THE WORLD MIRROR / POET’S IDENTITY CARD
Within the world of Kristiina Wallin’s poems, one has permission to hide from all kinds of performance pressure, to take time to sense the environment as well as one’s self, and become surprised as a result. “When I write I must be vulnerable, and reveal the inner self again and again”, says the poet. “I’m not afraid when I write”, she continues, though, and adds that writing is a refuge. Wallin sets the words in motion by dancing, for example. The tone of her poems has become more solemn with the five collections published.
Hanna Hirvonen, text and photos
Milla Selin, translation from Finnish
At Kristiina Wallin’s house, the visitor is welcomed by the poet herself and the poem horse, also featured in Wallin’s first book Tracks of a Shod Animal (2005). In the poems, the horse gallops in space, but now the animal stands perfectly still in the living room, listening to the conversation.
The horse is a creation by Kirsi Backman (a Finnish ceramic artist) and a good example of how different works of art inspire Kristiina Wallin. Poems often get their first push forward by an artistic experience, perhaps a painting, sculpture or a dance performance. “I frequent visit art galleries and museums. I might sit on the floors, write drafts or just let the words flow. I also go to a lot of dance performances. Dance is an important language for me, always in dialogue with poetry.”
Sometimes the poet makes the words move by dancing herself. “At home, alone, wearing woolly socks, back and forth in the living room”, Wallin laughs. “Not being stagnant in front of the computer, but instead letting my whole body move, sets the words in motion!”
Kristiina Wallin says she is a couch potato, because this is a typical working position. On the other hand, being in motion is extremely important to her work as a poet.
At the moment Kristiina Wallin’s writing is funded by a year-long artist’s grant. The poet is working on her sixth collection, which is beginning to gather themes of silence, inner stagnation, and violence. The poems of the upcoming collection, too, are in discussion with other art forms.
“Dancing sets the words in motion!”
Wallin picks up a book by Ziyah Gafić (a photographer from Bosnia and Herzegovina) which she bought from a bookshop adjacent to the war photography museum in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The photos show artifacts found in mass graves in Bosnia: keys, toothbrushes, flashlights. “What remains after we are gone? All these items are holding life-size stories”, Wallin ponders. “Some of my new poems are based on this book, for example.”
Because this meeting and interview with Kristiina Wallin is part of a series of articles that also includes Syrian poets, whose work is bound to be influenced by war, let’s also ask Wallin this: Are the ongoing wars in the world affecting your work?
Wallin’s answer is yes. “Things I’m writing about now clearly contain thematics of violence and war.” Echoes of war were evident in Wallin’s earlier work as well, in All the Metres and Trees (2005). Wallin says she is currently exploring how to write about war without firsthand experience: which angle, what kind of language. “Because what fear, suffering, and pain mean on an emotional level, I have no way of really knowing.”
Safe when writing
Do your poems have objectives, Kristiina Wallin? “I am a defender of humanity and freedom of spirit”, Wallin says after pausing to think. However, she always leaves room for the reader’s interpretation. The intent hiding in the poems is put forward indirectly. They are inherent in the themes of communication, freedom, and not being able to fit within the norms of today’s society.
In my own opinion, reading Kristiina Wallin’s poems takes courage. The reader must accept that a more surprising reality may appear amongst the order of things we are used to in everyday life. Without warning, nature bursts out in places where we tend to see only man-made surroundings. A forest might grow inside an elevator, for example.
Human beings also consist of exciting facets. New, hidden, or very private features are only visible to those who have the time and guts to really see:
“All in all, what’s important about poetry is that it’s quiet and slow talk, a strike back against the hectic world of achievements. That idea is the nucleus of my poems”, Kristiina Wallin describes. She points out that the value of poetry can’t be measured in money, prizes or any outside meter. It is important that this kind of human to human talk exists, talk that walks the subconscious plane, beyond all the achieving and demands.
Peace, calming down, quietness, going slowly and staying still, these are integral to Wallin’s writing. The people in the poems let themselves be, they encounter their surroundings without haste. Because they do, they begin to sense peculiar things. Events that seem absurd slice through existence.
