By José Luis Rico
Untitled drawings, Sini Silveri
I first met Sini Silveri at the launch of Titaanidisko (Poesia) on March 7th, 2020. The presentation took place at SIC Art Gallery, in Helsinki. Being relatively new to the city, that was my first visit to Kannelmäki, and I took pictures of the neighborhood’s sober architecture and graffiti before arriving at the venue. Drawings and paintings by Mika Palonen, the author of Titaanidisko’s cover art, lined the gallery’s walls.
Wearing a black leather jacket, Sini read her poetry in a silent and self-asserting voice for a crowd of about thirty people. Afterwards, Apurit-duo (Sini & Viljami Hukka) used a guitar and a saxophone to produce a piece of deviant, unexpectedly accurate noise. I bought a copy of the book and left when my Suomi vodka flask was empty. Shortly thereafter, in spite of my baby-step Finnish, I opened Titaanidisko, setting out to read it. To my surprise, I was able to feel this poetry: it contained lucid somatic impressions, vistas of quotidian imperfection, an elusive quality which is the strength of my favorite poets, living and not.
Today I’m visiting Sini in her Sörnäinen studio, a small bare-brick basement room located under a kebab joint. Sini shows me her Russian grammar books, paintings, and drawings. We start this dialogue by opening a bottle of Bruxo mezcal from Mexico, which we pour into worn porcelain cups stamped with red, gaudy roses. As we talk, the visible drainpipes lining the walls hiss and regurgitate.
J.R.: I would like to start by going to the region of Salla, in Eastern Lapland, on the border with Russia. In a recent survey you answered for Helsingin sanomat, you mentioned Unto Ek as a relevant literary figure. Who is he and why are his books relevant to your own pursuit?
S.S.: His texts inspire me. There’s a mix of vulnerability and toughness in what he does. Unto is mostly put in the box of eräkirjallisuus. What is it in English? Wilderness literature? Is there any term?
J.R.: That’s a very interesting question. It took me a bit of research to understand what it was. There is no clear equivalent, that I could find. This is perhaps one symptom of how unique the description of nature is in Finnish: if you try to translate it into English, it sounds either too generic or empty as a concept. Or corny. I think Unto Ek’s literature can help us define eräkirjallisuus. What was his approach?
S.S.: Unto Ek writes about adventures in nature. Being in nature, doing things there. He’s an antihero, an outsider. He didn’t want to belong. He wanted to hunt; he was a furtive hunter. It’s a world in the margins of society, but still living and enjoying life. Not like just against something. Normal life, but outside of the box.
J.R.: He went rogue. Unto mentions he waged a sissisota (“guerrilla war”) against the Finnish government, after tax debts made him loose his property. It was his way of seeking revenge. He hunted to feed himself but killed a big bunch of bears. How is that reflected in his literature?
S.S.: In his writing he shows he’s not a big star. He’s living outside, breaking rules, also the eräkirjallisuus rules. He’s not just a hero like other writers of this genre, who aim at a loftier literature: “Nature is so beautiful.” Unto describes himself laying in the swamp, trying to take a picture of an elk, or some bird, and failing to do it. But the other stories, the ones upholding that “the landscape belongs to us” are also eräkirjallisuus.
J.R.: It’s a romanticization.
S.S.: Generally eräkirjallisuus is being in nature. Inside, not outside of nature, not looking at it. Enjoying and playing there.
J.R.: In the Helsingin Sanomat survey you also said you thought eräkirjallisuus was “a certain Finnish surrealism, in whose world we move wherever we want to, with a certain idleness or unproductivity.” Since I’m not aware of all the Finnish precursors to Titaanidisko, I approached it from the standpoint of a general European poetical cannon. I’m not trying to put you in a hard spot, but I feel there are many aspects of your poetry which resemble Rimbaud’s. When I was first reading Titaanidisko I had nothing to back that claim. The reviews that started sprouting, however, gave me some hints that this impression might be accurate. Eleonoora Riihinen says you write “robust declarative sentences” (jykeviä toteavia eksistentiaalilauseita): “this is this, and this is this”. Marjorie Perloff, for example, says about Rimbaud’s poetry that it’s seemingly matter-of-fact. The syntax is simple. However, the overall effect is quite uncanny: “the dissolution of the self allows the narrator to participate in the life of external phenomena” (Perloff,The Poetics of Indeterminacy, 62). Dissolving the self, dissolving a landscape, and then mixing them together. That’s what Rimbaud did. I feel it’s also the case in Titaanidisko. In what way does Finnish surrealism fit into a more general perspective of European avantgarde? Is something that you care about?
S.S.: Yes, it is something I care about. Avantgarde is a starting point. I respect unproductivity. Walking in a city, as a flaneur, is a European way of being unproductive. But in Finland we don’t have cities. Helsinki is not a city, in that sense. It’s not a metropolis. Or perhaps it’s part of the Saint Petersburg metropolitan area. So we walk in the forest here. We step in, thinking whatever we want, going wherever we want. Those kinds of adventures happen while roaming around in meditation. Being outside yourself also. Erä is connected to walking, and walking is connected to surrealism.
J.R.: There’s a sense of exploration.
S.S.: A situationism, as in the situationist movement.
J.R.: On the other hand, at least in Titaanidisko the characters seem stuck. They are lying down in ditches, or motionless on beds, imagining stuff. Or on a sofa. Or sitting by the road.
S.S.: It’s easy to connect to that emotion: not being able to do something, even though you want or need to move. This is something that I feel a lot in society, in family life, at work. A sense of being robbed.
J.R.: From what?
S.S.: Maybe from joy. From time to go for a walk. No time for a one-week hike. That’s an avantgarde feeling: having time to walk around. Buthistorically, mostly men were doing this careless wandering around. In Europe in general and here. I’m taking over this privilege when I talk about eräkirjallisuus and avantgarde. Making it more diverse.
J.R.: In the book you say: “Because every living thing is captured, death is interesting…” Being deprived of something, in a paralysis. There’s this deprived subject, and s/he is fragmented, or weak. When you write: “the dark and soaking god is lost in the forest,” it’s reminiscent of Dante. The word metsä (“forest”) is present throughout the book, but also sysmä, which means “dark forest”. That forest is a metaphor for something else. On the other hand, critics of the book have underscored the importance of everyday life’s banality, of emptiness, in Titaanidisko. There’s a big presence of so-called “gas-station-Finland” (ABC-Suomi). Why is that seemingly unpoetic environment useful for your writing?
S.S.: I don’t know why everyday life isn’t poetic. Maybe it’s connected to being present, meditating, being here. It’s not something you can avoid. If you’re human, you’re here, seeing ABC stations, you’re consuming. And of course, it feels empty because it’s about producing and buying stuff. But maybe I don’t understand why it’s not poetic. But death is interesting in an extreme and teenage-angsty way because it’s not over-commodified yet.
J.R.: My sense of your descriptions of everyday life is that the pursuit of small worries allows you to not think about deeper, more pressing problems. You write about checking the bus timetables on the way to the restroom. There’s an urgency to keep the mind busy on something that seems less urgent. It feels like the characters of the book are as lost in ABC-Finland as in the forest.
S.S.: Being lost is a way of being present in the moment. Not everyone has the possibility to successfully do things all the time, because there’s a lot of sadness and things that push us down. But I try to think that all those things are equal. There is sadness, and getting lost, and buying a bus ticket. They are all big things in life. But I can also understand that important things come before emotions. Hard things exist also.
J.R.: “Also” is an important word to understand the way you write. Because you say: “there is this,” a moment of harmony, followed by the contrary. There’s oscillation. You use the word “precarious”: “The precarious torso is in the kitchen preparing food.” In your poetry we rarely ever see a full body. In this poetry there are only limbs, not a complete human. When you’re talking right now, I feel that you as a person have a much more positive relation to everyday life than I get from the poems. It’s very bleak in there. There are these incomplete, perhaps mutilated creatures, who keep on with their everyday life. Is a mutilated torso preparing food something sad?
S.S.: No, it’s not sad. It’s just what’s happening around us. Like what’s happening upstairs, in the kebab restaurant. [Above the artist’s studio.] We mentioned work is not nice. But the restaurant workers are doing it cheerfully, it seems. People are a bit fragmented. It feels there’s so many amputated things in the forest, in rivers, also in people, in robots, cyborg parts. But we still exist. Life still exists. After a war everyone has some disability, but life goes on. That’s something that interests me: what happens after catastrophes. If this society collapses, or when capitalism collapses, there will still be life. Microscopic. Or mushrooms. Or maybe people will live too.
J.R.: So this fragmentation is kind of a scar that comes after a catastrophe, but perhaps a sign of endurance or resilience? This everyday life in your poetry becomes carnivalesque. Intense imagery flows through very quotidian settings. Which brings us to the following moment: the celebration. The first character is lost in the forest like Dante. Then there are all the experiences of precariousness, amputation, but life goes on. The other prominent space in Titaanidiskois the lakeside. You talk about a rantafantasia (“beach fantasia”). As a flaneur, what is the specificity of a beach?
S.S.: A beach, a lake, are meant for relaxing. For swimming. There might be a tent to sleep in. It’s a border area between water and the land, which always inspires me. During my studies in Joensuu, I lived in an apartment building. When I went for groceries, I walked through a small forest with a campfire and usually there were people drinking, having their fun. That was a small spot between block houses. Not a fancy area. But it was so joyful, a small forest, a small bonfire, between places. The kind of thing I’m always looking for. Fun amid work, amid society or the capitalistic system.
J.R.: And it doesn’t require much. Just wood, some matches, and friends.
S.S.: True. When I was living in Oulu there was party spot, which they simply called leiri (“field”). We always said, “let’s go to leiri”. There’s a bonfire. And you swim. There’s some drinking going on but not always. There were many circles of friends, sitting there. It’s a bit outside the city, kind of a secret place. Like your own tribal, gang place. Come to think of it, maybe the leiri still has influence on my writing.
J.R.: What time of your life was that?
S.S.: Maybe 6, 7 years ago. In Oulu there’s a river, and the sea, small islands and many roads connecting the islands. It’s interesting. There are many summer swimming spots. People go fishing, and swim, but still live in a city. That was my life there. I’ve heard Oulu is an awful place, but I had fun because I was swimming a lot.
J.R.:Leiri is such a powerful word because it’s empty but is also used as in keskitysleiri (“concentration camp”). All of that. The fact that you talked about having a tribe or gang comes back to the problem with society at large. Unto Ek was an antihero, cast out from society. That’s a very tough life. Imagine you’re chopping wood. If you cut off your finger, what do you do?
J.R.: It’s a radical situation. And I think having a tribe is a mediation between belonging to ABC-Finland and being all alone hunting bears. I feel there is a pursuit in the book of a middle ground, but not in the sense of tepidness or safety. Your first book, Muovailen muovipussista kaunista kahvaa (2016), begins with the words “evasion / sameness / lagging in oneself.” In Titaanidisko you have “I-ness,” “mine-state.” Words of radical individualism, anthropocentrism. And on the other hand, there is this problematic collectivism, where the individual is lost completely. Are you treading on the border between those two spaces?
S.S.: There is this bordering, stepping into some grey areas. Also, showing that those things which look like freedom or security are not automatically nice. ABC-Finland is not something everybody wants. Loosing yourself is also dangerous. Those are equal things. I want to show all norms exist simultaneously. There is no single right way of thinking. Many kinds of places exist together on the same earth.
J.R.: In this space between overlapping realities there is a sense of enjoyment. You mentioned you interest in the Spinozan notion of joy. I think it can be deceitful because we know what joy means in the general sense. What does this very old philosophy have to do with your writing?
S.S.: Society foists affects on us, in the form of borders or sensualities. Spinoza writes about affects. There is joy as one positive active affect. It affords energy to do things, since it comes from ourselves and not from authority. But if they are sad, they come from outside. Like when a priest tells you, “you need to do something.” That depletes you from your possibilities.
J.R.: You mentioned the will to increase power, increase strength. In your writings, what are things that make you feel you are increasing that strength?
S.S.: Maybe sexuality. Happy party moments, or this kind of nice communal things. When it’s not pushing you down, when you’re together with other people. Adventures give joy.
J.R.: What does adventure mean for you right now? In Finland, in 2020, during this pandemic. Do you hunt bears yourself?
S.S.: Today I came here on foot all the way from Roihuvuori, listening to the Wu-Tang Clan. The sun was shining, and I felt life was good. That was an adventure. In the summer I was picking blueberries and mushrooms and spending time in the cottage, in nature. But it requires playfulness, or anarchism, to find adventures. And escaping routines. For me as a writer or as a person, just listening to the Wu-Tang Clan on my headphones or going ice-hole swimming brings good vibes.
J.R.: As a reader, what I find powerful about your book is that it starts in a dark place and it gets to a joyful one. I come from a country where people don’t tend to live in the countryside. I’ve never been lost in the forest. But then when you approach the end of the book and there are the fruits which begin to sprout, and people gather, there is a sense of communal joy and even humor I can relate to. Do you think your efforts in writing have made you a happier person?
S.S.: Maybe when I’m writing I’m more present in the moment, I see what’s happening around. And that also causes joy. Not only being in an empty spot, in a dark tunnel. Writing is a fun, nice thing to do. Is not only being lost in your emotions, it is about calming down the chaos.
J.R.: This book came out this year. The launch was quite lively. The reception has been positive. You wrote this, as you said, because writing is a nice thing. What is next?
S.S.: One criticism—other people have said so but I agree—is that the fragmentariness estranges readers. And I can see that this can decrease energy and induce sadness. It may be that postcapitalist life is less “mutilated.” That’s something I am thinking about more: empathy, solidarity, taking care. These cool things.
J.R.: Those affects bring stuff together, heal. They stitch together an amputated limb.
S.S.: Or make a new one. From a dumpster dive. From wood or metal. That’s interesting, because this is a rather dark book. Limbs are in space, floating. How to bring them closer? That’s also one option in this world. Reaching outside of yourself. You’re not isolated from your hand. There’s also the option to take it back. I don’t remember who said: “If you don’t believe you’re part of the world, revolutions will not happen.” Because we’re not together. So empathy can make it possible. And I mean “revolution” as changing the world.
J.R.: If we elected you chancellor of the world, what would be the first law you would instate?
S.S.: I don’t even want to think about laws.
J.R.: Okay. I you had the chance to effect change beyond your immediate sphere, what would you do?
S.S.: Basic income.
S.S.: Yes. Perustulo.
J.R.: O.K. Sini Silveri for president, then.
S.S.: I have been thinking about perustulo for fifteen years. I remember so many dreamy moments of activism in my life when I have been like: “Fuck! Basic universal income! We need that!” That’s what society needs. It comes with empathy too.
In early December 2020, the Kalevi Jäntti prize was awarded to Sini Silveri for Titaanidisko.
A sample of English and Spanish translations, along with the Finnish originals, can be found here.