Publications, Honors, and Things

Sometimes I forget that this has been a prolific time. But it has been, and there’s a lot more coming this year and next, I hope. Along these lines, a few updates:

I have the honor of being invited to speak as a guest lecturer on October 26, 2021, in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series. The other sessions are led by Frederick Turner (July 27), Sarah Cortez (August 31), and Dana Gioia (September 28). These sessions are open to the public (with registration in advance); the fee for each session is $10. I will be reciting and speaking about my poetry, the poetry of others, and a translation or two.

My translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Scissors” was published in the Summer 2021 issue (Volume 62, Issue 2) of The Massachusetts Review; this particular issue is devoted to poetry, and it’s beautiful! You can order a copy here.

My essay “Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dissenting Opinion in the Classroom” will be published by Literary Imagination in the fall and is already available online (to those who have access). This is part of a special issue, which you can order with a subscription to Literary Imagination (which includes membership in the ALSCW). I think it will also be available later as a single issue.

And now for a few reminders:

Gyula Jenei’s collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, in my English translation, will be published by Deep Vellum in February 2022—not so far away any more! You can pre-order a copy.

My poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist in June. Read it all the way through, if you do read it; it’s saying something different from what it might seem to be saying at first. A reader wrote, “That’s really good. It takes seven unapologetic verses to get to the bottom of the event.” Another reader wrote, “F***ing gorgeous. Loved it.” And another: “Well, that is brilliant.”

My story “Immemorial” and my essay “I Signed to Protest the Blurring” are published in the wonderful inaugural issue of The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság, Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine. You can pick up a copy in Budapest or order one from Booksellers (just call them up).

A long, long heads-up: If all works out, in the spring of 2022 I will be hosting an online ALSCW event devoted to the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky and featuring two guests: the poet Csenger Kertai and the songwriter and musician Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly). I will interview them about Pilinszky, and then they will perform, from their own work, pieces that relate to Pilinszky in some way.

And speaking of Cz.K. Sebő, I learned a lot from recording a cello cover of his song “Out of Pressure” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed). On July 29 I re-recorded the vocals; you can find the new video here. The Hungarian word for “cover” (in this context) is “feldolgozás,” which also means “working up,” “converting.” I think of musical covers as translations of a sort. If they sound just like the original, that can be impressive, but uninteresting. For me, the interesting part of covering someone’s music is seeing what it turns into, which reveals something about what it already is.

Speaking of musical covers, I have wonderful memories of covering Marcell Bajnai’s (and his band 1LIFE’s/Idea’s) song “Maradok Ember” on cello at Varga and at the Summer Institute in Dallas two years ago. And I have started working on a musical rendition of a Sándor Weöres sonnet.

And two new translation projects are underway: of poems by Csenger Kertai and stories by Sándor Jászberényi. More about these in good time!

With all of that, I am glad to have a few more weeks of summer break but am also looking forward to the new school year. There are so many things I want to do with my classes. I hope that we will have classes in person all year long, but no matter what happens, there will be a lot to do.

“Why didn’t they just tell me that?”

I remember one day in high school—I was sixteen or seventeen—when I was discussing Oscar Wilde with an English teacher. Wilde had been one of my favorite authors since childhood; from the age of eight or nine, I had begun reading and even memorizing his plays and stories. An adult in the family had hinted to me that Wilde had gotten in trouble with the law because of his personal life, but I didn’t know what that meant. I mentioned this to my teacher, who said, “Wilde was homosexual.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t they just tell me that?” The question remained unanswered.

I got to college, where for the first time in my life I met people who were coming out as gay. The issue overwhelmed me. I had never encountered it directly before. I had no adults to talk to about it. I thought I must be gay too, that this would explain the differences I had felt for so long. In my early twenties I had a relationship with a woman (considerably older than me—I read her obituary a few years ago). Over many years, I have come to know myself as heterosexual, but this came after years of self-doubt. I wish I had had someone to discuss this issue with, in high school and later: an adult who understood something about it and who wouldn’t be hurt by my ambivalence. I needed room to think and speak, room not to feel terrible about anything I said and did. There were a few such people later on, and I am grateful for them.

I support gay rights and believe that many people, gay or not, have had some kind of attraction to the same sex. Maybe the attraction is sexual, maybe not, but homosexual attractions have existed as long as we know. At the same time, I know how difficult the subject can be for a young person, and how badly it can be mishandled. Today’s teenagers are much more aware than my generation was; through social media and popular culture they learn about things that many of us were shielded from. Many of them have strong opinions on the subject (or cluster of subjects), but they do not have a place to air these opinions without being applauded or attacked.

So Hungary’s new “anti-gay amendment,” which, among other things, prohibits the inclusion of pro-gay or pro-transgender material in classrooms with children under 18, will not accomplish what its supporters in the most generous interpretation hope to accomplish: the protection of children from pressures and ideas that they are not prepared to handle. High school students, and even younger students, are exposed to these issues anyway, through social media and their own lives.

On two occassions, my students have asked to debate the topic of gay rights, which, we found, was not the needed approach, since it made the conversation divisive and antagonistic. Nor is my classroom the place for the topic. But there are ways to discuss it calmly, in the upper high school years, ways that would help students make sense of what they already see around them and what they might be feeling. A calm, unpressured, voluntary discussion can protect young people by helping them get a footing, no matter who they are. It should probably take place in a sex education class (these do exist in Hungary) or in another context where it is understood that the discussion will take place.

One thing that doesn’t get said enough is that not all attractions are sexual or have to express themselves sexually. We live in a highly sexualized culture, on the heterosexual front as well as everywhere else. Many young people think they have to have sex to be valid at all, or to know that they are loved. But some of the most beautiful relationships in life are friendships, acquaintanceships, family relationships, mentorships, collegial relationships, or even encounters with strangers, where two people see something special in each other but also respect each other’s autonomy and privacy. Such relationships can be between people of the same sex or of different sexes, of the same age or different ages, of the same or different walks of life.

Sexual relationships are particular. They are precious but fragile, because sexual wounds go deep. It is good to protect children from such wounds, and to give them the tools to protect themselves. The best protection is to teach them to cherish themselves and their feelings for others, to recognize that feelings do not have to be sexual, and to take romantic and sexual feelings in healthy directions when the time is right. “Healthy” means true to them, true to the other person, capable of being nourished over time, and not subject to coercion. Abuse can happen in any type of relationship; it’s possible to learn to avoid abuse and to foster the good.

No one can protect another from pain; parents try to do this, but it’s futile. Pain will happen. Hearts will be broken. But if the children (or people of any age) have a footing, they can stop short of complete devastation. Conversation alone will not give them such a footing, but it can contribute. Maybe more than anyone realizes at the time.

But big discussions aside, there are other times when the topic of sexual orientation will come up. Many writers, artists, composers, and others have had same-sex attractions and relationships; this comes up in their biographies, and sometimes in their work too. It is better not to make this a taboo topic, because that will just create confusion. Just acknowledge it when it comes up; that is not propaganda.

I know that many Hungarians are worried about what they see as Western extremes of gender-fluidity, pansexuality, and so on. Even some liberals here cringe at the idea of asking young people which gender pronoun they would like to use, which they see as a fad. And I have heard young people say that they support the basic ideas behind gay rights, etc., but not to the extreme to which they are sometimes taken in the U.S.

Instead of decrying these concerns as dumb or narrow-minded (or as fronts for homophobia), one can acknowledge the importance of approaching the topic conscientiously, considerately, and sanely, in the right contexts and forums. And the dangers of just shutting it off. The world, whether internal or external, does not go away when you make it taboo.

Some of my friends might say I’m being too gentle here, too compromising. But God, gentleness is needed. People need to be able to live and find their way without getting screamed at. To hear, in a secular context, Paul Tillich’s words, “You are accepted.” That doesn’t mean we accept everything that others do or say, but we can accept who they are, who we ourselves are. It has taken me years to reach this point. I am finally here.

Gyula Jenei’s “Always Different” can be pre-ordered!

It is really coming! The publication date is still about eight months away (February 15, 2022), but Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Always Different—my English translation of his 2018 volume Mindig máscan already be pre-ordered. The book is that much closer to existence, and the listing comes with a great collection of endorsements:

“One of the great masters of Hungarian free verse.” ―Éva Bánki

“What are we looking for in our childhood when we take stock of such and such events, sins, tragedies?… A silent poet whose every word I hear.” ―Darvasi Lászó

“Real lyrical ingenuity.” ―Simon Ferenc

“One afternoon I read through Gyula Jenei’s Always Different, more than a hundred pages of poetry, and after the first poems I said to myself that yes, this is my world.” ―Fekete Vince

“The culmination of a lyrical material with a rich past.” ―Adam Sebestyén

“One of the most striking registers of Hungarian poetry of the 2000s… So naturally embraces the pulse of the Hungarian language that every memory that is expressed in them thus suddenly emerges from insignificant mundaneness and finds itself confronted with eternity.” ―Balázs Fűzfa

I got strangely emotional when I read this, because I still remember the day when I spoke to Gyula for the first time, at Varga, where we both teach. This was in September 2018, I think, or thereabouts. I had been in Hungary for almost a year at that point. I walked up to him, told him that I had memorized his poem “Belefárad,” and proceeded to recite it in what must have been quite awkward Hungarian. Around the same time, I started talking a lot with his wife, Marianna Fekete, and upon perusing their writings, I saw that I wanted to translate them both. It wasn’t just that I wanted to; it had to be done. I translated Marianna’s essay about Béla Markó’s haiku poems, and began translating Gyula’s poems from his 2018 collection Mindig más, one after another. I remember the long stretches with these poems: how I would write the first draft of the translation by hand, in a notebook, and then type out the revision. Then, after I had translated a few, Gyula, Marianna, and I would go over them.

Everything took shape from there. Literary Matters published Marianna’s essay and five of Gyula’s poems (in my translation, along with the originals); The Massachusetts Review accepted another (“Scissors,” appearing this summer); we were invited to Dallas, to be the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s 2019 Education Forum; we met Will Evans, the founder of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing the book; I worked intensively on the manuscript and submitted it in February (nearly four months ago); and now publication is underway. There’s still a lot to be done—final edits and proofreading, publicity, preparations for readings, and more—but the book is coming, and I believe it will reach many people.

ALSCW Zoom event, March 21: Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (3 p.m. EDT, 8 p.m. CET)

Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi on September 2, 2020.
From left to right on stage: Marcell Bajnai, Gábor Benő Pogány, Zsolt Bajnai.

I am excited to announce that on Sunday, March 21, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. CET), in a Zoom event hosted by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), I will be interviewing the fiction writer, journalist, and blogger Zsolt Bajnai and his son, the songwriter, musician, and university student Marcell Bajnai. After the interview, the father will read several of his stories, and the son will play his own songs in between them. A Facebook event page has been set up. Please come and invite others! Here’s the Zoom information:

Ernest F Suarez is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
https://cua.zoom.us/j/87577216462?pwd=cXNMaUhkOVRmUCs2K0pZcEJIdDQ3UT09
Meeting ID: 875 7721 6462
Passcode: 442761

The Bajnais are exceptional contributors to cultural life in Szolnok and Hungary. Zsolt’s wife, Judit Bajnai, is an editor and reporter for SzolnokTV, with a focus on culture. Her eye and ear for what is worth reporting, her interview questions, her way of engaging with the guests, and her speaking voice all contribute to making her programs enlightening and beautiful.

Judit Bajnai interviews the cellist Éva Nagyné Csontos and the actor Botond Barabás on SzolnokTV.

Kata Bajnai, Marcell’s sister, is a young playwright, actress, director, and university students. Her plays have won awards here in Szolnok and have been performed by the Varga Drama Club at venues around the city; I translated her darkly whimsical and satirical Farkasok (Wolves) with hopes that the Varga Drama Club could perform it at the Veszprém English-Language Drama Festival, but unfortunately Covid delayed those plans. Kata has a lot coming; I am eager to see what she does in the future.

Performance of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok by the Varga Drama Club at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár, June 22, 2019.
Third from left: Kata Bajnai.

The family doesn’t end there; the grandparents come to the events full of love and pride (and kindness—they have welcomed me warmly, and we sat together at the performance below), and there are other relatives I haven’t met yet.

Now for our featured guests. When I first discovered Zsolt Bajnai’s blogSzolnok—an exploration of Szolnok’s history through postcards, photographs, maps, and other artifacts—I knew I had come upon a treasure. What can you learn from a postcard? Much more than I had considered before: you can figure out when the photo was taken, what its significance was, what buildings looked like at the time, what the postcard-writer was doing, and much more. I made a practice (which has since slowed, because of the demands on my time) of reading the blog every day, as this allowed me to practice Hungarian and learn about Szolnok, both at once. Mr. Bajnai also gives (or, until Covid, gave) lectures based on his blog; people crowd into rooms at community centers, libraries, and other places to hear him speak, share memories of the past, and ask questions. Soon after finding the blog, I came upon his first two collections of fiction and started reading them. When I read “Korrupcióterápia” (“Corruption Therapy”), I knew it had to be translated. The satire is dead-on and pertinent to us all; the story has a lively rhythm and musical feel, with motifs and phrases cycling and returning. I especially enjoy hearing Mr. Bajnai read it at events, because of this and the audience’s laughter. (My translation was published a little over a year ago in The Satirist; you can read it here.) His most recent collection, Az eltűnt városháza (“The Vanished City Hall”), came out last April. Just a few days after its release (this was during the first Covid lockdown), I received a phone call from Mr. Bajnai himself. He asked what my address was, and I thought he was going to mail me the book. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and there he was on his bike, with an autographed copy in hand! That not only made my day but opened up hours of enjoyable reading. The title story tells the incredible (and fortunately fictional and satirical) story of the disappearance of Szolnok’s beautiful city hall; the events are so close to reality that, after first reading the story on his blog, I had to bicycle past the city hall to make sure it was still there.

Marcell Bajnai was my student in 2018–2019, the year when his band 1LIFE (now Idea) released their first album, Nincsen kérdés (There Is No Question). I remember when the album came out; one of my colleagues told me about it and even procured an autographed copy for me. The first listen called for many more. One tuneful, energetic, thoughtful song after another; the three band members together fill the air with sound but also know how to texture the songs so that you can hear everything. I was amazed and moved by the song “Maradok ember” (translatable as “I remain human,” “I will remain a person,” and similar variations), to the point of covering it on cello. I listened (and listen) to the band many times: on CD, at concerts, and online. In addition to being the band’s lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Marcell—currently a student of Hungarian at the Faculty of Arts of the Eötvös Loránd University, where he studies literature and linguistics—has been writing songs for years and has begun a solo project. The songs move people of many ages; they show young wisdom, courage, and a love of working with words and music together. The songs truly play, even in sadness; they take up a theme and turn it in different directions. One of my recent favorites is “dühöngő” (“raging”), which you can hear below.

People often talk about the importance of contributing to a community, but the Bajnais bring meaning and life to this concept. I could go on, but you will get to hear Zsolt and Marcell yourselves, if you attend on the 21st. I am happy and grateful that during this new lockdown—except for grocery stores and private health care, all stores and services are closed until March 22—we can come together for an interview, stories, and music. Please do join us.

Photo credits: Szolnoki Koncertek (photo of Zsolt Bajnai’s photography opening at the Tisza Mozi), Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (photo of the curtain call of Kata Bajnai’s Farkasok).

Update: The event went wonderfully; thanks to everyone who came, and thanks for the many enthusiastic comments we received afterward! Also, on a related subject, my translation of Zsolt Bajnai’s story “Az eltűnt városháza” (“The Vanished City Hall”) will be published on the Asymptote Blog on April 6!

Légszomj (diary-poems by Gyula Jenei, art by György Verebes)

Légszomj (Shortness of Breath), a pandemic diary of verse by Gyula Jenei and graphics by György Verebes, came out in mid-December, but since I was finishing up the manuscript of poetry translations and reading a couple of other books,it took me a little while to begin reading. When I did, it took me in with its humor, deadpan truth, terse comments on human nature and death, and details and places, many of them familiar to me. I loved it and read it in a few sittings, looking up only a few words in the dictionary. The art is dreamy (in a nightmarish sort of way) and dancelike.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, while this book is topical and timely to some extent, I believe it will outlive the pandemic, assuming the latter fades away. It’s about what we are going through now, but it is full of grim, matter-of-fact, resilient humor. It doesn’t leave the mind easily, and I am confident that it will continue to be pulled out of the bookshelf over the years. Along these lines, I think someone, or many people, should translate it into other languages. Not in a rush, but in good time, with care.

The first entry, “Day 1 / March 11” begins, “azon nevettek a feleségével, meséli ismerősöm, / hogy tegnap este a bevásárlóközpontban / miképp óvatoskodtak az emberek.” (“My acqaintance tells me that he and his wife laughed / over how, last night at the mall, / the people were so cautious around each other.”) The acquaintance goes on to describe how, if one person blew his nose, the faces of those around him would purse up; the mouths would get narrow. And the narrator laughs too, imagining these people, and imagining himself too; and then, at the end of the poem, the three of them (acquaintance, acquaintance’s wife, narrator) are laughing with self-abandon, to the point where they no longer know who is imagining whom, just that “lepkeként verdes bennünk / a szorongás” (“anxiety is beating inside us / in the manner of a moth”).

The fifth entry, “Day 6 / March 16,” describes a faculty meeting that I also attended. I remember exactly the scene described; a few people in the room were coughing, and you could sense others looking nervously around. In the poem, someone starts to say, “we will begin our next meeting with….” and the narrator whispers to his neighbor, “standing in a moment of silence,” and then, in the poem, compares this to the moment at a burial when the priest calls on the people to pray for our brother who will be next to go, and then he (the narrator) wonders who they will stand in memory of at the next meeting; and what if he is the one?

I have a few favorite poems in the book, including the two above; “Day 27 / April 6,” a winding reflection on how power and vulnerability change people, but not down to the essence; how humans remain more or less the same, and the vulnerable are not more virtuous than the powerful; and “Day 31 / April 10,” about the profusion of videos of quarantine poetry readings on the internet, and how the narrator really doesn’t enjoy them, doesn’t enjoy readings in person either, except for a few, and how he makes a video himself at the library’s request, after quite a bit of trial and error. But the last and longest entry, that of November 2, is my favorite of all, I think, with its allusion to Sophocles’s “Ode To Man” (in Antigone) and its commentary on Covid vogues:

az elején sokan mondogatták, divat volt mondogatni:
a járvány után nemcsak más,
de jobb lesz a világ.
emberibb.
mintha lehetne mérni a jóságot mérlegen vagy centivel.
pedig a görögöktől is tudhatjuk, az ember nem jó,
csak csodálatos.
más fordításban: a sok szörnyű csodafajzat között
a legszörnyebb.

In informal translation:

in the beginning many people kept saying, it was in vogue to say:
after the pandemic, the world will be
not just different, but better.
more humane.
as though you could measure goodness on a scale or with a ruler.
but we can know from the greeks that a human is not good,
just wondrous.
in a different translation: among the many terrible wonders
the most terrible.

The art is integral to this volume; the figures–humans, lungs, gestures?–can be seen breathing, imagining, playing, huddling, extending an oversized hand, lying down. Look closely, and the relations between the pictures and the poems start to come through. One can read and enjoy the book in many ways: in sequence or not, quickly or slowly, silently or out loud, with or without a mask. But however read, it will provoke recognition of one kind or another.

A Colorful February

The days have been muddy and rainy, not as in the photo above (which I took a week ago), but still beautiful in an indoor way. The Orwell project—in which my students in Class 10.C joined Professor Attridge’s tenth-grade class at Columbia Secondary School for a series of joint online discussions of 1984—went so well that we decided to have an online gathering, which took place yesterday evening and was great fun.

Then this morning I had the honor of announcing the results of Folyosó’s first international contest. The decision was extremely difficult, because the ten finalists were so good. There were five of us on the jury: my colleagues Judit Kéri, Edit Göröcs, Anikó Bánhegyesi, Nándor Szűcs, and myself. The winners are as follows:

  • Grand Prize: Bernadett Sági (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Virtual or Reality
  • First Place: Deniz Pala (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Stronger Links
  • Second Place: Gergely Sülye (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), In an Arm’s Reach, and Kázmér Kaposvári (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Salvation or the End
  • Third Place: Defne Lal Koçer (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Life Consists of Choices, and Lilla Kassai (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Bringing Dragons to Life
  • Honorable Mention: Lili Forgács (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Language-Capsule; Ahmet Yavuz Kaya (Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie, Istanbul), Muter3000; Eszter Aletta Hevesi (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), The Portal; and Alexandra Klaudia Süveges (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok), Camping with a Little Bit of Magic.

All of these pieces, along with many others, will be published in the Winter 2020-2021 issue of Folyosó, which appears on Monday.

That has to be all for now; much more is coming soon. I’ll just add that even in the rain, things can be colorful, outside as well as in.

Done and Not Done

With writing, you get used to not being done. You have deadlines and stages, and you work toward them, making your text as perfect as possible, but you know there will be more. Still, I am proud that my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different) are now a complete manuscript, which I have reviewed carefully and will send to the publisher, Deep Vellum, tomorrow. The book should appear within the next year; if all goes well, it might even come out in late 2021. This has been a project of more than two years; over those two years, my Hungarian has taken shape, my familiarity with the poems has deepened, and Marianna, Gyula, and I have had many conversations about the book. Their help was tremendous; they reviewed each of my translations, of all forty-eight poems, sometimes in several stages, and sent me comments; generally the corrections and suggestions were few but essential. A particular event turned these translations toward a book: our visit in October 2019 to the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, where we were the featured guests of the Cowan Center’s Education Forum, and where we met Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum.

So the manuscript is done, but that’s not the end; the publisher may request or make edits, and there may be several stages of review. Still, the book is much closer than it was, and I think people will love the poems in English, as many have so far. Five have been published in Literary Matters; another one will appear soon in The Massachusetts Review.

The picture above appeared in a May 2019 post, “A Perfect Imperfection“; I took it at a local cafe, near school, where I used to go to work on the translations (on Wednesdays, when I had a substantial break during the day). It was usually quiet there, so I could sink into the poems with no distractions. The following year, my schedule changed, so the work was relegated to evenings and weekends (and picked up pace, too). This fall was the real crunch; I translated two poems per week, and then even more at the end. But it also grew slower and more leisurely, since the basic translating had grown easier and I could focus on details.

A book is not a book until it is, so there’s still a ways to go. But existence comes in degrees, and in that respect, the book’s has gotten warmer.

A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well. (Update: The Bay Area Book Festival kindly sent me the link to the video they made of the talk, so I will be able to hear it after all.)

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

Inside and Outside

With the online teaching, I spend most of the day inside, but try to get outside at some point to run an errand or take a walk. Today I might be able to go on a bike ride, if I get the essential things done in the morning. Some combination of inside and outside is important, but the mixture varies from person to person. In July 2012, my dear friend Cybèle Troyan walked and biked with her husband and daughters from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (a distance of 1,500 kilometers); her husband, Bennett Voyles, wrote a book (which I highly recommend) about their pilgrimage. On another occasion, without their daughters, Cybèle and Ben walked from Berlin to Rome. Such a long walk is out of the question for me because of the sun exposure, but I admire it and the love of the outdoors that comes with it. There’s an indoor aspect to such a walk, too; you immerse yourself in the outdoors and are therefore inside it.

I have been thinking about the inside and outside in writing and other art; when and how to speak without reservation, and when and how to hold back. Or what the “inside” and “outside” even are. There is no absolute answer, but I have been influenced recently by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind: an Unruly Living (about which I wrote the other day) and Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I had the fortune of watching online.

Last night I revised a sonnet I had written over three years ago; I realized that it was too enclosed and didn’t end with what it wanted to say. I changed just three lines of it, and there it was.

At other times obliqueness is not only necessary but truthful; the “direct” our “outward” truth will miss the point somehow. Instead, you need to wind around dimly in the dark.

David Brooks wrote a column titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.” While his advice seems reasonable, I find the formula irritating (some magic number, a list, and an assumption that people need this advice in the first place); moreover, I question the concept of “deep” conversations to begin with. There’s nothing inherently superior about discussing one’s private fears and hopes, or the meaning of life, nor is this necessarily deep. What I have learned over time, sometimes the hard way, is that both people have to want to take part in the conversation, whatever it is about. A sustained, voluntary conversation, even on a supposedly superficial topic, contains much more, and goes much farther, than a “deep” unwanted dialogue.

