The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with the poet George Szirtes
JOHN TUSA: I am, says the poet George Szirtes, a British writer of Hungarian extraction, and not an English writer. Characteristically for someone who's recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, that statement of self-definition is very precisely worded. It needs to be precise, because it's loaded with meaning. Hungarian extraction - well that's the easy bit, for he was born in Hungary, in 1948, of Hungarian parents. He writes in English yet he is not an English writer. So that leaves the idea of being a British writer dangling in the air. Being British, and not English, is something I can understand very easily personally. I was born in Czechoslovakia of Czech parents - I can never be English. The more inclusive 'British' suits me very well. But a British writer, that goes a bit further. Does it involve rejecting the idea of being an English writer rather than a writer in English? Perhaps we'll find out. For George Szirtes seems to have been on a long voyage of personal discovery. In 1975 his mother, who survived three months in the Ravensbruch extermination camp, committed suicide, and that provoked a profound change in how Szirtes wrote. On her death too, his father told him that since his mother had been Jewish so was he, provoking another step of self-examination. In 1984 he returned to his native Hungary for the first time, and, as he puts it, that changed everything all over again. It started a re-engagement with his native language from which he now translates into English with huge authority. Szirtes's poetic subjects are history - personal and political - places, and the tension between English individualism and European culture. But he seems to accept his oddly dualistic existence. There are no pluses to being an exile, he says, but your knowledge of what is real and exotic is dual. If you are an exile, you're one by choice aren't you?
GEORGE SZIRTES: By my parents' choice. That is why we are here. On a kind of a spiritual, psychological, intellectual level I think one is simply trying to take stock of some kind of reality and say well what is ones role in this place, what is ones role in this literature, in this language. And I, actually I'm not that keen on the word 'exile'. It suggests something far more romantic than is actually the case. I mean people are transplanted time and time again, and especially now. So no I would not define myself as an exile - I think that is rather grandiloquent.
JOHN TUSA: In a positive sense though, what keeps you in England? That's the reverse side of the idea of loss and exile.
GEORGE SZIRTES: Me personally, well writing, the language does. I think one's got to be, if one's a poet particularly, where the language is spoken, the whole thing has got to sort of land fairly freshly on your ears. For my parents it was a slight... it was a different matter, in fact their original intention was to go to Australia, but that wish, having been frustrated, they were very happy to remain here. And I think two things in England which probably appealed to them, or at least I now think appealed to them, and they appeal to me, is a mixture of romantic and reassuring. Romantic insofar as it's an island, it is surrounded by sea, it is not entirely predictable in its weather. On the other hand, it is reassuring insofar as the kind of things that have tended to happen in mainland Europe have not happened to that degree here.
JOHN TUSA: Have you ever considered returning to Hungary to live?
GEORGE SZIRTES: When I'm very very old maybe. I have a place in Hungary where I wish to die, so there is a particular courtyard in Pest which, oh about fifteen or sixteen years ago you know, if somebody said to me 'Look thy last', that is what I would like to look on.
JOHN TUSA: Why that courtyard?
GEORGE SZIRTES: It's not a big courtyard. It's a late nineteenth century courtyard, in a sort of Venetian style. Something about the space of it, the proportions of it. It's a little bit like walking into certain architectural spaces - they sing. You can go into something like a Pazzi Chapel and it sings - now I'm not comparing this with the Pazzi Chapel, but on a kind of I suppose psychological level it ties in with certain memories, it seems to conjure up all the best associations to me of Budapest. It's a through courtyard. I come in from one quiet street. I walk through the courtyard. I come out onto a busy street. As I come in there's another courtyard on my right hand side. The glass is old, so the reflections in it are not absolutely straight. There are pigeons and doves flying about in there. The floor of the courtyard is cobbled with wooden cobbles, so it makes quite a nice soft sound. I think there is a notion of fragility, and care, and some kind of commerce with nature, which for an urban boy feels about right.
JOHN TUSA: Right well we'll tuck that away. I want to talk about the very strong visual element in your early years. Maybe it's odd to find a poet so rooted in the visual arts, maybe not. When you escaped from Hungary in 1956 you carried almost nothing except a small case of photographs. What were they of?
GEORGE SZIRTES: They were family photographs for the most part. My mother was a photographer, and I think the decision to leave, to which I wasn't party, was taken fairly quickly. And her story was that she had just drawers full of photographs, and she took one drawer and emptied out its contents, and they were, some of them were older photographs, some were those that she had taken, some were photographs of us as children which she had re-touched and hand-coloured - I've got some of those. And she put them into a small leather case, which I still have up in Norfolk, and it was my responsibility I think to carry that little case while they carried the bigger ones.
JOHN TUSA: And did you subsequently, and did you as a child, examine those photographs and look at them, and were they an important part of remembering who you are?
GEORGE SZIRTES: As a child, no. I think as a child, when we came here, there was a very demanding process of re-adaptation. I mean I spoke no English when we came. And we went through this crash home course, because my father was the only one who spoke, of learning English. And I think that led, at that time, in that period, but also for the following year and a half, two years, to a period of a forgetfulness - I didn't remember very much. And then the next stage was a period of uninterest. It was not something I wanted to know about - and wanting to know about it happened actually after my books began. It began after my third book.
JOHN TUSA: So then you started re-discovering your past through those photographs?
GEORGE SZIRTES: The photographs were a part of it. I mean I've always found photographs moving, for all kinds of reasons. I think they are in themselves that kind of object, the memento mori. You know that they hold time, and that time that is held in them has gone. Everybody has moved on. So I've always loved photographs in themselves, and they need not necessarily be aesthetically the best photographs. To have personal photographs. I mean even something as simple as looking into the eyes of a child that is you, and a child that is you in a different place, with a wholly different prospect in front of him, is disturbing and exciting.
JOHN TUSA: Do you find that you recognise that you, or that you're looking at it as an object, and say I can't even remember what it was like to be the me that is captured in the photograph?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I cannot remember what it was like to be the me that is captured in the photograph. However, it's, maybe it's no great difference from... We had a cat that died fairly recently, and we just used to look into that cat's eyes and I think that cat has a level of communication with you. And when I look into the eyes of that child I think I have a similar kind of communication. It cannot speak, the cat cannot speak, but it sort of looks at you fairly directly, and it holds a kind of, I think a very humane mystery.
JOHN TUSA: Because you've written 'Photography I need you - freeze me too', as if you are, you want to have that moment in time captured, not to let it disappear, because time destroys everything.
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yes, and I think that's part of the function of art. That's what photography does. Putting it in terms of freezing, that comes from a poem called 'A photographer in winter', written about ten years after my mother had died, and I'm imagining in part of that poem being a ghost and following her around on a bus, and I'm taking photographs of her, and that sense of freezing, and the whole thing is set in winter and you know Budapest can have some fairly cold winters. This notion of time being frozen, as though you were somehow packed in ice in a kind of cryogenics, I think it has a curiously potent role in art.
JOHN TUSA: And in poetry too. Is that in a sense what the poetry is doing, freezing the time, holding it in a moment, looking back on it, mixing it with other images in such a way that there is something there to grasp rather than just knowing that it's all gone?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I think poetry is a process of seeking that. I don't know what is frozen. You begin from somewhere, and it seems like a prospect worth exploring. And of course in the course of your exploration you're constantly coming up against language, and you're moving through this medium, this screen. In a way I suppose it's a time-based medium in that respect, you move through it. What happens in a poem is the thing that is frozen is unclear. You do not know what it is. You know all your intention as a poet is to write a poem, as good a one as you can possibly do, beginning with certain premises, beginning with certain experiences. And you travel this, you make this journey through language, in order to discover some truth which is always there - the frozen bit if you like. It's not that I want to, it's not simply in a sense I want to go back to a particular moment of my childhood and hold that there forever. I know practically nothing about that early childhood, but I'm curious about the notion of there having been moments that I could possibly give some sort of shape to.
JOHN TUSA: Just staying with the visual images for a moment, you began studying art at Leeds Art College, you were a painter. What kind of artist were you? What sort of things did you paint and draw?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I was a Chagallian painter. I can now say that with a clear conscience because I no longer paint. I loved... I think what was liberating about painting is because when I was at school I was doing sciences. That came to an end, and I had a bit of spare time and they said go up to the art room. I had already begun to write, so I had aspirations in terms of some sort of art. And up there, well I could get up there without any other class because my timetable didn't fit anybody else's, sit there with the art teacher, and we would talk about visual things. And I began... and I found I had a reasonable gift for depiction, and so you know I could do things like still lives - they looked like still lives. But then there was this great freedom, that you know if I wanted to paint a man swimming in a goldfish bowl I can do that. I have this extraordinary freedom which other parts of life did not seem to offer. So when I went through to Leeds - I hadn't really realised it by that time - but once I was at Leeds, which gave one an awful lot of scope and freedom, then this sort of, I suppose it's now a Chagallian playing...
JOHN TUSA: Did you know it was... would you have called it Chagallian at the time?
GEORGE SZIRTES: At the time I would have said I'd looked at Chagall and I'd understood Chagall, and I was doing something else. But now I think, looking back at it from distances, it was skating a bit too close to Chagall.
JOHN TUSA: Mmm. Well you broke away from that, and you began writing poetry in 1968, when you were twenty, and you say: 'English seeped into me, I played with words and ached with desire for their power and colour' - so I think colours is interesting, given what we've just been saying about painting and Chagall. How did it come about? It's very interesting the idea of English seeping into you. This is the language you'd been using for twelve years.
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yes but the realising of the possibility that in poetry language was far more active than in conversation. I mean one of the great attempts behind poetry was to get away from conversation, that loss of meaning that you felt that in fact life was seeping away in conversation and that you were constantly approximating to things. Now here was a way possibly of speaking in which some aspect of or some element of reality was realised if you like. Now seeping, I think when I first began I wrote fairly wildly in all kinds of ways, but at a certain point, and I think that statement refers to the point which I had been writing already for about six or seven years. And at that time the thought came to me, I am using English words. English words are born out of English experience. English words therefore have a kind of matrix in the life that is around me. What has seeped in? How far can I use these words? How far can I use these phrases? How far can I pick up a phrase like 'Have a cup of tea' or something like that, which is such an English sort of phrase, probably the very first sentence that was said to my father when we arrived at the airport on December 2nd 1956. What does this whole range... how much life is there in that language and how much of that life can I assume?
JOHN TUSA: Because that related to your experience, or something you have experienced?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yes, although at that time, in retrospect everything looks as though you've had this great, you know, plan or plot, and all I wanted to do at that time was to write about certain things, and you discover how to write about certain things, and later you think well maybe I can write about this other thing. I think there was a conscious attempt, in my first couple of books at any rate, to understand and to try and write out of that much Englishness as I had. You know you began with an introduction of, this kind of antithesis almost between Britishness and Englishness, and Englishness is to do with ethnicity and all kinds of other things. But you have to test it to try to see because this is the language that is spoken by people everywhere around me.
JOHN TUSA: It's almost as if you're implying there's a kind of permission that is needed, as if you were testing yourself to see whether you have the right to write about the English experience in English. Am I getting that right?
GEORGE SZIRTES: No I think that is reasonable. Again I can now say that retrospectively I expect I probably was seeking some kind of permission, although who would give that permission? I suppose people who published my poems would give me that permission. Of course what actually happens is that once you come to have a reasonable control over that, you realise this is not actually thing you must want to have control over, and then you begin to move to other places which you think tend to give you a fuller sense of life. So that life of, I don't know, suburban streets, that life of gardens, that life of going out with a girlfriend, sitting somewhere, all of that, which I don't want to make it sound as though it was a more conscious and more... a stiffer project than it actually was, but no doubt somewhere at the back of the mind I was thinking, out of this material, which is embedded in the language, I have to make something.
JOHN TUSA: Now your mother committed suicide, in 1975. You've always said that she was something of an enigma, she certainly never recovered physically from the months in Ravensbruch, and her death provoked two crises for you. The first one was it made you re-think how you wrote altogether. I think you said that you suddenly realised you couldn't just write about emotion, you had to be more disciplined. Is that it?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yes, that's what where the freezing notion began. That is when I thought what I wanted to do. What actually happened is that after she died I re-examined the poetry because I thought I should be able to write about this. I'd no idea how big that this would be. But simply about something of what she meant while she was alive. And it took me months and months and months, and eventually I remembered a particular incident about sitting in her bedroom. She's in front of a dressing table mirror, and she has a handbag on the bed, and I begin to explore the contents of the handbag and she says, 'Don't do that', and she isn't even looking at me - she's clearly seen me through the mirror. And I say to her ......... 'How do you know?' And she says, 'I have eyes in the back of my head.' And then I think, but the back of her head is covered in hair - how can she see this? Well what happens in the poem, which is not the same thing that I can remember happening in life, is that the eyes of the mother and the child meet in the mirror, in exactly the same sort of way as when you are travelling on a train at night and you're sitting opposite somebody and you cannot quite bring yourself to look at them. You look at their reflection, and sometimes they are trying to do the same thing. So this other shadow being makes a contact. That moment, trying to just get that moment and say that moment can stand for almost everything else, freezing that moment if you like, was I think a major point in my development then as a writer.
JOHN TUSA: But you felt that you had to write technically in a different way. I think you said you needed to create bigger and firmer structures to support the incoherent images I'd grown up with that, so to capture that particular moment, and to turn it into verse, you just have to start writing in a very, in a more disciplined, structured way.
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yeah, I think probably my beginnings as a formal poet - I'm not an ideological formalist you know, I don't think it is a better way to write than any other way, but I can understand what its uses are. And I think that development of formal structures in poetry begins there. You give yourself something firm within which these fleeting, sometimes chaotic experiences can live, they can fill it out. You know I think it is almost like building one of those old apartment blocks. There's a lovely sentence which comes out of Emily Dickinson, she says, 'Art is a house that tries to be haunted'. And I think it's the house that one builds, and I have to build a certain kind of house because that's the way it sort of works for me, so that the haunting can take place. I mean you can build these houses and no bloody ghost comes, but you think well maybe if I built the room this way it'll come in, and that's what you're trying to do. It's that ghost for whom you have frozen your room.
JOHN TUSA: Is that the necessary process of writing poetry, that you have to have a ghost, you have to have the images and then you need the carpentry, the masonry, to contain them - not just to contain them but to express them and to realise them?
GEORGE SZIRTES: They need somewhere to be, they need to live somewhere. They have life. And they have to be able to move in the spaces that you create for them. Their lives are fascinating. I mean it's, if their lives are not there these are hollow structures, they will fall down. And the danger always is, I think, especially if you think of your art in terms of craftsmanship, masonry or whatever you like, you know you become very good at building houses but no ghost comes into them. So you're always on edge with these shapes and forms, and you're always trying to find the best possible space which is somewhere between yes this has worked before but I can't make this try and work again because the ghost will get very bored of this.
JOHN TUSA: But also it sounds as if you can't ever calculate when a ghost is going to re-appear because, if you just take one example, it was thirteen years in 1988 before you published the long sequence, Metro, about your mother's betrayal and arrest, and that's sixty sonnets long, but I suppose that was composed over the thirteen years, but that suggests a - to use your metaphor - a progressive and intensifying appearance of that ghost which had to be captured somehow. Is that right?
