Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Friday, May 1, 2015


Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Márton Koppány: Those are two questions and I’ll try to respond to both.  Poetry began for me with falling in love with a girl in Tatranska Lomnica (a small resort place close to one of the highest peaks of the Tatra mountains), in one-time Czechoslovakia, where I spent a few winter vacations with my parents in the 60’s. I was 13 and my feeling remained unrequited. (I was a timid guy and automatically made jokes on myself when I had the slightest opportunity.) On New Year’s Eve, I ran out of the hotel where there was a party for the guests and climbed for a while. Everything was deserted and my (slightly Freudian) story ends there. (Because we always remain where we are. It is not a question of “importance”.) Soon I started writing poetry about loneliness, separation – and the words were also lonely on the page, or sparse at least. It started with a writer’s block. (Let’s call it minimalism.) But I still wanted to write.

Before that, in the first grade of the elementary school, I fell in love with reading. I could read fluently (in a technical sense) at 6, and at 12 l already read Stefan Zweig and the Mann brothers, on my mother’s recommendation (I wouldn’t follow her tastes too long, though), who had read them in German because that was her mother tongue. She was rescued as a young girl from one-time Yugoslavia just before the nazi German and allied Hungarian troops arrived. All her family perished in concentration camps. She survived the war with forged papers at hiding places – ironically, in Hungary. I learned the lesson quickly: there is no more unfathomable but acute question than what happens next. Or more exactly: the only thing we know is what happens “next” but we don’t want to know it or at least we can’t focus on it too long and the process as we hide it from ourselves is funny, even exciting, and at the end of each process we put our signature on our actual creation, which belongs to us (even if it happens to be a conceptual poem about the death of the notion of authorship), and secures our immortality. The more self-reflected we are, the more naïvely or “cleanly” (that’s a concrete poetry term and a malady I half-cured in myself) we might repeat those circles. (Although there are no rules.) I would have expressed it in a different way then, but retrospectively I think that I got permeated with elliptical thinking. And what was metaphorical first changed into physical or rather visual reality later: a good part of my visual poems are genuine ellipses, dot, dot, dot, or contain ellipses or at least objects used elliptically. I’ve never decided to do so and I always hope it won’t happen again.

Ellipsis No. 16   /2009/

I see I’m being hopelessly verbose today and I haven’t responded to your second question yet: how poetry begins for me. (I’m either too happy with the opportunity of talking with you or don’t find the right words or both.)  In short: it might begin this way or that way, it is simply a state of mind when I get relaxed (I don’t know why) plus I get interested in watching how my thoughts “and” feelings come and go. It becomes a landscape with clouds, waves, trees, letters, tables, shoes, spaces, suitcases, words – and of course punctuation marks, mostly ellipses. When I believe that they are “words”, it turns out that they are “clouds”. And vice versa.

TB:    What a rich response.  Shortly after reading it I encountered this passage in Philip Glass’ memoir Words Without Music: “When I’m playing a concert now, I know that what I must do is listen to the music.  Now, here are some curious questions.  When does that listening take place?  Does it take place in the present?  Do you listen to what you’re playing, or do you listen to what you’re about to play?  I really don’t have a prepared answer, except my intuition is this: the best-case situation is that I’m playing, and I’m almost hearing what I’m about to play.  And my playing follows that image. In other words, it’s like a shadow that precedes the object, rather than follows it.” 

Glass seems to be describing a process that is analogous to your own.  Or am I seeing a connection that isn’t there?

MK: That’s a beautiful story, and yes, I see the analogy. Instead of trying to interpret it in itself or to tell more about what I see when I “catch” the basic image of a visual poem (mostly while walking because that is how I “work” /the basic image frequently turns out to be an unnecessary by-product of the final poem because I’m old-fashioned and believe in inspiration but not necessarily in my own/), I would like to add two more stories to it:

An outsider asked the Buddha, "I do not ask about the spoken or the unspoken." The World Honored One remained silent.The outsider sighed in admiration and said, "The World Honored One's great kindness and great compassion have opened up my clouds of illusion and let me gain entry." After the outsider had left, Ananda asked the Buddha, "What did the outsider realize, that he said he had gained entry?" The Buddha said, "Like a good horse, he goes as soon as he sees the shadow of the whip." (From The Blue Cliff Record, in Thomas Cleary’s translation)

Above him there was still silence. “I didn’t mean to insult you,” said K. At that, the priest screamed down at K.: “Can you not see two steps in front of you?” He shouted in anger, but it was also the scream of one who sees another fall and, shocked and without thinking, screams against his own will. (Kafka: The Trial, translated by David Wyllie)

If my understanding is correct, in both stories (like in Glass’) a paradigm-shift is the “solution”. But it happens behind the scenes, so to speak. We know more not because we get information, but because we recognize that it has been there since the very beginning, in the form of endless repetition, which is the shadow of the future, which doesn’t exist.

