Poetry can be like humanitarian aid: An online interview with Károly Sándor Pallai
Károly Sándor Pallai is a PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University – Budapest. He consecrates his research to the contemporary francophone literatures of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Focusing on the intercultural and interdisciplinary, he publishes articles on the literature of the Seychelles, Martinique, Mauritius, on the enriching relations between system theory, natural sciences (quantum physics), philosophy, psychology and literature.
He’s a member of AIEFCOI (International Association of French and Comparative Studies on the Indian Ocean – University of Mauritius), of ISISA (International Small Island Studies Association – University of Hawaii), of SICRI (Small Island Cultures Research Initiative – Southern Cross University, Australia), of ICLA (International Comparative Literature Association, Paris) and of WPM (World Poetry Movement – Colombia).
He’s the conceptor, founder and editor in chief of the international electronic review of literary creation and theory Vents Alizés, created to assure an open access diffusion of the literatures of the aforementioned regions. He’s also the creator and founding director of the publishing house Edisyon Losean Endyen. Engaged for the diversity of imaginaries, heritages and for innovation, Edisyon Losean Endyen was created to improve the accessibility of the literary production of the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and the Pacific. He’s a member of the editorial board of the Seychellois literary review Sipay.
His website: http://pallaikaroly.com
Dupur Mitra: Who are your major influences as a poet?
Károly Sándor Pallai: I admire the work of Charles Bukowski. His language is simple, clear, lightly composed yet very direct, influential, his truthfulness is very often manifested in an exposure cutting to the bones, in the sincere rawness of a hard-living poet. He describes the absurdities of life, depravity, alienation and desolation in an intransigent, unyielding manner. His writing is a fermentation of the senses, a provocation and a challange to our moral, social and linguistic conditioning.
The poetry of the Haitian Frankétienne is a finely chiselled, uncompartmentalized flow of brilliantly picked and refined images, an utterly animated and dynamic masterpiece of creativity and revolutionary invention where the inflaming visions of the painter meet the linguistic and pictorial erudition of the poet and once merged, they create unique and mystical texts, transcendentally dense yet extremely translucid works of excellence. His inexhaustible, everlasting inspirational source and his ceaseless creative engagement have set an exemplary standard for me.
The Polynesian Chantal Spitz has a revolutionary voice. She eloquently refutes the westernly-constructed mythologies and her poetically outstanding writing bears testimony to a unique engagement on a political level, as well as to a literary violence breaking the taboos of stigmatization, exclusion and oppression. She analyzes the collective imaginary, the dynamics of the construction of history in a flowing poetic language. Her writing springs from the destabilizing, subversive movements, from the constant reconfiguration of identity, culture and history. Her texts are renegotiations and reactualizations of memories and historical narratives, of rootedness and of indigenous concepts. She rewrites her nation in a voice of protest and revolt.
When I enumerate my most considerable and most recent influences, I have to mention Reinaldo Arenas, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, the living masters of contemporary American literature like Philip Roth, Maya Angelou, Rae Armantrout and Natasha Trethewey.
I’d like to emphasize the influence of the Chinese Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo as well. His political, public and literary engagement is very honourable. He is a living example of embodied poetry. His writing traces paths of freedom, challenges the oppressive structures, the hegemonically possessed and monopolized power, the intimidation of people, the fierce and brutal suppression of the contrary opinions and the protests. His June Fourth Elegies is one of the most influential books of non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights. Clearly, his contribution to contemporary society, to modern age humanism and to world poetry is invaluable.
I have to mention, as a source of significant influence and as a constant reference, the famous contemporary Hungarian writer György Konrád. The subtlety of his phrases, his elaborate, elegant style have had a profound influence on me. He is one of the greatest masters personal and collective memory. Memory takes shape and becomes more and more complex starting out from the personal, separate small matters or bits and pieces of memory, gaining coherence through the intra- and interpersonal relations. The embeddedness of the individual in his community, his rootedness in the historico-cultural texture of his heritage is a central element in Konrád’s writing which is a lively monument of a nation’s remembrance.
Dupur Mitra: What does being a poet mean to you?
Károly Sándor Pallai: Influence, a unique chance and major responsibility. A permanent source of joy but also a constant struggle. When the mind is set on writing, the metaphorical view and the poetical condensation prevail. Ever so often, inspiration, the images and words lay siege to the mind 24/7 and don’t respect other commitments, and in spite of the loadedness of our agenda, they are trying to take shape and manifest in carefully chosen words, thoroughly framed phrases during a phone call, a thrilling movie or in light sleep. Poetry can easily take over control. It becomes an intimate involvement in your life in an unnoticed, extremely rapid and a very smooth way. As if it had always been an organic part of your world.
Your mission is to multiply the possible worlds, to extend and widen the horizons of the conceivable, to provide shelter, to analyze, to protect but also to criticize and dissect. Poetry is like an x-ray of our skeleton, the ultrasound monitoring of our intestines exposed, handed over to the public as an act of total self-revelation. We’ll then be at the mercy of the “other”, the one who honours us by dedicating his energy, time and his soul to reading our texts, our thoughts, by trying on our costumes, our visions and fragrances. It’s also a revival, a revitalization of the times carried off to prison, beaten to death, of remembrance forced into oblivion, an unconcealment of the dissimulated mistakes and infirmities, of historical tragedies. Writing poetry, in my interpretation, also entails the need to keep a finger on the pulse of the world, to be sensitive and to react to the slightest changes and shifts in power, to focus on the regions where oppression rages, the lives lived in enslavement and exploitation, to give words and a voice to those who have been silenced. And it’s also about courage and directness: the written word is a testimony of personal presence and involvement, of engagement. A fingerprint. There’s nowhere to hide, no narrative self, only the fusion of poetry with the personality. This is (and has to be) an “I dare say” situation.
Dupur Mitra: What is poetry?
Károly Sándor Pallai: Poetry can be like humanitarian aid, like a philosophical and even more a psychological handhold, an act of sympathy and community, a stepping stone and a relief. Poetry is also a way to transform, transubstantiate, assimilate and absorb personal and collective mistakes, tragedies, threatening political instability, passion and love, individual imperfections, grave character flaws, the different shades and tastes of suffering and agony. Poetry helps to percolate and represent the heavenly and the evil, the indescribable and the unexplainable. The flow of time, of emotions and thoughts can be described, traced in order to attempt to give an account of the inconceivable and evanescent aspects of life. Poetry can help to cope with our ghosts and demons, be it family-related, clinging to our personal history or the past of our people, of our nation. It’s a means of self-autopsy, a literary taxidermy, a textual vivisection. It’s also a temerity, a daring, an experimentation with the frontiers of language, mind and soul, a constant “why not?”. It’s letting yourself to be overcome by something mysterious. A stimulation for life. Poetry is a blueprint of life. A dry-point. This is a relation of interfecundation, of inseparable engagement. Poetry is a complicity of the fantastic with the physical qualities, a wild and carefree dissolution where the fantasticality meets the flesh.
Dupur Mitra: What are your observations about trending of world poetry?
Károly Sándor Pallai: In the case of each and every literary movement, we have to take into account the specific background and the historical frame. They always have unique dynamics as well: they can be named, characterized, defined internally or externally, identified at the time of the foundation or declaration (like in the case of manifestos) or retrospectively (based on common features or a uniting historical setting). I whole-heartedly support all the initiatives popularizing poetry and making it more accessible (translations, workshops, public readings, festivals, events of slam poetry), closer to everyone. The intimate, personal histories of families and cities are as present in contemporary poetry as improvisations, masterly described and vivified sreet impressions, humanitarian causes, political engagements, geographies of the deep self and hundreds of other subjects. Hyper-availability and the possibilites offered by hyper-communication (e-mail, chat, video-conference) can easily make international and transcontinental cooperations possible. I welcome with pleasure the “internationalization” of poetry, and hopefully the birth of world poetry represented, organized and mediatized as effectively as world music. I find the polarizations of trends and schools very simplifying and reductive. The troublesome tendencies that may characterize certain geographically or historically located movements and directions cannot be generalized. Poetry in general, on a global scheme, always renews itself. We can always find new, raw energies, unprecedented divergence and inspiration ready to revolutionize writing and to bring about paradigm shifts. Even if many of the intellectual and artistic currents of today’s world are about unlearning our conditionings, unburdening ourselves from our cultural, ethnic, historical and social determinations, I think that comfortable apolitical and unengaged poetry cannot fulfil its most important role, namely to influence, inspire and make changes. Despite all my personal beliefs and standpoints, I have to agree with the American poet, John Hoppenthaler saying that “we need to think in terms of poetries rather than poetry” and give space to individual and collective initiatives and all sorts of aesthetic choices.
Dupur Mitra: Can a poetry movement improve poetry? If yes how, if not why not?
Károly Sándor Pallai: Literary movements are related to a common ethos. We can take as an example the Metaphysical poets, Romanticism (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats), the Parnassians (Leconte de Lisle, Banville, Verlaine), Symbolism (Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé), the Objectivists (Reznikoff, Oppen, Rakosi), the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs), the Language poets (Armantrout, Benson, Coolidge) or the New Formalism (Jarman, Levin, Ryan). The unifying concepts are always completed by personal divergences, individual directions, but I think that the common goals and features of poetic (and in general literary) movements can contribute to the improvement of writing. However, there is always the lurking threat of becoming bland and loosing flavour whenever similarities and collectively declared (or at least assumed) characteristics and themes become dominant and take over. The initiation of new methods, the establishment of practices, the deconstruction of reigning systems can be deterrent. In this sense, a shared initiative can be motivating, facilitating, reassuring and stimulating. Although, the danger of taking the wrong roads is always stronger when backed by a group, a whole community. On the other hand, the principle of discipleship, gathering around a professor, an outstanding writer, theorist, artist has always been usual and customary. This fundamental human characteristic and the actuality of poetry, it’s social awareness, it’s adaptability presuppose the formation of groupings and movements regardless of the eras of human history.
There’s a more and more significant tendency (in academia as well) to use the term “world literature”, just like world music, to refer to a category encompassing many different styles of writing with different linguistic, traditional, cultural backgrounds. A wonderful manifestation of this is the World Poetry Movement (WPM). I think that the WPM, coordinating poetry-related local and international projects all around the world, has a very purposeful strategic plan that combines the axes of poetic action (interventions, readings, trainings) in its congregational, celebratory and formative dimensions. The movement promotes sensibilization to solidarity, diversity, social justice, plural and emotional dialogue. It encourages every poetic act symbolizing the upholding of the flag of freedom of expression and peace, as well as an engagement for the cause of the marginalized, poverty-stricken groups, for the subaltern by acting on general awareness and by empowering the development of knowledge and critical consciousness. This includes social, political and cultural perspectives as well. I think that the WPM can effectively harmonize personal and local efforts and activities on a global scale in order to transform and renew our poetic, philosophical, critical consciousness, to promote diversity and intercultural dialogue in a proactive, inclusive way.
Dupur Mitra: Describe the writing process in your poems.
Károly Sándor Pallai: The writing of a new collection always starts with finding a (preferably) radically new impulse, a hope of renewal based on previous work but necessarily wanting to be detached as well from the already existing personal discourse, from the tropes previously developed and exploited. It’s all about finding new energy sources, astounding, startling and stimulating images, associations, metaphors so powerful that their poetic loadedness can assure the impetus and the verve through several lines or even a whole page. Writing keeps you in the present, but it’s also a transtemporal bridge relating time schemes, dimensions, ages and imaginaries. Usually, my poems are written and constructed out of fragments. For me, poetry is like a safe house, like an asylum without hindrances, like a probe going on the loose in my body and informing me about the slightest changes, about the ethereal modifications. This holds for poetical and social changes as well. It’s an amendment to the structure of life and by its nature, poetry unfolds itself gradually. Texts come to life when my notes are shaped and elaborated, when different layers of meaning are condensed in a few lines. Poetry is also an arm against dehumanization, oblivion and injustice. As such, it has to reflect on various areas of life, so I take notes everywhere, at all times, as well as photos, and I usually try to listen to music in order to be able to recall a wider spectrum of emotions and work on them in the poetic sense. Poetry constantly opens a surface of confrontation and of reckoning with our troubles, our loaded histories. Writing is an act of salvation, a factor of conscientization, a multivocal and polyphonic, very open, flexible and receptive musical sequence that will always be available, accessible as a tool of philosophy and action. To summarize, I’d say that my writing process is just as eclectic, as multiple and manifold as are my subjects and approaches.
Dupur Mitra: Has geographic travel played a role in your poetic life?
Károly Sándor Pallai: Definitely. Poetry is a shift of dimensions, a leap outside our comfort zone. Poetry must have the same whirling, rousing, thrilling power as travel. Falling in love with poetry is like realizing, very similarly to travelling, that the existing dimensions are far beyond a simple up and down axis. There always has to be a will, a commitment, a dynamic engagement trying to transcend, transgress. Poetry is about making walls and frontiers incandescent in order to melt and liquefy them. The evocative, scenic view that I try to circumscribe and paraphrase, owes a lot to the enchanting, marvellous scenery of other continents and countries, to the specific, unforgettable colours, atmospheres, sounds and the redolence of cities. Canada, Australia, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Italy. My most dreamlike, captivating and unforgettable impressions are undoubtedly associated with large cities like Montreal, Toronto, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Kiev, Vienna, Paris, Strasbourg, Vilnius, Prague, Budapest, Rome, Venice, Cracow, Poznań, Gdynia, Geneva, Brussels, but the smaller pieces of the puzzle are just as important and sometimes even more influential like Assisi, Hobart, Telč, Hamilton, Delft, The Hague, Utrecht, Gouda, Besançon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Mâcon. I’m also deeply influenced by the oceans, seas and rivers. The Saint Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, Lake Léman, the South Pacific Ocean, the Tasman Sea and the Mediterranian have all been irrevocably, indelibly engraved in my soul. To sum up the influence of travel on my writings, I would say that my poetry is profoundly nourished by the unforgettable memories and influences of my journeys, these personal experiences serve as a general inspirational background to my poems and sometimes this influence can be very direct and tangible too.
Dupur Mitra: How would you describe contemporary poetry?
Károly Sándor Pallai: In my interpretation, poetry is the voice of consciousness, the vigilant guard of remorse, the imprint of our cogitation, doubtfulness and often a very assertive and unhesitant standpoint, a sound of indignation and of engagement. I can discover these tendencies in contemporary poetry. Poetry is a repository of our intelligence and our humanity by and large, its an amphora, a storage tank of human wisdom, a mark of the ages. Our world and our perceptions of it are constantly shifting and poetry is a perfect way to closely track the political, philosophical, economic and artistic movements, to always create, tell and show something unexpected, a perpetually renewable and renewed scaffolding of ideas. This, of course, has to be completed with the delight, the pure joy of words and associations, the juxtapositions and rhymes, the melt and bent syntax engaging and repeatedly reengaging the reader. Countries, languages, political and socio-economic situations are very heterogeneous and so are the contexts, scopes for action and voices of contemporary poetry. I really think that the expansion of the horizon of translations and the opening up of world poetry more and more available on the internet is very promising, although reading poetry in the original language is preferable above all translations as we can only access the original sound, atmosphere and shades of meaning this way.