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Fearlessness, Alienation, & Mother-Sexuality: An Interview with Ursula Andkjær Olsen

By Noor Naga

Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s Third-Millennium Heart (Action Books, 2018), translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, received the 2018 National Translation Award for Poetry. Ursula Andkjær Olsen will be appearing at this year’s New Literature from Europe Festival, November 27–29 in NYC.


Noor Naga (NN): One of the oldest clichés to describe the writing process posits the book as baby and the writer as mother laboring to bring it into the world. In your case, however, a biological pregnancy coincided with your artistic one, and the work itself explores pregnancy, making the metaphor almost unavoidable. Do you consider yourself a poet-mother or midwife, or would you care to offer another analogy altogether?

Ursula Andkjær Olsen (UAO): Ha, yes, well, the funny thing is that I was, I think, more open to the metaphor before having a child—now I’m more reluctant. A midwife or a writing mother? Maybe both? Being both works better for me. It points at the split between the writing me and the non-writing me, that they are not the same but still have to help each other to make the whole operation work.  


NN: There was a real sense when reading Third-Millennium Heart that I was not safe within the text, particularly as a woman. There are repeated documentations of (and invitations to) penetrative and extractive violence. There are human tears slipping into ear canals, tits that are milked, organs ripped from the chest, bleeding, births, cunts in various states of pain and hunger. If this collection is a body, who hurt it? 

UAO: That is a very good question. To me the fact that the individual has torn itself apart from others, materials, surroundings, and is no longer only a drop in the sea but exactly this drop in the sea, that in itself takes some kind of violence. The violence of being an individual, of alienation. To become an individual, alienation is necessary. One has to get rid of the more massive being-identic and become something bigger but also always wounded. That indicates—for me, at least—that alienation, and also the violence that comes with it, have very beautiful possibilities. Maybe it is the heroic as such—the starting point of the heroic. I’m aware that the heroic is a very problematic concept, but I also admit that I’m not finished with it. I’m not a man, so I can’t tell if the text feels safer for a male reader, but I hope not.


NN: How would you describe this collection’s sexuality?

UAO: I don’t know, a mother-sexuality, maybe? At least for me, that turned out to be something other than the sexuality that I knew before. It’s about having things inside and turning them out. It’s both aggressive and caring. It has a certain fearlessness—and yet it is utterly paranoid. It is about being almighty, being the whole world and also being a place or space for creation, being the materials—and nothing more—that are being used to create. That is a very ambivalent position.

To me it seemed like these texts came from a non-voice, something other, something mute that was about to become a voice.

NN: You’ve mentioned that, out of the eight collections of poetry you’ve written, Third-Millennium Heart is the first where you felt the voice was truly corporeal. When you’re working on a project, are you conscious of how it fits within your larger body of work—your oeuvre—and of the venous connections throughout, or do you simply devote all your attention to the book at hand?

UAO: Normally I don’t know what I’m doing, at least not in the beginning of something new—that makes the word “project” not really precise for me. Also I’m always thinking of what I’m working on as something completely new compared to what I’ve done before. Only afterward, the feeling of having built yet another limb to a larger body creeps in on me . . . So yes, when working, I’m really consumed by the specific texts/things/thoughts/feelings/connections at hand, and then afterward I begin to see the whole as a whole.


NN: Of course, while the voice in Third-Millennium Heart is fleshy and sweating, it’s also noticeably automated, institutional, heroic, even doctrinal. Since this is such a divergence from the rest of your work, can you explain where this voice came from?

UAO: To me it was in the beginning not at all a voice, and that in itself was very unusual and intriguing—even unsettling—for me. Until then I had been working with my voice as a tool when writing, knowing how each phrase should sound/sigh/sing before I wrote it down. But these texts, I didn’t know how they sounded—and at first I was about to throw them out because of that. So to me it seemed like these texts came from a non-voice, something other, something mute that was about to become a voice. That’s why I call it my body language.


NN: Are you working on anything new that Danish readers should watch out for? And are there any other English translations of your work underway?

UAO: Yes, I’m working on something. I think it will be purple . . . or maybe more lilac or rosy pink. As for new translations, Third-Millennium Heart has a dark twin, called Udgående Fartøj, in English Outgoing Vessel. Katrine Øgaard Jensen is already working on translating it, and it will be published by Action Books in 2020.


Ursula Andkjær Olsen is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed contemporary poets. She has published nine collections of poetry, in addition to several dramatic texts and libretti for operas. Her polyphonic 214-page poem, Third-Millennium Heart, received the prestigious Montanaprisen Award (2013). The U.S. edition translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Broken Dimanche/Action Books, 2017) was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award and won the National Translation Award for Poetry (2018). Third-Millennium Heart’s sequel, Outgoing Vessel, received the Danish Critics’ Prize (2015) and will be published in the U.S. by Action Books.


Read an excerpt from Third-Millennium Heart

Read WWB’s review of Third-Millennium Heart

Read WWB’s After Inger Christensen: New Danish Poetry feature

Published Nov 21, 2018   Copyright 2018 Noor Naga

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