Henriikka Tavi on Emotions in Conceptual Poetry

Host Christopher Merrill talks with Finnish writer Henriikka Tavi about the rebirth of Finnish literature, conceptualism, publishing, and her new novel that is as she says, “Gertrude Stein meets chick lit.”

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Henriikka Tavi Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.


Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.


The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


This episode of Origins features Finnish writer Henriikka Tavi.



Merrill: Henriikka Tavi is a poet, fiction writer, and translator from Finland. She teaches creative writing, collaborates with artists from different art branches, and translates from both Swedish and German into Finnish. She is a founding member of Poesia, a poetry publishing cooperative, and the author of 12, an experimental poetry book project. We are recording from the University of Iowa on October 17, 2016, when we had the chance to sit down with Henriikka, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.


So Henriikka, I want to start with a question about the German-born US poet Rosemarie Waldrop has said that poets and the publishers of poetry are quote, “engaged in wasting energy, time, and money but wasting it beautifully,” close quote. In your poetry project in 2012, you set out to write and publish twelve books in one year. Were you able to bring yourself across the poverty line through publishing this twelve-book series or did you instead, quote, “waste your time beautifully”?


Tavi: I waste my time, but I – it wasn’t beautiful, and I didn’t, I wasn’t able to publish enough or sell enough. It was kind of like, maybe I should have. I, well I really didn’t. I did everything else. I did the layout and the covers also, but I had a little help with them and also with selling. So, I didn’t really, like, go. Well the thing that I should have done would be like, to go and sell those books, to really really, like, put your hands into the dirt, or something like that. But I just wrote, and did the books, so it’s somehow I feel like, it wasn’t, it was neither of these, so…


Merrill: Was it enjoyable to do this?


Tavi: No, no it wasn’t. There were some moments when I, like really, really short weeks, like when I got some kind of low. Because if you have to like, kind of start anew every month, which I tried to do, um, which maybe I should have like, written everything in the same poetics, or something like, continued where I stopped, so that would have been more beautiful, I suppose.


Merrill: Except in this way you could write twelve different, radically different, books if necessary, right?


Tavi: Yeah, like I can use all my ideas. Yeah, without like, caring if they are good or not, and that is maybe the joy.


Merrill: There’s an American poet, David Lehman, who set himself the project of writing a poem every day for a year, and then publishing that as a book, so is that something of the same thing?


Tavi: Something similar, yeah, but it’s more, I think if you write a poem, you kind of like, it’s a more meditative thing. But if you have to like, also take care about the frame for the book, and you are so entangled and with kind of like so many worldly issues, which is also what the poets nowadays quite often, at least in Finland, are. So it’s, I think a poem every day would be, in a way, like, yeah, more beautiful.


Merrill: So, at the end of this, was there a physical toll in publishing, in writing and publishing all these books in a single year, on you? Did it leave you exhausted?


Tavi: Uh, yeah.


Merrill: Yeah.

Tavi: And also like, psychologically. I think like the the biggest toll, if that’s the correct word, was like this kind of like getting really, really, really like bored, and the feeling that I have had enough with writing and with poetry and with – kind of like losing your belief in the whole thing. I think that was the biggest risk, in a way, that you kind of like don’t cherish this about your branch, your art, but you kind of treat it as if it didn’t have any value in a way, kind of like, worth.


Merrill: And when you recovered from that, was there a moment when it seemed to, the high quality of poetry seemed to come back to you, the belief in it?

Tavi: Yeah.


Merrill: How long did that take?

Tavi: I just collected an anthology of those poems last year, and it was published in February, like 2016, so maybe that was one landmark, and also, I think I just like now. It took some three years.


Merrill: To get it all back.


Tavi: Yeah, yeah.


Merrill: Writers are sometimes fond of referring to the International Writing Program as “the United Nations of writers,” and in December, the last book of your one-year book series, you published essays about climate change from writers living in Greenland, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Bolivia, and from many other places around the world. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about those experiences and about your drive to reach out into the world. What prompted you to want to take on this issue of climate change?


