Stripping power naked
Imagining Turkish poet Ilyas Tunç as the eye in the societal storm is irresistible.
Tunç, who will participate at the Poetry Africa International Festival in Durban next week, writes poetry that delves into a range of themes—from memories of childhood to an individual sense of desolation—with brevity, insightfulness and grace.
His words appear to cast perspectives on life’s maelstrom from a point of thoughtful calm, which serves to leaven their impact, rather than detract from it.
Tunç, a retired former primary school English teacher who lives in the Turkish Black Sea coastal town of Sinop, published his first anthology, Kis Bin Alkis Miydi (The Last Applause in Winter, Biçem Press) in 1992. He has since published five more collections, including Kül ve Kopus (Ash and Ending, Damar Press, 1994) which won the 1995 Poetry Prize of Damar Literary Magazine and the Orhan Murat Ariburnu Poetry Award (Special Jury Award).
His 2008 Ceyhun Atuf Kansu Poetry Prize-winning collection, Sesler Incelikler (We Spoke of Sand, Artshop Press, 2008), was translated into English in collaboration with South African poet Robert Berold. Tunç, who recently completed translation of a hefty anthology of contemporary South African poetry into Turkish, has also had some poetry translated into isiZulu by Angifi Dladla and Afrikaans by Charl-Pierre Naude. Karnaval is his most recent collection of poems (Artshop Press, 2009).
Niren Tolsi: You are from Sinop, birthplace of the Cynic philosopher Sinopian Diogenes. In one of the more famous anecdotes regarding Diogenes, he is said to have wandered the streets of Athens during the day with a lantern, searching for an honest man. Some would suggest that the act of carrying of a lantern in the daylight on this particular search is the poet’s task, imbued with both an air of futility and yet vital for humanity understanding itself. Can you please comment.
Ilyas Tunç: I was born in Ordu, a small city on the Black Sea coast in Turkey. But I have been living in Sinop for eighteen years. Built on a peninsula it is a castle city where Sinopian Diogenes was born and spent his childhood. A few years ago his statue was built in the Lonca Gate, the entrance of the city.
Yes, Diogenes wandered the streets in the full daylight with a lantern. When asked what he was doing, he would answer, “I am just looking for a good man.” He found nothing, but rascals, scoundrels, despots ... This phrase, on the one hand, manifests an irony in itself. On the other, it reflects the tragedies of the age when Diogenes lived. There has been a great number of tyrants throughout the human history, which doesn’t mean that no good man exists. Indeed, the lantern in his hand symbolises hope. People must search until finding. What Diogenes said, to an extent, is true, but not completely. For the earth gives birth to good men such as Steve Biko, Ken Saro Wiva, Che Guevera, Deniz Gezmi—
We can commend on this credo in another way. Diogenes might have thought that the good men hadn’t dared to appear because of the majority of the bad ones. If so, what he said is a call, not a complaint.
As for poets, they must witness their ages, and know the sources of the badnesses. Knowing is not sufficient, speaking out is also needed. Poetry expresses something indirectly. In my opinion, a poet doesn’t invite the reader to act in a certain way. However, he or she invites us to be aware of what’s happening. Sinopian Diogenes, if he had wanted, could’ve said “Where are you all good people?” Or “Is there a good man around here?” But he preferred to make an irony, which is an indirect way of expressing.
NT: Interestingly, another anecdote connected to Diogenes tells of him asking Alexander the Great to get out of his sunlight when the emperor asked the philosopher what favour he could bestow upon him. You, in an earlier interview, talk of how “power hides reality, but poets bring it to light”. Can you extrapolate on the relationship between the poet and power? And also the poets role in the relationship between ordinary citizens and power?
IT: As a relative concept, goodness is based on the power. The power also means wealth and richness. If you’re poor, you have nothing to grant. Alexander the Great represents the power, which stands between the sun and Sinopean Diogenes. Really, what the power grants you has been already seized by force from others. And it gets back what it gives you because it never wants to share inherently. Sharing in equality is a more human approach to the problems. The power sometimes does the weak a favour to cover its cruelty. It means that tyrants can turn into angels of goodness. The reality is hidden at this very moment when tyrants turn into angels. However, the poet is like a child who cries out “The King is naked” as in the story. Telling the truth requires courage. Indeed, there is no difference between these two statements, “The King is naked” and “Get out of my sunlight”.
As regards to the poet’s role in the relationship between ordinary citizens and power, naturally he/she is on the side of ordinary citizens. And he/she must tell them that tyrants aren’t angels of goodness.
NT: In an age of mass media, celebrity obsessions, a move away from the literary (reading poetry, novels), the difficulties in poets getting published, et cetera, do you think there is a need for poets to reinvent themselves? Or is this, perhaps, happening already in performance poetry sub-genres?
IT: In the modern age, popular art rules over the true art. Popular art is an industrialised art, which is produced on demand and is daily consumed. It is superficial and ordinary, and has no aesthetic values, but it is understood more easily by the masses. This is why it is so widespread. As an indispensable part of popular art, media creates an image to put it on the market. That’s to say, you must have an image through media before your poems are published so that a mass of readers are ready for following you. In this case, the poet’s image becomes more attractive than his poems. Once you are a part of media, it is not important what and how to write.
Poetry can be read loudly in spite of the fact that it is something visual as a written material. An ordinary reader wants to believe in what he/she listens to. Nevertheless, understanding comes before believing. If you want the reader to understand directly, you can fall into the trap of easiness. Poetry writing is not writing a letter. In everyday life people mostly use words in their real meanings, which match up with our communicative language. But the words used in written poetry shouldn’t serve as in the daily life as long as entering into a poem. They must gain associative, metaphorical, transcendent, visionary and imaginary meanings. If you perform your poem, you must consider these risks.
NT: You talk of having met poetry as a young man (when one “felt more intensively and deeply”). When and how did this happen? Can you describe your relationship over the years? How has age affected your relationship with poetry, and your relationship with writing poetry?
IT: I began to write poems in my adolescence. My early poems, which expressed a fragile love, were far from carrying literary value. My first poems which have, I believe, a literary value were published in the first issue of the literary magazine named Yeni Defne, in 1977. For a long time, until the early1990s, I haven’t published my poems. It is because those poems didn’t reflect a genuine poetic style. As a matter of fact, the poems that took place in my first collection were the ones written as of the 1990s. Today, I believe that a collection of poems must have an internal coherence in terms of both formal pattern and theme. I can also say that the common themes in my poetic journey evolved in time from love to philosophy and mythology. Writing poems had been an irresistible passion for me until I discovered translation as an alternative literary activity. Translating poems is a creative and enjoyable way of involving in poetry.
NT: Do you have a routine when writing poetry? Can you go into that routine, and also charter the course of your poems from inspiration through conceptualisation to articulation? Perhaps speak both generally and, also, can you take the reader through the specifics of the process for Fetus Gunlugu?
IT: Actually, I do not have a routine regarding poetry. But for the most part, I prefer to write poems at night. I don’t smoke or use alcohol, but I consume a considerable amount of coffee. I concentrate on the theme by making a deep research before writing it. I get knowledge about the theme from different sources such as books, people, movies, encyclopedias ... I benefit from almost everything in life; objects, photographs, local songs and stories, nature and myths. In fact, I’m not a poet who believes in inspiration. I can’t wait for some words from somewhere or someone. I try to create my own inspiration by myself.
I began to write my third collection Fetus Gunlu, it means Diary of a Fetus, after I got a great deal of knowledge about a fetus for a quite long time. Generally, I start with the key word or line, which gets me to write the other lines. In the process of writing, I choose the most necessary words. I omit out the unnecessary ones. Using the words economically is important for me. Rhythm and musicality are the necessary elements of a poem, so are images. In my opinion, a good poem must draw a picture in the reader’s mind, and take him out of the daily reality. After I finish the draft of a poem, I forget it for some time to correct my mistakes later. This gap of time provides me an opportunity to think over it more carefully. I’m a lucky poet because my family members are my first volunteer critics, my wife and two daughters. My daughters are also poets and especially my wife, as an art teacher, criticises my poems. When I read the finished poem to them, they review it. If necessary, I can edit the lines or words. It gives me joy that my daughters read the new poem loudly. Finally, I send it to a literary magazine, the poetic views of which overlaps with mine.
