George Szirtes Interview
to Norfolk Interviews
I believe that you moved to Norfolk
in 1994? Was this your first experience of the county?
wife Clarissa was a student at the art college and I
would hitch down from Leeds, where I was a student, to
see her two weekends out of three.
Norfolk has a bit of a reputation
for being unwelcoming to outsiders. What was your
Not at all unwelcoming. Our neighbours in Wymondham –
mostly incomers themselves, were warm and friendly.
Percy, the handyman down the road was immediately round
to see to a broken window. Peter the butcher was and
continues to be friendly and always welcoming. The only
thing we feared was bedding down too comfortably. An old
friend we bumped into at the beginning said: ‘You’ll
never want to leave.’ I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in
a place I’d never want to leave.
You were born in Budapest and grew
up in London. Do you consider yourself to be essentially
an urban person? If so, has this changed since living in
suppose I must be an essentially urban person, in fact a
capital-city person. What you first get to know stays
inside your head and maps everything else. It’s your
subconscious mappa mundi. Norfolk appears on the
map now and has grown more familiar with time while
never losing its lovely sky-ridden angularity. My normal
description of the place of my poetry in English writing
is as a Central European tenement block set off the main
road in one of the more incongruous parts of England.
Not too many tenement blocks in Wymondham.
You once said about your poetry: ‘I
have probably drawn more on memory and imagination than
on direct observation of landscape.’ Is this still the
Hard to distinguish memory from imagination. Of course I
observe but it’s a short route from the observed into
the imagined, remembered and constructed. It is the mind
and soul that comprehend the world and offer it meaning.
In any case I have been short-sighted most of my life
and the sense of the presence of things has always been
stronger than the sum of their properties.
You originally moved to Norfolk to
take up the job as the co-ordinator of Creative Writing
at the Norwich School of Art and Design. Can you tell us
a little bit about how you approach teaching writing?
The key to writing is reading, listening and a kind of
freedom from the constraints of the sheerly
conventional, though that freedom can just as easily
come from close-woven structure as from wide-open
spaces. The mind loves shapes and patterns. They can set
us free. We learn to distinguish shapes and patterns, to
hear the out out-there music of language and hope to
identify it with the music of the world.
You have recently joined the
Creative Writing team at the UEA. Has this altered your
approach in any way?
No, I don’t think it has – I assume you mean to
teaching. It is the same whether I am teaching old or
young, male or female, academic or non-academic. Poetry
does not belong to any particular group. It is the
oldest of the literary arts. Hearing poetry is a
discovery: a sudden understanding of the dimensions of
verbal grace, which is nothing to do with prettiness or
elaborate speech. It is intoxicating, subversive and
utterly fresh. To convey that is all that really matters
in teaching. The rest is detail. Vital detail, but still
In 1984 you returned to Budapest
for the first time. How did this affect you?
changed my life entirely. It opened up great closed
areas of the imagination. It made me, I think, more
human. All those voices and faces of my first personal
mappa mundi sitting aside the world I later grew up in,
and the language I was learning to move in and explore.
I know that you have been involved
in translating a lot of Hungarian literature? Would you
agree with Robert Frost that: ‘Poetry is what is lost in
Ah, the oldest chestnut in the business! Translating the
words – transliterating – does lose the poetry, though
we somehow strive to guess it even then. When a poem is
translated by someone who truly understands poetry in
the receiving language then what is partly lost is
also partly gained. There is no precise word that covers
this process – translation implies something more
mechanical. But we must remember that even in the
original language the reader brings a great deal to the
poem: the poem’s echo is in the reader and different
readers echo differently. A good translation of a poem
is a resonant reading made into good resonant poetry in
the other language.
For ten years you ran The Starwheel Press with
your wife Clarissa Upchurch. Can you tell us a bit about
ran it between 1976 and 1986 from our house in Hitchin,
on a big letterpress machine and an etching press in the
cellar. It existed to bring together artists and mostly
well-known poets (we contributed as artists, I only once
produced poems for it). The poets included Peter Porter,
Anne Stevenson, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Peter Scupham,
Craig Raine, Wendy Cope and many others. There were five
individual sheets of poem with etchings, in a card
portfolio, all signed and hand-printed. We did one
portfolio a year, working right through summer, not
paying ourselves. The editions ran to 55 copies. They
were sold at book, not art prices, and naturally they
disappeared into collections. I sometimes see them for
sale on the internet fetching between £40 - £200. We
also produced a pamphlet and a book, that was the first
proper collaboration between Clarissa and I. The book
was called The Kissing Place. Most of those poems are included in the New and Collected Poems. The Starwheel title had a second life as nominal
co-publisher of anthologies from the art college where I
worked, but that was chiefly for ISBN numbers.
You have lived in Wymondham for
many years now - a town with a rich heritage. Has any of
this heritage seeped into you work?
There is quite a lot of Wymondham material. The
Tiffey Song libretto is a direct product of that,
but so are sonnets from the
series, and many details in other poems, many, no doubt,
recognisable to those who live in Wymondham.
You recently published Shuck,
Hick, Tiffey - a collection of libretti which were
set to music by Ken Crandell. I particularly liked
‘Tiffey Song’ which captured the beauty of Wymondham’s
‘titty-totty little river’. What was it about the river
that inspired you?
was produced for the Wymondham Festival as were two
other Norfolk libretti in collaboration with Ken:
Shuck Tale, and Tom Hickathrift, It is those
three that make up the book with the title: Shuck,
Hick, Tiffey (including some illustrations by me).
It is the smallness in distance combined with the
vastness of history that appealed to me and moved me.
The people in the Budapest tenements are as much people
as those who lived by the River Tiffey, or indeed by the
greatest rivers of the world. The short lives of the
human span, long lines of flowing water. Seeing humanity
flicker on the surface of the water, like flecks of
You are a very prolific poet. Is
there a danger in being too prolific do you think?
We shall find out,
is probably the best answer. People are as people are:
some have to produce a lot to produce anything at all.
Many Hungarians have been prolific. It seems to have
been a national trait. Most critics seem to think that
my later work is my best work, and when it comes down
to it, frankly, I don’t care about the dangers. I am a
human being: I am here once and once only. I would like
to sing or say the dimensions of the world as I sense
it. I do what I can.
What are you working on at the
moment and what plans have you for the future?
new book is to appear in September. It will be called
The Burning of the Books and Other Poems. Parts of
it launch off into new directions that excite me,
particularly the title sequence which will appear as a
book in its own right first, complete with marvellous
art by the originator of the idea, Ronald King. Beyond
that, there are the translations, poetry, fiction and so
forth. I think I should put together a book of essays.
Clarissa wants me to write a memoir. Maybe I will: the
family on both sides has lived and acted in interesting
times, both in the ordinary and Chinese sense of he
word. But my key life is as a poet. Sing till you bust.
For more information see George's website: