LITERARY LOCATION: Klaustrià (the Monastery), Gunnar Gunnarsson House, 701 Egilsstöàum, Skriàuklaustur, Iceland

Harold Rhenisch successfully applied for a writer-in-residency in Iceland when he outlined familial connections to Gunnar Gunnarsson's books in his application. Harold Rhenisch's father was a German immigrant raised in Germany on stories and films of farm people in much the same vein as Gunnar Gunnarsson's stories, "if not directly influenced by him." Harold Rhenisch's writer-in-residency in Skrià uklaustur and his journeys around Iceland with his wife, picking bilberries for lunch, resulted in his book, The Art of Haying: A Journey to Iceland (Ekstasis, 2015). "I have no Icelandic ancestry," says Rhenisch, "but you could say I grew up in Gunnar Gunnarsson's books. His books sold millions of copies in Germany in the '30s and '40s, and he missed the Nobel Prize by a hair. The Black Cliffs was universally praised in 1932 and it was the first Icelandic crime novel."

Rhenisch and his wife Diane made three trips to Iceland, initially because she had always wanted to go there. A day after their arrival in July, 2010, she sat on her bed and announced she never wanted to leave. He felt much the same way. Iceland transformed him--took the intellectual outside and beyond his bookishness--to produce a very different kind of book with more than 200 photos.

"This is a love story," he says, "for a country, for a woman, and for a way of life in which the old is new and the new is old and a man frees himself from the walls that books have made in his mind - walls that he previously didn't know were there. It's a scary thing, to have been kept by books my whole life, and then, one day, to step outside their pastures, but that's what happened."

The Art of Haying, according to Rhenisch, is about drawing a line through grass and making a new beginning from it. "I learned that one of the ancient arts, older than poetry but as old as the art of knitting, is the art of haying," he wrote on his blog. "...Horses have human souls here. If you've never met an Icelandic horse, that might seem merely a poetic device."

After visits in summer, winter and spring, Rhenisch wrote his travel memoir in which he chats with ravens, learns about knitting traditions and describes his month at Skriàuklaustur, writing about the modern Icelandic sagas of Gunnar Gunnarsson.

Klaustrià (the Monastery) is a residence managed by The Institute of Gunnar Gunnarsson. It is situated at Skriàuklaustur Culture Center in East Iceland in Gunnarsson's former home that he built in North East Iceland in 1939, next door to the farm on which he was born. In 1940, Gunnarsson went on a "politically complex" speaking tour in wartime Germany.

"The Nazi connection with Gunnar's House was difficult for me," Rhenisch says, "so, at first, I was thinking there's no way I would stay there. But then I realized, who better, especially as he was no Nazi. It turned out to be a profound homecoming of sorts. The creative culture in Iceland is extraordinary. Plus, there are horses and rowan forests and extraordinary light. What's not to love!"

Born in Penticton on January 5, 1958, Harold Rhenisch was raised in the Similkameen Valley where his family farmed and managed orchards. He subsequently worked as a nurseryman, tree grafter and pruner before he studied drama and writing in Victoria, acquiring writing degrees from UVic and UBC. He later lived in the Cariboo for fifteen years, producing 'bio-regional' essays and numerous books of poetry.

In 2005, Rhenisch won the ARC Magazine Critics Desk Award and the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize--and received the Malahat Long Poem Prize again in 2007. A seven-time runner-up for the CBC/Tilden/Saturday Night Literary Contest, he eventually won second prize in 2007 for "Catching a Snare Drum at the Fraser's Mouth," a series of pow-wow poems inspired by his years in 150 Mile House. He won the BC & Yukon Community Newspapers Association Award for Best Arts and Culture Writing in 1996 and the Confederation Poetry Prize in 1991. Tom Thomson's Shack was nominated for two B.C. Book Prizes in 2000. Eventually Rhenisch received the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in 2007 for his book, The Wolves at Evelyn, also shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.

Until he moved to Campbell River on Vancouver Island in 2007, Rhenisch lived in 108 Mile Ranch and 150 Mile House in the Cariboo--a region that he says begins at the auto-wrecking yard just north of Hat Creek. "The Cariboo is not a place but a state of mind," he wrote in Winging Home: A Palette of Birds (Brindle & Glass, 2006). His affinity for the B.C. interior led him to contribute to Chris Harris' book for the Grasslands Conservation Council, Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin's Forgotten Landscape (2007). He has continued to collaborate with environmental photographer and publisher Chris Harris, with work on Motherstone: British Columbia's Volcanic Landscpe, and a forthcoming book on the Chilcotin Arc. He continues his bioregional interests in an environmental blog called "The Okanagan Valley," he says, "has a border running right through it. This blog is about erasing that artificial line."

Rhenisch has since moved back to the Okanagan grasslands, an area he describes as Iceland without rain. "My Canada is built out of fruit trees and black spruce and the Chopaka All-Indian Rodeo," he wrote in Tom Thomson's Shack (New Star, 2000). In 2014, he was the inaugural writer in residence at the Okanagan Regional Library.

In appreciation of one of his mentors in Victoria, Robin Skelton, Harold Rhenisch has edited In This Poem I Am: The Selected Poetry of Robin Skelton and he has also edited various non-fiction memoirs including Phyllis Nackomeckny's Vidh, Lorne Dufour's Joseph's Prayer and Vangie Bergum's Bestamor and Me.

Harold Rhenisch continues his love affair with Iceland (and his ongoing investigation of land and place) in his collection of poems, Landings: Poems from Iceland (Burton House $20) in which every poem springs from part of that elemental island and bears its name. For example, Urridafossar, which means Trout Falls, is a popular horse trekking destination in the country’s northern area. It is here, while on a writer’s residence trip that Rhenisch composed The Foal – Urridafossar, a paean to the scope of geological time in comparison to the minute span of a man’s life: “where water once carried off the ice / that ground mountains into sand … Am I, / the you I meet, the man who stepped into the sun, // or the mountain who walked back? / Fate plays these tricks with time // when time gets up on its four foal legs / and plays these tricks with fate.”

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Out of the Interior: The Lost Country
Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry
Winging Home: A Palette of Birds


Landings: Poems from Iceland (Burton House, 2021) $20 9780994866967
The Art of Haying: A Journey to Iceland (Ekstasis, 2015) $33.95 978-1-77171-125-8
"Okanagan Apples", Nature Morte, Christos Dikeakos et al. (Kelowna Art Gallery, 2014) $20 189674870-4.
Two Minds: (Frontenac House, 2015) $15.95. 978-1-927823-36-1
The Spoken World (Hagios Press, 2011) $17.95. 978-1-926710-12-9
A Recipe for Perry (Okanagan Institute, 2011) $5
Motherstone: British Columbia's Volcanic Plateau (Country Light, 2010) With photographer Chris Harris.
Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin's Forgotten Landscape (Country Light, 2008). With photographer Chris Harris.
Return to Open Water: Poems New and Selected (Ronsdale, 2007)
The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century (Brindle & Glass, 2006)
Winging Home: A Palette of Birds (Brindle & Glass, 2006)
Living Will: Shakespeare After Dark (Wolsak and Wynn, 2005)
Linda Rogers: Essays on Her Works (Guernica Editions, 2004) (Editor)
Free Will (Ronsdale, 2004)
Tom Thomson's Shack (New Star, 2000)
Carnival (2000)
Fusion (1999)
The Blue Mouth of Morning (1998)
Taking the Breath Away (Ronsdale, 1998)
Iodine (1995)
Dancing With My Daughter (1994)
Out of the Interior (1993)
A Delicate Affair (1989)
Eleusis (1985)
Winter (1982)


In This Poem I Am: Selected Poetry of Robin Skelton (Dundurn, 2007). Selected and edited by Harold Rhenisch.

[BCBW 2015] "Poetry" "Cariboo"