Back in the days when I used to communicate a lot by email (my emails now are occasional, not regular, except when related to work), I found it hard to sense the other person. Some of my correspondences were one-sided, but I would not realize this for a long time, and when I did, it was too late; in a few cases, the person had gotten deeply annoyed. Our current forms of communication run the opposite risk. They are too fragmented. I often can’t stand them. Sometimes people, out of the blue, will send me a link on Messenger without telling me what it is. I just ignore it, since it could contain a virus. But that’s the sort of thing that goes on.

What, then, if you are not having a conversation, but instead writing for readers, whoever they might be? Something similar still applies. You have to consider the person who might be reading. You don’t know who it is, but you have to uphold this person’s trust, by making the reading worthwhile, helping the reader where necessary, assuming intelligence (on both ends), and letting the work take shape between the two of you. It will always be between two.

The other night I took a walk and saw this tree against the sky. Both tree and sky bringing each other out, after dark. Inside and outside, surface and depth. If you go far enough, the outside becomes inside, as in Robert Frost’s “Come In.”

So no, I am not after “deep” conversations, since the sound of a car driving through puddles can surprise me with its depth, bringing back sounds of old rains, of days when I sat inside, watching the evening, watching my words stumble on the line of what they want to say.

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

When looking online for Frost’s “Come In,” I found David Sutton’s website and began reading his poems. An exciting discovery.

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

“It is not easy to become a person”

This isn’t a book about the wind; it’s wind about the book, whirling around the words, through the the spaces. It’s a book that brings you into the wind, the wind that messes up your plans and allows you to relate to others through “deep politeness.” It is The Wind: An Unruly Living by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. When reading it, I had the sense of coming upon a secret treasure, a wisdom quietly waiting but also singing, speaking, bellowing. Taking different forms, circumventing.

I knew the author long ago, when I was a graduate student at Yale and he was an undergraduate. Some of our conversations have stayed with me over the years; one in particular had such an effect on my thinking and understanding that I have returned to it in my mind many times. But I have not seen or spoken with him for over twenty-five years.

The book is not a philosophical tract, though it draws on the Stoics and other philosophers, but an exploration in intertwining forms, like wind itself–ruminating exposition and questioning, journal, poetry, contrapuntal texts, tilted text, etymologies, a passage that you have to turn upside down to read. It is not a self-help book; it offers no steps to follow, no pat answers. It does not sell anything, and in that way it stands out. That is at its heart; the book tears up our notions of self-possession and throws them into the wind. Why do we insist that we possess ourselves? What damage does this insistence do?

But it moves in a direction, even with its twists and loops; by the end I understand something I had not understood before. Something comes together that I had been puzzling over for years. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I will say a little about it right now. The book explains that it is not only possible, but essential to be practical in a true relation with another. We often think of practicality as self-serving, as a way of getting what we want. But to be considerate of another (and the author points out the Latin root of “considerate,” sidus, sideris, which means “star, heavenly body”), one must be practical as a human being: one must have the practices of listening, speaking, circumventing; treating people as people, not as problems or obstacles.

The book is more optimistic than I am about community. Community often makes me wary, so often have been the times that I have felt stifled in it. The best communities, in my experience, are those that do something together, but where the others also let each other be. A community must have respect for solitude, and not many do.

So I do not “agree” with everything in the book, and on the one hand, that isn’t the point; it isn’t a position paper. On the other hand, the disagreement is exactly the point; and at the risk of another little spoiler, I will say that toward the end, the book talks about how disagreement is essential to relation. It gives the two people something to consider together, something to work through. This does not mean that they will come to an agreement; who knows? But at the very least, they will come to understand each other better.

I used to have trouble stating my disagreement with people. I would just stay quiet or nod, since the disagreement felt so disruptive. Over time, I have become more outspoken, but I still have trouble sometimes, in the moment, saying “I don’t see things that way.” I might just let the matter go, which also means, to a degree, letting the relationship go. Two people cannot know each other if they do not let themselves disagree.

And so, as the book reminds us, “it is not easy to become a person.” Things like disagreement can take a lifetime.

Having read The Wind once, I like to pick it up and open it anywhere and read. It is that kind of book; once you know it, you can play with the sequence. The writing is so clear and bold that something will rise up from any passage, something that didn’t before.

I will write to Jeremy one of these days, probably soon. But what a great conversation, right here, with and within this book.

  • “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

  • 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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories