An Interview with Karoly Sandor
By Stephen Reichert
STEPHEN REICHERT:You were born in Budapest, Hungary on August 23, 1931. How did you make your way to Canada in 1957 and what are your memories of Budapest?
KAROLY SANDOR: I had an active part in the 1956 revolution. Worried over this my wife and I decided to leave the country. They caught and jailed us. We escaped, went to Veinna, Austria, four days later to England, five months later to Canada.
To the second part of your question about my memories of Budapest: The most beautiful, inspiring, on the account of its women and history, city in the world, also a very tough place if you have a mild complexion and live in a working-class district. The street where I lived was 3 blocks long, when I was five, it had six pubs. In 1996 I was interviewed by the Hungarian Radio's English Language Broadcast program. I told them about remembering buildings, people in them, the fights after the dances, the smiles of those who tolerated by infractions. How did they do that? I took my clothes off on that program (Charlie Coutts Director, retired since) and confessed: I am in love with Budapest.
REICHERT: How did you become an active member in the 1956 revolution and what sort of personal troubles did you and your wife face?
SANDOR: I took an oath in the center of the yard of the Killian Barracks, Military headquarters' facing Maleter, we shook hands. Never saw him again. Later the Russians shot him. I signed a longish book on the table with my name, address and rank. We had a legal government. After the Russian attack succeeded we didn't go to our little apartment again. A man was loitering in the hallway and one on the third floor. I sent an acquaintance to make sure, but I too checked it! I saw us clearly walking somewhere in Siberia, our feet wrapped in potato sacks. I saw this with great clarity; I also saw a bullet flying toward my temple. We left everything. My medals: for 3 years I was on the Army's triathlon team winning a number of championships, individual events in running and shooting; with my name in the paper. I was Army champion on the obstacle course for 2 years, and 5th in C-1 in the National kayak/canoe championship that qualified me to be an elite sportsman in the country. I found that out only four years later. Yet, I was only four months in a single canoe. As you sense by now I treasure my medals a lot. My aunt was so worried she junked everything but a very lovely china side-table lamp that I won for a 3rd place finish. The 1st and 2nd were European champions on 1500 and 3000 meters named: Rozsavolgyi and Tabori. At that time I had not seen a lemon for at least 5 years.
REICHERT: I have read the account of your capture, by a Soviet patrol, and later escape. Would you be so kind as to recount that experience now?
SANDOR: Why would you want another account? It's all-true. Did I mention that before they shipped us to the jail they kept my wife in a tent while I was standing next to it with my boots full of water in subzero temperature? She came to no harm she said. I stood there for more than two hours. She wasn't alone; there were other women there. You know that the only way I could go on a leave from the army (being sharp tongued and giving no quarters to idiots regardless of their rank) was to win shooting and running competitions. I haven't missed a 9 from 300 meters ever. Well, can you imagine me fighting for my life?
I saw the uniform of my enemy pop, lift off about a quarter-inch as the bullets entered into his body. I wanted to join the American Army to go to Vietnam but we had two daughters in 1958-59 and I just couldn't.
So, I thought that we had better leave the country, friends, language, medals and career. We wanted to live. I felt very unsafe in Vienna and in England too. Canada was farther away.
REICHERT: When did you first begin reading poetry?
SANDOR: I began to read poetry as soon as knowing the letters of the ABC. The folk tales where often in rhymes and had a melody. I still remember them. We were also taught to show the letters with our hands; I could talk to my aunts without uttering a word, who taught me to talk fluently with words which had one consonant and one vowel inserted after every syllable. I tried to teach my daughters this magnificent art, (you could use any vowel!) but we all laughed and cried so hard that I gave up.
REICHERT: How many children do you have and do they share your appreciation for literature?
SANDOR: Two daughters and they do share my love of literature.
REICHERT: Who was the first poet to capture your attention?
SANDOR: The Hungarian poet Janos Arany.
REICHERT: What is it about Janos Arany's writing that attracted you, and do you see elements of his work in your own?
SANDOR: Shakespeare is the English Janos Arany. I cannot compare him with anybody else. To see elements of his work in mine? I would be completely mad to imagine it, totally mad, but what the elements of his poetry left me with is an unquenchable thirst to drink from the same fountain.
REICHERT: Robert Creeley has said, "the old are hardly the best judges for the young." Do you agree?
SANDOR: Are we talking about investments in the stock market or whether we should marry the girl who has money who we love or the one who loves us and is poor?
REICHERT: He was talking about poets, but we don't have to. You can talk about this as it applies to poets. You can also discuss whether one should marry the girl who has money who we love, or the one who loves us and is poor. The latter may be a better subject.
SANDOR: Dear Stephen, marry the girl who loves you! She might leave one day but at least you were loved. Marry her even if she is rich!
REICHERT: Which younger poets are of interest to you?
SANDOR: One has to read the Small Magazines, to find young poets worthy of attention. The big outlets wouldn't publish our present day Shakespeare.
REICHERT: Should our larger magazines, our Paris Reviews & New Yorkers, be publishing more of our younger, less-known, poets?
SANDOR: If the poem is great they should stand.
REICHERT: So, what books are you currently reading?
SANDOR: I am reading William Trevor's collected short stories, playing with W. V. Quine's - Quiddities and Kurt Schwitters' Poems Performance Pieces Prose Plays Poetics and The dialogic Imagination by M.M. Bakhtin. I devised and write a course guide for some of my friends based on the last title. I am writing and don't have enough time to read, not enough!
REICHERT: What sort of things are you writing these days? Can you give us a sample?
SANDOR: I am rewriting a few lines of my novel. In addition I started to work on a story of a homicide detective who has a diassociative personality disorder. He killed a young woman, begins to investigate the murder and the clues lead to him. Now will he arrest himself, go into politics or establish a new church? Only the Gods know.
REICHERT: The Best American Poetry, 2000 recently asked the former editors of the series to select the 15 best American poems of the twentieth century. They then compiled these selections to create "The Best American Poets of the Twentieth Century." Who would make your list of "The Best Hungarian Poets of the Twentieth Century?"
SANDOR: I'll be very partial and risk being accused of having a tunnel vision. My list is: Endre Ady, Laszlo Nagy, Jozsef Utassy [his poem "Isten Kituntet" appears in the Fall | Winter 2000 issue of Smartish Pace]. There are others, of course I like some others very much yet these are the names in my front line.
REICHERT: How about "The Best Canadian Poets of the Twentieth Century?"
SANDOR: From one I have learned a lot: George McWhirter, he is still young, there are others.
REICHERT: What do you mean by having "learned a lot?" Has he influenced you personally, your writing...both?
SANDOR: Yes, he has had great insight into my work, a very patient man. In spite of the innumerable problems I had with English he pointed me in the right direction with kindness, a rare kind in my experience. I am taking another course with him. Translation. I am translating Hungarian poetry into English.
REICHERT: How do you balance form and substance when translating a poem?
SANDOR: Substance first, naturally. Form I strive for. When a perfect balance is found I am in the presence of Gods, I might cry or get drunk. A very rare precious jewel. This, in my experience, is the result of very hard work, patience and the willingness to completely submerse oneself in the original. It helps, although it is not essential, if the translator can write in the original language.
REICHERT: Does the perfect balance intoxicate you or does the perfect balance create a reaction that ends with you drinking the firewater of your choice?
SANDOR: I am intoxicated by the perfect balance, it's rare, like a white crow. I'll translate Transliterate works from now on to make the reader of an English text feel exactly how he would if he reads it in Hungarian. Who gives a damn if the words are not exact, as long as the reader feelings are.
REICHERT: Which of your translations presented the greatest challenge?
SANDOR: Every time I raise my eye from the original I see the boiling Acheron where a fluent, English speaking Cerberus is laughing, saying that - this is not possible. I became tireless and steel hard and won a number of battles.
REICHERT: Robert Hass, who is well known for translating Czeslaw Milosz, has said that translating is more like doing crossword puzzles than it is writing poetry. He also said that there are rare moments when you solve a problem and you feel like you've written the poem. Do you ever feel like you've written a poem after solving a translation problem?
SANDOR: I felt Robert Hass had an uneviable task. I am familiar with Milosz. He couldn't learn English well enough and had a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life. From all my reading I remember one thought of his. That's not enough. He is dry, bitter, unhappy, well that's the lot of an intelligent exile who is full of himself.
No, I don't feel that I wrote the poem after I translated it. At times I wish I wrote the poem. That's what I want to translate perfectly, and that's what I do most of the time.
REICHERT: Which Canadian poet is being most overlooked by American readers?
SANDOR: Most, but if they are deserving attention their art will be noticed.
REICHERT: What sort of Canadian outlets are available for Canadian writers?
SANDOR: Well, literary journals, small poetry mags, CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], and publishing companies.
REICHERT: Do you think American Poet Billy Collins, who is a favorite of mine, would enjoy his current success, a six figure book deal, if he were doing the same thing as a Canadian poet teaching at a Canadian College?
SANDOR: Unfortunately I am not familiar with Billy Collins, but I will check him out next month, out of respect to you. Six figure deal? No, inconceivable.
REICHERT: Does Vancouver offer many independent bookstores, or is it like most of America, as Michael Heller once said, as difficult to find an independent bookstore "as finding an untumbled intern in the White House?" In any case, we are mostly Barnes & Noble and Borders.
SANDOR: There are independent bookstores here, we read in them once in a while from our recent works. Your poor president, I don't personally trust him after he said that he didn't inhale but how could he refuse the affections of Monica? I advise you to keep this in front of your eyes, even the judgeship of the Supreme Court is too high, could you just become a brilliant, honest lawyer who owns his firm and enjoys the trust of his clients?
REICHERT: I will do my best, but owning a law firm would be a great albatross. In the legal profession I prefer to fit into the mix than bake the cake. Now back to your writing. How do you begin the process of writing a poem?
SANDOR: Cornered by conscience, a flash of unexpected insight, being preferred over two billion men by a beautiful woman, listening to children and seeing events from an obtuse angle. I have slept with death, she was warm, very beautiful, we smiled when parting. I rather lived than make love to her. It was a tough decision.
REICHERT: She was warm, but did she snore?
SANDOR: Your irreverence would be forgiven by her on the account of your youth. Death is a hands-on Woman, I beg you to be careful. With me she had no time to relax.
REICHERT: You also write prose, is this process different than the one used to write poetry?
SANDOR: There is a plot, a good idea, then a character comes, takes over and makes me do things I will often be sorry for later.
REICHERT: Are you saying that you have your characters do things you wish you could do if you lived a life without repercussion?
SANDOR: Of course I would, but no one would come to any harm.
REICHERT: Stephen Dunn has said that he "tend[s] to like people who like poetry." With what sort of people do you like to keep company? Do you like people who like poetry?
SANDOR: For a number of years we meet in an Irish restaurant-pub with four to eight people. One is a Ph.D. classics expert, a well published author in his subject, another is a Comp. Lit. Ph.D. Another is in medicine, all do write poetry and are unexplainably kind to me. I am humble in their company and do my best by not ridiculing them for their political naivete. Great gang.
What happened in my life and how it influenced me is visible in my writing. There are things that are hard to hide. I ask you again to make this extremely tame, low key; there is safety in obscurity. I am happy being on the end of a sweet smile, with a glass of wine, reading a good poem knowing that my loved ones are healthy. And that's it! Eden? Well, this afternoon I trimmed my Magnolia tree. It still brought two blooms. This is at the end of September. I am so grateful.
REICHERT: Karoly, thank you for your time and insights. Itís been a pleasure to talk with you and publish your poems and translations on the pages of Smartish Pace. Thank You.
KAROLY SANDOR lives in Vancouver, Canada. His translations have appeared in a number of publications including, most recently, Prism International and The Review (London, England). His translations of Hungarian poets Janos Olah, Imre Pentek, Simon Serfozo and Jozsef Utassy appear in the Fall | Winter 2000 issue of Smartish Pace. He also had three poems in Smartish Pace, Issue One, Fall | Winter 1999.
STEPHEN REICHERT is Founder and Editor of Smartish Pace.