An Interview with George Szirtes

Born in Budapest in 1948, George Szirtes moved with his family to Britain aged 8.  He has published prolifically since the mid-seventies and has lived in Norfolk for over twenty years: teaching for six on the Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. Szirtes has recently become a Contributing Editor at Ambit, and his new pamphlet ‘Notes on the Inner City’ was published by Eyewear last month. 

Your second published poem ‘the tightrope walkers’ was published by Ambit 57 in 1974. What preoccupied you as a young writer?

I began as one kind of poet in my teens and was becoming another in my mid to late twenties. In my earliest, mostly unpublished work, my heroes were Rimbaud, Blake and, to a fading degree, Ginsberg. In the later stage I was moving towards Eliot, Auden and Mahon, with MacNeice, Bishop, Brodsky and Stevens in the wings. 1974 is plumb in the middle of that transitional period. The poem I published in the TLS in 1973 had more of the first stage about it, the poems I published in Encounter and The Listener in 1975 and 1976 had more of the second.

The first stage was about falling in love and about the weirdness of things; the second about understanding and the fragility of life. In personal biographical terms this covered the move from school and art school to life beyond, and from fantasy about love and revelation to being married and having children. It was also the period of my mother’s decline and death, so fragility and understanding were, I now think, bound to be more important. I was wanting my poems to have shape and clarity, to be less about my own state of mind, more about the world outside me. Rimbaud never vanished though, nor did Blake, but I was having to come to different terms with them. The problem, in other words, was to find a way of writing that allowed for the best of the first stage while finding a shape and structure that fitted the world of experience.

Your twelfth collection Reel won the 2004 TS Eliot prize, and there have been several books since. What do you think makes a great poem in the early twenty-first century?

The great poem, in so far as we have any clear idea of such a thing, is something we discover through returning to it several times after we first read it. There are, of course, enormously impressive poems that strike us the first time, but we may be confusing novelty or ambition with greatness. Of course we have a whole new global-political set-up that is still evolving, we have had a technological revolution, we have had vast social changes and more, but as regards the qualities required of a great poem of the 21st century I will go with what Chou En Lai was supposed to say in 1972 when asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: It is too early to say. Ask me again in 2215.

Eyewear recently launched your new pamphlet ‘Notes on the Inner City,’  what attracted you to the pamphlet form?

Notes on the Inner City is the sixth pamphlet – one (a collaboration with photographer poet Kevin Reid) from Knives, Forks and Spoons press, four from MIEL and now this from Eyewear – I have produced since the appearance of Bad Machine (2013). The material in the pamphlets is part of an extension to my more usual work.

Why? After 2008 and the 540pp New and Collected Poems I felt I could continue the range of activities I had learned over the years or break myself open in some sense. The collected poems were there, after all, nothing was going to change that. So I undertook, and have continued to undertake, a number of projects that explore whatever possibilities I come across and from which I might learn. Some time later this year Arc will be publishing ’56’, a collaboration involving 56 poems, with the poet Carol Watts, someone whose work was very little like mine. I am in effect learning her sensibility in it, my own verse consciously more experimental in its process. But then ###em/em### began with a title sequence that was nothing like my earlier poems, and Bad Machinecontains a good many language experiments I would never have written before 2008. I am happy to be driven in various directions, including that represented by the New and Collected Poems. There is nothing there I disown or regret and certain conditions will blow me in that direction again.

My main principle in poetry (less in life) is ‘if in doubt, do it’. ‘You haven’t been there? Go there’. It’s the great welcome irresponsibility of being older. Pamphlets allow for exploration. Perhaps some day after I’ve gone people might say: let’s put the pieces of him together again and see what they make.

Within the next year or so you’ll send your fifty thousandth tweet (you’re currently on about 44700). How much time do you spend writing each tweet?

I spend very little time per tweet. A tweet is a brief, spontaneous, evanescent literary form for me. It is precisely – and paradoxically – the consciousness of its evanescence that gives it some hope of substance, depth and lasting. It is sensibility not so much on the run as on the sprint. The form suits me because it corresponds to the way I compose poems too. I write fast because my imagination needs momentum and faith. In some respects this is a throwback to the first stage of my development. My love of constraining forms is a way of accommodating that original predisposition to run with the first thought. Negotiating constraint is a way of facing the marvellous otherness of language. The constraint of 140 characters is no different in principle from the constraint of 14 lines.

You are renowned as a translator of poetry and prose from Hungarian. What draws you to a particular text that makes you want to translate it? and how digital is your process?

In the case of poetry an affection or admiration for some of the author’s poems, meaning a desire to understand them better by translating them. A translation is just that: an understanding.

I chiefly translate from Hungarian but now and then I undertake a translation ‘game’ in which I produce multiple translations of a single poem, some very playful indeed. So I have translated poems by Mandelstam, Apollinaire, Akhmatova and Celan (the Mandelstam Variations appeared in a recent issue of Modern Poetry in Translation and the Apollinaire in an anthology, the Akhmatova and the Celan, in my own opinion, being maybe too playful and scurrilous to appear in proper magazines, though who knows? I have never offered them to Ambit.)

The rest are commissions and requests. All the fiction books, bar one, came to me by happy commission from publishers and editors. The other prose book eventually found a happy home and a place on a prize shortlist).

I work on a laptop and consult online dictionaries and encyclopaedias in the same way I would books. The expansion of knowledge at one’s fingertips is staggering but the process is no different. I read, I try to hear, I write and try to hear again. That is what translation is.

There are many people who have an ambition to be a respected poet. It is seen as romantic and fulfilling. Is that how you have experienced your career as a poet thus far?

I am not sure what to do with the concept of respect. Is that like being a respectable citizen?

I have been more fortunate than many in being praised and rewarded with prizes. That must mean something but it’s not good to concern oneself too much about what precisely. I feel no sense of obligation to those who might respect me. Like every other human being I expect respect. We all should.

Romantic and fulfilling? Everyone wants praise. Everyone wants romance. Everyone wants fulfilment. Is it reputation you want? The bubble reputation can swell or pop. You want popularity? You may or may not be popular. You want to be exclusively important and significant to the most progressive minds of your generation? You may or may not matter very much to this or that group of people.

The poetic contract, as far as I am concerned, is a one-to-one contract. The poem in that contract is one that matters deeply, fully, devastatingly to the other. It may, at the same time, amuse, entertain, and intrigue but it must do so on an individual basis. A poem should never look to extend its circle of friends or to be the life and soul of the party. It shouldn’t try to be wise or consoling. It shouldn’t tut-tut or pretend to virtue. The role of poetry, said Mallarmé, was to purifiy the language of the tribe but the tribe is approached through singularity. This may be my limited western, foreign, outsider view of the contract but, given my background, I’d be very stupid to think anything else. If I did think of anything else I would be preferring the idea of being a poet to the actual poetry.

Poetry is not a matter of respect. The critic can stuff his literary respect up his literary anus.