GEORGE SZIRTES: When I went back to Hungary for the first time, Budapest was the most intense experience I'd had in my life I think, and it was going to have to filter back. And when it began to filter back, it began to filter out in these longer poems, because the material was more narrative in some ways, and because there were shadows behind shadows and levels behind levels. In the case of Metro, what often happens with me as I write is I will take ages over the beginning, and then once I know roughly where I am it'll rush on, it'll rush ahead. I knew I wanted to write about my mother's experience, again from a sense of responsibility. If poetry can't do this, what the hell is this thing for?
JOHN TUSA: Yes but you weren't doing it because it was journalistic re-capturing of your mother's ghastly experience?
GEORGE SZIRTES: No, it was experience that lives her, lives through her in me. I mean the way we experience these things I think is, not so much as a series of conscious principles, but as a kind of a rather incoherent bunch of apprehensions, desires. That's why I like these words, apprehensions and desires, because they're vague, and they don't have very very clear objects. The things that animate and sometimes terrify you are the things that have come through your experience in some way, and when you try and pinpoint them you know it's very very difficult. And again it's... I come back to the ghost idea, because these apprehensions, what I wanted to do in Metro was to try and see this ghost. I don't know far I could speak to it, how far... The poem never goes inside Ravensbruch, it stops dead at the gates - I think that's as far as I can do. I don't think my imagination has the... - 'permission' is the word used before, authority, in terms of that.
JOHN TUSA: And had she talked about that? Had she talked about the experience in Ravensbruch? But she had talked about the business of being betrayed and the Nazi military seeing her, how she'd come out of a flat and then they arrested her because some of her neighbours let her down. Had she talked about that?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Only in little snatches. She was very reluctant. I mean there are people who like to talk a lot about things and there are people who prefer not to talk at all. She was of the second class.
JOHN TUSA: But you felt that you knew enough and had heard enough to give you, to use this phrase we're using, 'permission' to recreate what that must have been like, what it might have been like?
GEORGE SZIRTES: There's history if you like, and then there's memory, and there's imagination. And I think what the imagination does in these senses is to work on fairly minimal, evidential information, history. Puts it in with memory, and then uses the imagination and the forming capability that we have to make a, as the poem accepts, to create something that feels like truth. You do not know that it is truth, nor would I ever state - I wouldn't want to use Metro as evidence in a court. I cannot speak for all of that. But I think part of the fascination of poetry is it is an artificial way of talking - it has meters, it has rhythms, it has rhymes, it has all kinds of sort of devices which is not what we do in ordinary language.
JOHN TUSA: Just one final thing in this area - was writing this poem about your mother a release? I suppose we have this vulgar, crude thought that you know poets have these huge quantities of emotion of various kinds inside them and when they've finished the creative act it releases something, it solves something, it resolves something. Does it?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Well temporarily yes, you know. In exactly the same way as I think reading the poem, for anybody else, a poem that for you as a particular reader has power, releases something for that time that you're actually reading it. And it may have a little afterglow and it may continue for a while, but then life moves on.
JOHN TUSA: Now you said how extraordinary your experience in returning to Budapest was. It was quite a long time, the year 2000, before you produced your book, 'The Budapest File', but, as you said when you collected that, most of the poems in it, the ones about Hungary, had been written over a much much longer period. So it's as if Hungary and Budapest and all that were there the whole time but you weren't altogether aware of it until you produced that particular volume.
GEORGE SZIRTES: I hadn't realised I'd produced so much of it. I hadn't realised that so much energy had gone into constructing this kind of spectral place, and the book only really came about because I switched publishers, and they wanted to re-present my work in some ways, and a suggestion was made that there's the Hungarian material, which will go into 'The Budapest File', and there's an English block of material which later went into a book called 'An English Apocalypse'. It was a strange psychological exercise. It tended to draw a kind of, it tried to draw a hard and fast line somewhere where it didn't exist during the writing.
JOHN TUSA: Mm, so what does that tell you? Well it tells you that publishing is a commercial business, but as far as the creation of the poems were concerned you were writing the English subjects, you were writing the Hungarian subjects, in a way that, well you did it because you wrote them - that was what came out of your imagination.
