THE WORLD MIRROR / SPECIAL CASES
Rauma is one of the stops on Poetry Society Nihil Interit’s spring tour. Poet Tommi Parkko steps up in front of the audience and reads us three of his poems, one from each of his collections. Because Parkko is a poetry advocate, he does a lot for poetry – besides writing and reading it. During this year of centennial jubilee of Finnish independence, he sits behind the driving wheel of a bus and drives a group of poets around Finland – determined to bring poetry to new audiences.
Hanna Hirvonen, text and photos
Milla Selin, translation from Finnish
Finland has been independent for a hundred years. The big number drives Tommi Parkko on the road. He takes the driver’s seat in his home town Turku and fills his bus with other poets. Among them are prosaic poet Marsalkka Kallas (Merita Berg), whose writing peers into the underworld’s shady businesses, and Anja Erämaja, who adds drama, improvisation and stand-up to her poems onstage.
All in all, nearly twenty Finnish poets board the bus. It’s a project called Runoutta! (Poetry!) by the Poetry Society Nihil Interit, a tour scheduled to be made twice during the jubilee year, coordinated by Tommi Parkko. They want to bring poetry to places it is seldom found in, more specifically to schools during the day and bars in the evenings.
Poets want to bring poetry
to schools and bars.
To start off the tour, the poetry bus visited small municipalities near Turku. Parkko drove poets to schools, but found time to visit two classes himself. The eight-graders concentrated with intensity. The young kids were keen to listen to stories about a poet’s work as well as poems.
“The typical examples portrayed at schools are very specific jobs: engineer, doctor and teacher, that type of thing”, Parkko begins to explain the inspiration for the tour. “We talked about what it is that poets do, why these particular poets are interested in writing, and why they feel it is important work. On the other hand, we disclosed that if you want to make a lot of money, this isn’t the career path to follow.”
On stage in the evening
The bus arrives in Rauma after nightfall. In a bar downtown, the group is met by Nina Rintala, a local poet who has published two collections and is working on the third. Because it is time for an evening event, and Rintala is the founder of the first live poetry event in Rauma, Runojamit (Poetry Jam), she is a natural collaborator with Parkko. Rintala has arranged the space and also invited local poets to perform.
This night is a perfect example of how a poetry activist works in Finland: in collaboration with other poets, on a volunteer basis, and from love towards a marginal genre of literature, which has never had a large reader base in the country. “For me it is important, because this is how new people get access to poetry and become readers, performers and writers. I am motivated by the urge to improve the status of poetry”, says Tommi Parkko.
Tommi Parkko is a poetry advocate, who has been perfoming since the 1990’s. Nowadays, a part of his work is to arrange opportunities for other poets to perform.
A local poet, Nina Rintala, meets the poetry bus in Rauma. She is working on her third collection, but still has time to organize the town’s own poetry happening, Runojamit.
Tommi Parkko is the first to read his poems. So far the poetry advocate has published three works of his own. The first was Lyhyt muisti, meri (Short memory, sea) in 1997. After that came Sileäksi puhuttu (Spoken smooth) in 2004, and Pelikaani (The Pelican) in 2011. In Rauma, Parkko shares with the audience a poem from each collection.
Tours and happenings are one part of the work for Tommi Parkko. “For me, activism means that I write poems, teach writing poems, am active in the poetry communities – Nihil Interit especially – and organize poetry events,” describes the advocate. For him, poetry is an integral part of everyday life, and has been for two decades.
Turns and towns
The field of Finnish poetry appears very different from the scene in, let’s say, the 1980’s: “poetry is a vigorous and passionate margin”, characterizes Susinukke Kosola (in a recent interview) the state of poetry now. Poet Teemu Manninen describes in his book Six Finnish Poets (2013) how the Eighties were bleak times for poetry. Four or five publishing houses ruled the field in Finland: only a few books of poetry were published each year. There was no tradition of poetry happenings, either. True conversation between poets and about poetry was missing.
Then, during the 1990’s, it was as if poetry was born again in Finland – taking different forms in Turku and Helsinki. Tommi Parkko was there for the Big Bang in both cities. At the start of the decade he began to advocate for poetry, feeling that the existing organizations were not doing enough to bring forth the genre in various ways.
“I think it is difficult and unnecessary to define poetry. The variation in the field, and of poetry itself, and the active work for poetry, are far more important than putting a certain type of poetry on a pedestal”, Tommi Parkko states.
“These days, poetry is promoted all over Finland, and distribution is not up to a couple of hubs, or focused in a couple of places”, Tommi Parkko says. Poetry is abuzz not only in Helsinki and Turku, but in Tampere, Oulu and Lahti, for example. And in Rauma, too, for the past few years. “Poetry has a local voice in many places”, Parkko describes.
“Activity and communities are always unique”, he continues. “In Helsinki, the activity around poetry has traditionally been focused in Nuoren Voiman Liitto, where the staff is on a payroll. In Turku, the poets arrange things by volunteering.”
Parkko makes an example of one of the poets taking part on the tour, Harri Hertell, as a person who has renewed the structure of the Finnish field of poetry. “The collective he founded, Helsinki Poetry Connection, has taught a generation how to listen to and perform poetry.”
Is poetry on the decline?
A lot of poems get published nowadays, since the internet provides practically everyone with the opportunity. “Once the field of publishing got wider, variation in poetry just exploded”, Parkko notes. Co-ops focusing on publishing books, and also self-publishing, have become more popular. “However, the major, established publishing houses are releasing less and less poetry”, Parkko points out. “Currently the most interesting poetry is coming from the smaller operators.”
