Wednesday, 30 September 2009

In Conversation with George Szirtes

Another in my occasional series of conversations. I am talking with George Szirtes on the back of the publication of The Burning of The Books.

I first met George when he came to Lancaster to take part in an evening with me on European translations. We were launching the bilingual Flax pamphlet "No one else at home". I found him charming, generous and wickedly expansive. I hope you find something similar in his answers below.

Sarah: The first poem of the book, Chet Baker, speaks of the ground being “littered with broken phrases”, which preempts the fragmentary sense of your poetic sequences. In some of these sequences, you write explicitly about photographs and film. How much did music play a part in the writing of the poems?

George Szirtes: Music plays relatively little part in the making of the poems. I very much enjoy music but have rarely written about or out of it. Maybe it just seems somehow self-complete – ‘all art continually aspires to the condition of music’ is that Walter Pater? Chet Baker appealed to me as pathos, as something so frail it is hardly there, but when it breaks into pieces (Baker was thrown from one of the upper windows of a hotel by some drug dealer as far as I remember) it somehow survives all the more clearly.

Sarah: I was particularly caught by the sequences in the book. The Burning of the Books being especially revelatory and horrific in a surreal sense as well as very real. How do you approach structuring and pacing a sequence?

George: In the case of The Burning of the Books the structure is, to some degree, taken from the book to which it is a kind of companion piece, commentary, or marginalia – Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe. It generally follows the episodes in Canetti but takes liberties. It doesn’t describe or replay the book: it floats in the world the book establishes and feeds off it. That, by the way, is simply the making overt of the symbiotic relationship that exists in all art.

Each sequence has its own structure. The Penig Film starts with the evocation of Clio, the muse of history, re-imagined as a film director moving from festival to festival. Penig was the second concentration camp in which my mother was incarcerated: film of the camp’s liberation exists in US army records. I found it on the web.

In Time of War was simply in the order the individual poems were written, but then it’s not so much a sequence as a set.

Northern Air, a poem commemorating the dead of 1956 in Hungary follows the central idea of Nova Zembla as a frozen region. History as something frozen.

The Wrestler poems are remnants or products of the novel I set out to write against the background of British Professional Wrestling from 1956-1979. The poems are chronological in the life of Szabo, my central character. The novel didn’t - and won’t - get written, but something will beside these poems.

The Storyteller (title borrowed from Walter Benjamin) deals partly with my mother’s life, but, essentially with the world of the senses. It’s not really a sequence more a series of essays in a potentially promising form.

The other sequence that could and should be considered as a sequence is The Birds, which is an attempt to understand the long-term love of a single person by thinking about the other person’s personhood.

Sarah: I love the line “the crowd passes unconscious of being a crowd”. This seems to reflect the energy poems create when they rub up against each other in a collection. What kind of crowd are you hoping this collection is?

George: It should be a miscellaneous energetic crowd that is busily exploring the extents of its own freedom to move. I saved these sequences precisely so that the various elements might mix and see what kind of choir they produced. Prose poems (I have never published such things except in magazines), free verse rhetorical narratives, also new for me (The Burning of the Book), the deeply intricate formal weaving the six Canzones (very few canzones exist in the English language and I think I have written more now than anyone else, now or in the past, beating Marilyn Hacker’s five without ever meaning to), even a few poems that play with page space (Pools) should mingle with forms that have become familiar to me: terza rima and sonnets. The exploration of form is, I think, a core aspect of the exploration of material. You have to seek a voice in a form to discover what else is lying there, never before touched.

Sarah: I’m assuming this is your motivation for rhyme throughout the book?

George: Hard to tell where motivation ends and excuse starts. It is, I suppose, my justification, an attempt at a reasonable justification, to answer a question where most of the possible answers are covered in cobwebs. If it has to be an excuse then let the excuse be sheer delight.

Sarah: It seems that you, like many writers, excavate the same themes and subject areas throughout your work. What is opened up as you excavate? And when, if ever, do you decide enough is enough?

George: We are limited beings but things sometimes become clearer as we go along. A poem doesn’t fully resolve a subject. It is only a testing ground for a provisional answer, but in the case of poems, as with all art I suspect, the testing is all. Our lives are formed and, to some degree determined, by our circumstances. Those circumstances do not leave us. For me the question of history is not an abstract question: it involves my parents, myself and my children to begin with but spreads out from there, first to all those I love and care for, and beyond them to the faces and figures I pass in the street. It is part of the enigma of human behaviour and the human mind. It is how that mind is formed in the context of the world. That is an endless subject because people will go on surprising us.

Enough being enough? If I must defend myself on that account I think you will find I have written poems on a considerable range of subjects from football and wrestling and pastoral through love, politics, colour, history, England and God. I have written children’s poems, librettos, scripts for musicals, songs for composers, and translated a considerable variety of material. There is little on nature, that is true. But I am an urban creature only recently inhabiting a semi-rural environment,

Nevertheless it is true that certain themes recur - and that is because they continue to invite exploration. Do you say to a poet: you have written a poem about death. That’s the subject covered, move on. Did anyone say to Dante (with whom I am not comparing myself of course): Must you go on and on about hell and stuff? All that Catholic baggage? Or to Rilke, We’ve had just about enough of transcendence from you! If one were writing the same poem over and over again one might possibly be growing dull or simply trying to get it right, more lifelike, more true. The poem is not in the subject: it is in the trying. Fail better!

Enough is enough? Of course readers may very well decide enough is enough. That is their choice. In that case, bye bye reader, ave atque vale.

Sarah: Well, I'm planning to stick around for the next collection. This one being an astonishing array of experiences that, as Boyd Tonkin says in The Independent, take your breath away, and yet demand rereading and reliving of a history not far past, nor far ahead.

Thank you, George, for your incisive and insightful comments.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Skipton Puppet Festival 2



1. The spring necks of the ducks and geese in Brodyachaya Sobachka's The Ugly Duckling. How each boinged and curled just as the living variety do.
2. the entire script being honks, gobbles and ark arks of the birds
3. the long neck, bent beak and limp wings of the 'duckling'

4. the manipulation of the swimmer in the The Seas of Organillo
5. the shoals of fish that darted in slow motion against red lighting
6. the astonishing musicality of the organillo (constructed from water pipes, rolls of wallpaper and bellows

7. the transformation of normal dolls into eggheads in Kamikaze, by Scopitone
8. The love scene between two of these dolls, feeling into each other's empy eggcups
9. the matador dancing with the train bull running round and round its track as the puppeteer danced above them both

So, what did I love, apart from the above? I loved how small and simple movements, well observed mannerisms (particularly of birds) pulled me into the world they inhabited.

I loved how each show was loveingly presented by the puppeteers. I love observing the delicate relationship between the two

I loved the bonkers-ness of each world.

I love how the most simple and inanimate object can be embued with life by our imagination and will

I loved how the audiences were full to capacity at each show and contained the most diverse range of people in them

I loved how I came away with a sense of joy, wonder and sensitivity blown through my fingertips by these beloved things.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Lancaster Literature Festival

It's festival season. And at Litfest in Lancaster we're gearing up for two weeks of literature readings and performances.

There's a few writer's I'm particulary looking forward to seeing/hearing. One is Jenn Ashworth. Whose work Flax has already published as a poster. She's coming to read from her novel, A Kind of Intimacy.

The main character of which is Annie. She is a strange woman, who sees the world through a very particular filter.

I like her. I like her vulnerability, her honesty (if deluded) and her total insensitivity. She does not collude with our PC obsessed world.

I know people who struggled with her as a central character. Who didn't like her. Who found her obsessive, nasty and way too much.

But what's so fabulous about reading someone like Annie is you can just close the book when you need a breather. She isn't my neighbour. She's not going to gatecrash my barbeque. And then, when you've remembered this and relaxed again, you can relocate the page and read on with wide-eye horror/delight/dismay. Oh the voyeuristic joys of books.

And, she isn't just as I describe her. What makes her such a great character and narrator (shortlisted for the Not The Booker Prize) is is all I've said, and more: unintentionally comic, sensitive, lonely and hopeful for starters.

A very different person from her creator Jenn, which is also a delight. Hearing and watching Jenn read from the novel gives an odd sensation of witnessing alien possession or as if you're looking through double glazing and seeing what's going on inside the window at the same time as catching the reflection of the external world.

