Do poems really strike poets, complete and perfect, like a bolt of lightning? Not Danish writer Inger Christensen (65): she fully admits to writing in a sort of trance, unsure as to what is really going on: "I just write and during the writing all kinds of thoughts are trying to get into the poem. Later, I think maybe it means this or that. But with my book alphabet, I did not sit down and say `now I will write a catastrophic poem'."
In her careful and hesitant English she explains that this year for the first time, two of her books, a novel (The Painted Room, published by Harvill) and a book of poetry (alphabet, published by Bloodaxe), have been issued in English translations (a second book of poetry, Butterfly Valley - a Requiem, will appear in translation from Ireland's Dedalus press in the autumn). Her trip to Dublin to give a reading at the Dublin Writers' Festival on Sunday will be another first - her first visit to Ireland.
But to return to the writing process: although she sees a place for secrets and labyrinths in her work, she doesn't go along with creating a mystique around how she writes. Her elaborately constructed sequence of poems on the Cold War and nuclear holocaust, alphabet, written in 1980, came about by happenstance rather than forethought: "The Cold War never seemed to end and I thought, `why write poetry; why not write something useful?' I found myself listing things, words starting with "a", and then "b", and "c". I was reading the encyclopaedia one day when I came across Fibonacci's numeric sequence, in which each number is equal to the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 and so on. I realised I could combine the numbers and the words."
Alphabet has 14 sections, each of which focuses on a letter from the alphabet (beginning with "a" and ending with "n"). The sections grow from fragments into lengthy sequences as the lines add up. The first section contains one line: "Apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist." Christensen explains: "Because I could only use one line, I could only use one word beginning with "a". I used "apricot". I liked the sound of the word. Later it was useful, because "apricot" is the same word in all languages. So, even in translation, the book begins the same. It doesn't necessarily continue that way. If there is a word that starts with "b" in Danish, it may start with "h" in English, but I didn't change the word. All my translators wrote to me asking me if they could change but I said `no, if you change the word you'll change the meaning'."
In spite of these restrictions, Susanna Nied's translation of alphabet won the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize for Poetry. And the book, although inspired by the Cold War, continues to be a timely piece of writing: "If anything, things have grown worse since I wrote it," muses Christensen. "When I'm reading the newspapers, I wonder what we as a people are going to do next."
Alphabet builds in incantatory power into a celebration of the natural world and a warning that our activities may be ruining it forever: "Now the sky is a cavern where withered birds will rot like fallen fruit . . . in our despairs we have made/a flowerless earth/sexless as chlorine." Typically, Inger Christensen did not realise that her choice of Fibonacci's numeric sequence was particularly appropriate for "a plea . . . that life can continue". "I found out after I had written alphabet that many plants follow these numbers. For example, sunflowers are ordered with the Fibonacci sequence - it's the way the seeds are placed." Pinecones apparently follow a similar pattern.
The book ends with a chilling reminder of how a planet dominated by machines and the threat of a nuclear holocaust will affect our children: "as if they were children in childhood's/ fairy-tales they hear the wind tell/ of the burned-off fields/ but they are no children/ no-one carries them any more." Christensen remembers reading the tales of her countryman Hans Christian Andersen when she was a child, and has written two books for children herself. "It was nice to write them. One is a fairytale and one is set in contemporary Denmark."
She has one son, of whom she says wryly: "He is 27 and studying for his PhD in literature. I tried to make him interested in science, but I didn't succeed. I tried to keep it a secret from him, that there is a future in literature." The example of her own life tells another story, however. As well as six collections of poetry, Christensen has written radio drama, two novels, and two books of essays. She has won several major European awards, including the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy and the Grand Prix des Biennales Internationales de Poesie. Her work has been translated into French and German, and she gives many readings in Germany and Austria.
She began to think of herself as a writer when she was at school, and one of her teachers noticed that, although the young Christensen wrote beautifully, it was never on the set topic: "We were given a subject like My Holidays," recalls Christensen. "I always seemed to write about something else. The way of writing was more important than the theme. One of my teachers said that perhaps this was a new kind of literature. How I write is still very important to me. But it must mean something too: a music with a meaning."
She began to write poetry, but soon decided to try fiction. The Painted Room is a short novel inspired by a fresco painted in the bridal chamber of the palace of Prince Lodovico Gonzaga of Mantua by the Italian Renaissance artist, Mantegna: "Originally, because I wanted to write a novel in three parts, a story told in three different ways, I thought I would write about a triptych. But then I found out that every triptych has Christ in the middle, so I had to find something else."
She came across "The Hall of the Consort Fresco in the Ducal Palace" in an encyclopaedia: "The portraits fascinated me. I got some books about the period and researched the background of the painting. I lived next door to an art historian who told me that everything was correct in my book but that no-one would believe me." Complete with incest, a lovesick murder, a deserted dwarf and a promiscuous pope, the book tells a story that, in its fantastic grotesquerie, reads like the best of magic realism.
It was written in the early 1970s, when readers everywhere were reeling with the impact of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Christensen, who claims Borges as a role model rather than Marquez, denies any influence: "I had just published a book of poems called It, which was popular in Denmark because it was critical of Danish society and chose to describe the life of the ordinary people. It had become a mantra in the universities, which were dominated by Marxists at the time. I wanted to change my way of writing and do something different. I didn't think of magic realism. I just went into exile with this painted room."
The colourful, elliptical narratives of The Painted Room at first conceal more than they reveal: "There is a secrecy that is important in fiction and in poetry too, so that when you read it, you are forced to read between the lines." Christensen is just as secretive about herself. In her enigmatic insistence on the accidental process of writing, she remains aloof from the journalist's quest for a larger-than-life author. Mantegna's remark in The Painted Room about the fate of artists seems apt: "Of us there will be nothing left, but our fellow human beings will speak through our pictures."
Inger Christensen reads from her work in Danish, with translations in English read by Nuala Hayes, at Andrew's Lane Theatre, Dublin, on Sunday at 3.30 p.m., as part of the Dublin Writers' Festival. The festival runs from Thursday to Sunday, and participating writers include Jane Smiley, Doris Lessing, Colin Bateman, Anne Enright, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Moya Cannon, Joseph O'Connor, A.S. Byatt, Andrew Millar and Alan Stanford, who will mark the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death on Sunday with a reading of The Happy Prince. To book phone 01-8741415
Gary Mitchell's article - advertised for today - on life as a Northern, working-class, Protestant playwright will run on Thursday