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.

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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

For this week's writer feature we're proud to introduce Geoffrey Morrison: poet and recent finalist in Lemon Hound's Poetry Prize!

from "Lyric Guy"

Lyric Guy V

Yesterday some ghosts whooped out of my tankard.
I whooped them back in with my McEnroe bellows. But for how long?

Ghosts suck. This is because you can’t crunch them.
Next year, in Dianapolis, we will hatch a man,
And he will eat all specters. I nominate McMenamin.
Q: Who is? A: He said “fuckpants” on the piano.

Lyric Guy VII

Marshia Crangular is extremely pensive.
She says, “I puzzle about dents, solars – gaps and voids in the sky.”

In her latest bluebook, she wonders if we live in a mouth.
I agree with that wonder. She says what we’ve all been thinking.
Exception of course is the barbers, who glory in hair.
They strongly dispute that any it could be even different.

 

Hi Geoffrey! Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

I grew up in White Rock, which is more or less the southwesternmost corner of the Canadian mainland. There I enjoyed standing on piers and looking out at the sea with a plaintive expression, probably because I couldn't swim very well. I did my undergraduate degree in English literature at Simon Fraser, where I spent my time alternately falling headlong into antiquity and trying to read the names on the hulls of distant cargo ships. Right now I’m finishing up my MA, also in English, at the University of Western Ontario, and in September I’ll be starting my PhD at the University of Toronto in the same discipline. I like gas-station food, Gregorio Allegri, and wool. ...continue reading

July 11, 5-7PM
East Common Room, Hart House
University of Toronto

Echolocation continues to dive curiously beneath the surface and bring up new offerings. In this cross-country line up, in partnership with Pedlar Press, we're very proud to present the Toronto launch of Nathan Dueck's second book, he'll. dueck will read alongside Sonja Greckol, whose Skein of Days also appeared this year with Pedlar, and Andy Weaver, whose second book Gangson was published with NeWest Press.

Pedlar publisher Beth Follett says of the event: "Rarely does the lover of procedural poetics get the opportunity to hear together three Canadian poets deeply interested in and committed to innovation and experimentation in rhythmic strategy. For sound and for joy alone, this event cannot be beat!"

Join us for joy and for sound. Hosted by Phoebe Wang. Books by authors will be available for sale.

EPSON MFP image

Editors Michael Prior and Liz Windhorst-Harmer discuss Suzannah Showler's vegetable metaphors, "millennial voice" and the superior entertainment of her debut poetry collection, Failure to Thrive (ECW Press 2014).

Failure-to-Thrive-smallestMichael: Hi Liz! I’m excited to start discussing Suzannah Showler’s debut poetry collection, Failure to Thrive, with you. Personally, I found the poems incredibly intelligent, memorable, and surprising.

Liz: Hi Michael!  It’s very cool to get a chance to reflect on this collection together. Maybe a good place to start would be with some of Showler’s metaphors. At an event we both attended called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry," Jason Guriel said that his ideal for poetry is the desire for striking, novel, and beautiful metaphors. Some of Showler’s metaphors and similes blew me away: “No Frills shoppers tenderly / nosing their way past displays shocking as capped front teeth” and “You can feel the day’s details waiting to pitch towards you like an airbag / deploying an ultra-white, full-frontal bloom of goodness in your face” (“Day for Evasion”); “You are holding a coiled-up shot of luck and prosperity / ready to launch at you like a spring snake from a nut can!” (“I Wish You Luck and Prosperity!”).

Where would you situate these metaphors in relation to other poetry you’ve read? Were you struck by them also?

Michael: I was certainly struck by Showler’s metaphors, and perhaps more generally by the uniqueness and memorability of her language. The first lines of the opening poem in the collection—which I read as an introductory address to the reader, a monologue welcoming us to Showler’s eccentric and acerbic world—yoke a rotting eggplant to a detached fatalism and a sense of performance:

Because you are the kind of person who
lets their perishables expire the way they want to,
from the inside out (say, like an eggplant,
the colour velour was invented to live up to,
rubber-skinned preserving its opaque dignity
until the eleventh hour… ...continue reading

For this week's writer feature we're proud to introduce Lily Tarba, whose one-act play, By Her Pomegranate Tree, will be performed on June 22nd and 23rd at Videofag in Toronto as part of New Art Night

from By Her Pomegranate Tree

There are three loud knocks. Molly looks around. 

MOLLY:

Let me show you, and in showing, tell you.

There are three loud knocks. She begins to crawl through the frame. She emerges on the other side, confident and elegant. She begins to pose, using one arm to move all body parts into position. 

MOLLY:

Spontaneous, a passing moment, captured, yet effortlessly

(Molly moves out of her pose)

graceful.

(Molly walks over to the frame)

This was in Andalusia. We took a trip there, once, together. We ate crab paella. And danced the tango--he led, I followed.

 

Hi Lily! Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hello, illustrious readers of Echolocation!

Could you tell us a bit the composition process for By Her Pomegranate Tree? What inspired the play?

The play came to fruition (pun intended) out of a conversation I had with Carys Lewis, the actor in the play. We wanted to work together, and after discussing ideas, we both realized that we wanted to create something that spoke to the performative nature of our lives, especially today, in the age of social media. ...continue reading