Butterfly – for Gertrude   /2013/

TB:  I noted with interest that you find inspiration while walking.  I often find inspiration while spending time on my stationary bike.  There’s a relationship, I think, between physical activity and creative activity.  Is this something that you’ve thought about?

MK: I didn’t give it too much thoughts, just enjoyed its gifts. J I did different sports (now I must be more careful because of my hip problem), but in addition to them walking has always been part of my daily routine. The central park of Budapest is in a walking distance from our home, and Margaret Island, the most miraculous place in town, is also relatively close. So I’m lucky with these and also with the situation of having been a freelance translator and editor who can afford the luxury of walking on workdays as well. We had a dog-companion for 15 years. “Butterfly” was written in her memory and I learned a lot from her, proper walking included. You just “have” to enjoy yourself. Happy thoughts and sad thoughts arrive in a mix, but all have a hint of lightness, and a taste of purposelessness (which I desperately need for writing).

Walking   /2015/

TB:  Are you involved with a community of writers and/or visual artists in Hungary?

MK: I’m not at all, although I have a few poet and artist friends who live in town. I’ve never been. To quote myself (because nothing has changed since then and I wouldn’t be able to explain it any better), this is what I said about it in an interview conducted by Jesse Glass in 2003, and included in my Ahadada book, titled “Investigation and Other Sequences”: “Although I'd published a few poems and essays in Hungarian literary magazines, as a young writer, I'd felt almost completely isolated in Budapest in the atmosphere of the late 70's and 80's. So perhaps [my writing] started with my claustrophobia. Actually, I should have put it this way: I'm an outsider ‘in’ Hungarian literature and I don't know exactly how I got to that no-place or no-position. Maybe I was born to be an outsider. Or Hungary is not the right place for me. Or I'm not a good writer. Or I'm not a writer at all, because my idea of literature is too different from the valid, working, influential ideas.”

That doesn’t mean that I have not been in touch with Hungarian literature. My first favorite poets were a couple of Hungarian poets of the previous generation. No poetry influenced me as much as theirs. And as a translator and editor I participated in many projects and worked together with many good people. I translated tons of Fluxus stuff for an archive called Artpool, and I also put together a book on book art for them (enjoyed complete freedom to include what I liked). From 1993, for a decade or so, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a great small press in Bratislava, Slovakia, called Kalligram, run by Hungarian speaking editors. They, and my imaginary society, The Institute of Broken and Reduced Languages brought out several books and four magazine issues, all specializing in avant garde or experimental (or how to call it) poetry, with a special stress on American authors, because I had a background of having had spent two academic years there (as a “family member”, with my wife who was an MA student at the State University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee). (Later on some of the products of the Institute went online, thanks to the invitation from Karl Young, and his Light and Dust. It hasn’t been updated for many-many years.) To mention only one project, I had the chance to publish a small book of mathemaku and essay by my friend, Bob Grumman as well. Bob died a few weeks ago and I miss him a lot.

To B   /2015/

I started writing what turned out to be "visual poetry", roughly 35 years ago,  because by the late seventies I'd understood that if I didn't want to give up the faint hope of communicating, I should "get rid" of my mother tongue. So the main source of my way was a deficiency, which made things simple in a sense. I had to find new means and tools, like empty spaces, the physical reality of the sheet of paper (page), the gesture of turning (clicking) the page, symbols, fragments, natural formations.  Luckily enough my inclinations have always directed me towards the (actual, ever-changing) limits of verbal communication. (But I don’t distrust words more than the stars in the sky or the young boy of our neighbors who rings our door bell just to see the face I’ll pull.)

At the beginning I knew almost nothing about concrete poetry, and I re-invented the wheel several times. My first experiences were more influenced by the language of the koans, I guess (I considered and still consider them poems). I’d already known about Fluxus, and I especially liked George Brecht. Mail art was helpful too.

