Interview with Tomas Lieske

On the occasion of the 41st Poetry International Festival


The theme of this year's festival is 'prose'. Do you think there are (many) similarities between poetry and prose?

They are both linguistic art forms, and that’s actually the most important resemblance. I feel they exclude one another in a certain way. Throughout the two or three years that I spend writing a novel, I never succeed in writing a poem. They seem to get in each other’s way. In a novel, it’s the story that takes over. In a poem, language takes control.

You chose
Book of Memories by Péter Nádas as your favourite novel. Why?

For the complete hybridity between history (the Fifties, the death of Stalin, the Hungarian uprising) and personal themes, for the mysteriousness and the division of the first-person narrative: sometimes the book feels so close to my own work. In any case, it’s one of those fascinating works of literature, which, when you read it, immerses you in a new world. The peculiar thing about favourite novels is that these only remain so for a fixed period of time. A couple of years ago, I would have listed a very different novel, and now I realise that it’s actually been a while since I last read Nádas.

You also write prose. Do you often write about the same themes in your prose and your poetry?

In fact I don’t adhere to thematics at all. They are only ascertained by others afterwards. Sometimes I do see that certain subjects recur. In prose, language must serve the storyline, whilst in poetry, language leads an independent life. This means that in a novel you try to tell a story as clearly as possible and that therefore some subjects, no matter how personal or loved, will not be included because of the plot. You’re never fully in charge of the themes. In poetry, language jumps occur that can be satisfying and that I also like to make use of, but of which the precise definition remains vague to me. That’s also a reason I prefer not to talk about my (own) themes in prose or in poetry. I try to control it, but sometimes language escapes me in the most pleasant, almost erotic way.

Which poets do you like to read?

It would be a long list if I named all my past favourite poets. I’ve been in Paris now for one and a half years, and I have with me Ovid, Kouwenaar and Kavafis. The Ovid is related in some way to a novel I was writing here, but not overly. Kavafis and Kouwenaar aren’t. I brought those with me to take to bed in the evenings when I finished writing and wanted to read something else.

Do you remember how your poem
‘Daughter’ took form?

All the poems from my last collection of poems originate from a period when I was lying in bed, recovering from several heavy heart attacks. I’d write sentences on the wallpaper and had often completed a poem around eleven in the morning when I got up. My memory was considerably affected by my coma and only gradually returned. I don’t remember how the poems themselves arose, if anything can ever be said about that in the first place. The collection of poetry in which this poem appeared is from 2006; the novel Dünya is from 2007. Undoubtedly, I was preoccupied with the subject of the novel when I wrote that poem. Dünya is about a daughter who is robbed by two roaming prisoners of war, who then raise her as their own child.

(Translated by Lucy Pijnenburg)  
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