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Maintenant #39: Efe Duyan

“We never knew who Engin Çeber was” – an interview with Efe Duyan by SJ Fowler.

One of the most complex and magisterial poetic traditions in Europe, Turkey continues to produce some of the finest poets writing today as it has done consistently for centuries. Efe Duyan is one of the most resolute stylists and theorists of his generation, a lauded Nazim Hikmet scholar and an architect by trade, his eloquent and erudite poetry has earned him a reputation across the continent. One of the many brilliant poets participating in Literature Across Frontiers, we are honoured to welcome Efe Duyan as the first Turkish poet to be featured in Maintenant.


3:AM: To many Nazim Hikmet is one of the most versatile and politically vital poets of the last 100 years. What is his continued reputation in Turkey?

Efe Duyan: I agree that Hikmet is one of the best poets of the century who belonged to the generation of Aragon, Neruda, Jozsef, and Mayakovski. Nâzım Hikmet’s reputation in Turkey has always been one of the major discussions. On the one side, when he was sent to prison in 1938 for 28 years because of being a communist, and he already had been in prison several times. At beginning of the ‘50’s, he could get out of the prison thanks to an international campaign just before the Cold War. Then he fled to Soviet Union before being expatriated and between 1937 and 1965 no books of Hikmet were published in Turkey, not a single one. Today there is no censorship on his works, but we still have to mention a conscious ignorance and efforts for the domestication of his wild and political sides.

On the other hand, in the times when he was a taboo, lots of his poems were circulated from mouth to mouth. It was neither possible to note it down (that was too dangerous) nor to publish, but we know today there were so many people who knew his poems by heart, just like in the movie Fahrenheit 451. I cannot hinder myself to tell another story to show his impact. One of his poems, called ‘Letter’, is about a Turkish soldier Ahmet who went to Korea in the Korean War, where he says, “who are you going to kill / is it the longing that did not leaf out in your own country /…/ surrender Ahmet / if you love your own country”. This poem has been distributed as flyers by the Korean army with plains to the Turkish troops and according to the memories; it also played a role (of course, in its own kind) in the retreat of the Turkish side.

He is still the most beloved and damnable artist of the century.

3:AM: What is the importance of his work, and perhaps more poignantly, as a Turkish poet, his life, his politics, his choices, his incarceration, on you and other young people who read poetry?

ED: I think he is still the best selling and the most well-known poet. First of all, we can indicate that his life and work are a part of a whole. Although his work is very political and includes “human landscapes”, it is also completely personal. We cannot say basically that he has written what he has lived, but his poetry is breathing in reality or in other words his poetry arises from the real life both on a political level and an individual level. In my opinion, this point is the key of his poetic success. He can be considered as a socialist realist for sure, but it is never possible to see his work stuck in given formal rules. The political message or philosophical argument has always successfully been harmonised with the complexity of inner world.

Secondly, he was one of the most experimental poets; he never gave up searching for new forms and new ways of expression. That’s why his work differs from period to period. My interpretation of this constant renewal of himself is that he was so deeply emerged in his worldview that he did not need any formality; on the contrary he looked for the proper and new forms for the content at every moment.

Thirdly, and historically, he was indisputably the beginning of the modern Turkish poetry. Therefore, he is a milestone to settle up for any Turkish poet. But the ones who went after his way understood him in formal terms -in general and unfortunately-, which caused to a copy poetry (of course with several exceptions like Kemal Özer or Nihat Behram). And for the ones who refused to write poetry in political terms, he was a kind of an unforgotten bad memory (if I may make a non-academic metaphor, it is possible to talk about an Oedipus complex against Nâzım).

Lastly, I can say that every single man in Turkey who reads poetry did read Nâzım at least when he/she was young and Nâzım’s work has been one of the gates to poetry for young people. If I have to talk about his work on me, I must confess that it has been and is ambiguously enormous. I do not write like Nâzım at the first glance and I intentionally try to look different from him due to my fear to copy him. But on the other hand, I try to understand his poetry on the deepest level.

