Ilona Martonfi pays witness to her family’s history as war refugees in her latest poetry collection, Salt Bride (2019). Her imagist, staccato-lined poems present a picture of post-war Budapest from a child’s perspective. Over the course of her collection, Martonfi’s muse takes her from an abandoned Congolese mine where child labourers provide the uranium for an atomic bomb that will be dropped on Japan, to the Aegean Sea, where the child refugee Alan Kurdi drowned trying to flee the war in Syria.
Martonfi is the founder and artistic director of the Yellow Door and Visual Arts Centre Reading Series, as well as the Argo Bookshop Reading Series. In 2010, she received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Community Award for her service to the English literary community in Montreal. She continues to play an active role as an arts organizer and activist.
Matthew Rettino: You’re planning to hold a poetry and storytelling workshop called Healing Through Art this February at Chez Doris, a homeless women’s shelter, through Vallum magazine’s outreach program. Can you talk about what it’s like to be involved with Chez Doris?
Ilona Martonfi: I’ve been working in this capacity for 10 years. I find it both difficult and okay, you know? [The women] come up there for an hour to the art room and just spend that time painting or doing jewellery or whatever’s offered. All I know is when there’s clothes being given out, they just run away! It’s not the art that interests them. It’s their other urgent needs, especially food and clothes.
I give them all kinds of exercises. Each year I try to make it more playful. Like a hygge hut, like friends getting together enjoying a warm place with warm socks. That’s exactly what I do. Even when I do my poetry shows, it’s to get together in a community.
MR: What is your writing process like?
IM: Even if it’s a witness poem, I have to see my own reflection in it. The most difficult ever for me to open up, which took me years, [were about] the atomic bomb in Japan (like “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts”). I can’t imagine how that was. It gives me the shivers. The weather is different [in Nagasaki], the mountains, everything. So I researched a lot, took a lot of notes and then it trickles down and it usually zeroes down to [an image like] a dress. I also read about the hibukusha (atomic bomb survivors).
The Chernobyl poems started off with this magazine and this old babushka with her kerchief sitting in this picture with a little bundle, and all her belongings in that, all tied up (“Chernobyl Evacuee’s Lament, Polesskoye Village”).
The biggest research that I found was how [the Nazis] sent [the Jewish population] to Auschwitz. Those are my best poems, actually. They have one artist in Budapest who created [a memorial out of] iron shoes because they had to take off their shoes when they shot them into the river. And it’s there, not far from where I lived, across from the Danube. [It’s] one of the most powerful things I’ve seen. I wrote several poems about that (such as “Ráhel’s Mother”).
MR: You keep returning to your family’s experiences as war refugees in your poetry. What was that experience like for you?
IM: I was never in Chernobyl [or Auschwitz], but I was in Budapest. I grew up in that atmosphere after the war because I lived after Nazi Germany. For me, 1944, 1945, I’m two years old. Through listening about it and people not talking about it, I discovered that the town we ended up in in Bavaria [was full of] Nazis thrown out from neighbouring Czechoslovakia. And I went to school with them. Of course, they didn’t like me because I was this Hungarian, but I had no knowledge of this. There was no history when I was growing up. I’m still running happily across the meadow and picking buttercups and playing by the creek and just having enough to eat and having a little dress and going to church on Sunday — and that’s all that mattered for a child. I didn’t even know what it means to be afraid.
I don’t like to shout in my work. I don’t shout about Nagasaki. I don’t shout about those iron shoes. I tell it like it is, but always with empathy. Because I found empathy to be the most important thing. It’s those survivor techniques I have from way back when I was a child.
MR: When can we hear you read from Salt Bride?
IM: The poetry events — I started them 20 years ago and it’s not easy to stop. [Laughs] I read my poetry at all my literary events. Emotions have to be harnessed right from the first poem. I [occasionally] read about the ghetto because of what’s happening in politics now in the States. It’s coming back, as if they hadn’t learned anything. So that’s why these poems are relevant.
That’s my message, actually: Learn from the past and don’t repeat it. ■
Ilona Martonfi will read from Salt Bride at the Visual Arts Centre (350 Victoria, Westmount) on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 7:30 p.m., $6