Maintenant #18 – Ágnes Lehóczky
‘I haven’t got a birthday, do not call’ – an interview with Ágnes Lehóczky by SJ Fowler
If nothing else, the Maintenant series can be taken as a marker, a fragmented trace of the thoughts of poets from a certain time. By this end, its significance may lie in its being read in a decade, if it is read at all in the future. Europe and the languages contained within it, are too broad to be encapsulated in the formality of interviews (though perhaps in the poetry that accompanies them) but if there is a litmus test for the vitality of poetry and poetic discussion, then the series may offer just a glimmer of insight. If poetry is in decline, it is not the poets of this time who seem to think so. Once again we offer a poet who is indeed doing what many say cannot be done. Looking eye to eye with the great poetic figures of their culture over the last century. Where Hungary has provided a poetry to match the iconoclasm of its language and history, so it has not forgotten to birth new voices that are not facsimiles of past greatness; but very much of their own age, representing that age as they live it. Ágnes Lehóczky has the rare gift of both instinct and consideration, sophistication and brevity. Her poetry is profound, yet earthen, it reaches and grips, it takes hold. She wields a philosophical assurance to match her multi-linguistic ambition and supersedes the irrelevancy of poetic orthodoxy for the all the right reasons – her poetry overwhelms posturing and poise with the kind of intellect that reassures and reminds, we are living in a time where poetry is not just thriving, it is necessary. Residing in England and soon to have her second English language collection published by Egg Box, she offers one of the most generous and comprehensive editions of the Maintenant series.
3:AM: There appears a deliberate rabidity to your poems at times. They have a controlled and focused air, especially at first read, but when the poem is scrutinised, often they have a distinct energy. And it is distinct, the imagery can be relentless. Is this something you have cultivated knowingly?
Ágnes Lehóczky: Deliberate as well as deliberately unconscious, if such a thing exists. I think one of the most fundamental elements of my poetry is the notion of “weaving” a seemingly endless string of associations which demands the reader therefore to “unravel” this on-going sequence in the mind. However, on one hand, this chain of imagery, this string or sequence of associations, I believe, must be, to some extent, logical, recognisable, “heuristic” in a sense; therefore, you may say it is controlled, rabid, or better to say, consciously “architectured,” so that the chain, or sequence itself actually can be disentangled, and simply, interpreted, and thus become “familiar” in one way or another. On the other hand, since, in my opinion, words are semantically semi-independent signs, they must be given a certain amount of freedom to flow in the direction they want to. Imagery, as the embodiment of one’s associations therefore, must be let free too. Perhaps, it’s this binarity which you are referring to. I tend to believe in “worn-out” ideas by which each word, despite being in one’s control, opens up to newer and newer semantic contents in the mind. I’d like to imagine the texture of poems as thick and complex texture of textiles, for example, or the complex strata of the architecture of a huge city, in which imagery, associations, or perhaps better to call them, certain patterns occur as repetitions and the variations of these repetitions. So the paradox of the “focussed air” and the “energy” may derive from the need to control these patterns and the energy which may originate from the fluidity of their own free mutation.
3:AM: A distinction in utilised imagery is a crutch overused in poetic criticism, but your poetry employs a genuinely unique and vivid arsenal of poetic pictures. Often this seems to be the constitution of your work, a poem as a lyric sculpture, each line an image which builds the final statue. Or perhaps even the opposite, often the language being detrimental or so immediate, that the lines are stripping from the original image. Do you feel this process in your own work?
ÁL: Yes. Writing poetry, in my view, is a building process. As I have learnt from Agnes Nemes Nagy, it is erecting, constructing the geometry, the architecture of “living substance.” I think this means that since the texture, the semantic strata of the external world, the palimpsestic nature of meaning of what we see, are nearly inexhaustible, the language of the poem should or does replicate this complexity. This complex “geology” of the external are woven or “sculpted” by sentences, images, patterns, variations, repetitions of associations in the poem. As if, I’d like to think, the texture, the language of the poem made an attempt to become one with the texture of the external. These so called “impulse” or urge of language may make the poem behave as if it wanted to step outside of its own boundaries, its own outline and become one with the world out there. But of course, there is a boundary. Yet, it is good to believe for seconds that there isn’t one.
