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Maintenant #96 – George Szirtes

An interview with George Szirtes by SJ Fowler.

Conventional wisdom would suggest when a poet leaves their country of birth at a young age, for a new nation, they might bring to bear both traditions upon their writing. Perhaps it is possible, though arguably reductive, that the poet in question would be of neither nation truly – forever an immigrant in one and a stranger to another. What seems assured though, is that this sense of displacement, ambiguity of tradition and identity, this fundamental plurality of language and culture, would seem to find its proper place in the intangibility at the heart of a forceful and considered poetic, where such equivocality is not only welcome but perhaps necessary.

At the core of the last century’s European poetry tradition lies the notion of trace, of multiplicity, invention, migration and these are the defining characteristics of George Szirtes’ oeuvre. His body of work, 40 years in the making and prolific in that time, has carried across forms, mediums, language and tones. It is the poetry of a singular individual extolling individualism, a poet whose responsibilities towards generosity and openness of spirit seem gracefully self-imposed across writing, translating, teaching, editing and anthologising.

Moreover, it is the not the work of a man trapped between nations and histories, but one who has been emancipated by a lifetime’s fidelity to poetry, never bound by a national dualism, despite the complications of being explicitly Hungarian and implicitly English. Author of over 20 collections, winner of numerous prizes including the TS Eliot, the Cholmondeley, the Gold star of the Hungarian republic and the best translated book award, George Szirtes is an immense poet and undoubtedly the greatest translator of Hungarian into English of the last century, if ever. In an wide ranging and generous interview, we present the 96th edition of Maintenant.

3:AM: It seems you have often been asked to recount a sense of your identity through your nationality, and its dualism between your life in England, your entire adult life, and your childhood in Hungary. Inevitably, this question of nationality may be somewhat irrelevant, it simply is, but its invocation does involve a consistent calling back to your youth, and those experiences which have shaped your life. Do you feel that poetry has been a necessary medium for you in this specific context? in which you have explored your nationality as a Hungarian, and your experiences in Hungary as a child?

GS: The Jesuits thought the first seven years of a child’s life would determine the adult and Rudolf Steiner thought something similar. I am not always sure how and to what degree they are right but childhood is a vital formative period for everyone. Early childhood in particular provides us with a groundwork of reality, an instinctive sense of the dimensions of life. That dimensional sense is necessarily related to time, place, and language, and the people who share that time, place, and language with you may share it primarily on the basis of nationality, but there are many other potential bases for sharing, such as family, class, religion, cause, condition, nature, etc. This is a little long-winded but I want as far as possible to separate the nation-state as an idea in flag-bearing form from the far more complex sense of who or what we are. There is only one sequence of poems in which my own childhood has been the central concern, ‘Flesh: An Early Family History’ in Reel (2004). Specific memories occur in other poems as almost chance crystallisations of the dimensional sense but my actual memories of very early childhood are few. The ‘Flesh’ sequence begins with five poems on forgetting that warn the reader – and myself – that what follows is in essence the invention of memory.

That’s the personal side. As regards the Hungarian nation, the history of Hungary has meant essentially four dates for me: 1944 (the German army’s entry into Hungary and the beginning of the Hungarian Holocaust), 1956 (the year of the Uprising when we left), 1984 (the year I first returned to Hungary as a writer) and 1989 (when we spent most of the year in Hungary watching the state crumble around us). Unfortunately Hungary has been rushing as fast as it can back to the Thirties since then. Even in those poems, poems with what I think of as a historical sense, it is not so much the nation, more a set of instinctive personal dimensions that acts as the dynamic. I actively dislike nationalism in all its forms.

3:AM: Moreover, do you think the traditional interpretation of this ‘dual’ nationality, as being one of double exclusion, culturally and linguistically, is valid? To me, much of your work presents an opposite idea, that these complications of nationality have allowed you a greater sense of what is indelibly English and Hungarian?

GS: That is very hard for me to say. There is the whole of the collection titled An English Apocalypse (2001) of which the 26-section title poem refers to a great many experiences and events that I felt to be specifically English. The sequence consists of pastorals, grotesques, urban vignettes, memories of living in the North of England, the political climate of the 70s and 80s and the five apocalypses at the end.

I have, I suppose, my own distinct sense of being in England – and of being in Hungary. No doubt both are limited. It is as with memory – a good part of it is invention and imagination. In fact it’s all very dreamlike. Writing such dreams is like watching oneself dream. But I can’t help feeling ‘exclusion’ is too strong a word. I don’t think anything in particular is excluding me. I think there may instead be a delicate state of tension, a certain distancing, but that the distancing is mutual.

3:AM: Moreover, though I can’t speak of the latter (though your work as a translator from the Hungarian is arguably the most semantically important contribution to that field in modern history), but of the former, you do certainly seem to have an unusual sensitivity to the ironies and subtleties of English culture, whatever they may be. Do you feel you have developed a specific sensitivity in this regard?

GS: I hope I have but I would be the last person to know. The slightly odd thing is that nobody – with the exception of John Sears who wrote a whole book about my work (Reading George Szirtes, 2008) – treated An English Apocalypse as a serious depiction of England. Sean O’Brien refers to it briefly in his Bloodaxe lectures. The line seems to be that, as a foreigner, I can have no real perspective on England and that, despite the five apocalypses at the end, I have too rosy a view of it. They think I should leave the English to their guilt and let the Irish and the Scots address the issue for them. Well, tra-la. It may be that I speak as nobody else finds. I may be just a weirdo with a weird sense of England. I hope the sequence might at least be a set of glowing fragments within those dreamlike crypto-English dimensions of time, place and language I mentioned at the start.

3:AM: The Jewish tradition in Hungary and Romania and the Baltic is one of the most ebullient and overwhelming and fundamentally tragic in 19th and 20th century Europe – essentially an incredibly dense mixture of Hasidism, theatre, poetry, secularism, zionism – it really was the grounding for so much of the philosophy, literature and avant garde movements that resonate so completely today. Has your family a long history in this regard?

GS: Practically none as far as I know but the fact is I simply don’t know. The effect of the interwar period in Hungary which introduced the first anti-Jewish laws in 1920 following the Bolshevik revolution of 1919 (led by Jewish communists), was to discourage all such manifestations. Hungarian Jew were to assimilate as far as possible, to leave the professions – and later any employment – and to make themselves all but invisible. It didn’t help of course. My father’s people came, I believe, from Bohemia and Moravia (details lost), my mother’s from Transylvania. It was not until she had died that I was told – though I had guessed – her family were Jewish. She said they were Lutheran. The concentration camp experiences of 1944-45 were, according to her, on political grounds. She was partially educated middle-class, trained as a photographer, his fmily was urban working-class with lower middle class relatives, including in the arts. But none of these arts were Jewish. I grew up in ignorance of the whole tradition, no rituals, now festivals, no customs. To be introduced to it now would be interesting. Half of me would think I had come home, the other half would we wondering what I was doing among the Hottentots.

3:AM: Many Romanian Jewish writers really saw their identity as Jewish and not Romanian in the way we conceive of that nation (I’m thinking of Celan, but also Dan Pagis, and Tzara even) because the Romanian states they grew up in were Austro-Hungarian constructs like Bukovina that ended with the horrific fascism of the late 30s and early 40s and the actions of the Iron guard. From that point they were no longer Romanian, but Jewish writers from extinct Jewish communities. How much has your own sense of identity between being Hungarian and being Jewish been cohesive or conflicting?

GS: It is as conflicting as Hungary chooses to make it. My mother preferred to think of herself as Romanian in the 60s and we had a nunber invitations to cultural events at the Romanian embassy. I don’t know why or how. My mother, who was ethnic Hungarian but born after WW1 in post-Trianon Romanian territory, blamed the Hungarians rather than the Romanians for the extermination of her entire family because it happened during a period when her part of Transylvania was for a few years back under Hungarian jurisdiction. I myself felt no conflict in childhood, nor did I throughout the 80s and early 90s. It shocked me in 1995 to see blackshirts march through Budapest and the potential for conflict has steeply risen since then.

3:AM: Do you think there has been an acknowledgement or a consciousness in contemporary Hungarian society of the shame of complicity that ordinary Hungarians showed toward the holocaust, in light of the actions of country like Denmark during the same period?

GS: No, absolutely not. Like most countries under Soviet control they were told they were the good people and that all the bad ones – Nazis and Fascists – had fled to the Western side. In partial mitigation Hungary had suffered a series of catastrophic defeats since 1526, so having to bear guilt as well as defeat might be feared to be psychologically crushing, but it would be a great step forward if they could do it. I don’t anticipate any time soon, however. At the moment we are as far from it as we have ever been.

3:AM: The situation in obviously deeply complex but many have spoken about a rise of the right in Hungary, a return to explicit public anti-semitism and nationalism. Has this been perceptible to you? And has it been related to cultural or economic matters in your opinion?

GS: I have kept a pretty close eye on it, blogged on it, linked to it and engaged in an LSE debate about it. It is more than perceptible – it is downright shouting in your face. Over 60% of the Hungarian public, a recent survey says, take anti-Semitic and anti-Roma attitudes. The highest in Europe. Fascist writers are back on the school syllabus, statues of Horthy and others of his time have been rising. The history and culture of the nation is being forcefully rewritten. The vulnerable isolation of the Hungarian language is also a factor. I could write you half a book on the reasons for it, and yes, it is connected to cultural and economic matters but it has long historical roots, most specifically from the end of the 19th century onwards.

3:AM: Your prolificism seems to be a fundamental part of your essence as a writer – the notion of relentless activity, of an endless engagement of writing, commentating, producing. It is admirable. How do you conceive of your own energy of output?

GS: I don’t really know. At worst it’s an addiction, at best just a surplus of energy, I think fast, feel fast, tick over fast. I don’t think that indicates a lack of depth. Dive fast, dive deep is the principle. I love the feeling of language in my hands. I want to be where it is. I wouldn’t know what I thought or felt, or was, without it. It’s not that I am sure now, but I do at least feel I’m on the track.

3:AM: Moreover so much of your activity is interactive, contemporary and accessible, you seem to have made a concerted effort to embrace the online media of communication to produce a lot of poetry, reportage, commentary and to offer a cohesive view of your work as it is happening for those who would follow. Did this happen decisively or naturally? Do you take pleasure in this ‘public’ engagement?

GS: When possible I try to say yes to things. I am not a technophile as such. I am no good at understanding the mechanics, but once engaged I am immediately interested in the nature of the medium’s existence. I entered Facebook and Twitter at other people’s prompting. but once in I was aware of them as potentially literary spaces and locations. By literary I don’t mean necessarily bookish, I mean places that language can explore.

I was not drawn there by the ‘social’ side of ‘social media’. I’m far from a life-and-soul-of-the-party man. My main objection to the slam and performance scene, admirable though it is in many ways, is that it seems like an enormous party and, as I tell others, I started writing poetry to get away from parties not to go to more. I am quite solitary in many ways. The public element of writing blogs, facebook posts and tweets, works in two main ways for me: 1) I do actually make friends with real individual people, and 2) the awareness that whatever I write in such spaces is in the semi-public arena, however ephemeral, offers an editorial standard and discipiline. I can mumble what I like to myself at my desk, but once the utterance is in public space it must stand up for itself.

Dance, dart, dive as deep as you can, emerge. It’s the way life seems to have come at me. All the long sequences have been series of such actions. In that respect, the technology / media way of working seems perfectly natural. Blog, Facebook and Twitter are interesting locations for work. And, of course, each new location invites a new poetic, a new form. I think form is a kind of action, not a product. Give me a form, give me a line, and I’ll chase it like a dog chases the wind. Each new poetic opens another possibility. Each is a form.

3:AM: And having written over 15 collections, produced innumerable translations and edited many volumes in your over three decades of publishing, what is your relationship to the finished book? Is it dead upon delivery, as they say, or do you have a sense of its continued life in that it may never be completely finished in your eyes?

GS: The big 520pp New and Collected Poems appeared in 2008. The earliest poem there dates back to 1973, the last to 2007. It’s not in the least dead matter to me – I enjoy reading from it occasionally and am proud to have written much of it – but it is done. I don’t want to be trapped in it. I certainly wouldn’t want to rewrite it or write more of the same. Even as it was being planned I had a later book in preparation, The Burning of the Books (2009), that would do some new things. I want to see what else there is to be done – what it is in me to do – without closing the pre-2008 account.

3:AM: Do you think poetry has developed a notion that an excess of writing is somehow a lack? That there is a traditional, formal and constricting suspicion of writers who are effusive, as opposed to writers who are delicately withdrawn and lonesome in tone and manner? (It certainly seems that way in Britain)

GS: Excess can be perceived as lack, but if excess indicates frivolity, there is something earnest about paucity. Some people are productive, some less so. That isn’t a moral or artistic choice. It’s a matter of metabolism. Having got beyond the Collected I feel pleasantly and generously irresponsible. That book is there and won’t vanish. That means I feel less bound than ever by the expectations or standards of ‘important people’ or the literary ‘powers’. If work interests me I will do it. I want to run around and breathe new air and learn new manners. I couldn’t do that without excess.

Blake said the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. I don’t know about the wisdom, but I am enjoying the road.

3:AM: I’m interested in how you approach subjects for translation. There seems to be a remarkable depth of work in the Hungarian language, and your translations seem, objectively, to be responsible for the immense reputation of some Hungarian writers outside of Hungary. Is the process led by your reading and taste, or by publishers contacting you?

GS: There are between five and ten translators of Hungarian into English who do a very good job of trying to cover precisely that ‘depth of work’. They are mainly translators of fiction. In poetry Edwin Morgan and William Jay Smith were very important. Morgan’s translations of Attila József are still the best and it was his translation of Sándor Weöres’s ‘The Lost Parasol’ in the Penguin volume of two Hungarian poets, Weöres and Ferenc Juhász, that inspired me to think that translation is something I might do. The work of George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer, and of Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner is vital. Peter Zollman – hardly known in the UK, though he lives here – is of a high standard.

In terms of poetry I began with a series of commissions from the now defunct The Hungarian Quarterly (The New Hungarian Quarterly as it was then) whose demise is the result of one of the many attacks on independent thinking by the current Hungarian government that is determined to define what culture should be. The way it has generally worked since then is that I am commissioned by publishers to translate fiction, but it is up to me to propose poetry. I wish I had more time for poetry now: I translate individual poems but fiction takes up the majority of the time available.

I doubt that I am responsible for anything but a small part of the reputation of Hungarian writers. Being known, and having won prizes, as a poet probably draws attention to my work.

3:AM: Why do you think Sandor Márai, who was so prolific, and lived so long outside of Hungary, was only given critical and popular attention outside of Hungary in the last few decades, after his tragic death? Do you think it came down to chance, or perhaps the need for good English translations of his work?

GS: Márai’s is a tragic story. His work was banned in Hungary after the war and he could only publish in the Hungarian-language emigré press which is hardly ever noticed by anyone except other emigrés or by dissidents at home. He killed himself in San Diego at the age of 89, in 1989 just as the system that had banned him was falling apart. His discovery was down to chance. A few years after his death the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso was in Paris and borrowed Márai’s book, known in English as Embers, from a publisher’s list of forgotten classics. He loved it and made sure it received as much international attention as possible. It became a lauded best seller in many languages. This started the revival. Márai was one of those very prolific writer: in effect it was like pulling a string and finding a stash of potential gold at the other end. Everything is helped by a good translation. I have translated four novels by Márai – more may be translated but not by me. It may even be that the demand for his work is less than it was. I think he was a magnificent visionary but an erratic writer of passages rather than of fully formed novels. Embers – which I did not translate – was really a novella. as was Esther’s Inheritance (that I did). He was best as an observer (see his diaries) and a psychologist of motives and desires. His thought is heightened by brilliant sensory impressions. Casanova in Bolzano, The Rebels and Portraits of a Marriage are marvellous, incomplete tours de force.

3:AM: Laszlo Krasznahorkai is another remarkably gifted novelist you have translated that seems to have gained immense respect outside of Hungary in the last decade. What is your relationship to his works as a translator? Are his novels unique challenges?

