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.

The Pixies in Budapest

After buying a good ticket (up on a terrace, with an excellent view) about a year in advance, I almost didn’t go to the concert last night. I was tired and in the mood for rest and reflection. But come on, now: this was the Pixies, playing in Budapest for the very first time in their thirty-six years of existence. I was introduced to their music in late 1991. It changed my idea of what a song could be. There was no one like them, and they influenced huge swaths of what came afterward. Their lyrics: morbid, funny, endearing, bizarre, full of curious stories and verbal twists; their music, driving and dreamy, screaming and whispering, fast and slow, sometimes all of this in a single song. All four band members brought a lot to it: a special drum sound, a screeching, wailing, minimalist guitar, Black Francis’s (the lead singer’s) utter conviction in his own words, and Kim Deal… well, I think most Pixies fans have been at least slightly in love with her down-home brilliance. I never got to see them live before last night, but I listened to their albums over and over and saw the Breeders (the band Kim founded) many times, and even contributed lyrics to their song “Head to Toe.” Back to the Pixies: Black Francis broke up the band in 1993. They reunited in 2003; Deal left the band in 2013.

So yes, this was to be my first Pixies concert, more than thirty years after first hearing them. I got out the door and onto my bike and zipped off to the train station. Getting to Budapest Park from Szolnok is a bit of a challenge when you’re in a hurry. I took the train to the Keleti station, took the M4 metro from there to Kálvin tér, switched from there to the M3, which I took out to Népliget, and walked from there (20-30 minutes) to Budapest Park. Fortunately they started about ten minutes after the announced time. I had missed the opening band, but no matter. The Pixies took the stage and plunged right in with “Gouge Away.” It gave me a strange thrill to be hearing them after so many years, among thousands of cheering, dancing fans. The terrace was less crowded than the ground level, and the people around me were having a great time. Many of them knew the lyrics.

I knew all the songs from their albums through Trompe le Monde (1991) and none of their later songs. The earlier songs included (in no particular order) “Caribou,” “Ed Is Dead,” “Bone Machine,” “Break My Body,” “Gigantic,” “Where Is My Mind,” “Velouria,” “UMass,” “Planet of Sound,” “Subbacultcha,” “Debaser,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Hey.” Actually, I’m not entirely sure that they played “Hey”; my memory might have interpolated it. There’s some catching up to be done, though not an awful lot (it has been quipped that the Pixies have become a Pixies cover band—slightly true, but not really justified, as they are still releasing new albums). I love their “new” bassist, Paz Lechantin, who first joined them as a touring bassist and became a permanent member of the band in 2016. She’s a tremendous musician, and it’s clear that she honors the legacy of Kim Deal while bringing herself to the songs.

I remember trying (here and there) to introduce people in Kyrgyzstan to the Pixies back in 1993. One couple, who became friends with me, took a liking to the songs; I remember walking with them late at night in downtown Bishkek, drinking warm champagne, and talking about all sorts of things. They were joyous that such music existed.

That is what the Pixies left with me, both thirty years ago and last night: the music itself, the knowledge that it is possible, and the many different times and places of listening, and friendships formed through that. And along with it, who knows what else. I listen to different music today, I think of music differently today, but something has carried on from that era, and something has been let go.

Note: Officially the band is “Pixies,” not “The Pixies.” But everyone I know says “the Pixies,” including top-level Pixies connoisseurs. In the context of a sentence, “Pixies” without the “the” sounds strange.

Escape into Truth

Music at its best is an escape into truth: an escape from noise, distraction, circumvention into something that you recognize and know at your core but also learn right there and cannot fully explain. That’s what Cz.K. Sebő’s concert last night at the Központ was like. A full room, most of the audience seated on the floor. A hush. A quality of attention that you don’t often find. A rich, beautiful performance: his own songs (including favorites such as “Out of Pressure,” “Hart,” “Eternal Home,” “Wide Eyes,” “Debris,” and a Hungarian/English rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon”) and an array of covers (of songs by Jackson C. Frank, Blaze Foley, Current Joys, Sebő Együttes/József Attila, and Damien Jurado). The covers were an act of gratitude and love, and an opening into music we hadn’t necessarily heard before, or heard in that way.

There was something I learned at the concert, but I can’t explain it. It was a flash of “You must change your life” stretched into an hour. But changing your life doesn’t mean doing everything differently. It might mean, simply, a new alertness, a new way of hearing things, or to borrow from Art of Flying, timeawakenness. It is nothing to take for granted; you have to build room for it and defend it against everything that would chip away at it or knock it down.

So I’ll end here with a beautiful recording and video of Damien Jurado playing “Abilene.” I love how the song ends with a question.

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.

Listen Up: Sonny Smith (and the Sunsets too)

It was late 2000. I was soon to leave San Francisco, where I had lived seven years. Carrie Bradley’s band 100 Watt Smile was playing at Café du Nord. Someone by the name of Sonny Smith, who I had never heard of, was also playing. I was tired and didn’t want to hear two shows; I just wanted to hear Carrie and her band. But since I didn’t know who was playing first, I showed up early, awkwardly early. Then someone started playing who whisked all the gloom and exhaustion out of me. The music had a funk-rap feel (which he soon departed from), and his mordant, playful words spilled out like relaxed magic.

After his set and before 100 Watt Smile, I ran up to Carrie and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left, and there he was. I felt so awkward I couldn’t say anything more. But that was okay. I have never met a musician who doesn’t understand awkwardness at all. Later we collaborated on a project. But more about that later.

The songs he sang that night are mostly on his early album who’s the monster… you or me? which isn’t available online. I have it on CD but wouldn’t upload it; I think he would have done so if he wanted to. He has so many albums and projects at this point that it’s going to be hard to do them justice. But others have written about him very well, and I’ll take a little of their help. For instance, in a San Francisco Weekly article from January 2001, David Cook writes about the song “Pass the Wine” (one of my favorites to this day) and others. The article begins:

“The secret of writing is in the rhythm of urgency,” noted Jack Kerouac. No Bay Area songwriter understands that principle better than Sonny Smith. His peculiar lyrics pour out in a cascade of images, conjuring crazy characters such as Officer Scalletti, who was “killed by an iron hurled by the lover of his wife/ Who bleached her hair and pierced her tongue for the funeral”; darling, dipsomaniac Molly, “swinging a neon series Louisville Slugger/ Bat chin just a little bit higher than a rave rat’s/ Chance of pulling up his pants”; and Frank, who chased Molly to Dublin but preached “this whole boy meets girl/ Boy gets girl/ Boy loses girl/ Boy spends all his money chasing girl around the world is overrated.”

The amazing thing is that Smith writes the songs almost as quickly as he raps them at local clubs and bars. “It’s like having to tell somebody about these things that happened,” he says of his songs. “You’re just telling somebody really fast, like a little kid telling his mom, and you can’t even get it all out, you can’t possibly do it all justice.” Combining these urgent raps with an authentic funk/blues beat, Smith’s music is as natural sounding as it is unique.

Sonny’s creative energy and bounty breaks norms. By 2000, some of my favorite bands were slowing down or breaking up. Some had been disappointed by the false (or at least contradictory) promises of the 1990s, when indie music seemed to be catching on and so many musicians seemed within a few inches of “making it.” Many musicians reject the conditions for such success: the excessive focus on publicity, the grueling (and sometimes poorly matched) tours, the record deals that fall through or turn out to be ripoffs, the big breaks that ended up embarrassing in one way or another.

But Sonny was on his own roll. Playing, writing, mischief-making. Taking new directions and new projects. I’ll get to those in a minute. But first, it would be wrong to go any further without giving you one of his early songs. Here is “Way to Go,” from his beautiful, low-key album This Is My Story, This Is My Song (2002). Just listen to what happens at each stage of this song. The guitar, the backing vocals, the piano, the humming, the way the lyrics go into your own life and out to the lives of others.

there was a red bird flying
above a black-top road
there was a pinto trying
to pass a motor home
there was a woman singing
on the radio
there was a long, long way to go

Yes, so when I was living briefly in Tucson, I contacted Sonny, imagining he might have some stories to contribute to my new literary journal, Sí Señor. He replied by sending me ten or so. (There were many more to come.) They needed some touching up, so I offered to edit them. He accepted (and liked the edits). So there we were. Sí Señor had catapulted into near-existence. While the first issue was still underway, I moved to NYC, gathered more writing and art, put it all together, sent it off to the printer, and planned the inaugural event, which would consist of a reading and a music performance. Sonny came out to NYC to play. Jack Rabid’s band played too. It was terrific fun.

Oh, yes, but the music part of the event was at a tiny club with a tiny stage and a long bar. People at the bar were talking loudly, and at one point Sonny (in the middle of his set) told them to shut up. A friend grumbled to me that he shouldn’t have done that, that if people aren’t paying attention, it’s the performer’s fault, but I disagreed and still disagree. Sometimes people come to a club to talk, not to listen to the music. That isn’t fair on the musicians or the people who are there to listen. Sonny was right to say something. That reminds me of the one and only time I went to hear Vic Chesnutt (opening for Bob Mould). We were all standing around. He said, “Sit y’all asses down.” No one moved. He said it again, and we sat down, and the room became hushed and focused. It was a gorgeous show. But back to Sonny.

At this point I am going to start getting the chronology a bit mixed up, because various projects overlapped, and each one came in stages. I probably have old emails that could point me to precise dates, but they are stored on old computers, which are locked away in storage in NYC. Anyway, a few years after the Sí Señor event (he played at another one too), Sonny won a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts (in Sausalito) and was staging his project One Act Plays (an album of songs that were just that: one-act plays in the form of songs). It was through this that I first met the voice of Jolie Holland. Here’s one of my favorites, “Donkey Killed the Crow” (featuring Peggy Honeywell, Andy Cabic, and Holland):

I believe Sonny released One-Act Plays at least twice: first on his own, and then through a label. The performance at the Headlands must have happened in between the two. My sister and I went to see it, along with my friend Igor. It was terrific and historic, and afterwards Sonny threw a rollerskating party on the premises. (My sister can rollerskate; I can’t, but I enjoyed watching people go round and round. The DJs were good too.)

I’m pretty sure that the 100 Records project also came out of the Headlands residency. (There had been a few other releases in the meantime.) For this project, he made up a hundred band names and two song titles (an A side and a B side) for each band’s 45 record. A hundred artists then created the album covers, which were given an art exhibit, and Sonny then wrote the 200 songs (his goal was to step into the minds of these fictional bands). He and the artists worked more or less independently, yet the combination worked perfectly. Just poke through Volume 3 to get a sense of the versatility here. And watch the video below to see the gallery and hear Sonny talk about the project.

Around this time, Sonny formed the band Sonny & the Sunsets, who have had a “revolving-door cast” of members (or, as Sonny puts it, “a pretty small, flexible group of disparate personalities”) but have kept on going to this day (and will soon be touring Spain). His description of the band: “Sonny & the Sunsets are a beautiful west coast thing. Birthed from the sand, the surf, and twilight campfires down in Ocean Beach, Sonny & the Sunsets’ busted beach-pop songs spark recollections of doo wop’s otherworldly despair, a dose of goofball humor from the Michael Hurley school, and positive possibilities exuded by Jonathan Richman.”

I heard them play live once, in 2015 (I think), in an out-of-the-way Brooklyn warehouse. The first band was terrible (ear-splitting, uninteresting stuff), the second much more interesting, and then when Sonny & the Sunsets came on, the place was packed, people were singing along, and they played one heck of a show.

I’ll introduce just a few of their songs here. Oh, by the way, in 2018 Sonny founded a record label, Rocks in Your Head Records. They have about eleven releases at this point. (They are under no pressure; they put out music when they want to.) One of their recent releases is the 2021 album At the Time I Didn’t Care by Virgil Shaw, one of my favorite musicians from the Bay Area. Listen to “Wish You Had Come.”

But before this gets much too long, let’s hear the Sunsets. First, from their 2010 album Tomorrow Is Alright, here’s their hit song “Too Young to Burn,” in a fantastic live performance by Sonny Smith, Old Light, and others. I love this video because the musicians are having such a great time. Also, the song’s a classic now.

Jumping ahead nine years, here’s “Someday I’d Like to be an Artist” from their Hairdressers from Heaven album. I like the music’s upbeat, dreamy moroseness, the ambiguity of the lyrics (they seem part satirical, part something else). And the instrumentation is rich and sparse (piano, violin, vocals, bass, drums, handclaps, keyboards, background conversations, etc.).

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
write in my notebook in my bed and listen to the rain
think about the way things could be
and how things really are
wake up from my dreamin with a work of art in my arms

give myself away, give myself away, give myself away,

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
sit at the bar and talk to the other artists all about art
talk about the world and know that it all falls apart
give myself away, give myself away, give myself away

Now I come to a difficult choice. One more song. (After all, you can browse their repertoire and read more about them whenever you want.) Let it be “The Letter,” the last song on their wonderful 2021 album, New Day with New Possibilities. Dear Sonny & the Sunsets, whoever you may be right now, I hope you keep hearing and playing new possibilities for years to come, and I wish you a great tour in Spain. One day, come to Budapest and play a show with you-know-who! Until then, keep on doing what you do. And diverging from it too. Sincerely, Diana. That’s my letter.

For more posts in the Listen Up series, go here.

“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.

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.

The Platon Karataev Duo: In the U.S. in October!

I have mentioned this in a few blog posts already, but here it is front and center: The Platon Karataev duo (Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, two of the four members of Platon Karataev) will be performing twice in the U.S. in October: on October 23 at Cafe Nine in New Haven (their U.S. debut) and on October 24 at Arlene’s Grocery (their NYC debut). Come and hear them! Tell everyone about it!

The exclamation points don’t do justice to these occasions, though. Their music is (in a way) the opposite of an exclamation point. It goes inward and beyond into something else. “Csak befelé vezet ki út,” the first song of their new album sings. (“Only inwards does the road lead out,” or maybe more simply, “The only way out is inward.”) You can hear them sing “Csak befelé” (and four more songs) here:

I keep posting that particular video not only because I particularly love it, but also because videos of their duo performances are rather rare. A couple of others include the Grain Sessions and the video of their performance on the water stage at Fishing on Orfű last summer. As for videos of the whole band, there are many: artistic videos, videos of live performances, videos of interviews, and more.

Both Sebő and Gergő—and Csenger Kertai, Kata Heller, Fruzsina Balogh, and Panna Kocsis—will be presenting, alongside twelve others, in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music” at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale in October. These concerts follow upon the conference.

It is not easy to travel to the U.S. Just about everything is more expensive than it was a year ago. Hotel costs in NYC have doubled. Who knows where things will go from here—but for now, these are rare occasions. Any good concert is inherently rare, but these two concerts go beyond the usual rareness. Who knows when and if anything like them can happen again?

And if something can, so much the better. All the more reason to go hear them now. To be able to hear something like them again, and wait for favorite parts, and be surprised.

I took the photo last summer at the duo’s concert on the TRIP Hajó. Also, I added to this piece after posting it.

Song Series #18: Hungarian Songs I Missed While Abroad

I have returned from the U.S. It is good to be back. Many thanks to everyone who was part of the trip in any way: the person who fed Sziszi (update: I found Dominó and brought him back inside today!), the friends and family I saw in the U.S., the events I attended (including a play, a Kandinsky exhibition, a musical, and a songwriter showcase), all the staff at the various places I visited, the wonderful morning minyan service at B’nai Jeshurun on Thursday morning (which feels like this morning, not yesterday).

I had Hungarian songs in my head throughout the trip, not always the ones I would expect, but no big surprises either. These are background favorites, I’d say. Songs that hold their own whether I am listening to them or not. In this piece, I will not be translating the songs, but I think they come across (in large part) through the music itself.

One that kept coming to my mind was Cappuccino Projekt’s (Dávid Korándi’s) “Vidáman se.” Too hard to explain in a short space, but sad and exhilarating at the same time. It captures life somehow. Here it is.

Another was Noémi Barkóczi’s “Dolgom volt” (approximately “I had something to deal with,” narrated by someone who has been out of touch with others for a while). Barkóczi sometimes seems to me (slightly) like a Hungarian Joni Mitchell in the 2020s. I love the true-to-life lyrics, the chords, the rhythms, the swooping and diving of the vocals. Here’s the video.

Galaxisok was in my ears most of the time. Which song? Hard to choose, but let’s take “Focipályák éjszaka” (“Football Fields at Night”), since I listened to it in the rental car several times, and there’s this live video.

Felső Tízezer’s “Semmi pánik 2” (“No Panic 2”) figured in there somewhere. Here’s their delightful infomercial-style video of the song.

A song that I played for others (from my phone, not on an instrument, unfortunately) was Kaláka’s “Hajnali rigók” (Dawn Thrushes), a poem by Lőrinc Szabó, which they set to music. They have a whole album and songbook of bird songs (and many, many albums on other themes: bicycles, various poets, musical instruments, psalms, and much more). I can’t wait to hear them again in August. They are legendary; just as Russian literature, it has been said, came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” so contemporary Hungarian song comes out from under Kaláka.

On a tangent: At Arlene’s Grocery on Tuesday, I heard Noah Chenfeld play his song “Orioles,” which was inspired by the rhythm of an oriole’s call. I like it. Although it isn’t Hungarian, I’ll include it, because it was part of the week, and because there’s something interesting going on here. I look forward to more of his music. (My favorite music of the evening was SugarSugar—especially their song “Cruel Things“—that’s another tangent, but you can listen to them and watch their wonderful “Unbreakable” video.) By the way, the Platon Karataev duo will be headlining at Arlene’s on October 24!

Lots of Platon Karataev songs played in my head, some of which haven’t been released yet. From Partért kiáltó, “Csak befelé” (“Only inward”) came up again and again. Here’s a performance of the song by the Platon Karataev duo, whom I will get to hear on Tuesday.

And to finish off, Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day,” in the translation of Géza Simon) played itself persistently, as did other favorites from his work, including “Pure Sense.” I have brought up “On a Fine Day” many times here, but there’s always room for repetition. Who knows: maybe he will play it tomorrow night.

On A Fine Day
(Egy szép napon)

János Pilinszky, translated by Géza Simon

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

Always, as always
I wished to be back.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy weekend!

For other posts in the Song Series, go here.

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.

  • “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)



    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.


    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.


    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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