Maintenant #86 – András Gerevich
An interview with András Gerevich by SJ Fowler.
Though his constitution as a poet is multi-lingual, multi-national, fundamentally cosmopolitan and reflexive, it is the definitive clarity in the work of András Gerevich which has marked him out as one of the most considerable and singular voices of his generation. From the remarkable Hungarian poetic tradition, which has continued to produce poets of individuality and conscience for hundreds of years and to this very day, Gerevich has defined himself as a resolute and powerful writer, poet and screenwriter. His work burrows into the cadences of speech, of reflection, of confession, speaking clearly from the first person, while without apology it maintains its affability of form in order to scale its ambition of content. In the 86th edition of the Maintenant series we present András Gerevich.
3:AM: Your work is crystalline, immensely sure and has a disarming clarity to it, an immediacy. You seem to be excavating immense areas of expression within a space that strikes the reader as closed or small, event personal…
András Gerevich: Poetry I like is about immediacy and, you could say, intimacy. To achieve this a poem has to be crystalline, direct, in a way even “unpoetic” in its simplicity. However, this simplicity in form is not the equivalent of simplicity in emotion or content. All forms of “decoration,” be it verbal, intellectual or emotional can work as a distraction or a digression, it distances the reader from the essence of the poem. It is often superfluous. Some poets create work of aesthetic value with little or clichéd content. I prefer clarity to confusion, while so much contemporary poetry tries to make an effect on the reader by being vague and obscure, or even incomprehensible. On the other hand, I also enjoy poetry that uses a metaphorical or visual language in a way that helps construct meaning. I have just recently been rereading some of Blake’s work, which I admire. But anything that approaches surrealism I find alienating. When I write poems, naturally, I always try to achieve the same qualities I am looking for in other poets’ work.
There is also a personal, biographical reason behind the immediacy and intimacy of my poems. When I was a young child in the early eighties my mother spent a year in the United States on a university scholarship. This was well before the days of the internet, even communicating on the phone was close to impossible across the iron curtain. We kept in touch by exchanging letters. A few years after she returned my whole family moved to Dublin in Ireland where my father had a job. I was still less than nine years old. And again, for years I communicated with my friends and grandparents, people I loved and left behind, by writing long letters. I grew addicted to writing through these letters. Writing was less about expressing intellectual content or playing around with the aesthetics of language, it was primarily about communicating emotions in an immediate and intimate way. Later, still a child, without giving up my habit of writing letters, I also started writing stories and a lot of poems.
3:AM: I am reminded of Kenneth Rexroth in the American tradition, or Gyorgy Petri in the Hungarian tradition by your works sense of subjectivity and rhythm. You seem to mark a narrative that deceives initially by seeming formalised but then loses itself in a sense of poetic abstraction. Do you seek the poems to seem intimate or effect that?
AG: It is an interesting approach. Petri in Hungary is known for his political poetry. Under the communist regime he was banned from publishing, most of his work was distributed illegally in samizdat editions. He was very critical, even sarcastic about our version of communism. My poetry is very apolitical. Or, lets say, it is not directly political, as one cannot avoid the label when writing love poems addressed to men today in Hungary. Petri was more a poet of the community, I am rather a poet of the personal. I was a teenager when he died, so I had the chance to attend some of his public readings. His last books were all about his battle with cancer and dying, those poems were very intimate, immediate and tragic. This very last phase of his oeuvre is closest to my sensibility. In terms of form Petri is part of a poetic tradition more constrained than I am, he was often using set forms and rhythms.
I am not very familiar with Rexroth’s work, I have not read much by him until recently. However, if there are similarities in poetic language and attitude, it is proof that we have our roots in the same heritage, we were influenced by the same poets – all poetry is connected: we all learn from our predecessors and contemporaries, and if we are able to create something distinct or unusual, it will later be used by other generations of poets too. Regarding the American tradition, Frank O’Hara is a poet whose work I admire and even translate into Hungarian. Immediacy and intimacy, the characteristics we have discussed, are also central to his verse. I think our poetics are very close, so probably I have learnt a lot from him too. And we have both learnt from Cavafy among others. On the other hand, my writing is more disciplined, while his is more spontaneous.
3:AM: Did your work as a translator from English to Hungarian play a part in your experience of being translated the other way?
AG: When you translate literature, especially verse, you learn how difficult it is to reproduce a poem so that is as effective in its new lingual and literary context as it was in the original. You learn that the most important rule of translation is not to try to precisely follow the original text, but to have a poem in the end which reads like a poem in the target language, which does not sound like a translation, but blends into the literary traditions of its new context. You can only draw one important conclusion: the more liberty you give your translator, the better the outcome will be, as he is the person who knows his literary culture better. You have to trust him.
3:AM: You studied screenwriting at the National Film and Television school, which is a notoriously hard place to get accepted to study in. Is this a continued medium in which you write? Is it one that intertwines with your work as a poet?
AG: Many people graduating from film school never become established screenwriters, and those who do often never attended film school at all. I wish to continue my work in film. So far I had worked on a number of artistic animation films, shown at festival and in galleries around the world.
After graduating from the NFTS I went back to my old life, moved home from London to Budapest, and focused on literature again. I was elected the head of JAK, the Hungarian young writers association, and also entrusted with editing the poetry section of a literary monthly, Kalligram. I did not have the time and energy to focus on anything as grand as a screenplay or a novel, but wrote poems and essays, and even two adaptations for the stage. I started working on a new script last year, but as you know, writing a screenplay is a slow process, it takes years from having your first idea to the premiere of the film, if it ever gets made at all. On the long run I intend to work more on both plays and screenplays.
Films do have their unexpected effects on my other writing: I noticed recently how much dialogue actually ends up in my poems. However, I have always been a film buff, my poems have always had both a visual and a narrative quality, it goes back to times before I began working on films.
3:AM: Equally where you have lived is truly varied, from Dublin, Vienna, Budapest, near London, near Boston. How much are you occupied as a poet with this sense of contrast, of being pan-European, cosmopolitan perhaps?
AG: The issue of national identity and having a geographically locatable home were never important for me as a boy growing up. I was in my mid-twenties when I moved to the USA on a scholarship, and there I realized how European I actually was. Living in a different environment helped me develop this identity. Later, when I was studying in the UK, I realized how Eastern European I felt. But living in Hungary these categories are not primary parts of my identity. I am attached to Budapest, I love the city, it is where I have spent most of my childhood, its where most of my friends and relatives live. On the other hand, I do not have a strong national identity. I am more attached to London, or for that matter even Paris or Berlin, than any other part of Hungary outside the capital. My literary and cultural heritage is European. Writers in the English language are as significant to my education as Hungarians. Film is international. The only real issue of national identity affecting my daily life is language. When you write in Hungarian you are writing for a very small audience, and only a limited number of translators can give your work justice in other languages. English speaking writers don’t realize all the disadvantages of being a writer in a minor language. Otherwise I identify myself as European and very cosmopolitan. When it comes to ancestry my heritage is mixed: beside Hungarian lineage I have ancestors of German, Ruthenian, Slovak, and Polish origin – typical for people of the ex-Habsburg Monarchy. Even though I do not speak any of these languages, I am proud of my colourful national background.
3:AM: Could you tell me about your work with the journal Kalligram? And your work with Chroma, based in London?
AG: Kalligram is one of the most important publishing houses of contemporary Hungarian literature, however, it is based in Bratislava, Slovakia, which country has a very significant Hungarian speaking population. It publishes books and journals both in Slovak and Hungarian. The leading literary journal they publish has the same name, Kalligram. It’s a journal for stories, poems, essay, and criticism. I was Kalligram’s poetry editor for three years. Chroma was a London based queer literary and arts journal. It lasted six years. Originally I joined to help collect material from Central and Eastern Europe, I had to find poems and stories by gay authors in this region.
3:AM: What is your experience of the poetry scene in Budapest?
AG: Everywhere in the world I go I find lots of poets, lots of young people writing poetry. Of course, it’s a limited scene, its only for the enthusiasts and the initiated, but there are bars and café everywhere where young poets gather and read each others work, or go to small theatres to listen to their elders. Generally I have good experience. The poetry scene in Budapest is very lively, every night there is at least one public reading, but at times several more. There are dozens of literary journals. Until recently even the most popular serious newspaper had a poetry section in the weekend edition. Poems are read on the radio, every evening an actor even reads a poem on TV. Young poets are organizing their own shows, writing their blogs, establishing and publishing new journals. It is a very energetic and lively scene with lots of very talented poets, and lots of enthusiastic and devoted readers of poetry. Unfortunately Hungarian is a difficult language to translate, and poetry is the most difficult genre to translate, there are very few people who succeed, therefore only very little manages to break through the language barrier – and often in mediocre translation.
3:AM: How wide and how deep in multitude, in quality, in variation, is contemporary Hungarian poetry in your opinion?
AG: As there is a very rich and lively poetry scene, there are very distinct voices too. Some poets use strict forms while others write free verse. Unlike in many other European languages, many poets still rhyme in Hungarian, and it is not considered obsolete, it can be very modern, very contemporary. There are representatives of all kinds of traditions present on the poetry scene: some academic, some streetwise, some traditional, others modern, some fashionable, others followed only by a niche audience. Most poets also translate verse from the languages they speak. There is a large number of literary journals, many with different and distinct profiles, and a lot of publishing houses don’t shy away from bringing out books of poetry. Altogether, Hungary has a very healthy poetry scene.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 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: Tuesday, February 21st, 2012.