George Szirtes Interview
Posted on 25 October 2010. © Copyright 2004-2021 WriteWords
Tell us all about your writing background
I have been writing since I was eighteen. No writing background. Sudden onset of writing which moved in like a squatter and has stayed ever since.
I have written some fourteen books of poetry, not counting small press work. I started with Secker and Warburg in 1979 with The Slant Door that was joint-winner of the Faber Memorial Prize (with Hugo Williams), then three more books, at which point the whole poetry list was purged by Robin Robertson, but despite the (not fully finalised) defenestration I fell upstairs to Oxford University Press, who published some five books of mine including the Selected Poems (1996). Then OUP closed its poetry list and I fell upstairs again, this time to Bloodaxe Books, which did not look like upstairs at first but has proved to be so, since it was there I won the Eliot Prize (for Reel, 2004), published the New and Collected Poems (2008), and was again shortlisted for the Eliot Prize with The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (2009). Bloodaxe also published John Sears’s study of my work, Reading George Szirtes (2008), 2008 marking my sixtieth birthday, both books appearing on my birthday which was as marvellous a birthday present as a person could have. This year Bloodaxe published my Newcastle / Bloodaxe lectures, Fortinbras at the Fishhouses.
My original education was in Fine Art and I practiced as a painter from 1972 to about 1984, marrying artist Clarissa Upchurch in 1970 while still at college. In the late seventies Clarissa and I set up The Starwheel Press top produce collaborations between artists and poets, hand-setting type and working an etching press. In 1984 I returned to Hungary for the first time and from that time on I have also been a translator of poetry, fiction, drama and the rest. Translation continues to be an integral part of my life. Most of the writers I have translated begin with K. Kosztolányi, Krúdy, Krasznahorkai among the novelists. The poets include Zsuzsa Rakovszky, István Vas, Ottó Orbánm Ágnes Nemes Nagy and others.
I am currently writing more poems in collaboration with three artists, as well as engaging in other projects out of which I hope to produce my next book of poems. I have just finished two more novel translations. I would like to help compile a book of poems by younger Hungarian poet Anna T Szabó, and then others. I want to write a prose book, loosely memoir, but more an attempt to understand the meaning of things as they happen, through prose. I’d like to put together a book of essays and to collect together the children’s poems (hundreds of those) a decent number published here and there. Maybe go back to the stage.
Other work besides writing; eg. Editing, dramaturgy, tutoring, and how it works/worked for/against your own writing
Translation led on to editing anthologies of Hungarian writing in English translation, often collaboration with poet / scholar George Gömöri. I have also edited New Writing 10 with Penelope Lively, as well as a number of student / working writer anthologies.
I worked in schools between 1973 and 1991 running art and art history departments, full time till 1989 and half time after that. I enjoyed much of this, writing some sixteen scripts of plays, musicals and operas with various teacher composers. I miss this a little, Some of the scripts were good and there were always songs to write for them. I have continued working with both composers and artists.
In 1992 I started at the art school in Norwich, having been asked to construct a course in poetry as creative writing as part of a degree in Cultural Studies. Our children were both at university then so we moved to Norfolk where we still are. The change of teaching was a marvellous transformation. For the first time I was talking to people who wanted to write, having to think through and articulate ideas I would not otherwise have had to.
Everything I have done has worked more for the writing than against it. Even things that worked against it at the time worked for it in the long run, once I had fully absorbed them, on the principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have judged a lot of competition, big and small, and am about to start judging the National Poetry Competition. I hope that too might be productive in the long run.
I enjoy teaching poetry. Teaching means encounters with others younger than me and I find that energising. I didn’t know I thought certain things until I had to say what I thought and why I thought it. Other people keep you on your toes.
How did you start writing?
I was in the school corridor when a friend brought me a hand written poem by someone else I knew. I was doing science A levels at the time but had started procrastinating by reading poems in the library. The fact that someone I knew could write poems (I had given up Eng Lit at 16) shook me and flung open a door I could look through. Importantly, though somewhat strangely, I thought it was a bad poem. And that nay have bee why I knew then, that minute – I really did, no hyperbole – that this is what I should do, and try to do well. It was not only a possibility, it seemed the most important thing in the world, perhaps – apart from love – the only important thing. So I started writing and have gone on writing.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
There is a chronology here and it might seem an odd one, but that’s because I never studied literature systematically under anyone else. In some ways I wish I had. I had wonderful unofficial mentors: Martin Bell, Peter Porter and Peter Scupham chiefly. They read what I wrote and spoke clearly about it as best they could. Young writers need that above anything else.
So the favourites and influences ramble from the unlikely Rilke and Rimbaud (from cheap Penguin series), as well as Ginsberg. Then Eliot hit me, then Auden. They have never left me. It was impossible to avoid Philip Larkin, but I wanted something closer to Joseph Brodsky, Anthony Hecht and Sándor Weöres (Hungarian). Louis McNeice and Elizabeth Bishop joined the top table. The historical figures now include the greats, but especially George Herbert, Thomas Wyatt, Andrew Marvell, Alexander Pope (a great favourite of Martin Bell’s), a lot of minor 18th century ‘silver’ poets (I love silver poets), Coleridge (the great Coleridge of The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Frost at Midnight, and the Dejection Ode).
The fact is, all the writers you read and love get together and form a choir of speakers and listeners in your head. They get into your central nervous system. William Blake, Christopher Smart have been there a long time. The people I have not fully engaged with include Milton and much of Wordsworth, but I will. The comic Byron is stunning. Shelley and Keats at best are irresistible. Emily Dickinson, John Crowe Ransom, Theodore Roethke. And Wallace Stevens!
I’d better stop there.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication? Can you tell us about the process/journey?
When I was at Leeds Martin Bell edited an anthology of writing in which I had the majority ofpoems, then he persuaded a small local press to do an individual pamphlet. It was in fact reviewed in Ambit in 1972, I think. My first step up was in magazines: the TLS in 1973 when I was twenty-four, then Encounter and Ambit and The Listener. One poem in each year. Four poems published in four years. These things were dazzling, but they didn’t add up to a book in my head until Faber included me as one of six poets in Poetry Introduction 4. That opened the door. The first book in 1979 was a dream I thought would never come true. It was reviewed the day after it appeared in The New Statesman by Andrew Motion. I was a figure in the press. I must really be there. But then again, was I? I have never been certain of being really there. I doubt I ever will be. Why? I was a second language refugee immigrant of no literary background or education. Say what you like but that feeling never ever leaves you. The journey since then has seemed rather like a walk along a road with my own ghost at my side. Who is the second who always is beside you?
What's the worst thing about writing?
Nothing bad. The worst thing is not writing.
And the best?
It is the other life, the potentially real life. Lovely to feel words moving rapidly through your fingers. Words can’t really be the real world, but they pass through the real world, carrying the intelligible parts of it with them.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
Praise exalts, justified criticism educates, wrong headed criticism is nothing to do with you. The trick is to know which is which. That is not always easy. Damn braces, bless relaxes, said Blake. Too much of either is potentially fatal.
What was your breakthrough moment?
Terribly enough, the death of my mother in 1975, I suppose. It was in trying to write something about her – she was an extraordinary, brave woman - that something clicked about register, distance, form and the energy that is not entirely yours but in the language. My poems changed at that point. The more substantial part of the journey began there
What inspires you to write?
Almost anything can inspire given the occasion. I seem to have written a good deal about history, art, human fate, semi-conscious dream states, ideas, and intimate relationships. A great many situations and events can touch chords that echo in that terrain: it could be the movements of a bird on a fence, a photograph, a colour, a city. At bottom it is, I suspect, apprehension, vivacity and mortality. I suppose most poetry is that.
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