3:AM:Could you outline the impetus behind the Budapest to Babel collection? It clearly maintains an overarching significance, though conveyed through multiple sequences, which do retain a certain measure of autonomy. Was it conceived as conceptually unified?
ÁL:There is a recurring motif in my book Budapest to Babel, a motif which the overall theme of the book is based on. This recurring image is the “Whispering Gallery” of London’s St Paul’s. The circular gallery runs at the point where the vault of the Dome starts to curve inwards. The name comes from an intriguing characteristic the dome possesses: namely, if a person whispers facing the wall on one side, she/he can be clearly heard on the other, since the sound is carried perfectly around the vast curve of the Dome. There are several different angles from which one could interpret the motif. In Budapest to Babel one of the many connotations of the “Whispering Gallery” refers to the original myth of the Babelic/linguistic confusion language is always associated with. However, I am not only taking the term in a deconstructive sense, therefore not only am I focusing on the “chaotic” aspect of language (that is, on its general notion of indecipherability, or on its constant deferral of meaning which results in a general concept of lack of understanding of either each other or the symbols of the outside world) but in a constructive sense too. That is, I attempt to understand this Babelic concept as the most fundamental “building” material with which the language of the poem is provided. I am taking the term in a linguistic sense. I imagine the texture of language, as the building material of my poems, as the texture of many “languages;” as a polyphonic voice which is not only creating chaos but, on the contrary, an unfinished tower of meaning (of Babel or of the Whispering Gallery) always-already offering an open and a perpetually renewable possibility to interpret the outside world erected from innumerable strata of meaning in the poem. This aspect of language suggests that language is not only one voice, “my” voice, the voice of the “I” but a whirlwind of endless number of voices. And this is why the notion of “eavesdropping” is crucial in poetry (the way the “I” does in one of the St Paul’s poems: a metaphorical/poetic gesture, standing in the intersection of others’ whispers, see in “Zero Milestone, St Paul’s”). “Eavesdropping” in its literal and figurative sense, that is, a perpetual openness to “listening” to others’ lives, tales, stories, narratives, mundane jabber etc: “listening” as the fundamental disposition of a poet. This texture of heteroglossia, (many “languages,” many voices, the languages of others, etc) I think, is one of the chief characteristics of my poetry’s material; and for me, the frame of prose-poems provides a suitable and dynamic environment. I am often asked about who my pronouns (especially my “you-s”) refer to in my work. Some read a little too much into my “you-s” or “I-s” and therefore restrict themselves to wondering if there were a specific person I am writing to or about. Yet, I am taking the “you” and the “I” as well in this heteroglossic sense, in this whispering gallery-babelic sense, as hybrid utterance, where voices of the “I”, the “you,” the “we” are blended into a complex, palimpsestic strata of a polyphonic ‘I’, in which sense language becomes not “mine,” but the language(s)/words of others.
3:AM:The role of the city in your work is perhaps obvious from the title of your first collection, but quite specifically urbanity, the environments of the city seem to psychogeographically present – a noise, a hustle, a embraced claustrophia, and a love? Is this true?
ÁL:Yes, very much so. The idea of the city is always present in my work, although, since I have lived in Norwich for a long while, the country-side too appears in the poems occasionally, both landscapes and cities of Hungary, UK and other cities or landscapes of Europe. I am a “capital-girl,” born and lived in Budapest for 25 years and even now having lived in the UK for nearly 10 years I travel home as often as I can. Budapest, as the epitome of all cities is crucial for me, personally and creatively. Therefore, this love for this city of course generates new relationships with other capitals/cities, such as London or Rome, for instance. I do not know why. I thought about this before, and I think it is the idea of some kind of sense of recognition again, homecoming, if you like, when I encounter another capital, since I believe all (European) capitals/cities are structured/modelled the same way. If you know one by-heart, you’ll never get lost in an unknown one. Does this make sense? The city, for me, is the texture of a very deeply rooted and never erasable or forgettable canvas of patterns of memory and the architecture of identity, of the self. Who knows? The cities, any cities, especially, capitals, are potential homecomings, for people like me, even if for an hour, a day or two. The city, I guess is the reflection of my poetic “temperament,” psyche, disposition, a way of living. I am particularly obsessed with the panorama of these capitals from a birds eye view, for example from the top of domes, towers or hillsides. I have a nearly unhealthy obsession with the layers, the strata of cities, visible and invisible layers, undergrounds and upper grounds, their two-three-four-five-dimensions, simply because this density of tangible and non-tangible plates replicates one’s inner density, the density of the mind, of the psyche, of memories, of emotions, relationships, love, (invisible and implicitly a major driving force of these poems), as well as the complex architecture of meaning itself, the meaning of one’s own life.
