On the Road With Bruno K. Öijer
Editor’s Note: This spring, Action Books published Swedish poet Bruno K. Öijer's The Trilogy, co-translated by Öijer and Victoria Häggblom. To mark the occasion, Action Books editor Johannes Göransson interviewed Öijer about the poet’s experiences in the United States and how that influenced his work.
Literary canons tend to follow national boundaries and languages, creating an illusory sense of stability and progress. Crossing those national lines, whether through immigration, translation, or other volatile modalities, destabilizes extant canons and proposes new models of reading and thinking about art. One example: the great Swedish rock-and-roll poet Bruno K. Öijer (1951–). After coming onto the scene in a burst of notoriety in the 1970s, he embarked on a desultory trip around the United States, crashing with poetry communities from City Lights to St. Marks. Between 1990 and 2001, he published three books—While the Poison Acts (1990), The Lost Word (1995), and The Fog of Everything (2001)—that reflect his American experience and disturb any account of either US or Swedish poetry as separable, bounded lineages.
Raised by a single mother in the working class city of Linköping, Öijer first broke through as a rebellious young poet in the early 1970s with a brash style that drew from Beat poetry and Bob Dylan as well as such European movements and figures as surrealism and Vladimir Mayakovsky. With his friend Eric Fylkeson, Öijer translated Dylan’s songs into Swedish (as printed poetry), and the influence of Dylan and Allen Ginsberg is notable in Öijer’s earliest collections. Poems such as “I Cried She Was Dead,” “Till Johanna,” and “bob dylan; farewell toward ashes & sand…” evince the influence of Dylan and the Beats in the overflow of surreal imagery, the ampersands, the litany, and the epistolary as go-to-modes; the depictions of friends and lovers in a subterranean scene; and the lack of capitalized letters. They also explicitly and implicitly reference Dylan songs. Here, for example, is the beginning of “till anders. (med ramonavisionerna),” which references Dylan’s “To Ramona” (one of the songs Öijer translated as a poem):
space is punctured by keyholes &
fingerprints, but you ask
where my friends are. all right,
they have an international breath &
are right now up in the hospital & getting drugged
because they dared pick jasmine flowers &
empty bottles on a weekday without bowing
for the landowners & they are forced to pay
to be allowed to sleep & the moderates have slashed
their magical drawings & the authorities
don’t understand how that happened…
With their Beat style and antiauthoritarian rhetoric—and use of the English language (all right appears in English in the original)—these early poems could have been the work of an exceptionally talented young poet in New York or San Francisco. One might think of Beat poetry here becoming an international lineage, refracted through the act of translation—both the explicit translation of the Dylan poems and the way Öijer “translates” the Beat poetic into Swedish and in his own poetry.
In the collections c/o Night (1976), The Gambler’s Stone (1979), and Guillotine (1981), Öijer moved away from the recognizably Beat aesthetic of the first two collections to a more concentrated poetry, a poetry of hallucinatory “postcards” (the title of one poem) from the city, as in “LX,” from Guillotine:
they dug a hole
and stuffed in
of Christmas glitter
This shift coincides with Öijer’s repeated travels in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though his poetry became less orthodoxically Beat, it also became more persistently located in the United States and increasingly shaped by, and focused on, the urban US setting: “Skyway Hotel, San Francisco,” “A Jack Daniels in Tombstone,” “Diamond Lil’s Topless Bar,” with New York being a particular favorite, as in “The Hour Before Prince Street, New York City,” “Mott Street,” and “Little Italy.” With this melding and concentration of Beat gestures with imagism and hallucination, the gothic and the ecstatic, Öijer opened a direction in Beat poetry that was not explored by many US poets of the time.
Following the publication of Guillotine, Öijer stopped publishing books for nearly 10 years and instead devoted himself to public readings of his poems. He ascended to a kind of rock star status, a poet who—like Dylan and Patti Smith—melded poetry with performance. Further emphasizing his role as a performing artist, he recorded Shadow Comes, an album of his recitations with musical backing, in 1986. That same year, the seminal Swedish postpunk band Imperiet turned his poem “Postcard” into a song on its album Synd (Sin). The move to performance and music foregrounded the strong influence of not only Dylan but also of a long line of US singers (going back to blues singers) who inspired Öijer. Paradoxically, his theatrical, dramatic, and physical style of reading is at odds with US conventions of poetry readings as reserved and restrained. His instantly recognizable elocution is far from the “poet’s voice” that dominates US poetry readings.
