“A deep, strong hope in its core”

Þórdís Björnsdóttir and Jesse Ball tell the Grapevine about art
22.9.2006
Words by Haukur Magnússon
Linus looks up from his lifetime of work as an under-secretary in the Department of Implausible Devices and Vera is standing there, newly come from a wooden crate shipped in haste across the border.
She is a bit shy. All of this is new to her.
– Excuse me, she says. Is this the Department of Implausible Devices?
In answer, Linus takes off his hat and arranges his hair in the manner of a jury of wolves.
– But have you, asked Vera, seen this one?
With a snapping of buttons, her clothes are dismissed.
Underneath Linus can see years of Thursdays, all in a row, with nary a Wednesday, a Tuesday, a Friday, a Sunday, a Saturday, a Monday between.
– How did you do that? howled Linus.
– I was always thinking of something else, said Vera, wandering off. One day, in the midst of studying a book about trees, I had the clearest thought. I felt that I would die on a Thursday, and I saw myself then, in my last moments. The time between was negligible. I was a child and I was an old woman. I was dying and I was practically still being born. And now here I am again, stuck between.
They looked at each other in the crumbling light of a photograph hung upside down from a string.
2.19.1 (Jesse Ball)
We meet at a café in downtown Reykjavík. As usual, I am late for the appointment, but they don’t seem to mind. See, they are poets, and poets often have what may be called a lyrical calm about them. At least during the day; I am told that poets often drink and fight when it’s dark out. But we meet at high noon and they, the couple, sit calmly and answer my questions in a tranquil and orderly fashion, even the ones that upon review sound daft and unprepared.
The couple in question has been one for slightly over a year now. One of them is a native of Reykjavík while the other hails from the U.S. They are called Þórdís Björnsdóttir and Jesse Ball, and they first met at last year’s Nýhil international poetry festival, late in the month of July, a year and a month ago. Upon meeting, they quickly decided to form an allegiance and to that extent spent the nine months of winter in Montpellier, France. Their nine-month exile was a fruitful one – amidst all the everyday acts deemed too mundane for mention in articles such as this one, they managed to collaborate on two writing projects. One was released by Nýhil this summer, a book of prose that tells the tale of miscreants Vera and Linus (and incidentally bears their name). The other is a deck of cards featuring sentence-long stories, or short poetry if you will, to be released internationally early next year.
According to Ball, one is free to shuffle the cards once they are released, since each story stands on its own. He offers a sample: “The man with the birdhead was often sad, for he knew that the others in the town spoke ill of him.” When asked if the sentence was meant to word an emotion or a thought, he replies in the enigmatic manner of those who loathe explaining their work, “I am kind of out there for anyone with a birdhead. I am pulling for them, trying to depict what it’s like to live in the world with a birdhead. It’s not so easy, you get dressed in the morning to go out and have to make a decision if you want to go out with the birdhead or wear a veil to cover it up. You don’t want folks to see it, you know they’re going to laugh at you. You might even want to take some precautions to protect yourself, wear a Kevlar jacket. It’s hard for the birdhead men and women, I guess, they get pushed to the edge. It’s nice to give them their moment in the sun.”
The story of Vera and Linus is an altogether different affair, if not only for the elegant binding that comes with it. They tell me they decided to write a book with two characters that would represent each of them. As they got going, however, they soon wound up writing for both characters. “Almost every story has both of us in it,” Ball explains, before moving on to the general plot of the book. “We wanted to have the characters do a lot of bad things and get away with them. At the same time, all the characters in the book that get punished or hurt genuinely deserve it. I guess it proposes a kind of morality that is parallel to the contemporary one, but skewed,“ Ball says. His partner, Björnsdóttir, continues portraying the setting of Vera and Linus as a platform and playground for the couple’s imagination. “It is supposed to be a limitless world where all ideas are free. Like when you’re walking around and you keep getting crazy ideas in your head, you can’t actually go through with them. In this world of Vera and Linus, you can actually do it.” Engaged in conversation now, Ball responds, “Like burying a child alive. Vera and Linus, they subvert what people are supposed to live, every day, they find a way to extract freedom from small parts of their lives, so they become freer in all parts of their lives.”
Writing is often perceived as the most private and reclusive of crafts, collaborations are rarer than in most arts and really successful ones even more so. They confirm that it a private process for them as well, saying that while styles are always personal, their styles were similar in many ways that allowed them to work well together. Says Björnsdóttir: “Each story is the product of one person’s work, half of the stories he wrote and half of them I wrote. We then mixed them together and intertwined them.”
Ball goes on about experimenting with collaborative aspects of the creative process. “In general, great artists are individuals, to be an artist is to gather an aesthetic that’s going to be the whole about yourself. It is a very complicated process and it can brook no admission of another person. It is a single process concerning an individual who’s often excluded from society at that point in their genesis. To find another person, especially in literature, whom you can work with is incredibly rare. In our case, it works really well, especially in the context of this book, since the object of it is to render a certain life. One of the goals when you live together is the creation of a combined life, so you could say that our book is in a way the revisiting of that in a literary sense. You should read the book as if it’s a product of one person’s imagination. Going back and forth and wondering who wrote what is not a pleasurable act.” However, being liberal arts graduates, the couple does have an understanding for the academic’s plight, therefore providing a numbering system so they will be able to tell.
As they stir their newly arrived lattés, the couple explains working with one another for the mutual goal, and they make it sound like experimenting with role play, so as to explore the boundaries of their relationship. According to Ball, their collaboration on the story of Vera and Linus gave each person a chance to look at their ideals for how a life might be lived with the security of presenting the ideas to a person who’s very much like them. “Often as a writer, the problem of an audience creeps in. When writing, you may not know what your audience is, you may even not like the thought. You may wonder if it likes your work and it can often be problematic. Particularly, a writer must write their first book in obscurity and then they find out who their audience is, often resulting in the second book being shit ’cause they’re trying to pander to it. You should never do that. You can however write with the security of an audience, particularly if that audience is likeminded. And this is in a way what we provide for each other, similar tastes.”
We delve into less abstract waters as I ask them about their respective writing careers. Both of their literary débuts were released in the year 2004, albeit in different countries and languages. Both are considered successful in their fields. Björnsdóttir won both critical and public acclaim for her book of poetry and has since been considered to be among the more exciting voices of the new generation of writers. Ball found success as well, he has had desirable venues welcoming his creative output, perhaps in light of his increasingly widely known repertoire, and will publish his first novel on the fabled Vintage imprint next year.
At the time Björnsdóttir released her début, Ást og appelsínur (Love and Oranges), she managed to garner an impressive amount of exposure for the book and was covered in some form by most of the Icelandic media. Her punk rock, even guerrilla, style approach to self-promotion echoed that of her Nýhil compatriots, with flyers, posters and (varyingly) impromptu ‘gigs’ appearing all over Reykjavík. I ask them how you market a book of poetry, and if it is an integral part of being a writer. We get a conversation going. Björnsdóttir tells me that she decided on self-releasing her first work in light of the way Icelandic publishers are known for treating first-time authors and their poetry books. “They don’t do anything for you, really, so I decided to do what I could by myself to promote it and get it out. That went very well. I guess I was lucky in a way, but promoting that book was hard work.”
///Some authors and artists assume that it’s enough to simply have an inspired and interesting artefact, taking for granted that it will find its audience in time?
Björnsdóttir: Yeah, but there’s so much going on. You are confronted with ads everywhere and it seems like everyone is vying for your attention in some way. This makes it necessary to push a bit to get to the audience.
Ball: But it is of course important to realise the difference between promoting the work itself or the personality behind it. The propaganda culture that envelops us now has gotten people used to the individual being marketed before the work done by that individual. Most of the people who are famous now are famous just for being famous, as opposed to the work they do. In a way, then, it is important to present something that people can hold on to, the enduring reason. I think literature can help people kinda find better ways to live a life, show different possibilities. It is possible to pick up and read a book that will change the way you live your life and do something different, and I believe in that power of text. History has shown us again and again the power of printed material. With exposure to plain individuals, when you look at a TV screen or some celebrity, your interplay with it is much simpler. ‘I have to be another person, do this, do that, this person lives this life of leisure and fun,’ you may think. It’s a simple exchange where you end up wanting something that doesn’t even exist in the first place. Interacting with the actual text, that’s something real, y’know.
///Reading then involves giving something of yourself in order to receive, as opposed to simply satisfying urges, wanting something and grabbing it, a sort of mental consumerism?
Ball: It involves work. Reading a book, for instance. If I read a good book, I will slowly acquaint myself with it over the course of several years. I’ll read it and re-read it every couple of years, seeing the work from different angles. Some work is just too difficult to be completely gotten in the first go. You shouldn’t be able to completely understand something the first time you gaze over it, but that’s a public demand now, something I feel is part of the laziness that is rampant right now and even exists in the sphere of literature and art. In many cases, the labour has ceased to exist.
Björnsdóttir: This need that people have to identify with the writer or artist or whoever, that’s just how it is today. You have to take part in it even though you’d prefer people to just go and read your work. Of course, the personalities behind a given artefact are somewhat of a factor, Vera and Linus is for instance a fragment of who we were as people at the time we wrote it, that whole is mixed together and I think it’s useful. Of course, the work does come out of life.
///Do you feel you are philosophising in your work, phrasing distant thoughts and ideas?
Ball: The best writers and poets, they have to be philosophers to a certain extent, because what you are presenting is the fine period of time in which you did the writing. Your philosophy at that time will be embodied in your words, whether you meant it or not. A lot of writers are given away by their work, but the best ones always have some kind of really engaging cosmology that ends up reaching into the readers mind, making them face it.
I think it was Oscar Wilde that said that no one in London ever saw the fog as ‘the fog’ until people started writing poetic descriptions of it and what it was. I think that is important and I also favour forcefulness in writing. You have to be able to present your work with strength and hope. Some people think of poetry as being some fancy, delicate rhyme thing that doesn’t have a lot to do with them. And that is all wrong. Poetry is the most forceful and powerful use of language, if you want to write a poem and get to how you feel, getting it down, forcing it away by original means, that’s poetry. Cynicism, however, is… probably the saddest trait of our society right now. And it’s rampant.
///You’re waging a war on cynicism?
Ball: All cynicism does is subtract. It doesn’t add. Every single genuine endeavour goes forth despite cynicism. Even something like punk, which presents a lot of cynical ideas, is inherently hopeful, it has a deep strong hope in it’s core, and a strong spirit. As I see it, being disaffected is one thing, that’s actually hard not to be in this day and age. But being cynical is a step too far.
Linus had a silent week.
On the sixth day Vera was fed up with having no one to speak with.
So Linus decided to bring her company.
The door opened into the room where Vera was sitting in chair. In came half a person, with a body from foot to waist.
Vera burst out laughing.
—I shall at least need the rest of him if we are to speak, she said.
In came the rest, sailing in the air and singing, and strangely enough, the voice could have been Linus’s.
1.64.1 (Þórdís Björnsdóttir)

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