Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A SHOUT FROM COPENHAGEN: A Taste of Literary Denmark

In mid-June, Walter Cummins crossed the ocean to this ancient kingdom to join me in launching an anthology issue of The Literary Review entitled "New Danish Writing" – 211 pages of contemporary Danish poetry, prose, interviews and reviews of recent Danish books in English: 9 prose writers, 13 poets, 2 further sets of poets interviewing one another, and half a dozen review essays.

From the dynamite opening poems by Janus Kodal and Jørgen Leth, the "unreal traffic" of Martin Glaz Serup, the wandering mysteries of Benn Q. Holm's new novel and Naja Marie Aidt's picking of strange berries on through five heart-breakingly beautiful poems by Pia Tafdrup and ten of Henrik Nordbrandt's awesome linguistic prestidigitations and five of Niels Hav's charmingly erotic lyrics through to Suzanne Brøgger's tale of animal abuse written specifically for this issue – and so much more – the anthology issue is, if I may say so, a powerful taste of Danish literature now. To read the rationale behind the selection process, please see my introduction to the issue.

On the cover is a striking and unusual painting by one of my favorite Danish artists, Wiliam Skotte Olsen, who – until he died an untimely death in 2005 – had been living in the Free State of Christiania in a construction wagon decorated inside and out with his own murals. Someone should write a book in English about Skotte – or translate the couple that exist; he was a tragic, enigmatic figure who, despite all, continued to paint until the day he died, at the age of 59. Skotte had been hurt some years back by dropping too much acid and in a night of what could only have been terrible hallucinations set fire to a tent in which two children were sleeping. The children, thank the gods of little ones, were saved, and Skotte was put away for some years. He was never quite the same. But through it all, he never stopped painting. I recently met an artist who knew him well and told me that he died with his brush in his hand.

The picture on the cover of The Literary Review Danish issue is one that Lady Alice discovered at an exhibit at Bredgade Art Dealers in Copenhagen about a year ago. I arrived after she had already looked at all the pictures, and I asked if there were any we might want to make space on our walls for.

"There's one," she said.. "But you have to find it yourself."

So I wandered the exhibit, saw many I liked but not any that made me feel we needed to make room for another Skotte – we already had half a dozen. But then I peeked into an illuminated alcove and saw it! It could only have been that one. A six square foot oil of a staring face – red eyes, red face, yellow-green nose and brow, lips parted slightly over dark teeth, as if in amazement at what it is seeing, or awe, or horrified incredulity. And what the face is seeing, of course, is me, you, us

I had never seen a Skotte like this one. It could only have been from his peak period in the '70s and early '80s.

It was a bit pricey for me. As is the case with most artists, ironically, the value of his pictures has risen since his death. But it cost only a little more than, say, an Armani suit and topcoat and gives me far more – is the word pleasure? inspiration? – than any such wardrobe additions would.

So we have it now, mounted high on the wall above one of the door lintels in our living room, diagonally across from the place where I most like to sit and write. And when I sit there, spilling out words from the nib of my Montblanc on the lined pages, from time to time I glance up at Skotte's powerful staring face, the red eyes. If what I am writing is as good as I can do and true as I can make it, those eyes share my awe at the privilege of being a worthy instrument. If I am groping toward what is as good and true as I can write, the eyes urge me not to turn away from the place where the stories are. But if I am working badly, indulging my wish for ease, the whole face radiates horror.

This is the face on the cover of TLR's Danish issue which I had the privilege of guest-editing and the further privilege of being joined by TLR Editor-in-Chief Walt Cummins and his wife Alison for the launches. Many people came to the two events – the first in the excellent premises of the bookshop and café Tranquebar, the other in the outstanding Paludan, also both a bookshop and café. For more information about these visit-worthy places, see my earlier bookshop post on this blog and for more information about Wiliam Skotte Olsen, see as well as Skotte's richly illustrated biography, Like a Rolling Stone: Wiliam Skotte Olsen and His Art (in Danish) by Ole Lindboe (Big City Books, published by Galleri Henrik Kampmann and Bredgade Kunsthandel, 2005.)

If I may be permitted an aside here – also about Skotte – the cover of the story collection I published last year, Cast Upon the Day (Hopewell Publications, 2007) is also a Skotte. It depicts 11 figures – 5 grinning, leering, unclassifiable creatures (are they men? living candles? evil saints?) and 6 multi-colored houses with wide-eyed windows and gaping mouth-doors. What attracted me to this picture for the cover of my collection beyond its colorist qualities is that the 11 figures were numerically and perhaps thematically equal to the 11 stories in my book. The cover can be viewed on my website ( End of aside.

However, this blog is less about covers than content – specifically the content of TLR's "New Danish Writing" ( The anthology is an attempt to give the readers of The Literary Review the possibility of sampling a taste of newer contemporary Danish writing – which is ordinarily not possible because Danish writers, naturally, write in Danish, a language that is not accessible to more than a few million people in the world.

I have done several mini-anthologies of Danish writing over the past twenty years – one in 1987 in Frank: An International Journal of Writing & Art, published in Paris, others in 1990 in Cimarron Review and in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1995 – as well as publishing translations of individual Danes in a variety of literary journals: In American Poetry Review (a selection of Henrik Nordbrandt poems, 2008), in Absinthe: New Danish Writing (which has published half a dozen Danes in the past couple of years), in Agni (2007), in TLR, in New Letters, and forthcoming, a Nordbrandt chapbook in MidAmerican Review. While TLR has published a scattering of Danish work, particularly in recent years, including an interview with the dean of the Danish writing school, Hans Otto Jørgensen, we must go back 44 years to the last all-Danish issue of TLR – to 1964. The authors included then are now the seniors by far of Danish literature – and some are no longer with us.

Such anthologies and mini-anthologies, unfortunately, always require a process of selection. There are so many good writers one would wish to include, but the limitations of space and economics always require that some who might have been there are not.

Although there were a few sour words on behalf of all the excellent writers I did not have the possibility of including in TLR's "New Danish Writing" (including a complaint by a Danish lady philologist that a writer had not been included who was, in fact, very much present –but of course some find it hardly necessary to read something before criticizing it), the anthology issue was generally welcomed with reviews in three of the leading culture organs in Copenhagen, on Danish radio and in the local press.

Some of the writers not included in the TLR anthology are, however, included in current or coming issues of other journals – most notably Absinthe: New European Writing which I am also privileged to be associated with as an Advisory Editor.

Others not included – Ib Michael, Peter Høeg, Christian Jungersen, Carsten Jensen, Klaus Rifbjerg, to name but five – are already sufficiently well known in the US that they hardly need showcasing in a literary journal.

But instead of bemoaning the absence of some writers, I hope that readers will take advantage of the presence of those who are there – a fine array of the younger generation of Danes and on up to those in late middle-age (or, as one of my professors liked to refer to it, "Late Youth").

I would welcome feedback from readers of the Danish issue either through a comment on this blog or by email to

Greetings from the ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

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