P E T E R  H A R G I T A I

Peter Hargitai (1947– ) was born in Budapest, Hungary. At the age of nine he wrote his first
poem “Rebels” meant as a tribute to the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. After a daring
escape, he arrived in America with his father, a royal judge before the Soviet occupation, his
mother, and two brothers. Poems in his adopted language did not come until his university
studies in Cleveland between 1965 and 1975 when he contributed occasional poems to the
Frigate and the Dark Tower, two literary magazines connected with Cleveland State
University. Hargitai was twenty when he married Dianne Kress, and soon two children
followed. While he was working for a Master of Arts in English, he supported his family
through a series of bizarre jobs which included a stint at the Cleveland Zoo where he cleaned
orangutan cages.

Hargitai’s passion for a literary career took a serious turn when he discovered and
translated the poems of the modern Hungarian poet Attila József (1905-1937). In 1969
Hargitai started teaching English at St. Clement school in a Cleveland suburb, followed by
assignments at St. Boniface, Mentor High, and two evenings a week at Telshe Yeshiva
Rabbinical School. Despite this grueling schedule, he founded the Poetry Forum Program
after being awarded a grant from the Martha-Holden Jennings Foundation so local poets
could work side by side with students, their combined efforts culminating in a regional
collection with the title
Forum:Ten Poets of the Western Reserve published in 1976. The
collection which Hargitai edited with Lolette Kuby was introduced by Paul Engle and
featured, among others, Robert Wallace, Alberta Turner, Hale Chatfield, Russell Atkins,
Grace Butcher alongside student poets.

In 1978 Hargitai and his family left Cleveland for Florida where he secured a position at the
University of Miami teaching Composition and introductory courses in English and
American literatures; the early 80’s saw him turning his attention once again to Attila
József, and he continued publishing individual poems although a collection did not come
together until
Perched on Nothing’s Branch released by Apalachee Press in 1987. The short
volume, hailed by such poets as Donald Justice and May Swenson, won the prestigious
Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. In her citation for the
Academy in 1988, Swenson praised the translations as “grim, bitter, iron-clad emerging
technically strong and admirably contemporary in syntax.”

Hargitai’s own poetry, having been intentionally placed on the back burner behind his
translations, started to find a home in literary magazines like the California Quarterly in
which his poem “Mother’s Visit No. 29” tied for third place with a poem by the well-known
poet David Kirby.

While lecturing at the University of Miami, Hargitai took a fiction writing course from Isaac
Bashevis Singer. The experience with the Nobel Laureate proved to be profound and genre
changing; under Singer’s tutelage, he became not only an enthusiastic student of short
fiction but the Nobel Laureate’s personal chauffeur from the Coral Gables campus to his
Surfside condominium: Hargitai found himself drawn to the short story, and he started
publishing his stories in respectable journals on both sides of the Atlantic. One of Singer’s
favorite Hargitai stories, “Zoltán Muhari,” published in
Inlet and picked up by the
Hungarian literary periodical
Szivárvány, is part of the late Nobel Laureate’s permanent
archives at the University of Texas. Hargitai re-enrolled in graduate school, this time in
New England and embarked on an ambitious work of fiction, a trilogy, which he ended up
regarding as a glorious failure but a grand learning experience, possibly more important to
him than his Master of Fine Arts degree which he completed in record time and with
distinction (
summa cum laude) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Ignoring his professors who advised him not to dabble in the genres but to focus on either
poetry or short fiction lest he fall through the cracks into obscurity, Hargitai did just the
opposite by setting out to master yet another genre, this time the challenging novel form.
The most profitable way to learn how to write a novel, he reasoned, was to translate one,
perhaps a bildungsroman; thus, in 1988 under a grant from the Fulbright-Hayes Foundation
he was able to spend time in Hungary and Italy translating Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel
Traveler and the Moonlight. Although he published excerpts from the novel in the
Hungarian Heritage Review (1990) and in the anthology Fodor's Budget Zion (1991). At the
request of the author’s widow the complete novel in English translation (
The Traveler)
wasn't published until after her death in 1994. For this effort he was presented with the
Füst Milán Award from the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Not long after his return from his sojourn in New England and Europe, Hargitai obtained a
teaching position at Florida International University in Miami where he was to work until
his retirement in 2012. Although his rigorous academic duties and his literary career vied for
attention, he managed to publish during this time a collection of original poems
Mother
Tongue: A Broken Hungarian Love Song
, a volume of short stories, Budapest to Bellevue, a
collection of folk tales titled
Magyar Tales, and three novels, Attila, Millie, and Daughter of
the Revolution
; a massive two volume textbook about the Hungarian exilic experience
followed in
Approaching My Literature, after which he tried his hand at an experimental
visionary work,
2012: The Little Horn of Prophecy. But it was in 1994 that Peter Hargitai
predicted the exact way in which New York’s Twin Towers came to be destroyed: “And
sparks will rain crystal, shooting off brilliant colors in helically twisted beams until the last
pillar of the Twin Towers atomized into flakes and snowed onto the firmament.” The
foregoing visionary text can be found on page 262 of his
Attila: A Barbarian’s Bedtime Story
(New York: Püski-Corvin Books, 1994) indexed as Library of Congress Catalog Card Number
93-84984.

Hargitai may have vacillated between prose and poetry, but he did not abandon poetry
altogether publishing
Witch’s Island and Other Poems in 2013. His signature poem, “Mother’
s Visit No. 29” was included in the anthology
Sixty Years of American Poetry, and his poem
“Mother’s a Racist” won the 2009 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Poetry Prize. His award-
winning translation of Attila József, in the meantime, was not only enjoying a fifth edition
and presented at both Miami and Frankfurt Book Fairs, but it was listed by Yale critic
Harold Bloom in his
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.

The City of Gulfport, Florida appointed Peter Hargitai their first Poet Laureate in 2015.
About the Author