure, bare communication, there’s a lot of complicated circumstances around it. In the end, comprehension is filtered trough your own interpretation and what you are saying or writing is filtered by the receiver. Those who read it as a romantic book are confronted with their own preconceptions, since it’s never staged.

By the way, my poetry tends to be very suspicious of masculinity.

Johannes: I love that reading of Stein (and flowers). And I’m interested that you’re taking what I call an “impossible” situation and emphasizing its potentiality—in this impossible situation, the character is *potentially* a lesbian.

It seems to me that the book Sense Violence does something similar: it explodes the ballad into an intensive, immersive sense-scape. To what extent does it feel like the book “queers” the ballad? Does that move feel at all descriptive of the book? How would you describe what your book does to the ballad? 

I do reference myths quite a bit—myths and other narratives that may as well be myths. So that there’s quite a few references to Orpheus (and “anti-orpheus”) and Eurydice, Persephone, mostly things having to do with the underworld, because when my daughter died, I felt as if a hole opened up in the wall with death, and my poem was the attempt to hold that hole open. She was present to me as an absence, but a very present absence. I was eating pomegranate seeds so to speak. There is perhaps in my interest in these myths something akin to my interest in kitsch.

It’s interesting to note that the first poems of yours that I read was in an anthology put together by Mattias Forshage (among others; Giuliani Medici and C.M. Lundberg) of the Stockholm surrealists—and it was all about swans!

There are other “myths” in my book that are perhaps less recognizeable as myths—the myth of the Swedish summer, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Swedish pop songs (such as “cherry blossoms in Kungsträdgården”) that I listened to when I wrote the first burst of poems, fascist rallies, riots. I try not to let them be solely myths; I try to break them with my life, or by turning them against each other. But I’m not interested in the everyday, the banal, anything like that. I’m more interested in myths.

Helena: I can see how the myths you mention are vibrating in Summer and they are present in my mind when I’m reading, I think that I wanted to know about what you put in it. Referred-to-myths are like metonomies, saturating meanings larger than the surface of text, way out of the control of any subject or biography at the same time as it contextualizes personal experiences if you want to. It makes it possible to talk about them in a way that’s not equivalent with anyone’s personal history. About the fascist rallies and riots you mentioned, which appear as “the rabble,” I visualized the boys in Haneke’s film Funny Games, and at the same time a mob of boys that appears in a novel about Unica Zürn (by Kirstine Reffstrup, Denmark) that I have translated, boys that are bullying Zürn and her partner for not fitting in the Aryan norm (under the Nazi regime in Germany). And at the same time I was imagining “the rabble” as a bunch of just gray, drunken, elderly shadows.

Correct me if you can see something queer in my poem (I’d be happy) but unfortunately I didn’t queer either Little Karin or anything else in Sense Violence, not on purpose. I just took the easy, hetero path by not making other options visible, relying to the reader to fill pronouns with whatever made sense to them, considering “masculinity” and “femininity” attributes rather than fixed entities anyway. So let us imagine Little Karin and other subjects of my poem repeating “Rose is a rose is a rose” in their heads.

What I think Sense Violence does in terms of the ballad is to place it in a modern context, to show that the motif of assault in the medieval ballad is still alive and well and that even very contemporary events have a deep cultural context. Which at the same time normalizes the repetition of these events, makes them generic. I’d say that my book is more of a prism of testimonies that’s also connected to subjective views and ways of saying, as well as a (cultural) critique, which from my point of view resists this kind of generalization and normalization.

When I wrote these poems about swans that you’ve read in the anthology (which is from 2006), I was inspired by the myth of the conception of Helen of Troy (in Sweden, it’s Helena) which includes Zeus as a swan forcing himself on Leda. The name Leda is also a versatile word in Swedish, one meaning being “spleen.” (This is the same myth that inspired Mallarmé to write his swan.) I also put other more personal mythologies of swans in these poems. Aside from that, I liked and used to read poetry that was no stranger to swans, like Eva Kristina Olsson’s, Ann Jäderlund’s, and Aase Berg’s.

I just realized that I’m back to the mythology of Helen(a) in my writings. I’m experimenting with a poet colleague, Helena Österlund, and we started using our name in the poem and relating her to war and a Trojan horse. Soon I put in twin-versions of Helena, which I was inspired to do by Euripides. In his version of the myth, Helen(a) was divided in two, one of them a phantom. I’d say that our version is queering the myth. 

Like you, I’m not interested in the everyday in my writings. I was about to say in what I read, too, but realized that would be reductive and untrue. Also, as soon as it’s written it’s ceased being everyday, probably becoming something like a myth as soon as it’s read. Can you see new myths created from your writings, and also, do you have something to say about what Summer does to the myths it contains?

Johannes: I think what feels like a ‘queering’ to me in your poem is that the flowers of the impossible situation totally take over, creating an immersive space. If in these ballads, the flower comes in at the end as an escape from the impossible, your poem is all end, all impossible. You stay in that space where the woman martyr contains the threat of potential (she may be lesbian, as you note). Your poem doesn’t feel like an escape to me—since there’s so much violence and hardship in your poem. So for me the expansion of the flower moment might be the queering.

I like your description of how the poem makes mythical materials of the everyday. I think that’s in part how Summer works; in parts it’s an almost diaristic poetic sequence. It’s also the other way around: I ruin the mythical underworld with my banal life and its details. But maybe most of all, the myths of the poems are technologies of sorts. Once upon a time my eldest daughter decided she wanted to make her first Holy Communion (as Catholic). In the homily beforehand, the priest said that taking communion was a “technology of innocence.” You take communion and become innocent. This idea always stuck with me. I think the poem is a different kind of technology—a self-perpetuating, ecstatic technology, a grief technology—that takes the writer (and then the reader, the translator) into the poem. A space that may always be the underworld. But it’s an amorphous, transformational space. It may, thinking as much about Blake as that Catholic priest, be a technology of experience.

Helena: I like the idea of ruining the mythical underworld with one’s everyday life, like lighting it up, putting up crinkly notes and ugly personal stuff on the walls, leaving dishes and toys and clothes on the floor, and putting some music on.

What does innocent mean? Is it even innocent in itself, though? I think innocence isn’t as innocent as kitsch. At the moment, I cannot not think of a less pleasant connotation than that brought by the idea of Catholic innocence. (Which is also relevant in the context of Sense Violence.)

But liturgies and rituals are interesting. I wouldn’t compare writing to it, but I agree with your thoughts about technologies and writing. Poetry, as well as liturgies, is a potent technology to transform and also to endure certain aspects of life. To transform has to be very inclusively understood, it can mean introvert transformations, perceptual or psychological, but it can also be in a discursive or political context, for example.

But obviously, poetry can’t do much concrete political or discursive change to the world. At least not alone.

My thoughts go to the current uprisings against police violence that have been escalating during the last few days. To the systems and power structures that somehow allow racism and even murder by representives of the state, who are supposed to protect people and make society a safe place.

At the same time, even religion, politics, the institutions and academies fail. Poetry alone can’t do much, but neither can they, so it’s a bit unfair to accuse poetry as being inoperative. After all, to say so would be like saying that the poetry by Audre Lorde, Aimé Césaire, Maya Angelou or Langston Huges, for example, didn’t matter (or James Baldwin, who’s mentioned before, even if he’s not primarily known as a poet?). And many other poets, as well as other writers of different genres, of course.

Johannes: Yes, innocence can be used in very disturbing ways. To connect to your last paragraph, it has of course been used in the persecution of Black Americans: white mobs would often wield the figure of the innocent white woman, accosted by a dangerous Black man, as the reason for lynching (innocent) men.

Poetry as a technology must do something about this kind of brutal mindset. As you say, poetry may seem to be ineffective, but I often think about Chilean poet Raúl Zurita who says (in Daniel Borzutzky’s translation): “You can’t defeat a dictatorship with poetry, but without poetry, humanity disappears within five minutes.” And also, how he’s said that the role of poetry is to “place in opposition the limitless violence of crime and the limitless violence of beauty, the extreme violence of power and the extreme violence of art, the violence of terror and the even stronger violence of all our poems.” I often think about that, especially during this reign of Trump and Trumpism, and especially in these days of heroic protest.

Helena: That’s a beautiful way to put it. I think it’s a privileged position not having to consider poetry as (potentially) subversive.

It can be done by those who never knew about being unsafe, those of us who probably live in pretty functional democracies, not being underprivileged, threatened, or oppressed by powerful structures or groups of society, not being part of a loathed community or having any disturbing truths to testify, or at least some disturbing way to put it.

Poetry is a way of facing things as well as exposing them so they can be faced. Which made me think about this quote of James Baldwin that I reacently fell on: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”