Niillas Holmberg

Finland

Niillas Holmberg (born 1990) is a poet, musician, actor, translator and activist from Ohcejohka in Sámiland, Finland. He is the author of three collections of poetry, written in his mother tongue, Northern Sami, a minority language spoken by 20 000 people in Finland, Norway and Sweden. His poems is translated to several languages. Earlier this year a broad selection of Holmbergs poetry was published by Francis Boutle Publishers in English translation, titled ”The Way Back”. He has performed at many leading poetry festivals, such as the Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia, Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia, and Poetry on the Road in Bremen. In 2015 he received the Premio Giovani Literature Prize for his influental efforts to develop and promote Sámi culture. The same year he was also the Sámi nominee to the Nordic Council Literary Award, the most prestigious literary award in the Nordic countries. 


”Some of us still speak Earth”

 

 

Niillas Holmberg (born 02.07.1990) is a poet, musician, actor, translator and activist from Ohcejohka in Sámiland, Finland. He currently resides in Jåhkmåhkke in Sweden. He is the author of three collections of poetry, written in his mother tongue, Northern Sami, a minority language spoken by 20 000 people in Finland, Norway and Sweden. His poems is translated to several languages. Earlier this year a broad selection of Holmbergs poetry was published by Francis Boutle Publishers in English translation, titled ”The Way Back”. He has performed at many leading poetry festivals, such as the Medellin Poetry Festival in Colombia, Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia, and Poetry on the Road in Bremen. In 2015 he received the Premio Giovani Literature Prize for his influental efforts to develop and promote Sámi culture. The same year he was also the Sámi nominee to the Nordic Council Literary Award, the most prestigious literary award in the Nordic countries. Holmberg is the subject in the documentary SOAJÁLAČČAT – "THE WINGED" by Ima Aikio-Arianaick from 2013. It portrays Holmberg while working as an artist in residence at Lásságámi, Nils-Aslak Valkeapääs former home in Skibotn in Norway. In the film we also follow him at home at his birthplace in Ohcejohka. Artist Valkeapää and his birthplace Ohcejohka are two key influences in Holmbergs writing.

 

Similar to Holmberg, Valkeapää was an multiartist with many talents, that made him a crucial exponent for musical, literary and other cultural expressions in Sámi throughout Scandinavia and even worldwide. Holmberg admits being influenced by Valkeapää at a very young age. At the age of sixteen Holmberg moved to Tampere to study. On his first Christmas vacation home in Ohcejohka, Holmberg randomly picked one of Valkeapääs poetry books from his fathers bookshelf, brought it back with him to Tampere, and in his own words: "I started reading it and it was about the same things that I had been thinking about a lot, and it definetly sparked me into writing." For Holmberg the comparison to Valkeapää is usually a good thing, but can also feel slightly superficial: "People have been comparing me to Valkeapäa for five, six years. Especially in the beginning I was very honoured, and I kind of still am. But now I've been sort of trying to distance myself from that.... It has a lot to do with laziness, people need to compare someone with someone. They can't figure out by themselves what this is about, need to put it in a box and the only box in our Sámi world is Valkeapää, especially as a poet, but also as a musician as myself."

 

His birthplace is a huge part of Holmbergs poetry, but it wasn't untill he left his home that he started writing about it: ”I started writing seriously every day when I was sixteen. This was when I moved away from home, to study in Tampere. I didn't know anyone in Tampere, and I left home because I wanted to, I had this brave idea of leaving home and leaving everything behind, to start from scratch in a brave new world. But when I left home I realized that in a way I was closer to home than I had ever been before, because I was thinking about it all of the time and sort of looked at it with new eyes.” As his colleague and collaborator, I travelled to visit Holmberg in Ohcejohka at summertime a couple of years ago. I witnessed this desolate place in the very north of Finland, bordering to Norway and the Tana river, which the Ohcejohka river emanates from, itself a huge floody river flowing silently through the small town named after it. Ohcejohka is surrounded by woody hills, dwelling under the midnight sun. When visitng Holmberg, I imagined how it must have been for him growing up there as a kid. He would have had plenty of time listening to the desolate silence of his surroundings. Or maybe, when one gets used to it, one will be able to capture different sounds and images that are being exposed in this kind of nature.

 

In a slightly altered version of a passage from the foreword to the English translation, Holmberg writes about his origins and Sámi poetry: ”Looking through the eyes of an indigenous poet, there are two escape routes from the sickness of the modern industrialised world. The first is to go back into the past, to seek advice from our ancestors and embrace their values and worldview, and most importantly, incorporate them as a living part of the present day. In spite of centuries of colonisation in Sámiland, many of us still speak the language of Earth. Earth with a capital E as if it was a language.

 

Sámi poetry is often connected to yoik (luohti), the traditional way of singing of the Sámi. The tradition of yoik has many functions, most mentioned of which is serving as a method of reminiscing. Yoiks are mostly made, or set, for people, places and animals. They often contain scarce, poetic impressions in the form of words. It’s sometimes said that a yoik is never made by a yoiker but merely channelized from the surrounding environment. From this point of view we are talking about artistic observation rather than creation. The beginninglessness and endlessness, the cyclic conception of time of indigenous peoples appears in a yoik as repetition. There are clear signs of this in Sámi poetry as well.”

 

One aspect that seems fresh and new in Holmbergs poetry is his use of humour and self-irony. Many of his poems are slightly humouristic in their story-telling style, in their reflections on the past and the present; In the poem ”A Lesson from an Ancestor” he gets his wisdom calling his great great grandfather on Skype. In the poem ”Aren't you the mountain, aren't you the sky”, a tibetan munk is reciting his mantra and then, embarassed, drops his Iphone as the thunder roars.

 

At the young age of 26 Holmberg is already experienced in travelling across the world. The influence from these travels, the places he has been to, the artist he has met, and the authors he has read, are evident in his poetry. Holmbergs poetry connects with many other different worlds, to name a few examples of different magnitude: Here are obvious traces on everything from Buddhism, the swedish poet Bengt Berg, music icon Bob Dylan and the french poet and legend Arthur Rimbaud. Holmberg mirrors his Sámi identity in other cultures, other music and literature, and his poems alludes to both historical and present sources of many kinds. One of the most catchy poem from the English translations is, in my opinion, a poem that combines great storytelling with fresh and surprising metaphors:

 

For Bengt Berg

 

He told me to take care

and I mean it

from the bottom

of my bottle

 

the polar night can appear

like a bottle of dark wine

the sooner you finish it

the sooner you have

a candlestick

 

What are Holmbergs own reflections on preserving tradition and breaking new ground in his works? He tells me: ”Every Sámi artist have to go through this period of romantic nationalism. It is something everyone has to go through. Everyone should be allowed to do that, it is necessary, but I feel we have reached a point where we don't always need to publish that. We can never forget our ancestors and our philosophy but we do not need to sort of emphasize that again and again. Pablo Neruda said something like If you want to be a great poet you need to be the peoples poet, and I don't think our people are living solemnly in ancient history. We are connected to the rest of the world in a new way, to all the phenomenons that I mention in my poetry. ”We don't live in isolation, in a vacuum.” Indeed: Holmbergs poetry sheds a new light over Sámi identity, connecting his origin and roots with the outside world. While experimenting with the language of Earth, he is creating a modern poetic expression that expands stylistic and traditional boundaries outward. 

 

Written by Endre Ruset in collaboration with Niillas Holmberg.