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Maintenant #85 – Gonca Özmen

An interview with Gonca Özmen with SJ Fowler.

Contemporary Turkish poetry looks confidently back upon the iconoclastic individuals who have constituted its genuinely remarkable tradition, and the current cohort of poets emerging from the 21st century possess the unique sensibility in language that marks them from their predecessors and stamps their entire generation with the influence of their work. As the light of poets like Ilhan Berk and Nazim Hikmet begins to fade from view, it is poets like Gonca Özmen who have come into their own. After just two collections and a variety of prizes, Gonca has become one of the most direct, concise and eloquent voices in Turkish poetry and one who has begun to grow a reputation far beyond the borders of her home nation, thanks to last year’s publication of the Sea Within, a collection of translated poems from Shearsman press. In our 85th edition, we are pleased to welcome, our second Turkish respondent, Gonca Özmen.

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3:AM: With the publication of only two books in Turkey you seem to have gained a considerable reputation as a poet of formidable force and talent. How do you feel you have been received in the Turkish poetry community and by readers at large?

Gonca Özmen: I was very young (only 15) when my first poem was published in a well-known Turkish literary magazine called Varlık in 1997. My first book Kuytumda (In My Nook) was published when I was 18 years old. Beside my poetry, I guess my young age and my gender also drew attention. My second book Belki Sessiz (Maybe Quiet) was published after eight years by one of the primary publishing houses. I really worked a lot on it and I waited for a long time before publishing the poems. I read them again and again, I changed the words, added new ones erased lines and I even played with the form, tone and discourse. It is a book which is not only written but also made. It is constructed like a building. Some poets and important critics found it praiseworthy. Nearly 20 essays were published on my second book. All this has led to recognition. This gives one the urge to continue writing. I have been writing and publishing in several literary magazines, journals and newspapers since 1997. But of course there are the ones who do not like my poetry in the Turkish poetry community. It is inevitable.

By readers? I can only say that recently the third editions of my books are published. This is the real award for me. I have to say that I do not care for reputation. I am trying to enlarge and deepen the scope of my poetry. The crucial thing is the power of your work. You have to prove your worth with each new poem and book. The rest is meaningless. Poetry is a footpath and poets should be stubborn goats.

3:AM: Your work is marked by its fluidity of image, its apparent ease of construction, it’s versatility too, it’s ability to maintain darkness with light, and it’s clarity without reduction. What are your aiming to achieve with your poems?

GÖ: Thanks for your considerate comments. Virginia Woolf argues that “Nothing makes a whole unless I am writing… Nothing is real unless I write.” Beginning from my childhood, I always prefer textual reality to everyday reality. Luckily I was born in a house with a big library. It was the library of my father who is a philosophy teacher. I have been a hungry reader since my childhood. I believe that every writer has to be a good reader at first. Because being a true poetry reader is as difficult as writing poetry. Both reading and writing require an intensive effort, creative impulse, and poetic knowledge. It is really hard to get into a poem as you too know. A poem only reveals its nature as the reader tries to grasp it, delves into it. It creates its own strategy of insight and its own life with its own logic. There is not a fixed meaning. The readers who do not get accustomed to read poetry, who do not know the evolution of that particular poetry tradition or the readers who cannot appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the metaphors, the music and the images are incapable of getting into a poem. However more or less each reader finds her/his own meaning (or meaninglessness) according to her/his literary background, way of life and point of view. This process is like a communication between the reader and the poem itself.

I like Wallace Stevens and he stresses that “A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words.” I also try to do the same thing. The impulse of writing is very complicated and the act of creativity cannot be understood precisely. But words, words, words… We have nothing apart from the words. There are still some words which do not stand side by side in a line. In the attic of language, there are still different facilities which are not used. I am trying to expand these facilities of Turkish by writing poetry. I also believe that poetry has an important capacity to alter, convert and beautify the daily reality that I do not like. The outer physical world is something to be written for me. World is always waiting a new meaning, a new perspective, a new connection. In other words, poetry has the power to change the world. Yes, I still believe in it. I should add that a poem is contemporary and also timeless, modern and also similar to all times.

Writing is an existential revolt for me. I think that poet is someone who always tries to reach what is beyond her/his reach and to write what is unwritten and to hear what is unheard, “to foresee the unforeseeable” (H. Cixous). The creative process is by its nature a kind of imaginative wandering within the mind and language. Poetry enables us to see behind the things that are shown to us, that are told to us. It adds a new eye to the individual. It is the stimulant for the individual.

I can easily say that writing for me at first stems from a need to speak with the other, a need to touch the other and a need to share. I think that poetry is a form of interaction. I want to communicate with the reader. I am trying to make the reader participate in creating the poem. I want to force the reader to interact with the poems. Thus, I erase rather than narrate. I am putting many gaps between the lines, because I want from my readers to create the poem with me in these gaps. I want them to speak with the poem by these gaps and create their own meanings. I want them to collaborate with me in these silences. A poem endlessly reproduces itself within the perception of the reader. It is recreated again and again in every reading. Making the reader sense more with few words… The depth and profundity of austerity… The hidden meanings of the words…

3:AM: You have won Ali Rıza Ertan Prize, the Orhon Murat Arıburnu Prize, and the Berna Moran Poetry Prize, how have these awards helped your reputation?

GÖ: As far as I have answered above, I admit that awards help to increase your audience and reputation. They make poetry books more visible. Without the help of awards, many books of young poets wouldn’t get published. Without Orhon Murat Arıburnu Prize, I could not be able to publish my first book in 1997. It has opened my way in a sense. But nothing more.

3:AM: How did The Sea Within come to be published in the UK with Shearsman press?

GÖ: Thanks to George Messo. After the translations were finished, he sent the copy of the book to Shearsman Books. After some time, he sent me an email and wrote that Shearsman wanted to publish the book. Unfortunately I meet neither George nor Tony Frazer, the editor of Shearsman Books. I wish you could ask this question to Tony Frazer. Some of the translations in The Sea Within first appeared in the following magazines. Grateful acknowledgements are due to the editors of Absinthe: New European Poetry, Cerise Press, Conversation Poetry, and The Raconteur.

3:AM: What was the process of working with George Messo, a remarkable translator responsible for the incredible anthology “İkinci Yeni: The Turkish Avant-Garde”? Being a specialist in the English language yourself, were you closely involved and was it a fluid process?

GÖ: George Messo published another anthology called “From This Bridge: Contemporary Turkish Women Poets” two years ago. He also translated 3 books from İlhan Berk, one of Turkey’s most influential and innovative poets, who is called as “the bad boy of Turkish letters”. These books are A Leaf About to Fall: Selected Poems (Salt, 2006), Madrigals (Shearsman, 2008) and The Book of Things (Salt, 2009) He also made a selection of Birhan Keskin, who is a unique poet of Turkish. He spends great effort in introducing Turkish poetry to the foreign readers. He should certainly be appreciated. He is a poet himself too and it is very important for the hit of the translations.

However literary translation -poetry in particular- is an endless process. Each translator is a reader and the success of the translation depends on the ability of the translator to read the poem, the poet and the culture well. It should not be forgotten that you are also reading the translator when you read a Turkish poem in another language. For this reason there is not an ultimate translation of a poem. As a translator, George also stresses that “There are a huge number of recurring difficulties that arise for me when I’m translating a poem, many of them idiomatic and concerned with nuance and tone and how to reflect the more subtle shadings in a poem. There are no shortcuts. It isn’t something I find easy, ever. Whether choices are large or small, there is always a decision to be made which will carry the poem one way or another, and we know those choices can be enormously consequential for the translated poem.”

Even though I am writing my Ph.D. thesis in English at the time being, I cannot accept that I am a specialist in the English language. It also seems impossible to me. I do not live within that language and I cannot say that I feel English as my home. However there was inevitably a kind of collaboration between us. We exchanged our views on some decisions, tendencies, preferences, and attitudes. However I did not intervene. George makes them come alive in English.

3:AM: Could you talk about the role of Çevirmenin Notu as a journal of translation in Turkey?

GÖ: Beginning with Tercüme Dergisi, some journals of translation were published in Turkey such as Yazko Çeviri, Metis Çeviri, Tömer Çeviri. However a journal of translation had not been published in this country for fifteen years – from 1997 to 2007. First edition of Ç.N. was published in 2007. Tozan Alkan is editor in chief. Nur Peri, Şeref Bilsel, Oğuz Baykara, Başak Ergil and I are in the editorial board. Its fifteenth edition was published last month.

One can find translations of poems, short stories, interviews, essays, and literary letters from world literature in Ç.N. as well as academic writings on translation studies. Ç.N. fills an important gap. It is very useful for translation scholars and young translators. And everyone involved with literature.

3:AM: Who within the current Turkish poetry scene do you admire?

GÖ: Actually I prefer to recommend modern poets who are translated into English for readers of Turkish poetry in the English-speaking world. Otherwise it does not mean anything to mention the names of the poets who have not been translated yet. As one of the pioneers of modern poetry, Nazım Hikmet is unique in terms of his turbulent life, exquisite lyrics, and political verses. His fame spread further outside of Turkey. He has a world-wide readership. The leading poets of the modernist ‘First New’ of the 1930s, Orhan Veli (Corinth Books, 1971-Hanging Loose Press, 1989), Oktay Rifat (Rockingham Press, 1993-Anvil, 2007) and Melih Cevdet Anday (Geronimo Books, 1974-Charioteer Press, 1980) sought to eliminate ‘all artifice and convention from poetry and write for the growing masses’. Cemal Süreya (Indiana University Turkish Studies Series, 2010), Ece Ayhan (Sun and Moon Press, 1997), Edip Cansever (Talisman House, 2009), İlhan Berk, who belong to ‘The Second New’ poetry movement, had a groundbreaking effect in Turkish poetry tradition. The Second New has still been regarded as the greatest development in Turkish poetry. Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca (University of Pittsburg Press, 1969) can be called as a school on his own. One can also read Lale Müldür (Poetry Ireland, 1998), Hulki Aktunç (Poetry Ireland, 1998), Bejan Matur (Arc Publications, 2004), Cevat Çapan (Arc Publications, 2005), Enis Batur (Talisman House, 2006), Hilmi Yavuz (Syracuse University Press, 2007), Ataol Behramoğlu (The University of Texas, 2008), Seyhan Erözçelik (Talisman House, 2010) in English. Instead of anthologies, it will be better to follow Turkish poetry from individual books, though they are very limited. I also want to add with gratitude that we owe much to these translators: Talat Sait Halman, Nermin Menemencioğlu, Taner Baybars, Feyyaz Kayacan, Richard Mckane, Ruth Christie, Walter G. Andrews, Murat-Nemet Nejat, George Messo, Önder Otçu, Saliha Paker, Mel Kenne, Clifford and Selhan Endres and the others.

Unfortunately Turkish is still one of the few translated languages. At present the only funding available exclusively for the translation of Turkish literature comes from the Turkish government, through the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. TEDA project is one of the important examples of what can be done.

3:AM: And what are your thoughts on the health of contemporary poetry in Turkey?

GÖ: The Turkish language has a rich poetic tradition from past to present. Contemporary Turkish Poetry is a polyphonic one. It has many layers and subdivisions. We have a very rich panorama of poetry in Turkey. Personal outflows draw attention and self-dependence becomes the characteristic of the younger poets. Even the poetry manifestations become personal. For this reason I want to stress that each poet has to be evaluated uniquely in terms of her/his own poetry within the Turkish poetry tradition.

However if I try to epitomize some general attitudes, I can say that the predominant tendency is towards imagist poetry. The metropolitan city life becomes the focal point of the poems written by contemporary poets. Some poems convey romantic, avangard, expressionist, mystic or arabesque characteristics. The effects of popular culture and media-oriented tendencies can be seen in some. Some are only based on the artificial plays of the words and some on the romantic outpourings of the poets’ personal lives. Some poets use the coarse or pornographic slang, some use very old Arabic or Persian words which are not used in the daily language. One can see the influence of marginal beatnik poetry, techno virtual poetry and the concrete poetry as well. Some particular words which enter into our daily lives with the rapid technological development such as bonus, msn, google, gmail, sms, drugs, polaroid, keyboard, lipstick, lens, condom or z report are heavily used.

It is important to emphasize that the contemporary younger poets are widely influenced by the Second Movement poets such as Cemal Süreya, Edip Cansever, Turgut Uyar, Ece Ayhan, İlhan Berk. Haydar Ergülen and küçük iskender are the most contemporary ones who significantly influence the young poets. Some poets completely reject the poetry tradition whereas some are strictly attached to it. There are also very successful poets who are interested in the experimental, witty, striking, fragmented and new as opposed to the ordinary forms and traditional structures without wholly ignoring the tradition.

One of the most striking facts is the increase of the female poets both in quality and quantity. They can freely (!) write about their own bodies, their own erotic fantasies, sexual desires or frustrations as opposed to those who still imitate the male ideology in their poems by producing the same patriarchal discourse of the tradition. Even though I think that a poet should be an androgynous character in order to be able to adopt the discourse of a male, a female, a child, a tree, a plant, an object, or an animal, this new powerful discourse of the female poets are very much striking and impressive, especially when we consider the situation of the female in our culture. It is also important in that sense that this is the breaking of the dominant patriarchal discourse in the Turkish Poetry.

But still we need more blood in words…

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 22nd, 2012.