Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: George Szirtes

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following poets, local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

George Szirtes

many books of poetry have won prizes including the T. S. Eliot Prize (2004), for which he was again shortlisted for Bad Machine .Satantango by László Krasznahorkai (whom he interviewed for The White Review was awarded the Best Translated Book Award in the US. He is also the translator of Sandor Marai and Magda Szabo. The Photographer at Sixteen is his first venture into prose writing of his own.

What follows is an extract from his Curriculum Vitae found on his blog:

Poetry
1978 Poetry Introduction 4 with Craig Raine, Alan Hollinghurst, Alistair Elliott, Anne  Cluysenaar and Cal Clothier (Faber & Faber) 0-571-11127-0
1979 The Slant Door (Secker & Warburg) 436-50997-0
1981 November and May (Secker & Warburg) 0-436-50996-2
1984 Short Wave (Secker & Warburg) 0-436-50998-9
1986 The Photographer in Winter (Secker & Warburg) 0-436-50995-4
1988 Metro (OUP) 0-19-282096-6
1991 Bridge Passages (OUP) 0-19-282821-5
1994 Blind Field (OUP) 0-19-282387-6
1996 Selected Poems (OUP) 0-19-283223-9
1997 The Red All Over Riddle Book (Faber, for children) 9780571178070
1998 Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape (OUP,)  0-19-288091-8
2000 The Budapest File (Bloodaxe) 1-85224-531-X
2001 An English Apocalypse (Bloodaxe) 1-85224-574-3
2004 A Modern Bestiary with artist Ana Maria Pacheco (Pratt Contemporary Art)
2004 Reel (Bloodaxe) 1-85224-676-6
2008 The Burning of the Books (Circle)  978-0-9561869-0-4
2008 New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe) 978-1-85224-813-0
2008 Shuck, Hick, Tiffey: Three Regional Libretti (Gatehouse) 978-0-9554770-8-9
2009 The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (Bloodaxe) 978-1-85224-842-0
2012 In the Land of the Giants (Salt) 978-1-84471-451-3
2013 Bad Machine (Bloodaxe) 978-1-85224-957-1
2015 56 (Arc) with Carol Watts to appear later this year
2015 Notes on the Inner City (Eyewear) to appear later this year

Translation
1989 Imre Madách: The Tragedy of Man, verse play (Corvina / Puski 1989)  978-963-13-5850-6
1989 Sándor Csoóri: Barbarian Prayer. Selected Poems. (part translator, Corvina 1989)
1989 István Vas: Through the Smoke. Selected Poems. (editor and part translator, Corvina,  1989) 9789631330694
1991 Dezsö Kosztolányi: Anna Édes. Novel. (Quartet, 1991/ ND 1993) 0-8112-1255-6
1993 Ottó Orbán: The Blood of the Walsungs. Selected Poems. (editor and majority translator,  Bloodaxe, 1993) 1-85224-203-5
1994 Zsuzsa Rakovszky: New Life. Selected Poems. (editor and translator, OUP March,  1994) 0-19-283089-9
1998 László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance (Quartet / ND) 0-8112-1450-8
1999 Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad short stories (CEUP, 1999, NYRB)  978-1-59017-445-6
2003 The Night of Akhenaton: Selected Poems of Ágnes Nemes Nagy (editor-translator,  Bloodaxe) 1-85224-641-3
2004 Sándor Márai: Conversation in Bolzano (Knopf / Random House, 2004) 0-375-41337-5
2004 László Krasznahorkai: War and War (New Directions, 2005) 0-8112-1609-8
2005 Sándor Márai: The Rebels (Knopf / Random House) 978-0-375-40757-4
2008 Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole (Telegram) 9781846590344
2009 Sándor Márai: Esther’s Inheritance (Knopf/ Random House) 978-1-4000-4500-6
2011 Sándor Márai: Portaits of a Marriage (Knopf / Random House) 978-1-4000-4501-3
2012 Yudit Kiss: The Summer My Father Died (Telegram) 978-1-84659-094-8
2012 László Krasznahorkai: Satantango (New Directions) 9781848877658
2014 Magda Szabó: Iza’s Ballad (Random House) 978-1-846-55265-6

Editing
1991  Birdsuit: writing from Norwich School of Art and Design (9 vols) – 2000
1995 Freda Downie, Collected Poems (Bloodaxe) 1-85224-301-5
1996 The Colonnade of Teeth (co-ed with George Gömöri (Bloodaxe) 1-85224-331-7
1997  The Lost Rider: Hungarian Poetry 16-20th Century, an anthology, editor and chief  translator (Corvina, 1998) 963-13-4967-5
2001 New Writing 10, Anthology of new writing co-edited with Penelope Lively (Picador) 9780330482684
2004 An Island of Sound: Hungarian fiction and poetry at the point of change (co-editor)  (Harvill) 978-1846555565
2010 New Order: Hungarian  Poets of the Post-1989 Generation (Arc) 9781906570507
2012 In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry, with Helen Ivory (Salt)  978-1-907773-21-1

Other
2001 Exercise of Power: The Art of Ana Maria Pacheco (Lund Humphries) 9780853318279
2010 Fortinbras at the Fishhouses: responsibility, the Iron Curtain and the sense of  history as knowledge. Three lectures. (Bloodaxe) 978-1-85224-880-2

Performed Works (dates, titles and venues of performed works):
Over twenty plays, libretti, and other texts for music, mostly performed but not for professional stage

Journalism:
BBC radio and TV, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The TLS, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Magma, and many others. Mostly reviews of literature or art, some columns or essays, occasional pieces on Hungary and miscellaneous matters.

Honours
1980 Faber Memorial Prize for The Slant Door
1982 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
1984 Arts Council Travelling Scholarship,
1986 Cholmondeley Prize
1990 Déry Prize for Translation The Tragedy of Man
1991 Gold Star of the Hungarian Republic
1992 Short listed for Whitbread Poetry Prize for Bridge Passages
1995 European Poetry Translation Prize for New Life
1996 Shortlisted for Aristeion Translation Prize New Life
1999 Sony Bronze Award, 1999 – for contribution to BBC Radio Three, Danube programmes
1999 Shortlisted for Weidenfeld Prize for The Adventures of Sindbad
2000 Shortlisted for Forward Prize Single Poem: Norfolk Fields
2002 George Cushing Prize for Anglo-Hungarian Cultural Relations
2002 Society of Authors Travelling Scholarship
2003 Leverhulme Research Fellowship
2004 Pro Cultura Hungarica medal
2005 T. S. Eliot Prize, for Reel
2005 Shortlisted for Weidenfeld Prize for the Night of Akhenaton
2005 Shortlisted for Popescu Translation Prize for The Night of Akhenaton
2007 Laureate Prize, Days and Nights of Poetry Festival, Romania
2008 Bess Hokin Prize (USA) Poetry Foundation
2008 Made Fellow of the English Association
2009 Shortlisted for T S Eliot Prize with The Burning of the Books
2013 Shortlisted for T S Eliot Prize with Bad Machine
2013 Best Translated Book Award (USA) for László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango
2013 CLPE Prize for best book of poetry for children with In the Land of the Giants
2014 Made Honorary Fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Letters (see above)
2014 Made Honorary Fellow of Goldsmith’s College, London
2015 Translator of László Krasznahorkai winner Man Booker International Prize

The Interview

  1. What were the circumstances under which you began to write poetry?

I was in my sixth form at school, not doing well at the wrong subjects (the sciences) and drifting in all kinds of ways when I started picking poetry books off the school library shelves. Poems were small texts with lots of white space, ideal for drifting and dwelling on, for clearing my head and at the same time opening doors to feelings and ideas I was attracted to without fully understanding them., But I did not think to write poems myself until, not much later – I was seventeen at the time – a friend showed me a poem by a mutual acquaintance. Suddenly I wanted to be a poet. So I bought a notebook and started writing, a poem per day or more.

My family was not literary so we had few books, I had dropped English at O Level  and, besides, it was my second language (though that thought never bothered me then). I hadn’t read much literature in the past few years and didn’t really know what I meant by being a poet or what made good poems good. It was a decisive venture into unknown territory. In many ways it was the saving of me in that my life changed and I had a purpose. I went to art school instead of university and things went on from there.

2.  How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Hardly at all at the beginning. The poets I first encountered were either dead or elsewhere. But soon I made friends with another pair of boys who were also studying science but had become as involved in poetry as I was. Like me, they came from non-literary backgrounds. Steve’s father was a postman, Ashley’s a scoutmaster. We passed each other books in chaotic fashion – no particular period in no particular order – just whatever we fancied as long as it was available in cheap paperback or at the library. In retrospect, our reading would have been considered ambitious but we had no idea that it was so. That reading included Keats, Rilke, Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Cavafy, and Donne. but many others too. It was not thorough or analytical reading – none of us read through any solid body of work by a poet unless in a thin cheap paperback and we had no language of criticism. We tasted and swallowed poems whole.  The poets were just names to us, not histories, but we read them with excitement. Ginsberg was still alive of course but he may as well have been in some other time zone. If I had done English A Level I suppose I would have been reading D H Lawrence, Eliot and Hughes or Plath, but they came along later., mainly under the tutelage of Martin Bell, my first real poet, who taught an afternoon a week at the art school in Leeds.  And later still Larkin, Auden, Stevens and the rest. By the time I was reading Larkin I could see how he was a dominant figure in terms of tone – as was Plath in her way but I learned little directly from either because I had arrived there through other channels. Maybe Larkin’s restraint had some effect on me but it was clear that, not being English, I couldn’t simply adapt his voice. At some point I set myself to read through poetry Eng Lit style from Chaucer on. I got a decent way with that.

3. What is your daily writing routine?

My daily routine is to rise about 8am, have breakfast, then come straight down to my desk and spend the rest of the day there with some breaks for exercise. I write something every day – not always poetry, though I do use Twitter as a kind of small-scale literary notebook. I deal with correspondence. I also maintain my posts on Facebook where other thoughts tend to get some initial development. I read and I watch discussions.I am working towards a new collection booked for 2020. The poems come when I give them space to come or where they appear as potential shadows of poems. Most people consider me productive. I suppose I am.

4. What motivates you to write?

I started writing at the age of seventeen because, for the first time in my life, I suddenly understood that poetry was a way of telling some kind of truth about the world. Over the years that understanding gradually became more complex while remaining essentially the same. Now I would say writing poetry is a kind of drive to do with language, the way language moves in and out of reality to create an experience that feels as true as life, so true that it can feel like a physical shudder. That shudder is to do with the way words spring out of and form a sense of reality. It is about meaning and shadows of meaning lodging themselves powerfully in the mind.

That is what continues to motivate me.

5. What is your work ethic?

Work ethic: You don’t let other people or yourself down.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Mostly exactly as they did before though some who were important then are less important now. My first loves: Rimbaud, Eliot, Rilke, Blake, Auden, MacNeice, Bishop, Yeats, Stevens and Dickinson remain top loves. Add some other figures chiefly from Europe and US, but I don’t want to list them all. There are plenty of others, plus those who have come into the picture since – either because they were really there but I hadn’t read them or because their books were published later – modify my reading of the original list. Some poets go deep early and set the landscape. Those that go truly deep don’t leave you.

6.1. What do you mean by “go deep”?

I mean that by the time the poem has been once or twice read it has left such a mark on the memory it becomes part of the receiving mechanism for whatever is read later..

I can expand on that if you like but that’s a reasonably succinct way of putting it.

7. Whom of today’s writers do you most admire, and why?

The answers to today’s writers will be generational.

Of the generation slightly older than me or roughy the same age: Peter Scupham, Derek Mahon, Ciaran Carson, James Fenton, Penelope Shuttle, Christopher Reid, and Jane Draycott. Then there is Ian Duhig, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Alice Oswald, Imtiaz Dharker, Michael Hoffman; and younger still: Tiffany Atkinson, Jack Underwood, Vahni Capildeo but now I am listing names that occur to me and no doubt I could go on, especially since I am sure to regret having left out people who should certainly be in. It isn’t a particularly original list but they are all admirable. I don’t necessarily write – or could write – like any of them but of those who are perhaps closest to me in terms of angle to the universe, I’d choose Mahon and Fenton. Mahon aesthetically-morally; Fenton: formally and emotionally. Peter Scupham was a wonderful friend and critic. I am very lucky to have met him.

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