Tavi: No, I wouldn’t have. There were a couple of essays, like writings, but the question was, it was more I just asked, “How has the weather changed in your land?” That was the question. All the answers were to that, and some people took it really seriously and wrote essays. I was in a poetry festival in Bratislava and talking to people from different countries and the weather was really weird, and I was listening to the stories, how people tell about what, what was it, what did it used to be, and what is it now. So it was that kind of like this experience. I just had the vision that maybe if you collect these because it’s also a topic that is all the time on news. And it’s somehow like there is also myth, and reality, in a way, but it’s, at the same time so many people are so worried about it and also should be worried about it. So I kind of like wanted to because it was also the year that I just used every idea that came to my mind. And that’s why I wanted to reach, and try to collect these stories. And I also have the feeling that I should continue this project, like when I meet you people from different places, because it’s obviously something that you kind of need the perspective of the world, to be able to write.


Merrill: On the day that we’re recording this, it’s unnaturally warm here in Iowa City.


Tavi: Yeah, it is. I’m sweating.


Merrill: Well, that leads me to think that, um, a common motif in your work is a keen awareness of the physical world around you, from nature to ‘What Touched Me Today,’ and I wonder if there are other topics or themes recurring in your work, um, and how do you talk about them? Does that change based on the form that you that you employ?


Tavi: I never thought that that would be my main topic, like the physicality, or of body maybe? You have these really bodily writers who kind of come from their bodies and like from a feministic perspective. I think it’s more a way of seeing, maybe just like, use quite a lot of observations, and it’s, that’s like my quality as a writer. I really watch things, and I describe, but then I just, the themes, yeah. They are whatever comes to me, like, the normal, like living, love, and death, and I just, I just, I think they are the biggest themes. But what’s really important for me is kind of like the, or it has been really important, it’s some kind of combination, putting together of form and content, like it’s really, it has been essential, kind of like finding the correct or good form to deal with this topic. I believe that you, it’s also with emotions that you kind of like need different, at least especially in poetry different poetics to express different emotions and when I started writing like I think, I thought that the emotional content in finished poetry was like, quite similar, it was always a little bit like, melancholic or there was this anxiety and you couldn’t really express any joyful or wild emotions, something like that. So, yeah.


Merrill: Well that’s, that’s interesting because in your work it seems that you’ve worked with several conceptual constraints. For example, in your book Dictionary you wrote with homonyms and near-homonyms in multiple languages to create poems. And, so first I want to ask you how you got started on that project and then in a larger way picking up on what you’ve just said, what do you think of the relationship between the form and content of a, of a piece and is this, is this part of your goal, what is your goal in the relationship, in the way that you communicate meaning – does the form come first or does the content come first, how does that, how does that work for you?


Tavi: Um, yeah. Dictionary started from my teacher, a really, really influential figure in the new Finnish poetry. He was really like, provocative at that time, and really giving us thoughts and ideas and one of those ideas was like the, like he really tried to push people to write in English, or in this kind of like a bad English, for example, like the most common language in the world, and uh, also like with, he had this really, provocative um, I don’t even remember what it was but this kind of work where he uses like all the languages which he doesn’t even know. But I kind of like, I reflected on his thoughts and became interested in my kind of normal multilinguality, also like the skills, or the perspective to language which like a foreign speaker has and that was like the starting point. I kind of wanted to write with that and, and then it somehow, and also one, the other thing was that there was a huge trend, like minimal, minimalistic poetry was some kind of like, really interesting to many, many writers and I tried to develop, or experiment with it.


Merrill: In a recent IWP panel discussion about genre and hybridity of genre at the Iowa City Public Library you said quote, “The need to avoid repetition raises moral feelings in me. But at the same time, are we soon to be in a position where repetition is the least of our problems? Is the whole European culture in crisis? Is there a connection between the trend of sincerity in poetry and the feeling of crisis?” Quote – close quote. So I’d like to know some of your thoughts in response to the questions you’ve posed. How does one balance desire for newness, originality, against sincerity or authenticity?


Tavi: Yeah, it’s interesting that they are, like, that even I put them as some kind of like antithesis.


Merrill: Yeah, exactly.


Tavi: – because normally, yeah, normally like my first, what I believed was that you cannot be sincere if you’re just, um, this is like the same question as with the form and content, right? Because like, if you just, if you copy a way of writing you, it’s, I think you kind of repeat somebody else’s talk. But of course, I don’t, I don’t really believe in originality but I kind of believe that there is this kind of, some kind of continuity where you can be more or less something, but maybe I was like meaning more content-oriented writing than more form, like formalistic writing, in that sense. And also this is maybe a question that comes from this experience here where you meet people from so different and so difficult backgrounds and also how it affects them and their writing and so maybe content-oriented, most of the writing is, that you, you hear here.


Merrill: Do you imagine that will shape your own thinking about your writing?


Tavi: Yeah, somehow, but I’m not sure if it like, what’s the shape, like it might push me back to the formalism, in fact, at some…


Merrill: Yeah, yeah. So is it, the expression of emotion in your writings has changed from book to book, it sounds like you go from this sincerity, from the question of sincerity on the one hand to formal questions on the other?


Tavi: Even with this Dictionary it was kind of like, which is kind of procedural work, it’s really emotional, it was like love poems, for me. They are really like, longing, and it’s like, and uh, and they are not contradictory to each other, but of course like this, uh, Joulukuu [December] that we were talking about, the like climate change collection, it’s not emotional, because it’s not my work, like I haven’t written. Then when I collaborate with somebody it gets more, in a way, you don’t – you cannot, or at least I feel so that the text is not that, it is somehow like more sober.


Merrill: Something new gets created in the collaboration with another person.


Tavi: Yeah.


Merrill: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences working with Poesia, the poetry-publishing collective or cooperative? Has it been instrumental in the rebirth of Finnish literary work?


Tavi: I would say it’s some kind of continuation of the rebirth, like I would say so that there was the first ten years of 2000, the new millennium, where really there was a lot of new movements and different kinds of poetries and lot of experimentation with different things. Then there, at around 2010, I think both like the spoken word poetry became to be a big issue and then Poesia was grounded and, something like, and he had also like, had his big publishing experiment, and uh, it’s some kind of like, I think it’s a little bit more mature. But in a way really, yeah, it has. Nowadays it has really big, um, it’s really important to Finnish poetry because I, it publishes, like compared to the big publishing houses who shares some similar, similar ethics in editing, and the quality of books, Poesia publishes is really more poetry and we try to have, a quite high standard, but it’s maybe it’s more con-, in a way, moderate with its – we don’t have any kind of like um, any aesthetics that we all share.


Merrill: And, I’m guessing that some of the energy comes from the fact that you don’t share those aesthetics.


Tavi: Yeah.


Merrill: You have find yourself in conversations that lead you different ways of imagining your work.


Tavi: Yeah, but at the same time a lot of Poesia poets write fragments, and that’s like something that which has, which has been commented by other writers. But yeah, it works in two cities in the middle of Finland and in Helsinki, and in the middle of Finland they really really discuss and share their writing and somehow like really, cooperative also with the writing, the books and everything else.


Merrill: And how about your collaborations with other artists, visual artists, sound artists, has, how has that shaped your work?

Tavi: I have worked with visual artists and then with dancers. Then I, I worked with some composers, but it was like, earlier, and that was just normal conversations. I think it’s always, it kind of teaches you, really, much. You have to kind of work harder to get something done, because first you have to somehow find your own way you come to these projects, and then you, you have to find the inspiration and, and the persistence to do it. Tt’s some kind of like brain work more like, than when you, when I write on my own, that’s more intuitive in a way, maybe more fun even, but it’s always really giving, and then the, it comes like, some of this coop- cooperation, the will to do that comes from what is happening in Finnish arts scene. So overall, all the arts somehow try to go near to each other, so that there has been so many like cooperative projects. But many of those have been like somehow half-hearted, not really, and, we wanted, this other group we really wanted to try to find ways to do something like properly, just like add dance and poetry and…


Merrill: Come up with something new.


Tavi: Yeah.


Merrill: Yeah. You’ve also translated several works by the Finnish-Swedish writer Annika Sandelin, and I wonder if you could tell us a little something about the relationship to, between the Finnish and Swedish languages, linguistically and in their social context, and what may be some of the challenges in translating between the two.


Tavi: Yeah. The social context in, those are all children poetry books so the social context is almost the same. So I wouldn’t say that there are any problems with that. But– and it’s also quite, like, you do quite um, simple choices, you just like, use another meter, you just, and it’s difficult, of course, and it takes a lot of time but it’s doable. It’s like as if you are doing math, or something like that. But in Finland you have these two literary societies, two literary, lit-, like two literatures in Finland, and the Finnish-Swedish literature has been really, really vibrant. It has kind of like, it has longer roots, and also I think like the modern, Finnish-Swedish modernists, they, there are, a couple of like really really, world-famous, or I would like, maybe not famous, but really world-class, wonderful poets, for example. And for some reason they really have a vibrant, and still, like, living literature, even though it’s only two hundred thousand people, living in Finland, in the whole population.


Merrill: And are they drawing on more from Swedish writers than Finnish writers in the new works they create?

Tavi: I think they read Finnish writers, and Swedish writers, and they read widely but the Finnish writers don’t really read Finnish-Swedish writers, they don’t, they are not enough aware of, like, they – it’s kind of like there is some kind of communication and really friendly. I’m friendly or I know those people, but you don’t really have to, you don’t, nobody’s accepting that you know the Finnish-Swedish literature. I think it’s a pity.


Merrill: So how did you come to learn Swedish?

Tavi: We have to learn it in school.


Merrill: Yeah.


Tavi: And then I had a boyfriend who was Finnish-Swedish, and I was also teaching in a Finnish-Swedish school in Finnish. So I had to.


Merrill: It opens you up to it.


Tavi: It’s not perfect, but I do.


Merrill: So, before we wrap up our conversation I wonder if you could tell us something about what you’re working on now, and what you’re reading, and if you have any recommendations for our listeners.


Tavi: I’m working with two, um, novels and novellas, I’m not sure what are they, but uh, and the other one is um, is kind of like, um, I find myself writing, uh, in a really, uh, robust or ugly way,  same themes and topics that you face in chick lit. So I’m trying to, trying to make it some kind of literature, it’s, it’s terrible writing, terrible thing, a kind of like really really girly book, but I kind of, I try to um, create some kind of like uh, um, deep, depth, and, and, hm, a little bit more layers to that and also like a psychological realism to that.


Merrill: Something like a heightened chick lit.


Tavi: Yeah, or, or, somehow like a, it’s like Gertrude Stein meets chick lit or something like that. Then I’m writing another thing which I’m not really working now, but it’s somehow inspired, it’s, it has the, this architectural structure, it’s about a village, which is next to a paper factory and I, it’s, I try to tell about the society from the perspective of a child. I try to create this kind of society where there is, you have like Soviet Union and then you have the paper factory, and it’s somehow inspired by Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish writer, but I don’t know the name of the novel in, in English. It’s Beginning and other stories [Primeval and Other Times] or something like that. Of, other times, or something like that, in Finnish, and also there is this um, House on Mango Street, Sandra Cis…


Merrill: Cisneros.


Tavi: Kind of like a mixture of those maybe.


Merrill: Is there a different feeling in trying to write prose than in writing poetry?


Tavi: Yeah, yes, it, I don’t know. For me I just have to be more strict, or somehow rational in a way, when I write prose. And, it’s also like, because the elements of it are longer, you know, I kind of get tired at first, like already the beginning and somehow doesn’t give me that much joy for some reason, but at the same time I really want to do it, I just, I just can’t. And it’s somehow, sometimes it works, and sometimes. But, it’s just, I have to find some kind of way to understand the structure so that I can, I, the thing that I have had to, to teach myself is to think about prose in smaller units.


Merrill: Joseph Brodsky once said that, um, “every page of prose grants the writer more confidence, and every line of verse makes the writer more uncertain.”


Tavi: Yeah… I’m not sure about that.


Merrill: So what, what are you reading these days?


Tavi: I’m reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. That’s on my table and I love it. And then I’m reading also some chick lit, and a Finnish poet, and then I’m reading Courtney Sina Meredith’s book on my table. Then there is a pile of different, it’s like Harold Bloom, or, no not, I don’t remember the, sorry I had to list, because I don’t remember the names but, How Fiction Works.


Merrill: Oh, by James Wood.


Tavi: Yes, exactly.


Merrill: Yeah… Well, thank you so much. We look forward to reading these, the novel and the novella.


Tavi: Yeah, thank you.



The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available August 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with Cypriot writer Stephanos Stephanides.

Additional Information

Henriikka Tavi
July 15, 2017

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