3:AM:Do you favour high volume of edits, or do you strive to retain a certain freedom, a certain improvisational tone?
ÁL:Both the Master Course at UEA with Denise Riley and George Szirtes and the long and laborious editing process and playing “ping-pong” with the manuscript of Budapest to Babel with my publisher Nathan Hamilton, who has got an incredibly sensitive, insightful and sophisticated approach to my work, have taught me that the notion of re-drafting is extremely important in the writing process. Although I agree on the idea that a poem can never reach absolute completion, let alone perfection, I have become rigorously laborious on the editing process of writing. I think the poet does the work and language does the “freedom” bit, so to say. I think one needs to fully pursue the limits and the full potentials of one’s own craft.
3:AM:There is a lot to be read from your work in your typographical decisions. Especially read in sequence, the distinction from one poem to the next and how they are related, laid upon the page, appears quite meaningful. Is this the case?
ÁL:Even in the case of prose-poetry, which I consider my poems to be, form is crucial. The late prose poems of Agnes Nemes Nagy’s Souvenirs of the Earth gave me the first impetus to turn to prose-blocks as such. This form, as I have discovered, simply suits the way my mind works, and especially the way my mind works in my second language. On the one hand, it gives me a vast zone in which I can arrange and re-arrange my words and my sentences and at the same time it allows language to arrange itself the way it wants to. Yet, these blocks also provide me with a frame, which frame is nearly invisible yet it is still there, palpably for the creative-cognitive process. However, these prose-blocks are fundamental to the voice of these poems, not only to form. These blocks, these vast squares of prose-spaces allow the voice, the speaker of the poems to multiply more easily, thus creating, what I consciously or unconsciously attempt to achieve, the texture of a polyphonic “dialogue” in which not only the voice of the “I” but the “I” of many voices can speak simultaneously. In other words, this form provides the language of my poems to be dialogic, and the word I like using recently, is “heteroglossic,” pushing these poems from the lyric tone to the more observational, universal, objective and dialogic one.
3:AM:You utilise the prose or paragraph style often, it appears a medium uniquely expressive of descriptive poetic glimpses or dreamscapes, aphorism and perhaps sequences. Did you cultivate its use because of the specificity of its expression? Did it happen early in your poetic evolution?
ÁL:Yes, the first “symptoms” of this prose-style appeared in my second collection in Hungarian entitled Medallion, and even then towards the end of the collection. This short collection was published a while ago in 2002 in Budapest by Universitas. Since then I have tried to “appropriate” the form and cultivate it further. And as I have said before, this, at the moment seems to be the most suitable medium for my present voice. In Budapest to Babel, as you notice, there is already a tendency for sequences. As I am writing my second collection in English soon to be published by Egg Box sometime this year, it seems this prose-sequence form is lending itself to me really suitably. I do not seem to be able to write short lyric “solitary” pieces any longer. As soon as writing starts, writing seems to be organising my thoughts or its thoughts into a train of prose-blocks as if my only role was to be watching helplessly a long chain of cargo-wagons of words passing by. This is good though and I am enjoying it, but, paradoxically, it actually requires hard work. Long prose poems do not allow you to be lazy with language. Economy and precision is just as important as in short lyric poems.. I think this “cargo” of prose-blocks allows or lends language, as you say, more space to wonder and wander in known and unknown places. This is why, similar to the polyphonic voice of the speaker in my poems mentioned above, writing about a place always already suggests writing about another one, one which is nearly either forgotten or perhaps does not even exist. Associations, recollections, memories of a particular place always trigger associations of a newly found or a long-extinct place, in which sense place is always already the “geography” of the mind too. Places, in a sense, are “dwelling places” for memory in language and hence, as I have discovered, language has an amazing power, even if only in a momentary and ephemeral sense. It has the potential to link places of the mind and erect them as new ones, never existed ones, “locations” of a “third reality,” nearly tangible, visible, and external in the texture of language. This also means that poetry has the power to “fill in” absences, lacks, hiatuses personal memory is not equipped to accomplish. I suggest language offers the promise of being able to erect a new world, a third world from a world that is lost and a world that is present, its paradox deriving from the inaccuracy of memory itself. In the realm of the poem this newly-created “psycho-geographic” reality is credible, convincing and believable; a “dreamscape” which allows the reader to have a sense of experience of “recognition” of it, as if one has already been “here” before, thus lending memory the promise of interpretability. Similarly to the idea of language within language, I think our world, in terms of its interpretability, is built from inexhaustible strata thus suggesting that a specific place always “embeds” or “triggers” memories of another one. For example, in one of my poems (“wrought iron girder railway-bridge,” which, I believe is the old Railway Bridge which functioned before Blackfriar’s) I attempt to create a scenario where places can not only swap locations but become one in the mind (i.e. The Thames can be seen as the Danube etc). And finally, this has lead me to explore another aspect of poetry: namely, its power to “re-create” hiatuses, to re-erect “losses,” to point at “nothings” and thus to name what “isn’t,” to build “invisible arches over the poles of what may seem “irreconcilable,” over “unbridgeable chasms” and distances, thus allowing oneself to be able to live at more than one places at once. I may have digressed a “tiny bit,” but hopefully I am making some sense.
3:AM:The history of the prose poem is certainly rich, do you feel a kinship with the way this poetic style has lent itself to certain kinds of poets – I’m thinking of the lineage of Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Ponge, Bobrowski, Michaux etc…?
ÁL:Yes, all of these to an extent, or perhaps bits from each, since the arc stretching from the so called early Situationist Lautreamont to the more “mythical” Bobrowski is wide and spacious. Yet I must admit I predominantly come from and rely on a Hungarian literary tradition and my first influence was Agnes Nemes Nagy’s late prose poetry. Later, consciously, I started to dig further in the field of prose-poetry, however, the field is vast and to be honest,, although the kinship is there, in many ways the prose style I have cultivated by now is the product of a much less self-conscious and rather arbitrary process/progress. Interestingly enough, though, Beckett’s (and Borges’) late prose texts had a crucial impact on my work, as well. I have come across a lot of old and new names in the last few years, again, such a mixture of prose and poetry, such as, among many others, Williams, Calvino, O’Hara, Sebald, Iain Sinclair, Bishop, W.S. Graham, Brian Catling, Denise Riley, Peter Gizzi, Cole Swensen, and again, the list is open and endless, a mixture of poetry (and not strictly prose-poetry) and prose, and I must add, bits of philosophy for my amateurish intellect. And then of course, there is the influence of my own contemporaries: the poets of my age who I am surrounded by or am associated with in one way or another in Norwich and London. I’d read anything happily as long as it “moves” some parts of my psyche, self or just heart in me regardless of the genre.
3:AM:You often have a palpable engagement with linguistics, or element of linguistic philosophy. Does the study, the actuality of language underpin theoretically elements of what you wish to achieve poetically?
ÁL:Fortunately or unfortunately yes, my studies and my reading have always influenced me in my writing style, and I do think this is inevitable for all poets and writers. I mean to have a constant connection with others’ writing, let it be simply creative work or theory, philosophy.
I am in my final few months of my PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. These last four years inevitably have shaped my view on poetry and poetics being intensely engaged with philosophy as well. Yes, this may sound off-putting, but theorists and philosophers just as much as poets and novelist/essayists always influence me. If you asked who, I’d recall names such as Celan, Rilke, Nemes Nagy, Blanchot, Heidegger’s essays on language and poetry, Beckett’s late prose, Derrida, Bakhtin and perhaps recently Brian Catling and Iain Sinclair, among many others. The list is endless again, and overlaps with the list mentioned above. Luckily, along with my research studies, I am surrounded by people who always introduce me to new names, theories and books. I am very grateful for these friends. Generally I am an open and eager enthusiast, I’d like to think, ready for anything new and insightful.
3:AM:The Hungarian twentieth century tradition is immense, perhaps relative to population size only the Polish and Irish contribution can stand eye to eye with it. Is this something you feel you are a continuation of, if a voice can be said to run from one nation at all?
ÁL:I was, of course brought up on this Hungarian poetic tradition and my research is focusing on it intensely. Therefore I must say 20th century Hungarian poetry and literature is still, thankfully, pulsating in my blood. Attila József, Kosztolányi, Babits, Weöres, Nemes Nagy, Pilinszky, etce…are still guiding my sentences unconsciously. However, on the conscious side, it is Attila József and especially Nemes Nagy, who I believe to be some sort of continuation of. Directly Nemes Nagy’s attempt to amalgamate epistemology with poetry, this is crucial for me. Having said that, Nemes Nagy’s generation is a sample for the young contemporary generation of Hungarian poetry as well. Krisztina Toth is one of the examples, who, I think is one of the most talented leading poets of today’s Hungarian poetry scene. I admire her work. I tend to follow the metamorphosis of the Hungarian contemporary poetry scene and I do know quite a lot of the poets in person too, since I lived amongst them. My position is a little absurd and paradoxical, since my second collection in Hungarian was published in 2002, when I was already living in the UK. Since then single poems have been published quite frequently in Hungary, it is an on-going process, however, I have started something indefinable in the UK. I am a continuation of the Hungarian tradition, yes, but in a peculiar way which is that I am incorporating my own literary tradition into a new language, into my second language. This topic would deserve a long essay or an entire book, I think. Hard to answer it in a short paragraph.
3:AM:Is it something contemporary Hungarian poetic circles seem to be aware of?
ÁL:I think so and I hope so. As I have mentioned before, I lived in Budapest until 2002, and even now I do not consider myself anything else but a Budapestean. Or Budapester, is there such a word? Two collections of my poems were published, Station x in 2000 and Medallion in 2002 by Universitas. In Budapest I attended a 5 year-long Master course in English and Hungarian Literature while working part-time for a literary publisher called Szephalom. This job, my collections and my contact with poets/writers from the academic environment allowed me to get to know the poets and the writers of the Hungarian scene. I am still in touch with several of them. I have many plans for the future and of course they include the next Hungarian collection of poems at some point. I must add this is a particularly sensitive topic though to talk about, for obvious reasons: on odd days the “absence” of my own mother tongue can hit me really badly. However, for now, I am busy doing other things, writing my second collection for Egg Box as well as an academic book, a collection of essays on the poetry of Agnes Nemes Nagy. Currently, the best I can do is to translate contemporary Hungarian poetry. I have been working on projects for Hungarian Literature Online and Hungarian Quarterly recently and have been involved as a translator with an exciting project of an anthology entitled New Order published a few months ago by Arc in association with the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Covent Garden. This is a newly published anthology of contemporary Hungarian poetry with today’s young poets (quite a few of them around my age) edited by George Szirtes. I was really happy to be one of the translators. On which note, it is important to mention the role of the lively and supportive Hungarian Cultural Centre in London, who did a brilliant job organising my book-launch of Budapest to Babel in January 2009. So, I suppose, both as a poet and a translator, I am in Hungary’s awareness. And perhaps as a literary researcher as well, since these essays on the poetry of Agnes Nemes Nagy may interest certain academic circles in Hungary after it’s published later this year by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
3:AM:Do you think national poetry traditions will remain fixated, as they appear to be when anthologised, for convenience? Should they, if they will? Do you think language traditions, which is perhaps a more useful categorisation, will remain through the next century with the increasing prevalence of English and the centralisation of Europe ?
ÁL:I can reflect a little bit on the notion of translation in order to respond. Hard to say when one speaks about Hungarian poetry. Nemes Nagy ironically says that Hungarian literature means a certain death to world literature simply because it is such an isolated language regarding our linguistic environment. But she adds, “this is what causes it to be, its auto-force to be born in the context of “endangerment,” of anxiety against inexistence.” Nemes Nagy often, therefore, talks about the untranslatability of Hungarian poetry, despite the fact that she herself translated from several languages throughout her life. Yet, here lies the significance. Living in a country where only 1-5% of published books is literature (not poetry, just literature) translated from different languages is sometimes disheartening. However, I think there is a growing need for other than “English” literature and the need for translations (and even within academia for the alternative translation theories) is increasing. I am hopeful. You have asked about anthologisation for convenience. I guess, what I am trying to say, and I am talking about anthologised literature in translation, any publication of translated literature is better than none. As for national traditions: I think, and I hope, there is a natural metamorphosis in these forces too. On the one hand there is the incredibly powerful dominance of English over Europe and on European literature which naturally re-arrange the geography or the map of certain national/cultural traits in European literature. But this does not always mean a bad thing. On the contrary, I think, while there is an openness to a more global, “centralised” amalgamation of different national characteristics, I can see a growing awareness in the other direction too, a kind of a protective gesture towards national/linguistic/cultural traditions too. I can see both forces working alongside each other in a productive way in the future. Maybe I am too optimistic.
3:AM:Could you offer just your own brief and personal feelings on the influence on Hungarian poetry, and especially on younger Hungarian poets, of a series of the luminaries of the recent tradition? Perhaps the expanse of their permeation into the culture at large and their achievment – Miklos Radnoti? Attila Jozsef? Sandor Weores? Agnes Nemes Nagy?
ÁL:This question provokes a gigantically long literary-historic essay as a response. The names are essential in the 20th century Hungarian canon. Attila József and Miklós Radnóti’s poetry is already being taught in the nurseries of Hungary, if you’ll forgive a small exaggeration. You learn their poems by heart at school, you are asked to recite their poems, you write your GCSE’s and A-levels on them. Our entire philosophy and approach to poetry and poetics are based on these two names. Their topicality, I hope, will never dry out. For me they are whispering voices constantly, spectral words one unconsciously carries around for a life-time. Radnóti and Attila József, as member of the second generation of the modernist literary movement/circle called Nyugat (West), are there for us to teach us about the sophistication of form and the notion of “taming” quasi-inexpressible existential contents/messages/absurdities they had to live through, and pack these existential absurdities into the perfected form. Weöres and Nemes Nagy belong to the so called Újhold (New Moon) movement which is believed to be the continuation of Nyugat in many ways, whose central and collective aim was to “rejuvenate” the language of the 20th century after the War, and similarly to the poetic goals of the generation mentioned above, their uncompromising intention was to name, to find the right words for unnameable existential experiences. I think their poetry in many ways could be referred to as the poetry of survival/survivors. Again, Weöres and Nemes Nagy are gigantic columns scaffolding the structure of the 20th century Hungarian literature. For me, as I have mentioned Nemes Nagy before, she is particularly and personally significant. I do think she was ahead of her time, in terms of her (prose) poetry as well as her incredibly modern (nearly post-modern) ideas on poetics.
3:AM:You made the move to the UK and studied at UEA, was this a long held desire or a natural step in your life? Were you active as a poet and established in Hungary before you left?
How did the environment of England impact your writing? Perhaps, I should even say how did the environment of Norwich impact your work?
ÁL:This is again an incredibly complex question. England has made me swap from one language to another in terms of writing. This is a drastic leap for a poet, I think, or at least sounds drastic. Then of course one’s cultural environment has got an immense influence on one’s writing. Swapping Budapest with Norwich was again a massive change (not always for the better). The most obvious impact of Norwich, however, was of course UEA’s MA course in Creative Writing Poetry with Denise Riley and George Szirtes. This was the year 2005/06, and thanks to Denise, George and my fellow-poets, this was a miraculous year for me. I found myself in a competitive academic/creative environment with 11 native speakers. This was partly intimidating, partly challenging. And ultimately a blessing. And of course, the people, the new friends, encounters, relationships, traditions, day-to-day particles of life to accustom to. It is inevitable, that all these have affected and are still affecting my writing. And the very fact that I am not writing in my mother tongue is affecting my writing. In a paradoxical way again, since I often think, although I am writing in English, I am still writing in Hungarian in a way that I am, I must be, still “thinking” in certain cognitive/psychological/cultural/(non)linguistic patterns. I often think these original patterns of my mother tongue must be permeating into the patterns of my second language. This is why, I think, that my poetry is often said to “sound” strange and “different.” I always say, it is because, ultimately I am still writing in my mother tongue.
3:AM:You have deservedly been well received, critically lauded, in the UK . How did this develop? Was it something you had foreseen (that is the dissemination and growth of your work, its expansion, rather than its high critical reception)?
ÁL:Not at all… I was not foreseeing it whatsoever. As I said before, I was studying for a Masters in English and Hungarian Literature until 2001 and only planned to stay in England for a short while in order to practise my English. I returned after I finished my studies and without particularly planning it or wanting it, I applied for teaching English literature in schools, half seriously. The seriousness of it hit me when I found myself standing in front of a classroom in Norfolk in front of 30 British kids in September 2002. I survived anyhow and stayed in this post for 3 years full time and 2 years part-time. The part-time change was due to my Master course in Creative Writing at UEA, which again, was unplanned. I was recommended and encouraged to apply by a few friends who knew I was a published poet in Hungary. I did not know what I was applying for, really, again the seriousness of the situation hit me when I was sitting in a seminar room with 11 others, petrified, at the time still writing in Hungarian and only translating my work. Plus the course was expensive too and I did not have any savings. Again, miraculously, helping hands appeared from “nowhere,” Tessa Sowerby and Isabel Hill are crucial to be mentioned here, still wonderful friends, and of course, the constant emotional and professional support from home (Budapest) was always there from my family, friends and ex-professors. The course, however, turned out to be brilliant with Denise and George and the 11 friendships which I gained from all over the world. I ended up with a distinction which drew Nathan Hamilton’s attention who is the editor and publisher of Egg Box and a brilliant poet himself. He got in touch soon after the end of the course and offered me a contract for a first collection in English. Since then things are just “happening,” sometimes in an absurd, sometimes in a natural, sometimes in an unbelievable or arbitrary way. Readings, launches, invites from universities, rare letters from a few strange readers who love your equally strange work, supports of friends, reviews, like the one in Poetry London, an award and a prize since, and now, en route for my second collection. No, none of it was planned or foreseen. When I look back, I just have to smile, but this is a funny smile A mixture of a silly grimace and a smile of disbelief. And responding to your final comment. I cannot talk about commercial “success” as such which is probably for the better. I think, if anything, this kind of poetry takes time to sink in…a slow burner. The good thing is, as I have found, that as time goes by these poems start living their own life out there. You can only stand and watch, quasi-out-of-control.
3:AM:Georges Szirtes plays an eminent role in elements of British poetry, has he been a positive influence upon your time and work while in the UK ?
ÁL:I have always found life absurd. In this instance as well. I met George accidentally in Suffolk in 2000, I think, where I was a volunteer working in a conference centre taking a month off from my university studies in Hungary. George had a reading there and while he was signing his books I took the courage and introduced myself to him. Years later, again, coincidentally, along with Denise Riley, George became my tutor on the Master course in Creative Writing at UEA in 2005. Now he is my PhD supervisor. Again, way back in terms of years, totally out of chance, I learnt that he was the translator of my poetic so called “idol” Nemes Nagy (the collection of poems called The Night of Akhenaton published by Bloodaxe). I learnt as well, he actually met her in person in the 1980s. I often smile at these coincidences which brought us to work together in the end. This, of course, created a strong bond between us, along with, of course some unspoken “solidarity” perhaps, regarding our shared mother tongue, cultural and “psycho-geographical” backgrounds, which, seemingly resemble one another, yet differ a great deal too. Overall, yes, absolutely, George has always been an amazing professional and “human” support for me, am deeply grateful for him.
3:AM:You are currently in the midst of completing your second collection. How has this process been? What shifts has come about in your writing and your poetry at large?
ÁL:I have had the chance to continue to develop my voice in English in the last four years since I have been studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical writing which partly means one is required to write a collection of poems. This has given me the chance and the time to develop the tone, cadence and voice of the so called prose poems which soon will be published by Egg Box later this year, I think. The shift is quite clear. The predominantly prose style of Budapest to Babel has turned into even more uncompromising sequences of prose poems. I’ve developed the idea of sequences further to a point that there will not be so called “single” poems in this new collection, only sequences, although my aim is to allow each poem within a sequence to have the strength to stand on their own too. I have tried to perfect “dialogism” and the notion of the palimpsest in these new poems. Repetition and the mutation, variation of the same motif within a sequence is perhaps the main characteristic of these new poems. We shall see. Soon.
(Special thanks to Nathan Hamilton, visit Egg Box Publishing to purchase Budapest to Babel and others works)
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 28th, 2010.