1 Aug 2023
Tommi Parkko, 2022, Buenos Aires
Tommi Parkko used his time in Filba residency in Buenos Aires to promote the cause of poetry, his own as well as that of others.
I interviewed poet Tommi Parkko, born in 1969, in Finnish, through a remote connection. When he is not working in residencies, Parkko lives in Turku. So far, he has published four poetry collections, in addition to nonfiction books on poetry. Parkko is also an editor in his own publishing house Kustannusliike Parkko that publishes poetry translated into Finnish. He has also taught writing in several educational institutions. But poetry, Parkko emphasizes, comes first. He has worked in several positions related to the culture field for thirty years, but his “big vision” is to promote poetry.
Parkko tells me residencies are a central part of his life and that working in residencies suits him well. He finds it easier to focus on long-term planning and projects especially abroad when social obligations get less in the way. Personally, he generally feels most comfortable working in narrowly structured residencies, but he emphasizes that all different types of residencies are needed. Writers should also have more residency options: for example residencies in New York, or more remote ones, such as the solitary Örö island that Parkko remembers fondly. As a writer, he feels he doesn’t require much: a laptop, some books, a desk, a bed, and food.
Parkko applied to Filba residency in Buenos Aires in 2020, and he was notified of his selection in November 2020. Originally, the accommodation was supposed to be in a culture center, but COVID-19 delayed the residency and altered the plans. Parkko’s romantic plan was also to travel by cargo ship in the manner of Olavi Paavolainen’s travel book Lähtö ja loitsu, but this did not work out either. Finally, the residency took place between August and November 2022, and Parkko was accommodated in an Airbnb flat in Buenos Aires’s Palermo Hollywood area.
Parkko was happy to go to Argentina where he had never been before, to also get acquainted with the local poetry. One of his publishing house’s next year’s publications will be a Finnish translation of Alejanda Pizarnik’s poems. Pizarnik was from Buenos Aires, which is another reason Parkko was interested in the city – to get a sense of the circumstances where the poet came from.
Palermo Hollywood is a part of the Palermo neighborhood with a lot of restaurants and books stores. It is not the richests nor the poorest part of Buenos Aires, Parkko explains. Though, he does not consider his current scenery central to his work. “I do what I do, basically anywhere,” Parkko says. In general, he feels that traveling and limiting his amenities keeps his mind active, but he did not, for example, write poems focusing on Buenos Aires in any obvious way while there. Parkko paid attention to the major inflation in Argentina which made him feel rich during the residency, while being a low-income cultural worker, and also a little bad for “colonizing the country,” as he puts it. “The prize of a pizza is three euros,” he explains.
Filba Foundation, which arranged Parkko’s residency, also organizes Filba International Literature Festival, held in Buenos Aires and Montevideo simultaneously. Parkko compliments the organizers for taking good care of him. He was always able to reach an English speaking contact person for help, and the organizers met him occasionally to ask him whether everything was going well. He feels that cooperation with the Finnish Cultural Foundation also ran smoothly.
There were some minor disturbances to his focused work, however, due to external circumstances. For one, the timing of the residency, which had changed because of the pandemic, was a little off. Parkko’s responsibilities related to the publishing house would have required him to be in Finland at the time, and this caused additional difficulties. Another problem was that the airlines lost his suitcase in which he had his personal belongings and books. As a result, Parkko had only a few things with him in the residency, which also affected his work, as he could not use all of the books that he intended to. He got the suitcase back three months later at the airport.
The cooperation with Filba included participating in the literature festival. Parkko was expected to create a text for the festival, and, at Filba’s suggestion, he went to see a football match for the first time in his life, accompanied by a local writer. Laughing, Parkko tells me that he didn’t even know who was playing and who won. During the match, he talked to the other writer with whom he also performed later at the festival but, even so, he managed to write a few poems about the football event in the end. His participation at the football event was the only structured program that was organized for Parkko during the residency, and this suited him well.
Parkko had several plans for the residency concerning his own poetry collections and other work. He hosted a seminar on creative writing through Zoom and worked on his book about slow traveling in Europe, but this project did not progress as much as he had initially planned. By coincidence, translator Aki Salmela, who is an associate of Parkko, happened to be at the same place at the same time, which was lucky, as they could, thus, easily work together on editing a translation of Jeet Thayil’s poetry in cafes and bars. Parkko also worked on translations of Ingeborg Bachmann, Mark Strand, Elo Viiding, Rami Saari, and Ilya Kaminsky, whose book will be published in Finnish during summer 2023. Parkko also used a lot of time planning his publishing house’s future activities, financing and marketing. A completely new idea was born, too: a plan to publish an anthology of contemporary Argentinian poetry in Finnish, in perhaps five years or so. So far, Argentinian poetry has not been very widely translated into Finnish, and Parkko and his associates wish to diversify the picture of Argentinian poetry in Finland. The translator is already known, and a specific Argentinian journalist will possibly help with selecting the poetry.
During the residency, Parkko also continued working on two of his own poetry collections, one of which is yet in such an early stage that its details are not ready to be shared. The more current collection that goes by the working title Maanpako (exile), on the other hand, is well under way. Parkko tells me that the book is centered around the concept of ostracism. The term comes from Ancient Greece where people’s assemblies had a custom of evicting democratically chosen people from Athens. No proper justification for the eviction was required. Nowadays, the term ‘ostracism’ is extended to social shunning more broadly, and Parkko mentions bullying at school as another example. “What are the consequences when a person is socially isolated?” is a question Parkko wishes to address in his book.
Parkko considers himself first and foremost as a poet. His work has been inspired by historical and mythological references. “I am perhaps not one of the most experimental poets,” he describes himself and sees his poetry as deriving from the tradition of modernism – though, with a more contemporary approach. Parkko emphasizes that he creates collections of works, not really singular poems, and does not even attempt to publish at a quick pace. In the past, he has published collections of poems about once every seven years. He is a slow perfectionist when it comes to his poetry which is not driven by financial interests. He makes a living from his other work.
Yle recently raised the question “Is Finnish poetry dying?” in the Kulttuuricocktail Live program. Parkko finds this discussion amateurish. “After all, poetry is currently both quantitatively and qualitatively more versatile than ever during Finland’s history of literature,” he declares. Parkko is passionate about promoting poetry and has written six nonfiction books on poetry, on writing poetry, and on reading poetry. He notices how especially young readers have been recently drawn into the format of a verse novel where long narratives are told using the medium of poetry; even prosaists have been attracted by the way in which poetry allows the writer to get directly to the point. Contrasting his thoughts to the famous quote by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Parkko proclaims that “the poet’s task is to talk about things for which there are no words, to sort of expand the world’s limits.” He emphasizes, though, that while this may sound pompous, it is completely possible and a mundane phenomenon. For example, new words are created constantly. “The world changes through language.”
Finnish Cultural Foundation’s residency programme is maintained and developed in collaboration with HIAP – Helsinki International Artist Programme.
Photo provided by the artist.