Divas on the Danube: poetry in Hungary

David Hill introduces the international poetry scene in Budapest

By way of an introduction to Budapest's international poetry scene, consider Beata Pozitiva and George Gömöri. Pozitiva is a punk diva who spins disks on alternative radio stations, organises fetish nights, acts, sings, and hosts poetry slams in downtown bars. Gömöri is a Cambridge professor who emigrated from Hungary in 1956, but regularly returns to give readings of his scholarly verse.

Some people are surprised to discover that these two are father and daughter. But in a way, this is the perfect metaphor for Budapest's thriving, inclusive poetry scene, where expats and locals collaborate, written and spoken word are equally important platforms, and high and low culture feed into each other effortlessly.

It was in a stylish Budapest coffeehouse that two itinerant North American poets, Todd Swift and Philip Norton, came up with the term "Fusion Poetry". They were reflecting on the growing number of poets who refuse to prioritize between page and stage, and who are just as likely to be inspired by Modern talking as Modernist writing.

 This conversation led to Swift and Norton's anthology Short Fuse, published by Rattapallax Press in New York in 2002. Among prominent and promising poets from numerous nations, the book included two Hungarians who write in English, and three Budapest expats. The book "came home" in November 2002 when, after readings across North America and Western Europe, a launch was also held in Budapest.

 Swift – who more recently edited 100 Poets Against the War – lived in Budapest from 1997 to 2001, organising live events at which local writers mingled with distinguished visitors. These included Kacat Kabare, which he calls "the first bilingual poetry cabaret series in Central and Eastern Europe."

 Meanwhile, Gábor Gyukics, a published poet in both Hungarian and English, has been organizing informal, multi-language open readings since 1999, inspired by shows he witnessed in the States.

More elaborate, theatrical performances have borne titles like CityScape and The Rumble Seat Therapy. These involved people like Kálmán Faragó and Zsuzsa Katona, young Hungarians who write poetry in English – "brilliantly", according to Canadian slamster Heather Hermant, a Budapest veteran.

More multimedia mayhem comes from writer-performer Alison Boston, who first visited Budapest in 1999 with a one-woman show and has been resident since 2001. She hosts a monthly jazz and poetry show in an underground club (literally) that extends below one of downtown Budapest's most beautiful parks. "The energy," she says simply, when asked what she likes about the Hungarian capital.

 That energy is also manifest in translation initiatives. Gyukics and the American poet Michael Castro produced Swimming in the Ground, containing English translations of modern Hungarian poetry, which was published in St. Louis in 2002. Working the other way, Gyukics published a book of translations of contemporary American poems – Half-Naked Muse – in Budapest in 2000. Canadian poets got a similar treatment in 2001 in a bilingual anthology named Crystal Garden. The man behind that is Jon Tarnoc, another two-language poet. He is now raising funds for a second edition.

 There is even a cultural periodical, The Hungarian Quarterly, which includes versions of Hungarian poetry. Editor Miklós Vajda solicits these from established English-language poets, providing them with the original texts, rough translations, and notes. Some of the best will appear in An Island of Sound, co-edited by the Budapest-born George Szirtes, and slated for publication from Harvill in 2004.

 All this activity might explain why so many poets have made their home in Budapest's delightfully bohemian landscape. There is Chad Faries, erstwhile editor of the Cream City Review in Milwaukee. There is Jim Scrivener, author of two chapbooks published in the U.K. – One Hundred Ways Home and the forthcoming This Close. There is C. B. Alexander, a shaven-headed bard who creates wordscapes with local ambient musicians, and is also the singer-songwriter of a well-known local rock band.

 And there is The Bardroom. This English-language performance series, which I co-founded with Scrivener in 2001, has featured some of the most extraordinary writers that have lived in or drifted through Budapest. We have had British writers Tibor Fischer and Antony Dunn, American legend Robert Creeley, and Adisa Andwele, a world music star who flew from Barbados for the occasion. We have also featured major Hungarian poets reading with their English translators.

 Bardroom events are typically held in the Open Workshop, a laid-back café and crafts center. But we sometimes do it in more upmarket places – for example, events halls at luxury hotels like Gellért or Art'otel. And twice we have held it on boats on the Danube. Beautiful Budapest is full of multicultural talents, poetic projects and atmospheric venues. Could it be the most poetic city in Europe?

 David Hill's poems have appeared on the Poetry News members' poems page.
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