Meanwhile, in its current issue World Literature Today has published an extensive interview with Pia Tafdrup. Excerpt:
Pia Tafdrup is one of the major contemporary Danish poets working today, and her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She is the author of more than twenty books, several of which have been translated into English, and the recipient of numerous awards—including the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize (1999) for Dronningeporten (Queen’s gate). Bloodaxe Books recently issued a new collection in English, Tarkovsky’s Horses and Other Poems, translated by David McDuff, which is an important addition to translated Danish literature. In recent years, K. E. Semmel has translated several of Tafdrup’s travel essays into English. To introduce her work to a broader readership, he decided to ask her a few questions about Tarkovsky’s Horses.
K. E. Semmel: In January 2010 Bloodaxe Books issued another collection of your poetry in English — two books (The Whales in Paris and Tarkovsky’s Horses) in one volume. Can you tell us a little bit about each of the books?
Pia Tafdrup: I see The Whales in Paris as a clash between society and nature. Paris is the quintessential cultural city in Europe. It’s a great city, just as the whale is a great mammal. French philosophy is a whale. French language and literature have had the same lavish status. The whales,huge forces of nature, are present in our lives, in our culture, in our modern world. The poems in The Whales in Paris range from conception to the afterlife. Life can be viewed as a confrontation with what’s larger than one’s self: love, desire, and death, primal forces that are at play even in a modern civilization. The Whales in Paris has such forces in life as a theme — first and foremost desire and death, but also the suffering we inflict on others, loss, despair, and pain—illuminated by motifs from childhood, our relation to our parents, our ancestors, and mythical figures from the Bible.
Tarkovsky’s Horses is about my father’s final years with dementia as well as his death. The book depicts loss in two ways: in part, the poems portray my father’s increasing forgetfulness, his loss of everyday skills; in part, they portray the loss of a father. Tarkovsky’s Horses charts the course an illness takes, an illness for which science still has few words—from when my father is diagnosed, to when he had to move into a nursing home, to when he dies. The relentless deconstruction of identity is augmented in each phase of the book with mythology from Orpheus and Eurydice.
These poems about oblivion are located in an odd border region, which also calls forth certain comic and grotesque elements. In any case, the poems narrate the drama it is to be human.It’s certainly not your dream book to write about your dying father, not when he has been so incredible. But the book wanted to be written. At the peak of his life, my father asked me if I would speak at his funeral when that day arrived. I pushed the thought away for many years, but when he died, I knew I had to write that speech for him. What I didn’t know was that I was opening up something much larger. The speech became Tarkovsky’s Horses, most of which was written in Berlin immediately following his death.
KES: The lines “with all my might / I try to find / a bridge between his thoughts” from the poem “A River Flows By” are both touching and honest— portraying exactly that “opening up” you describe. Does the act of writing serve as your entry to understanding experience? That is, when you were finished writing poems about your father’s dementia, could you sit back and say, “Ah, I see now what we’ve been through and what I have learned”?
PT: In the poem “A River Flows By,” before and after become realities my father does not understand at all. On the telephone he could easily explain how his “hotel room” (nursing home) looked and didn’t remember that I’d often visited him there. Whenever I was there I tried to read his thoughts,but often felt that what I saw was a shattered self. Since I knew him so well—”as the night knows the stars”—it was especially important to see the connections, see a bridge, so that we could walk together, safely, over the bottomless stream that ran beneath us. That’s how it felt.
With my father’s death, much was left unresolved, because everything happened so quickly that I acted nearly on reflex. No doctor or nurse gave me any advice about his illness along the way. I didn’t know anything about dementia and had to rely on my own imagination:What is best for my father right now? When I began to write, understanding progressed slowly, or at the very least a certain understanding. The poems are not just a depiction of what happened; they map an independent universe, in which many surprises occurred during the process of writing.
When I wrote the eulogy for my father, I realized there was a lot more that I needed to say. Three weeks later I found myself writing in an apartment in Berlin, which had been the plan for nearly a year. I had another manuscript with me but quickly decided to follow the direction that attracted me most. That is, I wrote and wrote on what came by itself—namely, these poems about my father, who’d disappeared from the world. I had hardly opened my suitcase and sat down at my writing desk on Immanuelkirchstrasse when the poems tumbled out. Or better: the first draft of around three-fourths of the poems in the book.
I had no idea what I should do with these first poems, and I didn’t want to focus on the few years of my father’s life when he was dying. Not when I’d had such a wonderful father, wise, strong, and full of life. Nevertheless, one poem after another emerged.
My father’s illness had been so pressing that I could not write about anything else, so I’d not written anything for pretty much a year. The poems flowed from me, even though I didn’t want them. But after about seven poems, I gave in and allowed myself to write without thinking about what they would develop into, or how others would react to them. It was the only thing that absorbed me, so I had to start the process.