Remembering Concerts

I don’t want to go to so many concerts and literary events that they start blending into each other or splintering into oblivion, but so far that hasn’t been a danger. Each one has stood out in a particular way. A few details can bring the whole evening back. Last night’s event (pictured to the left) at the MITZI café was one of my favorites here in Hungary so far. The event, hosted by the Juhász Anna Literary Salon, focused on the Partért kiáltó lyrics book but took this in many directions. Anna Juhász related it to Pilinszky (and led the discussion overall); Ákos Győrffy and Csaba Szendrői gave their thoughts, both about the book and music and about questions of language, creation, and more; Gyöngyi Hegedűs, Gergő’s mother, spoke about being a poet, doctor, and mother, and read one of her poems; and Gergely Balla played three songs and spoke about his music, influences, quests.

One of the most interesting ideas for me was the distinction between passzió (strong enthusiasm) and passió (holy passion, which is bound up in suffering). Another was Gergő’s story about how someone had said, after Partért kiáltó was released, that he didn’t think Gergő had quite found his voice yet. Gergő’s response was that he had no interest in finding his voice; to the contrary, he has been reaching for something beyond the “I.” Still another favorite part was when Ákos Győrffy told the story about how some of the lyrics of Partért kiáltó described exactly a dream that he had had, and Gergő read aloud Győrffy’s description of the dream. And Gyöngyi Hegedűs’s comments, humor, and poem. And Gergő’s exceptional humility toward the others: for instance, his deeply appreciative praise of Elefánt (Csaba Szendrői’s band). And Anna Juhász’s comment on the shortest song on the Partért kiáltó album, “Fagyott csontok,” and how its lyrics have the true density of poetry. There was much more that came up—and the music itself at the beginning and end said what the discussion could not. All of this took place in front of a hushed and densely seated audience. I had lots to think about on the train ride back home.

As for other recent concerts: Just last week, though it seems longer ago than that, I went to a terrific Cataflamingo show at the Szimpla Kert, a labyrinthine venue with colorful lamps, dark passageways, open-air places, wooden steps, mirrors, and at least two enclosed performance halls. This was only my third time hearing them in concert; this time I was blown away by their musicianship, the beauty of the songs, the transformations inside them. The audience reflected the excitement: listening intently, dancing along, somertimes singing along (there’s a song where the audience takes over the singing at one point), cheering at the end. Here is a video of one of the songs from the concert, “Nevess.”

The week before that, I went to two concerts: Cz.K. Sebő at the A38 Hajó, and then, the following day, Galaxisok at Budapest Park. The Cz.K. Sebő concert was a little difficult for me at first because of the noisy crowd (I think this has something to do with the acoustics of that particular hall at the A38); also, they played some of the songs slightly faster than I hear them in my mind. But the concert grew more and more beautiful and absorbing as it went along. I can still hear the sounds of “Interlude II” in my mind; “Fox in the Holt,” “Pure Sense,” “Keveset olvasok,” and “Papermache Dreams” were also highlights for me, and there was a new song too, which I am eager to hear again. It has been almost exactly a year since I first heard Cz.K. Sebő in concert, and I look forward to at least two more concerts in the next couple of months (one at Fishing on Orfű and one in the middle of July in Budapest). I am eager to see and hear how his capsule boy project develops; he is releasing a new song, “Fázom, ha nézel,” the first capsule boy non-remix single, this weekend!

As for Galaxisok, I hadn’t heard them in a while and was excited to hear them at Budapest Park, where they were playing for the first time. The sound was rich, the songs already familiar and evocative for me, the performance thrilling. It’s quite hard to describe them, because their songs take different directions without becoming a hodgepodge at all. There’s a whimsical coherence to them, a kind of worldly-wise melancholy mixed with zest. The best description I have seen so far is their own (for the upcoming concert at Müpa):

The singer-songwriter Benedek Szabó, who you may also recognise from his earlier band Zombie Girlfriend, founded the Galaxisok in 2013 under the name Szabó Benedek és a Galaxisok (Benedek Szabó and the Galaxies). They have released six major albums to date, ranging from chord-strumming hits inspired by Tamás Cseh to catchy guitar pop, end-of-the-world ballads on the piano and South American and African-influenced songs, creating a daring, ever-changing, unpredictable whole. What kind of music do they play? ‘Well-being polbeat’? Jangly guitar pop? Dreamlike piano ballads? The band, which is approaching its tenth birthday, has a meandering repertoire that means something different to every individual, depending on what age, place or given moment they hear it for the first time. But what is the essence of the Galaxisok, which has such a strong relationship with the public? Maybe the frontman has a radically different picture of the band from the guitarist, while the drummer thinks in another way entirely – and who knows what alternative production the bassist might have imagined? All our questions will be answered on the Müpa Budapest stage, as the Galaxisok play their favourite tunes.

Some of my favorites from the concert were “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” their new song “Ez a nyár,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “Mondo Bizarro,” and “Középsulis szerelmes szám,” but the one playing in my mind right now, “Sandy View,” stands out among them all. In any case, I think Galaxisok will be the subject of my next “Listen Up” post, because there’s so much there to listen to and reflect on.

To take in a concert fully, I need to not go to concerts now and then. Especially with the train rides from Szolnok, I would wear myself out if I went to them all. Also, I have large ongoing projects and a need for sustained quiet time. So, for instance, I am not going to the Platon Karataev duo concert this evening, although I would have loved to, since I am attending the Grand Bleu/Cappuccino projekt concert tomorrow and a Platon Karataev (Gergely Balla) discussion and brunch on Sunday. The upcoming weeks are dense; I have to check my calendar frequently to make sure I’m not forgetting something.

But that’s the gift of it: holding back from concerts just enough that when I do go, it’s with full joy. Joy not in the sense of glee and cheer, necessarily; there’s melancholic and sad joy too. But treasuring the notes as they fly by, wrapping myself in them, carrying them for days and weeks and sometimes much longer. Even when the memories of the concerts fade, they have made some kind of mark on my life, and though I can’t pinpoint it and don’t need to, I know it’s there. There’s a new resonance in the air.

First photo (of last night’s event) by Kriszta Lettner; more photos here. Second photo (of the May 12 Cz.K. Sebő concert) by me.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it.

Listening to Grand Bleu

I am very excited about hearing Grand Bleu in concert for the first time this Friday, along with Cappuccino projekt—that is, Dávid Korándi, whom I have heard once before; more about his music soon. It was Cz.K. Sebő who recommended Grand Bleu (Asztrik Kovács, Ádám Ballai, Edvárd Szalma) to me, and I’m glad I did; there’s so much to these songs that I expect to listen to them for years. They are intensely evocative, reminding me at various times of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Neil Young. But what’s special about them is the way the clear acoustic guitar, vocals, and lyrics create an atmosphere and story, taking you far within them and changing as they go along. A few of the songs start out with samples (of street music, I think, and thunder), but for the most part the sound and style are folk with bluesy elements. Within this, there is an infinity to hear: stories, harmonies, a rhythm that holds you all the way through, transformations that involve you.

“Kálvin tér,” for instance, is sung from the point of view of someone who can’t find his way to Kálvin tér (in Budapest) because the city looks so different, as if it had been rebuilt at night. But then it turns out that it’s himself he can’t find, it’s as if he’s in a dream where the only thing missing is him. But then he finds himself again (as the harmonies build and build), or at least finds where he is, and asks once more, where is Kálvin tér? That’s the gist, but the music tells the story at least as much as the lyrics do.

Thanks again to David Dichelle for playing this song on WFMU’s Continental Subway on April 10. It was a great start to the show.

It’s hard to name favorite songs on the album (Gyalog a tengerig, Grand Bleu’s 2022 debut), but “Emlékszem meg,” “Kálvin tér,” “Öreg halász,” and “Vihar” are definitely among them. Another is “Egy évszázada már,” which sings a family story of several generations. The grandfather, returning from the front, is walking with his horse, but the stones under the horse’s hooves turn to dust, and the side of the mountain breaks off, taking the horse along. When the grandfather gets home, he plants a sapling, swearing that when it has grown into a tree, he should tie those to it who sent him to war and took his horse away. But by the time the tree has grown up, those responsible are nowhere to be found. And then powers change hands, the land and the tree are taken away, and the grandfather himself is taken to a “little robot” (Soviet forced labor, if I understand correctly). The grandmother, in her pain, plants a sapling and says that when it has grown, she should tie those to it who took the land and her husband away. But when the time comes, they are nowhere to be found. And in the final verse of the song, the singer is the one who plants a sapling, before moving abroad so that his family can eat (because he is a teacher and can’t make ends meet at home). And by the end of the song, which fools you with its familiar melody, its understated narrative, and its Na-na-na refrain, I have a big lump in my throat.