3:AM: Is there a strong presence of avant-garde and experimental poetry in modern Turkey? Is there a lasting influence from the Ikinci Yeni of the 1950′s and the likes of Ece Ayhan, Ilhan Berk, Edip Cansever, Cemal Süreya and Turgut Uyar? Could you offer your thoughts on these poets?

ED: Throughout the twentieth century, nearly every artistic movement has had an impact with a certain delay in the political border countries of Central Europe. These influences have been late but not unimportant because this cultural flow revealed certain new forms with hybridity and localities. İkinci Yeni (Second New) can be regarded as the surrealist movement in Turkey under the conditions of the Cold War, a scene refined from all the politically critical and leftist intellectual affects by censorship or brute force. The ‘50’s was also the period when metropolises were born and the intellectual’s loneliness and alienation were to be observed. Emerging poets of the time (nearly unaware of Nâzım Hikmet’s work because of strict censorship) had a surreal attitude without rebellious impulse, existentialist approach without philosophical depth. In despite of these “shortcomings”, this new way of writing poetry caused a unique and authentic poetic language that is colourful, surprising and fresh.

I would like to briefly point out some of my personal thoughts about the poets above, so that it can provide a general view for the foreign readers of Turkish poetry. Cemal Süreya can be considered as a “hunter of metaphors”, his poetry has a powerful rhythm, an ironic and erotic tone and his main success lies in his talent to express complex metaphors in the ordinary speech. Ece Ayhan’s poetry is composed of several layers of historical references, politics from an anarchistic world view and of complex symbols. The ones who have enough energy to go deep into the poems then they’ll find a treasure there but I have to warn those about that it is never easy. İlhan Berk can be considered as the theoretician of Second New in an atmosphere in which Second New had no common manifesto at all and where many Second New poets were refusing to belong to Second New, but Berk insisted on outlining Second New. He has continued to be influential till his recent death. But I have to confess that his poetry lacks of internal energy (but Berk is still one the most popular poets among the poetry circle).

Edip Cansever and Turgut Uyar have mostly concentrated on the intellectual’s alienation and the complexity of human nature. Unlike other Second New poets, both Cansever and Uyar were after a semantic totality in poetry and structural consistency even in their experimental works. That’s why they are my favourite poets from ‘50’s.

It is interesting to see that the ground breaking and exciting poetry of İkinci Yeni has become the average and dominant ground for nearly 20 years (after the military coup). In my opinion, today most of the poets have their roots in Second New, but in a formalistic way. Second New’s fresh breath has become synthetic. What the Second New poets invented as an artistic vehicle can now be considered as an aim in itself.

Related to experimental poetry, I can say that, yes, there is such a branch but not coherent in theoretical sense and more importantly not so striking in practice. Lastly, I tend to define good poetry as new (in its own way, not necessarily stylistically) and every “real” new as avant-garde.

3:AM: How do you work? What methodology do you use to write? Do you allow poetry to appear before you, or do you chain yourself to a desk?

ED: The answer to both questions is Yes.

I am against mystified poetry -sometimes it is considered as something holy, exempt from all criticism and being totally different substance than other types of writing. According to my very personal view, poetry is to be defined as one of the possible ways of expressing yourself. It should be on the streets so to speak; sometimes complex of course but not complicated. Therefore I am not against chaining myself to the desk, I believe in working in poetry. And moreover, I have some long poems (one of them, ‘Verses in Surdibi’, was also translated into English) that I wrote like realising a project. For example, in the duration that I’ve written ‘Verses in Surdibi’, I worked with a photographer friend of mine, Murat Pulat -whose photos I projected in Edinburgh Book Festival during my reading- we went to an old city every week for several months. He took photos and I just walked next to him. If I may give another example, I wrote another long poem (and published some parts) called 16 June Crossroads which is an important uprising day in the history of working class in 1970. In order to write this poem, I tried to work like a sociologist. I have collected interviews, news, articles, videos, and photos etc., namely a whole archive. That was the first “yes”.

As I said, I also “allow poetry to appear before me”. Although all I’ve said in reference to so-called mechanistic definition, I strongly believe that it is the most personal branch of writing. Even while I am telling a historical story or describing the city, it is still the first–singular’s inner view. I may seem paradoxical, but I never write something when I did not live or experience something to write. I think I’ll leave this contradictory two sided view open at this moment. After this point the poetry itself should speak, not the theory.

3:AM: Your poetry appears crystalline and clear, at times it uses a care and gentility of speech to achieve a deliberate fragility and rhythm. Do you think this is accurate?

ED: First of all, I have to confess that I answer every question which directly relates to what I write with a strange feeling, let’s say a little bit embarrassed.

My poetry is clear in semantic sense, this is true, but I am trying not to be simple. This is because I care how my structural or metaphorical codes are going to be perceived. I try to balance my intention of expressing myself with comprehensibility. I guess my poems have to own an inherent quality which will give the reader a reason to read it. Of course, I wouldn’t say that I am trying to give a bare message to society, yet I feel responsible to readers as poetry is the most independent and exiting way of communication. In Turkish, I try to use daily language and concrete metaphors for reaching to an abstract level.

Nevertheless, I (probably like most of the poets) don’t use the daily language as it is; I try to reform it according to the main structure of every poem. I would use each and every possibly way of speech and formal structure in order to achieve a certain atmosphere of emotion -like in the famous architectural motto: “Form follows function”. I have to admit that I do not find myself always successful in synthesising daily language or slang with certain audio structures to achieve a specific rhythm. What triggers creativity in the end is this contradiction or effort.

3:AM: Could you outline your involvement with Literature Across Frontiers?

ED: Last year, when one of the most talented poets of young generation, Gökçenur Ç. (b.1971), told me about a project in his mind, which was the Word-Express, it sounded quite crazy in the beginning. My amazement for the project was not only because it suggested travelling for two weeks on a train full of young writers, but also it aimed to establish a network and close relationship among the Balkan countries which keep a kind of political but artifical hostility despite having a common historical background. Literature Across Frontiers was brave enough to support this project from the beginning to the end, and everything went wonderfully. After that adventurous train journey, we managed to organise several international events in different countries. Moreover I have to confess that it totally changed my view to young foreign poetry. We also worked together very well. In Edinburgh, we prepared kinetic typographies and stage performances. In Istanbul, we designed a reading called “poetry cafe” where the audience order travelling poets from a menu. We produced “poems in a bottle” to indicate the loneliness of poetry. Above all, I made very good friends with several young poets and poetry readers from several countries.

3:AM: What is the role of Istanbul in your work? Do you consider yourself a poet of the city?

ED: I think, yes. I did not define myself as a poet of the city, but when I look at what I have written, it seems so. One of the reasons for that might be my educational background. I studied architecture, and I think, the city is the scene where everything related to life happens.

Nevertheless, besides this, my poetry is nourished by the human reality itself. I like to say that it is important to live as a poet; the poetry will anyway come afterwards. I know that the statement “to live as a poet” sounds strange, everyone may read this in relation to his/her own definition of poetry. What I think is that it is an awareness of living in every sense. Neruda has once said; the life of a poet is the sum of all lives. I guess the city, especially a city like İstanbul, is the gate to other people’s lives. In our time, we get used to everything very easily, and my interest in other people’s lives is a way of self-loyalty for me. My poetry is neither a bare propaganda nor I am a story teller but my neglect (or our common neglect) in daily life, to what happens besides me is a very personal problem for me as someone who is still politically after equalitarian utopias.

However, I must confess that İstanbul is an amazing city for any artist. Not only because of its historic and natural beauty, but also because of its inner contradictions where you may find every “black” and “white” next to each other. Living in İstanbul means living with İstanbul – it is an irrefutable organism. Even I can say that the city is one of the main characters in some of my poems like ‘Verses in Surdibi’. Surdibi is the name of the old city between the city walls. In spite of its gorgeous and beautiful history and architecture, it is a very poor neighbourhood which can almost be defined as a slum in the midst of all famous and important historic buildings like Hagia Sophia or Süleymaniye Mosque. It can be considered as a source of several different emotions and humanscapes.

Proof Reading by Müzeyyen Baturay.



SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 5th, 2010.