Csilla Scharle is a Hungarian poet living and working in Scotland. She writes in both Hungarian and English, using poetry to try and make sense of this confusing world. After years of writing for her desk drawer, Csilla was first published this summer in The Kindling.
Fishbowl: So, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started writing poetry.
CS: I was born in Hungary but moved to Spain and then The Netherlands with my family while growing up and have now ended up living in Scotland. So, it is unsurprising that my main themes include searching for identity and a strong desire to belong, as well as integrating a fragmented self through connections. Ever since I learned to read and fell in love with stories, I wanted to become a writer, novelist. I would always have several plot ideas in mind and spent hours every day daydreaming and designing characters and worlds, but I never had the patience to capture them on paper and was quickly discouraged when my feeble writing attempts didn’t match the intricate images in my head. Also around this time, whenever my family went on longer car rides, I used to stare out the window and entertain myself by making up and singing rhymes. The very first ‘poem’ I wrote was one of these car songs about a Chinese hippopotamus, of all things, and the creative fulfillment of actually finishing something has had me hooked on poetry ever since.
Fishbowl: How would you describe your style of writing? Where does it come from?
CS: It’s hard to settle on a description because I am still finding my style, and my writing has changed greatly over the past few years. I am certainly very fond of using heavy-handed, absurd imagery and mixing metaphors, and my poems are mostly driven by rhythm and melody. I also admit I have a mild obsession with Sestinas – they are so fun to write!
The influence of my Hungarian heritage is undeniably what has shaped my writing style the most. I draw upon a lot from Hungarian folklore and fairytales, as well as being inspired by contemporary lyricists – songwriters like Balazs Szabo have definitely fuelled my love for wordplay and delicately bizarre descriptions.
Fishbowl: What are you reading right now?
CS: Too many books at once! I am terrible for forgetting to pack my book (or don’t want to carry a heavy one around), so I start another one rather than go without reading. At the moment it’s Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Wilbur Smith’s Rage, as well as Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón that I am reading.
Fishbowl: So, shameless self-promotion time. What projects do you have going on right now?
CS: I have recently started working on some poetry translations – there is so much incredible Hungarian poetry that is unavailable to read in English! It is a slow process though, so look out for it in a year or so…
Fishbowl: Any social media links you would like to share so our readers can connect and learn more about you and your work?
Fishbowl: So, tell us a bit about your featured poems.
CS: They are the result of political frustration, searching for and coming to terms with my identity, loneliness and grappling with my mental health – basically self-indulgent processing of my experiences posing as art!
Fishbowl: Let’s take a look at the pieces.
CS: Sounds good!
An Ode to your Womb
It’s a beautiful day to give birth today
thighs twinkling pink in morning sunlight
child-bearing hips beckoning a new foreigner
into a soft woolen womb like a cat’s curl
tucked under your female heart –
Not keen yet? We’ll pay.
The stars will sing and the moon will pay
you compliments from nightfall to dawn of day
milky constellations budding round your heart
and those feet made to dance on sunlight
bending between the galaxies your toes curl
get busy. Don’t become a lonesome foreigner
in your home at the mercy of savage foreigners
and, yes, free education is better than equal pay
just pop those patriotic babes out and curl
your belly, your spine, no more sleep day today
suckling rosebuds at your feet with hair of syrupy sunlight
wrapped around your shriveled little heart
beating wise melodies to a motherly heart-to-heart.
Your body was made for this: it ain’t no foreigner.
Breathe in this need to breed like oxygen and sunlight
we’ll throw in a house and less taxes to pay.
It’s a beautiful day to give birth today.
Untwist your nationalist DNA, let it curl
like a snake-dance in the dark of your womb, uncurl-
ing tradition, religion, superstition – a magician of heart
and soul tethered to this soil for forever and a day.
You will never be eaten by a cannibal foreigner
if you keep your flesh-pocket full of babies to pay
for every breath you dare to take bathed in our glorious sunlight.
Keep your lips tight until there’s no more sunlight
when Brussels can’t dictate where our metal fence curls.
The blood of black fog and brown mist will not pay
as the pauses and stutters tear out from the heart
of this fear-stricken, forsaken fuel-sunken land of foreigners.
It’s a beautiful day to give birth today.
