Portrait: political poet and new professor

2016-11-21 12:44

Hanna Hallgren is the much-appreciated poet who was recently appointed professor of literary composition at the University of Gothenburg’s Valand Academy. She shows how politics and aesthetics can be combined in an attractive way. Genus.se talked to Hanna Hallgren about practising patience and slowness, political writing as the only way to really be able to say something and the joy of being alive.

Hanna Hallgren identifies herself firstly as a poet and secondly as a scholar. But the two roles should really be carried out in symbiosis.

– When it works at its best, it feels like the roles expand each other. When it works at its worst, which is usually a result of lack of time and visions in the academic world, I dream of an endless opportunity for uninterrupted writing. My main interest in all of my writing is to be able to ”feel-think”, alone and together with others. The forms of such writing can vary. I have moved away from literary criticism over the years, so that role has been pushed to the background.

Hanna Hallgren worked as a literary critic for 15 years, including for Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet Kultur. She eventually left the field when she lost her enthusiasm. In addition, she sees literary criticism in the daily press as a craft with specific demands in terms of reading and writing, not least in relation to the work pace: it is important to be fast. Which is something she needs to get away from.

– The job fit me a bit too well. Now I need to practice slowness and patience. However, it has been great fun to test and explore different ways of reading and writing, and to gain insight into the latest happenings in the world of literature and book publishing. Yet today, I feel very uncertain about how well the literary criticism in the daily press is able to keep up what goes on in literature. My guess is not very well, so I think it’s good that new strategies for literary criticism are being tested. I believe diversity in voices can benefit literary criticism as a field.

New professor at the Valand Academy

Hanna Hallgren started her new position as professor of literary composition at the Valand Academy in August this year.

– I’ve been involved in artistic research for many years and have followed the institutionalisation of the field first hand. Besides the joy of working with texts in all possible ways and forms and interacting with people who write, I’m interested in creating environments and infrastructures for research. The story about artistic research both resembles and differs from the somewhat older story about the entry of gender studies into the academic community. It’s very exciting and challenging to serve in, and try to influence, a field in motion, in which time continues to be measured in key moments.

As Hanna Hallgren has never before worked at a faculty of arts, the experience of being in charge of such an organisation is brand new compared with previous appointments. One of her wishes is that she will get more room for research within the framework of her new assignment.

– I’m in many ways still exploring similarities and differences, and how these can be combined with my own work. Over the years, I’ve experienced a wide range of university cultures, as an undergrad, PhD student and senior lecturer – at Stockholm University, the University of Copenhagen, Södertörn University, Linköping University, Linnaeus University and now the University of Gothenburg. I think having served in so many different places gives me some sort of peace, or some sort of assurance that every place comes with a unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

The importance of writing

Hanna Hallgren published her first book in 2001. Since then, seven additional books have seen the light of day, and the meaning of her writing has evolved over time.

As a kid and teenager, I wrote to be able to live and breathe. When my writing eventually reached the public and became professionalised, new challenges emerged.

– Today I’m interested in writing as a craft and a method in a wider sense. I have also found it essential to ”recapture” my poetic writing. I have needed to recapture it because I have come to understand that poetry is the only way in which I can possibly say something at all, something that feels meaningful. To me, this has a lot to do with the political situation. I keep revisiting Victor Klemperer’s words about living in a fool’s paradise. The epithet can be applied for the explosive mix of fascism, neoliberalism and social conservatism that is characterising today’s society.

There is a recurring discussion concerning whether the criticism/theory or the literature/art comes first. But to Hanna Hallgren, boundaries do not exist in that way.

– I think the desire to think precedes the actual thinking. Such a desire can be expressed in many ways. I don’t think I’ve ever thought much about what precedes what when it comes to theory and artistic expression. Instead I’ve had a desire to transcend the boundaries between different genres and expressions of form. For me, the writing begins with a questioning, and the reason I write is rather to be able to keep questioning than to find absolute answers. To keep questioning, to keep being curious, is something very fundamental in theory, art and life itself.

Queer theory important

A theory that has meant a lot to her is queer theory, which she became familiar with in the 1990s.

It was the first theory I came across that did not explain homosexuality as some sort of defect. Later on, when I wrote my PhD thesis on lesbian feminism, I was able to see that there had been preceding theories, but I didn’t know that at the time. So queer theory hit me like a bomb. I changed the topic of my thesis in comparative literature, threw out the psychoanalytical theory and switched my focus to queer theory.

According to Hanna Hallgren, both academics and poets have an intellectual responsibility. That they can teach, read, write, do research and get practically involved as activists. But also that they can support, encourage, provide space for, listen to and learn from others.


She refers to herself as a socialist. It is about implementing a functioning allocation model for both material and symbolic resources. She also believes that a left-right scale is currently lacking in Sweden and sees several reasons for this.

– First of all, we live in some kind of monistic (capitalist) system, and we need stories about the outside of capitalism, meaning beyond the capitalist realism. Secondly, the left-right scale in party politics has historically been formulated around the white free man in the nation state. If this subject is politically neutralised to the starting point for all issues that relate to fair allocation policy, and all other subjects are connected to value-based politics, there will be problems. We get stuck in divisions between equal treatment and gender equality, between allocation policy and symbol or recognition politics that become unproductive.

She sees alliances and sharing of knowledge between feminist movements as important in order to promote and develop intersectional solidarity.

– I also think it’s a matter of taking a starting point in an allocation model that considers both material and symbolic resources. Such a system strives for similar economic and sociocultural conditions for all people, and therefore obviously opposes racism, sexism and homophobia.

She also sees a tendency within parts of the political left wing that have forgotten the broad solidarity, and will only show solidarity with a homogenous group with the same identity as them.

– In the 1970s, some parts of the left wing in Sweden saw homosexuality as “right-wing decadence” and homosexual people as “pests in the red banner”. At the same time, of course homosexual people were politically active. Gays and lesbians also founded their own socialist movements, such as Homosexuella Socialister, Röda Bögar and Lesbisk Front. I consider the ongoing criticising of the so-called identity politics, which parts of the left wing are engaging in, an inability to imagine that a material and symbolic allocation of resources both can and need to correspond with various categories of people. It’s sad – and ultimately very dangerous – with a left wing that becomes unglued politically and in terms of visions because subordinate groups are starting to speak for themselves. The left has to stop flirting with the idea of a homogeneous society. We urgently need to act, think and be loyal in a way that moves us forward.

Strong ambivalence to movements

She feels very ambivalent when it comes to affiliating with a certain movement.

– I’ve always experienced strong ambivalence towards movements. I think it goes back to my church upbringing. Whenever I sense “religious tendencies” within political movements, I back off. Of course I sympathise with several movements and try to become active in various ways, but I would never just jump into something head first.

Hanna Hallgren believes in a sense of responsibility for a collective combined with her own writing.

– It’s important. And this is also true for my own reading. In an article titled Det transversala språket (the transversal language), I discuss that accountability is not just a matter of situating oneself as a research or author subject, but that it is also a matter of style. Meaning to situate oneself concerning both from where and how one writes. I think that feelings of responsibility in today’s literary and cultural climate would generate wilder texts and thoughts across the board.

Strategies to find hope and strength

At Valand, she wants to work to put artistic research on equal footing with other disciplines in terms of how it is perceived and treated.

– I also hope to be able to interact and work together with students and colleagues in inspiring ways.

Sometimes the hope and strength can feel far away. Hanna Hallgren has several strategies to overcome this.

– One is to rest in the love of people, dogs and poetry. Another is to watch all kinds of documentaries and series. A third is to try to put my struggles in a wider perspective. A fourth is to call upon the god of my childhood. A fifth is to remind myself of the joy of being alive.

Author Sara Abdollahi, translated by Debbie Axlid.
Hanna Hallgren's Choices
Three theorists who inspire me: Rosi Braidotti, Audre Lorde, Wendy Brown. Three books I like: Laura Riding’s The Life of the Dead, Eva Alexanderson’s Kontradans och Gloria Gervitz’ Migrationer. One person I would not be able to do without: My partner Ida. My favourite place for thinking: In bed and while going on walks.
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