By Nizar Sartawi
This interview first appeared in Arabic, published by the poetry magazine Ababeel in Aleppo Syria. He captivates you with his simplicity and modesty just as he captivates you with his poetry. This is the Danish poet and short story writer Niels Hav, whose works have been translated into many languages, such as English, Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, Chinese, Italian, and German. Recently I have contacted the poet and conducted an interview with him.
Nizar Sartawi: So many poets start writing poetry at an early age. Could you tell us about your beginning as a poet, relating how your education, family, and environment, influenced your poetry?
Niels Hav: I was raised on a farm far from the capital on the Danish west coast. Not a particularly literary environment, I was the first in my family to become a university student. Those early experiences with animals, farm work and the nature around still mean a lot to me also when I’m writing poetry. Moreover, I got something very important for young people: a great longing to explore the world. Big dreams grow in small places. As a teenager I wrote hypersensitive and unfinished poems without much life experience. I stumbled around and harvested defeats – thank God for the wonderful naivety in the heyday of youth, without which this world would petrify into conservatism and tradition. Later I went to university, where my personal experiences were put into a larger perspective. The fact is that if you want to be a writer, you are first and foremost a reader. You must know the tradition if you want to put pen to paper and take the next step and write something new.
Nizar Sartawi: In your poem, “It’s Simply Ingenious,” there are two references to Norse Mythology, the pig and Valhalla. How has your poetry been influenced by Norse Mythology? How about other mythologies, for example Greek and Roman?
Niels Hav: As a Scandinavian you imbibe Norse mythology with mother’s milk; barrows from the Stone Age and the Vikings are scattered in the landscape. Nordic mythology reflects nature and life-conditions here: the bright hectic summer followed by a loooong dark winter, when the days get shorter and shorter and everything drowns in rain or ice and snow. Winter depression is lurking in the corners.
I studied classical Greek and Latin; Homer, Dante and Seneca are foundation stones. But when talking about mythology, the biblical stories undoubtedly are of particular importance. They are common and shared stuff for Christians, Muslims and Jews, and the language is steeped in biblical metaphysics. Our ideas of justice, personal freedom, and respect for the individual, have taken their colors from these basic stories. The dream of the earthly paradise is the engine of all revolutions. When writing poetry we use an ancient language full of metaphysical connotations – language is no private invention, but a common tool, so we have to handle and use the connotations language carries along.
Nizar Sartawi: Your rural background reminds me of another Scandinavian poet, Olav H. Hauge (1908 – 1994), who worked as gardener in his own orchard. How does your own poetry reflect this affinity with nature?
Niels Hav: You are impressively well-informed about Nordic poetry. Yes, Olav Hauge lived his whole life in Ulvik, where he was born. An astonishing fact now when we all are a kind of nomads and wander around the globe: it is possible to stay home and dig deep with your own spade where you were born. Hauge was a humble local who used words sparingly and didn’t had many material requirements. For me, my rural upbringing means that I came to poetry with different experiences from urban poets. Nature is not only a recreational area for leisure, but also the cultivated landscape, where farmers grow the crops that feed people. The mind remembers the settlements in raw nature, and in all my books there are poems reflecting this, like The Stone Crusher in the new Arabic book:
What is man supposed to do with his life?
Walk into the plantation;
sit down sheltered and listen
to the conversation between the wind
and the fir trees?
Who has a better suggestion?
Nizar Sartawi: At the end of your poem “My father’s Wristwatch,” the watch stops after 75 minutes, and you put it back in the drawer, saying that “Someone else can decide.” What is the symbolic significance of this “old watch resurrected from the dead?” What does it tell us about your view of and relationship with literary and cultural heritage?
Niels Hav: The biggest mystery in life is that time passes. Sooner or later you discover the clock that counts the seconds inside the body and you can’t stop it, time trots briskly ahead. My father was a farmer and sexton (he looked after the graveyard in the village), he died many years ago. In my drawer I have his wristwatch as a physical memory, and a reminder to myself: our time with flesh on our bones is so short. Now everything happens on the run, helter-skelter, and unprecedented changes happen every day – you know the feeling. Life turns unexpected corners and surprises us all the time. None of us understand exactly what’s going on, words flicker through the brain like deep water fish; they constantly shift colours. We bustle around like critters. There’s something we want and something we must do. My father’s wristwatch is old and useless, but some primitive feelings cling to it and I can’t throw it away. In that way my poems live on facts and feelings and the irony of life – and balance between memories and hopes for the future. I want to bring all kinds of heritage with me and to stay with the kids and their spicy expectations.
Nizar Sartawi: In a recent interview, you stated that “there’s rarely real money in poetry” and “there isn’t either much poetry in money.” In other words, you believe that to some extent poetry and money are mutually exclusive. Could you say more about this idea? Also could you tell us how is this idea reflected in your own poetry?
Niels Hav: A fine question, humor is needed when dealing with poetry. If you are waiting for a train full of money you are on the wrong platform. There are outstanding poets who live and die in poverty, we all know that. Money is an obsession in this epoch, a disease in the brain of our culture, but the chances of making real money on poetry are slim. Poetry and money are like fire and water, they have nothing in common. Of course you can’t say that poetry and richness are mutually exclusive, but it’s about focus. The fairytale might flourish in a poor hut, while the billionaire is turning gray in fear of losing his worthless privileges. In the end we are all loosers. The most valuable things in life can’t be bought for money; love, beauty, happiness, a strong family and good friends. But there is no reason for making a mystery out of it, money, shares and the stock exchange belong to reality, just like poetry, this contradiction is part of the comedy.
Nizar Sartawi: I know you have been asked about Danish poetry in previous interviews. For the benefit of Arab readers could you give us a brief idea about contemporary Danish poetry: poetic trends, new voices, how Danish poetry converges or diverges with European and/world poetry, and how Danish people receive poetry.
Niels Hav: Denmark is a small nation, surrounded by water, we are only five million people, and poetry is a small branch here as everywhere. A growing trend in Danish poetry seems to be an awaking political awareness of global issues as the postcolonial imbalance between rich and poor countries, climate challenges et cetera.
Female poets contribute more and are stronger than ever before. Inger Christensen was a unique voice of international quality, she died a few years ago. Her Butterfly Valley is a wonderful sonnet cycle of exquisite depth and beauty. Pia Juul writes fairytale poetry full of cruelty and magic, and Ursula Andkjær Olsen juggles with the language of crystal clear paradoxes. Another trend would be the autobiographical prose poem where the poet talks about his background, personal problems or family life. Sometimes it seems almost private, but it´s also a mirror for new generations.
Through the last decades immigration has supplied our country with people from all parts of the world, they bring along new food and fresh ideas, and they enrich Danish art and literature in new ways. Something is happening.
Nizar Sartawi: Do you see any crisis in modern/contemporary poetry? Could you elaborate on this topic?
Niels Hav: The world economy is in crisis at the moment and this also affects poetry of course. It seems to be a global phenomenon that publishers look around for bestsellers and publish less poetry. This could be a problem if poets at the same time accept to stay inside a special poetry-ghetto with no ambition to engage with real problems. Lots of writers are connected to universities, and of course the discussions about literature in classrooms at all levels are essential, but poetry wants to get involved also outside campus. The world is on fire. Politics, bombs, ideology and religion ravaging the globe. This is what people are talking about in the cafe – and it’s the challenge for poetry to join this conversation. To find out and understand what’s going on, and if possible to say things as they are.
Nizar Sartawi: The world of the internet has changed the way people deal with the written word. Many people publish on the internet. How do you view the following?
- Regular newspapers, magazines, and journals vs. literary Websites, online papers & magazines, and blogs.
- Paper books vs. e-books.
- The facebook as a social networking website.
Niels Hav: The openness and freedom on the Internet offers tremendous opportunities which are constantly threatened by commercial groups and regimes who want to control people. Of course there is a real legal conflict between copyright holders and the net-user’s interest in free downloads, but freedom on the Internet is a fundamental value that is important to defend, and this seems to be a serious battlefield. The Internet makes it possible to follow what is happening around the world, to maintain contacts and exchange experiences in new ways and at high speed. A bunch of wonderful opportunities.
That said, I must say that I love paper. I prefer newspapers, magazines and poetry printed on paper to literary websites and online magazines. The Internet is a deep container which tends to drown everything in an endless flood of good and bad. You can take a thousand year old book in your hand and read it without problems, while digitized texts and the electronic universe requires constant updates. A healthy dose of scepticism is needed before we close our libraries and throw the books away. But fortunately the one does not exclude the other; the same work can be published as an e-book and printed on paper, that would be perfect.
Nizar Sartawi: How do evaluate poetry festivals?
Niels Hav: We writers are individualists, most of the time we are glancing at the wall at home as a lonely robber in the desert. Festivals is a chanse to meet with colleagues and share dreams and ideas. Every business needs this kind of professional venues. Symposia of any sort is an ancient tradition. You meet new authors, new texts and issues. And the poems are meeting a new audience who gets the chance to hear the text read in the author’s own voice. The fact is that poetry is related to music, and often the tone and the poet’s appearance can be the key to a deeper understanding. A good festival can be a magical place – sometimes it’s like being inside a UFO, glowing and pervaded by metaphysics. Everyone returns home with their heads swimming full of inspiring new impressions. That’s the ideal festival, of course there are also less successful variants, which quickly disappears into merciful oblivion.
Nizar Sartawi: Your poetry has been translated into several languages, including Arabic. Could you give us some details about this?
Niels Hav: Danish is one of the smaller languages, so it’s a pleasure to be translated and see the poems thrive in other regions. It has in particular been a joy for me to get in touch with Arab readers who have such a rich tradition for poetry of high quality. When I sit with an Arabic newspaper, I can only “understand” the photos. I’m trapped in the Latin alphabet. Many Arab writers have the advantage over European colleagues, they are able to read two alphabets. I don’t know if Arabs are more intelligent than the Europeans, maybe they just are more curious. In English Per K. Brask and Patrick Friesen have been working with my stuff for many years, they initially made it possible for the poems to cross borders. My Arabic book is translated by Jamal Juma, who himself is a fine poet. My friend Salim Abdali has translated a few texts – and you dear Nizar have translated some new poems, I am profoundly grateful for this. Translators are alchemists who make a heroic effort: they perform the impossible.
Nizar Sartawi: Ababil has published four of your poems translated into Araic. I am sure Arab readers would like to read more. Could you grant us at least one more poem?
Niels Hav: Yes, thank you, I would be happy to end with a poem. It has been a pleasure to exchange thoughts and ideas with you.
We Are Here
I got lost in a strange part of town.
All streets ran steeply upward, quick-footed people
ran by me dressed in light-coloured clothes
and looking as though they were carrying light things in their bags.
I stopped someone for directions
and immediately I stood in the middle of a clump
of friendly faces. – Where do you want to go?
I began explaining. They listened,
smiling, as if for the first time
they were hearing a dead dialect.
Then they began speaking one on top of another
and pointing in all directions.
I pulled out my map. Eagerly it was opened
and studied with interest. – Where are we?
I asked with a finger on the map.
They looked at me and as a chorus repeated my question.
Then they all broke into hearty laughter,
I laughed too, we were witnessing high
comedy. – Here, said one of them and pointed
to the ground where we stood. – We are here!
(The poem was translated by P.K. Brask & Patrick Friesen)
Niels Hav is a Danish poet and short story writer with awards from The Danish Arts Council. He is the author of six collections of poetry and three books of short fiction. His books have been translated into many languages including English, Arabic, Turkish, Dutch, Farsi, Serbian, Albanian, Kurdish and Portuguese. His second English poetry collection, We Are Here, was published by Book Thug in Toronto; his poems and stories have been published in a large number of magazines and newspapers in different countries of the world, including The Literary Review, Ecotone, Exile, The Los Angeles Review, Absinthe: New European Writing, Shearsman and PRISM International. He has travelled widely and participated in numerous international poetry festivals in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America. He has frequently been interviewed by the media. Niels Hav was raised on a farm in western Denmark, today he resides in the most colourful and multiethnic part of the capital, Copenhagen.
“…Niels Hav’s We Are Here, … brings to us a selection from the works of one of Denmark’s most talented living poets and is all the more welcome for that reason….”
- Frank Hugus, The Literary Review
A alma dança em seu berço, Editora Penalux, Brasil 2018.
Shpirti vallzon në djep,Shtëpia Botuese OMSCA-1, Tirana, Albania 2016.
Şî’ri bo trisnokekan nîye (Kurdish translation), Ktebxanai Andesha, Sulaymaniyah, Irak 2016.
Al-Rooh Tarqos Fee Mahdiha, Jordanian Writers Association, Amman, Jordan 2015.
Zanʹhā dar Kupanhāk, Butimar, Tehran, Iran 2015.
Kopenhag Kadinlari, Yasakmeyve, Turkey 2013.
Grondstof. Poetry translated by Jan Baptist, Holland 2012.
Udate žene u Kopenhagenu, Bosnia 2012.
De Iraanse zomer. Short stories translated by Jan Baptist, Holland 2011.
Ḥı̄na aṣı̄ru aʻmá. Poetry, Arab Scientific Publishers, Beirut 2010.
Als ik blind word. Poetry, Holland 2010
De gifte koner i København. Poetry – Jorinde & Joringel, 2009.
We Are Here. Poetry translated by Patrick Friesen & P.K. Brask, Toronto 2006.
U Odbranu Pesnika. Poetry, Belgrade 2008.
Grundstof. Poetry – Gyldendal, 2004.
Nenadeina Sreka. Poetry, Skopje, Macedonia1997.
Når jeg bliver blind. Poetry – Gyldendal, 1995.
God’s blue Morris. Poetry, Crane Editions, Canada 1993.
Den iranske sommer. Short stories – Gyldendal, 1990.
Ildfuglen, okay. Poetry – Hekla, 1987.
Sjælens Geografi. Poetry – Hekla, 1984.
Øjeblikket er en åbning. Short stories – Hekla, 1983.
Glæden sidder i kroppen. Poetry – Jorinde & Joringel, 1982
Afmægtighed forbudt. Short stories – Hekla, 1981.
NIZAR SARTAWI is a Palestinian poet, translator, essayist, and columnist. He was born in Sarta, Palestine, in 1951. He is a member of numerous literary and cultural organizations, including the Jordanian Writers Association (Jordan), General Union of Palestinian Writers (Palestine), and General Union of Arab Writers (Cairo). He has participated in poetry readings and international forums and festivals in numerous countries, including Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Egypt, Kosovo, and India. Sartawi’s poems have been translated into more than dozen languages. His poetry has been published in more than 40 anthologies, in addition to journals and newspapers, in Arab countries, the U.S., Australia, Kosovo, Indonesia, Singapore, Bosnia, Italy, India, the Philippines, Russia, Switzerland, and Taiwan. Sartawi has published more than 25 books of poetry and poetry translations. He has written introductions to a number of books in both Arabic and English. Sartawi was awarded the first prize in translation by Al-Nour Literary Organization in 2013, and Naji Naaman Award for Creativity in 2017. For the last seven years, Sartawi has been working on poetry translation from English to Arabic and Arabic to English. This includes his Arabic poetry translation project, “Arab Contemporary Poets Series”. He also has translated poems for a large number of modern and contemporary international poets from numerous countries of the world. Sartawi lives with his family in Amman, Jordan.