Johannes Göransson is the author of nine books of poems and one book of criticism, Transgressive Circulation: Essays On Translation, as well as the translator of works by Aase Berg, Ann Jäderlund, and many others. Together with his wife, the poet Joyelle McSweeney, he is also one-half of the founding team at Action Books, one of the most exciting, risk-taking small presses working in the U.S. today. I first met him a decade ago when Action published my translation of the Finnish poet Tytti Heikkinen’s collection, The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal.
Göransson’s poetic work is informed by multilingualism and translation, and often defies genre and the limitations of narrative in poetry. Summer, published by Tarpaulin Sky Press, is his most recent book of poems. It deals with the death of his daughter, Arachne, but also with debt, capitalism, the economic framework and “worth” of poetry, and many more interwoven topics. We have several things in common in addition to our translation and writing practices: immigration at a formative age and family-building in America; publishing works of poetry in the same year that deal with the grief of child loss; a resistance to healing narratives around the subject of grief. Talking with Göransson about many of these subjects was a privilege.
Niina Pollari: I have so many questions to ask you about Summer, but let’s start here. The book is teeming with Swedish words and phrases, which are not translated, leading the reader to choose one of two paths. You can either speed through not understanding some of the passages but appreciating the voice, or you can stop to translate (which is what I did) and gain the pleasure of the many double entendres, but at the expense of the unbroken reading experience. Then I got to this line: “I only ever write / about childhood / because that was before I died”—you immigrated to the U.S. in early adolescence, so is this death in a certain way a linguistic death? How did you choose the form of the language in this text?
Johannes Göransson: This really cuts to the heart of the book, and to my writing in general. When I’m asked about my reasons for writing, I mostly answer that I write out of homesickness. I think one of the driving forces behind Summer was finally realizing that that place I have yearned for for so long doesn’t exist. Probably was always an illusion. At the time I was in Sweden, surrounded by the Swedish language (listening to mostly Swedish pop music on the radio, reading Swedish poetry). So along with that realization came the feeling that the Swedish language is a kind of undead language, or perhaps that I was a ghost, and that Sweden was still alive. In the poem, the languages began to mingle. Swedish leaked into English and vice versa. I can’t say that I “chose” this language mix-up so much as was afflicted by it—though that makes it seem painful; it was more like a joyful affliction at first. This leakage generated an odd poetic music, which I kept entering back into, even when I’d gone back to the U.S. Did you ever feel that way about language? About home?
NP: Yes. At some point I realized that home as I knew it was lost to me—it had to do with the realization that you mention, where the place of your consciousness is no longer real. Some of this has to do with the fact that I was never an adult, with an adult’s problems, in Finland. My memories have the haze that all childhood memories do. I’ve been back since I came to America, but I don’t know how to exist as, like, a taxpayer with civic responsibilities and garbage duty and dentist visits and daycare arrangements. I visit in the warmer, brighter seasons and I eat all my favorite foods and show my American family where I come from, but Finland and I have both changed in the decades since our ways parted. My translation practice continues to be a way in which I stay in dialogue as a thinker with both the language and the real, current Finland, even though I don’t participate in its day to day. My particular poetic mode as a writer, not a translator, is definitely informed by bilingualism, but my language would die if I never participated in the translation exchange. Or its growth would be stunted—it would remain the Finnish of a 10-year-old. This way it gets to grow and infiltrate and mutate.
I want to talk more about your book and its themes and mechanics, but while we are talking about nonexistent places, how do you feel about the mythic depictions of Sweden and Scandinavia? Ari Aster’s Midsommar, the city of Arandelle in the Disney movie Frozen, even the Nordic Noir trope in literature? We’ve talked about this a little on Twitter in the past so hopefully this isn’t redundant. [laughs]
JG: Yes, that’s very similar to me. I can’t imagine poetry without translation. I first started writing poems by translating, so it’s in the DNA of my poems. As for U.S. fantasies about Sweden and Scandinavia, they keep proliferating. On one hand Berryman writes that Swedes “don’t exist”; on the other hand they are everywhere in US culture and literature. As in Phillip Roth’s story about “the Swede” who’s really Jewish, Swedes are often fakes—a mask (or a wig!) without interiority. Although Midsommar posits Scandinavia as a site of ancient authenticity, it ends up being about an anxiety about Scandinavian collectivity—and especially feminist collectivity—that is pretty common in U.S. culture. Frozen is based on the literalization of a stereotype that Scandinavians are “cold,” but paradoxically this trait leads to a kind of gothic individuality in this case. Rightwing media has its own fantasies about Scandinavia that they obsessively reproduce: Swedes used to be very masculine (Vikings!) but now they’ve been emasculated by feminism, which has allowed the country to be ruined by the generous immigrant policies. This is of course also fiction, though published not by presses but in online chatrooms.