When Öijer returned to publishing with While the Poison Acts, he had arguably broken with his US roots. These poems were quieter, more mystical, and haunted by ghosts:
why do I see her
so clearly, a lilac scent
leads to the bedside
where with her head bent towards her body
she has bitten into her heart
While the Poison Acts and the following two books of the Trilogy were widely acclaimed. Even academic critics and poets previously skeptical of Öijer’s wild, Beat-influenced, surrealistic stream of images suddenly welcomed his work. Poet-critic Lars Gustafsson famously announced that Öijer was “the most entrancing Swedish poet since [Tomas] Tranströmer,” the Nobel laureate. Far from being the notorious rebel poet he was previously branded as, Öijer was now written into the official lineage of Swedish poets. And this estimation has stuck. To this day, Öijer is frequently compared to Tranströmer; the back cover of the collected edition of The Trilogy compares him to Carl Michael Bellman, Gustaf Fröding, and Gunnar Ekelöf. He has become part of a national canon.
When asked to name his five favorite poets in 2008, Öijer surprisingly did not mention either Ginsberg or Dylan. However, he did mention Edgar Lee Masters, the American author of Spoon River Anthology (1915). With its ghosts and hauntings, The Trilogy is in conversation with Masters’s compendium of the voices of the dead. It might be that, some 40 years after his American sojourn, Öijer is as “American” as ever.
To further think about Öijer’s relationship to the United States, its literature, and its pop culture, I asked him to talk, in particular, about that formative, exploratory period in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
For a Swedish poet, you have had a lot of important engagement with the United States and its culture. When did this engagement start? What are your earliest recollections of an interest in the United States?
When I was 13, I carried out newspapers on Sundays during freezing cold winter mornings. We were poor, and I needed to get a few bucks together. I received a printed note from the foreman the first morning. It said that many great men and even presidents of the United States had begun their careers as newspaper couriers. I thought that was a good idea. As president of the United States, I would overnight eliminate all poverty and all injustice. But then I got hold of a book on American political science. It said you must be born in the United States to become president. I could at most become a member of Congress. That’s when I shelved my presidential plans.
I became interested early on in American history and culture. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I read nonfiction books about the North American Native Americans. Even at that age, I saw through how falsely they were portrayed in Hollywood movies. I realized that the growth of the United States was based on extermination and genocide. A little later, I read about the Civil War and the enslavement of Black people. After Kennedy was assassinated, I obtained books on LBJ's vision of the Great Society and followed the progress of the civil rights movement, etc.
I have always been a fan of American film noir and of the Western film genre, which after all contained some works that were not deceptive. From my teens onward, I read a lot of literature about the colonization of the West and the lawless border areas and studied the historical truth behind semi-mythological figures such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Wyatt Earp. Of course, the literature has also been a great source of inspiration for me. Let me just mention Thoreau, Whitman, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway.
But perhaps it is the music that has meant the most. All blues. And then the whole line of good singer-songwriters from the fifties onward.
Already in the manifestos in Guru Papers, the journal you edited in the early seventies, you talk a lot about Ginsberg as a seminal influence. You also mention Bob Dylan, whose songs you and Eric Fylkeson translated, somewhat controversially, as poems in 1975. What drew you to these poets? How did you come across them?
I really liked “Howl” and “Kaddish.” The explosive, quickly billowing images; the critique of American society; the self-revealing texts about sexuality and drugs; the Zen Buddhist visions; the power of Ginsberg’s exposed, naked, unafraid heart, which was full of sorrow for a world that had been lost.
The first time I heard Dylan I was in eighth grade, in elementary school in Linköping. I was 14 years old. Every day, school began with [an assembly for all the students, a boring event]. A teacher read aloud from some moralistic book tinged with religiosity. One morning, a student was allowed to lead the morning assembly. He brought a single record and a record player that was hooked up to the speakers in the assembly hall. Suddenly, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” blasted out at top volume. I had never heard anything like it. The pop and rock songs played on the radio at that time were just two minutes long. This was something totally different. And performed with such a fantastically honest, hard frenzy, both in terms of the vocals and the instrumentals. This unexpected event on a tired school morning got me to look up most of the stuff he had released.