The poetry advocate has some reservations regarding the influx of small publishers dominating the field. “Books by small publishers don’t have the same distribution as the bigger ones’. There are a lot of poetry books that are hard to find”, says Tommi Parkko. He concludes that the value of poetry is declining: “Poetry is being published on such a scale that it is becoming slightly less valuable. It’s a paradoxical situation: it is easier than ever to publish a book of poems, yet at the same time it is harder than before to get a challenging body of work published.”
According to the National Archive’s database Fennica, approximately 500 to 600 books of poetry are published each year. “Of those, about 60 to 80 books are sent to the poetry competition held by Nihil Interit,” says Tommi Parkko. “About a hundred of the books published are of artistic importance”, he estimates. “Only about 10 or 15 books met the same criteria annually in the Fifties, for example.”
“A lot of poetry books
are hard to find.”
Prose has broken through in the publishing houses and poetry is paying the price. The same reflects in the minds of the readers. “When a Finn is thinking about literature, it is prose they are thinking about. Poetry is an aside, which makes the situation difficult, negative even”, says Parkko. Most of the work done to promote poetry is done by volunteers, and this trend isn’t doing much to improve the financial income of poets. “For example, poets may not be receiving grants as much since the substantial publishers have cut back on poetry.”
In a situation like this, the visibility of poetry may diminish. The poetry advocate will not dwell on the negative developments. “Something must be done about it, too”, he states. “We need activity to keep poetry alive – concrete actions which poetry aficionados can participate in. At the moment, I myself am writing a nonfiction book for those who yet do not know they like poetry.”
Trending stage poetry
The audience of poetry is divided into various groups by age, social status, gender, lifestyle, or other factors. It has been noted in the poetry community that these groups can be reached by specifically tailored means. The field of poetry is not without its trends, and the current favourite is stage poetry. It has been a gateway to poetry among the 20- and 30-somethings, especially in the capital. “In Helsinki, this group is attending a lot of events”, Parkko says. “And that is a great achievement.”
Poetry audiences are divided
into various groups.
Tommi Parkko has performed poetry since the mid-90’s. When working on a collection, he always includes poems that are suitable for spoken word. The plan to bring the poem up on stage always influences the writing: “I want there to be relatable points and hooks that grab the listener to keep them interested. Often my stage poems have a first person narrator experiencing the story.”
Hearing and reading a poem are different processes. When reading, it is always possible to go back, on stage the poem is only heard as it goes. “However, I don’t aim to perform only poems that are completely understandable. For me, setting the mood is important. Vocalization is important to me.”
Tommi Parkko says he has published a collection every seven years. “My pace as a writing poet is sort of slow. Other things chip away at the resources and time for writing.” Parkko was the president of Nihil Interit from 2014 to 2016. In March, his successor took the post. “I was confused for a few weeks afterwards, having so much time to write”, says the poet, who is now in charge of finances in the society.
Parkko is suited for an active life, though. “I don’t just want to write. If I spent months cooped up somewhere, writing away, it wouldn’t work. Three weeks of writing is my max, then I have to do something else.” In addition to poetry collections, the advocate has written poetry writing manuals: Kirjoita runo! Opas aloittelevalle runoilijalle (Write a poem! A guide for the beginning poet) in 2011, Runouden ilmiöitä (Poetry Phenomena) in 2012, and Intohimoa ja millimetripaperia (Passion and Plotting Paper) in 2016.
“I create structures”, Parkko concisely describes the work he does for poetry. As an example, he mentions Runoviikko (Poetry Week) in Turku, an event with an annually changing theme. Next November, when it is held for the 17th time, the theme is power. “The idea is that when I start an event or a society, in the long run there should be some interaction that benefits poetry.”
When Parkko was working as a county resident artist in Turku in the early 2000’s, taking care of the arrangements of the event was part of his job. Then the responsibilities were taken over by Runoviikko ry, with poet Juha Kulmala currently as its president. “This year my sole responsibility is holding one course in Kirjan talo (The house of book)”, the poetry advocate says.
First year-long poetry school of Finland
From Rauma, the spring tour of Nihil Interit continued on to other places: the poetry bus rolled into Pori, then Tampere, Lahti, Järvenpää and Helsinki. The trip took a week and reached approximately a few thousand people — schools by day, bars at night.
A similar tour is scheduled for September. They depart in the middle of the month from Joensuu. From Eastern Finland the bus heads South. “In October we take a smaller car to Lapland.” During the tour, the poets speak to audiences about interpreting poetry. “We talk about the challenge of understanding poetry. Many people feel like poetry should be comprehended. But that’s not necessarily the case, the mood can be the most important aspect as well.”
“The poetry bus reached
a few thousand people.”
Before leaving Rauma, Parkko presents me with a brochure. “One more of my projects”, he explains. The poetry advocate led the Jamilahti Adult Education Centre’s writing classes from 2005 to 2009, and returned last autumn. In addition, he teaches creative writing at the University of Turku, teaching is how he earns his living.
Now Tommi Parkko means to start something new in the field of teaching: a line of poetic studies at the Jamilahti Adult Education Centre — that’s what the brochure is about. “The poetry line is all about studying poetry, about 800 hours in a school year.” If there are enough interested students, the course will begin. It will be the first year-long poetry school in Finland.