Vagn Steen died last week at the age of 88.
I first got to know him shortly after moving to Denmark, a little more than a decade ago. Some leaky plumbing in the apartment we were renting at the time resulted in a letter from our downstairs neighbour appearing beneath our door. On going down to inspect the water damage we discovered that the writer of that letter was in fact a poet, with an apartment that looked more like an archive, filled to the brim with books, and with large posters of concrete poetry covering whatever wall space remained.
That little “accident” led to many visits and meals together. It also turned out that Vagn was married to a South African, providing a further point of personal contact. He took an interest in and visited South Africa a number of times, giving workshops and even undertaking the immense task of translating Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf into Danish. While he wasn’t particularly interested in music, Vagn’s enthusiasm for texts, whether the diaries of H.C. Andersen or a hardware inventory, and especially for reading them out loud, was infectious, and in its own way very musical.
I was fascinated by the experimental poetry of the sixties that Vagn had played a prominent role in, and, eager to make use of this newfound treasure trove at my doorstep, suggested that we make some recordings. We ended up working on two projects together: The first was a piece for solo violin based on the speech melodies of Vagn reading fuglens flugt, his perhaps most well-known poem. The second began with the idea of recording some of the many stacks of poems he had lying around, using the alphabet as a simple organisational method. In the event Vagn composed a completely new set of poems for each letter, and the recordings eventually coalesced into the Lydfabet.
While it’s normally arranged in alphabetical order, here’s a shorter montage following the letters of Vagn’s name:
Observant, engaged, playful. Vagn was not the kind of poet that handed down pearls from on high. He wanted everyone to be in on the game: “In poetry the act of reading is insufficient without the act of writing.” 1 Looking through my notes for the Lydfabet I came across three principles of participation that Vagn felt were central to his approach:
- medforståelse (co-understanding)
- medbestemmelse (co-determination)
- medskabelse (co-creation)
In that sense, very much a poet for our interactive age.
An activator in poetry as in life, that was Vagn.