Two Reviews of “Always Different”

When Gyula Jenei’s Always Different came out (my first Hungarian-English translation in book form), I was surprised at first by the silence. How could there be no response? But I remember, again and again, that these things take time. Serious reading, any kind of reading, takes time. Writing thoughts about a poetry collection takes time. So I am honored that two wonderful reviews have appeared so far.

The first, written by Claudia MacMillan (Allums) and posted on Amazon, brings out something of the essence of the collection in just a few words.

There is an urgency pulsing under each of Jenei’s poems here, something compelling one forward into the volume. Simple, unflinching words that are also somehow tender create a tone of wistful hopefulness that never fully reconciles itself into hope, although it is far from despair. I love this book of clear-sighted descriptions, lyrical musings that invite one in with a medias res feeling, the “forty years” refrain providing a lens from which to consider befores and afters strange yet familiar to us all. Jenei’s use of unpretentious language and his dogged attention to small details, people, and things remind me that a poet notices what the rest of us do not, until he show us. The title is a little poem itself. Thank you Gyula and Diana, for this lyrical retreat!

The second review, written by Christie Goodwin and published yesterday in Hungarian Literature Online, weaves through the volume with humble, brilliant insight. As I read it, I thought at moments that I was dreaming. Thank you. I quote from the end:

“Homeroom Teacher” seems to offer a metaphoric key to understanding the poet’s unraveling sense of memory and identity. He looks through the old photographs and notices “and only a few pictures identify me / as the one who took the reel”. He says that “as for the view, / i try to edit it. to the extent possible”. He does the same in his poems – presenting a picture, a shifting and “vague” one, punctuated by emotion and sharp imagistic moments. The poet seems to accept the discrepancy between the child and adult voice – his own unreliability – “i still imagine a future that will not come to pass. but forty years later the lack of it will no longer trouble me – slowly i get used to myself.” This fractured, heartbreaking collection makes us consider what and how we remember. Perhaps, as Jenei says in his poem “Passageways to God” we will encounter memory in a similar way:  “afraid of the depths” and yet unable to get our “fill of / the view”. 

Update: A wonderful review by T.M. has appeared on Amazon.

Always Different by Gyula Jenei, translated from Hungarian into English by Diana Senechal, offers a form of time travel. The speaker has more life behind him than ahead, yet he relates his childhood not as someone looking back so much as someone who has reentered the time before and now marches forward again through the years, with the dual consciousness of child and adult. The descriptions are rich with sensory detail, first making the mundane come alive—we are fully on the street with him, and in the barn, and at school—and then, in piercing flashes, revealing the turbulent emotional depths below. Children, experiencing so many dynamics for the first time, often don’t know how to interpret what happens to and around them. The adult comes back and, with careful attention, can sift through “last year’s leaf layer, the one before last year,/ the thick, fat litterfall may show its year-rings like/ an archaeological find, but below it the earth may stay/ slimy, wet and cold, with disgusting crawlers, worms,/ earthworms, cocooned lives, deaths.” The verb tenses are often future or conditional, leaving the reader at the precipice—in digging through the past, some outcomes will surely happen again, but changes are also possible; the meaning we make each time we touch a memory is always different.

Looking Back on My Books

Twice, while in NYC, I left a teaching job to write a book. Teaching was too consuming to allow for that kind of writing in spare time; each time, I needed to focus fully on the book. It’s different here in Hungary; teaching here is consuming too, but not nearly as hectic or exhausting. Anyway, in both cases I left the job completely; I didn’t keep any benefits. It was impractical, but it was the best decision for me. Thanks to the second departure (though I had no idea this would happen at the time), I was able to come to Hungary. At that point the book was almost done, and I was ready for a new plunge.

The first book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (2012) came partly out of my experience teaching in NYC schools, where teachers were expected to incorporate group work in the lesson regardless of the topic or content. The insistence on small group work (in an already noisy environment) came at the expense of sustained thought, dialogue, introspection. The group emphasis was apparent not only in schools, but in the surrounding “culture” (I put it in quotes because it’s a tricky word) and social media. The book also took a closer look at solitude and its complexities, with forays into Petrarch, Sophocles, Newton. In that sense the book came out of something longer and larger: a life of involvement with language and literature, a life of solitude (in many senses of the word) and companionship.

Some people complained that it was too much about education; others complained about the literary and other digressions. Still others complained that it wasn’t like Susan Cain’s Quiet. (Why on earth should one book be like another one?) But overall, it found a wonderful audience and has been quoted in books and articles that I respect. And when I return to it, I am surprised by its details and depth. Work, thought, and life went into it.

With my second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, something went wrong with the marketing and readership. In some ways (though not all) I think this was the better book: tighter, punchier, more concise, but also long-lasting. Unfortunately it reached the wrong readers before it reached the right ones. The initial reader reviews were written by people who clearly hadn’t read even the introduction, or if they had, they had skimmed through it, making their own judgments instead of paying attention to what I was saying. Here’s the full text of a review I received on Goodreads:

When I saw this title on NetGalley I felt it my duty to read this and write the slangiest, most sarcastic review possible. Unfortunately, Diana Senechal has sucked the passion out of my plans. Mind Over Memes is basically a snooty English teacher’s collected opinions on how young people do, and especially how they say everything wrong.

I do have to emphasize that the author is thoroughly learned in what she is writing, and the passion of hers is clear. The problem is that this comes across as incoherent babbling to me; pretentious, holier-than-thou, grammar nazi, babbling.

There are so many tangents and grammatical anecdotes that I really struggled to keep focused on the topic at hand. And really, none of these anecdotes seemed to have any relation to her points. Also, to be frank, this book made me feel like trash, like stupid, illiterate, memeing trash. Here I am, the Meme Queen, crying as I reign over my garbage domain. I try to see what’s up in the adult world and I get slapped in the face. God, this book is depressing.

First of all, the book isn’t about young people or young people’s language at all! All the words and phrases I take up are used by people across the generations. When I did bring up young people in the first chapter, it was sympathetically. I told a story (imaginary, but based on a true story I had been told) about a summer internship interview where high school students had to summarize a project in thirty seconds. I thought this was unfair to those who could not express themselves quite so quickly or glibly. The pressure to be glib is hard on the young and old alike, but maybe especially the young, who are competing for college admission or for their first jobs.

Second, the book isn’t telling anyone, young or old, what they are doing wrong. The point is to call certain words and phrases into question: to think about where they come from and what they mean. There’s no finger-pointing, no English-teacher snootiness here. And for God’s sake, there’s no grammar-Nazi babbling. As for digressions, the chapters are tightly structured and focused, with a little bit of whimsy too.

Third, the review doesn’t mention anything specific about the book. Not a quote, or a detail, or even an overview. What kind of review is that?

So what went so badly wrong? First, there was the problem of the title. I had wanted it to be Take Away the Takeaway, but the editor said the marketing team found that too vague (and subject to misinterpretation in the UK—not that it has received much distribution there). My next choice was Verbal Resistance, which almost made it, but at the eleventh hour the marketing team rejected that as well. They finally settled (with my halfhearted consent) on Mind over Memes, with that lumbering, confusing subtitle (Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies). There are two problems with this: first, the book has nothing to do with internet memes; second, the subtitle gives the impression that a lot of chiding and correcting will be going on. In fact, it seems that the book will be criticizing passive listening and toxic talk themselves. (Not so: one chapter questions whether listening is passive at all, and another questions the overuse of the term “toxic.”)

Another problem was the write-up on the back cover. The endorsements are great. As for the book summary, I wrote the initial version, but then someone on the publisher’s end changed some of the wording. In particular, this inserted sentence could throw the reader off: “Too often our use of language has become lazy, frivolous, and even counterproductive.” This really does sound snooty, old, and weary; it doesn’t convey the tone or content of the book.

Still another problem, I think, had to do with where the galleys were sent for review. NetGalley is not the best place for this; reviewers receive a free advance copy in return for the review but are not bound by any obligation to be thoughtful or even to read the book carefully. The book did receive thoughtful reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Quartz, as well as a superbly insightful review on Amazon by Dana Mackenzie, but beyond those, a few nice comments elsewhere, and the dismissive reviews mentioned earlier, there was silence. I think people were steered away from the book before finding out what it was. (The book events are another matter; I had lovely events for both books, at bookstores and at the Dallas Institute.)

Both books have their flaws. Sometimes I get so carried away with a turn of phrase that I don’t realize how silly it sounds in context. If I were to go back, I would change some of the ornate language to something simpler. Also, Republic of Noise has too many quotes; I could have relied more on my own language and observations. But on the whole, both books are highly readable, and the subject matter is at least as relevant as it was then.

My point is not to complain about the publisher (in both cases, Rowman & Littlefield, though the first was specifically R&L Education). They accepted both manuscripts without the intervention of an agent, they were very nice and responsive along the way, and I continue to receive small royalty checks. Nor do I think I could have insisted on a different title (I tried hard) or back cover description; those are areas where the publisher does have the last word. But I think one lesson to learn from this is that the publisher and author must have a common understanding of what the book is. If there’s a misunderstanding, then the publisher will be pulling to present it in one way and the author in another.

I shouldn’t forget, though, what an accomplishment it was to write and publish these books. So many people talk about writing books, or start writing them and never finish. I know that I can pull off something like this and will rearrange my life as needed in order to do so. Also, both books opened up new eras of my life. The first book led to the Hiett Prize and a long association with the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; the second, in some ways, brought me to Hungary. Who knows what the next book will be and where it will lead.

Yes, indeed, what about the next book? Well, there has been a book of translations, Always Different: Poems of Memory (Deep Vellum, 2022) which was every bit as big a project as these two books. My next book or two will likely be translations too. But then what, after that? I have been submitting stories for publication; if a few get taken up by journals, then I may be able to publish a collection as well. Poems, too, come now and then, and they are getting better. I also have an idea for a nonfiction book, but as with my previous books, I don’t want to talk about it until I have at least a manuscript in hand (which may be a few years from now). In any case, I expect some books of different kinds in the coming years.

That is why I treasure this time at home in the summer; so much is possible in this stretch (which goes by fast). Even though I don’t get as much done as I’d hope, I do a lot. I love the peacefulness of it: having the whole day to focus on things, without having to rush anywhere. This is hard to explain to people who don’t live in this way, but do I have to explain it? No, just live it, and do as much with it (at the different levels of doing) as possible.

I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

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.

As in a Dream

Do you know the kind of dream where you realize that you know exactly how things will unfold, because you have already lived them? The poems of Always Different (my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más) have this kind of dream-insight, but they are not dreams. Or rather, the memory they play with resembles certain dreams. We go back in time to look forward again and see things happen just as we know they will, except that nothing is certain, some key facts get lost along the way, and even verb tenses and moods start to wobble. The poems are surreal and real at once: familiar, reminding me of things, but shifting under my gaze and thoughts. I am proud beyond thoughts that this book has come out and that I can now hold it in my hands.

The project began in the fall of 2018. I had figured out that my colleague Gyula Jenei was a poet and his wife, Marianna Fekete, a literary critic (as well as a teacher of English and biology). My first conversation with Gyula wasn’t a conversation at all. I walked up to him out of the blue and recited one of his poems from memory. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting anything like this, but he took it in good cheer.

Soon after that, I found Marianna Fekete’s essay on Béla Markó’s haiku poems. I thought that it would be great to translate that essay and the many haiku poems within it. I began translating Gyula’s work and hers, and we began talking about them. At first, my spoken Hungarian (as well as my Hungarian overall) was very tentative, but over time it grew and relaxed.

Then Literary Matters published five of Gyula’s poems (in the original and in my translation) as well as my translation of Marianna’s essay. (The Massachusetts Review later published a translation as well.) Then the extraordinary happened: the Cowan Center at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture invited us to be the featured guests at their 2019 Education Forum. Little did we know that Covid was a few months around the corner; we went to Dallas in October 2019 and had a glorious autumn week filled with events, conversations, and long walks around the city. Thank you, Claudia MacMillan, Larry Allums, the I.M. Terrell Academy (which we visited), the Dallas Institute, and everyone who was part of this.

One of the Dallas Institute events that week was a private luncheon with guests, including Will Evans, the founder and owner of Deep Vellum Publishing. He was excited about Gyula’s poetry and suggested publishing a book. This book came out in April 2022 and reached me (60 copies) in a big box today.

In the interim between October 2019 and today, there were stretches of industry: completion of the translations, preparation of the manuscript, reponses to the poetry editor’s many comments and queries, review of the proofs, and so forth. There were slight delays because of Covid—but only very slight. The Deep Vellum editors and other staff were committed and helpful all along the way.

All of this sounds spectacular but basic too. The book would not exist, were it not for these people and events. The joy, goodwill, and sheer surprise of the week in Dallas comes back again and again, as do the long conversations with Marianna and Gyula. But for me the best part of all was the translating itself: the long, quiet stretches at home or in a deserted café, with hours ahead and behind, the poems in front of me, and coffee and big dictionaries nearby. I remember translating a poem during a long break in the school day and thinking, how do I return to the world after this? The poems are not removed from the world, but they differ from the hecticness that we wrap ourselves in. Hecticness is only one way of considering time. The book offers something else, something different from anything I have read or lived before.

A Festival, a Book, and a Conference

The Shakespeare festival is arriving soon! On April 22, the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium will hold a day-long event filled with acting (by students from six different schools), sonnets, songs, games, lectures, workshops, an art contest, a jury, and more. Everyone is welcome! (At Varga we have no classes on that day.) This festival has been in the planning for two years. It had to be postponed a year because of Covid, but now we can actually hold it, in three weeks and a day from now!

Next, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum) now exist; the publisher has already received copies from the printer! Gyula and I will receive five complimentary copies each, and I am ordering many copies for events. We intend to hold at least two events here in Hungary, and if everything works out, I will give readings in Dallas and NYC as well. The official pub date is still a few days away (April 12), so I will make a new announcement then.

Finally (for now), the ALSCW has released its Call for Papers for the October 2022 conference, which will take place at Yale. I will be leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” which may feature guest presenters from Hungary, if everything works out! More about that later—but in the meantime, if you are interested in presenting a paper in any of the seminars, please follow the instructions at the top of the document.

I should have a few more announcements very soon, but that is enough for now.

(The photo is of my students’ performance of Hamlet scenes at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár in June 2019.)

Seven Reasons to Come to the Pilinszky Event

It looks like lots of people are coming to the Pilinszky online event on March 20! But if you are undecided, here are seven reasons to come:

  1. János Pilinszky (1921–1981). Whether you grew up with his work or haven’t heard of him until recently, this event will introduce (or re-introduce) you to a few of his poems.
  2. The guests and hosts. This is a rare chance to hear Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly discuss Pilinszky and perform from their work. For the hosts—Diana Senechal and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers—this event is an honor and a joy.
  3. The languages. How often are literary events held in both English and Hungarian? The discussion will be mostly in English, with some translation back and forth; the poems, in both Hungarian and English, and the music, in one or the other. And speaking of that….
  4. The format. Instead of having a discussion followed by a performance, or vice versa, we will be combining discussion, poetry, and music. Literary events in Hungary are often conducted in this manner. It’s exciting because of the unexpected connections that arise between the various parts.
  5. The ease of attending. All you have to do is log in via Zoom. There is no charge. The instructions are on the website and the Facebook page. To find out exactly when the event starts in your area, go here. We have also prepared a downloadable program (containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we intend to discuss).
  6. The lack of dogma. We are not trying to drive home a particular message about Pilinszky or his world. The discussion will be inquisitive rather than didactic. We have a few working ideas but do not know where they will lead.
  7. The chance to ask questions. We will save time at the end for a few questions and comments. We can’t promise to get to all of them, but we do hope for some exchange with the audience.

The list could go on and on, but instead I will leave off with a quote from the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy (whose centennial is now being celebrated in Hungary, a year after Pilinszky’s). I would only combine it with a suggestion that Pilinszky’s poetry contains exhilaration too, the exhilaration of facing the spectre.

“Pilinszky added a dimension to our lives (all our lives, now, the life of poetry), he enriched us with want, with being lost, the dearth of existence pared down to the bone. The extraordinary catharsis of his poetic power arched over such dearth. It would be good to look now into those places to which he opened a breach, look in through the inner doors of the ante chamber, to those places where destruction is spread out like the sky.”
 
—Ágnes Nemes Nagy, “János Pilinszky: A Very Different Poet” (1981), translated by Rudolf Fischer

“Egy dimenziót csatolt hozzá Pilinszky az életünkhöz (most már mindnyájunk életéhez, a költészet életéhez), meggazdagított a hiánnyal, elveszettséggel, az egzisztencia csontig, képletig letisztított ínségével. Költői hatalmának kivételes katarzisa ilyen ínségre boltozódott. Most volna jó benézni oda, ahova ő nyitott rést, benézni az előszoba bentebbi ajtaján, most volna jó oda, ahol a pusztulás úgy terül el, mint egy égbolt.”
 
—Nemes Nagy Ágnes, “Valaki más” (1981)

P.S. Seven reasons, but eight books? Yes, well, the eighth reason is up to you.

Keeping Time

The winter break was close to ideal. I had two warm invitations to homes, spent lots of time reading, writing, preparing for the Pilinszky event, listening to music, playing cello, resting, and thinking, and went to three concerts (Jazzékiel, Kolibri, and Idegen/Esti Kornél). There were stretches of quiet time with nowhere to rush to, no deadlines to meet except for my own. Many Hungarians assume that a life like this must be lonely. But no, I thrive in these conditions: for instance, right now. I got up at 4:30, and the sun has not come up yet. Two hours, so far, of quiet and dark. I love company too, in good measure.

I came upon the above painting by chance (by Sally Sharp, a painter I had never heard of before) when looking for something else. It reminds me of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Got Lost” (the first of three interludes on his album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?). I have listened to the album many times now and keep looking forward to the next time. There’s so much more I want to listen to, too, but this is how I tend to read and listen: over and over, and then slowly making my way to other things.

On December 31 I re-recorded the first of my five Pilinszky cello covers. This is the third attempt and the best of the three. I intend to record them all—whether by myself, at home, or with someone else’s assistance. But I like how this came out in terms of tone and mood.

Tomorrow school resumes. I will try to keep some of this restfulness, but the next few months will be fairly intense. I am planning a Shakespeare festival, scheduled for April 22, with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library). We don’t know for sure whether it will be possible to hold it, but given that it will be fairly small, we should be able to work it out, unless we enter a new Covid lockdown. The most important thing is to help my students prepare Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs. If we have the content (which won’t be wasted in any case), the rest will come together.

And a month before that, the Pilinszky event will take place! Lots of people have shown interest on Facebook, but there’s no telling until the event itself how many people will attend. In any case, now is the time for me to step up the invitations, in addition to continuing with the preparations. You, too, can invite people. We welcome anyone interested in poetry, songs and songwriting, translation, languages, Hungarian, and Pilinszky himself.

That’s in addition to regular teaching, Folyosó, translations, writing, and much more. On April 12, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más will appear! (Publication was originally scheduled for February, but there were some delays.) Also, very soon, six poems by Csenger Kertai, in my English translation, will appear (two apiece) in Asymptote, Literary Imagination, and Literary Matters.

Now the sun is up, though dimly. Time for me to go on to other things. First of all, because it’s on my mind, and because I might not have time or presence of mind for this over the coming weeks, I want to watch the first of Laurie Anderson’s Norton Lectures. A friend has been recommending them for months, but I kept missing them while they were going on. Now they can all be watched online. Happy New Year to all!

Art credit: Sally Sharp, “Walkin Out” (oil/cold wax).

“Ez lesz”: Playing Cello at the Eső Evening

About two weeks ago, Gyula Jenei invited me to take part in an event for the Eső literary magazine, of which he is the founder and editor in chief. Eső has been important to me since the fall of 2018, when I first became aware of it; I have many of the issues and have learned about many Hungarian writers by reading it and attending the events. He wanted me to play cello between the pieces, and a thought came to mind: what about playing a few Pilinszky miniatures—that is, Pilinszky poems set to cello? I hadn’t chosen the poems yet, or worked out the cello and singing parts, but I knew I could pull this together.

Gyula put me in touch with the event organizer, the kind and ebullient István Turczi, who had a grander plan: there should be five short Pilinszky pieces and a longer classical piece at the end. I had my work cut out for me for the next ten days or so.

I was going to play everything from memory, but for the classical piece, I needed to practice from sheet music at first, and that narrowed the choices considerably. I chose the first movement of Bach’s third cello suite, with some trepidation, because the piece is relentless and I don’t know that I have ever performed it. In addition, I had barely touched the cello all fall, because I have been working on two translation projects, one of which, the Jászberényi, is now done (a draft, that is).

So, on the days when I could, I practiced two to four hours. For the Pilinszky, I would hum and play rough drafts until something took hold. The five poems I chose were “A tengerpartra,” “Akár a föld,” “Amiként kezdtem,” “Metronóm,” and “Ez lesz.” The melodies and atmospheres did in fact take shape; once I had them in my mind, the real practicing began. Here’s a recording of one of them (it isn’t perfect, and I intend to make a better recording of all five, but it gives a basic idea).

As for the Bach, the challenge was different and in some ways much greater, since there was the piece, written centuries ago, and there were my fingers, not quite up to it. I worked on it from different angles and heard it getting better day by day, but didn’t know if it would be anywhere close to ready by Monday. On Sunday I felt a kind of panic and was tempted to contact István and cancel the Bach. But i didn’t.

Then came the event. Such a warm and interesting occasion, in the lovely Szigligeti Kanapé, a performance space with raked audience seats (sloping upward, so everyone can see), a carpeted stage (great for the cello, no chance that the peg will slip out of place), a great program, and the greatest audience in the world: Varga students, a few Varga teachers, and a few others. István Turczi interviewed the writers (Gyula Jenei, Magor Molnár, and Ahmed Amran), and each of them read from their work; at certain transition points, I played a piece. The Pilinszky went over beautifully, even better than I had hoped; it miraculously worked. I tried to relax in between the pieces and listen to the readings, but this was only partly possible; I was making sure in my mind that I remembered the upcoming piece. At one point I thought I had forgotten the third line of “Metronóm.” What was it? What could it be? Then it came back: “a szálkák mozdulatlan jelenét.” As it turned out, “Metronóm” may have been the best of all the pieces. But two pieces later, Ahmed Amran (a Yemeni author who has been living in Szolnok for about twenty-five years and writes in Hungarian) read his story “A földdombok,” which I had read a few times before, and I was surprised to realize that the very ending was going to connect perfectly with the Pilinszky piece that followed.

Azok a földdombok ereszkednek le hozzá, amelyek mellkasukat nyítottak neki, hogy meglelje gyermekkori örömét és a halal végtelen csendjét.

(Those hills descending down toward him are the ones that bared their breasts to him so that he could land upon childhood happiness and the infinite quiet of death.)

And then, immediately afterwards, and closing the Pilinszky series, “Ez lesz”:

Ez lesz

Oszlás-foszlás, vánkosok csendje,
békéje annak, ami kihűlt, hideg lett,
mindennél egyszerűbb csend, ez lesz.

(That Is to Be

Dithering-withering, the quiet of pillows,
the peace of a thing now chilled, gone cold,
a quiet simpler than everything: that is to be.)

And then, after some closing remarks and memories of Eső contributors who had passed away, it was time to finish up with the Bach. “What will be, will be,” I thought, and plunged in. It went a lot better than I had feared. It wasn’t perfect—mostly because I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in my playing, but also because the cello needed new strings and a higher bridge, which I didn’t undertake before the evening because of all the adjustments involved (not to mention the necessary trip to Budapest). But I played it all the way through without breaking down or losing momentum, and there were some nice moments along the way. In retrospect, I see that I could have chosen something shorter and simpler. But I didn’t know that at the time. I think it was important to do this anyway, because every bit of practicing helped, and it helped the Pilinszky too.

People loved the evening: the readings, discussion, music, and whole atmosphere. Afterwards a few of us went out to a restaurant to talk for a little while. Someone suggested that I record the Pilinszky pieces. I had already thought of doing it, but now I am thinking of doing something other than a home recording, so that it really comes out well. We talked about this and that for at least an hour, and then Marianna and Gyula took me home. I am grateful that Gyula and István invited me to be part of this, and that Marianna took so many photos. And that we had such a good audience. In some way I feel part of Eső now, and the cello has been yanked back into my life in the happiest of ways.

P.S. Speaking of Pilinszky, do come to the online Pilinszky event (hosted by the ALSCW, and featuring special guests Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Csenger Kertai, and Gergely Balla, with me as interviewer and moderator) on March 20! Here’s the informational website, and here’s the Facebook event page.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

  • “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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