Playing games

30 March 2007 | Authors, Reviews

Aki Salmela

Photo: Lauri Mannermaa / Tammi

‘The world’s complete but we’ll make new ones,’ says the poet, and fulfils his project with whatever speech is to hand.

Aki Salmela (born 1976) is among the most promising of the young Finnish poets who are searching for new ways of expression. One of the most encouraging literary features of the start of the new century was the young generation making its poetic début, including Salmela. They showed a wide-ranging interest in the poetry and tradition of Finland and abroad and were well-versed in foreign languages as well as various experimental poetic techniques.

Salmela has already translated a substantial body of recent and less recent American avant-garde poetry. His selection and translation of the American poet John Ashbery’s work, entitled Valveillaoloa (‘Being awake’), appeared in 2004. He has been pivotal as editor of Tuli & Savu (‘Fire and smoke’), one of the best of the few Finnish poetry publications, and through writing and translating for it.

His interest in the poetry of the New York ‘language school’ is only one of the strings to his bow. His collage-like intertextual poetry freely adopts literary items from varied cultures and traditions. He has stressed the importance for him of Finnish experimental verse, mentioning in particular Väinö Kirstinä (1935–2007) and Kari Aronpuro (born 1942).

It is characteristic of Salmela’s generation to point up the Sixties poetry that probed the boundaries of language and expression. By contrast, the work of the poets emerging in the Nineties of the last century often emphasised the Finnish modernism of the Fifties.

The epigraph of his first volume, Sanomattomia lehtiä (‘Newsless newssheets’, Tammi, 2004), is a quotation from the poet Lyn Heijin: ‘Language discovers what one might know.’ Salmela’s poem ‘An hour in St Petersburg’ seeks a seamless and spontaneous connection between language and the world; it was written in an hour, and time-indications in the margins document the poem’s progress. The result is a poetic fabric that cuts freely through moments and sounds.

Another development emphasises the materiality of language (‘That’s how sentences turn stone’): it demonstrates the petrifaction of experience into language – while at the same time transcending it. For instance, using a cut-up technique, speech-quotations are sprinkled into collages of circular reasoning, as in the volume Leikitään kotia (‘Let’s play house’, 2005). All things in human experience are linguistically reduced to litanies, lists or endless concatenations of questions, as in the ‘Obsession’ series. Comparable to an interrogation or therapy session what is significant is diminished by the alienation of language. What happens underlines, so to speak, the presentational nature of human speech, its game-playing character.

In his ebullient experimentation Salmela is seeking out language’s capricious, distorting edge, which, in various combinations, can defamiliarise the multi-sensory world – reveal it as if for the first time.

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