In the early 90’s, when the already decadent, almost self-negating (but still very real) state socialist system was overthrown, I became active in Hungary as well for a very short period, but at that time I was already more interested in publishing in English (or: with no English at all rather than in Hungarian). Then in Milwaukee and Chicago I made new friends and in the recent past I had the opportunity to travel a bit more and be included in different projects in the US and in the UK. As for my social life in Hungary, nothing has changed. l’m almost exactly as isolated as I was 35 years ago. After a short and not too successful experiment with liberalism, Hungarian society found its way back to its worst, between-the-wars traditions, and today “we” have the most virulent far right in Europe (a classic anti-semitic party with postmodern propaganda machine) (and I’m a classic Jew with postmodern roots in the air, so you can imagine how much I’m enjoying the company). For the moment they are the leading force of the opposition to “our” populist, nationalist, putinist government. (I frequently don’t see the difference clearly between the two groups.) Altogether they represent more than 60% of those Hungarian voters who can choose a party. (The reasons are complex and complicated and I don’t claim that I fully understand them.) The left is brain dead. There are civil initiatives though and I go to demonstrations when my health allows me. And sometimes I get relieved in the friendly crowd, which has a nice sense of humor. (I would never have thought that. I’d always been scared of any kind of crowd.)

In 2010 I started writing “political” visual poetry, which became my main project for the next four years. Some of the poems were included in Addenda (Otoliths, 2012), and a bunch of them was collected in an e-book, titled Hungarian LangArt (Eratio, 2014).  As I wrote in the introduction to the book:  “Lately I’ve gotten interested in topics that have direct political consequences — mostly because ‘it’ is reaching out for me, almost in a physical sense. But history (my family’s history and through it: anybody’s history) has always been in my head and always influenced my work. In Hungarian LangArt I react to the situation. Hungarian democracy is collapsing and a more and more openly authoritarian regime is in the making, based on the old-new paradigm of the ‘folk’ and the ‘other’. I was depressed for months, but then the whole mess started inspiring me. (So I must be grateful in a sense.)…” /end of quote/

Hungarian Passport (from Exile to Emigration)  /2012/

I think that the project of writing “political” poetry might be over. I’ve run out of both the words and the lack-of-words of the visual poet. It is too close and I’ve lost the walking distance. What else to add? It would be nice to make a small exhibition for them, actually that is the main thing I wish to do. So far I haven’t found a place here or abroad.

TB:  What do you think poetry does?

MK: It does different things to different people who mean different things by it. Or is the feeling common? Or it is the source, which is common? What could be more different than two poets or two kinds of poetry? I’m not good at terminology. Is it only the art of language (which is already a much broader category than verse), or is it the art of communication, from sonnet through collage, plastic poetry, visual poetry, lettrism, video poetry, to asemic writing and conceptual writing? And what does it communicate that is so different from a film or a novel or a painting or an installation? Or are those all poetry today, whether working with the found or the made? And why only today? Is poetry a quality in them? A decoration given by whom? Is it an abbreviation used for convenience in bios and interviews? Has it become a metaphor? A common place? A nasty word? Should we use other words instead of it? More poetic ones? Like art or zen or deconstruction? Is it a momentary state of mind easy to lose and never find again? Is it the nothing special versus something self-important?  Is it direct… into…? The only cure on itself? If walking is poetry then is walking a language? Is it created by the reader, or half-way? Is it a special but not specific way of seeing? Can a subclass of poetry get outdated? What is not poetry? Is a poem a poem? Is it a reminder of the intimacy of insight and delusion? A support of contemplation? A context? A shorthand of thinking about thinking? A dialogue between the living and the dead? A guide for trees how to be a tree and for clouds how to be a cloud? An open field? I’m not getting closer. Perhaps I simply wanted to say hello. Or goodbye. Or my making jokes on myself in Tatranska Lomnica has developed into a lifelong hobby.

Asylum: the young colleague arrives at the Spanish border – for Mr. Behoover   /2013/

TB:  Who do you think of as your literary and artistic forebears?

MK: The question of influences is a funny one since in a sense we can discover only what we already know. I watched the movie decades ago but still remember, roughly, this platonic question from Les Enfants, a phenomenal piece by Marguerite Duras: How could I learn what I don’t know yet?” My first encounter with a couple of zen koans happened in the 70's. They were translated into Hungarian and published as cartoons in a marxist magazine of human sciences. I'd never seen anything like that before (and they were almost completely distorted) but they seemed to be "familiar" at once. I had similar experiences with Robert Lax and Ben Porter at the beginning of the 90's when I found their works in the wonderful Golda Meir Library of UWM Milwaukee. I knew about George Brecht (and Fluxus) sometime earlier. In the 70’s I was in touch for a while with an exceptional Hungarian poet, Dezso Tandori (another strong influence) who would read everything and who told me that I should check out G. Brecht because I would like him. He was right.

(And there are phenomena that I won't decipher even if I spend the rest of my life with it.)

I wouldn’t dare to call it an influence, but Kafka’s Trial (be it poetry” or not) is a basic experience to me. I’ve read it at least 4-5 times, and the more times I read it the more hymnic it is.

It would lead too far to tell more about other favorites from the past, therefore I limit my list to two contemporary visual poets, K. S. Ernst and Roy Arenella, who started visual poetry many years before me – although I wasn’t aware of their work in the previous millenium. There are several great visual poets from that generation, like Karl Young, Karl Kempton, Bob Grumman and others whose work I admire at the same level, but I feel Ernst and Arenella’s lyricism and dry humor especially close to my mind.

(Ironically, Roy Arenella hasn’t been included in visual poetry anthologies and he is regarded as a mail artist, which he really is. But the privacy of his “photo/cards” is always inclusive rather than exclusive. That kind of privacy is a plus.)

Poem – for Karl Young (and Laszlo Kornhauser)    /2007/

TB:  And finally, where do you find encouragement?  What keeps you going and interested?

MK: For instance encounters like this one. I’ve gotten a lot of support and attention from my poet friends for long. And their works, which now I can follow on the internet as well is a source of inspiration. I’ve also had the privilege to meet some of them in person at the Bury Text Festivals, in London, Chicago, Milwaukee and other venues. It is quite different from the 70’s and 80’s when my isolation was almost complete.

But to put it differently, how on earth can we communicate, or simply be together through works of art (for instance)? (Can we? There is no method to double check.) What does it prove? It is an amazing fact indeed.

A couple of years ago I started translating my visual poems into verbal descriptions. The idea came from questions by friends and my questions to them about this or that (mostly technical) detail of my works. Then I started using those descriptions in themselves, changing them into monologues, and without the original pieces. Here I include one of them, because I have no better response to your question. (But this time I’ll add the visual poem as well. It is relatively old and low resolution so I don’t know how it will look like. For several years I didn’t have the faintest idea what resolution meant.)

The small handwritten symbols are there to indicate the places where missing elements are to be inserted – as we use them when correcting manuscripts or school assignments. But nothing is inserted. The three lower ones should suggest that something is missing from the sky, and the fourth upper one should suggest that something is missing from "blankness" as well.  I wonder whether my symbols really  mean in "your" culture what they mean in "ours". And I'm a bit scared for the moment because my piece should be simple and clear, and if it is not clear to you, I must have done something wrong! Please let me know what the handwritten symbols mean for you, if anything. Are they misleading in a way?

In the sky blankness should be inserted, and in the blankness the sky as the vees indicate it (do they?), respectively. I'm a bit relieved to hear that you would use the vees as I use them.

Thank you indeed! Yes, exactly, the piece was made because I suddenly realized that the v's, I mean the symbols of insertion, are breathing – they inhale blankness when "staying" in the sky, and inhale sky when staying in blankness.

Breathing Exercises   /2007/


Márton Koppány (b. 1953) lives in Budapest, Hungary. His books include: Immortality and Freedom, Coracle Press, 1991; The Other Side, Kalligram 1999; To Be Or     To Be, Runaway Spoon Press,1996; Investigations and Other Sequences, Ahadada Books, 2003; EndgamesModulationsAddenda, all by Otoliths, 2008, 2010, 2012; this is visual poetry, 2010; The Reader, Runaway Spoon Press, 2012. E-books: Waves, 2008 and HungarianLangArt, 2014, both by Eratio.

Collaborative books include : From The Annual Records of The Cloud Appreciation Society, with Nico Vassilakis, Otoliths, 2008; Short Movies, with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, cPress, 2008; Collaborations, with Satu Kaikkonen, Poemics, 2009; very short stories, with Andrew Topel, avantacular press, 2010; Surfaces, with Mike Cannell, included in Modulations, 2010; Book of Numbers, with Jim Leftwich, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2011. An ongoing collaborative project with Anatol Knotek is online at Márton and Anatol.

In anthologies: Anthology SpidertangleThe Last VispoA Global VisuageThe Dark Would and The New Concrete (upcoming in 2015). First exhibitions: Barbican Library, 1989, Woodland Pattern, 1991. Recent shows: Text Festival, Manchester, 2011 and 2014; The Dark Would, Edinburgh, 2013. Recent readings (2011-2013): The Green Lantern, Chicago; Woodland Pattern, Milwaukee; UNF, Jacksonville; Birkbeck, Rich Mix and X Marks the Bökship, London. 

The PDF versions of some of his more recent books can be downloaded here:


Tom Beckett lives and writes in Kent, Ohio.

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