NP: I can definitely see the mythic in this book, in both the fantastical Sweden and other mythological references like Persephone and Orpheus. The text also has a sensory overwhelm, in the summery syrener and their ever-permeating scent (a smell I also vividly remember from childhood), as well as a sense of looming, unnamed conflict and the unsettling omnipresence of the rabble. But it’s also got these moments of enormous despair which call to the death of your daughter. These devastated parts, which more obviously comprise more of the book as it progresses (and as some of the Swedish drops away), inform the sensory saturation of the text and make it into something more than just excess.
There is this startling dialogue that goes: “I’m your daughter no / you’re not you’re her opposite / I’m her death she’s always / dead here so I will stay here / with her death you can’t I can / the whole world is my daughter’s / room everyone is döttrar”. This is also a text of annihilating and expanding grief, and I’m really sorry you had to write it. Can you tell me a little about incorporating grief into your writing? This is something I found really difficult, and hated myself for even wanting to do for a long time.
JG: These poems began being about homesickness and its peculiar joys. A year later, when my daughter Arachne died, it seems it was the only language I could use to write about her, or perhaps to write to her, with her. I think it had to do with the intensity of the language, the “overwhelming” quality, as you say, and also the feeling that in the poem I was speaking partly in a language of death, and partly that when I wrote in that language I was partly dead, partly a ghost. The poem became a room where I could be both dead and alive, a permeable room.
Arachne lived for two weeks, all of it spent in a hospital room in Indianapolis. It was an intense room. When I came into the chamber and saw my beautiful girl taped-up and hooked up with tubes, I walked up to her and weirdly I started singing this song that I hadn’t heard for literally 30 years, “Vakna Nu Anneli” by Magnus Johansson, a folk pop hit from the early ‘90s: “Wake up now Anneli, the men from Venice have closed the factory and you’re free to go. Put on something sky-blue and a hat…” The fear and sadness jumbled my synapses and this song came out.
While I was down there with her I read a lot. I re-read Ballard’s Crash, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Aase Berg’s Forsla fett, Eva-Kristina Olsson’s Eiderwhite: Extreme writing that deals with the body and its reproduction, its destruction. These poems were incredibly helpful for me. Or I don’t know if they “helped” me; they were there for me. I could enter into them and the intensity of the books measured up to the horror and fear I was feeling. Occasionally I would scroll social media and come across “healing poems”—poems of wise, self-help epiphanies—and I’ve never been so disgusted in my life.
The dominant sound in Arachne’s room was the breathing machine that was keeping her alive; the problem she was born with had to do with her lungs, she couldn’t breathe. I thought a lot about the breath, which is supposed to be the source of the poem (in people like Ginsberg and Olson) and it began to feel like this mechanical breath was a kind of poem, or un-poem, something that hovers between life and death, through which she connected to us in that room. I recorded it. That was one of the last things I did before she died. I still have it, but I’ve never listened to it.
So basically I think I’m saying that I always interacted with Arachne through art. Art was there in her room, art was how I was with her, and it’s still how I am with her. I didn’t incorporate the grief so much as the grief generated the poem. Grief and terror and, yes, hatred, but also a kind of joy. I never questioned that this would all find its way into my writing, though after I had written the poems I sometimes wondered if it’s a good idea. The poems often make me very sad, sometimes when I read them at readings I feel like I’m about to collapse. I can’t get over her.
Maybe that’s a source of self-hatred. Maybe it’s just that grief is so unwieldy. There is no commensurate amount of grief. Grief is incommensurate; it ruins any kind of economic thinking. Maybe that’s why I was so repelled by the healing poems: they wanted to make my grief wieldy, commensurate, they wanted to buy off the grief. I feel like this is something Ursula Ankjaer Olsen explores in her trilogy of books.
Why did you hate yourself for wanting to write about your grief? Is it that you hate yourself for writing about the grief or that the grief makes you hate yourself? I wonder if hatred is another affect like grief that unsettles economies of affect? One particularly striking poem in Path of Totality is “At a Reading Listening to a Poem About Motherhood,” where you write: “I erased the rage from this poem, but there is still rage in it. And so I failed again.” What’s the relationship of hatred and rage?
