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2216 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

The American-Dane and the Danish-American:
Dan Turèll and Thomas E. Kennedy1

by Lars Movin

translated from the Danish by Thomas E. Kennedy

For a culture and society, a people, it is healthy to be seen from outside, through foreign eyes. That can be flattering and perhaps also provoke a little angst. But it is always interesting, and in the best case affords insight. And in Denmark—especially in Copenhagen—we are so fortunate to have such outside eyes wandering around among us in the form of an American author who has made it half a life’s project to filter the Danish reality through his fiction. An outside gaze. I purposely don’t say a foreign gaze. Because that person I’m thinking of does not live out the cliché of the American tourist, who hops off a cruise ship at Langelinie harbor, sniffs around the city a couple of hours, and then feels that he has done Denmark. No, that person I’m thinking of has settled down in our land, and he has, so far, used forty years of his life observing from the special remote place of the global reality which we call Danish.

Actually, he has been here so long that he’s almost begun thinking like a Dane. Take the main character in his novel Beneath the Neon Egg (2014). Bluett is the name, Patrick Bluett—and you think of the associations, both blue and we blew it, as they say in the film Easy Rider, when it goes most wrong—and Bluett reminds you, moreover, to a striking degree, of the book’s author: Bluett is an American writer, is living in Denmark, earns his living as a translator, and he is wild about wandering around in the Copenhagen center and bridge quarters, wild about bars, bodegas and serving houses, wild about jazz, wild about Danish women—so wild that he has been married to one with whom he has half-Danish children. But now the marriage is over, and Bluett is just as blue as his name.

In his new-won loneliness, he seeks new female companions, meets several, among whom is one that’s not unacceptable. But then she turns out to be from Albertslund. From fucking Albertslund! Bluett has been to Albertslund, and that’s a place he will not return to. So, rather, loneliness and more restless wanderings through the blue night, always accompanied by a tenacious optimism and an inner sound track of jazz. And all cemented together with a mixture of melancholy and humor, life studies, and linguistic precision. But first of all with empathy and an eye sharp as a knife on Danish reality. An eye you only can have if you are at the same time very familiar with the place and equally foreign to it to include the whole scene with the same type of love as an anthropologist that observes the exotic.

Of course, it’s Thomas E. Kennedy I’m talking about. Author and translator. And for a number of years a faithful and congenial promoter of Dan Turèll out in the American language—and of many other Danish authors—but, first of all, Dan Turèll, I dare say.

And Dan Turèll pops up also several times in the story of Patrick Bluett. Overall, the book is full of blue-toned descriptions of a noir Copenhagen that can wake memories of the atmosphere in Dan Turèll’s crime books. But concretely Dan Turèll’s poem, “Charlie Parker in Isted Street,” functions as a blue thread through the novel. And on the way, other poems of Dan Turèll pop up. One place it is mentioned that the protagonist’s favorite poem—even if he is American—is Turèll’s “Last Walk through the City.” As the first-person narrator in that poem does, Bluett considers going to Café Guldregn on Oehlenschläger2 Street and drinking one shot of Gammel Dansk as a tribute to the dead poet. That comes to nothing, but later in the book, on a further wandering through the night, he drops into Femmeren (The Fiver) serving house at Classensgade 5 and happens to sit coincidentally at the bar beside a young man whom he speaks to about a jazz CD that’s playing. After the young man leaves, the bartender confides that he was Halfdan E, and Bluett knows that Halfdan E has recorded two albums with Dan Turèll. This impresses Bluett. Two albums with Dan Turèll!

Since then the book’s author—Thomas E. Kennedy—has himself recorded an album with Halfdan E. It is an album with the title Dan Turèll+Halfdan E meets Thomas E. Kennedy: an Introduction (PlantSounds, 2013) where Kennedy does the impossible: He has compiled a selection of material from the two albums Halfdan E made with Dan Turèll, Watch Out for Your Money (Pas på pengene) (1993) and Happy in Happy Hour (Glad in Åbningstiden) (1996), translated the texts, and spoken them in English to Halfdan E’s music tracks. And it functions! If you don’t know the CD, I can highly recommend that you get it (

That novel mentioned above, Beneath the Neon Egg, is a part of Thomas E. Kennedy’s great work, the so-called Copenhagen Quartet—four independent and rather different novels, but not less a fictional family, which all play out in the city of Copenhagen. That quartet alone ought to have made Thomas E. Kennedy world-famous in Denmark. That will come now, hopefully, as the small publisher Rod&Co has its eye on the books and has begun to publish them in Danish translation. The first volume has received the Danish title I selskab med engle (In the Company of Angels) (2010) and will be published in April 2016. And the remaining titles will follow soon, certainly.

