Boundary Crossing, Liminality, & the Hungarian Literary Fantastic

An interview with Bogi Takács, author of Algorithmic Shapeshifting & editor of the Transcendent Series

T.D. Walker
Sep 30 · 10 min read

To be in a liminal state for long is a massive demand on one’s energy. And yet this is something that happens to marginalized people all too often. I think a lot of my poems are about this kind of discomfort. And also when a high-energy state is maintained for long, the release can be explosive.

Speculative poetry is a constantly-shifting market with a vast and diverse group of readers & writers. Today in our Q&A series, T.D. Walker (a talented poet in her own right and author of Small Waiting Objects from CW Books, 2019) touched base with one of spec poetry’s most powerful voices, Bogi Takács. Editor of the Transcendent series for Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, winner of the Strange Horizons Readers’ Poll for eir hypertext poem You Are Here / Was: Blue Line to Memorial Park, Takács is also a reviewer, journalist, & holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Theoretical Linguistics, as well as attending the University of Iowa for a Ph.D. in Speech & Hearing Science.

Interstellar Flight Press: One of the striking elements of Algorithmic Shapeshifting is the way worldbuilding puts your reader both in this world and in other worlds, at times simultaneously, and others oscillating between them.

As a writer who works in both speculative prose and poetry, do you find that your approach to worldbuilding changes between each genre? Do the worlds presented in your poems push back on the forms you create with the poetic structures in ways they might not in prose? And how does the language of your poems tie in to that creation of these worlds?

Bogi Takács: I think that my approach to worldbuilding is roughly the same for both when I write prose and poetry. I generally start with visual imagery. Translating it into words is a separate process, and a very conscious and deliberate one. I do think that my poetry has a closer relationship to words, and — so to say — the surface form, than my prose does.

IFP: An overarching theme to the book is the idea of boundaries, those created and those transgressed. How did you want the poems to challenge your readers’ ideas about boundaries, both personal and interpersonal? And since poetry collections guide their readers through arguments about the worlds they are set in and composed in, how did you view boundaries between the poems as you were assembling the collection?

BT: This is a really fascinating question, and now that I consider this topic of boundaries and crossing them, I feel it also applies to my prose. One of my own stories closest to my heart is “This Shall Serve As a Demarcation,” which is very explicitly about demarcations and boundary-settings, both in the physical and the conceptual sense. This is also going to be the starting story in my upcoming debut prose collection The Trans Space Octopus Congregation (Autumn 2019, Lethe Press); the one that sets the tone for what will follow.

The Trans Space Octopus Congregation (Autumn 2019, Lethe Press)

But this theme definitely appears in my poetry too. Boundary-crossing happened to me in a very physical sense because I’m a migrant. I also find myself thinking a lot about the boundaries of the body, probably related to my being autistic and not having a good sense of my body in space, but also possibly related to transness / intersex-ness. I had a lot of experiences, especially in a medical context, where people would not respect the boundaries of my body or even me as a person. I ended up changing my Twitter username to @bogiperson at one point because I wanted to see it all the time in my face that yes, I get to be a person too. I had trouble believing it. Now some people assume Person is my last name!

I’m not sure exactly how I want to challenge people’s ideas of boundaries. I do think some boundaries are necessary and important, for example, the boundaries of my body are there for a good reason, and so are everyone else’s. But other boundaries can be restrictive and even harmful; binary sex/gender policing, for instance.

I think one possible way of thinking about it is that from a certain vantage point, sets with sharply defined boundaries are just a special case of sets with less sharply defined boundaries. Generally, in high school math, one is only taught about the former, but the latter can absolutely exist… as much as mathematical constructs can be said to exist. Sharp boundaries can be more of an oddity than not, it all depends on the framework we use. And what we use depends a lot on what we are taught.

One more thing that might be interesting to contemplate is that boundary-crossings are often held up as something exemplary and crucial. “Genre-bending!” “Liminal!” And so on… maybe even fetishized or exoticized, in a way. But boundary-crossing is not necessarily a comfortable experience. My Spouseperson R.B. Lemberg likes to say that liminality in the original folkloristics sense is — while something very important — generally uncomfortable, temporary and dangerous. One is not supposed to hold a liminal position for a prolonged amount of time. But a lot of us are in these kinds of positions for longer. I am currently a “resident alien” in the legal sense, what is that? Or, as a nonbinary and intersex person, I am quite stable in these identities, but in society, there is very little room for them currently. People do not necessarily want to allow me to settle into them.

To be in a liminal state for long is a massive demand on one’s energy. And yet this is something that happens to marginalized people all too often. I think a lot of my poems are about this kind of discomfort. And also when a high-energy state is maintained for long, the release can be explosive.

IFP: The poems that stayed with me most after my reading the collection formed the “Two-Tailed Triptych” series, which explores the activities of the Two-Tailed Dog Party, a political party that parodies Hungarian politics: “The Ideas of March,” “Why I Intend to Vote for the Two-Tailed Dog,” and “Ode to the Ganymedean Telepathic Slime Mold.” As a reader, I see this group of poems as both political commentary and as a statement of what speculative poetry can do as a genre. In his essay for Poetry Magazine, “The Politics of Poetry,” David Orr states: “Most contemporary American political poems are written for contemporary American poets, which means that political poems generally have more relevance to the politics of the poetry world than to the politics of America.”

While your poems address politics in Hungary, they’re set in Kansas, and I’d imagine a good percentage of your readers are American. Do you find that bringing elements of science fiction and “tropes of the dystopian subgenre,” is a useful way to draw a wider audience to political poetry? Can we, as speculative poets, use the mode of the contemporary lyric to make a more impactful political statement by bringing in science fictional contexts?

BT: A huge chunk of my readership is people in non-Western countries who read in English. It is only a recent phenomenon that more and more Americans read my work (I feel like 2016 was a turning point for some reason, even before the American elections). This is also why I try to make sure that as much of my writing is freely accessible as possible, and use my Patreon to kind of subsidize this, because for many of my readers, $1 per month costs a lot more than for people who live in the US.

People often ask me to describe my audience, and/or whether I write only for my own marginalized group. These days I write fiction and poetry exclusively in English. (A story of mine was translated to Hungarian for the first time last year, by Csilla Kleinheincz). I am not even sure who would be “my group” given that I am a Hungarian Jewish neuroatypical trans intersex person (etc.) who is an immigrant to the US, and all those identities do not necessarily occur together. Most of my relatives can’t read fiction or poetry in English. Ultimately, I write for people around the world who are marginalized in some way, or in multiple ways — even if their specific marginalizations are very different from mine.

To address the second part of the question, I use the vocabulary of the speculative and the fantastic because it comes naturally to me. Part of it is because I grew up enjoying speculative work, both from the Western and the Eastern Bloc. Part of it is that my life experiences often do not fit into non-speculative framings. So yes, using those framings makes it easier to get my point across.

From an Anglophone point of view, it might be harder to notice the connections, but I feel like my work can be related to a long tradition of the Hungarian literary fantastic that often comes from a place of ethnic marginalization, and that strongly engages with its political context. Works like Átyin Jóskának nincs, aki megfizessen by the Hungarian Romani writer Béla Osztojkán, or Serbian Hungarian writer Nándor Gion’s tetralogy Latroknak is játszott, many of the One Minute Stories of Hungarian Jewish writer István Örkény and also his absurdist plays… or more recently the prose of Ádám Bodor and György Dragomán, both ethnic Hungarians from Romania who immigrated to Hungary, have been influential for me as a reader. I feel these works to an extent come from a similar position as especially Latin American and African magical-realist literary traditions.

(A side note: I am not dropping all these names for “cred” purposes, but because I hope that at least some readers might seek them out; some of these authors do have works available in English or other languages, and György Dragomán’s breathtaking and magical novel Bone Fire is coming in English next year.)

Back to my original train of thought — it was a big turning point for me when I finally had access to a library with a considerable English-language collection (in Vienna, Austria) and read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Matigari and was stunned by just how familiar it came across; and also his nonfiction Decolonising the Mind, where he explicitly discussed how non-Western peoples often only have dialogue with each other through Western literary centers. That really hit home for me, and since then I have been explicitly trying to focus on this kind of decentering, solidarity and literature-building, with my own small tools.

These are mostly prose examples, but fiction was simply more available for me in translation in that formative phase. Now in the US, I can walk to the public library or take the bus, and get practically all the recent English-language releases; after several years, I’m still getting used to this, and it’s amazing.

One thing that might be worth discussing related to audiences is… who buys my political poetry. I have sold poems to most of the major speculative poetry venues at this point, but my political poems are generally self-published through my Patreon (often sponsored by specific backers; thank you!). I have had a small amount of them published in general literary venues, but I feel like the non-speculative literary world has a much more convoluted, opaque and lengthy process to publication compared to speculative venues, whereas my political poems often reflect on very immediate events and I would like them to be read right away. Of course, in a collection, it is not really visible which works appeared where, unless one scrutinizes the copyright page.

IFP: Are there collections that touch on the same themes that you’d like to recommend to readers of Interstellar Flight Magazine? Or are there others you’ve read recently that deserve mention?

BT: On the body, disability, I really enjoyed Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. When it comes to political poetry, one of my favorites is even this page is white by Vivek Shraya.

Marginalia to Stone Bird by R.B. Lemberg is probably the most similar overall because we are married to each other and some of our poems very directly reflect on each other.

Nature Poem by Tommy Pico has very little in common with my collection, but I loved it so much, I just want to tell everyone about it.

I read a lot of Hungarian poetry, I am especially inspired by early 20th-century Hungarian poets (in translation: In Heaven’s Iron-Blue Vault by Attila József, translated by Frederick Turner and Zsuzsanna Ozsváth; Foamy Sky by Miklós Radnóti, likewise) and also late 20th century and contemporary Hungarian Romani and Jewish poets. I waited so long for Károly Bari’s latest collection Csönd and it absolutely blew me away.

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and has won the Lambda Award in 2018 for editing Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction (also a Locus award finalist book). You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers a fair wage. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Interstellar Flight Magazine

Interstellar Flight Press is a new speculative publishing house. We publish essays on science fiction and fantasy, pop culture, and geek fandom.

T.D. Walker

Written by

Science fiction poet, author, and blogger.

Interstellar Flight Magazine

Interstellar Flight Press is a new speculative publishing house. We publish essays on science fiction and fantasy, pop culture, and geek fandom.

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