I know nothing about the band members and have never met or heard any of them, as far as I know. I know that Asztrik Kovács is the primary songwriter, but that’s it. About Dávid Korándi I know a tiny bit more, but not much. I have heard him twice: once in a concert where he played solo, with Cz.K. Sebő, and with László Sallai; and in a Felső Tízezer concert. (He was a member of Felső Tízezer some years back and has recently rejoined, to the joy of many.)

Well, that has to be all, because I am running late and have a lot happening today, including a book release at school this afternoon!

Thoughts on Cancelling Russia

Not too long ago, during a train ride, someone asked me what I thought about cancelling Russia. I said I considered absolute cancellation a mistake. She looked disappointed, so I listened to what she had to say. She considered cancellation—by which she meant refusal to engage with Russian people, things, and culture—absolutely necessary for the time being. She emphasized that it should be temporary but strong.

I thought about it over the following weeks and came to agree with her more than before. Still, I see many dangers in cancellation overall. My views are less about Ukraine in particular and more about cancellation itself.

First, “cancellation” is difficult to define; there are so many different kinds, ranging from economic boycotts to actual cancellation of events to a cutting of ties with individuals. So-called “cancel culture” can even take the form of brutal online attacks, destruction of people’s careers and personal lives, etc. So it’s important to be precise about what kind is at stake and why.

In a war like this one, economic boycotts are justifiable and may convey strong messages. Their effects aren’t always fair—they can hurt people who have nothing to do with the war and don’t support it in any way—but then, no powerful response is fair. During World War II, many German bakeries in NYC went out of business because people stopped buying from them. This was unfair on the bakeries themselves (in many cases humble businesses with no ties to Nazis), but understandable in context.

I also see reason at times to cancel (or simply stay out of) high-profile cultural events, especially those that celebrate an aggressor country and its achievements. I was sad for the pianist himself when Alexander Malofeev’s concerts with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra were cancelled, but at least the orchestra made clear that this was not directed at him personally.

There are thorny questions aroud “Russian-ness” itself. The Yale Russian Chorus, as far as I know, is still considering a Russia tour in August. They have stated that they will include more Ukrainian songs in their repertoire. However, that hardly makes things better; according to Oleksii Antoniuk, if they sing Ukrainian songs, they should change their name from the Yale Russian Chorus to something else. If they do not, they are implying that Ukrainians are just “small” Russians. I see the point there and believe that this all needs to be sorted out.

But boycotts and large cultural events aside, what kinds of cancellation are appropriate? I don’t have an answer; the answer will vary from person to person, situation to situation. But I see dangers in knee-jerk cancellation.

If those doing the “cancelling” know what they are cancelling and why, then there might be some principle involved. But if they don’t, their actions will come out of ignorance and generate more of the same. If, say, people were to refuse to read Russian literature because it’s Russian, they would only be limiting their own education and that of others. If this kind of action spread, anyone could refuse to learn about anything at all. Not only that, but the refusal would come with a self-righteous attitude.

Where would it stop? No country, no entity is exempt from blame. For instance, what if people in the U.S. started cancelling all things Hungarian because of Orbán’s illiberal populism? This would just spread illiberalism. If you write off an entire country just because you disagree with its leader, you give the leader more power and credence than he already has. Anyone can do the same back to you and yours.

What about personal cancelling—the targeting or absolute cutting off of someone you know? I would reserve that for the most extreme circumstances, where you have really tried and failed to hear the person out, or where your safety is at risk. Yet personal cancellation remains in vogue: “freeing yourself of toxic people.” People who cut others off may pride themselves on their social justice or sense of personal liberation. But there is no social justice or liberation involved here, no willingness to find out what the person really thinks, or at least offer the benefit of the doubt. I realize that I am wandering into somewhat different territory here, yet it all falls within the larger concept of cancelling.

In short, I understand that certain kinds of cancelling have their place, especially during this war. But when it comes to the larger question of cancellation, I would say: define what you are doing and why, keep it to a minimum, keep it as humane as possible, remember that you do not know everything about another person or place, and follow your own conscience and knowledge. Because in wartime (or any time, really) these are among the few things you can keep.

Image: Anton Chekhov, by Osip Braz (1898).