NP: I didn’t realize that some of the book was written before Arachne’s death, but it makes sense given the book’s “flow,” though it also doesn’t seem abrupt or disconnected given that you describe art as a kind of continuous communication with her, and the room as the locus. I feel the sadness when I read your poems too, and know the reeling feeling of reading out loud; I’ve only read to an audience from Path of Totality once, and it took a lot of mental preparation. I wrote the book for my daughter Lumi, who died at birth, and the intensity of sharing it with other people is something I wasn’t prepared for. At the same time, it is important to me that the book accurately depicted how bad I felt—feel—and how important she is to me. I have no regrets about writing it, and it is a way in which I get to talk about her. It just took me longer to come to the realization of the poems’ purpose. It sounds like you always knew the purpose, which I admire.
I hate the lesson-y grief poems too, so passionately. I read a lot as well, because I wanted to find something that understood how bad I felt. I loved Olsen’s trilogy for that reason, and it’s so cool that Action is the publisher of those books; you understand the capacity of those poems to be fine with being unresolved. I hate resolutions. I don’t want to move on. At one point, someone suggested that I do some kind of tapping therapy or sensory reprocessing to try to mitigate my trauma, and I felt horrified by the idea that I could lose something huge and fundamental about the experience. The suggestion felt like severing some part of my connection with my daughter. These therapeutic modalities help many people, but they are not for me, not in this circumstance.
I guess you just asked me about hatred, and about rage. The hatred I felt for myself was a feeling of contempt for wanting to take something so immense and make it into, what, art? For whom? I felt the contempt of those placid grief-as-lesson poems, and I struggled with trying to make what I felt into poems because I hated my awareness of an audience, and my employment of poetic devices to try to convey the immensity of this feeling. It’s why I wrote so much in prose blocks. Even adding line breaks made me feel the contempt in the beginning. But it is separate from the rage, which is tied to what I perceived as a failure, which is maybe connected with motherhood with death as the outcome—the idea that I failed in my role somehow. Motherhood narratives are so pervasive—and generally so positive—that it’s hard narratively speaking to have an experience that deviates from expectation. So the hatred expands outward, but the rage inward.
I have long been interested in material debt and its connection to poetry; your book talks a lot about money and debt: “I can’t afford to kill the sun / so I write a poem about the hole / in my daughter’s lung.” What is the relationship to debt in all of this? For one thing, I know hospital treatment and everything related to the medical experience is horrifyingly expensive. But this relationship between owing and poetry?
JG: I understand where you’re coming from when you didn’t want to make your feelings poetic, with line breaks, etcetera. For me I was lucky to have a kind of poetic line/rhythm in place and it carried me. It had already made a room for me. And it was the only room I could be in at the time.
I am interested in the way we use economic frameworks to understand a wide array of experiences. For example, creative writing pedagogy talks about “earning” an image or a line (and I have always been interested in the unearned), as if a kind of subdued personal narrative earns the capacity to write a more extravagant line. As if the personal was a kind of gold standard, and the extravagant inflationary. Rage and riots are generally viewed as inflationary—people who catch that violence are seen as lacking the proper interiority.
All the money that went into Arachne’s treatment and the aftermath of her death made me feel the reality of debt much more immediately. For me the idea became tied up with having children and reproduction. That’s why I keep going back to the Swedish word virginity, oskuld (“un” + “debt”), because it sits there at the intersection of economics, sexuality, and poetry.
In some ways, I think it’s a book about a desperate attempt to remove all debt. But this is of course an illusory urge to be a kind of “virgin,” pure and untainted. In an interview last spring, Olsen said her book was about rejecting the dream of debtlessness, about embracing the fact that we are in debt to many people—and that that’s not a bad thing! I think that’s a really profound point but I don’t think my poem ever arrives at that point.
NP: That is such an interesting nexus, etymologically speaking. There is no such correlation in Finnish; the proto-Finnic word just has to do with maidens and maidenhood. But capitalist metaphor is everywhere, even in the craft of such pitifully compensated labor as poetry. I love the idea that Olsen proposes, because the outcome of embracing your debt to everyone would be a kind of anticapitalist community.
Obviously the inclusion of Swedish, whether or not the reader understands it, adds a lot of sonic influence into the manuscript. There are also certain refrains that make me think of music, like the repeating phrase “I can’t hear you” in one section of the book, or the childhood music you described above, some which also crept into the text. What is the importance of sound for you? I get frustrated by the idea that sound is only important—or most important—in performance, not in the text on the page, for example.
JG: I think the most important sonic element was simply the mash-up of Swedish and English. The effect of reading English words with a Swedish mouth is really what created the sound of the book—it interrupted the flow of language, made me pay attention to the exterior of language, to the sound. One thing this caused was that I started to run sentences together, playing with line breaks to create a kind of morphing syntax. From this sonic play, various lyrical and narrative patterns emerged. My performance of these poems is very particular, but like you say, the sonic element of this poem does not just come out in performance; it was a key to the very composition of the book.
I was just reading some very normative creative writing textbooks, and there it seems “sound” is always a threat to the gold standard of “clarity” and personal interiority. The books portray sound as an exterior, inflationary force that is constantly threatening the “meaning” with a lure of “nonsense,” the lure of the feeling of the words in one’s mouth, the corporeality of sound. Summer is definitively a poem where that sonic lure becomes a driving force. I want the words to be felt in the mouth, I want to feel them in the mouth. One of the features of this “nonsense” dynamic is its capacity to generate an ambience that can contain a multiplicity of feelings. Like when I give readings of the poems I focus most of my attention to the sonic patterns, and the result is both that the grief comes back to me—Arachne feels present in her absence—and at the same time I feel ecstatic.
On the other hand, there’s a long tradition that wants poetry to aspire to music, or to take its cues from music. It’s there in the very definition and history of “the lyric.” I think also of Walter Pater’s famous dictum: “All art aspires toward the condition of music”—that is, because of music’s ability “obliterate” the difference between form and content. You’re somebody who has done a lot of actual music, for example the band Mindtroll a few years ago. What kind of music projects are you working on these days and how do they overlap or differ from your poems? Do you feel like working with music involves the same part of your mind, the same kind of thinking as your poems? Do you feel like music obliterates the distinction between form and content?
NP: That Pater quote is right on; music is very aspirational for me, even if I can’t bring my two brains together perfectly when I am working on making it myself. All the albums I admire the most hold a kind of elevating power that comes from the blur between form and content, the interaction of the writing and the music, and I want desperately to be able to achieve it, but I don’t know if I can. That said, I’m also not a terribly skilled musician. But I believe it and know its power and maybe that’s enough.
Most recently I made some music with the poets Ben Fama and Matt Roar, which was very fun—they have a particular vision and energy, and I just tried to respect it with my contributions. In addition to that, I have one small project I’ve been working on very, very slowly. Who knows if it will ever come to light? But music is connected to my poetic work; on a fundamental level, it taught me how to use a microphone, which is a skill I employ every time I read poems out loud somewhere.
JG: Yes, skill often gets away of the “power,” as I think Patti Smith and whoever else have taught us!
I’m getting around to an issue that has maybe hovered in the background of this whole discussion: Both of us are immigrants writing in English. Poetry, we are told over and over again, has to be written in the poet’s “mother tongue.” Similarly, translation discourse tells us translation has to be done into the translator’s mother tongue—we can learn to read another language but we cannot write in it. To some extent this whole discussion has been about this issue, so I thought I would ask you how you think being an immigrant has affected your writing?
NP: I wonder all the time if I would be a writer had I not moved to the U.S. I think the answer is yes, but I also know that being an immigrant child contributed a lot to my loneliness and interiority and desire to document my feelings. I grew up here, and all my education is American; in some ways, English is the language I wield most proficiently, though it’s always tinged with the color of that first language. I disagree with the idea, though, that you can’t write in a language that isn’t your own—I think it’s fearful. I remember some early translations I did from Spanish, which I speak conversationally at best. They felt generative in a way that led me to better understand the way that the words worked, which made me want to try writing in it, and those fragments were not good, but the experience was. I think being an immigrant and translation and writing are fundamentally connected in a way that demonstrates potential and possibility, and being “bad” at a language is kind of a license to experiment. Why are we so afraid to make mistakes? To me, error is a part of the creation process.
JG: I love this, especially the Spanish example. I started writing poems soon after moving to the U.S. and what I was doing was largely translating pop songs (mostly Thåström/Imperiet lyrics) into English, but in a very loose sense. This “error” or noise, friction in language has always fascinated me. But in literary culture, there’s this monolingual idealization of mastery that drives so much about both the way we talk about poetry and the way we talk about translation. There’s an imagined expert at the center of this model (let’s face it, someone of privileged background). It’s such a static model of culture, such a fearful way of conceiving of art. I think you’re right that to be multilingual is to be aware of versions, errors, transformations. We could talk about the mistakes as bad, but we could also talk about them as entryways to metamorphosis.