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The City and the Writer: In Copenhagen with Niels Hav

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Copenhagen as you feel/see it?

On a rainy day: anger and frustration, people pushing each other on the bus. On a sunny day: cheerfulness and generosity, people are happy just to be alive and walk along the lakes.

And in winter:

The married wives of Copenhagen
cycle around hell

in winter
with lumps of frozen pig hearts

in the baskets of their bikes.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When Iwas sixteeen years old I often went to the brothels out in Vesterbro. I was in love with a young prostitute. She was from Mongolia, and very beautiful. I went there every night. We sat holding hands. I was completely enchanted. Until the day I discovered she had other boyfriends, she sat there and kissed a stranger at the bar. The world crashed, I was crushed, tears sprang out of my eyes. Over the stranger's shoulder she looked me straight in the eyes. She saw me. I spun around and ran out, ready to commit suicide. Back in my cold room, I wrote a flood of angry poems. Like Bob Dylan when he came to New York City, he told a lot of stories, good stories about where he came from, they were all different, but none of them were true.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?

The early mornings in June—about 4 o’clock. The sweet air, the birds are singing, the sun rises. No traffic. You're alive and can fill your lungs with fresh oxygen. What bliss.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Jens August Schade (1903 -1978) an exceptional poet and a charming novelist—read his book People Meet and Sweet Music Fills the Heart. After winning the Danish Academy Prize for Literature and a decent amount of money he went on board the ferry to Sweden and spent all the money buying drinks for random tourists. “Rather a poet in Denmark than rich” was his motto.

Is there a place here you return to often?

My father was a verger and sexton, and I spent part of my childhood in the churchyard. Even today I feel at home there and often go to the graveyard just for a walk. Someday I will stay permanently.  

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Literary travellers always end up in Assistens Kirkegaard, the cemetery, looking for Hans Christian Andersen or Søren Kierkegaard. When you feel lost and alone stay an hour by Andersen’s grave. You will meet lots of interesting people from all over the world—China, Japan and the USA. Ugly ducklings or swans looking for company—each of them a fairytale.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you? 

I'm easy to seduce. We all carry hidden cities inside our head. Among my “home places” are the city's libraries. I can spend hours there hunting for new words and literary universes. Suddenly, it's closing time, a friendly librarian taps me on the shoulder, the spell is over, I can return to the tumult in the streets, or find a corner in a café and wait for you.

Where does passion live here?

Inside all Scandinavians burns—beneath a cool surface—a roaring hot fire.

What is the title of one of your poems about Copenhagen and what inspired it exactly?

“Women of Copenhagen” (

It’s about falling in love with five different women during a ride on the number 40 bus. Inspired by the atmosphere and the overwhelming number of beautiful women on that bus.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Copenhagen does an outside exist?”

I live with my family in Norrebro, the most colourful and multiethnic part of thecity. Every day in the streets and the shops we meet people born far away—Pakistan, Somalia, Turkey. Yes, an outside Copenhagen does exist but more importantly, it’s possible to find my Copenhagen also in Shanghai, Paris, or New York. When walking in a foreign city, I feel it and smell it and see it, and suddenly, this is the place I am at home.

Niels Hav is a poet and short-story writer living in Copenhagen. He is the author of six collections of poetry and three books of short fiction, most recently, De gifte koner i København. His books have been translated into several languages, and he is the recipient of numerous awards including The Danish Arts Council Award.

NH’s Discovery of the MonthSome contemporary Danish poets to read: Henrik Nordbrandt, Pia Taffdrup, and Inger Christensen. Some novelists: Christian Jungersen, Morten Ramsland and Peter Høeg.

Published Apr 28, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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