An Interview with Sándor Kányadi

by Paul Sohar, Kányádi's English translator

It is very easy to carry on a conversation with Sándor as long as you let him pick the topic. He likes to joke about it, calling himself loquacious. True, he is a compulsive communicator, but only because he has a lot on his mind, a lot to say. Unless you manage to get a question in before he starts speaking, you will never get a chance, you will never steer the conversation in your direction. You simply have to assume that whatever he has to say is more important than what you wanted to ask about, and, in any case, the answers are sure to be found somewhere in the long lecture you get instead of a dialogue. Fortunately, I don’t have to depend on one conversation for this interview, because we’ve known each other for nine years and maintained a constant exchange of ideas and war stories, especially when I visited him in his summer house in the Hargita Mountains of Transylvania on two occasions. And now we have Skype, and I can turn to him with any question, not only about his poetry but about Hungarian literature in general. Let me try and condense this ongoing friendly chit-chat to the short format of an interview.

(Paul Sohar) I’ve already touched upon the history of Transylvania and the fate of the Hungarian minority there, so let’s keep this more personal. Let’s start at the beginning, your family background.

(Sándor Kányádi) I come from a poor peasant family living in a small village, which meant that I often had to be taken out of school to help out with seasonal farming chores when they demanded my help. This and WWII delayed my graduation from high school until the age of 21. I lost my mother at the age of eleven, and my father was called in to serve in the war. In effect, I was an orphan in a boarding school, except for the presence of my older sister.

(PS) Yes, your schooling, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

(SK) The beginnings were just as basic as you say, but our village also had an elementary school going back 450 years. What most people in the West don’t realize is that the area known as Hungary now was completely destroyed during the Turkish invasion by the Islamic holy war that bogged down in Hungary for 150 years while Western Europe thrived. But Transylvania made a separate peace and was allowed to survive more or less intact and save Hungarian culture and language for future generations. That’s why my humble village school has a longer history than any school in present-day Hungary. And my education continued through the university in Hungarian, because of the already existing Hungarian educational institutions in what became Romania.

(PS) Did you have any teachers who inspired you to become a writer and a poet?

(SK) Yes, in boarding school – which comprised the grades 5th through the 12th in the European system, and such schools were heavily subsidized by various religious groups and were elite only in academic sense but not socially – I had a Hungarian composition teacher who was willing to overlook my deficiencies in handwriting and spelling and give me good marks for content on my compositions. He was also in charge of the library and at first he tried to limit me to two books a week so that I would spend more time on my studies and homework, but he discovered I had bribed a classmate of mine with some of my meal portion to take out books for me, he let me have all the books I wanted. I stayed in touch with him later on until he died. But I didn’t have any poetry to share with him back then, that was only later. And I shared it with my classmates at first until one of my poems posted on a bulletin board was discovered by a visiting editor from Bucharest. Strangely enough, he was four years my junior, only seventeen, but already an editor with a good eye for poetry. His name was Géza Páskándi, later an accomplished poet and dramatist himself. He printed my poem, and since then I have never had to look for places to publish my stuff. Editors always come to me for material.

(PS) Hungarian literature is very rich in poetry, and you didn’t have to look for inspiration in the world literature, but it would be interesting to know your favorites apart from the Hungarian classics.

(SK) World literature is more available in Hungarian than in English, and that’s probably true of most small nations; they need to look outside to see what’s going on in the world while the English-speaking countries cover a large part of the globe, they can feel comfortable in the belief that everything worth knowing is written in English and can afford to remain more insular and ignore smaller nations. Of course, during the war years and afterwards under communism, Hungarian readers did not enjoy full access to the outside world. I first realized that when I started reading South American poets and writers and something sounded familiar in their lines; they reminded me of contemporary Romanian poetry. My Romanian colleagues, speaking a Romance language found Spanish poetry more accessible and they could not help coming under its spell.

(PS) Did this exposure influence your own poetry?

(SK) It’s hard to say. I like to think I always followed my own intuition and then I was glad to see some similarities between my own stuff and other contemporary poetry. I found myself validated by kindred spirits rather than influenced. For example, Cavafy became my favorite poet from the world literature when I read these four lines of his: “Remember when writing your poetic lines / that you want them to preserve the flavor of your life, / you want every beat and every metaphor to proclaim / that they were written about Alexandria by an Alexandrian.”
That’s exactly what I think. These four lines could just as well serve as my ars poetica, my creative credo. I want my poems to convey the feeling that they are about Transylvania, written by a Transylvanian. Baconsky, a Romanian poet said we poets recognize one another in the same way as a thief can immediately spot another thief, as if by a sixth sense. It’s not a matter of who influences whom, it’s a matter of mutual recognition. The important thing is to remember one’s identity and to preserve it by giving expression to it. A true poet never pretends to be someone other than himself even while experimenting with new approaches and never denies the most basic influences on his poetic self: the family that gave him life and the culture that gave him identity.

(PS) In other words, we both agree that true creative artists follow preceding innovators mostly in the spirit of innovation, they use the creative freedom claimed by earlier innovators to find their own path in their chosen field. For example, Wagner’s influence was still fresh and overwhelming to Puccini, Debussy, and even to his contemporary, Verdi, but all these composers went on to use this new creative freedom to make their own way in music, to write their own brand of new opera.

(SK) And there was Baudelaire. His influence was unavoidable for subsequent generations, but the best poets gained courage from it to do their own thing, they were inspired by it to explore new poetic vistas.

(PS) Let me get back to your own creative freedom and/or the lack thereof. You spent the prime of your life during Ceaucescu’s oppressive communist regime. How did you manage to survive?

(SK) I must have spent 7 of my 77 years on fighting for my rights, especially for the right to travel abroad, getting a passport for myself and my wife. Every trip was a hard struggle even though I was always very careful never to offend the state of Romania by any public statement when abroad. That would have been a capital crime and would have jeopardized the possibility of future travel for others, too. Our only possible protection was the law as longs we never broke any. We insisted on our legal civil rights, and only way to assert ourselves was to remind the authorities of their obligations to obey the beautifully described – but rarely observed – laws set out in the constitution. But civil disobedience was unimaginable under that system, the authorities were just waiting for such an excuse to crack down, throw you in jail or worse, found suicide, shot in the back of the head in the woods. Or run over by an unidentified truck. They were very ingenious in their methods. Under these conditions, if you make an illegal U-turn, you’re finished. A friend from abroad wanted to do just that when he once offered to drive me some place, and I asked him to let me out of the car, I could not afford to be party to the slightest infraction. As a last resort, once I went so far as threatening publicly to go on hunger strike, but there was no law against that, as I was quick to point out to the outside press.

(PS) So in a way you were a dissenter?

(SK) No, I was no dissenter, simply because there was no possibility of dissent. We supposedly lived under a perfect system, and any criticism was taken as an all-out attack on the whole system.

(PS) Were people expected to inform on one another?

(SK) Yes, of course. We all had our phones tapped, our apartments wired to listening devices, and many of my friends were forced to turn in reports about me. So I told them what to write in the statement.

(PS) Now all that information is supposed to be available. Did you ever look at your dossier?

(SK) No, I never bothered. On one occasion they ordered me to appear before a high-ranking officer of the Securitat (State Security Force), and he pointed at my file on his desk, it was at least 4 or 5 inches thick, filled with reports. But now I don’t want to know who said what about me, because these reports would not describe the circumstances under which the statements were obtained. And of course, that file did not contain the transcripts of the listening devices; a stack of those would reach the ceiling. It’s over now, but in the meantime my generation spent the best years if their lives in a Kafkaesque world.

(PS) How about party membership?

(SK) I refused to join the Communist Party. Needless to say, in a totalitarian state any form of communication is used as a propaganda tool, entrusted exclusively to reliable party members. That was why I could not work for any major publisher or publication, only a children’s magazine. But it was a living and allowed me to keep writing my own stuff. And I loved writing children’s poems and stories too. The way I see it, the only difference between children’s literature and grown-up, mainstream literature is the size, but not quality. It’s like a carpenter should make a smaller chair for a child with the same care he bestows on a full-size chair. However, for a long time I was a member of the Romanian Writers Guild, a state-run organization. All full-time writers and journalists were members. In 1987 I publicly resigned when the Guild failed to help me get an exit visa and passport for a trip to Rotterdam, to an international poetry festival as part of a Hungarian delegation. But my absence at the festival made big news in Holland, and the following year I was invited again. Then the authorities gave in to international pressure and let me attend the festival. A year later, as you know the regime crumbled, and the feared Securitat was abolished.

(PS) It seems your growing international reputation gave you some protection.

(SK) Yes, it did. I was made a member of the Austrian P.E.N. Club, only secretly, of course; we Romanian citizens were forbidden to join any international organization. In the 1980’s already I had a long poem (“All Souls’ Day in Vienna”) published in an illustrated special edition in Germany, and I was published in Swedish, Finnish, Estonian, and Russian long before I appeared in the US market with “Dancing Embers”.

(PS) Any more exciting news in that respect?

(SK) Last year a collected volume of my poems came out in Russia from several translators, and now a major Russian literary monthly (Innustrannaya Literatura) has a 25 page essay about it.

(PS) Congratulations. And I might add, I keep working on my Kányádi translations and publishing them all over the English-speaking world. Is there anything else you would like to add?

(SK) Yes. I would like to finish this interview with a quote from a poem (“Heretic Telegrams to the Other Side, Joint Communiqué”, first published in To Topos, 2006) I wrote on hearing about the death of Zbigniew Herbert in 2000. I had met him at that international poetry festival in Rotterdam in 1988, and we immediately connected, like two thieves who recognize each other. This quote gives another ars poetica, another way for me to summarize my attitude toward poetry. Here it goes:
“We agreed that poetry like love is the private business of the one in love no one in love has the right to demand love in return a felicitous indeed blissful state of mind comes from having one’s love requited but unrequited love affairs sometimes even often result in literary works of great cathartic power no one asks let alone forces anyone to take up the pen if someone does let that writer accept the full burden of the venture but if in return for the resultant intellectual profit the writer’s community people readers audience provide the writer with a living then it is to the credit of both sides the poet is not chosen the poet separates out the poet can be neither recalled nor replaced by someone else the poet can be rewarded awarded humiliated ignored silenced wiretapped arrested hanged but – and this is salvation itself – the poet can be resurrected not only after death but while still alive too the poet is the untenured laborer of love without pension benefits and committed to the language beyond the grave otherwise as a physical person the poet is just as fickle vulnerable liable to spoiling and spoilage and perhaps even more intolerable than the fellow human beings around in large part proud but never haughty toward other peoples nations constantly self-critical Basta
Written in Rotterdam in June of nineteen hundred and eighty-eight by Z. H. and yours truly.”

(PS) Obviously you wrote it in your mind as the meeting was unfolding and then copied it from memory 12 years later. Thank you for your time, and I wish you good health and strength to carry on.

(SK) And I thank you for bringing my poetry to the American reading public. And please, thank the readers for me for their attention. And don’t forget, you’re always welcome in my mountain retreat in Transylvania.