An interview with András Gerevich
All my love poems have been written to men. Only in Hungarian, the pronouns do not have genders like in most languages. The third person singular is neutral; there is no difference between he and she.
András Gerevich was born in Budapest in 1976. After an eventful childhood, he studied in Hungary, the United States (where he was a Fulbright Scholar at Dartmouth College), and eventually at the National Film and Television School in the United Kingdom. He is presently living in Hungary, where he was recently elected president of the Attila József Circle, the association of young Hungarian writers and poets. Also, he is poetry editor of the Slovakian-Hungarian literary journal Kalligram. He is a poet, screenwriter and literary translator. He has published two volumes of poems so far and written scripts for a number of short films. Three of the four poems on our site are from his second collection Férfiak (Men), published by the Kalligram Publishing House in 2005. The poem “Marmaris” has been written since. András Gerevich talks about his poems, films and his plans for the future, at home and abroad.
The back cover of your volume Férfiak describes it as coming out. “On the one hand, in a metaphorical sense, from behind masks and roles; on the other, from the closet, from hiding from the public eye, an emergence from the lies of convention. The poetic narrator assumes his sexual identity with a genuine pride – one of the very first poets in Hungary to do so.” True, very few people are so open about their sexual identity in Hungary.
There are very few of us. Ádám Nádasdy is probably the only other openly gay poet. Very few authors are out in their writing. On the other hand, hiding is not the right word. I don’t think I was hiding before. Even though it is true that the last cycle in my first volume Átadom a pórázt (I Give You the Leash), the love poems of Nándor Hattyú, are clearly written to women; but this was only a game. All my love poems have been written to men. Only in Hungarian, the pronouns do not have genders like in most languages. The third person singular is neutral; there is no difference between he and she. The only way to reveal the gender of the person in question is to address the other by name, or to write an erotic poem that names the genitals. Otherwise, most love poems, I think, could be addressing either a man or a woman. If I read a poem written by a straight poet, or even a female poet, I can identify with the emotions; and if it is good enough, it can evoke my own feelings. It is only our background knowledge that often reveals what gender the poet and the object of their love is. It was a game I played, but I wouldn’t call it hiding. My poems were written to men, but the reader could interpret them in both ways.
There are very few erotic poems in the volume. “Marmaris”, which we have now included, you have only written recently.
Primarily, I write about relationships and emotions; in this volume, sensuality/sexuality is only one of many aspects. The eight poems I have included in the last cycle “Mellbimbók” (Nipples) are clearly about homosexuality, about men loving other men. However, the poems of the far longer second cycle, “Szeretok” (Lovers), could either be about men or women. Read it as it pleases you.
This used to be a problem for translators. A number of my poems have been translated into English, Bulgarian, and some other languages. In those languages, the question has to be raised. Is the character in third person a man or a woman? The translator has to give an interpretation.
The fourth cycle has the title “Amerikai color” (American Color). Even though you studied at the National Film School in London, the city only appears in a few of your poems, while the United States has a cycle of its own in your second volume. For how long were you there, and why has it had such a strong influence on you?
“Tavasz” (Spring) is the only poem about London, but several others were written there. In America, the otherness of the culture and the mentality was a definite inspiration. I partly grew up in Ireland, and I have also lived in Vienna, so I had an adventurous childhood from this point of view. I have traveled a lot, but spent most of my teenage and university years at home. However, after a time, I found Budapest very depressing. Or rather… this might not be the right expression… The first poem of the volume, which does not belong to any of the longer cycles, “Temeto” (Cemetery) was written in memory of a very, very close friend. He committed suicide in 1999. Afterwards, I had to leave. I had had enough; I needed a break. And the States was, in a way, a deliverance. The distance helped me find myself again. On the other hand, it is a very different culture that both attracted and alienated me. It was stimulating and inspiring.
But you went to study in London.
There were several reasons behind my decision. I had also applied to American film schools, and I was accepted to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, but I wanted to return to Europe. I never really felt at home in the States. I went to a small university in New Hampshire, Dartmouth College, in a very small town close to the Canadian border. It was an intellectual vacation. I read a lot, wrote a lot, but I never had the urge to stay there. I never felt I could become part of their culture.
I generally prefer European films. As far as I know, it is much harder to make art house films in the US; and if I am correct, many American directors I like – Jim Jarmusch, for example – find financiers and win prizes in Europe. Hollywood was not my world.
In the volume Férfiak, there are more allusions and motifs taken from nature than film…
Most of the cycle “Ágnes kertje” (Ágnes’s Garden) is made up of nature poems. I have always loved nature and the environment. When I was a boy, my family had a weekend house in the woodlands of the Pilis hills. We used to spend a lot of time there. Many of my most beautiful childhood memories are thus connected to these woods. Every summer, I also went to camp by Lake Balaton where we banded birds. It also functioned as a bird hospital. Those weeks had a strong impact on me. I am at home both in our natural and urban environments. One of my uncles has a vineyard and farm close to Tokaj, in the Zemplén hills, which we also frequented regularly. The farm, which at the time had no electricity or running water, along with its animals, is also present in a number of poems, primarily in my first volume.
The lyric voice of your poems seems to see the world from a standpoint that is far less than lyrical, as if he were far more susceptible to hopelessness, depression and spleen than you.
My friend’s suicide, described in the poem I have already mentioned, was a deeply distressing event that made me the man I am today. In these past years, it has strongly affected and defined me emotionally. On the other hand, even though it sounds exciting to be living here and there, in the US and in Britain, it does not favor serious, stable relationships. After my friend’s death, I did not want to be involved emotionally with anyone, and I also knew that I would not be staying in America for long. There wasn’t much of a gay community at Dartmouth. I went to New York City regularly. I had many friends there with whom I would go clubbing. There I made a lot of new gay friends. The only problem being that NYC was a seven-hour train ride away… When I moved back to Hungary, I knew it was only temporary, and that at the end of the year I’d be moving on to the UK. As an Eastern European student, I had to work hard to make ends meet. And now, here I am again, back in Hungary. I have to settle down once more and find my way back to my old life.
You write short stories in English and poems in Hungarian. Why?
I never thought I could write well enough in English. Until I was twenty-two or twenty-three, I never even tried anything beyond letters, emails, or school essays. Then, an American novelist, Alan Lelchuk, held a creative writing workshop at Eötvös University. I joined the course and wrote a short story every week. He was very supportive of my work, and it was actually he that I later followed to Dartmouth. At Eötvös University, there was a small group of students – four or five poets, perhaps – Hungarians living in Hungary, speaking Hungarian, but writing poems in English. I was a good friend of theirs, but then I could never take their work seriously enough. I never wrote a poem in English. I tried my hand at short stories and film scripts instead. I cannot judge my own English, but when I am reading a novel by a native speaker, I say to myself every now and again, “My God, what a great sentence – dense and complex in meaning, simple in wording, but precise.” And I know, I can’t yet express myself in the same way; or, if I tried, it would sound very labored.
What about translations? Recently you have published the works of Iraqi poets in Hungarian.
We are just planning a new volume of Seamus Heaney’s selected poems. I am involved in both the editing and the translation. Recently – merging my poetic and filmic interests – I have published translations of Abbas Kiarostami’s poems. He is the Iranian filmmaker who made A Taste of Cherry. He’s a brilliant poet, too.
Under the auspices of the Attila József Circle, you are also running Creative Writing courses, which are still very unusual in Hungary. This year you will be teaching the English translation workshop.
I used to be one of the moderators of the British Council’s poetry translation workshops here in Budapest. It was also accredited by Eötvös University. This time we will mostly focus on prose, but the aim of the workshop is to find solutions to the problems translators are facing in their current work, to brainstorm together and overcome the difficulties that cultural or lingual differences might pose.
You have been elected president of the Attila József Circle. This was the reason why you have recently moved back from London. Are you planning to use your international connections to find partners for the society from other parts of the world?
Of course. We already have a number of foreign partners. We are part of the European Writers’ Congress (EWC) and the German Schloss Solitude exchange program. The previous president of the Circle is now the vice-president of the EWC. I myself am planning to focus more on our international relations and find more foreign institutions we can work with, establishing exchange programs and organizing reading tours for each other, as well as translation seminars and workshops. We have recently established cooperative relationships with Hungarian institutions across the border in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. We not only publish a book series of world literature in translation (beside our series of young Hungarian writers and poets), but we have also strongly encouraged the translation of Hungarian literature with our annual ten-day conference, which is attended by translators from all parts of the world. The Translators' House in Balatonfüred, a work residency program, was also started by the Circle.
Beside your work for the Circle, your own writing is also very important. Are you working on your next volume of poems?
I am planning to publish a collection of short stories, and one day, even a novel. I am, of course, also working on screenplays. At the moment, a lot of my time is taken up by the Circle. After all, I have only been leading it since September. I am always working on poems, but a new volume is not even close to being ready yet.
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