GEORGE SZIRTES: Well I wrote them because specific things moved me to write specific poems. There was no programme. I mean what the collection together of any collected poems does, is to suggest that there has been a development which is always there in germ from the beginning. And in the case of something like this, where you really bring, produce, right you know here's one side of the equation, here's another side of the equation, it implies that that was always somehow there. No, I mean one thing happens then another thing happens, and you think, and then you realise you know that yes I've been here before. Does it mean I don't come here again? No I could do this walk again, because I hadn't really got everything last time, or at least last time I went there I never tried that door, and I want to know what's behind that door. So it is a sort of spectral thing that you seem to have been building, although you were not really conscious of building it.
JOHN TUSA: Hungarian is your first language. You then put Hungarian aside while you became British. Then you re-discovered Hungarian after you had been to Budapest. Was it that most the Hungarian just came back to you or did you in a sense have to re-learn it?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I didn't re-learn it in a scholarly sort of way. The first time I went back I understood I should think seventy-five, eighty per cent. I could pick up irony, I could pick up tone, but I'd lost vocabulary. So there were vast holes in things, and I couldn't say them. So between active and passive there's a great difference. But hearing Hungarian was again I think one of those important experiences. There was a physical spatial sort of feeling of Budapest.
JOHN TUSA: Was it like coming home, hearing Hungarian and being immersed in Hungarian all around you?
GEORGE SZIRTES: The best way I could describe this is, I suspect that very early on our maps of reality are laid down, and that what returning to Hungary was in terms of language and in terms of space you know and in terms of particular places was realising that this map existed, and that one could re-enter this map. And the question ever since has been how far can you re-enter that map and how far would you want to re-enter that map.
JOHN TUSA: All right, how far can you.. have you re-entered map of Hungarian? Have you, and then how far do you want to go further?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I think there are limits. I think there are partly psychological limits, there are social limits, there are political limits. In 1989 I spent most of the year in Hungary when everything was crumbling around one. And what 1989 taught me personally was that I can only go in to a certain point because (a) politically I could get out any time things got nasty and they couldn't. Secondly the sort of things that agitated people around me were not things that I felt authority to comment on. I wasn't part of the equation. I don't think I am part of that equation, so it's not exactly going home, it is re-visiting a map.
JOHN TUSA: Is there anything though that you've learnt from your re-engagement with Hungarian that has affected how you write in English? Is there anything from the Hungarian language that has enriched how you write?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Oh vastly. I think one learns. I mean I think translation has been a great thing to do, and my friends warned me against it when I started.
JOHN TUSA: Why?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Well because they said oh these people will just think of you as a translator and forget that you're a poet, and sometimes actually Hungarians do do that. But I think being drenched in this language which is known and yet not wholly known, it makes the words that you use in ordinary conversation and your actual working language stranger, odder, more provisional, more exciting actually.
JOHN TUSA: Now one critic has written that, 'His English' - your English - 'comes from his head rather than his guts.' Do you recognise that? Is that fair? And would you mind if it's true?
GEORGE SZIRTES: There's a degree of fairness in that. No I feel English... I mean, to put it so bluntly I think is unfair, and I would mind because I think I do feel English language. But I think there are certain levels which I think would be very hard for me to get, so there's certain phrases, and I mentioned this earlier in our conversation, how you feel the Englishness of things. And I'm aware that there are things that I cannot completely feel at ease with, and I think particularly over the last fifteen years or so in UK poetry there's a far greater sense of regionality. There's a far greater sense of speaking for a group of people. I think this is, for example this is, this has been Tony Harrison's project to a great degree. He says I am speaking for the lost people of Leeds. I cannot speak for the lost people of Leeds. There's a lovely phrase in Derek Mahon, who's one of my great heroes, it speaks for the lost people of Treblinka. Well I can't do that, but I think I can sort of have, I can sort of see that. I don't think the thrills of what I write are going to be there in a sort of local flavoured raciness.
