Tóth Krisztina költő, író, műfordító

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Tibor Keresztury – Gabriella Györe: “Under the Tunes” – Interview with Krisztina Tóth


We follow our way along streets bearing militant names, looking for the safe haven of Alajos Stróbl Street. Everything is named after military devices – this must have been some army estate once. An odd match to one of the most timid authors of contemporary Hungarian literature. Once we enter her home, however, there is a change of scenery, and the surroundings become perfectly adequate. We settle down with a sense of reassurance: the spirit of war is alien to the intimate spaces that these walls embrace, although, we must add, the workshop in the loft with its tools and vast window panes is clearly a site for serious, lonely battles. We talk about lots of different things, ranging from the truth that you cannot write a love poem with your cock erect, to the experience of a poetess being welcomed with the words ‘the glazier’s here!’

An enviably peaceful setting for an enviably peaceful life? The happy days in the life of a freelance Hungarian writer?

There might be people who manage to make a living from writing – I never have. I make leaded glass windows on a professional basis – there are times when it gives me enough to live on, at other times it does not, because there is simply no work. I would never have the courage to live merely on the glass work, because business is so unpredictable. Luckily I always have some translation jobs going along the side. On top of all this I am writing a film script, I have done a literature textbook for the fifth grade in elementary school, and I am now writing the sixth year volume. So much about my enviably peaceful everyday life.

I have heard of poets making a living by fighting as valiant warriors or teaching in a grammar school but not one who made leaded glass windows. When did you decide that you would like to be an artist, and how did you come to choose leaded glass?

My mum is a jeweller, so there was a family tradition. When I applied to the Technical School in Fine and Applied Arts, I got into the jewellery department. I actually applied to do sculpting, but they knew her, so they automatically took me on to do jewellery. At that stage I imagined my future in the fine arts. I had no idea I would have anything to do with literature. I had always loved glass, it is a magical metier, actually, I regret that it is not the course I chose at secondary school. I had to learn glass work later on, as an adult, but I am very glad that I made up my mind to go through with it. It is truly liberating to create tangible objects even if the work is physically very tiring. You get a lot out of it intellectually and somehow it also helps to keep you in good shape.

In your poetry how much importance do you attribute to melody?

It used to matter a lot, particularly at the time when I was reading a lot of French poetry translated by the Nyugat generation of Hungarian poets. I grew really saturated with poetry at that time.

It seems to have become secondary by now…

A few years ago it began to bother me. I felt that often, because I have a very good ear for music in poetry, I would get a melody in my ear and the words started working all by themselves, just writing themselves over this melody. I started to get annoyed by the fact that it hijacked me, I could not get free of my own hearing. It felt as if I was writing phoney texts, and the text was not allowing me to say what I wanted to, but just kept on saying itself, rolling on so neatly… so I wanted to get out of that. I always felt, particularly in translated poetry, that words have a tone, and it is the same as when you are painting a picture, you have to choose the right tone, and make sure there are not too many dark words in it or too many deep vowels. The whole thing is like a picture, and that is all you have to bear in mind, so you can deal more freely with your material. The trouble is that you cannot really do that fully consciously, all you can hope for is to try to avoid being hijacked by the melody. I found that otherwise I ended up with texts writing themselves which covered up what I really wanted to say. I was not writing what I meant to, but what the poem thought, because it settled on a track defined by the melody, and after a while I was unable to derail it any more.

And is that bad?

It is bad, because it covers up the essential thing – it is almost as if you had to scratch the original text from underneath this covering layer. You get an attractive thing like a palimpsest, and it hides the thing which could really work for you.

So did you ever spoil the music of the poem on purpose to uncover that which you really wanted to see working?

No, because if you say “spoil the music”, you are talking about something much more conscious than what I mean. I think these things do not work so consciously, at least I cannot regulate them as consciously as that. I feel most comfortable if there is a basic form but you can choose to mistune it a little bit, as if you were scratching out the real text from beneath. You have a frame which is a form, which shows that this is the way this poem could sound, but I don’t allow it to sound that way, but leave some knots in it. As if you did some carving and left it partially unfinished.

So you are saying that this is a process rather than a clear point that you can put your finger on in the poem?

Yes, that is what I think.

Reviews swear that there is a “line of development” in your poetry from one book to the next, but do you feel there is?

I do see something, but I don’t know if it is development – I don’t really like that word. I can see what it is that I have had inside me ever since the outset, and I can also see all the things that covered it up, all that I had to remove before I could unfold it. I know all that I had to carve away before I could more or less start saying my own texts.

So you feel it was a way of removing and unfolding?

Yes, or rather, it was an attempt to escape. I know what there was too much of. And, of course, I myself also change in the meantime, but I am talking about the same things. Just like everybody else, I think.

Is it the ornamentation and the poetic music you wanted to reduce?

Again, if you say “reduce”, you are implying some sort of pre-conceived notion. I feel that I work much more on the basis of my poetic taste as it changes, a little bit at a time. I think the most difficult thing is that you should stay in charge of the poem, steer it and yet let go of it, so it can live its own life, but still you should stay in control in some way so that it always remains in step with your internal workings. So it is terribly easy to drift into a direction where you write, you generate a really good poem which is not your own. There is a huge temptation to do this. Once you have enough technical mastery, you can write a good poem out of almost anything, but the real job is to resist this challenge and not to write at that moment and not to write that poem but the real poem which is your own.

The most exciting thing about your poetry is the way you domesticate passion; the way in which form, so to say, gives a hard time to the passions.

I try to give them form. I often feel that all the things that happen in life only really assume meaning once they are written down. If there is a period of time that I don’t write about, then I feel that time never really existed, it just drops out of my life. The other thing is my terrible anxiety that I will never be able to think of another thing for the rest of my life. What if one day this whole thing just goes? When there is silence within, it is really such complete deaf silence that I think nothing will ever start speaking inside me again. This is an elemental panic within me, when this happens I simply don’t exist any more. As if this thing, writing, were the only justification of my existence.

Have you got some sort of a technique for this in your everyday life, or do you just trust that the happy moments will crop up?

It is moments rather than anything else. You get this feeling that you are in a lucid state and whatever you find will fit into a puzzle and fall in its own place.

Would you feel in any way endangered if you could not use poetry to discipline emotions, passion and instincts?

Yes, I think this is what holds me together. I would be in very great trouble if I could not write it out, it is like a container that you can pour the stuff into and it gets a shape, it turns into something. I don’t know precisely what it is, but it departs from me and becomes a handleable, objectified thing, it has been given a shape and does not work inside any more.

Isn’t it the case that if you have a peaceful, happy, quiet period in your life, you create something dramatic, even unawares, so as to generate an inspiring charge to stand behind the poetry? Don’t you worry that if your passion went, the poems would also go?

I don’t need perpetual emotional drama for this whole thing. I am a gatherer. I have collected lots and lots of images and I like to use other people’s stories, too. It all becomes incorporated. Anything can be raw material, it is not the quality of the raw material that determines the poem. When you are in the right state for writing, all the things you find are raw material, so it all depends only on the filter and not on what comes in. It is all decided inside you.

You have been through a stormy divorce, the past few years brought a series of dramatic personal experiences, conflict situations. How has all of this influenced your poetry?

I think you need peace for writing. I certainly need to have a relatively balanced life in order to be able to think at all, so it is not at all welcome when all sorts of things happen. I don’t get more emotional raw material for the poems by living a more lively emotional life, because in fact anything at all can serve as raw material. Most of all I need peace and the chance to think everything over clearly, particularly regarding the working side of it. Because, you see, there is an element of serious work to all of this and I need to be in full possession of my skills and abilities to be able to do all this.

Don’t you even see some sort of hierarchy among the different types of experiences? A piece of graffiti, a tattooed tear drop, a scrap of conversation or a divorce all offer the same degree of inspiration?

Yes, I think, everything is a small mosaic stone and if you just come across a story that touches you, it can have just as intensive an effect in a poem as your own story, a drama which involved me personally. I don’t think that the latter necessarily yields a better poem. I am more of a retrospective type.

Yes, it is noticeable that it took a long time after your divorce for you to start writing about it.

You cannot do it at the time, or at least not in the best form. You know, there is that famous saying that you cannot write a love poem with your cock erect. The time to write about it is when it has happened, it is over and you are able to treat is as raw material. I think one keeps looking at oneself from the outside to some extent, viewing one’s experiences as raw material. I might feel that whatever is happening to me is really bad, but in the meantime I can see and feel that I am already picking and choosing what it is that I shall be able to use from all of this. As if I was saying, it doesn’t matter, at least it will contribute to something later on. Attila Bartis wrote a piece where he witnesses a terrible scene on a train, the controllers are pissing around the passengers, the conductor behaves disgustingly, and he is terribly ashamed that he does not interfere, but in his head he says, it doesn’t matter, I will write about it. As if no experience really had meaning unless you write about it, otherwise why did it ever bother to happen.

