03. 10. 2009. 10:34
Gabriella Györe: Did the issue of your acknowledged sexual orientation cause any difficulties at the outset of your careers as poets?
Christopher Whyte: Derick Thomson (Ruaraidh MacThòmais, 1921– ) was the editor of Gairm, the quarterly review where my first poems appeared. Though he belonged to an older generation, and we never discussed the question of who my love poems were addressed to, I sensed that he was aware of the situation, absolutely tolerant, or perhaps indifferent, and not concerned to interfere in any way.
Ádám Nádasdy: Of course, many poems speak of something that is a crime, and yet poets suffer no ill-treatment. The consumption of certain drugs in certain countries is illegal, yet nonetheless it is depicted in poetry. Or we can think of Villon, who was a criminal but also acknowledged it in his poems. In other words, there is no influence on the value of the final work. So you’re not trying to say that if you had made it clear who you were writing to, the police would have come to take you away?
C.W.: When I first taught the love poetry of Edwin Morgan (1920– ), who is now the “poet laureate” of Scotland, to a class of students in the department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, I was careful to point out his avoidance of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ or, indeed, of any clear indication of the gender of the addressee. This absence of a sign itself functions as a sign, an indication of self-censorship. In the 1960s, when Morgan’s first love poems were published, any sexual activity between males in Scotland was in theory punishable by a prison sentence, and would remain so until 1980. Discretion concerning this matter was crucial. Morgan’s situation as a respected university teacher, in fact, his whole social standing, could have been damaged. Later on, I would preface discussion of his poetry by illustrating the case of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889–1967), in particular of her “Requiem” and “Poem Without a Hero”. Both poets are profoundly implicated with issues of self-censorship, of what can and cannot be said.
Á. N.: If someone is very much a certain way, the question always comes up of how much of this should go into his or her work. If someone is black, then should he only write about that, should it blaze out from every single page that he is black? The other extreme, even if it usually doesn’t come up, somehow gives rise to a feeling of insincerity, which is not good for creating works of art. If somebody, for example, is a Hungarian from Transylvania, should he write as if he were continually dashing around Budapest, or is it better if every one of his pages informs us about that particular little universe that is his? But still, you have to do more than that! My problems were not with the external world, because as long as Communism lasted, I didn’t think about publishing. Then came the transition to democracy. Here in Hungary, homosexuality had not been classified as a crime for many years – János Kádár and his lot, for example, immediately removed it from the penal code – but public taste changes very slowly. It never bothered me that it was always – how shall I say? – a balancing act, like a ballet, and perhaps especially because this is easier to do in Hungarian. But for someone who reads attentively – I myself didn’t always notice this, but it was pointed out to me – a great deal can be deduced from what kinds of words are used in a love poem. For example, the word ‘shoulder’ has appeared in many of my poems, and my straight friends informed me that ‘we usually don’t write about women’s shoulders’. So in that sense, something does emerge about the writer.
András Gerevich: If someone writes, let’s say, a love poem, and if he’s gay he has to thrash his way through the question as to whether or not his gayness will be unambiguously evident in this poem, will it be completely hidden, or should he just make subtle indications or allusions. Of course, there are all kinds of poetry, and you would not be able to tell absolutely, let’s say, from a nature poem, whether the poet is gay, black or Romany – just as you wouldn’t be able to tell from a political or spiritual poem.
Á. N.: That isn’t true. You have written some very beautiful nature poems, where you talk about thick encrusted trees, and the reader senses a certain libido with relation to the landscape.
A. G.: The question comes into the forefront much more openly, however, when one person writes a love poem to another. There you have to decide whether the other is a man or a woman, as well as whether or not it will be clear in the reading of the poem.
Á. N.: You’re right – if we only wrote poems about nature or politics, that would dredge up quite a lot of impropriety and tawdriness…
G. Gy.: Still, all three of you write poems about nature that are deeply eroticized: as if the genres of landscape and love poetry were mingling together.
Ádám Nádasdy writes in his poem “Spring wind“ (Tavaszi szél)
The day has that kind of restlessness, nimble
clouds rush from one house to the next.
Some smell grows tense (a not entirely
appetising one), armpits of bushes,
taste of nests being built. The lower back
cracks as we lift a rockface, you’re more
than you can handle, and he is too.
We think about former lovers, suddenly
feel an urge for their sweaty backs as we squeeze
the last drop ruthlessly from the sponge.
Our fists say: this spring no longer belongs
to them. Well, guys, get cracking,
short trousers, t-shirt, sunglasses!
What matters, though, is not to grasp,
to tell what steam power drives me on.
(Translated by Christopher Whyte)
And this is the poem “Marmaris” by András Gerevich:
In a racing car
the buzz of a wasp:
your body beneath the clothes.
Date clusters dangling,
and bustle on the shore:
your hairy chest.
In the sky a plane,
on the beach a slipper:
birthmarks on your skin.
In the sweltering sands
a sweating anchor,
your swollen nipples.
The sea rubbing up
against the blinding sky
the surge of your muscles.
(Translated by Thomas Cooper)
Christopher Whyte in his poem “Spring” (San earrach) writes:
Dol am faid aig feasgaran,
soillse anfhoiseil san speur,
èirigh uachdaranach an t-sùigh
anns gach craoibh is preas, is dèine
ghineamhainn sna beathaichean,
brodadh geur a’ mhiann gan spreigeadh –
dòirtidh mise cuideachd mo shìol dhut,
a thuathanaich, a bhuanaich gach uile arbhar.
(Evenings getting longer
restless light in the sky
sap rising imperiously
in trees and bushes, urgency
to procreate in animals,
desire’s sharp goad egging them on,
I too will spill my seed for you,
husbandman, reaper of every harvest.)
These poems are truly pervaded by the erotic. From this viewpoint, it’s very interesting that in the poem by Christopher Whyte, which I just quoted in András Gerevich’s translation from the English, in the last line where Whyte’s English literal has ‘husbandman’, Gerevich renders this as “gazdám” [gazda: farmer, smallholder, -m the first-person possessive suffix].
A. G. The word ‘husbandman’, which as a calque translates as ‘férjuram’ [lit.: férj: husband, man, uram: my lord, husband], really just means ‘farmer’. That is why I finally decided to translate it as ‘gazdám’, which maybe isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t find a better word, and it hardly works to say ‘földmuves’ [tiller of the soil, agriculturalist].
Á. N.: ‘Husbandman’ can be translated as ‘paraszt’ [peasant] as well.
A. G.: Fine, but today the word ‘paraszt’ has a completely different, pejorative meaning. I decided in favor of ‘gazdám’ because the meanings of ‘gazda‘ [farmer] and ‘husbandman’ are both in it, and hence a personal connection.
Á. N.: Still, it’s not in the original poem written in Gaelic . [The Gaelic word ‘tuathanach’ (used in its vocative form, ‘a thuathanaich’) means simply ‘one who works the land’, and has the advantage of rhyming internally with ‘buanaich’, meaning ‘harvester, gatherer’. C. W.]
A. G.: Apparently, such a word does not exist in Gaelic, but I translated it from English, which demonstrates that every translation involuntarily changes something in the poem. But to get back to censorship and self-censorship: I have reflected a great deal on the significance in literature of placing that which is private into one’s works, into the common sphere. Since many of my poems are very personal, I often find myself tackling this question: should I set a certain limit for myself, is there a boundary within me that I do not wish to cross, or the exact opposite: is there a boundary that I am determined to transgress, to obliterate.
G. Gy.: And what is it that you can’t write about, or that you don’t want to write about?
Á. N.: It hasn’t really been my experience that there are certain themes that cannot be written about. If I have the desire or interest to write about something, there is no external censorship – in the classical sense of the word – that would stop me from doing so.
But there is such a thing as modesty, and that can be a serious form of self-censorship. Not in an Akhmatovian sense, but perhaps even Catullus had to think about whether he was going to write a woman’s name into his poems or not. Is an exaggerated sense of personality not, ultimately, damaging to creation? Won’t it be too anecdotal? This is something we must grapple with. Sometimes I envy straight writers because they can write without having to worry about it, for example: as I was lying there on the beach, I was suddenly aroused by her pert breasts. It’s not so easy to write, mutatis mutandi, these gay variations.
C. W.: Poetry is a place where the private and the public meet. Generally, it has an intimate origin yet, when composed, is implicitly aimed at a very wide audience. It’s hard to generalise, but when a straight man writes about, or to, a woman, she tends to be configured as alien, different, ‘other’. Things are different in love poetry, or openly erotic poetry, about two men, or two women, not least because the implicit acknowledgement of homosexuality establishes a link, a complicity ‘beyond’ the law, beyond more ‘normal’ social practices. You could argue that same-sex lovers have the opportunity to be more closely in tune with each other, given the familiarity of one’s body to the other, though I would not want personally to push this argument too far. Describing erotic experience inevitably raises complex issues, and gender is not always a useful prism through which to view them. It is certainly not a simple matter of explaining who did what to whom, and how.
A. G.: Coming out or not coming out is a game, and that is how I experienced it even a generation later. When I began to publish in the 1990s, you could do it in a political sense, but in my first volume, nowhere do I state openly that these poems are addressed to men. There are shoulders, there are muscles, but it’s as if I could have fallen in love with a female swimmer. I enjoyed this game.
The last cycle of poems in my first book is erotic; I entitled it The Poems of Nándor Hattyú, and in it I wrote erotic poems to women, about women, from the viewpoint of an imaginary male. However, in this volume the gender of the protagonists never emerges from these love poems, which was in itself a kind of game. There were many who accused me of not being brave enough to come out, but I felt that I had to judge the right moment according to my own inner time. This is an internal process, which reached its fruition in my second volume, entitled Men, although perhaps with exaggerated force.
G. Gy.: Let’s have a look at your poetry again!
This is Christopher Whyte’s poem “Afternoon” (San tràth-nòin)
Dìreach mar sin: leig bhuat do chupan,
èirich, rannsaich measg leabhraichean na sgeilp,
gabh fear dhiubh, ’s fhios agad gu bheil mi ’g amharc ort,
falbh don uinneig, stad an sin, ’s an solas
ag òradh do dhealbh uile, gun dad a labhairt.
Molaidh mi gach gluasad a nì thu,
ach cha dùraig mi mo smuain fhoillseachadh
’s mi faicinn, ag iadhadh air aigeann t’ anam
mar iasg a-measg nan clach, tron uisge shoilleir,
do smuain-sa, gun fhios an tèid a bhrathadh
air uachdar linn’ am facal aideachaidh.
(That’s right: put your cup down,
get up, look through the books on the shelf,
choose one, knowing my eyes are on you,
go to the window and stop there,
the light gold at your edges,
not saying a thing.
Every move you make has my approval,
but I won’t put my thought into words
though I can see your thought, just like a fish
moving between the stones in the clear water
at the bottom of your soul, without being able
to tell whether a ripple of words
on the surface of the water will betray its presence.)
I also picked out a poem by András Gerevich, “The French Film-maker“
We wake up, I catch your smell,
your chin digs into my back,
I brush my teeth while you shower,
gazing at the hair on your chest,
peel potatoes while you cook,
soon we’ll be cycling in Hyde Park:
That was my dream of you, Julien.
Maybe it was stupid to spend
two years picturing our honeymoon,
I hand you my sinewy manhood years
like torn, stained underwear.
You don’t even know you wake beside me,
that we wash our shirts together
and your stubble prickles my face.
What makes you pleased to be with me
again tonight? You smile, you joke, tell stories
and as you look me straight in the eye,
I gaze at your hands in confusion.
If you notice, why turn away at other times?
I can tell how big a burden I am as,
not batting an eyelid, you look elsewhere,
Guys come, go, return,
chew at my nipples while I
lick their bodies from head to toe,
bored, and they’re bored, because
they are made up of you, Julien,
their shoulders are yours, their arse your arse,
whatever I say is no more than a rehearsal.
Why stay passing acquaintances
if your eye caught mine first?
You put the lead in my hands,
you seduced me, so now fall in love with me!
Knot up my tie that’s hanging loose,
start a fight over some misplaced words,
forbid me to light up in front of you.
You remind me you have a girlfriend,
I saw how gently you touched her,
standing there you belong to each other,
I’m waiting for kids to come.
And yet, loitering throughout a film,
a glimpse of you across the shoulders
produced such a shock it transfixed me.
I want to forget you, Julien,
to love a woman, a dog,
to live in films, not in dreams.
You notice me now, say hello,
perhaps I’ll invite you round for a meal,
or we’ll take a stroll in Hyde Park
and I’ll watch you while you aren’t looking.
(Translated by Christopher Whyte)
And one by Ádám Nádasdy, “A sort of mirror at the end of the room“ (Tükörféleség a terem végén):
The big room’s an odd place to sleep in
when the wind whispers, the bed sighs
and your stomach coughs up lumps of food.
Look at him, fast asleep and sweating,
smiling, at peace, void of all sense
like the times we live in. A sort of mirror
at the end of the room, as we fall asleep
drops of bitterness form on our lips.
No way of knowing what love is,
you can only tap it out or sing it,
sneeze it, or else let it choke you.
The basic questions, generalised grief
keep him and his generation busy,
but if the distress reaches cosmic levels,
life still holds me in its arms.
What levels of toughness the skin can reach!
How well we learn to put up with each other!
Yet night after night he comes close to yelping,
his muscles tense in pursuit of a dream,
and his knees dig their imprint into my tummy.
(Translated by Christopher Whyte)
Here are three poems in which, in addition to reflection, emotions and the willingness to express them are made open to the other, the addressee of each poem. Does this extreme openness make the preservation of a relationship, and writing itself, easier or more difficult?
C. W.: If, as a writer, you have something to say that has hardly been spoken about or written down before, that puts you at an enormous advantage. Where describing gay experience is concerned, it is perhaps more helpful to speak of role-models than of muses. In my case, Kavafis and Pasolini were hugely important in this respect. I studied how they broke the silence, shattered the taboo, in both verbal texts and film.
If a man holds a woman’s hand on the street, this is seen as a completely normal gesture, whereas if, in Budapest, I take my partner’s hand in public, this constitutes a very serious act which, under certain circumstances, could lead to disagreeable consequences. It might even be dangerous. Very minute gestures between same-sex partners take on enormous significance and, for a gay writer, this can represent a considerable advantage.
Á. N.: I tend to refrain from writing really bitterly and shamelessly about the negative sides of my relationships and their troubles. But to compose in the serene, bucolic vein is hardly easier; it is, after all, the dark side of life that tends to produce the more beautiful and serious literary works. Yes, and yet something holds me back from describing gay relationships as a kind of hell. Perhaps this is one of the limitations of being in this minority situation; the reverse side of what Christopher characterized as an advantage, the openness to one another. I think in five hundred years, when everyone will be used to the fact that this topic exists, then of course people will be able to write about it naturally. In every relationship, there is odi et amo. Monstrosity, the same monstrosity as everyone has in their life, and the question is, of course, why isn’t it possible to write about this more deeply. If you want, you can nail me with this: why don’t I scrape deeper, why don’t I let more of the pus gush out of my wounds, as Professor Géher, my first confidant and mentor, prescribed.
G. Gy.: So perhaps we can ultimately define a point where self-censorship begins to operate, because the context into which the work is received is so different?
Á. N.: That conclusion would be logical, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m a bit of a mawkish type to begin with, and that it’s not a question of the situation or the subject at hand, but rather the result of personality, hence completely independent of the hue of the swaddling clothes that the stork dropped me into. I have very often wondered if I am innately a kind of Dr. Pangloss, announcing that we live in the best of all possible worlds – or whether it’s because I would simply feel ashamed if people said “Hey, he’s a fag, and look at all the horrible things he has to go through!”
G. Gy.: Is there no possibility, then, of the two emotional extremes flaring up in a single poem or a single poetic cycle?
Á. N.: I try to do that, and I hope that sometimes I succeed. Maybe I was too self-critical just now, but that’s why we’re sitting here, to think these problems through and discuss them. My feeling is that, weighing it all up, there is still a little more on the positive side of the scales than the negative.
I was in a relationship for a very long time, and then he died. In a certain sense, he left me. I think that the poems I wrote at that time were not serene: but these were about death, not about our relationship, and I could hardly write “fine, I’m very sorry that you died, but otherwise it really was hell with you these past few years”.
A. G.: It’s really difficult to compare a gay and a heterosexual relationship, because the stakes are completely different. In a heterosexual relationship, after a certain time, in most cases, it becomes about starting a family and raising children. More often, in gay relationships people are simply seeking companions.
G. Gy.: As poets, all of your life-works take as their theme the relationship with God or the transcendental. What is this relation? How is it formed in time? How can it be articulated?
Á. N.: I believe that the existence of God is self-evident. And the questions all start from here. Does He know of my existence, did He really create me, is He concerned about me, does He see me, does He have an opinion about what I’m doing, and if so what is it, and how much can I answer for what has happened to me, or can a certain part of the responsibility be pushed back onto Him? If I was already born a certain way, then should the task have been to struggle against it, or somehow to till this soil, so that I can create something from it. I finally chose the latter route, because I was able to produce more that way, I’m able to carry a greater burden and I think that for Him, in the end, maybe that is the more important thing: that everyone should be dragging something, something that they have found or which He gives them. Like other people’s souls, or work… this is why I’ve often turned to Him, if I may put it that way, or allude to it at all, because even now I often wonder if in the end I really did do the right thing. Because at times it’s almost as if He would have set before me the task of self-renunciation.
A. G.: I am more skeptical than that: for me, belief is a continual inner struggle. I would like it if there were a God, but at times I feel that there is none. If I choose to live, however, as if there is a God, and I don’t feel His lack, then still for me the question of being and coming out as a homosexual could never be an ethical-religious concern; I never feel that God would not accept this, or that it would be a crime.
I’ve always felt that if there is a God, then it is love that really matters. If I can love, then it’s of no importance whether it is a man or a woman; so that I’ve never had any problems with gay love in this context. Not even if the Catholic Church, and the teachings of quite a few other churches, do not accept it.
C. W.: My own experience has taught me that an intense erotic experience is frequently, at the same time, a spiritual one. One of the greatest limitations of Christianity has been its inability to even start unravelling the intertwining of the erotic with the spiritual. That lack led me, personally, to start exploring different traditions and belief systems, in search for help and support. I wanted to understand and to express the ways in which the spiritual and the erotic interact, also where a joint understanding of the two can lead us.
G. Gy.: Is it too much to say that the eroticization of nature poetry, or images having to do with nature, is in part the result of the intertwining of the erotic and the spiritual?
C. W.: For me, that would certainly be the case.
G. Gy.: Could I make the same statement about all three of you?
A. N.: Yes.
A. G.: I suppose so.
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Ádám Nádasdy (1947) is a poet, linguist and literary translator. He is on the faculty of the English Department at Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. He has published six volumes of poems and translated several plays, among them several works by Shakespeare. Read
by Nádasdy on HLO.
Christopher Whyte (Crìsdean MacIlleBhàin), born in Glasgow in 1952 and educated at Cambridge, is a poet in Gaelic and a novelist in English (
). He lived in Italy between 1973 and 1985 and moved to Budapest in 2006. He has translated poetry into both Gaelic and English from a wide range of European languages.
András Gerevich is a poet, screenwriter, editor and organizer of literary events. His second volume of poems, Men, was published in 2005. He was educated in Hungary, the United States and Great Britain. He moved home to Budapest just over a year ago. Read
by Gerevich on HLO.
Picture: a detail of the cover of Christopher Whyte's volume of poems, The Warlock of Strathearn.
The conversation has been slightly edited and abridged.
Tags: An interview with Á. Nádasdy, C. Whyte and A. Gerevich