How to take photos with words – an interview with Simon Márton

[Die deutsche Übersetzung des Interviews gibt es hier.]

When I was in Budapest a few month ago, I discovered the book Polaroidok by Simon Márton1. Short lines, together with numbers, sometimes just a small passage on one page – in other words: a highly interesting form of writing! There was just a little problem: I don’t speak any Hungarian. But I absolutely wanted to learn more about this form and about the book. So I just asked Márton.


Hello Márton, your book is called Polaroids and it contains short poetry. Does the title refer to the form, is it instant photography with words?

Martón: Yes, I think one could say that – the origin of this idea was the mixture of the a) fundamental approach of the classical Japanese haiku2, which is always about your impressions of something you just encountered and b) the aesthetics of polaroid photography which is (for me) based on the flawed details, distorted colours and narrow perspectives, in an instant picture. These two completely different (though in some aspects: quite similar) ways of depicting/describing things were the main motivation for me, but since these short texts are very far from being a haiku, I decided to name them after the latter.

When I first saw the uncommon form the book is written in, it reminded me of Peter K. Wehrli, a Swiss author who went on a trip with the Orient Express in 1968 and realized that he had forgotten his camera. At first he was mad, but then he got the idea to take photos with words instead of a camera, to describe everything he would have taken a photo of by writing a short prose passage without predicates and give it a number. How did you get the idea for the unusual form of your poetry?

Katalog von Allem
Peter K. Wehrli: Katalog von Allem, p. 13

It’s a pity I haven’t heard about Mr Wehrli’s book before – I’d love to read it and see how he managed to solve the issue.

The reason I was interested in writing “short poems” is that I studied Japanese language and culture at the University and I saw the differences between the common ideas about haikus and the details and complexity of the original concept – e.g. kigo, kireji, haibun, haiga and so forth. Namely that practically there was always an “invisible” element in the (best of the classical) haiku, something that you should be aware of, you should find and understand to get the whole meaning. I was wondering about this mechanism of reading poetry, and about the possibilities of writing something which is like this: always a fragment of something and you should create the whole meaning for yourself. The toughest part was to avoid clichés, since I think this method could be best described as “looking for something which is evident, you just didn’t know it”.

Wehrli gives his short passages continuing numbers and calls it Katalog von Allem (Cataloque of Everything)3. In contrast the numbers in front of your short poems seem to have no obvious order or completeness. What do the numbers mean?

When I started writing these short poems it was obvious from the beginning that I couldn’t give titles to them (as a matter of fact: some of these are one or two words – you can’t give a title for one word…). Having numbers instead seemed to be a good solution, mainly because it gives this “catalogue form” to the whole thing (what seems to be a common idea with Mr. Wehrli :).

So in the beginning the numbers marked the order in which the poems were written. But as soon as I started to think about publishing some of these in literary magazines it turned out that the numbers mean nothing more than this and “shuffle” the lines will give us completely new meanings every time, so I decided to “go with it” and started to create unique collections of these every time I published some of them. In the end the book became something like this itself. This “chaos” of the numbers seemed to me like a sign of a previous order that collapsed – and the book is like an attempt to re-organize and understand the thing that had happened, in a new, different order. (I feel our memory often works the same way – that’s why there is a reference to Otomo Katsuhiro’s movie Memories in the book too.)

Polaroidok S. 81
Simon Márton: Polaroidok, p. 80-81

During the making of the book itself I read a lot about Japanese numerology – though I don’t believe in any kind of mystical or spiritual stuff at all, but I didn’t have any ideas about how to finish it, how many of these short texts should I include and so. That’s why it’s 533 pieces in it, since 5 and 3 are considered to be lucky numbers in Japan. But again: that was just “for the sake of it”, I still do not believe in any of this stuff, I just needed some inspiration and found it in a surprising place.

Does every number contain a short poem that could also stand alone, or is it more like chapters that belong together and have to be read from the beginning to the end of the book?

It’s changing. I mean there are individual one-liners, there are pages which are practically complete poems themselves, there are short sections in the book which (I think) belong together. As I was sorting these out and started to create a book of them I found it much more interesting to keep these borders a bit blurred. Of course there is an exact structure of the book as a whole, you could even divide it into chapters if you wish, but I felt like “OK, but what if I leave the decision to the readers, let’s see what they think”.

I don’t understand Hungarian, but I can read words like “IKEA”, “Hello Kitty”, “Grapefruit” and “Marlboro”4. Is everyday life an important topic in the book?

Polaroidok S. 10
Simon Márton: Polaroidok, p. 10

Yes, I think this is basically a collection of everyday life moments and sentences (though sometimes the weird ones, I guess). There are references of pop-culture, Hungarian and Japanese culture and literature, movies, music. I wanted to create something “intermedial” – something that works as a book too, but meanwhile outreaches the borders of just reading something. (There is even a YouTube link in it, intentionally edited to look like a haiku at first glance…)

Polaroidok S. 65
Simon Márton: Polaroidok, p. 65

Polaroidok was published in Hungary in 2013. Will there be a German translation?

There is already a short excerpt translated by Ágnes Relle – a German-Hungarian translator – but I’m afraid that’s all for now. It would be wonderful to have it published in German and I’d be extremely curious about the reaction, but I’m well aware of the possibilities of publishing foreign poetry anywhere – and therefore I should say I don’t think so.

In one e-mail you have already mentioned that you are afraid a lot of these short poems are practically untranslatable because of the references and additional meanings in Hungarian. Could you give an example of an untranslatable reference and explain it for people who don’t speak Hungarian?

To be honest I just showed the aforementioned German excerpt to a few German friends I have and they said I was wrong and the whole thing was quite understandable and enjoyable for them – so maybe I was wrong.

Polaroidok S. 16
Simon Márton: Polaroidok, p. 16-17

But for example: there is one in Hungarian “Málnás depresszió” which is translated to “Himbeerdepression” in German. But in Hungarian (in our everyday conversations) we still call the bipolar disorder “mániás depresszió”, which I think is kind of important. And so forth. But again: I was just told I was wrong and neither the lacking knowledge of some references, nor the loss of small additional meanings would ruin the main text. I honestly don’t know, but I just got even more curious.

And so did we! Márton, thank you very much for this interview.


1. In Hungarian you write the last name first – I adapted that here.

2. See „Kurz und gut“ for more information (in German) on the topic „haiku“.

3. Peter K. Wehrli: Katalog von Allem. 1111 Nummern aus 31 Jahren; btb, München, 2000.

4. Simon Márton: Polaroidok; Libri, Budapest, 2013, S. 10, 25, 64 und 82.


Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.