“When I write, I am not afraid”, Kristiina Wallin reveals. For her, the moments of writing are refuge; as she is writing, she is safe from inner uncertainty and outside pressure. “Sometimes I am worried about things to do with writing, things outside the creative process, and institutional things, like how to get by financially, or am I getting attention as a writer, can I do it and am I enough. But writing brings solace and peace.”
“When I write, I am not afraid.”
Every collection of poems makes changes in its writer. Kristiina Wallin says she has become braver. Writing has brought out courage, because it demands vulnerability. When writing, one must surrender and reveal one’s inner self again and again.
Five published poetry books rest on the table: Tracks of a Shod Animal (2005), Of Broken Bones (2007), Carried by Feet (2009), All the Metres and Trees (2012), and Weight of Light (2016). All are published by Tammi publishing house.
Revealing one’s inner self in a book is always frightening. The feedback for the poems, even negative, is easier to take year after year. “I am more and more honest with myself, and because I am honest with myself, I basically don’t have anything to fear.”
“Of course, there are always those who are critical, but year by year I am more protected from that. Not that it’s not happening, but the negative feedback just doesn’t undermine me in the same way. When I have been so daring in writing, it would be silly to be afraid of something coming from the outside.”
Alone amidst stimuli
Kristiina Wallin is a hermit by nature. She needs solitude and even a sense of being an outsider. For her it’s enough to know and be aware of the community of poets, and having the possibility of meeting like-minded people. Perhaps, as we speak, someone finds her book of poems, reaches for it, and starts to read. It’s also both comforting and supporting to know that other people are writing, too, at this very moment. Right now, words and verses are born, and thoughts and subconsciousnesses meet.
Then again, the hermit loves cities. “I long for undisturbable peace, the silence of the forest, but also the fluidity and motion of cities. Motion and travel are really important for my writing.” Do you write when you are on the move? “Yes, sure”, Wallin perks up. “I think its good to write while on the move. And in cities I can be alone among other people and the random flow of stimuli. I like having to get disturbed in a certain way. It pushes me to a direction I cannot choose nor control. This leaves room for the haphazard nature of the creative process.”
“I imagine words dropping
into a scenery.”
Currently the poet lives in Ylöjärvi, in Pirkanmaa, but she is originally from Kankaanpää in Satakunta. Wallin has been working in many places, for example as a Finnish and Literature teacher in Turku, and a Literary Arts teacher in Orivesi. From all these familiar places the dearest to her heart is Tampere, without question. There, nestled in the views from the Pyynikki ridge, she lived for eleven years. “Jyrki (husband, writer) and I also had our studio in Pyynikki, almost all of my books were born in that scenery.”
When Wallin is on the move, a notebook is always at hand. Passing flashes, or associations and verses created by them must be captured. “Spatial thinking is important. When I write, I often imagine words dropping in, into a room, a city, the corner of a field or some other space or view. Many writings begin that way.”
A long row of notebooks await, all handbound. One of Wallin’s occupations is bookbinder.
Africa brought winter into the poems
In 2007 Kristiina Wallin had an artist’s residence in Benin, West Africa. She was working on a radio play and the poetry collection Carried by Feet (2009). “One of the poems features a sand carrier. On several days I saw a man on the beach carrying a sack on his back”, Wallin continues on the matter of seemingly arbitrary stimuli. “I didn’t know what was in the sack, but I got into thinking it was sand. I thought of the sand as a duty and a burden, but also a good kind of weight. And also how a function that appears absurd at first can fix a human being into the everyday, how it gives an outline and meaning to existence.”
“So, some kind of prompt gives you an idea, and then as a poet you make up the rest?” I ask. “Yes. Or do I? It is interesting how poems are born. I myself believe that a lot comes from the subconscious, that a poem is at its best the poet’s subconscious mind speaking to the reader’s subconscious mind.”
Sometimes even the poet gets to become surprised by what a change in scenery brings to the texts. During the time in Benin, it was Africa that featured strongly in the radio play, in its light, warmth, sweat, scents, and details. Yet a Nordic view is emphasized in the poems: “The poems are terribly snowy, cold, and dark. By writing about winter I was possibly alleviating homesickness. It was easier to see a familiar scenery from afar.”
A life full of stories
Wallin has always been someone who writes, but imagined herself earlier to be a prosaist. Exactly when it was she began writing poetry is unclear to her. The texts slided from prose to poetry slowly, through the process of reading poetry, when Wallin studied Literature at the University of Jyväskylä. “The layered manner of speaking and power of expression were the things that drew me in, in a way that made it not about choice anymore. However, venturing into the realm of poetry wasn’t self-evident.”
There is no uncertainty to why she writes poems nowadays, though. “Poetry, like all art, gives us the opportunity to discover and understand something important about humanity. Poetry adds empathy, and the possibility of being able to understand one another.”
Kristiina is the only artist in her childhood family. She did grow up among books, though, because her mother took her to the library once a week. “We borrowed bagfuls of books. I remember childhood Christmas holidays, when I couldn’t tear myself away from devouring book after book, to go outside, at all. I have always been a reader, immersed in the text, fictitious worlds and language.”
Stories were read at home, for example Tove Jansson (Finnish-Swedish author and artist) and some poems, like Kirsi Kunnas (Finnish children’s author, poet, and translator).” There were poetry classics in my mother’s bookshelf, but it was more of a world of prose and stories I grew up in.”
Even though Wallin’s own book collection is vast, the poet admits she is a library aficionado. “I go to the library many times a week. I loan a lot of books, but sometimes it’s good to go to the library just to loll about and calm down.”
When I ask Kristiina Wallin for childhood memories, she vividly recollects the rug washing days: the scent of pine soap, cold water running over feet, and the feeling of time being endless. Senses play a major role in the memory, which now is also important for the poet’s work. “For me writing a poem is a physical exercise, not just brain work. I feel like writing has taught me to notice sensations and details. How something feels, smells, or is fragrant, or how the air moves, or how I myself move.”
“An essential part of poetry is its relationship with language; for poetry to keep the language alive and mobile, to prevent it from getting poorer”, Wallin continues and adds that stories have never disappeared from her life. Whether it’s a poem, a series of poems, or a collection, Wallin usually tells a fragmented story within those lines. “I break the language and structure, but often there is a storyline involved. I am always a storyteller at some level. As a reader and a writer, however, I am not so much interested in the plot as I am of the characters’ inner worlds, their layers and circularities. It is interesting to see the way in which words can wind in reality, and what kinds of possibilities there are to build reality with and within language.”
Tampere is aloud with poetry
When it comes to poetry, the group of readers is small in Finland, but just like poetry itself it’s vital and active. The fact that most Finns don’t read poetry doesn’t bother Wallin. According to her, poetry doesn’t have to be art for the masses, instead it can remain in the margins. “I’m not sure if any really important things have ever been very popular.” And, as we have established, poetry requires pause and thought. “How could you speak to everyone through a poem anyway?”
“I refuse to let external attributes define what, or how, I should write about. I always strive to be honest to myself and the text about to be born”, Wallin answers my question about how she experiences freedom of speech. From a poet’s perspective, there are no forbidden subjects or ways of writing in Finland. “It is my opinion that on one hand, this demands artistic integrity from us, and on the other giving our support to those writers whose freedom of speech is at stake.”
There are many ways to publish these days, despite cutbacks in poetry by large publishing houses. Poetry printed in books is accompanied by stage poetry, digital poetry, video- and sound poetry.
Kristiina Wallin is inspired by all art, but also loves to collaborate with artists from different fields. For example, on Kalevala Day (the day of the Finnish national epoch) in February, she was reading her works to an audience at the Tampere central library Metso. She shared the stage with two violinists, the music and the poetry took turns. The event was initiated by the city. “There is a place for poetry in Tampere. It is allowed to be heard, and anyone who wants to, can find their way to poetry. There are poetry evenings and breakfasts, the excellent poetry festival of Annikinkatu, and the lively poetry activities of the Teos & Tulenkantajat store.”
The dresses hanging from the living room ceiling are done by textile artist Niina Hartikainen, and they are embroidered with Wallin’s poems.
The Syrian poets featured in this series of articles have mentioned the gnawing feeling of loneliness within. Poets often feel secluded from other people and society. “I recognize that sense of loneliness, because the people you can really have a true connection with are few and far between. But I hang on to the knowledge that they are out there, scattered all over the world. I always think that the power of poetry creates fine filaments from one human to another”, muses Wallin.
The eternal dream of writing
The biggest challenge as a poet, for Kristiina Wallin, is arranging the conditions which facilitate writing. “It is not easy but it is possible.” Receiving a grant can never be taken for granted. Actually, when a poet is writing with the aid from a government or foundation, they can consider themselves lucky. Most often the income must be tapped from many sources.
Kristiina Wallin teaches writing. It is important not to take on too much teaching work, because the courses can eat away at the time spent on personal writing. Teaching in just the right amounts, however, has a way of pushing one’s own poetry forward. “I enjoy sharing the thing that I love, which is poetry. And what a privilege it is to be able to peek into these new worlds about to be created by others.”
Kristiina Wallin’s eternal dream is clear: “I always dream of being able to focus on writing, to delve deeper into my writing.”
Right now life is in balance. “My dreams are mundane”, the poet says. “I always dream of being able to focus on writing, that there would be time and vigour for writing, and that writing would also be financially feasible, so that I could delve deeper into my writing.” There’s always more than one project in the works, sometimes a radio play for YLE (Finnish broadcasting company). “What I do for radio is not far from poetry. Fast cuts and proceeding by associations are possible in radio work.”
“I always dream of
being able to write.”
With the current grant, Wallin is working on her own poetry collection, as well as a radio piece and a book in collaboration with another poet, Hannimari Heino. The latter are based on the correspondence between the two friends. “We talk about time, remembrance, and poetry through the garden metaphor.”
When Wallin met the poet Heino, one of the connecting filaments of poetry became visible. Wallin’s second book, Of Broken Bones (2007), had recently been published. After Heino had read it, she wrote to her colleague and suggested a book swap. “This was how we met through poems first and only afterwards got to know each other personally. I find this order fascinating, because it offers an opportunity to meet on the plane of subconsciousness and language first.”
Closest to the heart, a book of sorrow
Wallin’s faith in the slow way of expression that demands quieting down is solid. “Nothing will erase poetry from this world. I believe in the power of poetry and in the way poetry offers the opportunity to connect.”
At the end of my visit, Kristiina Wallin hands me her latest work. The book is called Weight of Light (2016), a book of sorrow, and closest to the poet’s own heart. It took Wallin four years to write. She remembers next to nothing of the first drafts. Her father had died, and writing was Wallin’s way of dealing with grief. “That is why Weight of Light will always have a special, private meaning for me.”
“I needed an island
to depict a feeling.”
A few years after beginning, she was able to look at the work as if from the outside. Then, in dialogue with an editor, a collection of poems about grief in general came together. Of longing, memories, and remembering, also.
The events in the book are not carbon copies of what actually happened in Wallin’s childhood or what she remembers of her father. Maybe that is why the emotions come through so realistically, Wallin assumes. “For example: an island is featured in the book even though my childhood surroundings were not on one. I needed an island to depict the sadness, distress and loneliness, in other words for the text to be emotionally true. The sea plays the part of what is deep within us, what we cannot understand even in ourselves.”
Other deceased family members also visit the book. It is clear that through the years and books, Wallin’s work has become more solemn. “Sometimes I miss the playfulness of my first collections”, the poet admits. “But perhaps play is returning again, stronger than it is now”, she laughs. Sure, you never know in Kristiina Wallin’s world. “In any case, joy is one of the things that supports my existence.”
Kristiina Wallin’s poetry in Kosmi: