Firstly, let us say thank you to you and to everyone at Modern Poetry in Translation for investing time in and sharing Hungarian poetry. This particular issue of MPT came about as it marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Ted Hughes, its co-founder, who’d always planned to publish a Hungarian issue. When Hughes and Daniel Weissbort founded the magazine they had two main aims, to get poetry out from behind the Iron Curtain and to challenge the English-speaking readership with foreign work. As the current editor of MPT, what role do you picture for MPT today?
Well that second aim is still absolutely central. The English-speaking poetry audience in the UK still reads a shamefully small amount in translation. I’ve read English PEN saying less than 3% of literary work published in the UK is in translation. When you compare that to the translation culture in other countries, like Hungary, it’s really just embarrassing. It depletes the poetry culture. So many poets are only listening to other English or American peers, and the whole style, the moves, the themes, they can get so samey. Sarah Maguire, the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre, believed that ‘poetry only ever develops through translation’ and I think that’s true. But I also think these are troubling times for the whole world, and it’s actively dangerous to shut out non-English voices. We really need to try to listen to everyone else. One of the main things I try to do as an editor is provide a platform for poets from other cultures and languages, and to try and come to editing without any assumptions and just listen. Although of course, I’m human and I probably fail a lot of the time!
Do you think this is an apt time for MPT to have a Hungarian focus?
Well, it partly tied in so well with the anniversary of Ted Hughes’ death. He’s very well-known in the UK for his engagement with Hungarian poetry and his translations of Pilinszky and Juhász. I hope he would have been pleased to see this issue finally published. But of course, Hungary is also in our newspapers a lot at the moment, because people see parallels between Orban’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and our own rise in popularism and anti-immigrant feeling in the UK that is leading to the Brexit. Focusing on Hungary’s poetry is a good way to remember that people in Hungary are much like us, complicated and conflicted and trying to find ways to navigate these difficult times. Poetry is always a good antidote to propaganda.
In the editorial to In a Winter City, as a poet, you write that Hungarian poetry has made a huge impact on your own writing life; how did you first come into contact with Hungarian poetry, and has that relationship lasted or evolved?
I was on a British Council trip in 2004, where a group of emerging British writers were put together with some amazingly talented Hungarian poets, including Júlia Lázár, Mónika Mesterházi and Krisztina Tóth, who I’m so pleased are in this issue, and some other really wonderful talents too: András Imreh, István Lászlo Snr, István Lászlo Jnr, Anna T Szabo. It was just one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life, I think. There were late nights reading and partying in Budapest. Then we travelled to The Hungarian Translators’ House by Lake Balaton. And there was a moment when I fell in love with translation. I don’t speak Hungarian but I tried to translate a poem by Anna T Szabo, basing it on a rough literal she gave me and with a dictionary, and it just worked somehow. And I thought, maybe I can do this.
After that, Anna and I stayed in touch, and she was editing poems for The Hungarian Quarterly, so she would regularly send me literals over and I’d chat with her and then try and make them work as poems in English. Co-translations really. That was when I discovered Attila József, who I love, the way he manages to be completely of his time whilst writing these almost raw, folky ballads, and Radnóti, Ady, Petőfi, all these greats in English translation. And then George Szirtes got me involved in this anthology of post-1989 Hungarian poetry for Arc, New Order. I love rhyme and Hungarian poetry really influenced me in that – it gave me a model of how to rhyme and still be modern, when in England rhyming was considered very old-fashioned.
How did you enjoy reading the submissions, and then making the selection?
It was the most submissions we’ve had for an issue. So I should say an enormous thank you to all the Hungarian poets and translators who spread the word, and submitted, and were so generous. I really could have done a double-issue, and I’m very sorry that I had to turn so many wonderful poems down. We always have general submissions too though, so please do submit again in the future. I suppose the greatest pleasure for me was discovering some very new voices who hadn’t been on my radar like Ferenc L. Hyross and Márton Simon.
What can the title and the cover tell us about your selection?
Well titles are incredibly tricky, but it’s our autumn/winter issue, and I always personally associate Budapest with cosiness – the hot baths, and goulash, and beautiful cafes with cake and steamed up windows! I noticed a lot of the poems were very urban, full of flats and stairwells, and also quite wintery. Fog hangs over a lot of them. So when I was flicking through for inspiration the reference in the Hyross poem ‘Weak’ to a ‘Winter City’, jumped out. Ilka Mészely has lots of amazing pictures of buildings and crowds on her Instagram feed so I just asked for an urban scene. I’m thrilled with it, I think she’s so talented.
As one example, among the poems are two by the younger poet Zita Izsó in Timea Balogh’s translation, what was it about Izsó's poems which caught you, and do they connect to a larger theme in the issue?
I like very much that she is talking about refugees in a messy, complicated way, that’s about the grey areas all real human beings move in, rather than reducing things to black and white. There’s an amazing poem about a teacher who has a boy from Aleppo in their class, and is having to manage all the weight of that child’s history. They have brought a terrarium into class with a caterpillar in it, so the children can watch it turn into a butterfly. The teacher feels like little children should have hope, but they also know that hope is a kind of lie, and when the boy disappears from class they are almost complicit in it, imagining he doesn’t want to ‘dishearten the others.’
In Timea Balogh’s introduction she describes Zita Izsó’s collection as reminding Hungarians ‘of the persecution and violence they and their relatives faced around WWI and II, drawing links and stoking understanding and empathy for current refugees.’ I think that sounds important work. A lot of the poems in the issue seem to deal with how we live with our country; our history. Who are we? Who do we want to be? There’s a sense of being at a crossroads, not knowing what’s next, that I think a lot of people in the world feel right now. I love the last lines of Márton Simon’s poem in the issue, translated again by Timea Balogh:
I don’t remember what happens from here. Somebody whispers
in your ear that there’s a problem.
This is winter, season of empty tastes,
of fog, to be precise, of where, where’s my heart.
MPT's autumn issue 'In a Winter City' is available to buy in print issue here.
Clare Pollard has published five collections of poetry, the latest of which is Incarnation (2017). Her translation projects include Ovid’s Heroines (2013), which she toured as a one-woman show, and a co-translation of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations(2017) which was The Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year. She edits Modern Poetry in Translation.