Setting Poetry to Music (25th ALSCW Conference seminar, October 2022)

In October 2022, at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale, I will hold a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” Paper proposals have been coming in; for those still hoping to participate, the deadline for proposals is June 10 (please follow the instructions in the Call for Papers)! So far, the seminar participants include three invitees from Hungary and a number of other presenters (from both Hungary and the U.S.). The full roster will be established by the end of June.

The seminar description is as follows:

What questions and problems do composers encounter when setting poetry to music? How can music enhance, transform, or distract from a poem that already stands on its own? How might the music follow or depart from the poem’s inherent rhythms and tones? How might the musical rendition become an artistic creation in its own right? This seminar will explore these and other questions in relation to a wide variety of poems and music. Papers may take one of two directions. Those analyzing others’ musical renditions of poetry should plan to present a short paper (5–10 pages), possibly with an accompanying sound recording. Those presenting their own musical renditions or poetry should play it (through or a recording or on an acoustic instrument) and then comment on it briefly. The poems considered may be in any language, but any poem not in English should be accompanied with at least a basic translation or summary. The presentations should be prepared with a general audience in mind. Composers, songwriters, musicians, poets, scholars, teachers, students, and others interested in the subject are welcome to submit proposals. (Note: This seminar is not about songwriting or poetic song verse in general; it focuses specifically on poetry set to music.)

This seminar will differ in some ways from a literature seminar in that we will spend some time listening to the musical renditions of poems (which participants will either perform or play through a recording). Also, the topic is flexible; some presenters might take it in visual and other directions. I am eager to see what proposals come in.

I am honored that the three featured guests at the Pilinszky event in March will be the featured guests in the seminar as well! Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla, and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will all be presenting; they all won Petőfi Literary Fund grants to cover the trip. In addition, Gergő and Sebő (the Platon Karataev duo) will be performing at Cafe Nine in New Haven on October 23. We also plan to hold an event in NYC featuring Csenger as well as the duo. (We will have more details once they exist.)

The ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) “seeks to promote excellence in literary criticism and scholarship, and works to ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments. We encourage the reading and writing of literature, criticism, and scholarship, as well as wide-ranging discussions among those committed to the reading and study of literary works.”

I have attended ALSCW annual conferences in Worcester, Nashville, Dallas, and DC. They are not only interesting but lots of fun. I have held and participated in numerous seminars (sometimes three different seminars in a given conference) and especially love the rich range of topics, the geniality, the participants’ willingness to hear contrasting views and approaches. Also, the ALSCW supports poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers through grants, prizes, and publications; the poetry and other readings at the conferences are generally superb. And let us not forget the Saturday night banquet, where the conference comes to a jovial close (there is an ALSCW Council meeting on Sunday morning, but otherwise no conference activities). I am especially excited about this year’s location, since Yale is my triple alma mater (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and I spent about fifteen years in New Haven all together (including two years from 2019 to 2011, when I wrote my first book, Republic of Noise).

This year’s conference has many other exciting seminars and panels as well, on topics ranging from Proust to Ulysses to “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture” to “Figures of Civil War” to “The Art of Confession” to “Aesthetics of the Sublime in Japanese Literary Arts.” And it will be our first conference since 2019, since we had to cancel twice because of Covid. Many thanks to David Bromwich, the president of the ALSCW; Ernie Suarez, the executive director; conference committee member Rosanna Warren, and others for bringing this to pass. While nothing is certain until it actually happens, this conference will take place unless a large and unforeseen obstacle arises. It is now only five months away.

Photo of Yale’s Harkness Tower by Chris Randall.

Folyosó, Contrariwise, and Whimsy

In the Second Anniversary Issue of Folyosó, which came out yesterday, there is a section of short pieces inspired by Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (an excerpt of which the students read in class). That is, the pieces use the phrase “trout fishing in America” in any way they please: to refer to an object, an action, a place, a person, a concept, or something indeterminate. It’s one of the most peculiar assignments I have given, but the results are delightful. The students understood the possibilities and took them in all sorts of directions.

Here is Hédi Szabó’s “A Good Feeling” in full:

The sunshine was lighting up the whole coffee shop. Delightful weather like this brings an awesome mood to everyone. This morning, our coffee shop was completely full of people who just wanted to enjoy what a lovely time we were having. Everyone was sitting outside the cafe bar. We had a busy morning. Just brew and brew the dark caffeine-full drink, we haven’t got a calm three minutes. But of course this is what we love the most. For a minute I just thought about how I’m living the life that I’ve always imagined for myself. I was deep in my thoughts when suddenly I realized somebody had come up to the counter. For a moment I felt a bit embarrassed, because I didn’t know how long she had been waiting for me. With a smile, I asked what she wanted to drink. She told me she wanted to order a drink which was suitable for “trout fishing in America.” At first, I thought I had heard it incorrectly. But she repeated it. I started to panic a little because I started to overthink it. Is this a phrase that I don’t know? Is she kidding me? Is she just bad at English? Everyone could have easily said about me that I was really confused. So fortunately, she quickly explained it to me. Trout fishing in America is a feeling you get when you are happy for no reason. Nothing special has happened to you, you just have the feeling your life is good the way it is. You can literally smile because you are satisfied with things around you at the moment you are in. After that guest, my life changed, to put it bluntly. Every time I feel unreasonably happy, I say I’m feeling “trout fishing in America.” I wish for everyone to feel “trout fishing in America” more often.

I think back on Contrariwise and its beginnings. Eight years ago we celebrated the first issue with a whimsical event at Word Up Community Books in Washington Heights, NYC; the celebration included readings, “empirical Shakespearean experiments,” spontaneous jokes, surprises, moments of solemnity, a song, and even a cake with the image of the journal on its surface.

Perhaps there’s a common thread here. I think most people would call me a serious person, but I never saw a contradiction between seriousness and playfulness. Or rather, I think they need each other. One of the reasons that I didn’t go into academia was that in academic settings, playfulness, when it did occur, was so contained, cautious, and tame (with just a few exceptions). People weren’t willing to risk their professional image by being wholeheartedly silly. But silliness requires full spirit. It loses life when reduced to a limp chuckle. Now, I am not silly most of the time, nor is Folyosó. But Folyosó makes room for silliness, and I hope it always will. The same goes for Contrariwise.

Silliness of a certain kind can make room for a greater seriousness. Letting yourself play with possibilities, you sometimes hit upon something nontrivial.

There is so much unstated pressure, not only in academia but elsewhere, to be one thing or another: silly or serious, academic or non-academic, happy or sad, progressive or conservative, etc. I have never fit, or wanted to fit, such limiting classifications, and I challenge them without even thinking about it. It’s important to know that you don’t have to be or do just one thing.

As so often happens in the morning, I suddenly have to hurry, so that will be all.

Three Upcoming Events for “Always Different”

What better place to start than at the school where the translator and poet are colleagues, and where the director, librarian, and others have eagerly offered to support the event? On Tuesday, May 24, the school library will host the first launch event for Always Different, Gyula’s poetry collection Mindig más in my English translation, published by Deep Vellum in April 2022. This has special meaning for me, because if it hadn’t been for the school, I might not have met Gyula in the first place or embarked on the translation of his poems. Also, early in my second year at Varga, before I had even started the translations, one of my students brought up Gyula’s literary events. “He brings writers to talk to us; it’s really great,” he said. “Sándor Jászberényi came to talk to us. Do you know him? You should read him; he’s really interesting.” I started coming to those events, which opened up into others. So in several ways, this is where it started.

The second event will be on June 8, during Book Week, at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library here in Szolnok that hosts and supports so many projects, including the Shakespeare festival that we held for the first time this year). Marianna Fekete will be our beszélgetőtárs (“talking partner”—that is, the person who interviews us). This, too, is a great honor for me; I have attended and participated in many Verseghy Library events, but this one stands out in all sorts of ways.

The third will be on June 25, at the evocative and cozy Nyitott Műhely in Buda. I first went there in February for an event featuring Csenger Kertai and the pianist Loránt Péch. I loved the event and the place. I started dreaming about having an event there one day. Now it is happening, and Csenger will be our beszélgetőtárs.

There will be still more events for the book over the coming months—online events, U.S. events, and others—but this is an exciting beginning. Details for the second two events are forthcoming, but in short: the one at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár will begin at 5 p.m., and the one at the Nyitott Műhely at 6.

“This place of quiet fixity”

Nicole Waldner’s tribute to János Pilinszky, published in Agenda Poetry in April 2022, deserves to be read far and wide: as the tribute that it is, as an introduction to Pilinszky and his translators, as a bracing commentary for those more familiar with his work, and as a piece of outstanding and urgent writing. With the author’s permission, I uploaded it to the “Straight Labyrinth” Pilinszky event website.

