First Published: 2007-05-03

 
Interview with danish poet Niels Hav
 

Moroccan Translator Mohamed Saïd Raïhani interviews Niels Hav about his latest achievements.

 

Middle East Online





Mohamed saïd Raïhani: When readers crowd around a poet to know much about the content of a poem, they are advised them to read it themselves as reading serves not only understanding the poem but also producing other parallel texts by means of construction and deconstruction. Yet, when it comes to excavating the career of the poet himself, readers will rub their hands ready to enjoy the honour of listening to the poet, who will have no chance of evasion, in introducing himself.

Niels Hav: This is in a humorous way a very sophisticated opening question for an interview. My respect! I have been in this writing-business for some years now and have almost forgotten the reason why I started writing. Your question reminds me on the first reason why: I began writing in order to introduce myself, to find out what’s going on and tell it with my personal words. And this is still the deep and restless ambition, to find the exact words, always a mystery of happiness in the middle of the timetable, they call it inspiration.

So my answer to your question must be: My poems and stories are the only truthful introduction I can offer.

Like anybody else I was born. I had a father and a mother, brothers and sisters.

My career as a writer started as a career of a reader. I was digging my way trough the classic Danish literature to find words for my feeling of life.

Mohamed saïd Raïhani: Niels Hav has published three collections of short stories and five collections of poems. How does Niels Hav the poet see short story and how does Niels Hav the short-story writer see poetry?

Niels Hav: For me there is no conflict. Poetry and prose are different genres, well defined through a long history. It’s like belonging to two families. In storytelling I belong to the Anton Chechov family, in my poetry family there are uncles and elder brothers as Czesław Miłosz, Les Murray in Australia and many others.

Mohamed saïd Raïhani: How can Niels Hav situate his poetic experience within Danish literary product? And what most characterizes Danish literature particularly and Scandinavian literature generally from the remaining European literature?

Niels Hav: As you know Scandinavian writing has a tradition back to the saga and songs written in Old Norse. Compared to the tradition in Arab writing it’s a short history, I know, but still 8 or 900 years is a long time. Some years ago a publisher asked me to do an anthology with the most important Danish poems ever written, a poetry canon. The book contains more than 100 poets and about 350 poems from 800 years of Danish writing. It was a very interesting task to find out what is important and original.

Denmark is a small nation, surrounded by water. People were farmers or sailors, and the local poetry was expressing experiences from the field or the sea in a religious vocabulary.

In contemporary Danish poetry there are at least two schools, one relating itself to language poetry the American way or French linguistic. The other school wants to get more involved with reality. The miserable state of the world forces us into political reflections. As I put it in a poem

“Once I wrote meticulous poems with a fountain pen

- pure poetry about purely nothing

- but now I like shit on my paper

- tears and snot.”



Mohamed saïd Raïhani: Your texts shows an overwhelming presence of simple vocabulary, simple imagery, simple rhythm, simple ideas… Is it an inclination towards "Simplicity" as a horizontal communicative choice or is it a tendency towards "Simplification" as vertical communicative background?

Niels Hav: I admire simplicity, what’s the bottom in me is the bottom in you. We are all walking on the same Earth, we have same archetypical questions to deal with trough life. In common we have the language, the simple words for the most important experiences in a human life. In my poems I don’t want to swim away in the sky, I want to stay close to reality.

“The task is for us to decipher our common experiences;

the horror and the misery that surround us, cling

to our clothes and seep into all of our bodies.

To notice what’s going on, and if possible

to say things as they are.”



Mohamed saïd Raïhani: He who studies carefully poems will no doubt pay attention to the omnipresence of irony in your texts. Why irony?

Niels Hav: Who can stand life without humor and irony. I admit; where the military tanks are driving in and human flesh and blod are dripping from the trees, that’s not the place for irony. But it is a sad an ironical fact: we are now 6 billion people - alone at home here on this planet - and if we want to we can arrange a fairly good life for all of us. But still we don’t do this, we put up borders between nations, religions, races. It’s more and more absurd. Self-irony is needed.

It’s too early to give up. I’m affiliated with the naïve who mosey on and want the impossible.



Mohamed saïd Raïhani: In times of cultural and civilizational convergence between the peoples, have you invested this historic gain to read Arabic literature, the literature that has given birth to "The One Thousand And One night" called also "The Arabian Nights" and regarded as the first novel in the history of human literature? Or Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel-Prize winner? Or Tahar Ben jelloun and Nabil Maalouf, French Goncours-Prize winners? Or Mohamed Choukri read in more than twenty-four living languages? Or Adonis? Or Mahmud Derwish?...

Niels Hav: We have a fine Norwegian edition of "The One Thousand And One nights" in our home. This Arab tradition puts up a high standard for all storytelling. We know of course Naguib Mahfouz, Tahar Ben Jelloun and a few others. The important thing about cultural exchange is translations, we need more translations. The Arab writers have an amazing capital of wisdom and beauty to offer the rest of the world.

My dear friend Salim Abdali is now translating the poetry of Adonis into Danish, we are looking forward to read this translation and to learn more about modern Arab poetry.

Mohamed saïd Raïhani: After the first translations of your two poems into Arabic, you have personally remarked the warm welcome that has accompanied their release. In three days, your first poem, "In Defense of Poets", was published on more than twenty Arabic cultural websites. Even this interview is done to the wish of Arab readers who contacted us insisting on knowing much more about the newly-translated Danish poet. What can be the motive behind that, in your opinion?

Niels Hav: I don’t know. I’m glad to hear this, but I can’t answer the question. I’m surprised how well informed and interested readers you have.

Mohamed saïd Raïhani: Danish literature is Scandinavian readers' gateway in the south. Is there any rising trend among Danish Intelligentsia to support the very few attempts, mainly by Arab community in Denmark, to translate Arabic works into Danish? Or is geographic distance a pretext for cultural divergence?

Niels Hav:

I’m glad to say there are some efforts to support more translations. But it is small editions. Imigration through the last quarter of a century has supplied the Scandinavian countries with people from all parts of the world. I myself live with my family in Norrebro, the part of Copenhagen with most etnic diversity. Every day in the streets and the shops we meet people born far away in Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq, India, Morocco or Turkey – now they are all Danes - some of them are our good friends - and there appearance has for ever changed the Danish culture. In the near future we have to redefine the meaning of the word “Danish”. How long time does it take a pizza, a sharwarma or an iskender kebab to become “Danish”? Just a few years. The Scandinavian falafel is a mixture of many cultures, and same thing is happening with Danish art and literature, it’s already going on in front of our eyes. We live in interesting times.

Mohamed saïd Raïhani: You know that literary translation is not open to everyone mastering a couple of languages: the source language and the target language. Translations of this kind are usually "translations of the vocabulary of the poem". Whereas translations supervised by creators regarded as "translations of the power of the text" being performed by a creator who is no foreigner on the literary field. Have you thought of choosing your future translators from creators?

Niels Hav: My new collection of poetry “We Are Here” is just published in Toronto

This book it translated from the Danish by P.K. Brask and Patrick Friesen, both of them good writers. In Istanbul I’m lucky to have some of my poems translated by Kemal Özer, a very fine poet. In Morocco my works benefit from your work, I’m proud of that. Regarding translations I generally prefer concise and pithy compositions for the more florid. My works depend on the exact idiom, the precise word. So I can’t give in on either “the vocabulary of the poem” or “the power of the text".

As poems and stories are the only articles I have in my

shop, it’s essential for me not to have these objects spoiled in translation. I’m sure you are right: a skilled poet is always the best to translate poetry. But let’s never forget; inside many scientists or civil readers there is a hidden poet, waiting for the right moment to blossom.

Mohamed saïd Raïhani: A free word to conclude this interview?

Niels Hav: Then I want to say: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to exchange words with you. I hope the future will establish new institutions for cultural exchange between our two countries. New generations will look at this confused epoch with a smile. Empires and political systems last for only a time, invincible is the marrow which every morning lifts us all out of sleep, each with our own flopping catch of joy and hope.

 

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