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Author Q&A: George Szirtes

George Szirtes is a poet and translator. Born in Hungary in 1948, he published his first book of poems, The Slant Door, in 1979, which won the Faber Prize. He has published many since then, winning the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2004, for which he has been twice shortlisted since. He shared the Man Booker International Prize, awarded for translation, in 2015, for his translations of László Krasznahorkai. His latest collection of poems is Mapping the Delta.

TBL Author Q&A Series: George Szirtes

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person or perhaps an intuitive impulse, that guided you to forge your own literary path?

There was, in fact, a quite specific moment in the school corridor, in my sixth form in 1966, when a friend showed me a poem written by a mutual acquaintance. I was doing sciences at A-level at the time, but had started reading poetry. I knew the poem was not good and suddenly I felt I knew what I had to do. I bought my first notebook. Within a couple of years I had filled twenty-four (all now in possession of Cambridge University Library). The poems were probably just as bad as the one I read in the corridor but my life was decided.

How has your translation work informed your poetry and vice versa? In what ways has your writing, both thematically and technically, evolved throughout your career?

One learns a great deal from translation—some of it directly applicable to one’s own work, some of it settling in for potential future use. If nothing else you learn how another voice might work in the language you know. It is an extension of your own voice.

My first good poems were written from the early ‘70s onward. They came about through a formal turn in my work. I wrote a great deal about other arts, chiefly paintings and a little on photography. From there I moved to an interest in my Hungarian background and family history, which involved getting some grip on history itself, chiefly through longer visits to Budapest.

My first four books were published by Secker and ran up to the beginning of the “Hungarian” phase. Then I moved to Oxford University Press for the next five books, which intensified the interest in photographs and cinema but also recorded the great changes of 1989. The formal poems grew longer and more elaborate. Most of the “Hungarian” work is in The Budapest File, which was my first Bloodaxe book, published in 2000. That was followed the next year by An English Apocalypse, which was a collection of my poems about the sense of being in England.

The next big change was in the book that followed, Reel, which won the T. S. Eliot Prize. That had a long autobiographical sequence in terza rima but also poems based on dreams and politics at large. Bloodaxe published my New and Collected Poems in 2008. It was a hefty volume of some 540 pages and after that I was looking to try new things. The title sequence of The Burning of the Books (2009) is in free-flowing, free-associating shapes, but closely based in Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe. There are other experiments in the book, and there are more in Bad Machine (2013) which contains a number of canzone—long swirling poems—the title of the central one and of the book referring to the fragility of both the body and language. There are more prose poems, a poem that consists mostly on invented names of non-existent colours, and so forth. My newest book, Mapping the Delta, was born partly out of my engagement with the word-limit formats of Twitter but still fascinated by other books—with Rimbaud, Blake, science writing and so forth. I still love the so-called “regular” forms, such as the sonnet, but I am not concerned about writing what people might call “traditional verse.” Twitter has also given birth to five published chapbooks of short prose texts with two or three more to come.

Who are some of your greatest literary influences? How do they inform the way that you both create and engage with your own work?

Many influences over the years, beginning with Rimbaud, French Surrealism, Eliot, Auden, McNeice, Wallace Stevens, Roethke, Bishop, Hecht, Derek Mahon, but also some Hungarian ones such as Sándor Weöres, Agnes Nemes-Nagy and Ottó Orbán. I won’t even start on the poets of other languages—Rilke, Seferis, Montale, Herbert… I could name more. I have a great admiration for Alice Oswald, but write nothing like her since nature has rarely been a source of inspiration for me. I admire a good many contemporaries, right down to some of the youngest. However, I don’t consciously think of anyone in particular when writing. At one stage Auden haunted some of my formal lyrics, but I only realised that once I had written them. I think I could still write Auden-esques in my sleep. Beyond that I think The Waste Land is the greatest and truest poem of the 20th century.

What is your personal creative process? How do you decide when a poem you’re working on is finished?

I work on several things at the same time, slightly chaotically. I translate prose and poetry, write articles, keep up an intermittent blog and read. My process of composition is fast and depends on momentum. I usually complete several drafts very quickly, checking them one last time before publication. Once the poem is in print it has an air of finality and it would be some time before I’d think of revising it. Besides, I have moved on to the next thing.

Both your poetry and translation have been published in many literary journals, from the London Review of Books, to The Rialto, to The Manhattan Review. How does this publication process differ from working with individual publishers to create your own collection or chapbook? How do you choose which journals to submit to?

Publishing in journals is part of development. It used to be necessary in order for potential publishers of books to look seriously at you. I am not sure that is the case now, if only because the net reaches readers in a different way and because the circumstances of reading, writing and performing have changed. I am now in the fortunate position when certain journals ask me for work, though there are some to which I’d submit with the same chance of publication as anyone else. There are covetable publications that seem ultra-mainstream: the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, Poetry, the New York Review of Books etc., in some of which I have appeared but have no guarantee of ever appearing again. That is partly a matter of prestige, but even in these cases I have the suspicion that they are not nearly as important as they once were.

You’ve published so many collections, chapbooks and pamphlets—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over the years?

Publishing a single poem was a dream when I started. Then having my own book. Then hoping it might be noticed and be considered something of significance. All that seemed a mighty struggle and it has always involved a degree of luck, if no more than sending my work off to the right place at the right time. There is always luck and it’s worth remembering that, lest anyone thinks they have got somewhere solely on their own virtue. Over the years I have got used to the publication process so there is usually someone interested enough in what I do to consider printing it. I have only had three main book publishers of poetry over the years, and they have all tended to show faith in their authors, until some important change occurred, as it did at both Secker and OUP.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? You have worked with many different publishers, from huge publishing houses to small indie presses. What factors play into choosing and developing relationships with a specific publisher?

I am rarely the one with agency when it comes to publishing. The fiction translations are generally commissioned. There is a wealth of outstanding Hungarian writing and very few people to translate it. That means I am likely to be busy and that the bigger publishers are likely to commission me. Often some personal connection will take me to a smaller publisher for poetry. Perhaps I meet them somewhere, or they themselves have suggested something, or someone who works a little like me has already done something with them. I like small publishers: they are great reservoirs of talent. Big publisher or small publisher you are nearly always dealing with one person at a desk with a pile of work in front of them. No difference. The one at the big publisher is not necessarily bigger, brighter, wiser or sexier than the person at the small publisher. The only difference is that with the big commercial publisher that person will have to argue for your work with colleagues and a board, but in the first place, that is just one person. It’s rather nice and encouraging to look at it like that.

Was there a particular achievement or experience that opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

The great strokes of luck for me were: the contact I had with Martin Bell while I was an art student at Leeds, the granting of my one and only application for my first revisiting of Hungary in 1984, the first translations and the winning of the T. S. Eliot Prize which made little difference to my actual poetry or what I myself thought of it (I did not think any better of it) but which, by turning me into a more prominent figure, opened the door to travel and experiences that led to more thinking, feeling and writing. But that was all luck. With another set of judges at any time I might not have won anything at all

What guidance would you give to fledgling writers?

Read, experiment, persevere. Do what you believe in at the time. Don’t be over-protective of your work. Don’t spend time defending it: write it.  Share it with those you trust and respect, but make up your own mind with due humility.

After having created and published so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

As I get older I am producing more and more in a wider range of forms. Some of that will vanish, no doubt, some may survive for a while. I care far less about that than I did. I have just finished my first prose book. I want to do more work with my artist wife, Clarissa Upchurch. I want to write more books for children. I would like play and invent more. My ambition is to go out spinning like a top.

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