Imagining a Hyperpersonality


To become the subject of a seminar, as I and some other poets did through the Nordic poet researcher network, it makes me proud, but it also disturbs me, and I'm skeptical of my own reactions. All the lights on me—phew and hooray! Therefore, I've doubted whether I am a good informant in this context. What do I remember from the seminar? It's almost entirely blank. It feels like I should have remembered more. On neither of the days could I sit back and take notes; I had to answer questions, and some of the questions were difficult to answer. This, in itself, made me very much a PERSON, and this business of being a person, this business of identity is something I have tried to destabilize through writing. I don't write to BE OPEN. I write to CREATE OPEN. Without writing, one just becomes ordinary. I don't write to represent something. Writing is an activity, like dance and sex, a goal in itself.

Martin Glaz Serup asked me about the ‘I’ in the poems, about the “now” of the ‘I,’ where is this speaking mouth in my poems, in which reality, in which historical here and now? Eh, I thought, everywhere and nowhere? It's limiting to be a person, I thought, maybe I said it, as an answer to the question—that I think of my poetry collections as a kind of  “forge of the self,” where everything that is shaped and everything that is burned somehow is or becomes “human,” sometimes twisted, sometimes touching; it becomes mutable. Perhaps I have tried to constitute the lyrical 'I' as a meeting place where different voices collide within the framework of a single subjectivity, a kind of experimental identity. Is it staging? It sounds poor, smells of irony, mask, duplicity. I have come to the realization that staging is heartfelt and essential for everyone. Everyone needs play, dance, courtship, show, trickery. I didn't answer that, but it's something I've thought about afterwards. It was a clever question—well observed!—and it has kept me occupied since.

What did the scholars think of my answers? Was it I who should have been asking them, and not vice versa? I remember the discussion about caesuras—they are tangible and lie in the visible. I felt like a ruffian when I said that the caesuras were a kind of “blank punctuation,” where the caesura partly functioned as line division within the verse, partly as a comma, partly as a tool for emphasis, partly as parentheses, Dickinsonian dashes, sometimes as a period or colon, and that it gave me the freedom to build long sentences with heaps of inserts without getting lost in rhythmic and rhetorical punctuation hierarchies. I had in mind that the caesura has been sung about as a lacuna and space and 'place for the other' and all sorts of wonderful super-literary projection surfaces for as long as I've been a writer, but for me, it's a syntactic shrine system of the 'Billy' type. Chosen because it lies quite low in the terrain and allows me to marry the best of Gennadiy Aygi with the best of Dickinson, etc.

I remember being asked if I believed in God. Or was it just me who heard the question that way? One has to expect this when writing a heartfelt book titled “touch Jesus”—too late to turn back. So, I said that the simple answer is “yes,” but that this feels like a poor answer. The difficult answer is “yes and no”—an ambivalent and absurd answer, which must be as long as the authorship itself to make sense. So, the right answer could just as well have been “no,” because I am a syncretic piñata of conflicting metaphysical fascinations and sensitivities. A 'no' would have killed the seriousness in it, because it is serious, I acknowledge the existence of all gods, I can do this without exercising epistemic violence on the intellect because I have accepted that we create the gods ourselves, thus it also becomes easier to acknowledge all the beauty and speculation that has flourished in that terrain. The irony of such a position is that it makes one unwelcome in religious contexts—there you have to choose one and present this choice with a serious face. That is, the opposite of a transformative and ambivalent quest that thrives on movement and collisions. That's how I have to be, it's not possible to write freely from a religious standpoint. It makes one stiff and reverent, unpoetic.

I am a poet, and I must be strict on behalf of the freedom it requires.

In hindsight, I have thought that it is difficult to represent my oeuvre because I have reached for a kind of hyper-personality in my books, a staged speech that can be both here and now, but also mediumistic, bodiless, and timeless, collective and fragmented, everyone and no one—haunted and expansive. Or silly and cheeky, as they say where I come from. It is troublesome when this is to be attempted to be gathered into a message, standpoint, poetics, and even more troublesome to be the body where these meridians converge. Sissel Furuset asked if I had become more personal by writing in dialect. I don't remember how I answered, but when I started writing verbally, I gained access to more anger, more body, and a clearer picture of what class has meant for me—and in the same movement, I gained access to more trickster stuff, i.e., staging, mutability, humor, play, nonsense, show. I remember that in that context, I emphasized to the seminar that I didn't want to become one of those working-class whiners who transform their precarious upbringing and detour to the artist role into a marketing tool through the cultural sections. That's both black and cheap magic. I might have said, or should have said, that the dialect opened up for the performance-band-cabaret thing Brødet & Eselet, and the collaboration (another depersonalizing and fragmenting method) and that this made it possible to write about other things. I became craftier and more cunning outwardly and funnier by writing verbally and adopting a revue personality—but I became more nail-bitingly private. It was easier to feel like a good poet when I only wrote 'proper poems.'

I had to acknowledge that as a writer, I have a cunning and sly side. I see that I make things up. Not overtly, but through transformations and speed. I believe that what speaks in my books is a kind of hyper-personality, which might be something you get if you sum up all characters in a thick novel, multiply it by the author here and now, and stir in myths and gods into the mix.

Now, what writing does to my face is one thing, but I'm afraid of the writer’s role; I still understand it poorly, it's an eternal balancing act. I see the obvious: It's a golden cage of publicity, praise, old publishing and nation-building practices, literary awards, and institutionalization. The culture we call 'the literary community' is a brutal meritocracy that has the power to transform sympathetic emo kids from the district into cultural industry sharks in the capitals. This brutality doesn't belong to literature itself, I know. It is literature's institutionalization that does this to us, but even though I can separate this in ordinary cases, it becomes completely uncontrollable when you become A PERSON. At literary meetings and gatherings, we try to deal with this by drinking plentifully until late at night, which contrasts amusingly with the fact that the collective Nordic identities have used literature to look at themselves from the best angles, and this is reflected in the literature-celebrating discourses that we writers and literati allow to live from generation to generation. The source code is simple: A book about murderers and thieves doesn't turn us into murderers and thieves, oh no, it makes us better equipped as a society to understand why murder and theft occur. That is to say: Bad things can come to books to become good. Such myths lie beneath the surface in all contexts where we discuss whether literature is worth spending time on. And this question lies as a cutting undercurrent beneath the everyday life of any grant-awarded writer: What have you done for the collective self-understanding today? The writer’s role is laden with rituals that we never articulate, but which seem to shape themselves after a choreography that signals authority and responsibility. This fox trap exists. Sometimes I step into it, and it stings, but I don't die. However, it's not the limitations I perceive that are perilous. It's the constraints I unwittingly impose on myself, the things I'm unaware that I don't know, which are hazardous, and for which one attends such a seminar—to both draw closer, to tempt, but also to conceal and rationalize.

I have been teaching writers for over twenty years. I've witnessed the ingenious and intricate narratives, fictions, and outright self-deceptions writers employ to protect their writing, or their writing persona. Some seem prepared to sacrifice almost anything to be able to write, and a not insignificant part of writers’ mythologies encourage bad life strategies. Am I to believe that I'm wiser than those mad writers who sacrifice their health and family for writing, and that I'm one of the few who have managed to tailor my practice to my life without clipping the wings of either? That would be deluxe hubris.

It therefore feels more truthful to assume that I’m a rat's nest of wretched strategies that distort my writing and distort my face in the best Dorian Gray style. This is probably what the myth points to when one sells their soul to the devil at a crossroads.

Yet I still come to such a seminar to be understood. Not as a writer, for the writer has understood that understanding is en reductio ad literary industry, but Gunnar himself, the old man from Heimdal, he's not that clever. He has role-played himself through a long journey of education and only knows that he doesn't know. I remember saying to the seminar that I wasn't going to write for a while. Yet, I started writing just a few weeks after the seminar. I have spent a lot of time on Alice Notley, Ellen Einan, and Gunvor Hofmo in recent years. Their authorships present a subjectivity that is non-identical, open, haunted. All of them are authors who make the 'I' porous, osmotic, transformative, fractal. Now the book I started after the seminar is nearing completion. It contains a series of poems that establish points of contact between myself and poets who have been important to me: Gunvor Hofmo, Ellen Einan, Velimir Khlebnikov, etc.—an attempt to establish kinship possibly. Probably triggered by the seminar, yet another attempt to be understood.

Translators’ Note

This essay was translated from Norwegian by Sean F. Munro and Liv Munro and was originally published in Nordic Poetry: A Journal of Poetics, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp.43-45. 23 November 2023, under CC BY 4.0 Deed, Attribution 4.0 International License, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Gunnar Wærness was born in the borough of Heimdal in the city of Trondheim in 1971. The author of nearly a dozen books of poetry, graphic poetry and visual collage, three of which (including a novel and a book-length play) were written collaboratively with Henrik Skotte under the name Brødet og Eselet. He has coedited with Pedro Carmona-Alvarez the most comprehensive collection of world poetry in Norwegian history, with a special focus on the global south. A prolific translator principally from English, Russian, and Bulgarian, he spent years living in Bulgaria and traveling in the former Soviet Union while working with Eastern Bloc poets writing in Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Chuvash, poets viscerally concerned with revolution and empire. He has translated Eileen Myles, two books by CAConrad (one with Martin Ingebrigtsen), Alice Notley, Terrance Hayes, Gennady Aygi, and dozens of others. He cofounded and runs with composer and pastor Tipei Marazanye the nonprofit Yarira Ngoma, which sponsors the music education program of the Maringambizi Secondary School in the Mberengwa district of Zimbabwe. He serves as an advisory and developmental editor for a few key publishers in Norway, while also working as an illustrator, visual artist, musician, composer, cabaret performer, and Associate Professor in Creative Writing at SKA (Skrivekunstakademiet) in Bergen. He lives in Skåne, Sweden with his wife, the musician, artist, and psychologist Sofia Eriksson.

Liv Munro is made significant contributions to the translation and interpretation of Norwegian cultural nuances and colloquial expressions in the review of friends with everyone and the essay “Imagining a Hyperpersonality.” A native of Oslo, Norway, she relocated to the United States at the age of 23, facilitated by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she was deployed to fulfill diplomatic duties in both New Orleans and Houston.

Sean F. Munro is a poet, filmmaker, poetics enthusiast, and an Associate Professor of English at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. Sean co-curates The Splice Poetry Series, helps organize the New Orleans Poetry Festival, hosts Lunch Poems: a weekly poetry radio show, and manages LitWire: the literary events calendar of New Orleans. Performances and publications can be experienced at seanfmunro.com.