Writing and power

15 October 2009 | This 'n' that

LIWRE 2009

Speaking in the cold: the Chairperson of the Lahti Writers' Union, Jarmo Papinniemi (left), and the Bosnian writer Igor Štiks (right) listen to Riina Katajavuori's presentation

The theme of the biannual International Writers’ Reunion (LIWRE) which took place in Lahti, southern Finland, in June for the 24th time, was ‘In other words’.

The theme inspired the participants (54 in total, foreign and Finnish) to talk, among other things, about the power of the written word in strictly controlled regimes, about fiction that retells human history, about the difference between the language of men and women, about languages that have been considered – by those who rule, naturally – ‘better’ than other languages. Eleven presentations are available in English.

Speaking about the birth of her latest collection of poems, Kerttu ja Hannu (‘Gretel and Hansel’, 2007), the Finnish writer Riina Katajavuori described in her presentation the need to use other words. In her case they were those of poetry, in retelling a tale; here are some extracts (scroll down!).

‘I was in the middle of a bad prosaic jam and could not understand why one should even write poetry, those shattered lines, fragmented notions about the world, pompous notions, that is. What was poetry, what is poetry? I could not convince myself to strike a poetic pose of any kind. My sentences sounded flat, if I even came up with any.

‘As I wrote a few poems about Gretel and Hansel on the spur of the moment, I realised that I had to write about a sister and a brother and that I wanted to write about them in the language of poems. The things I wanted to say were inexpressible in prose. Poetry was the only way out; the only path leading into the deep dark forest and back again.

‘So, I needed a text to create my fifth book of poems. The text, Hansel and Gretel, which was originally published in a fairy tale collection edited by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1857, had been hiding inside me for over 30 years….

‘In addition to the lost children, I wanted to give a voice to the gorgon, to the witch…. In my second poem it is revealed that the witch has a past. She has been a mother, too; lived once in a cramped two-room flat with a brood of children, a jellyfish for a man, and her in-laws….

A selection of Katajavuori’s poems from Kerttu and Hannu were published in Books from Finland 2/2008.

In his introduction her translator, Anselm Hollo, saw the collection as a ‘multifaceted serial poem around the themes of sibling affection, shared childhood memories, including traumatic ones; bonding, regrets, parallel yet divergent lives.‘

There were just two of them in the world – with a few adjectives:

Gretel and Hansel II

There were just the two of us.
There was no one else.
Just the forest and us.
There was a faint path that didn’t lead anywhere.
Not home, not to the gingerbread house.
There were adjectives: dense, sombre, thick, similar.
You and I, dense similars.
Your hand, dry and warm
in my hand.
Our distress shared and not to be uttered out loud.
We were just the two of us, and mute,
and it was wonderful.

Tags: