Why I Write the Way I Write

Talk presented at the conference on Poetry & Pedagogy: Bard College, June 24-27, 1999; revised 2001-2002, 2013

Before attempting to answer the implicit question in the title, I'll read some of what I've written. I'll address my works in reverse chronological order, reading from my latest writings first and from my earliest last.

My most recent series of works, are in my book Uxudo, published by Tuumba Press and O Books. Some of the works in Uxudo have previously been published in the magazines Chain, Conjunctions, and The Germ.

[read selections from Uxudo]

It’s never easy for me to write or talk about my own poetry, especially because I write for the most part without using any methods, systems, text-generating procedures, or hypertext composition—although I’m dabbling in that. Also my writing is not restricted to a single language, and isn't always syntactically normative.

Often when I write, elements of meaning in a poem become apparent only long after the writing . . . if I’m lucky. I know I'm not alone in this, almost everyone who writes does it to learn something, to discover, to invent. The act of writing is not merely the notation of some preconceived thought, although it can be that, too, but often it is a process of coming to some conclusions, or realizing that no conclusions are possible.

Sometimes, when we try to remember a name or the anwser to a question that has been nagging us, we finally turn to someone and ask the question out loud, and the answer magically pops into our consciousness. This tells us that by vocalizing a thought, by putting it into words, rather than merely thinking it, forming sounds by vibrating our vocal cords in a particular way using the air in our lungs, by moving our tongues and other facial muscles, we transform the information and transfer it to other parts of our brain and, in doing so, often find the answer. It's as if there were these crowds of people within us, who each know something that the others don't. So by moving our thoughts around from the thought-center to the speech- or writing- or even dance-center of our brain, new information is released and becomes accessible, and a stimulating conversation develops between these various solitary and basically stupid centers within us. Therefore, writing is a kind of conversation with ourselves, in which we communicate by making marks on paper or tapping some keys on a keyboard, and so on. By turning to another medium we establish a communication channel not available otherwise. This may be the reason why I so freely change media in my work: why I write poems, paint images, and compose music. This phenomenon of quasi self-generating ideas is also why I often combine languages when I write poems. It seems that by switching from one language to another I arrive at some deeper truth than if I were to remain within the confines of a single language, which wouldn't be my mother tongue, as it’s called. Although I teach multilingual writing, I don’t suggest to my students that they should necessarily write using two or more languages. What I do propose is that they write using multiple forms of expression, using all means available to them, since multitudes are contained in everyone.

In order to explain the linguistic interruptions I was exposed to while growing up, beginning at age five, I will quote a passage from the preface I just finished for Uxudo, in which I answer the self-imposed question of why I use multiple languages and why I mix them.

" . . . I was born in France and, at the age of five, moved to Hungary with my Hungarian father and Austrian mother, who spoke French with one another, because neither spoke the other’s native language. French was also the only language I knew at the time. Thus we all continued speaking French while living in Budapest. I learned Hungarian as quickly as any five-year-old would, although I remember the struggles with non-comprehension even then. Complicating things even more, my parents elected to send me to the Russian-language school of Budapest, the Gorky School, attended primarily by children of the Russian ruling class. They did not learn any Hungarian, I remember, but I had to learn Russian in order to keep up. Sadly, I have forgotten most of that language.

In early 1957, at the age of twelve, I was sent to live in Vienna, because Budapest had become a dangerous and unstable place, where writers and other intellectuals were imprisoned and executed. My father was a writer and was imprisoned there and kept in solitary for over two years. After his release, he moved to Paris, and became chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

In Vienna I learned to speak German while going to a French lycée. German, the language spoken by Austrians, was then my third—or if you count Russian—my fourth language. (But let’s not count it, because I’ve forgotten so much of it.) French was the only language besides Hungarian that I knew at the time. This was not a smooth transition, as the language and cultural background of my education between ages five and twelve was not French, but Russian and Hungarian. I was at sea in the lycée when it came to the Crusades or La Fontaine.

In 1964, after a visit to New York, I decided to move here permanently. I was more comfortable in a culture which was largely made up of people from elsewhere. A society in which cultural, linguistic, and even racial mixing was at least conceivable, seemed to me the most natural. Today, some thirty years later, this form of internationalism and cosmopolitanism makes more sense than ever for a complex society.

Geographical displacement was not new to me. Even as a little child I remember moving from place to place. I was born during the Second World War, and my parents, who were freedom fighters in the French Resistance, were always on the run from the Nazis. Once they had me, they became even easier targets than before, and later they told me of wigs and disguises they had worn and how they once fled from their little house in Cannes in the middle of the night and, looking back, saw the Gestapo shooting into their house, assuming they were hiding in the closet, as people often did in those days. Lights being turned on in the night and hasty packing of bags are among my earliest memories.

It is safe to say, then, that I achieved a certain universality in my travels and that ignoring the continual presence of the four languages I know nearly equally well, as well as ignoring my years of work in the visual arts, would be denying myself a richness I’ve earned. So I write these multi-, poly-, plurilingual poems and carefully combine them with my images as I make these artworks.

To return to the particular state of consciousness while writing, elsewhere in that same preface to Uxudo, I say that

Recently I was asked by a friend, who is also fluent in French and English, whether my texts tell stories or recount experiences. I was tempted to say "no," but couldn't. I told her that in these poems I did not, at least consciously, try to describe anything. The poems were written by letting one word lead me to another, by way of some sort of association. In psychiatry, this level of consciousness is referred to as liminal.

I added that this writing is also a kind of musical composition using language. Neologisms like "multiplicatering" or "gewurzeltidé" are a kind of play with established words, while others, such as "shano-glick" or "gelinkami," are not obvious derivations of existing words and exist more for their pure sound, their sonorous essence, than for any contextual association.

When I felt that the reader could use my help, as with the Hungarian word "fodrász" [FUDD-razz] = hairdresser, I offered it. Such a word has a "story" of its own and is laden with associations.

Other parts of the poems, such as "Ivan was terrible" are simple statements. Poems like these, written by going from one image or word to another and not by knowingly telling a story, might later reveal often surprising scenarios. So the process is not that of remembering and putting into words a particular event, but rather of writing something (maybe unexplainable) that is happening at the moment of writing. It would follow that the reading of such a poem could become a similar process of discovering underlying concerns and motivations. So, in fact, my friend was not far from the truth when she said that I was no doubt describing an experience."

Sometimes it seems almost preferable not to be "paying attention" to the content of a poem or the meaning of the words, in order to be able to write unencumbered by such concerns. By losing myself in languages, in the sounds of words rather than their meaning, I allow new meanings to spontaneously arise.

This is a kind of not-thinking and at the same time requires concentration, as when driving a car, for example, where one has to make sudden, rapid decisions in order to survive. We let our instinct, backed by our experience, take over. We concentrate, pay total attention, yet, for the sake of precision, we must suspend all conscious thinking and premeditation. Such relinquishment of determined reasoning while surrendering to a more rapid and concentrated form of thought is the kind of state of mind that I find myself in when writing these intuitive poems. A case could be made for saying that such thinking is a reflex and not thought, but that's another discussion.

What I listen to, when I write, is a rhythm and a music that all poets pay attention to. Allowing other languages to enter, I open doors without first evaluating the results. I should mention that I often find myself writing in English only, a unilingual variation of the same intuitive, associative approach.

I use neologisms, my tenses are imperfect, my speech can be corrupt and broken, I dangle many a modifier ungrammatically, commit solecisms, use faulty subordinations and anacolúthons, but I would not say that I murder the Queen’s English, French, German, or Hungarian—rather embellish them or, at least, take off from them.

Earlier, I said that I didn't use any methods, systems or procedures. But in fact, I do occasionally write and edit poems by using certain forms of chance-assisted choice-making. Among Men is such a work, a book-length multilingual and quasi-political poem I wrote in 1994, obliquely dealing with the lives of women composers and women artists throughout history. I say quasi-political because it appears to be a feminist work (it turned out to be one necessarily by dealing with the subject of women in the arts) but the concern was manifold, not only political. In 1996, I was commissioned by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, the West German radio at Cologne, to adapt Among Men for radio.

In order to turn Among Men into a score for the actors to read, I had to separate the languages I used, because I asked each language to be read by a native speaker. I made a separate column for each language and dissected my text into these "language columns." After recording each speaker separately, we had to electronically reassemble my original text in postproduction.

I was offered something in the neighborhood of 22 tracks to work with and 5 different positions: left, right, center, center-left, and center-right. This is where, in the planning of the play, I reached out to chance, perhaps for the first time in my life. There were so many variants, so many decisions to be made as to the amplitude and position of each voice, as well as the chamber orchestra on its five separate tracks, that I could not see any difference between the result of my personal choices and the results of chance selection. So I decided to use randomly generated numbers to determine the length, position, and amplitude of each track—each voice and each instrument. Suddenly, taste did not matter anymore and the results were as good (or as bad) as the results from any intuitive choice-making would have been. The execution of this procedure, the system itself, was a new kind of adventure for me. My crew of engineers enthusiastically met the challenge of following my precisely mapped out score, which accounted for each second of the 30-minute play.

Here are the first five minutes of "Among Men."

[play from Among Men CD]

I’ll end by reading from my books Cat Licked the Garlic and Mayg-shem Fish.

Cat Licked the Garlic, published by Tsunami Editions in 1992, is a book of poems that combine not only languages, but also images of the view out my window and video portraits of Jackson Mac Low and myself, digitized and processed using a number of different graphics programs. For the music issue of Conjunctions, I added performance guidelines to the poem "Ami Minden," which appears as a plain text on the page, and on other pages with images superimposed in various ways, changing the text. I'll read the poem in its plain text form:


Ami minden quand un yes or a no je le said

viens am liebsten hätte ich dich du süsses de

ez nem baj dass weisst du me a favor hogy

innen se faire croire tous less birds from the

forest who fly here by mistake als die Wälder

langsam verschwinden. Minden verschwinden,

mind your step and woolf. Verschwinden de

nem innen—je vois de void in front of

mich—je sens, als ich érzem qu’on aille, aille,

de vágy a fejem, csak éppen (eben sagte ich

wie die Wälder verschwinden) I can repeat it

as a credo so it sinks into our cerveaux und

wird "embedded" there, mint egy teória

mathématique, "d’enchâssement"

die Verankerungstheorie in the Mathematik,

hogy legalább . . .