Carl Griffin chats to poet and translator George Szirtes about his craft, the refugee experience and his latest collection, Bad Machine.
To be half from one country, half from another, is where a lot of people in Wales find themselves, particularly in South Wales, where many were born in England but have been raised in Wales. This can lead to a lifetime of trying too hard to be Welsh, an emotional struggle about where we belong. How was the experience for you, going from Hungary to England?
George Szirtes: I was only just eight years old when we moved from Hungary to England. We were among the 28,000 or so refugees from the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. I have never tried to be Hungarian, though I distinctly tried to feel, at least partly, in specifically English English for about ten years from the early ’70s to the early ’80s. There is a whole book of poems, An English Apocalypse, that covers that experience and beyond. To the Hungarians I am an English poet who happens to be Hungarian, not to be taken seriously as a proper Hungarian beyond that. To the English I am a Hungarian sort of Englishman with complications. I think of myself as a marginally English writer, residing somewhere between Marginalia and Inter Alia.
Do you ever yearn to go back to Hungary to settle, back to your ‘roots’?
George Szirtes: My aim is to die in Budapest, in my favourite courtyard. I have long marked it out. Nowadays I’d add one of Richard Strauss’s Last Songs as accompaniment, but an old saxophone playing the Hungarian National Anthem might be a good alternative. I heard that once by chance from a window in Budapest in 1989 when the future looked open and up for grabs. But does all this matter? The real things that matter are deep in the bone and you hardly know about them till they kill you.
In a time for poetry where rhyme is unfashionable, how do you justify your constant use of it? Do you prefer reading rhymed over non-rhymed, or does this preference just show in your writing?
George Szirtes: I plead insanity. In my saner moments I argue that poets work best under one or other constraint and that the accident of two words sounding like each other is as good a reflection of the glorious provisionality of language as any amount of earnest solemnity and self-importance. Then I add something about how the whole caboodle of tradition versus modernism is over a hundred years old and as dead as a very dead dodo. Then I go back to playing Tom O’Bedlam and worrying about samphire, writing both rhymed poems and unrhymed ones. If you were not surprised by some of the writing in The Burning of the Books then you might be surprised by some of the writing in Bad Machine. I have also been writing poems and texts for Twitter, and doing a 56-poem collaboration with Carol Watts whose work I admire (much as I admire Denise Riley’s) but who may not have been much associated with Yeoman’s Old Measure Traditional Ale.
(ps Don Paterson rhymes, Sean O’Brien rhymes, Armitage rhymes, Derek Mahon rhymes, Marilyn Hacker certainly rhymes – but clearly they are all long dead and were out of fashion even when they were alive.)
What is your new collection, Bad Machine, about?
George Szirtes: The ‘bad machine’ of the title refers both to the human body and to language. The last few years have seen a fair amount of sickness and death in my vicinity. Nor am I quite as young as I was last year. The first half of the book is mostly about delight, and a kind of fascinated disappointment, in language. It involves collaboration with three artists. There is a series of poems under the general title ‘Minimenta’ that are a homage to Anselm Kiefer’s extraordinary ‘Monumenta’ works that are compounded out of rubble and paintings. There are some canzone (highly, almost obsessively, formal) on love and death. There are acrostics, shaped poems, mirror poems. I want to do things I have not done before, or at least things I have not done that way before. The book certainly has an experimental wing. Welcome to the asylum.
Do any mischievous robots feature in the book?
George Szirtes: No, but they are waiting in the shadows and may well appear either in the one after or in another format altogether.
How has art inspired your poetry?
George Szirtes: Constantly. It has opened windows on Marianne Moore’s (and other people’s) imaginary gardens with my own perfectly real toads in them. Contact with other people’s imaginations has been very important to me (The Burning of the Books poems in the previous book were marginalia on Canetti’s Auto Da Fe), and visual images – very much including photographs, and most recently films, including old YouTube clips – have continually intrigued me. Images of the world are part of the real world. What was it Blake said: ‘Natural objects always did & now do weaken, deaden and obliterate the imagination in me.’ I wouldn’t go so far but can see – in contemporary parlance – where one of my favourite geniuses was coming from.
You won the 2005 T.S. Eliot prize with Reel. Who do you think deserves the prize in January? Is there anyone you feel should have made the shortlist but didn’t?
George Szirtes: When I won it I expected Kathleen Jamie or possibly Michael Longley to win it. I was astounded when it was awarded to me. I am pretty sure Jamie will win it, possibly this time, but Paul Farley also deserves it. I think Deryn Rees-Jones is an outstanding poet. Simon Armitage will win but maybe not with this book. But seeing how wrong I was in 2005 I can only guarantee to be equally wrong in 2012.
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Bad Machine, by George Szirtes, will be out in January, published by Bloodaxe.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis