An October of Octobers Ahead

October is my favorite month and has been for decades. It has the foliage, the songs, the jumbled sounds. Bells clanging. A coat wrapped around the body. An urge to walk uphill. To dance against the wayward wind, thrilling in strength. Mourning a little.

But this will be an October of Octobers. First, this school year has started off especially well. I am starting my sixth year at Varga, but it feels in a way like a new arrival. The students are thoughtful, funny, very bright. I have a lot planned. Normally, under these circumstances, I would not want to be absent for eight school days in a row. If someone were trying to send me off to some special program, I’d say, no, no, I have too much to do here. But this October is different.

As I mentioned before, eight adults and a baby are traveling together to the U.S. for the ALSCW Conference and two Platon Karataev duo concerts (the Platon Karataev duo is in our traveling group). The basic details and any important updates can be found here. Still, such details do not come close to summing up what this has been and will be. We have been planning this for six months straight, almost every day, but all the planning in the world doesn’t tell you what it will be like.

There will be New Haven in autumn: for me, memories upon memories, and for them (and me too), something rather new. There will be the conference itself, full of interesting things, and within it, my double-session “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, which is turning out even richer than I expected. (See the lineup at the bottom of this post.) Then the Platon Karatev duo concerts: at Cafe Nine in New Haven (on Sunday, October 23), then at Arlene’s Grocery in NYC (on Monday, October 24).

Still another exceptional event has presented itself. The duo will be recording on October 24 (during the day) at Leesta Vall Sound Recordings in Brooklyn. You can order your own personalized 7″ lathe cut vinyl song. But hurry—it’s almost sold out!

Here’s the seminar lineup. You can read the full conference program here.


Setting Poetry to Music: Session 1 (Friday, October 21, 10:30-12:30 a.m.)

Gergely Balla, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “It Cannot Answer: A Platon Karataev Song Inspired by the Oeuvre of Sándor Csoóri”

Claudia Gary, Independent Writer/Artist, “Song as Conversation”

Emily Grace, Catholic University of America, “A Study of the Interpretive Potential of Two Settings of John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart'”

Todd Hearon, Phillips Exeter Academy, “‘Caliban in After-Life’: Reimagining Shakespeare’s Monster in Words and Music”

Kata Heller, Eötvös Loránd University, “Rap as a New Type of Poetry? A Discussion of the Genre within the Scope of Holi’s ‘Roadmovie’ (‘Sírok és nevetek’)”

Anna Maria Hong, Mount Holyoke College, “H & G: From Novella to Opera”

Csenger Kertai, Independent Writer, “Kaláka’s Musical Interpretation of Attila József’s ‘Tudod, hogy nincs bocsánat’ (‘Mercy Denied Forever’)”

Alyse O’Hara, University of Connecticut,“Performing on the Theme of Consent in Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’”

Setting Poetry to Music: Session 2 (Saturday, October 22, 1:45-3:45 p.m.)

Lara Allen, Independent Artist, “And All Round Me Spirits: Invoking Harry Partch”

Fruzsina Balogh,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and Panna Kocsis,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design,  “Music and Poetry in the Language of Contemporary Hungarian Visual Art”

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “Accompaniment or Song: Two Musical Approaches to János Pilinszky”

Piotr Gwiazda, University of Pittsburgh, “Listening to Grzegorz Wróblewski on YouTube”

Mary Maxwell, Independent Scholar, “Setting Sulpicia’s Songs”

Jennifer Davis Michael, Sewanee: The University of the South, and Nathan Davis, The New School College of Performing Arts, “Bell of Silence”

Kimberly Soby, University of Connecticut, “Examining Word Painting in the Vocal Works of Earl Kim”

Iris Zheng, Independent Scholar, “Composition as Criticism and Creation” 


Art credit: Leonid Afremov, October Park.

You never know what’s going on in a person…

How well do we know others’ motives, or even our own? Zsolt Bajnai’s play A Hagyaték (“the legacy,” “the inheritance”), which I saw last night in a moving production by the Híd Színház, directed by József Rigó, raises this question (implicitly) within the opening minutes. We find out that the wife, Erzsébet, has invited a woman over for dinner, without informing her husband beforehand. Does she know that something happened between this woman and her husband twenty years ago? And if so, why has she chosen to invite her over? The play starts at a high pitch of intensity and builds from there. I won’t give any spoilers; all I’ll say is that it kept surprising me while also coming together in a unity. A beautiful progression, a passionate performance (by Erzsébet Déri, Sándor Ulviczki, and Anna Kertmari), and an affecting whole. I’m going back tonight (for the last performance, at least for now; it was a three-night run, and I missed the first one).

The Híd Színház (Bridge Theatre), directed by József Rigó, is a terrific amateur theatrical company of senior citizens. When they performed as the witches of Macbeth at the Shakespeare Festival last spring, I was taken by their verve and fearlessness. When I am a bit older, I would love to audition for a role.

The audience was seated in a semicircle around them, close to the action. You could feel so much happening, not only on the stage, but behind the scenes too, whenever a character walked off or the phone rang. Once in a while, an actor forgot a line, but the stage assistant (Éva Márki) instantly gave a prompt, and things moved seamlessly from there. Somehow that added to the full effect; I was reminded that these were real people.

But yes, back to the subject of this post: we do not fully know why people do what they do and what is going on with them.

At least once a week, even to this day, I get asked why I came to Hungary. I tell the simplest version of the story: that I visited Istanbul for two weeks as a guest teacher, then came to Hungary for the first time and bicycled around in Zemplén. And that my great-grandfather was a Hungarian Jew, and that during this visit I went to the village where he and his large family had lived before coming to the U.S.

All of that is true, but it’s only a fraction of why I came. There were other reasons, and reasons I wasn’t even aware of. Something about the Hungarian ways of life (multiple ways) resonated with me, as did the language. Not because of some mystical connection with my roots (which are multiple and multifarious) but perhaps (partly) because of the combination of cultural richness and modesty, the quiet wit that I felt around me. Not only that; from early on, I saw that I had reasons for being here: teaching, translating, absorbing the language, going to performances, going on long bike rides, leading Szim Salom services. Reasons came into being, in other words.

Last night I understood almost every word of the play. There were a few words here and there that I didn’t know, but I understood the dialogue and action from moment to moment. It was thrilling.

I may seem snobbish or antisocial when I turn down or ignore social occasions with Americans here in Hungary. But my reasons and motives have nothing to do with snobbery or antisocialness. I have American friends in the U.S. and stay in touch with them. I am planning a big trip to the U.S. in October. I love my country and know that I will never be a Hungarian in the full sense. But I never would have reached the point of understanding last night’s play if I hadn’t immersed myself in Hungarian day after day. I do not want to live in an English-speaking bubble (as many foreigners here do). The moment you start speaking English, people assume you can’t speak Hungarian, and everything is lost. The Hungarian I know at this point, still far from true fluency, was hard earned, and I am not about to give it up.

The other part is that I don’t usually like socializing for socializing’s sake. Getting together with friends, yes. But when it comes to meeting new people, I prefer to do this through the things that interest me. (And it happens continually.) Sometimes I disappoint people because they would like me to look up such-and-such an American in Budapest, maybe a friend of theirs. But why on earth should I? I have a full life and busy schedule, and if I met someone new, it would be just that, a meeting, probably not to be continued. Felesleges. (Unnecessary.) If I were lonely, isolated, or bored, that would be a different story. But no. If anything, I need a little more downtime, where I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything.

This weekend, the little bit of rest led to a beautiful result, beyond the conquering of exhaustion. There was an annual large trash collection—you could put your unwanted furniture and other large items out on the curbside, and it would be taken away early the next morning. It was actually quite a ritual. Some people were out in their vans or on foot, scouring the neighborhoods for usable items. A family took two chairs that I brought out on Friday afternoon; I was happy to see them go to use. But yes, I got rid of three chairs, one of which was broken, and the other two unsightly and a source of clutter. With that, I saw that I could rearrange the furniture in my bedroom. With just a few minutes of shuffling, it became a sweet, cozy room (it had been a little unwieldy before). I almost took out the cat tree that was in there, the older of two. It is a bit ragged from all the scratching that it has endured. But when I carried it into the hallway, Dominó started crying. I brought it back. Now the cats love the room as much as I do.

And so yes, even in intervals of rest, there’s more going on than we know. In the minds of cats too.

Top photo by István Csabai. For more of his photos of A Hagyaték, go here.

Bottom photo by me.

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

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.

“nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül”

I would like to look at the magnificent Hungarian language through Platon Karataev’s magnificent song “Elmerül” (the ninth song on their 2022 album Partért kiáltó). This is a song about the place beyond language, but its language resonates inward, outward, and from every angle. I am writing for people who don’t necessarily speak Hungarian, so I will take this slowly and might not touch on all of the song.

I’ll start with one of the refrains:

követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül
nem beszélem nyelved de beszélek emberül

This could be translated roughly as “I tie a stone around it, the mind sinks down / I don’t speak your language, but I speak the human tongue.” Look at the beautiful alliteration and assonance of “követ kötök köré.” “Követ” is the accusative of , “stone.” “Kötök” is the first person singular of köt, “tie.” “Köré” is the directional preposition meaning “around.” Each of these words comes from a different Proto-Finno-Ugric root. The alliteration and assonance is even stronger in “az elme elmerül”; “elme” means “mind or intellect” and “elmerül” means “sinks.” In the second case, the “el-” is a prefix; in the first, it is not. I tried to track down the etymology of “elme” but found nothing; even a Hungarian online etymological dictionary states, “Régi szavunk, de eredetéről semmi biztosat nem tudunk.” (“It’s an old word of ours, but we know nothing certain about its origin.”)

Then comes this beautiful, simple complexity (and an allusion to Pilinszky’s Apokrif): “nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül” (“I don’t speak your language, but I speak in the language of humans.”) “Beszélem” and “beszélek” both mean “I speak”; why the difference? Most verbs have both an definite form (used with specific objects) and an indefinite form (used with nonspecific objects or no object at all). It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic principle. Here, “beszélem” is the definite form and “beszélek” the indefinite form. The definite form is needed the first time because “nyelved,” “your language,” is a specific object, even without an article preceding it. But “emberül” isn’t an object at all; it’s an adverb, so the second time around, the indefinite form is needed.

This refrain actually alternates with a similar one: “követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül / most szembenézek azzal, mit találok legbelül” (approximately, “I tie a stone around it, my mind sinks down / now I’m looking straight into the face of what I find farthest inside”).

After these, the next refrain is just as linguistically rich, though in a different way: “kérdeznem nem kell / egy vagyok a felelettel” (“I don’t have to ask / I am one with the answer”). There’s the alliteration of “kérdeznem” and “kell” but also the -em suffix, which indicates the first person singular. “Nem kell mennem” means “I don’t have to go”; “kérdeznem nem kell” means “I don’t have to ask.” The second part also has subtle alliteration: the “gy” of “egy” and “vagyok” as well as assonance (the repeated “e” sound). There’s also a play of zeroes and ones: the zero of “nem” and the one of “egy.” In addition, these two parts have a kind of mirror symmetry (especially visible in the lyrics book), where “kérdeznem” and “felelettel,” the two longest words, mirror each other as questioning and answer. (In the photo here, the text is slightly skewed; that’s because I was holding the book open.)

But all of this is later in the song, after the three stanzas or short verses, which have to do with the place beyond language, and which is likewise rich with Pilinszky allusions. Here is a rough translation:

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
nem jelöl mit a hangalak
a pusztában hagytalak

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a lélek önmagába les
a végtelen dadogni kezd

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a válasz torkomban rezdül
a káosz mélyén rend ül
what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the phonetic form signifies nothing
i leave you in the bare wild

what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the soul spies into itself
the infinite starts to stutter

what do you find beyond the words?
there the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the answer vibrates in my throat
in the depths of chaos, order sits

“Nyelv” means both “tongue” and “language”—but in English, “tongue” can mean “language” too, so I translated “nyelvharang” as “tongue-bell.” This is a Platon Karataev neologism, as far as I know; it could be a play on “nyelvhang,” “lingual consonant.” That would tie in with the word “hangalak,” which is a linguistic term meaning “phonetic form.”

I think the rest explains itself. There’s much more to say, but I don’t want to weigh this down with words. Just returning for a moment to the start of the first refrain: I tie a stone around what? Maybe the answer, maybe the order sitting in the depths of chaos. Maybe the two are the same.

Now listen to the rhythm of the words; so much more will come through the music and sound. The song itself leaves words behind, not just once, but again and again.

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

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.

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

Announcements, Dreams, and Travels/Travails

When I come to NYC to visit, I jump right into my element. For a visitor who knows the city well, life here offers itself up like infinite plates of tapas: stores are open around the clock, coffee comes in large cups, your blood absorbs the liveliness of the streets. Having lived here (specifically in NYC) for fifteen years, I know other sides of the city too. But this brief visit does me good. I head out today to Massachusetts, and from there in a couple days to New Hampshire; I come back to NYC just for two days before returning to Hungary. There’s so much to do in this chink of time. I had the fortune of seeing Will Arbery’s play Corsicana last night; I recommend it to all. From what I can see, it is playing through July 17.

This post is a bit of this and that, but it all comes together in the end.

First, a few exciting announcements. The Platon Karataev duo (Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Platon Karataev’s founding members and primary songwriters) will be headlining at Arlene’s Grocery here in NYC on October 24! Mark your calendars, tell others about it, and come out for the show in October! This comes a day after their U.S. debut, their show at Cafe Nine in New Haven. For a sense of the duo, see the video below. Both of these shows are historic even in advance, and the time before them will go by fast!

Next, I am honored that my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poem “The Legend of Lobo” (which is part of the collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum earlier this year), has been published by The Continental Literary Magazine. They will be publishing three more of these translations; I will add the links here as they appear. (Update: “Slap,” “Litterfall,” and “Passageways to God” have been published as well.)

And now for the “travails” part: While I was enjoying the music at Fishing on Orfű (see my descriptions of Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4), Dominó, one of my two dear cats, jumped out the window. The person feeding the cats had opened the window slightly (with the top part sliding inward) and thought he had closed it afterwards. Apparently it was still open a crack, and Dominó, who loves to jump onto the very top of that window, managed to get out.

In between the Orfű and NYC trips, I must have searched the neighborhood at least twenty times for him: early in the morning, late at night, and in between. At one point I thought I saw him under a car, but he slid away when I approached. I am distressed about this but also hopeful. We have a good plan worked out: a neighbor who feeds the outdoor cats every day spotted him under a car yesterday, took pictures, and fed him. Between her, some others whose help she has enlisted, and my cat-sitter, they should be able to catch him and bring him back inside, or at least verify his safety until I get back. Poor Sziszi is distressed; I hope she can have her friend back soon. At least the street is very quiet; lots of cats live in the neighborhood.

When I landed in NYC yesterday evening and my phone received its data streams, I received two pieces of good news: first, about the show at Arlene’s Grocery, and second, about Dominó being spotted under a car. That makes for a good arrival. (Update: The evening of my return, I saw Dominó outside! Not only that, but he came and rubbed against me when I called him. So it was fairly easy to pick him up and bring him back inside. He and Sziszi were amazed and ecstatic; I have never seen two cats so happy to be reunited.)

But what about dreams, also mentioned in this post title? Well, besides all of this being stuff that dreams are made of, dreams figure in Corsicana and in a song by Art of Flying that has been playing in my head, one of the most beautiful songs I know, “born to follow.” I will end here with that song. Listen to the slow and subtle way it builds.

born to follow, by Art of Flying

yr tears were golden light upon my hand
you sang the heavens floated on the sea
when beauty rears its ugly head
when every rain drops misery

under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow

who hides the night? who rides the wind?
who rings the bells of happiness?
whose one invention is the end?
whose wheel brings nothing whose wheel brings death

under heaven…

we poured our blood into the fields
& left with nothing but the air
we could not eat yr promises
& starve to death while no one cares

in yr voice I disappear
& I am held like blood is held
this is the place where jesus fell
& yr only born to follow

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
& now it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

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

Remembering Concerts

I don’t want to go to so many concerts and literary events that they start blending into each other or twisting 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. Hosted by the Anna Juhász Literary Salon, it 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 reveled in it all: listening intently, dancing along, sometimes 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 had 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 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 stay away from 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 catching and holding the notes as they fly by, wrapping myself in them, carrying them for days and weeks and sometimes much longer. Even when the memories fade, the concerts leave some kind of texture behind, and though I can’t pinpoint it and don’t need to, I know it’s there. There’s a new shape to 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 edits to this piece (in several stages) after posting it.

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).

  • “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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories