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George Szirtes Interview

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I believe that you moved to Norfolk in 1994? Was this your first experience of the county?

My wife Clarissa was a student at the art college and I would hitch down from Leeds, where I was a student, to see her two weekends out of three.

Norfolk has a bit of a reputation for being unwelcoming to outsiders. What was your experience?

Not at all unwelcoming. Our neighbours in Wymondham – mostly incomers themselves, were warm and friendly. Percy, the handyman down the road was immediately round to see to a broken window. Peter the butcher was and continues to be friendly and always welcoming. The only thing we feared was bedding down too comfortably. An old friend we bumped into at the beginning said: ‘You’ll never want to leave.’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in a place I’d never want to leave.

You were born in Budapest and grew up in London. Do you consider yourself to be essentially an urban person? If so, has this changed since living in Norfolk?

I suppose I must be an essentially urban person, in fact a capital-city person. What you first get to know stays inside your head and maps everything else. It’s your subconscious mappa mundi. Norfolk appears on the map now and has grown more familiar with time while never losing its lovely sky-ridden angularity. My normal description of the place of my poetry in English writing is as a Central European tenement block set off the main road in one of the more incongruous parts of England. Not too many tenement blocks in Wymondham.

You once said about your poetry: ‘I have probably drawn more on memory and imagination than on direct observation of landscape.’ Is this still the case?

Hard to distinguish memory from imagination. Of course I observe but it’s a short route from the observed into the imagined, remembered and constructed. It is the mind and soul that comprehend the world and offer it meaning. In any case I have been short-sighted most of my life and the sense of the presence of things has always been stronger than the sum of their properties.

You originally moved to Norfolk to take up the job as the co-ordinator of Creative Writing at the Norwich School of Art and Design. Can you tell us a little bit about how you approach teaching writing?

The key to writing is reading, listening and a kind of freedom from the constraints of the sheerly conventional, though that freedom can just as easily come from close-woven structure as from wide-open spaces. The mind loves shapes and patterns. They can set us free. We learn to distinguish shapes and patterns, to hear the out out-there music of language and hope to identify it with the music of the world.

You have recently joined the Creative Writing team at the UEA. Has this altered your approach in any way?

No, I don’t think it has – I assume you mean to teaching. It is the same whether I am teaching old or young, male or female, academic or non-academic. Poetry does not belong to any particular group. It is the oldest of the literary arts. Hearing poetry is a discovery: a sudden understanding of the dimensions of verbal grace, which is nothing to do with prettiness or elaborate speech. It is intoxicating, subversive and utterly fresh. To convey that is all that really matters in teaching. The rest is detail. Vital detail, but still detail.

In 1984 you returned to Budapest for the first time. How did this affect you?

It changed my life entirely. It opened up great closed areas of the imagination. It made me, I think, more human. All those voices and faces of my first personal mappa mundi sitting aside the world I later grew up in, and the language I was learning to move in and explore.

I know that you have been involved in translating a lot of Hungarian literature? Would you agree with Robert Frost that: ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation.’?

Ah, the oldest chestnut in the business! Translating the words – transliterating – does lose the poetry, though we somehow strive to guess it even then. When a poem is translated by someone who truly understands poetry in the receiving language then what is partly lost is also partly gained. There is no precise word that covers this process – translation implies something more mechanical. But we must remember that even in the original language the reader brings a great deal to the poem: the poem’s echo is in the reader and different readers echo differently. A good translation of a poem is a resonant reading made into good resonant poetry in the other language.

For ten years you ran The Starwheel Press with your wife Clarissa Upchurch. Can you tell us a bit about that?

We ran it between 1976 and 1986 from our house in Hitchin, on a big letterpress machine and an etching press in the cellar. It existed to bring together artists and mostly well-known poets (we contributed as artists, I only once produced poems for it). The poets included Peter Porter, Anne Stevenson, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Peter Scupham, Craig Raine, Wendy Cope and many others. There were five individual sheets of poem with etchings, in a card portfolio, all signed and hand-printed. We did one portfolio a year, working right through summer, not paying ourselves. The editions ran to 55 copies. They were sold at book, not art prices, and naturally they disappeared into collections. I sometimes see them for sale on the internet fetching between £40 - £200. We also produced a pamphlet and a book, that was the first proper collaboration between Clarissa and I. The book was called The Kissing Place. Most of those poems are included in the New and Collected Poems. The Starwheel title had a second life as nominal co-publisher of anthologies from the art college where I worked, but that was chiefly for ISBN numbers.

You have lived in Wymondham for many years now - a town with a rich heritage. Has any of this heritage seeped into you work?

There is quite a lot of Wymondham material. The Tiffey Song libretto is a direct product of that, but so are sonnets from the Norfolk Fields, series, and many details in other poems, many, no doubt, recognisable to those who live in Wymondham.

You recently published Shuck, Hick, Tiffey - a collection of libretti which were set to music by Ken Crandell. I particularly liked ‘Tiffey Song’ which captured the beauty of Wymondham’s ‘titty-totty little river’. What was it about the river that inspired you?

Tiffey Song was produced for the Wymondham Festival as were two other Norfolk libretti in collaboration with Ken: Shuck Tale, and Tom Hickathrift, It is those three that make up the book with the title: Shuck, Hick, Tiffey (including some illustrations by me). It is the smallness in distance combined with the vastness of history that appealed to me and moved me. The people in the Budapest tenements are as much people as those who lived by the River Tiffey, or indeed by the greatest rivers of the world. The short lives of the human span, long lines of flowing water. Seeing humanity flicker on the surface of the water, like flecks of light.

You are a very prolific poet. Is there a danger in being too prolific do you think?

We shall find out, is probably the best answer. People are as people are: some have to produce a lot to produce anything at all. Many Hungarians have been prolific. It seems to have been a national trait. Most critics seem to think that my later work is my best work, and when it comes down to it, frankly, I don’t care about the dangers. I am a human being: I am here once and once only. I would like to sing or say the dimensions of the world as I sense it. I do what I can.

What are you working on at the moment and what plans have you for the future?

A new book is to appear in September. It will be called The Burning of the Books and Other Poems. Parts of it launch off into new directions that excite me, particularly the title sequence which will appear as a book in its own right first, complete with marvellous art by the originator of the idea, Ronald King. Beyond that, there are the translations, poetry, fiction and so forth. I think I should put together a book of essays. Clarissa wants me to write a memoir. Maybe I will: the family on both sides has lived and acted in interesting times, both in the ordinary and Chinese sense of he word. But my key life is as a poet. Sing till you bust.

For more information see George's website:

George Szirtes





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