Maintenant #69 – Márton Koppány
An interview with Márton Koppány by SJ Fowler.
Márton Koppány’s opus of visual poetry stands as a remarkable entry into the ledger of post WWII European poetic innovation and expression. Behind him sits a life’s work, denoted by intellectual rigour and brilliance, as he has quietly, but indelibly, edged his medium, as a whole, forward a step at a time. Producing work of immense quality, consistently, in the field of visual poetry for over thirty years, he has inspired new generations of poets while working from the inside out of his environs in Budapest and with a capacity for profound inflection and wholly accurate understatement (to a level of humorous / satirical reverence so poorly missing from much experimental poetry) he has tackled the nature of his own family history and it’s entwining with the darker days of modern Hungary. His work is thus indicative of the possibilities, and even the necessities, of visual poetry, his fundamental mode one of honesty in expression, led by a suspicion and engagement with the limits of language. Koppány has always maintained an incisiveness that has attracted the plaudits from poets in his field, and his sophicated, intellectual and urbane corpus has rendered him simply one of Europe’s finest poets and an immense contributor to often the most stimulating field of contemporary poetry.
3:AM: You have stated that you came to poetry through a sense of unreality, of alienation perhaps, and that poetry is the means in which you were able to fixate and express this feeling, not to resolve it, but to negotiate it. Has this changed as time has gone by?
Márton Koppány: Oh yes, those are the words of my old friend, Peter O’Leary, based on his memories. In 2003 he wrote: “Visiting him [M. K.] in Budapest in 1998, I asked him what had turned him to poetry. He told me then that as a teenager, he began to sense a pervasive feeling of unreality, an alienation in which he was conscious of a veil between himself and reality. Poetry was the only expression that mediated this feeling. Poetry didn’t reduce it; but it authenticated the feeling, somehow.” (1)
I have nothing to add to Peter’s description, which must be correct, and is in agreement with my own fading memories from a distance of another 13 years. Something in me wants to say more about that “sense of unreality”, to free it from the captivity of the expression I used 13 years ago ¬¬¬— but it probably would lead nowhere. I’d better turn back to your question: “Has this changed as time has gone by?” Because whenever I start exposing something to generalization it becomes very soon unmanageable, I’m simply including here two works, one from the middle of the 90s and one from 2007. (Everything before the late 70s is mostly textual poetry in Hungarian, which I can’t present here.)
Bonsai No. 3
3:AM: Your work seems marked by its recalcitrance I think; it never overextends itself (perhaps the most consistent sign of wisdom in a poet, and a philosopher. in a human for that matter) or overcomplicates itself. It seems indelibly satisfied with its features, its means and its own visual language, often saying far more with what some would consider far less, elementally. Do you seek out this system of care in your poems?
MK: Thank you for your kindness, Steven! No, I never seek out any system. But, almost at random, here are three old notes to my work from the 80s:
“What is there on the other side? Is there another side at all? Yes, but it is always
on this side.”
“Marked and unmarked: partly marked, partly unmarked.”
“I’ve never tried to present ideas. What I’ve been interested in is the IS — and HOW I don’t know anything about it…”
They correspond, I guess. Something strikes me as a momentary recognition, then I realize that I have made a mistake. At that point I want to show the whole process. And the feeling of recognition returns.
The Other Side 1-2
Ellipsis No. 5
3:AM: You have stated that you were faced with a feeling that if you didn’t want to cease communicating you have to exile your mother tongue, that is Hungarian. Why did this feeling come about?
MK: I’d like to respond first to the implicit question: yes, I want to communicate, with myself and with others. I have no final answer to “why”, but here is what I said about it in an interview, conducted by Jesse Glass, in 2000. (2) Nothing has changed since then.
“I’m an outsider ‘in’ Hungarian literature and I don’t know exactly how I got to that no-place or no-position. Maybe I was born to be an outsider. Or Hungary is not the right place for me. Or I’m not a good writer. Or I’m not a writer at all, because my idea of literature is too different from the valid, working, influential ideas.”
I grew up in a relatively quiet environment. No doubt, my parents’ memories had a strong effect on my psyche (most members of our larger family were killed in concentration camps during WW2), and I had to work on those memories from an early phase of my life. Plus we were regarded as “class-aliens” since my father ran his own small business. But after the Hungarian revolt of 1956 the oppression became milder. During my teens one already had the opportunity to read the whole classical and early modern corpus of literature in translation, and most people were permitted to make trips abroad. I felt isolated, couldn’t publish almost anything till the late 1980s in Hungary but it wasn’t a hopeless situation altogether.
However it might be, I gave it up first in the late 70s, but tried it again in the late 80s and early 90s, when I met a few Hungarian poets who supported me. My first (and so far only) book of poetry in Hungarian came out in 1993. An editor of the small publishing house that brought it out was the first to ridicule the empty pages in it. (He apparently couldn’t see a difference between three empty pages.) Otherwise it was completely ignored.
In the late 70s I made my first non-just-textual works, got involved in mail art, got in touch with artists in different countries…
At this point, I want to mention that I’m more indebted to twentieth century Hungarian poetry than to anything else. I love and admire the poetry of Ernő Szép, Sándor Weöres, János Pilinszky and Dezső Tandori. I encountered them in the decisive years of my youth.
3:AM: It is said that Hungarian is one of the languages considered by those who speak it to be intrinsically poetic. Often when I hear this mentioned about Russian or French (never about English) I think it is more indicative of who is speaking, and their pride, rather than about the language itself…
MK: If poetry exists on the border of itself, an intrinsically poetic language would be a tragedy.
3:AM: Did this feeling of exile from speech in your own language lead you to begin in visual means?
MK: Yes, the main source of my way was a deficiency, which made things simple in some sense. I needed means and tools different from “just” writing, and although the new situation infantilized me, it also gave me the pleasant feeling of innocence, the illusion of starting from nothing. (So I must be grateful to that editor.) In Hungary my new sequences made me more isolated than ever. But I was quite happy with them, more happy than with anything else that I’d made before. I have no idea when I realized that the sheet of paper isn’t less (or more) important than the text written on it. I think I had already some sense of it in my textual period, too.
I’ll Regret It
Csend (Silence) – for Geof Huth
Utterance – for Karl Young
3:AM: That nature of your work creates a sense of (I hesitate to use the word) purity, or focus perhaps, that shed a certain light on lingual poetry. I have found it hard to read complex linguistic poetry after spending some time with your works. They appear cluttered, loud….
MK: Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote: “Just so, ‘concrete’ began for me with the extraordinary (since wholly unexpected) sense that the syntax I had been using, the movement of language in me, at a physical level, was no longer there…” (3) And Armand Schwerner wrote about his Tablets: “More specifically, I’m excited by being able to put in holes wherever I want, or wherever they need to be; on the other hand I can fill out some of the infinite interstices which exist — unavailable segments of continuum — between the pathetically restricted categories of English tenses…” (4)
On the other hand, although there’s always a hole between two words, there’s always a third word which can fill that hole. I mean I’m not a true believer — in visual poetry either. Who knows, perhaps the only important paradigm shift within poetry has already happened between two lines of a forgotten sonnet… And we may easily be talking at the very moment when “visual poetry”, whatever the term has meant, is dissolving (once again) in conceptual art, minimalist poetry, graffiti, calligraphy and asemic writing because nobody needs the umbrella-notion any more. Or it is just changing completely.
I don’t necessarily need words and although I’ve made more than twenty ellipses so far, I can do without punctuation marks as well. 🙂 But I still regard myself as (or would like to be) a writer. That one-sidedness comes from my past.
3:AM: Budapest is a city you must have a profound relationship to, whether positive or negative. How does it, or how has it, influenced your work?
MK: I love Széchenyi Bath. I love Margaret Island. I have a couple of good friends. I have mixed feelings about the old Jewish quarter where I grew up. We were a small family and lived with the memory of the dead. I was very unhappy with the state socialist control (I couldn’t publish my books although I often tried to), but the system was weakening, I was young, and we laughed a lot. After twenty years of not too successful liberal experiments “we” are marching again (with popular support) toward an authoritarian system, this time with far right wing accents and titles. Budapest is my point of orientation: the place I’ve always wanted to leave.
Hungarian Masterpiece, Summer 2011
3:AM: Do you still read and consider other forms of poetry creatively?
MK: I’ve stopped writing textual poetry because I’ve stopped writing in Hungarian. Some of my visual poems created over the last few years contain elements that couldn’t be translated into Hungarian or any third language at all. Others don’t depend on a mother tongue. In my teens I was an adamant reader. Today I read less textual poetry but I still do. Two good memories from the recent past: about everything by Philip Davenport and triskelion, tiger moth, tangram, thyme by Marcia Arrieta. (Well, both are strongly visual.)
3:AM: Humour seems so vital to your practise too…
MK: I hope I won’t be a bitter guy. As I’m getting old I pray each day to Sense of Humour.
3:AM: Your work really has gained a global reputation, certainly you are a centrifugal force in visual poetry to most visual poets I have spoken to who are active in Europe. Is the experience of communicating with other poets and travelling with your work one that pleases you? Do you seek it out?
MK: That sounds exciting to me. Anyway, I would be happy if a few people liked what I’ve been doing.
It is funny, too because my first poet friends, Bob Grumman, Karl Young, Geof Huth, Karl Kempton, Jesse Glass, Karl Gartung and Peter O’Leary, who in a sense changed my life by “demonstrating” that some of my pieces had gone through, and who gave me the kind of attention and support I’d never enjoyed before, were all American.
I don’t travel too much. In the early nineties I spent three academic years in Milwaukee with my wife, who was a university student. When we came home, we had to take care of our ailing parents. After more than a decade, this year I went back to the US to read and make presentations at different venues. I was also invited to the Text Festival in Manchester. It was a fantastic experience, and I wouldn’t mind travelling and exhibiting more. But I’ve met most of my collaborators in the digital universe.
3:AM: Collaboration seems such a consistent presence in your work. Has it always been this way or is that something that evolved as you have travelled and met other poets and they have become friends?
MK: It started in the late 70s when I got involved in mail art. I was quite active for a decade and often times that consisted of writing a piece that responded to a piece I’d got in the mail. And I’ve always been more interested in exegesis (but without systematic rules or principles) than in anything else. When you want to be less isolated, the collaborator is the one who listens. It was a plesure to exchange ideas (through works, thank god: we hardly spoke about the steps) with such wonderful visual poets as Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Mike Cannell, Nico Vassilakis, Satu Kaikkonen, Andrew Topel, Anatol Knotek and Michele Marinelli. I learned a lot from them..
3:AM: Do you think the concept of collaboration seems a readier idea to poets working outside of lingual language as opposed to formal poetry, where it seems less commonplace and perhaps is considered more heavy handed?
MK: I don’t know. It was very common among fluxus people, to name only one precedent. I don’t see a big difference between the need of communicating with ourselves and with somebody else. There’s no good dialogue without introspection. No introspection without the hope of a dialogue.
Handshake – for Roy Arenella
(1) Peter O’Leary: It Is Enough For Me
(2) Investigations and Other Sequences, Ahadada Books, 2003
(3) in: Concrete Poetry, ed. By Mary Ellen Solt, Indiana Un. Press, 1969
(4) Armand Schwerner: The Tablets, Atlas Press, 1989
Some of the poems in the interview were first published in the following books:
To Be Or To Be, the Runaway Spoon Press, 1996
Endgames, Otoliths, 2008: http://sites.google.com/site/otolithsbooks/Home/endgames-by-m%C3%A1rton-kopp%C3%A1ny
Investigations and Other Sequences, Ahadada Books, 2003
this is visual poetry, chapbookpublisher.com, 2010
Modulations, Otoliths, 2010
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of two poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011) and Fights (Veer books 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 30th, 2011.