This poem takes place in Tørshaven / where the nights don’t get dark, only dim. / God has left the big light on, and I am staring / down the barrel of the sun having mistaken it / for the moon.
I don’t believe in the concept of manifesting one’s dreams – though I do seem to be quite good at it. This summer was no exception. With help from Creative Scotland’s Author International Travel Fund, I was given the opportunity to visit the Faroe Islands for an experimental residency coined ‘Heysahorn’ (raising the horns), a kind of cross-cultural exchange between young artists, musicians and writers from Nordic and Celtic regions. Europe’s peripheries, if you will.
The Faroes are a group of islands in the north Atlantic, located between Iceland and the Shetland isles. They remain a territory of Denmark, which is an interesting topic of conversation to raise in the pub. The landscape is weathered and imposing; like mountains emerging from the ocean, (think Mull on steroids). Many of the islands are connected by a network of underwater motorways, complete with the world’s only underwater roundabout.
I had wanted to visit this little outcrop on the edge of the world, with a population smaller than that of Livingston’s, for a long time, and it was made possible by my meeting Dania O. Tausen, a very talented Faroese poet and singer-songwriter, at a poetry festival in 2022.
Despite its small size, the Faroes have a vibrant arts community. Everyone I met seemed to be an actor, a musician, a poet, or a filmmaker. In my ten day stay, I read at two separate music festivals (Skrapt and G!) and attended multiple gigs. I learned that the Faroes have their very own jazz scene, and of a musical genre called ‘Grotto music’, which is music that has been recorded in a sea cave. We swam in the electrifyingly cold ocean, went on auditory walks, and took part in a wild array of workshops, concerning alternative performance scores, Welsh poetic scansion, bookbinding, beading, and joik: a traditional Sámi form of song.
But almost more important than the creative pursuits seemed to be the very experience itself: the meeting of like minded people, with a playful approach to creation, and an interest in sharing the traditions of our respective cultures. We were twenty-something twenty-somethings, all emerging from the isolation of a global pandemic, with a desire for connection and adventure.
We stayed up late, like the sun in midsummer, enthusiastically discussing what it means to come from an outlying place; to speak a so-called ‘minority language’ (I was the only person on the residency for whom English was their mother tongue); oral cultures; folklore; controversial traditions, histories and practices; colonialism; independence; AI; and existential threats. Poetry writing, for me, is the practice of actively noticing the world around you. The joy of travel is being totally immersed in another world, noticing the differences – along with the similarities.
A similarity I spotted that brought me great joy was my Nordic friends’ habit of taking a short, sharp intake of breath in conversation, described by linguists as an ‘ingressive sound’. This inhalation is generally deployed either to demonstrate one’s attentiveness, that one has come to the end of a thought, or that one is in agreement. Having both a mother and a partner who speak the Scots dialect of Doric, I recognised it immediately.
When I pointed out this linguistic trait, and its affinity with Scottish patterns of speech, my colleagues were surprised. They hadn’t realised that they did it. They taught me an Icelandic saying: “glöggt er gests augað” which translates to: “the eye of the guest is sharper”.
I was sad to leave Heysahorn behind: our little community of creatives who had been forced, under the unique circumstances, to become fast friends. We had had fun – and shouldn’t fun always be the point? I was struck by the fact that, aside from the Faroese, out of all of the people taking part in the residency – artists from Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sámi, Denmark and Wales – I had by far the shortest journey home.
We are an island ourselves, of course, and one that is becoming increasingly insular. We forget, at our peril, just how close we are to other cultures, and just how close those cultures are to ours. I returned to Scotland feeling very grateful to live this life: in which I’m able to meet people and make friends from all over the world; to learn about their languages and traditions; to translate their particular concerns and peculiarities. It affords me the chance to learn more about mine. Separated by an ocean, but finding common ground.