Interview

George Szirtes

George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. He left Hungary with his family in 1956 to settle in England.

His 14th collection of poems was Reel published by Bloodaxe which recently won the T.S. Eliot award. George has extensive experience as a translator of Hungarian poets. Additionally, he teaches on the MA course for creative writing at UEA. He lives with his wife near Norwich.

JAMES BYRNE: Congratulations on winning the T.S. Eliot award. How are you going to spend all that money?

GEORGE SZIRTES: Buying time, I hope.

You were among a strong cast-list. Were you surprised to win?

Pretty well astonished I would say.

Reel cuts its path through a rich array of characters with a keen directorial eye. The geographies and locations in the book are dense yet forever shifting. When setting out to write the book, did you consider travelling so much ground?

No. I have always travelled it, even before I went back to Hungary for the first time in 1984. Shifting ground is simply where we live, though that may be the case more for me than for some. We don't in fact have to travel far: ground does an awful lot of travelling all by itself.

After the Hungarian uprising you moved to London from Budapest at the age of eight knowing only a few words of English. Your mother suffered in a concentration camp, returning to find that most of her family had been killed in the Hungarian uprising. She herself committed suicide in 1975. Does your sense of personal history upon winning the award help to put things in perspective?

The prize makes no difference to anything, certainly not to perspective, which changes irrespective of prizes as such and in ways I can't be sure about. I think what I see is the sum of what I and the other voices living in my head have been. I just try to see clearer and write better.

The early sections of Reel include some of your most scintillating family poems since you first wrote about Hungary in The Budapest File. Yet your perspective has inevitably altered. In one early poem you state I remembered my mother's face in childhood / my father's worried look, my children's deep / otherness, my wife's eyes and saw the blood / that ran through us all like dreams in sleep. You speak with a kind of learnt knowledge. Does backward glancing become easier?

The family poems at the beginning of Reel are part memory, part imagination. The first section of the set is about things I don't remember at all, that are pre-memory for most people: my mother's arms lifting me from my cot and so forth. I wrote those because that is what I feel memory is like. Memory, in poetry (for me at least) is the vivid impression of a truth that I am prepared to believe while in the ambit of the poem. It is not evidence in a court. It works on the assumption that what I see, hear and feel vividly enough offers a taproot into reality, and is therefore valid and liberating. I think that may be the answer to the question of backward glancing. The poems are balanced at the point where raw data becomes anecdote. I could write long essays on this but will stop here on this occasion.

You are formally trained as an artist, have taught art in schools and exhibited in your early years. At what point did you decide to pursue a career as a writer?

Chronologically I was a writer first. I started at a specific point, on a specific occasion, at age seventeen when I was doing Science A levels. In the course of that year I began a hasty Art A level, mostly by myself and with the help of a splendid art teacher, Sheila Mayer, who sat and talked to me. The option of becoming a painter opened up as a result, but I was already committed to being a poet.

Since adopting English as your 'writing language' you have maintained your wish to be known as an 'English writer … not a foreign writer'. However, you have also stated that you are 'above all a European'. How does this dichotomy work?

In much the same way, I believe, as much of modern life does for those who find themselves far from where they started. I write in English: my head is full of English language poetry. I had read Hungarian poetry before I was eight, before we came to England, but it was the Anglo-American tradition I started reading when I made the conscious choice to be a poet. On the other hand my extremely chaotic reading of the time (late sixties, seventies) included the marvellous Penguin Modern European Poets series.

In effect, the equation works out something like this: the experience I work from is to a substantial but hard-to-determine degree not English but the words are English, as are the rhythms, the nuances etc. That may be why I sometimes feel I have been a slow developer as a poet. The subject matter has spent a long time filtering through and finding workable form. Perhaps that does not do the subject matter any harm.

Your poems often adhere to quite strict methods of versification, yet also reward the reader with huge sweeps of lyric and imagery. Within your own working practice, what usually comes first, the employment of form, or the texture of the language?

Form is partly a psychological factor. My mind moves quickly, which is not necessarily always good for a poet (Robert Graves described himself as a slow thinker) and the formal devices usefully slow it down a little.

Strict form has another great benefit. Contrary to what is popularly thought to be the case, the imperative of rhyme or stanza is an aid to invention, not a bar. You have to invent to move with the shapes while avoiding cliché. The cliché becomes overt in rhyme - you can see it coming. The texture of the language is what moves between the formal indicators, and that texture, in my case, is more sentence than line-based.

I think I am working a seam that Frost defined ("the basic unit of the poem is the sentence"), though I think of it in terms of music. The term I like is counterpoint. The line, rhyme and stanza do one thing while the sentence and texture play themselves off against it. Sometimes it looks like that duff term, 'traditional' verse, as though there were some such clearly defined object, but the movement is always angled against form to a greater or lesser degree, and the material inside it is what would run riot were there not some kind of constraining counterpoint to it. It is the noise the two make against each other that is the poetry.

Prose-poetry and free verse have been much criticised over the years as suspect poetical forms. Do you think that the boundaries between prose and poetry are still frequently blurred?

I am neither for nor against any kind of verse. It has been noted before that no verse is free for a good writer: it simply makes a different range of music. For less good writers the freedom can result in prosiness because they don't hear distinctly enough: they lose the phrasing, the consonant-vowel interplay and the sheer necessity of everything. It is of course equally true that for less good writers and beginners formal writing can be a hard and crude master. I am not a purist or an ideologue. As for prose-poetry, it is its own form. I have written some and would like to write more. The most important qualities of poetry are music, development and tension. An engagement with the world outside your own person also helps. It helps a lot.

Reel sees you inhabiting many different guises. In one poem you are a wasp, in another the waters of Venice rock like an idea in your head. Was it difficult to keep the pitch of the poems relatively constant while allowing the poems themselves to cover so much ground?

Over the years I have written a great many texts, some sixteen in all, for musicals, for operas, for solo singer, for choir, for speech. Some of these have some merit, some have little, but they all offered opportunities for sounding out different characters and working in different moods. I have also written a lot of poetry for children that appears in anthologies here and there. Writing these is like playing games, and there is a great deal in games that is delightful, inspirational, helpfully irresponsible. I love that irresponsibility: it should be, indeed it has to be, there in the darkest and most sombre of poems. Rhymes and other devices are part of the same love. As for pitch: that is the sound you seem to have been making for a while. It's good to push it around a little. You don't stop being you. I see the wasp, by the way, as something of a fascist and Venice has breasts and desires as well as ideas.

What is your single most important possession?

People are not possessions. The people I love I love deeply. They are fortunate loanings in a world that need not lend you anything. It sounds horribly hippy to say so but I'm not hooked on possessions. I quite like a bit of clutter and of course I like books, but easy come, easy go. I am glad we have a piano.

Would you be wary if your daughter were dating a poet?

Depends which poet. But she can handle most things in any case.

You have translated a large number of Hungarian poets after revisiting the country for the first time in 1984. Has this enabled you to better understand your homeland?

I suppose so. More importantly it has enabled me better to understand poetry. I have benefited enormously from translation and recommend it to anyone. It's a bit like being one of those old fashioned radio-hams. Turn the dial, move past the crackles and whistles, and hear a voice you can learn to respond to. Now let it teach you something. Let it teach you itself and not-itself. Let it teach it you.

Any particular Hungarian poets we should track down?

Many. Great 20th century poets (not always in good translation) include: Lörinc Szabó, Attila József, Miklós Radnóti, Sándor Weöres, János Pilinszky and those I myself have translated in some quantity: Ágnes Nemes Nagy, Zsuzsa Rakovszky, Ottó Orbán, Ferenc Juhász…and some younger ones too (the youngest here is Rakovszky, a year or two younger than me.)

You once stated in an interview that the Hungarian poet Ottó Orbán once drew a picture of yourself in the middle of a cloud between Hungary and England. Do you still feel geographically displaced in this way?

That doesn't go away. It's OK. I still have the picture.

Now you have won a major literary award. What else is there left to achieve?

Write better poems. Write about things that matter that I haven't learned to write about. Never settle. Remember MacNeice: world is suddener than we fancy it; things are drunk and various, gay and spiteful. Snow is the poem I would take to the grave. It is, I think, the way the world sometimes is.

Questions: James Byrne

 

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