NT: You make the very important distinction of how good poetry comes from the use of the poet’s mind. Can you explain this further, and also describe what happens when, and the pitfalls of using the act of writing poetry as, a sort of therapist’s couch which many aspirants poets appear to do?
IT: Poetry is an expression as other branches of art. Poets have to release what they feel in them. This is an expression, a flow of feelings from our heart. Indeed, there is a buffer zone between our conscious and subconsciousness, where poetry occurs. While the raw words release out from our subconsciousness, they are refined or eliminated by the poet. As Viladimir Mayakovsky said: “Poetry is the same as radium output. A year of work, labours in a gramme. You are processing for the sake of one only word, thousand tons of verbal ore!” Poetry is a difficult work, which is done by mind. It is not a gift from the gods.
NT: What are the major themes examined in your poetry? Where does this sit within the context of the broader Turkish poetry milieu? In We Spoke of Sand, your sensitivity to the transience in life is palpable. Please comment.
IT: The themes that are frequently observed in my poetry are loneliness, death, pain, love, alienation, sense of desolation, memories of childhood, wars and poverty. Sometimes I let myself get carried away by the magic of a word. It calls up the other words to stir me to write. The flow of words can flash up the topic instantly.
I believe that the themes a poet dealt with during his or her poetic journey is dependent on not only his or her personal experiences, but also on his or her country’s history. In this regard, Turkish people witnessed so many wars, sufferings and injustice that it becomes almost impossible for a poet from this country to be insensitive to these issues. However, today, the social and political sensitivity in poetry seems to have been replaced by a more individualist voice. Nonetheless, there are still important poets who have succeeded to refer to social matters in their own authentic style. As far as my thematical standpoint is concerned, I can say that there are only a few poets who use mythological elements in their poetry as frequent as I do.
Your opinion about We Spoke of Sand is true. The feeling of temporariness of the life predominates in this collection. Understanding the transience in life purifies you from evil values such as hostility, animosity and rapacity.
NT: In an earlier interview you say:” What drove me to translate South African poetry is that my eagerness to see how the culture, traditions, beliefs, social life and religions of the people from different races reflect on the poetry.” What are your observations of South African poetry as the reflector, and of South African society as reflected through the poems you have encountered?
IT: In the course of my translation work, I got some observations about your country, which reflect the social life. It can be said that Afrikaans poets pass over the social themes, and their poems are predominantly pastoral. So, we can see the magnificent landscapes of South Africa in their poems. Some European rooted poets have been influenced by Ted Huges, DH Lawrence, William Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats, William Wordsworth, Thomas Eliot, John Milton. Mostly, the black poets touch upon the social problems such as poverty, freedom, HIV/Aids, rape, nepotism, exile, etc ... They also take Zulu and other native cultures as in hand.
For example; the reader can see the household goods in a Zulu hut through Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s poem Inside my Zulu Hut, and how Shaka was born from fireflames in his another poem The Birth of Shaka from the Fireflames. And I learned that the crime rate of raping women is rather higher by the poems Angifi Dladla’s Seven Soldiers laughed on Christmas Day, Makhosazana Xaba’s The Silence of a Lifetime, Vonani Bila’s Beautiful Daughter. Before I came to Durban, I experienced the life in Grey Street through Mafika Gwala’s poem. Dennis Brutus’ poem Remembering June 16 demonstrated how terrible student uprising in Soweto was. Kobus Moolman’s poem Three View of a Karoo Veld and Kelwyn Sole’s Karoo showed me the wonderful landscapes of Karoo. I can give more examples of the poems reflecting the social life in South Africa.
NT: You have translated SA poets from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, including isiZulu and Afrikaans. What have been the major difficulties? Please provide examples.
IT: I can fairly confess that I don’t know isiZulu and Afrikaans. Altough the majority of the poets I have translated were those writing in English, I also tried to find the English versions of the poems in the native languages to bring them in Turkish. To this end, I have established contacts with numerous poets. They helped me in overcoming the difficulties that I had met in the translating process. Thanks to the precious contributions and help coming from the SA poets, I completed an anthology of SA poets in Turkish. Unfortunately, there were important poets who were lacking in this anthology since I haven’t accessed their works.
NT: You have also worked with Robert Berold in translating your own work into English. What difficulties did you encounter in that process?