While all of this is taking place, are you at all interested in how this is going to affect others, what it will mean or give to them?

Not while I am writing, you cannot think about that when you are writing, no way.

And is it important to you that other people should get an understanding of the drama that looms behind one or the other of these poems, or is that also indifferent to you?

It is important, but only from the point of view whether I have managed to do my work with the raw material, whether I have managed to shape it the way it should be. Just like when I was studying sculpture. I want to know whether the proportions are more or less right. I look at it from different angles. I have put up a head, is it more or less OK? I once talked to somebody who told me that the way he looks at his paintings, and I did the same when I did portraits, is to look at them from a mirror, because that instantly tells you where they are wrong, where you have slipped. I think it works the same way with poetry. If you put it away, say for a month, or six months, and then you look at it, it is as if you saw it in a mirror, because you are not seeing the same thing any more and it becomes clear straight away just where it has a limp.

Is there a variation in the period of time that elapses before you write about a feeling, an experience or an event? Perhaps sometimes you write about it the very next day, while at other times it may take a year?

No, it is always from a long distance.

When you write, do you always write a final version or do you keep returning to work on it?

What usually happens is that there is a germ, a sentence from which it all starts. I play around with this in other people’s poems too: trying to find where the poem has its centre of gravity, what the point is that is holding it all up, that the rest was all packed onto. I can also feel where there are areas where it is really just packed on top, like stuffing. When there was a little surface where they needed something to fill in the gap. So there is a core, and then the material gets loaded on top of that, I always carry it around in my head for a very long time, and when I eventually write it down, it is more or less all done. At this point it usually gets a final twist, something new happens that is totally independent of the original intention. Even then, at the last moment, it starts living a life of its own, and something happens to it that is not based on an intention but just writes itself in. Something happens to it, the text draws in something more that is independent, not intended. But it is a very good feeling when I feel that I can let go of it, allow it to write itself and all I need to do now is control it and make sure it does not get over-written, so it does not start to live a life of its own. Another interesting thing is that sometimes, in periods when I had not written for a long time, I tried to make something out of ideas I had been carrying for a long time, and I really learnt the lesson that you cannot do that. You cannot just decide and say I shall write this up now, I have been carrying it so long.

Do your clients know what you do when you are not designing windows?

They don’t. Once at a place where I had to do almost thirty windows, the client said to me, “I saw you on television”, and he added, rather disapprovingly, “you seem to have a lot of time, what do you actually do?” But this is good, it keeps you with both feet on the ground, you don’t get a chance to get highfaluting. “The glazier’s here!”, they say, and I go in with my tape measure, and measure up and design the window.

Are you in any way interested in the state of the country, in politics? I somehow cannot imagine that you should be.

I do read the daily papers sometimes, but I haven’t had a television for seven years, I have completely lost contact with those things, they do not influence my world very much. What matters is what happens inside. I absolutely do not understand people when they talk about the people who are on television, I have lost track so long ago that I have no idea who they are talking about. I just decided that there was no room left for this in my life, so I completely excluded it.

Do you feel successful? What do you think are the criteria of success in Hungarian literature today? Do you think of yourself as a successful young Hungarian poet?

I do not wake up in the morning thinking I am a successful young poet. I have woken up happy and I have also felt successful, say when I finished something, I had done my work at writing and thought this is now finished. If something of this comes through, that is also a success.

What do you say if someone asks you what you do?

That I make glass windows. That is my job. It is really funny that for years the neighbours here did not really know what I did. When they saw me on television I became a suspicious figure to them, some messy woman who lives there with that kid, sometimes takes him to nursery school and on top of that she is some sort of a writer or something. Then when they saw that from time to time a glass van stops outside the front gate and I carry huge windows around, my social prestige rose enormously. This woman actually does something, she works, she has a profession. Once they had seen that, they started stopping me for a chat, asking me how Marci was doing, I wasn’t this messy, suspicious figure any more. Okay, she might write the odd poem, but apart from that she is a decent, reliable person who works.

Translated by Orsolya Frank.
(The interview was originally published in Hungarian by the literary on-line magazine litera, in February 2004.)

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