Don’t be beaten, keep working. Listen to criticism but remember none of it is final.
The conversation below, between Jennifer Wong and George Szirtes, is one of a series of upcoming posts in which Echolocation writers and editors ask established writers about what it was like when they were emerging. We're delighted to share the conversation between these two talented poets--enjoy!
Jennifer Wong: How did you start writing?
George Szirtes. I was at school, doing sciences when I started picked up poetry books from the school library, and, for the first time in my life, felt a real interest in them. One day round about then a friend brought me a poem written by someone we both knew. I immediately felt it wasn’t good. There and then I decided what I wanted to be. One minute before I had no idea what I wanted to do, the next I knew. It was something to do with truth, with the idea that these short bits of writing might be ways of approaching it. With this in mind, I bought a new notebook and wrote something in it every day for three or more years, and I did. After three years or so I had about a thousand. Not that they were much good of course.
JW: Who was your first mentor?
GS: I’d say it was Martin Bell, who taught at art college in Leeds when I went there to study fine art and become a painter. He had a considerably reputation at that time. He was like a second father to me. A poetic father. Martin helped and encouraged me over the three years of my degree and after by introducing me to poets in London when I moved to study at Goldsmiths, particularly to the Australian-born poet, Peter Porter, who became my next important mentor.
JW: What books have inspired you when you first started out as a writer, and as you progressed in your writing journey?
GS: Whatever book were cheap: paperback editions of poets and poetry anthologies. I had stopped studying English Literature at the age of fifteen and I did not read criticism or indeed any secondary literature at the start. Those old Penguin books included The New Poetry, selections from Donne and Keats and Blake, the Penguin Modern European Poets series from Yevtushenko onwards, very much including Cavafy, Montale, Rilke, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Enzensberger, anthologies of French twentieth-century verse (where I met favourite French surrealists like Max Jacob and Robert Desnos), the Penguin Russian poets anthology and many others, including the Beats, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the UK Liverpool poets, Henri, McGough and Patten. I was in love with Dostoevsky and Gogol. It was only later I came into contact with Larkin, Hughes, Heaney and so forth, as well as Eliot and Auden and, later, Brodsky, Walcott and worlds beyond the European imagination. The big game changers for me were Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Gogol and Eliot, but then the rest came in. Not having had any systematic teaching I read through a wide range of literary texts on my own, from Chaucer, Shakespeare, to the Jacobeans and Pope etc.
JW: Has it always been plain sailing? Why not?
GS: There was a period in the mid-seventies when I wanted to learn to write formally. At first it went badly and Peter Porter almost gave up on me. But I persisted with it. The change came when my mother died in 1975 at the age of only 51. I wanted to write something about it. Isn’t that why poetry exists, I thought, to register the meaning of such things? I spent six months putting together a poem titled 'At the Dressing Table Mirror'. It finally appeared in The Listener in 1976 - my first poem in that marvellous BBC magazine that sadly no longer exists - and after that, doors opened.
I had, I think, to go through a period of writing incompetently in order to write well. It was a depressing time. I wasn't publishing much, just one poem a year from 1973 to 1978.
JW: You were trained in fine art before teaching creative writing. Do you have any favourite artists or artpieces? What relationship do you think there is between your poetry and your interest in visual art? In your opinion, what is the difference between being a poet and a visual artist?
GS: There are a number of artists I might name but but there are four essential ones: Goya, Piero della Francesca, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Over the years I have written a good many poems with references to visual art, some referring to quite specific works, but none of them acts strictly as a commentary, nor are they truly ekphrastic: the original work is more like an open door than an object for description.
One of the many differences between being a poet and, say, a painter, is that painting, as I know from my years as a painter, is physical work. Images have to be physically constructed. In poetry, they appear out of language simply by being named. The other differences follow from there.
JW: What music do you enjoy?
GS: I love chamber music particularly Schubert, late Beethoven and Richard Strauss on the romantic side and Bach for almost everything else. But I have a fondness for jazz too, and much else including rock and pop. Popular music forms a kind of commentary on the times. I think I am a kind of child of my time, maybe just a little more of a child than some of my generation. I love playing. But the game is deadly serious.
JW: What advice would you give to young writers?
GS: Don’t be beaten, keep working. Listen to criticism but remember none of it is final.
George Szirtes was born in Hungary and emigrated to England with his parents after the 1956 Budapest Uprising. He was brought up in London and studied fine art in London and Leeds. A T.S. Eliot prize-winner, his books include The Burning of the Books and Other Poems and Bad Machine, both published by Bloodaxe Books. He has translated Hungarian poetry, novels, plays and essays into English, and has won the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, while his own works have been translated into a number of languages. He is also a Royal Society of Literature Fellow and Honorary Fellow of Goldsmiths. He blogs at www.georgeszirtes.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @George_Szirtes
Jennifer Wong is a poet originally from Hong Kong. She studied English at Oxford and did an MA in creative writing at UEA. Currently, she is doing a PhD on Chinese diaspora poetry at Oxford Brookes University. She is the winner of the Hong Kong Young Artist Award (Literary Arts). She tweets at @jennywcreative