The following text was written for a seminar in Biskops Arnö about alternative publishing and literary innovation, and was first published at English for the New Illiterati).
Mulling over what would be appropriate use of these given 15 minutes I wrote an entirely different segment called „the importance of destroying a language (of one’s own)“, which I intended to read here, now, as I am reading this, the segment I wrote when displeased with my first segment. The first segment was mostly about uniformism in language, in the name of lingual protection – the eternal struggle Icelanders are faced with: Let not the language slip away, or we will end up speaking like our brethren in Scandinavia – some sort of broken pidgin Icelandic that noone in his right mind would ever consider for poetry, let alone anything else.
After sleeping on this I decided to relay a different message, one of hope and possibility, instead of fascism and despair.
It was about 7 years ago that the artgroup Nýhil was founded by myself and poet, film-maker and philosopher Haukur Már Helgason, on a quiet street-corner in Reykjavík. To begin with it was nothing but a name that we decided to use as a common label. In the summer of 2002 the first book, my first book, Heimsendapestir, was published. It was a cheap affair, 160 copies that cost less than 300 Euros to produce, with the help and discount of some valiant artists and printers. And even though the following products would not all be this cheap, a path had been chosen: cheap but as beautiful as limited means could afford – a reasonable enough conclusion. In the beginning all costs were paid by the poet himself or herself, but we would supply cheap print-deals, free layout, free cover design, and edit eachothers works. But now I am getting ahead of myself: First we moved to Berlin, that is to say the only members of Nýhil at the time, Haukur and I.
In Berlin we were both supposed to be doing something else but life started to revolve around literature – we started holding monthly poetry-parties in a small place called Versuchstation in Prenzlauer Berg. The idea was quite simply to invite our friends to join us for live music, poetry and whatever came to mind – we took turns running the bar, which paid for the rent. We wanted to make poetry as exciting as we thought it was, as instantaneous, thought-out, chaotic and structured as we longed for it to be. In short, we wanted poetry to be all it could be. And it worked – those were some of the best parties and readings I’ve attended in my life.
When the winter came to an end, we had both finished manuscripts for new poetry books, and our lease for Versuchstation was broken – the parties were evidently not meant to become that wild, and the neighbours didn’t like it – this wasn’t their idea of poetry readings, nor was it, indeed, meant to be.
Meanwhile a new member of Nýhil, film-maker Grímur Hákonarson, was planning a venture of his own. Having visited Berlin in the winter and witnessed and participated in one of the poetry parties, he sought out grants to tour Iceland – a travelling circus of poets and other artists. When we came home in the spring of 2003, all had been arranged, except we needed to fill all the cars. So we wrote out a list of favorite young poets and invited them along. The people that went on this trip, that was wildly successful in some places and rather more mildly successful in others, are mostly the core members of Nýhil today, as well as some others that have joined in midway. In the winter that followed we published our first essay collection, in a series called Afbækur Af stríði (about war). Two more have been published, About us in 2004, and About poetry in 2005. The idea is to deal with topics through both critical essays and art. Several more books are in the making, including About theatre and About learning.
In the summer of 2005 we held our very first international poetry festival, and in november of last year, we held the second. Guests included Leevi Lehto, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Anna Hallberg, Jörgen Gassilewski, Katie Degentesh, Catharina Gripenberg, Lone Hörslev, Matti Pentikainen, Derek Beaulieu, Jane Thompson, Billy Childish, Jesse Ball and Gunnar Wærness – with several dozens of Icelandic artists participating as well, mostly poets and musicians – we still have a rule of breaking up the poetry readings with music, so the poetry-parties, of which there are two at the festival, usually last about 6 to 7 hours. The third and fourth festivals are in the pipelines.
In 2005 we also launched the series Norrænar bókmenntir (Nordic Literature), 9 poetry books published in the span of about 7 months, by various authors, that was mostly sold through subscriptions.
Last year we held a poetry competition entitled „the icelandic championship in awful poetry“ – where poets struggled to write the worst poetry imaginable. We got support from the media – Iceland’s biggest newspaper Morgunblaðið, printed interesting poems with declarations from the panel of judges, for three consecutive days, and then the three winning poems. The award ceremony was held live on the biggest magazine-tv-show on the Icelandic state television. Now we are planning „the icelandic championship in other people’s poetry“ – which will feature poetic remixes of texts. This is inspired by the book Handsprengja í morgunsárið (A hand grenade in the morning) which features translations of poems from various foreign ill-doers, such as Radovan Karadzic, Ronald Reagan and Osama bin Laden, as well as text-remixes from articles of Icelandic politicians.
For about one year, Nýhil has run a small poetry bookstore, within the Bad Taste Records store in Reykjavík, which mostly features Nýhil products, and the few foreign titles that we’ve been able to afford.
Besides poetry, Nýhil has published four novels, 2 noise DVD’s, T-shirts, a sportsbag, a CD with readings of Allen Ginsberg translations, and a photocopied four page biography of an icelandic liberalist idealist and biographer, that incidentally, at about 10 swedish kroner, was the bestselling biography in Iceland last christmas – the proceeds were given to charity.
Most members of Nýhil also publish with other, more commercially viable publishing houses.
The poetry webzine Tíu þúsund tregawött was founded a little over a year ago, and half the editorship is in the hands of members of Nýhil. Since then it has published 59 icelandic poems, 17 articles, 14 reviews, 39 found poems, 21 foreign poems in the original language (mostly readings, visual poems or videos) and 47 translations. It was founded for the same reason as the poetry festival – that is to say, mostly to be a gateway to some sort of foreign experimental writing, seeing as those connections have been scarce in Iceland in the past. There are five people on the board of editors, and like bloggers we put up individual posts instead of entire issues. Indeed, seeing as the board of editors is HTML-blind, the zine started as a blogspot blog – but later we got a web-designer to do a proper page for us, for free.
Most of what has been done by Nýhil and Tíu þúsund tregawött has indeed been possible because of people’s willingness to work for free, since our income from selling books is minimal, and most of the cost comes from either our own pockets or government and private grants. The idea that drives us on is the same sort of determinist idea that plagues small-town people – like myself, coming from a town of 3000 people in the northwest of Iceland – that if you don’t do it yourself, noone will. It is pointless to wait until somebody spoon-feeds you culture, anything worth witnessing is worth seeking out, and in most cases it needs to be sought out. It lies on the internet, hiding behind bookshelfs in libraries, in the heads of those seeking out similar things as yourself – and precisely for this reason the poetry festival has been very influential within the icelandic poetry scene, as younger poets have become more prone to experiment, to break out from the structures of language that is seemingly called „good“ or „proper“ for literature in Iceland – Icelandic poetry has been, in many ways since the middle of the last century, with a few exceptions, increasingly homogenic, increasingly incestuously imitative and, sad to say, increasingly bad. Many poetry books published in Iceland today are like photocopies of photocopied 1950’s poetry, bound as if they were new books – which would somehow be a nice project, if it was intentional and admitted.
What ties the members of Nýhil together as a group is not necessarily a shared aesthetic, as much as it is an opposition to the ruling aesthetic of our small country – which governs the big publishing houses who ordain poets, governs the ideas about poetry (which is snobbish in Iceland), governs the education system and therefore governs the ideas of most young poets. Instead of writing poetry, tackling language, metaphor and madness, they tend to „make like a poet“ – putting together sentences that sound like something they once heard in a poem.