Grandfather’s great wooden armchair filled the tiny kitchen like an old forgotten throne, its seat worn smooth over the years by the resting bottoms of huge men, fading into the whitewashed walls generation after generation. The boiler crackled and spat beside him, its pipes crawling around the room the way laughter circled his round face before settling in the crooks of his eyes. Almost crow’s feet, but not quite, just a twinkle behind the sadness as he taught me my first swearwords, and we chanted together: kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe, life is a whore.
It became a mantra, our little secret spell – kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe – an armour woven around a childish heart, keeping out dragons and witches, but worry has etched maps on the skin of his forehead, eyes turning hazy from the alcohol evaporating on the stove – a lab where small love brews big poison, dripping through tubes, and barrels, and cups. Even wine gets better as our years rise, and expectations lower, painting ‘bull’s blood’ flowers on his nose, pálinkareggel, pálinkaeste, a kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe, life is a whore.
Grandmother tells me if you learn one thing from me in life, it must be to never trust a man, they are all evil. So why do we dream of angels with mustaches? I slurp the fatty soup, complaining about my worries just so they can take their minds off of their own, hot grease sinking to the bottom of my stomach, burning heavy. Is this how her curses feel, gathering deep in your gut, salt building, weighing you down—slow at first—and then more and more as you crack and harden like the soil broken each morning for the fruit of your vines, in silent sweat, cracked and still standing with those old walls groaning by your side, still standing? A kurvaéletbassza tele, pálinkareggel, pálinkaeste, a kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe…
Can you feel my horse-hoof heartbeat? Can you see this brown soil stained beneath my skin? I tried tracing his wrinkles on my face, hoping strength would seep through the lines I’d drawn upon my skin, starting tough days with bitter shots and cheap wine from a jam jar that had been full of strawberries the night before, guilty, barbaric, eastern European like this damned peasant on his throne bent and disfigured, still laughing in the face of a twisted world. Life is a whore.
Life is a whore wrapped in rags, you pearls. Praying in the deep, you pearls, starry-eyed lumps of earth – gyönyörűgöröngyök – iridescent in your middling life.
Óh, tirongybagöngyöltgyöngyök, gödörbenkönyörgőgyöngyök,a kurvaéletbassza tele, pálinkareggel, pálinkaeste, a kurvaéletbe, kurvaéletbe, life is a whore.
Sestina on a sleepless night
Lick the green off the leaves
until there is no colour left in the sky
muffle your sighs in the morning pillow
when everything is grey; at two am
the walls inch closer every time our eyes close.
Has the world always been this small?
The weight of our existence is almost as small
as flutters of wind tease at the green leaves
just out of reach from little girls, closer
to dinosaur bones than the bottom of the sky.
This could be why it feels like two-am-
-thoughts swarm the frazzled head buried in your pillow
a tortured mind weaving pillows
for weary brain cells to rest their fiery small
heads on, dancing into the two am.
Losing yourself in a stare at the half-dry leaves
like feathers tickling at the indiscernible sky.
Is this the end softly drawing close?
Our inevitable end, my dear, is close.
Lay your cheek on the grass, the last pillow.
No, not last. Never the last! Swallow the sky!
You are a giant playing with marbles too small
to fill the palms of a non-God, palm leaves
ruminating in salt and water at two am.
Stripped clean of this tired flesh, I, too, am
an alien king from a planet too close
to the sun. Regrets hang thick like leaves
of ivy growing from cracks on the wall, the pillow—
your anchor—as big nightmares battle small
dreams afloat in the inky sky.
Pasted by the skin of your lip to the sky,
limbs engulfed by the esurient sheets, at two am
the bed grows. Or is it you shrinking infinitely small?
The room wraps its firm walls around you closely,
your body dissolving into the pillow
as you fix your empty gaze outside on the leaves.
Gates to the sky shut closed
once more as two am folds under your pillow
curled up small to hide among the leaves.
First. I read until my eyes bleed dizzy
Second. No reply.
Third. I fill a mug halfway with instant coffee granules. The cheap, sewage-smelling kind and I chug it all. I lie on my back as the ceiling laps around me, wrapping my skin in cool embrace. I google varicose veins.
Fifth. Maybe I didn’t love him, only loved having a reason for forgetting to hate myself. The cat tangles her paw in my hair as I sleep.
Seventh. I sit cross-legged staring at the fridge door. Frantic monkey dreams burn into my eyeballs. I google ‘hypertension’.
Eleventh. I stare at my fingertips before clawing at my head, desperate to extract thoughts from my brain piece by silly piece. I feel every single vein in my body, and none of them pulsate in sync.
Thirteenth. Will the sun shine out my arse if I swallow an entire box of vitamin D? I walk with 90 pills swinging in a bag in my hand. I google side effects. I google overdose. I google cervical cancer…
Seventeenth. I don’t remember.
Nineteenth. I pause mid-morning on Leith Walk, gently melting into the pavement, flat on the familiar street, and air freezes around me. There are no more other people, this is not real. Mud trickles through my veins and pools heavily in my feet, dragging me down, down, down, into a quicksand of pavement and cement hugging my vertebrae and pigeon feet crawling under the pores of my unwashed face.
Twenty-third. I google hypochondria.
Twenty-ninth. The universe vibrates between my thumb and my little finger. I curl into a tight fist, clenching hard to keep the world together. If I let go, the space between my fingers will expand to infinity, I will be blown to separate atoms spread out across the cosmos like a giant coffee spill. My limbs tremble. I am scared. And I hate myself for hating myself.
There is no Thirty-first.
Fishbowl: I must say that “An Ode to Your Womb” has a certain “severe beauty” to it. The imagery is eye-catching, while the underlying narrative delivers a velvet-gloved upper-cut when we aren’t looking. The female form seems to melt into its own beautiful landscape, but there is a dark undercurrent here that smacks of futility. What are the politics of this work?
CS: The Hungarian government has been running an active campaign for the past few years that seeks to encourage population growth, including favourable loans, waving student loans after a certain number of children, and other questionable methods. This highly nationalistic and, frankly, racist rhetoric created the space for the “Give Birth To Another Hungarian” movement, which released a promo video last year full of misinformation and absurd statements, such as those about migrating African cannibals threatening European culture. So my poem is a direct response to this movement and—in a broader sense—the anti-feminist political atmosphere in Hungary that values women only in so far as they are able to reproduce.
Fishbowl: Your prose poem “Old Man” puts us in a similar situation that we find ourselves in with “An Ode..”, it seems: the juxtaposition of harsh (dare I say, “ugly”) reality in what should be an idyllic, beautiful scene. There is a difference though: the truth appears to be a gift, not a curse. There’s a great deal of admiration for the man here (and I can see why). What caught my attention most, however, was the code-switching in the piece. I really don’t think the bond between your grandfather and you could have been done justice without it, without the cultural bond of language. Was that the intent?
CS: It was actually more of a necessity. This is the poem that took me the longest to write, as I initially started it in English then attempted it in Hungarian, but neither felt honest or real. After months of re-writing and struggling to express my truth, I realized that I needed to use both languages in order to make it work.
Fishbowl: A genius move, indeed!
Fishbowl: I love a good descent into madness. Don’t we all? The “fall” in “January” is palpable, however, and pulls one into the dark with the narrator. What inspired this poem and what is the (ominous) meaning of “There is no Thirty-first”?
CS: My poor mental health! I have depression and anxiety, and this is me reflecting on (and processing) one of my worst depressive episodes to date. That last line is intentionally ambiguous, and it’s meaning has changed between reads (even for myself). It came from a place of fear and speculation of what would happen if my medication stopped working, and what a month leading to suicide would look like, but since a friend commented on how hopeful the ending is, I also see it as a sign of healing when diseased thoughts and behaviours stop.
Fishbowl: What is next for Csilla Scharle?
CS: I never know! Probably more political and identity-exploring pieces, some slam performances around Edinburgh, and translation.
Fishbowl: Great, Csilla! Any parting thoughts? Advice for aspiring writers out there?
CS: Keep writing and don’t let your own expectations discourage you! That nagging feeling that the existence of your poetry needs to be justified and validated by others is a lie.
Fishbowl: Last question…What would you want the epitaph on your gravestone to say?
CS: Nothing at all. I’d prefer not to have a tombstone, just a tree planted over my grave to feed on my decaying body.
Fishbowl: And THAT says it all. I like that very much.