JOHN TUSA: But you said that you believe that poetry is always local, but if you say that, that consciously pushes you in what you can do almost to one side. I mean it's clearly not an expression of defeat, but given what you've just said about not being able to be intensely local, it's an odd thing to say isn't it?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yeah, but I think I am slightly to one side. I don't mind it, I've got used to it. I used to have this rather nice image that what I've been doing is I've been building this apartment block somewhere on the wrong side of a green belt, but little by little the town - and I think this is what the Eliot's done in an odd sort of way...
JOHN TUSA: The T. S. Eliot prize.
GEORGE SZIRTES: The T. S. Eliot prize has simply said well all right well the town's got bigger, we've extended it over green belt and maybe you're part of this. But I've never felt central in my life. Sometimes I can't believe my luck. I think I'm a refugee who's... - and that's a term, I'm not an exile, my parents were refugees who came here, and I seem to be working in what I consider to be the most language-intensive medium of all, and somehow it hasn't been a total disaster. And I feel very lucky about that, so I don't mind this, even this self-image if you like. By local, when I was... I mean chiefly that it uses the immediate, it uses what is around you. It is not a series of intellectual propositions, it is a very concrete sensory kind of form. I think my poetry is highly concrete and highly sensory, but in the sense, at a very very deep sense, most, all languages have a range of poetry. Some of this poetry can be internationalised, some of it is very much the song of the tribe. I know that, even as a translator, the poems in Hungarian which I think are close to being the songs of the tribe I don't know what to do with. I have to... the sort of material I can do is where I say this man has read Dante and Goethe, this man knows Byron, this form I can find in Germany, I can find in France, I can find in England. And then we share a kind of cultural background.
JOHN TUSA: That's a very broad base and that's a very... it's also it's a very intellectual approach but there's nothing, nothing wrong with that.
GEORGE SZIRTES: It's an approach that's available, and like on a psychological feeling level. I mean I think earlier at some stage I talked about fragility. One of the things that I'm, and I think the poetry is deeply conscious of, and this is what I hope would make it human and not as an intellectual proposition, is that life is far more fragile than one ever thinks it is. Life is far more provisional, and that's the kind of apprehension that I was talking about earlier too, that comes through my bones. I don't feel that there's any safety, substance, stability in life. I think we create these stabilities, and verse is one way of creating such a stability.
JOHN TUSA: How disciplined are you physically as a writer? Do you write every day?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I work all day, most days. I can't write poetry every day - poetry doesn't work like that. I translate, I write essays, I am disciplined, yeah. I mean when I was a young schoolteacher, and writing, and my family were very young, and the only way I could do it was, because I wanted to spend time with my family after I came back home, is I set the alarm for five, and I did this for over twenty odd years. I still wake up at five, because it's now completely ingrained in my body. I don't necessarily have to get up and work at five, but sometimes I will do. And for twenty odd years, when I was full-time teaching, was part-time teaching, I just did that.
JOHN TUSA: But you can't command the images to appear, you can't command the ghosts to be there. I mean what's it like, because presumably sometimes you must be interrupted in what you're doing by the knowledge that there's a particular poem which you have to start at least?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yeah, I mean one of the things I do like, I like difficulties. I like occasions. So I regularly write poems for occasions, that's to say personal, private occasions, family occasions. I like it when somebody says to me, as for example at Barbican they did in the case of the Salgado poem, would you please write a poem about this picture. It takes an awful lot of responsibility off you. And what it does at the same time, is because that responsibility is taken off, it means that all the other stuff that's been gathering in the background, not knowing what to do, comes rushing through this little door. It says oh I don't have to make this door up, somebody's just given me this door. So I think that the given is something I'm used to working with, and I like working with, and I don't consider that an obstacle.
JOHN TUSA: But going back to the question, do you suddenly find that the absolute need to write a poem can interrupt work for translation, writing a lecture or something like that?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Everything stops for the poem, yeah.
JOHN TUSA: Everything stops?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Every... well you know insofar as it can. But certainly a translation stops if the poem's under way. Certainly everything else that is deferrable stops while the poem is there. Although you don't actually know whether a poem's there until you're about three or four lines in, and then you think well this is going nowhere, or yes this is going somewhere now, and you've got to move with it. Then you have to move fairly fast with it, and then everything else goes second.
JOHN TUSA: And if it's going nowhere you recognise that within the first four lines and do you then chuck it away?
GEORGE SZIRTES: It's difficult to know immediately, so I will just put it aside, and I'll come back to it later. And if it still seems to be going nowhere then it'll get chucked away.
JOHN TUSA: And how much, even when there's a poem that you think is going somewhere, how much re-writing is there? Do you then worry away at it many...
GEORGE SZIRTES: It depends, it really depends. I mean that first poem that I mentioned about the sitting on my mother's bed and trying to get something out of her handbag took me months. 'Metro' took me a long time, although surprisingly the bulk of it was written within two or three weeks, once the first part had been done. Sometimes a poem can be written in three or four minutes, sometimes it takes a year. I don't know, it depends what problems you come across as you're writing.
JOHN TUSA: Do you ever get worried if you suddenly become aware that an idea for a poem hasn't forced its way to your attention for some weeks?
GEORGE SZIRTES: I think if it's important enough it will, yeah. I'm, I think there is a... an important part of poetry is allowing the experience about which you want to write to find its level within, with regard to other experiences. I mean most poetry is juxtaposition, it's analogy, and as you are moving down you're looking to find absolutely the right juxtaposition and then the right analogy. You recognise it by smell. You can hear the music of it, you know when you're there. But it quite often is not a bad thing for it to sit around for quite a long time. I mean you know when I think of the, those poems about my mother they took days. I didn't even know that they were brewing there. But given the occasion, then at the right time I hope they've come up as well as they could possibly have come up given the circumstances.
JOHN TUSA: But your instincts for what is false is driven, as you say, by the sound, the cadence and this wonderful idea of smell?
GEORGE SZIRTES: There are certain sort of clues to what is false, and I think most writers will pick up these clues. In fact I began to write, when I started to write, partly because I had a very strong sense of what was false. Somebody showed me in fact - this is how it all began, somebody showed me one day a poem by somebody we both knew, and said look so and so's written this and isn't this good. And at the time I did not say this is not good, but I knew it was, that it, I knew it was, and it was so because it was over-stating, it was inaccurate, it was vague, it was rhetorical - I wouldn't have used those words at the time. But I knew then, that was a moment at which I said this is what I want to do, this is a way in which you can tell truth, and truth is complicated, it is not simple. Truth isn't rhetoric, truth is something you kind of dip yourself into as you would into a sort of really rather muddy sea. And you can take time out until you eventually bring up something valuable out of that sea. I reckon none of that would I have said at the time. This is me now thinking retrospectively the kind of processes I would have gone through there. It's this hatred, it's a kind of visceral hatred of falsity.
JOHN TUSA: And that experience obliged you to say when I recognise that falsity I can't pretend it's not there, I must speak up and say so?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm argumentative in that respect you know. But I can be very wrong, but I will argue it.
JOHN TUSA: You've written, 'There are places to be happy in if only you can find them.' Have you found one?
GEORGE SZIRTES: Yes but they're all brief, and they're all provisional, because that's the way life is. I mean I'm very happily married, I have two wonderful children. I don't think life supports these things as by way of guarantee. I think I come from a world of instabilities, and I suspect the world is more a world of instability than a world of stability. So I think the whole point about happiness is that it's edged about with things that are quite the opposite. Somebody once said, which French critic was it?, that 'happiness writes white, it is often repeated.' Well I think it depends on the colour of your paper. I think if the colour of your paper is fairly dark I think that those little bits of white writing are very important. So there are places to be happy and if you can find, you can find them. But they are temporary lodgings.
JOHN TUSA: George Szirtes, thank you very much.
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.