Degna Stone: Reykjavík and Waters and Harbours in the North

Since going freelance I’ve found it increasingly hard to squeeze writing into the gaps between projects and family commitments; so when I got an email from Rebecca at NWN asking if I’d like to go to Iceland for a week as part of the Waters and Harbours in the North project, I couldn’t say no. Five days dedicated to writing poetry in a place I’ve wanted to visit since first hearing The Sugarcubes in 1992? I pushed my nervousness about travelling abroad alone and my anxiety about meeting new people to the back of my mind and emailed back to say YES!

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Kristín Viðarsdóttir from Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature introduced us writers to each other: Jónas Reynir Gunnarsson (Iceland), Hanna Wikman (Sweden) and Trygvi Danielsen (Faroe Islands). We shared links to our work and, most interestingly, audio recordings – hearing everyone’s voices beforehand felt like we were already getting to know each other. On the first night, we gathered in the hotel bar where we also met María Daljberg, the visual artist we’d be working with during the week, before heading out for vegan food at Kaffi Vínyl.

l-r María Dalberg, Degna Stone, Trygvi Danielsen, Hanna Wikman, Jónas Reynir Gunnarsson. Photo credit: Kristín Viðarsdóttir.

We started the residency with a tour of the harbour (it was so windy!) before heading to Gröndalshus, the home of poet and naturalist Benedikt Gröndal, where we spent most of our days. The house, recently relocated to the corner of Fischersund and Mjóstræti, was built from a shipwrecked cargo of timber that had been salvaged at Hafnir on the Reykjanes peninsula in 1881. On the first afternoon of the residency we decided to head out to Reykjanes to see where the timber landed and to find inspiration for the week ahead. There is something elemental about Iceland. Out on the peninsula the landscape feels timeless, almost extra-terrestrial. Once you move away from the road the only signs of human activity are the vorður (cairns) dotted at intervals along the paths leading to the cliff edge.

On Wednesday morning we met outside the library. Björn, our guide, began with a ghost story before taking us on a tour of Reykjavík. Next to the lake at City Hall is a sculpture of The Unknown Bureaucrat which, like Gröndalshus, had moved from one overlooked location in the city to a more prominent position. The tour gave me a taste for supernatural tales and after exploring the Maritime Museum and the Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn (which had been engaged in all three Cod Wars) I bought a couple of books of Icelandic folk tales from the gift shop.

Hanna, Trygvi and I were back at Gröndalshus that evening to attend a poetry reading. Listening to poets speak in a language I don’t possess was a surprisingly satisfying experience, the musicality of the language allows you to find meaning in the cadences (and the audience responses help too). One of the poets, Hallgrímur Helgason, noting that a number of foreigners were at the reading, gave his introduction in English. He explained the origin of his latest collection Fiskur af himni (03.11.2014 – 03.11.2015), which was created over the period of a year when the poems came to him like ‘fish from heaven’.

After lunch the following day (the best vegan falafel wrap I’ve ever had from Mandi’s) we went to Nýló, The Living Art Museum in the Marshall House, a place that looks like it belongs in a Wes Anderson film. It was fascinating to get a sense of the history of this artist-led museum and a joy to be guided around Joan Jonas’ exhibition Does the Mirror Make the Picture. We had the rest of the afternoon off to prepare for our reading at the cute and cosy Kaffislippur. It was wonderful to hear Hanna, Jónas and Trygvi perform their work in their own languages after listening to them speak in mine all week. It’s so interesting to note the change in the tone of voice; I know this is an obvious thing to say but a different energy comes across when someone speaks in their own language. It makes me wonder what I would be like in another language. (Duolingo tells me that I’m 57% fluent in French, so maybe one day I’ll be able to find out.)

I feel like I was just getting to know Iceland when it was time to leave. We spent so much time working that it was impossible to do all the touristy things. I managed to get one swim in at the outdoor pool on the last day of the residency, the contrast between the cool air and the warmth of the pool was gorgeous. (It wasn’t until I got back home and went for a swim in my local indoor pool that I fully appreciated just how amazing Iceland’s geo-thermally heated pools are.)

We ended the week with a farewell dinner, courtesy of Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature, at Fish Company (the vegan options were delicious, by the way). It was so lovely to end the week in the company of Kristín, Hanna, Trygvi, Jónas and María – such open-hearted and generous folk. It really felt like a precious week, it wasn’t guaranteed that we’d all get on let alone find such inspiration from each other. Being open to the coincidences and connections that kept cropping up has definitely changed my way of working and creating. I can’t wait to see how María weaves all our poems together into the film she’s making.

I’d love to go back to Iceland one day and spend a little more time out of the city. Maybe I’ll book myself a couple of weeks in the residency flat at Gröndalshus and go exploring…