Jenn's reading on Friday 23rd October.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Skipton Puppet Festival

I'm off to Skipton Puppet Festival at the weekend. And daily am adding more shows I want to see. I am also participating in a spot of informal audience development for them - gathering more and more people to come with me.

Naturally, I have a vested interest.

And have promised myself I'll tackle the next stage of dressing my MoonBoy after the festival when I'm buzzing with ideas. Maybe he'll revert back to being a girl. Maybe he'll not want to be dressed ... he wasn't meant to be a boy after all.

But I don't think I'm alone in my unbounded enthusiasm for puppets. I was talking with friends a wee while ago about theatre and it seemed there was a wariness and weariness to theatre, a reluctance to engage with straight performance. Then, up piped those who has seen puppet shows said that they'd found that the puppets delivered more emotional resonance and connection than human actors.

Oh yes! (sounding a little like the Churchill dog puppet).

Like poetry, puppets allow a space for the audience's imagination. We, as well as the puppeteer, have to animate the puppet. We bring our own emotional register to the animation process. We invest our heart/mind/soul to make believe the creature/person is what/who they act as they are.

I like too how this brings out the child in us. Oh yes it does! Behind you

And so why, if there is such a close correlation between the two forms, does it not feel so easy to write poetry for my puppet?

I realise I'm currently working through a backlog of ideas generated by the sailing trip (interestingly none have actually been to do with sailing so far), but I always have the puppet in mind when I approach the pen, and can't quite visualise or hear how the two will partner up.

I'm hoping for some shift in my thinking at the weekend. Oh yes, and some mesmerising shifts in reality too, oh and some delighful connections with small wood and foam and cloth creatures.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

John Denver

So - John Denver --

what springs to mind when you hear his name?

Honestly, I'm interested in knowing. He's no Marlene or Edith, but I've been asked to write a script on him.

I have a few ideas, but always interested in other people's views ...

John Denver - Drama

Is it possible?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


A week since I've arrived back and I still haven't quite got my landlegs.

I'm going through the motions: emails, office, editorial meets, phone calls to schools, script meets; but my heart isn't quite in line with my head. My sightline is skewy. My va va is vacant.

Today is my first clear day for my own work, so I don't want to fritter it away.

Things I could do to reboot: go for a walk; write regardless; sort out my desk drawers; start my tax return; read George Szirtes's new collection; make a book of spells for my neice's birthday ...

If anyone has other solutions - on a postcard, please

Monday, 7 September 2009

more big small talk

I have a huge sail hanging over my banisters right now, drying out. It's doubled over and still covers the entire staircase and landing. Like a parachute. Odd how big it is considering life for the past three weeks has been crammed into a space comparable to my back room.

I know I've raised this idea before, a few times, but I think it's why I enjoy both poetry and sailing, although on the face of it they seems very different. The idea being the small/big dichotomy that is incapsulated in both. Here are some examples from my sailing in the past three weeks:

1. the big seas of long passages being reduced to the smallness of the boat I couldn't get off (we didn't do too badly - our longest passage was Larne in Northern Ireland to Ramsay, Isle of Man: 64 miles, but that was directly after two other forty milers, eight hours or so)
2. our constant answer to the big winds (we sailed in winds between 16-32 knots the past few weeks) was to reef our sails to their smallest possible surface for the wind to howl on and power
3. we only experienced the expanse that is the west coast of Scotland in tiny sheltered bays, coves of Aran, Kerrera, Seil, Luing and Jura
4. our focus shrank to listening to inshore forecasts broadcast on the VHF every three hours: detailing wind speed and direction; sea state; weather; visability
5. the infinitessimal slide of light across waters in Cuan Sound indicated the potential turbulence of overfalls or eddies below; there is nothing more menacing than the silence of water that carried us faster than our engine would do alone
6. small knots hold fast against F8 winds - we spent three nights of the three weeks attempting sleep attached to a variety of mooring bouys in these stupidly strong winds
7. slight tickles on the tiller enabled the boat to ride swells of a metre high - the forty mile passage home from Ramsay, IoM, was one long game of tickle and roll: too late and it's a huge struggle to right the boat to the correct course

If I was really clever, I could write a haiku encapsulating all of the above ...