We started off as ‘The Three Poets on Tour’ – meaning Chrys Salt, Liz Niven and myself. By the end we had grown like a rolling snowball, with poets Mike Horwood and Aila Juvonen added to our number. Now we were ‘Four Brits and a Finn’, and were designated as ‘A Cavalcade of Prizewinning Poets’.
Amazingly, this mad whistle-stop tour of Finland, to the cities of Turku, Tampere and Helsinki passed off without mopes or mishaps. There was time to form relations with Finnish poets, journalists, literary figures, PEN members. There were many hugs, tears at the making of connections and the parting of new friends, and on many, many occasions, hoots of raucous laughter.
Finns tend to stereotype themselves as a silent and gloomy people – ideal characteristics for writing about love and death, the eternal grist to the poetic mill. It may be no coincidence that Finland is a land filled with poets. But – as a long-term resident of Finland – I would say that the natural stance of Finns is one of understated wry humour, a kind of lightly-worn irony, accepting of the vagaries of life and of the fact that plans inevitably gang agley. That indeed is the attitude of the national epic, the Kalevala (from which Liz Niven read Scots translations), and it is an attitude that chimes wonderfully with the Scots temperament. This common way of embracing life may have been one of the factors behind the warmth of our reception. Also, there is the fact that in Finland, English almost has the status of a second rather than a foreign language. Thus, in a literary tour the barriers to comprehension are not that great, so long as the reader makes a few allowances in pace and articulation, and chooses themes that cross national boundaries.
The appreciation of our audiences (many books sold!) and the generosity of our hosts was overwhelming. Particular thanks go to Kaarina Ojasti, Vice-Chair of the Federation of Finnish-British Societies and Secretary of the Tampere branch. With her practical good sense and the hospitality she offered at her home, small difficulties melted away like frost on a spring dyke; thanks also to Risto Ahti, multiply-awarded Tampere-based poet, critic and translator, and prime mover of Tampere Poetry Week (of which by pure chance we found ourselves part). And long Scots miles of thanks to Risto’s wife, Ritva Hokka-Ahti, who as well as being a warm and calming presence, was responsible for integrating many aspects of Poetry Week in her capacity as Information Coordinator.
The Helsinki reading was notable for its large and distinguished audience, and for the attendance of Eeva Kilpi, Nobel-prize candidate, one of whose poems we read, adapted as a two-voice piece. Eeva (born 1928 and still fully active as a writer) is one of Finland’s most distinguished poets and novelists, a Nobel Prize candidate, and a national treasure. She talked to the poets afterwards, dispensing hugs accompanied by warm words of encouragement.
I’d also mention a meeting with Marianne Bargum of Finnish PEN. Marianne is passionate and compassionate. She knows pretty much all there is to know about Finnish publishing and how poetry fits into it. But more importantly, she is a person committed to the ideals of PEN, and fully aware of the struggles of writers in an international context. Talking to Marianne reignites one’s sense of why writing is important, one’s anger at the difficulties and oppressions that many writers face, and one’s urge to do something to improve the situation.
Finally, I’d like to quote a poem sent to us afterwards by Pekka Kytömäki, who describes himself as a ‘translator and wannabe poet’. The poem (my translation from Finnish) is included with his permission:
(An evening with Donald Adamson, Liz Niven and Chrys Salt; by Pekka Kytömäki)
Three Scottish poets in the library
wiped away the smudges of the week from my mind.
Liz read in Scots,
Chrys and Donald performed together and separately,
they read Eeva Kilpi in Donald’s translation.
A lot went on in my head.
I closed my eyes, stared,
laughed, pursed my lips.
I was present, for once.
“If you buy our books, we will eat.”
I bought one from each,
I pattered into the café to get change,
I asked for signatures,
I spelt out my name to the women.
My stiff tongue bent
to talk to Liz
about Irvine Welsh
who apparently is a fine fellow.
Donald asked if I was a student,
he was keen to hear about my job.
He also asked if I was a poet,
I said I’d like to be,
he decided I was one.
I pedalled home with sweaty armpits
and my skin all goose pimples,
not from the warmth, not from the cold.
In the shower I washed my hair twice
since I didn’t notice I’d already washed it.
Now it’s midnight,
I lie on the sofa with my diary
and I know what I want to be when I grow up.
The clock is ticking,
I lie awake and grow older,
I’ve got time.