I don’t want to summarize it; it’s short enough that it can be read on its own terms without any preludes. I quoted from it a few days ago and am still thinking about that quote. But I do want to reflect a little on the phrase “a place of quiet fixity” (which appears in the final sentence of the first paragraph). Here is some of the larger context:

It was not Pilinszky’s anti-fascist stance to which the Communists objected; it was his Catholicism. Born and raised in a middle-class, intellectual, religious family, Pilinszky retained a lifelong relationship with the church, writing and editing for the small Catholic periodicals that just barely managed to survive the Communist era. Pilinszky’s Catholicism was both intimate and intimately bound up in sacrifice, suffering, responsibility and atonement. It is from this place of quiet fixity that Pilinszky’s poetry was born, and it influenced all of his existential and poetic choices.

“Quiet fixity,” in Pilinszky’s case, is anything but static; with its focus on the motions of the soul, it allows those motions to occur in the first place. (These are my thoughts, not those of the article.) Such fixity challenges and threatens us today just as it did the Hungarian Communist government, though differently. In our everyday lives, we are told that we should be visible, public, bustling around, plugged in, doing this and that, reacting to everything around us, and responding immediately to messages—a state of being that prevents not only introspection, but a deeper questioning of the world itself. This lie has social, economic, technological, and political layers, which combine and twist around us. A “place of quiet fixity” breaks the rules and calls out the deception. It is also much harder than running around.

But the phrase can also be misunderstood (or at least taken in different ways). To understand what Waldner means by it in reference to Pilinszky, read the entire essay.

Hiding Places (new poem)

Hiding Places

Diana Senechal


Everyone who knows you knows
your downhill slope: your poetry reading
in the wind, pages flying, you not knowing
your own poems, so after a few vain dashes
after the leaves, you cut it short, sorrying
sheepishly like so many other times, yet
we told you it was great, because it really
was: those three minutes or so when you
seized a form and vice versa, the bright
brief grip of eyes, words, and wind.
We believe in those three minutes, even now
that they have pared themselves down
to two and a half—even there we glean
a holy poverty in what must be the worst
torque of despair: watching yourself flee from
your own soul, unable to chase yourself
through that elusive tube. “We,” I say,
but the crowds have dwindled as well,
down to the few wild-haired ones you long
ago wrote off as old hat. So you leave
us behind and slink into cooler throngs,
who have no clue how this will all fly
apart and where no one expects you
to be gifted or even good. Smoky blue air,
comfort of nobodyness. I saw you there
one evening—finding solace there too—
and left you alone, didn’t even tap my feet
in time with yours, waited until you had gone
and come from the bar before buying
my next beer, because, illusion or not,
it is the sense of something in common
that swells up in me like a psalm, so that I
too have leaves slipping from me, I too
chase them on a lark, then call it off,
stop still, and let the praise hail down
on me, pelting my pate. It’s a good feeling,
and if it wounds, I slink away to my den.
Praised, you sang, praised be the hiding places.

Image: Imprint Piano, by Kelsey Hochstatter.

On Reading a Lot or a Little

I read a lot on the one hand and very little on the other. That is, I am always immersed in a text, be it a Torah portion, a poem I am translating, a poem I am not translating, a literary work I am teaching, a song I am listening to again and again, or something I am rereading. But I am not one of those people who devour books. I am woefully behind with books I have been wanting to read, books given to me, books I have been planning to reread. Some of them I get to more quickly than others, but some have been sitting on my shelf for years. It would be great to read more of them, but I don’t read fast. That said, I am glad that they are there; it is important to me to have books to reach for. As a result of moving to Hungary, I have pared my book collection way down, but even so, there’s enough here for a lifetime.

An interesting thing I noticed when deciding which books to keep: the poetry, fiction, and drama have endured far longer than most of the nonfiction. Unfortunately, a lot of nonfiction books (for instance, books about education) fizzle out; after one time through, there’s really no reason to return to them again, except for reference. There are exceptions—books with exceptionally compelling writing or interesting topics—but very few people treat nonfiction writing as an art. Not so with good fiction, poetry, drama; they keep opening into more, and a person can come to them in seemingly infinite ways. I say “seemingly infinite” because there’s no telling whether they’re infinite or not.

There’s plenty of ephemeral fiction too, and poetry, and drama, and everything else. But in terms of what’s on my bookshelf, imaginative literature lasts longer than the rest. And there are levels of lasting.

In a tribute to János Pilinszky, just published by Agenda Poetry, Nicole Waldner writes:

In an interview about his wartime experiences, Pilinszky described the journey on the train into Germany in 1944, to the fringes of civilisation’s collapse: “I took a large pile of books with me to war. And I kept throwing them out of the railway carriage one after the other. Every book became anachronistic. But the Gospels underwent a miraculous metamorphosis.” The metamorphosis of which Pilinszky spoke was a “stripping away of lesser realities” and this stripping away, along with his determination to never look away, became his life’s mission.

I just started reading the essay but have to run out the door for the class trip. I will have more to say about it when I return and read it closely. But this passage caught my eye and mind right away. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or foolish as to compare myself to Pilinszky, but that “stripping away of lesser realities” is important to me too. Not an excuse for my reading so little, but maybe a way of thinking about reading.

Photo by Diána Komróczki.

The Past Few Weeks in a Fell Swoop

I have been so busy catching up over the past few days (with grading, projects, etc.) that I haven’t had a chance to catch up here. Even the full scope of everything that happened in my life is only a minuscule fraction of everything that happened. I have no clue about most of it all, even things happening right around me. But as far as my life goes, I’ll give a few blog-worthy updates.

In short: the Varga graduation ceremonies, or most of them (there will be a few more in June), took place in beautiful weather and exuberant, melancholic moods. There was the school serenade and the individual serenades (where students serenade individual teachers just before their last class with that person), the school graduation, and the citywide graduation, which involved a big procession around the block to the Rose Garden, where some thousand seniors let go of their balloons, all at once. Gifts were given, tears shed, words of gratitude exchanged.

My mom and stepdad visited for a whole week and had a lovely time, as did I. Lots of walks around Szolnok, delicious meals at restaurants, a delightful concert at the Tisza Mozi. They visited one of my eleventh-grade classes and got to see some of the Shakespeare performances (after the festival itself). They also attended the school serenade and the citywide graduation. It was their first time in Szolnok, and they received a wonderful impression and warm welcomes.

A project for October took definite shape, when Csenger Kertai and Gergely Balla both won grants from the Petőfi Literary Fund to present as invited guests in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music” at the ALSCW’s 25th Annual Conference, which will take place at Yale from October 20 to 23. Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will also be presenting as an invited guest (update: he also won a Petőfi Literary Fund grant). Kata Heller will be presenting as a graduate student. We will have a large Hungarian delegation and a terrific conference! While in the U.S., we will have other events as well—more about that soon.

And then the books finally arrived—my translation, published by Deep Vellum, of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más. We have now started to plan book release events here in Hungary. My trip to the U.S. this summer will be fairly short, just 10 days—so I won’t have any events there. But we might have an international online event, and in any case we intend to have live events in both Szolnok and Budapest.

I have some projects in the works: two translated manuscripts, soon going out as book proposals, and some stories that have been floating around and getting highly complimentary, highly personalized rejections from the editors-in-chief of top journals…. I know that some of these stories will make it into print, and new ones will too, but I need to give them time and thought again. Speaking of writing, I am very proud that The Continental Literary Magazine published my essay on Cz.K. Sebő’s album. Since writing the essay, I have come to hear the album in still new ways, but that is what writing and listening can do. A friend said that my essay seems to be listening to the reader. I like that idea.

And there have been concerts: an absolutely beautiful Árstíðir/Platon Karataev concert at the KOBUCI, where my joy can be seen in this audience photo (taken by Tibor Kristóf Fekete). I think this was during Platon Karataev’s encore, during their cover of VHK’s “Halló mindenség,” but I could be wrong. Next week, I get to attend both a Cz.K. Sebő concert and a Galaxisok concert; the following week, Cataflamingo, whom I haven’t heard in a while; and the following week, Grand Bleu and Cappuccino Projekt (together in the same evening).

This is why I am not looking to add activities to my life. I have so much going on and need to think and rest too. Not only think and rest, but exercise; I badly need to return to running and biking. With vigorous exercise, I get a lot less tired in the evenings, but it has been hard to work it in. I love the long bike rides for the kind of thinking, endurance, and relaxation that they allow, not to mention exploration of the countryside. Two graduating students gave me a fantastic gift: a ticket to a bike tour around Balaton (where I have not been yet). I plan to schedule that as soon as possible, and to find a time to go up to Zemplén too.

But tomorrow we go on a class trip (with 11.C) to Sopron and then Austria! It’s just an overnight trip, but we have a lot packed into it, and I look forward to riding (by bus) through the hills.

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it, and even with that, I left a lot out.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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