Interviews on “poetry & refugees” – 6 – Sjón
Sjón was born Iceland in 1962 and is an active supporter of the Cities of Refuge project ICORN. Thanks to his initiative, Reykjavík joined this international network of cities hosting persecuted writers.
Lyrikline Blog (LB): You are very active in the “Cities of refuge network” (ICORN). How come you made the issue of persecuted and exiled writers your topic?
Sjón (SJ): As a teenager I went to a talk given by the Somali author Nuruddin Farah about how it is to be a writer living under dictatorship. It had a strong impact on me. At the same time I was fascinated by Surrealism and through my readings about the movement and its poets in different countries I realised how provocative poetry can be, even in its most surreal or abstract form, and therefore how easily it can put the poets in opposition to authority, both political and religious. Then when the chance came I felt I had the obligation to practically do whatever I could to support persecuted writers. And that is what I have done through ICORN and PEN. Those of us who have the benefit of living in countries where free speech is allowed can show our true commitment to its values by fighting for those who are not so lucky.
LB: In your view, is it the task of a poet also to be a chronicler or witness of his/her time?
SJ: The poet can never be anything but a witness to his time. All good poems chronicle the times their author’s lived in. This is because the poet lives at the crossroads of experience and expression.
LB: In your view, is there a relation between the power of the words of a poet and that of a dictator, since they both work with language?
SJ: Poets keep the language in its most beautiful state, fluid and metamorphosing, in a dialogue with the reader or listener, while the dictators do everything they can to fix words and take hold of meaning. Dictatorship is always based on a lie, a forced narrative, the dictators shout (both in reality and metaphorically) as they do not want any replies apart from a chorus of fearful admiration. The poet must speak the truth, be truthful to herself and her audience, but can only be so by admitting to the fact that her words will have as many interpretations as she has readers/listeners.
LB: As far as your experience goes, do exiled writers have the chance to become a part of the literary scene of their host countries? How is the relation to the writers of their host country?
SJ: It is possible. All it takes is for the literary community of the host country to understand it as a freedom of speech issue that those who come there have the right to be heard and read.
A silent writer is a loss for the country she lives in.
Read and listen to Sjón’s poetry on lyrikline.