Lasting Impact of 2004 Budapest Converging Lines Poetry Festival

In Budapest

Clare Pollard

Photo By Justine Stoddart

The 2004 Converging Lines poetry festival, organized by the then highly popular Budapest English-language literary cabaret The Bardroom and the British Council, has had a remarkably long-lasting influence and continues to birth new connections.

Lasting for several days, Converging Lines offered workshops and readings by Hungarian poets, English-speaking poets living in Hungary, and visiting poets from Britain.

The name Converging Lines was also used for a similar event when Hungarian poets visited the United Kingdom. A book of translations by Hungarian and British poets of each other’s work was produced that formed the core of the longer 2010 book “New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation” from Arc Publications.

This was described as “The first major gathering of the younger poets of Hungary, witnesses to the poetics of a new post-1989 Europe.” Among these poets was Anna T. Szabó. In April 2021, Arc published a selection of her work poetry called “Trust,” translated by noted British poet Clare Pollard.

As David Hill, one of the driving forces behind the original Converging Lines (and a former editor of the Budapest Business Journal) told me, “‘Trust’ is a very rare thing: a collection of poems in English by a successful Hungarian poet. [….] In her preface to the book, Pollard acknowledges that her relationship with Szabó and, indeed, her entire involvement in literary translation dates back to their meeting through Converging Lines.”

I spoke to Anna T. Szabó and Clare Pollard about Converging Lines, their relationship, and its latest manifestation, “Trust.”

Romanian Roots

Szabó was born in Transylvania, but her native language is Hungarian. She left Romania with her family in 1987. Ever since attending university in Budapest, she has lived in and around the capital with her husband, the writer György Dragomán, and their two sons. Szabó has written more than 20 books and translated almost 100.

Asked to describe the significance of Converging Lines, Szabó replies, “In retrospect, it’s even more evident that this event, held only a few days after Hungary was accepted into the European Union, was a truly ecstatic moment of freedom. The Hungarian and British poets spent intense times together and established long-standing and organic, mutually influential relationships. Now that the U.K. has left the EU and the world becomes more and more fragmented and introverted, most of my strength and will to go on stems from these memories and indestructible friendships.”

Szabó describes “Trust” as “made up from selections from seven of my previously published volumes. Most of the poems were chosen by Clare Pollard, selected and ordered to reflect on one or other of my recurring interests: feminine existence, especially bodily experiences, and most of all being a mother,” she explains.

“As bodies, both male and female, are becoming a political battleground and trust is being replaced with blind faith or pure hate, distorting human faces into masks, I felt that there was a need to speak about trust again, how it is born between people, how it starts with the parent-infant bond and, if present, lasts until the moment of death. It is a simple yet indispensable part of our being. Without it, we are fearful and uncertain,” she adds.

The relationship between Szabó and Pollard is also, of course, a fine example of trust.

“I’ve loved and trusted Clare for almost 20 years,” Szabó told me. “I think her work and translations are great. She’s been planning and working on this book for a long time. Now that ‘Trust’ is published, it’s time for me to continue working on my translation of her work.”

Impactful Festival

Pollard is just as convinced as Szabó about the importance of that 2004 festival.

“I think Converging Lines was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life,” Pollard tells me. “Travel, delicious food, late nights listening to poetry and talking about literature, drinking, and dancing. So many talented, interesting people and friendships made,” she recalls.

“Going to Lake Balaton, to the translators’ house, was particularly important for me. I attempted my first ever translation, and I now edit ‘Modern Poetry in Translation,’ so it really did change the course of my life. And I was paired with Anna Szabó, who has become a dear friend and artistic collaborator.”

In terms of the relationship between British and Hungarian poetry, Pollard believes, “It allowed a whole new generation in the U.K. to engage with Hungarian poetry. Apart from the ‘New Order’ anthology edited by George Szirtes, it led to ‘In a Winter City,’ the recent Hungarian issue of ‘Modern Poetry in Translation’ I edited, and even to young U.K. poets like Andrew Fentham translating Hungarian poetry. And, of course, Anna T. Szabó finally has the selection she deserves in the U.K.”

For Pollard, translating Szabó’s work has been a cautious process since the two began working together on the Converging Lines tour.

“She would give me a rough ‘literal’ translation of her poems (her English is very good),” Pollard explains. “I would then ask her lots of questions and set to work with a Hungarian dictionary, making sure I understood the nuance before trying to make it work as a poem in English. Her work is very musical, so I’m often trying to get that back in – rhythm or rhyme. Rather shamefully, I don’t speak Hungarian, but I would say it’s much harder to rhyme in English, so carrying her rhyme schemes over can be a real challenge.”

Reading “Trust,” what struck me immediately was how well the viscerally female nature of the poems has been captured in translation. The language is evocative but never obscure, and the rhythms feel natural and unforced. I’m sure Szabó and Pollard are satisfied with this manifestation of the trust they clearly have in each other.

“Trust” and “New Order” are available from Arc Publications at arcpublications.co.uk.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of July 16, 2021.

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