Subtext of Swan and Curtsy
Petri Liukonnen interviews Finnish poet-novelist Hannu Niklander.
Out on the bay, a swan
(Interview conducted in March 2001.)
PETRI LIUKKONEN: 'Joutsen' ('The Swan') is from your collection, Kauniisti niiava tytär [Nicely Curtsying Daughter] from 1983. You deal with the Finnish national bird and a popular animal in poetry and the other arts. Jean Sibelius composed 'The Swan of Tuonela". And you have other birds in that collection: a common sandpiper, a curlew, an oriole, a goldeneye. But did you have Aesop in mind when you wrote the poem?
HANNU NIKLANDER: This particular poem has little to do with Aesop, but I owe something to the Canadian writer Ernest Thompson Seton and to the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. My great uncle moved to Canada and eventually died in Manitoba. He was at that time the most literate person in the family. He wrote columns for the Finnish-language newspaper Canadan Uutiset. My father also lived for a year in Canada. The Nearctic nature of the country is familiar to me.
PL: But the poem doesn't tell about swans.
HN: You can think of it as a comment on artistic creation. There is a collapse of the illusion: the webbed feet in the muddy water. Saint-Saëns's 'Le Cygne' from The Carnival of the Animals cannot be played without sweat and spit, but it doesn't diminish its value. The fascination with the moon has not lessened after space flights and chemical analysis of moon rocks.
PL: I found it tricky to translate this poem: In Finnish, your swan is in genderless, but perhaps normally "she" in English, and you have three similes in the first sentence. Do you think poetry is the art of metaphor?
HN: I wouldn't state it in absolutes. A metaphor is not obligatory for a poem but does give it strength and a standpoint.
PL: You traveled in Canada in 1991 and 1993. While there, did you write any poems?
HN: I published a travel book from the journeys, but I didn't have enough poems for a collection. I was curious to see how the French-speaking minority of 8 million people struggle for their culture. We have in Finland two official languages for historical reasons, Swedish and Finnish. I'm worried about the fate of our Swedish-speaking minority. It is falsely believed that Finnish is a very small language, yet from the philological point of view a language that has over five million speakers is not small. And it was interesting to study French culture that does not derive from the French Revolution and North Americanism that is not completely anglicized.
PL: Why do you use such well-worn images as swans and flowers in your poetry? You write about dust in one poem, but you are not a naturalist.
HN: My prose is definitely realistic and I'm not a romantic poet. Everyday subjects can be very fascinating. I can see beauty in dust. I don't say "in spite of the dust" but "because of it." There are some composers with whom I find affinity in this matter. Hector Villa-Lobos was not only interested in flying kites but in trains, and Puccini had his own idiosyncrasies about driving motorboats.
PL: Some of your poems refer to the Eastern Mediterranean culture.
HN: Finnish UN soldiers have served for decades in Cyprus, so this part of the world shouldn't be so exotic for us. And Topelius wrote already in 1881 a play set in Cyprus. Apart from literature, Giacomo Puccini's operas have influenced me, such as La Bohème, Madam Butterfly, and La Fanciulla del West.
PL: Puccini's music is very emotinal, especially 'Un bel di vedremo' from Madam Butterfly. He got the idea for the opera from the American playwright David Belasco, though he didn't understand English.
HN: Puccini's operas are sensual, not romantic. His music follows the scenes, and his librettos were realistic. In La Bohème, when Mimi is dying, Colline sells his cherished overcoat to get her medicine. He sings a magnificent aria for this garment, as if he were honoring a king or a god. Madam Butterfly also expresses Puccini's verism in the longings of a sailor's mistress. Cio-Cio-San waits for Lieutenant Pinkerton, hoping to see the smoke from his ship on the horizon. And of course we know how much smoke comes from a heavy old battleship.
PL: Your first two books were poetry collections, but you started to publish travel essays and short stories in the late 80's.
HN: My last collection was Muodonmuutoksia (Metamorphoses) from 1987, but poetry has not become passé for me.
PL: Let's return to the title of the collection, Kauniisti niiaava tytär. It could be translated as a 'nicely curtsying daughter.' Who is the daughter in the title poem?
HN: It is Europe. Americans are very touchy about nationalism. It's nothing but nationalism when everybody is supposed to speak English. Americans who visit Europe should learn at least one continental language. It's simple enough to start the language course in Quebec. But that poem is outdated; it was written the 80's, in Vienna. At that time there was a lot of acrimony between Europe and the United States because of the debate over cruise missiles.
~ . ~
Hannu Niklander (b. 1951, Helsinki) is a Finnish poet, short story writer, essayist, and critic. Niklander received the State award for literature for his novel, Aurinko katsoo taakseen (1999), a Bildungsroman with autobiographical elements. He is married to Kirsti Salmi-Niklander, who has published studies on folk poetry. They live in Karkkila, a small town about 70 kilometers North-West of Helsinki. Niklander has spend long periods in Switzerland, Sweden, and Canada. Address: Fagerkulla 75, 03600 Karkkila, Finland, Europe. (PL)
Petri Liukonnen is the creator of a hugely popular site which contains detailed biographies of thousands of authors from all over the world, e.g., http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/hannunik.htm. He writes often on literature for this and other magazines.