Can you talk about your trips to the United States in the late seventies and early eighties? How long did you stay? What were the most important experiences? How did these trips affect your poetry?
In the summer of 1978, my friend Rolf Börjlind and I flew to San Francisco. We stayed only a few days. We rented a car and drove along the Pacific coast down to Mexico. Stopped in Santa Cruz and met the poet George Hitchcock, who published his own poetry magazine, called Kayak. I think he later published one or more of my poems from the seventies. I had with me a lot of my poems translated by Pierre Zekeli in Stockholm. I don’t remember how I got ahold of all the addresses of the small publishers who edited counterculture poetry magazines, but several on the West Coast and in New York published poems I had written in the seventies.
We stopped in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica and spent a few days on the roads down in Mexico. With a replenished stock of marijuana, we returned north into Arizona and slept over in Tombstone. And visited Boot Hill—a must. We traveled through the Apache homelands at Cochise Stronghold. Passed Monument Valley (John Ford's landscape) and the Petrified Forest. Further up through Utah and into Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
We had heard about the Jack Kerouac School in Boulder and stopped by there one evening, stumbling in after sharing a whole bottle of Wild Turkey. Inside, the audience sat and listened to Ginsberg singing the mantra and ringing a brass bell. I boldly approached him, introduced us, and said we wanted to read our poems. He did not take it badly and invited us to perform the next evening. Rolf and I spent the night in a cemetery, and I rehearsed my poems by heart in English. Our show the next night exceeded expectations, and we stayed a few days, hung out with Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Anne Waldman, who were also there. A beautiful memory. Then we left the car in Denver and took a Greyhound to New York City. We lived in a loft in Chinatown that we borrowed from a friend of mine. Rolf went home. I stayed a few weeks, mostly drifting around in the heat of the Village and Chinatown.
Of course, a lot happened during this fantastic journey. I do not know how many times we were stopped and harassed by aggressive cops just because we had out-of-state plates on the car. But the lasting impression was how friendly, open, and helpful all the strangers were that we met and hung out with at all the highway hotels and highway bars.
When did you return to the United States?
I was invited to the San Francisco International Poetry Festival in 1979. I flew there with two friends at the beginning of the year. We stayed at a rundown hotel on Broadway in the red-light district among neon signs and strip bars. The room cost $1 a night. I spent a lot of time in the bars in North Beach, where everyone claimed to be poets or artists. There I met the poet Jack Hirschman. We became friends. Through him, I met and hung out with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whom I had met earlier at the City Lights bookstore. I hung out a lot at Vesuvio Café right next to City Lights. In the book publisher's basement, there was a party before the festival. A lot of poets were there and also William Burroughs. At the festival, I performed my poems by heart in English, including “Jeanne D’Arc, Everything Bleeds.” It was a bit sad to see the other participants standing and reading from books and paper scripts.
At the same time, I was hanging out with Anne Kent Rush, the author of the book Moon, Moon (1976). In an insignificant café with about 12 guests, I listened to a performance by Lightnin’ Hopkins. In addition to an excursion to Redwood Forest and Berkeley Rose Garden, I mostly drove around and sat at bars and wrote. At all parties, cocaine was the main drug.
Then I flew to New York City. There the snow fell. I stayed at the Chelsea Hotel and at a wreck of a hotel at Washington Square Park (now torn down). You had to bring your own padlock to your hotel room door. I did not associate with anyone in so-called cultural circles. Mostly hung around Greenwich Village. Wrote. Flew home to Stockholm. Published my collection of poems The Gambler's Stone, which contains scenes from the USA travels, 1978 and 1979.
My girlfriend Mathilde Taube and I traveled to New York City at the end of December 1979 as a good idea to start the new decade. By pure chance, we happened to meet Brynn Settels on a street (he would later make the music for my LP Shadow Comes). We went looking for an apartment and ended up renting a two-room kitchen on East Houston Street on the corner of Mott Street near Bowery in Little Italy. After a while, Mathilde traveled to Italy and Brynn to Mexico. In April, I was evicted by the landlord who harassed all the tenants in the house and turned off the heat and electricity. We took him to court. In front of the judge, he shouted that he was going to kill all of us tenants and had to be dragged out by guards; he lay there swearing on the floor, and his wig flew off him in the tumult. Still, he won the case, and I was evicted. I moved in with a girl near Harlem before returning to Stockholm at the end of April 1980.
Because New York plays such an important role in your poems, particularly the poems in Guillotine, can you talk more about what you did in New York during this trip? To what extent did you interact with the city’s artists, poets, and musicians? Did you visit CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, or any other of the legendary places from this period?
For more than four months, I drifted across the city, trying to take in as much as possible while keeping careful notes of environments and events. I enjoyed myself very much. I rarely returned home at night. Often ended up at bars with the worst reputation on the Lower East Side where the drinks never cost more than $1. Other, more fashionable places I liked were Fanelli’s Café and Kettle of Fish in the Village.
The proximity to Soho meant a lot. The old beautiful brick houses with dim yellowish lighting at night like an old opera backdrop. At that time, artists could rent large unfurnished lofts there for a cheap price, with a toilet placed unsheltered in the middle of the floor. Every night there was a party in a loft; I met many, many artists and writers in passing. I have no idea what happened to them. But it was a great time. Soon they would all be kicked out and would not even be able to afford a studio out in the Bronx. I saw extreme poverty and vulnerability along the Bowery. Addicts, beggars, and outsiders covered in newsprint literally froze to death during the winter. There was dirt, blood, broken glass, and violence everywhere in these neighborhoods. Shootings and ambulance sirens were constant.
Greenwich Village, on the other hand, was a nice and kind place in many ways. I was at some cafés where poets unknown to me read. [They all] read from the page and [were] nervous; they tried to be funny sometimes in the middle of a serious poem to get the audience involved, make the audience laugh. I got tired of that and stopped going to poetry readings.
One of the best things was that music was played everywhere. I was at CBGB and Max's Kansas City, but punk was over. I did not see any of the famous bands. But I did, for example, end up in a small bar where Kinky Friedman performed. And that felt good. It gave me more than when I saw a punk band wrapped in bloody pig intestines at CBGB.
Did you give any readings of your own?
Before I went to New York, Rolf Börjlind and I had been invited by Bob Holman, who was Ginsberg's secretary and who was also responsible for scheduling at St. Mark's Poetry Project, to have a performance in St. Mark's Church. So Rolf came over together with the musician Stefan Nilsson, who previously had written music for many of our poems. We rehearsed in a studio in Manhattan. Stefan brought his synthesizer with him. It turned out to be a good show. It was evening and pitch black outside. The second I was to utter the first words of my first poem, lightning struck nearby. It thundered, and the black church windows flared up in white light. It was a good effect.
About the reading, Holman wrote a review for a newsletter:
On Monday March 10, the St. Marks Poetry Project was invaded by three Swedes who gave a poetry performance that invigorated and enriched not only the audience but the art of poetry event as well. Rolf Borjlind’s epic poem pushed the limits of poetry to the depths of the oceans. Bruno Öijer’s poems bit into the apple of New York’s eye to the painful core. Stefan Nilsson’s keyboards held the world together atom by atom, note by note. For almost three hours the audience barely moved, but were all moved by the performance—transported to a place no postcard can depict. Wish you were there.
I was kind of sad to leave New York at the end of April. But given the high pace I lived with during my stay, it was OK. Sometimes the skyscrapers, the rat race, and the concrete and the asphalt jungle had really felt like a suffocating prison.
Did the stay in New York affect your writing (in addition to being a motif and a setting in a lot of the poems)?
The New York stay was of great importance to me and my writing. When I started writing Guillotine in the spring of 1981, I ended up in a kind of trance. I wrote six, seven poems a day, and it never ended, it just kept going. And many poems in Guillotine are taken from my experiences in New York, even when it is not clear. Without New York, it would have been a completely different book.
Poet and translator Johannes Göransson emigrated with his family from Skåne, Sweden to the United States at age 13. He earned a BA from the University of Minnesota, an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of several books...