GS: László Krasznahorkai is, along with Péter Esterházy and Péter Nádas, one of the three major writers of Hungarian prose fiction of the late 20th and early 21st century. Like Márai he is a visionary but his vision is more absolute and cosmological: it is essentially apocalyptic. Most Hungarian fiction tends to be translated into German before any other language and he was winning prizes there from the start. I have translated three books by him, the first of which, in terms of translation, The Melancholy of Resistance, became an object of what I think of as a cult – a small cult in terms of numbers but a potentially very influential one, a cult reinforced by the second in order of translation, War and War. His books fit very well into a world where high art literature may be represented by Thomas Bernhadt and W G Sebald. It only took one big spark to start the fire and that is what happened with the third of my translations, Satantango – his very first novel in Hungarian. Suddenly it was all blazing. I am delighted for him – he is a marvellous original writer.

He is very hard work indeed for a translator. His love of the paragraphless chapter and of the very long sentence presents obvious technical problems. It takes time to tune in and feel the timbre of the voice, to understand the nature of its darkness and humour and why those long sentences are the way they are. Hungarian syntax has to find a form in English syntax, and the effects of Hungarian syntax have to rediscover themselves in English syntax. The translator must learn the register and explore the dimensions of a vision that permeates everything. Speaking for myself, after the first working draft, I have to sit down and rewrite what is in front of me, guided only by what I hope are my best instincts.

I don’t work closely with him on the translations. I like him and respect him very much as a person but we don’t meet very often. On rare occasions I phone or email to ask him about some particular usage or term, but never about stylistic issues. I have sometimes got this or that detail wrong, but the web of the voice is the vital thing, because that is what the reader enters. It is the world the reader enters, its noise and mechanism, that is unique.

3:AM: Do you approach the translation of fiction and poetry in distinctly different ways?

GS: Poetry is more line-by-line work: it may be that the flow is from detail to whole rather than the other way, as it is in fiction. Hear the weight of the detail, find the precise chime of the workable voice made up out of such details – by which I mean not just lexicographical detail but rhythm, texture, shifting registers and manners of voice, including the voice’s relationship to formality and informality, and the hearing and locating, where possible, of English poetic echoes – no poetry works entirely out of itself, everything is born, apparently naked, out of echo – that may establish some related echo-chamber. Poetry is like listening all over the body. Fiction is like understanding a way of moving.

3:AM: You have advocated a collaborative energy throughout your writing career too, which is a greatly underappreciated notion in poetry, in my opinion. Did you always actively collaborate with peers in your early practise?

GS: I have worked with composers and visual artists from the beginning – much of the forthcoming book, Bad Machine, springs from direct collaboration with three specific visual artists – rather than with other writers although, through teaching, I have in effect collaborated in the making of new work. The poetry I most love assumes a solitary voice entering another solitary mind in a given solitary space. Given that notion of the solitary (‘In my craft or sullen art / Exercised in the still night’, as Dylan Thomas wrote) it is not surprising that poets have been wary of collaborating with each other in a sustained and substantial way. But there are levels at which collaboration retains its solitary integrity while at the same time responding fully to another voice. The collaboration with Carol Watts has been the great recent disovery for me. It has been a marvellously energetic process and is still to complete. I am very grateful to you, Steven, for getting us together.

3:AM: The Hungarian tradition is littered with figures of great prolificism and great tragedy. Poets like Nagy, Weores, Faludy and Juhasz seem counterbalanced by powerfully romantic figures like Jozsef and Radnoti. Perhaps you are uniquely situated to try and make sense of such an immense and definitive tradition. How much do you think the Hungarian 20th century poetical tradition is defined by these notions, of tragedy and immense energy?

GS: The 20th century was a remarkable period in Hungarian poetry. There are a good number of poets I could add to your list who are of world or at least European stature. Agnes Nemes Nagy (I think you mean her, the name is effectively double-barelled) was not among the prolific, nor was János Pilinszky, a great poet translated most notably by Ted Hughes. I had hoped my translation of the selected poems of Nemes Nagy (The Night of Akhenaton, 2004) would give her a more central place but the great political moment of Eastern European poetry was lost in 1989 and she may have to wait. Agnes Lehoczky, whom you mention below, is a great admirer of Nemes Nagy and wrote – and has published – only the second English language study of her important work. Tragedy and energy are very good descriptors of Hungarian poetry. The national consciousness is certainly attuned to the tragic and a furious energy animates much of the culture. It is, in many cases, leavened by irony and playfulness.

3:AM: You have been instrumental in supporting the work of many contemporary Hungarian poets too, by translating them, if not literally supporting their work. Both Agnes Lehoczky and Andras Gerevich have featured in this series in fact. Do you feel you have a strong connection to a new generation of Hungarian poets?

GS: I don’t think it is as strong as it might be. They are simply younger than I am – all the older generation of poets I got to know in the Eighties are dead now – and, naturally enough their first contacts are likely to be of their own age group. However, I did edit New Order (2010) an anthology of younger poets translated by various people, including myself, for Arc. Getting to know them properly would need a more concentrated effort on my part, and much of my recent translation work has been concentrated on prose. Maybe next academic year, when I hope to have more time, I’ll be able to do something more for them. There are so few of us who can translate Hungarian poetry, I feel I should do it, though I am hoping that poets like Lehoczky – who writes in English after all – might take up some of the slack . She was of great help with New Order.

3:AM: Obviously within the bounds of your profession as teacher at UEA part of your responsibility is to help new writers, your students, with their work, yet it seems you are well known for being instrumental in supporting a wide variety of younger poets, always remaining accessible and energetic in the support of their work. Do you view this as a responsibility that many more established poets should undertake or just part of the specific nexus of your own practise?

GS: I try to support younger poets but I think it’s two-way in that I learn a good deal from them too. That’s not a piety: discussing work with them keeps me on my toes and has an effect on what I myself do. I will in fact be retiring from UEA soon but I don’t want to lose contact with my current students and ex-students. If it were a matter of just talking to students about poetry, and about their own poetry in particular, I would be happy to continue for a long time but there are a lot of institutional extras at universities that are of secondary interest to me. IOn the other hand I have no wish to seal myself off from external energies that sap but refresh. I can’t speak for other poets. It’s not an obligation or a moral stance. Each to his or her own. I would quite like to carry on meeting them informally in cafes and bars in town.

3:AM: Huge generalisations here, but how do you view poetry and its potential for personal change, for influence, for aesthetic revelation as it relates to the individual poet and reader? Do you conceive of it as something utterly personal, or impersonal, something that goes out into the world after being written and is thus detached from you and your intentions for it, or do you give it an ethical power, an agency for moving the individual that relates specifically to your force behind it?

GS: You are right – these are huge questions so the answer must be a little longer.

The human race has been composing, reciting and hearing poetry from the very start. The conclusion must be that it is of some use to us. It is useful in making sense of a world that is part memory, part imagination. It does so by giving that world a shape in language. It makes us realise things we didn’t know we knew. It utterly changed my life at 17 when I started reading and writing it. I thought the shapes it made were magical in that they held things together by transforming them. It humanised the world for me. It was a form of power., like magic

The poet is personal: the language is impersonal. Language is not a stable or static entity – it moves and crumbles and grows at the same time. The poet’s art lies in listening intently to the micro-movements of language while never forgetting the sense of the world as the pre-language – as instinct, apprehension, desire – that drove him or her to the threshold of language in the first place. Of course there are subjects and themes but that’s about as far as intention can go. As I see it is not a matter of wanting to say something, then finding the words to say it. You discover what you and the language have to say by entering the process of saying. The ethical power of poetry lies in its precise tension with language not in any broadly stated programme of doing good. The programme is advertisement. Technique, suggested Pound, is the test of sincerity. I think he was on to something.

The reader is as personal as the writer. Like the poet, the reader looks to reinvent himself / herself within a language shape that feels like the world. That shape is as impersonal to the reader as it is to the writer. Neither of them owns it. Reader and writer enter it at different angles, from different locations, with different baggage. But they share it. The solitary voice speaking to the solitary imagination is, paradoxically, the deepest shared experience. That sharing is the useful thing, the art that does some good: the ‘message’ is to be discovered not sent.

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist living in London. Author of four poetry collections, including Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011), he has received commissions from the Tate, the Southbank centre, the London Sinfonietta and Mercy and he is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a Phd student at the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 7th, 2013.