This Monday, November 14th 2022 - Poet, translator, biographer and former Man Booker International, Judge - GEORGE SZIRTES - will be headlining our first WORD! back in Beeston since the pandemic. We caught up with him in advance to talk all things poetry... From how he first began - to the power of books and reading...
WORD!: When, why and how did you first start writing poetry?
George: I began when I was seventeen. I remember exactly how. I was standing in the school corridor (a school corridor I revisited a few months ago and photographed the very spot) with a friend, J, who showed me a piece of paper with a poem on it written by X, a mutual friend at the same school. Nobody had ever shown me a poem before, and definitely not one written by someone I knew. I hadn't written any poetry myself and I wasn't doing English or any arts subject at A level, though, like everyone else, I had read poems earlier at school so I had no real standards. I didn't think the poem I was being shown was true or genuine in some way. I didn't say so, but at that moment I knew that I wanted to be a poet and write poems that were true to the world as I felt it. It was the first time I had a clear sense of what my life might be about, so I bought myself a small notebook and started writing. I wrote something everyday and started reading poetry too with a couple of other friends. Knowing what I wanted to do - without the least idea of what it entailed - changed my life. In an extraordinary turn of events, decades later I met the man who wrote that school poem some three years ago. He had become a leading doctor in his field.
WORD!: Do you remember the first poem you wrote? Can you tell us about it?
George: Yes, but not very well. It was about the idea of communication between individual people. I don't suppose it was much better than X's but it was a way into a lifetime of trying to do better. After a couple of years I had a few poems I can still take seriously. Not good enough but within touching distance.
WORD!: What are you reading at the moment and/or do you have a favourite writer or writers?
George: Most recently I have started reading a book by Vivek Narayanan, a younger Indian poet living in Chicago. The poems, written over ten years, make one big book of over 500 pages based on the classic Ramayana by Valmiki, as refashioned by contemporary eyes, heart and mind. I have no deep knowledge of Indian literary tradition but this is a brilliant exciting piece of work that will live with me for years. The book is titled simply After. But I am surrounded by books. My favourite poets run across the centuries and would make a long list. Of 20C poets in English I have long loved Eliot, Auden, MacNeice, Wallace Stevens, John Crowe Ransom, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Derek Mahon, Derek Walcott, and Alice Oswald, but there are many others. Eliot is possibly the most defining, in that his work opened a vast door for me.
WORD!: On Monday 14th Nov - when we come to Beeston Library - our partners, Inspire will be showing a really beautiful exhibition there, on the subject of reading - more here: www.iamareader.org.uk. How important do you think reading is for our development as writers, audience and/or people?
George: Reading is core: reading and listening. Reading can train your ear as well as your mind. My advice would be to read outside your comfort zone. Learn to hear what is possible. And I don't mean read just what people usually mean by literature but anything that seems interesting. Read outside your own particular time period. Read the past and find the life in it. It's there. And you will find yourself in it too, as another dimension of your own potential.