If the Danish publishing world has been slow to act, Thomas E. Kennedy has, on the contrary, long had recognition for his books, and not least The Copenhagen Quartet, in the “big world.” Some years ago, he signed a contract with the acclaimed publisher Bloomsbury, which ever since has stood for publishing the Quartet in England and USA, the whole English-speaking world. And in that connection, Kennedy made the unusual decision that he would subject all four volumes of The Copenhagen Quartet to a sweeping revision and furnished them with new titles. The four novels that originally came out from a small Irish press in the years 2002-2005 are published now in brand new versions dated from 2010-2014 by Bloomsbury under the titles: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen: A Love Story (2013), and Beneath the Neon Egg (2014). And moreover there is reference to Dan Turèll in all four volumes, but that I will leave to you readers to discover.

Thomas E. Kennedy was born in 1944 and grew up in the county of Queens, New York City’s answer to Vangede.3 There is a great deal we could say about his youth, but let it be sufficient that he already as a teenager dreamed of becoming a writer, but he would require something to write about first. Years passed and then after an eventful and a widely traveled youth, destiny decided that in 1976 he landed in Denmark where he ever since has worked and lived—among other things, as an industrious translator.

At the beginning of the 1980s, he sold his first story; in 1988 his first book was published, and since then there have been more than thirty volumes—all in all, an impressive and very varied oeuvre which in itself could be the grounds for awarding a Dan Turèll Medal.

But there is that little extra, in this connection, so essential circumstance that Kennedy at a point discovered Dan Turèll and lost his heart beyond all cultural and linguistic barriers. To begin with, his love was private and collegial, but at one point he began to translate Dan Turèll’s texts to American and, later, he toured with his translations in the USA—and also several other places—and read out and published a number of them in outstanding literary journals. Afterward, he recorded the previously mentioned CD with Halfdan E. And in 2010 in a Danish context he published a single of the translated poems—namely “Last Walk through the City” in a bilingual, beautiful, limited edition book, illustrated with original lithographs by the artist-medalist, Barry Lereng Wilmont.

The most recent project from Kennedy’s hand is a translation of Vangede Pictures, of which an excerpt of the first twenty-four pages will be published this spring in the respected American literary journal New Letters [Winter 2016, Volume 82, No. 2]. And who knows what can result from that?

But let us now turn back forty years in time: In autumn 1976—the same year Kennedy settled in Denmark—the 30-year-old Dan Turèll set out on a pilgrim’s journey to New York. It was the first time he was in the USA, but in a certain understanding, he had already for many years lived in his own inner America. He had breathed in jazz and rock, been inspired by the beat writers, and identified with the cool existence of the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, wandering around in the great American night.

A few years after his New York stay, when Dan Turèll would write a foreword to a selection of his American texts from the 1970s, American Faces, he declared baldly, “I am an American-Dane. And a lot of my generation and most of my friends are American-Danes.” And then he plays his trump card by stepping directly on the sore toe of the ’70s Danish fear of being associated with the USA: “Denmark is in relation to the USA like the mouse in relation to the elephant or Nørre Snede4 in relation to Copenhagen. Denmark is the 51st star in the American flag.... It’s the USA which defines our cultural spheres, it’s the USA that defines us culturally and economically.” And to finish off in a more poetic form: “Maybe Jeppe Aakjær5 sang about his father’s father’s land, but Jack Kerouac sang about the back of my head and what goes on in it.”

That was in 1979. Back to New York in 1976, during his stay in the Big Apple, Turèll would naturally see all of that he already knew and had written about, and meet all his heroes. But he also met a countryman—or a countrywoman—namely Suzanne Brøgger.6 They shared a love of what one calls “The Other America,” and Brøgger asked Dan Turèll, with his red-hot engagement in and identification with everything American, why he didn’t move to the USA, let his books be translated, become American. Dan Turèll answered that in the USA there were many like him; in Denmark there was just one.

In his own way, he was right. And then, on the other hand, not. For with Kennedy’s translations of Turèll’s poems—and now also a part of Vangede Pictures—we’ve had proof that Turèll underestimated himself. Kennedy has—as Chili Turèll, Dan’s widow, so beautifully formulated it—given Dan Turèll an American voice. And the acceptance of his writings over there witnesses the truth of the old adage: That what is most local is most global.

Dear Thomas: If we have underestimated you as an author here in our little duck pond, we excuse ourselves many times and hope that with the award of the Dan Turèll Medal—this time in silver rather than in bronze (that’s silver as in The Silver Stars7)—we can rectify the blunder a little bit. You deserve, of anyone, to be honored. Certainly not least for your tireless effort to function as a self-commissioned ambassador to Dan Turèll (and many other Danish writers) in the USA. But equally highly for your writings which, under all circumstances, are impressive and laudable, but seen here from the 51st star in the American flag is extra interesting because you elucidate that reality—that reality we believed we knew ad nauseam—from new and surprising angles.

For us, as a people, there is nothing better than to be seen. You see us, Thomas—thank you.


1. A speech by Lars Movin on the presentation of The Dan Turèll Medal to Thomas E. Kennedy by the Dan Turèll Society, March 19th, 2016, which would have been Turèll’s 70th birthday.

2. Adam Gottlieb Oehlenschläger (1779-1850) was a Danish poet and playwright, who was born in the west side of Copenhagen and introduced romanticism into Danish literature.

3. The part of Greater Copenhagen where Turèll was born and on which he as a 29-year-old published a book that made him famous in Denmark, Vangede Billeder (Vangede Pictures) (1975).

4. A town of about 1,500 population in mid-Jutland (the Danish peninsula that juts out of Germany)—i.e., a fraction of a hamlet far away from the capital.

5. Jeppe Aakjær (1866-1930) was a Danish poet and novelist born in Fly, Jutland. He was among the Jutland Movement, focusing his writing on Jutland. Among his notable works was The Peasant’s Son.

6. Born in 1944, Brøgger is a novelist, journalist, and jazz singer, who had at that time written the novel Deliver Us From Love, which was translated into twenty languages and the English translation of which was blurbed by Henry Miller.

7. The Silver Stars (Sølvstjernene) was an experimental jazz group which played behind Dan Turèll when he read his poems.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Lars Movin

is a Danish author, film-maker, and journalist, known for the film documentaries Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road (2007), Onkel Danny: Portrait of a Karma Cowboy (2002), The Misfits: 30 Years of Fluxus (1993), and other films; and the books, American Avant-Garde Film (2016), Dan Turèll—hele historien (with Asger Schnack & Steen Møller Rasmussen) (2015), Everything Is in the Picture: The Films of Jørgen Leth (2013), Gerard Malanga: A Bebop Monograph (2011), Downtown: A New York Chronicle (2010), Captain Beefheart: A Bebop Monograph (2010), Beat: Tracking Down the American Beat Generation (2008), and many others.

Movin is a member of the Board of the Dan Turèll Society and specializes in the Beat Generation, rock, American avant-garde film, Fluxus, Danish icons like Dan Turèll and Jørgen Leth, and other related topics.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Thomas E. Kennedy’s

translations of Danish poets such as Henrik Nordbrandt, Pia Tafdrup, Dan Turèll, and many others have appeared widely in American literary journals such as American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, MidAmerican Review, Serving House Journal, and scores of others.

He worked with the Danish composer Halfdan E to produce a CD recording with musical background of Dan Turèll’s poetry in translation—an English replication of the two CDs which Turèll and Halfdan E made shortly before Turèll’s death and which continue to be “best-sellers” in Denmark today. Translation of these poems has been supported by a fellowship from the Danish Arts Council.

More than 30 of Kennedy’s own books have been published, including novels, story and essay collections, literary criticism, translation, and anthologies. His most recent publications include the novels of The Copenhagen Quartet—which have been published for world-wide distribution by Bloomsbury Publishers USA and UK: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen (2013); and Beneath the Neon Egg (2014). These four novels in Danish translation by Frej Larsen will be published by Rod&Co, beginning with I selskab med engle, which was released on 22 April 2016.

Kennedy lives in Denmark and teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA Program.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury