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Hungarian immigrant is Gulfport's first poet laureate


For the first time in its history, the city has a poet laureate. Peter Hargitai was chosen as the city's official poet, an honorary yearlong appointment to raise the community's poetry awareness. The Hungarian-born 68-year-old who, with Dianne, his wife of 50 years, has called Gulfport home for the past three years, was delighted with the recognition. Though the retired college professor spends more time translating Hungarian fiction to English and writing his own, he never lost his love of poetry.

Why did you want to be the city's first poet laureate?

Poetry was my first love. Living in Gulfport has awakened my soul's poet voice and breathed new life into my work. I wanted to be able to share that enthusiasm with the community, especially younger people who may see poetry as elitist and not particularly relevant. Poetry has always been a populist art form.

You were a child during the Hungarian Revolution, and your family had to leave the country. Has that experience shaped your literary career?

Absolutely. I wrote my first poem when I was 9. I wrote about the 14- to 15-year-old girls fighting in the revolution, and how brave I thought they were. My father was a royal judge before the Soviet occupation, and never took kindly to my academic path. He wanted me to become someone important — a doctor or an engineer, perhaps — certainly not a poet. When he passed away, I found my first poem about the revolution folded up in his wallet. It made me realize that perhaps my father was more pleased with my life choices than he led me to believe; finding that poem moved me deeply.

After escaping the Soviet occupation of Hungary, where did your family settle?

Cleveland, Ohio, by way of Austria. Cleveland turned out to be a good place to assimilate to a new culture. I was 10 and started attending school. I played baseball and, though I had some trouble with English of course, I was determined. My wife, Dianne, and I met in high school. She taught me to drive, to speak better English, to be a liberal, and she taught me about cliches — valuable stuff. We married right after graduation.

What do you hope to accomplish as Gulfport's poet laureate?

A poet laureate is a symbol of the role poetry plays in a community. As the city's first, I want to rekindle an appreciation for the magic of language. When I was a young boy during the revolution, I found writing poetry gave me release from my emotions; it would make me feel better. I think many people today would benefit from that release, and I intend to encourage the reading and writing of poetry every chance I get. As poet laureate, I want to share poetry with as many people as possible. I would like to read in schools, (to) patients in hospice and hospitals, anywhere and everywhere, and encourage each person's poetic voice.

It's also an opportunity to give back to a community that's welcomed us with open arms, and where we feel very much at home. I mean, where else can you ride around on your bike with the family dog in the basket, and no one blinks an eye.