IT: Robert Berold is one of the most supporting poets to my translation works of South African poetry and my own. By the way, I must thank to him so much. He doesn’t know Turkish, but we worked on the English draft of the poems. He wrote me the points on which he had difficulty, and asked for my explanations on them. I sent my comments by emails. We worked four or five times on the same poem so that the reader could taste as if it was written in English.
NT: What is the secret to a good translation?
IT: It is a very difficult work to translate a poem. Poetry is written through native language and carries its semantical features. But translation reproduces poetry which was a local art in another language. Through translation, people know each other’s cultures, traditions, and life styles. We can invent the culture of a county through its poetry. Knowing different cultures all over the world gives us a joy of living together in peace, and create a tolerant atmosphere between people. So, I believe translation literature is a contribution to the world peace.
The translator’s patience is the most essential thing for this knotted work. If you want to translate a poem, you have to learn the poet’s life, poetic views, and inner world. A good translator must also be a good searcher. After working on it a few times, I put it somewhere for some time. This enables me to see it more objectively when I return to it again.
NT: You mentioned financial difficulties in getting the SA collection of poetry published in Turkey. Where is the project at the moment, what are the issues?
IT: Poetry is a special field of art which interests very few readers. So, publishers say that it doesn’t sell much. The manuscript of the anthology I prepared consists of 575 pages. The publisher says it will cost too much. Nevertheless, he says he will publish it as soon as possible. If it is delayed, I’ll be looking for a sponsor from Turkey or South Africa. I applied for the South African embassy in Ankara via email for its sponsorship, but they advised me to search [out] some businessmen and institutions in South Africa. I toiled on this translation work too much in spite of the fact that it is a non-profitable work.
NT: Have you thought about what you will say at the Istanbul Book Fair when you talk about SA poetry? Any chance of a preview for Mail & Guardian readers?
IT: As a poetry translator, I’ve been studying on South African poetry since 2005. So, there are many things to say about it. Here are some details which came to my mind instantly: South Africa is a country where eleven different languages are spoken officially. Zulu language is the most common one, of which name comes from Shaka Zulu (1787-1828) the founder of the Zulu kingdom.
Modern Zulu poetry is based on praise poem (isibongo), a kind of poetry which is performed with drums to praise the leaders of the tribes. This oral tradition of African poetry affected many South African poets such as DJ Opperman and Antjie Krog who write in Afrikaans and Wopko Jensma and Sydney Clouts who write in English.
The oral poetry was spread from rural areas to urban areas as a performance poetry in the 1980s. Performance poets, most of whom are black people, drew the attention of public to apartheid, moral corruption, poverty, unrighteous distribution of income, favoritism, etc, through their poems. Zolani Mkiva, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Alfred Temba Qaubula, Sandile Dikeni, Ike Mboneni Muila, Lesego Rampolokeng represent this poetry movement.
The reason why the black poets wrote their poems in English was to create an international public opinion on apartheid policies.
Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Christopher van Wyk, Mafika Gwala, Don Mattera became the significant poets of the 1970s.
In 1969, Mongane Wally Serote was arrested by the apartheid government according to the law of terrorism. After he spent nine months in the prison, he was found innocent and released.
Dennis Brutus became a prison mate of Mandela in Robben Island.
Also, the white poets experienced the force of the apartheid policies, For example, Jermy Cronin was found guilty of connecting with the South African Communist Party, and sentenced to seven years.
In the 1960’s a new generation of the white poets including Douglas Livingstone, Sdney Clout, Ruth Miller, Lionel Abrahams, Stephen Grey rose up in South African poetry.
In the period when the apartheid was practiced heavily, Lionel Abrahams dared to publish Mongane Wally Serote’s Yakhal Inkomo and Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali’s The Sound of a Cowhide Drum.
In 1980 a group of writers left South African Pen Centre in Johannesburg, and founded AWA. (African Writers Association)
It was seen a burst of performance poetry in the 1990’s. And the Botsotso Jesters group appeared with the claim of that they would embrace all the cultures and interpret them in a new synthesis.
In 1994 Nelson Mandela opened the democratic Parliament with the poem The Child by Ingrid Jonker.
And, so many thanks for you to release my voice to the South African poetry readers.