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An Interview with İlyas Tunç, a poet from Turkey

by Vonani Bila


1- Who is İlyas Tunç and when did you encounter poetry ?

I was born in 1956 in Ordu, Turkey. I taught English in the primary schools for twenty eight years. Last year I became retired. And for sixteen years I’ve been living in Sinop, the city of the famous philosopher, Sinopian Diogenes. I think you heard his famous saying: “ Only stand out of my light !”

I’ve released four collections of poems:  Kış Bir Alkış mıydı (The Last Applause in Winter, 1992), Kul ve Kopus (Ash and Ending, 1994), Fetus Gunlugu (Diary of a Foetus, 2002) and Savrulmalar (Scatterings, 2004). My translation works from English in Turkish to be published this year: “An Anthology of Contemporary South Africa Poetry”, “The Poet’s Coat- Selected Poems of Martin Espada” and the Chinese poet’s Cai Tianxin’s “Song of the Quiet Life”. Moreover, I have two manuscripts of my own poems.

My poems, translations and writings on poetry have published in many poetry magazines and anthologies. I’m a member of the Writers Syndicate of Turkey, Turkish Authors Association and Professional Association of Owners of Scientific and Literary Works.

It was when I was very young that I met poetry. In youthful period people feel more intensively and deeply than the other times, and look for someone or something that will share his / her feelings. If you by chance find someone, he / she becomes your sweetheart. But there may be the times when you can’t find a sweetheart. In this case, you usually find something in which you can pour all your feelings. It is poetry. However, sweethearts leave you, but not poetry.

2- What is the state of poetry in Turkey ?

I think the state of poetry in Turkey is the same as in the other countries. Poetry is written through words or language. So, everybody who knows language thinks that he/she can write it easily, but they don’t know how to write it. It is not to unburden your heart or not to write a letter. In the process of writing a poem, you should use your mind if you, as a poet, want to create a psychological and spiritual atmosphere in the reader’s inner world. This is one of the reasons why poetry is perceived wrongly. 

In Turkey most people like poetry as poets and listeners. However, they don’t read it as much as they like. In this point I remember an ironic word by the famous Turkish political author Çetin Altan: “Nine of each five person in Turkey is a poet.” Poetry books don’t sell, which is the same case in any country of the world. And, the publishers don’t tend to publish poetry books or anthologies. It seems difficult that a poet can be paid for copy rights. On the other hand some publishers rush to put the illiterary poems of a well-known singer or modal together in a book. Indeed, people don’t like true poetry, but false one. A false poem is the one which has no literary value. For instance; people may cry immediately while they are listening to this kind of poem on TV or radio. Poetry can’t exploit  feelings.

As in South Africa you can’t see street poets in Turkey. Please, let’s not confuse street poetry with the popular one I say of. street poetry is defined by protesting. Of course, poetry must protest against wars, apartheid policies, massacres, inflation, poverty, globalism and colonialism, etc.  Street poetry is to move and stir people. If you stir people, you must perform it in streets not at home.

Post-modernism prevails in every part of the earth, not only in Turkey. Post-modern art needs image and popularity, not quality. We can say that it is an empty can. Meanwhile, it’s time to remember what Andy Warhol said in an interview: “ I prefer  watching someone buy her / his underpants to reading the book he / she has written.”

3- How does the government respond to poets, especially radical poets ?

Governments mean power. Powers display the same features and attitudes everywhere in the world. There aren’t any special cases related with Turkey. The reason why poets and powers don’t agree with each other is that powers hide reality, but poets bring it to light. But the only thing which hides reality is not the power. All authorities, such as traditions, morals, beliefs, religions, rotten rules of society, hide reality. Hiding reality is in the same meaning with disliking changes. But, poets always want to create a new world. In this case, poetry is for transformation, while authority is for status quo. If you come out of status quo, it is inevitable to be jailed or exiled. Thus, both you and we have many exiled and jailed poets; Don Mattera, Denis Brutus, Jeremy Cronin from you, Nazim Hikmet, Rifat Ilgaz, Sebahattin Ali from us, and the other ones we don’t speak of.

4- Who are the leading Turkish poets and why ?

There are a lot of leading Turkish poets, such as Tevfik Fikret (1867-1915), Yahya Kemal Beyatlı (1884-1958), Mehmet Akif Ersoy (1873-1936), Nazim Hikmet Ran, (1901-1963), Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca (1914-    ), Melih Cevdet Anday (1915-2002), Can Yücel (1926-1999), Cevat Çapan (1933-   ), Hilmi Yavuz (1936-  ), Metin Altıok (1941-1993), Ataol Behramoğlu (1942-   ), Hayati Baki (1949-  ), Ahmet Erhan (1958-    ), Küçük İskender (1964-    ) etc. And what are the characteristics which make them more important than the others ? For instance;

Tevfik Fikret took part in the enlightenment and secularism movements in Turkey. His poetry marked a revolutionary beginning for modern Turkish literature. He wrote in didactic and patriotic tone. And Atatürk, the founder of Turkish Pepublic, was impressed by his poems.

Attached to the main features and sources of Classical Turkish Poetry (Ottoman Divan Poetry), Yahya Kemal Beyatlı took the readers to the musical and inner atmosphere by rhythm, tone, rhyme and meter.

Mehmet Akif Ersoy is the poet of Turkish National Anthem. He  wrote praise poems for the Gallipoli War, and put forth Islamic morals in his poems in a didactic way.

Nazim Hikmet wrote his poems by celebrating the vitality of struggle rather than the authority of any system. He broke the forms and patterns of Classical Turkish Poetry, and founded free verse. He was regarded as a political poet of great imaginative power. His work, although banned in Turkey, was translated into many other languages. 

Fazil Husnu Daglarca, as an epic poet, is the most glorious Turkish literary figure living at present. He, in his poems, takes a stance against exploitation, condemned imperialism, and sympathized with the struggle of abused peoples. His poetry also emphasizes the elements that turn a society into a nation. 

Melih Cevdet Anday, one of the founders of “the New Poetry” called Garip, diverged from it later. He fed his poems with philosophy and mithology. 

Can Yucel was a man of vast knowledge and culture. He had a keen political and social awareness. He translated Shakespeare, Eliot, Dylan Thomas and the Greek combination epigrammatic poets in Turkish.  His poetry thrives on a strong combination of lyricism, warm irony and sarcasm.

Nevertheless, I must state the Turkish Poetry has an oral tradition which folk poets sing their poems  with a musical instrument in Anatolia. Yunus Emre (13th century), mystic poet, Pir Sultan Aptal (16th century), a protest poet and Karacaoğlan (17th century) a love and nature poet must be included to this category. These poets and the others left many evergreen and unforgetable poems to Anatolian people, who still sing them in joy.

5- How is the political environment ? Are poets and artists free to “sing their truths”?

First of all, Turkey is a democratic, secular and justice country. For ages Anatolian people have lived together in peace, freedom and brotherhood, although they’re from different races, religions, languages and cultures. Turkish people had a lot of civil, social, and legal rights by the foundation of the new Turkish Republic in 1923. We live in a modern country.

But, imperialism and international capitalism have a trap to exploit some countries: Divide and rule ! So, the big countries stir the minority in order to set up this trap. But, the minority people have their rights in Turkey. They can speak their mother language, pray in their religion, lead a life in their beliefs, traditions and customs and be a member in the Assembly of Turkey.

Nowadays, there are some concepts and views displayed on the political scenes of the big or imperialist countries, such as the warm Islamic movement, the new middle east project, the dialogue among religions, globalization, etc. I believe all these concepts are spelled to eat up some countries. It is possible to see the reflections of these policies in Turkey, or in any part of the world.

In my opinion, a religion is a tool of deriving benefits from people or nations. It has been used in this way for ages and ages. Let’s remember the words of Desmond Tutu“When missionaries came to South Africa, we had the land, they had the Bible. Then they told us, ‘Let’s close our eyes and pray.’ When we opened our eyes we saw that we have the Bible, they have the land.” 

Singing the truth as poets ! As I said above, the case is not special to any country. But I think the poets in Turkey are luckier than the ones in some countries. You can say everything here, unless you damage your national benefits. It is normal, in my opinion. Do you want that the land in which you live breaks up ? I’m proud of being a citizen of Turkish Republic and fond of all the colors of the cultural mosaic on this land. 

6- How organised are the poets and writers and translators in Turkey ? If writers’ organisations exist in Turkey, how do they promote the work of writers ? What activities do they perform ?

In Turkey there are a number of associations and  syndicates which come the writers, poets and other artists together to proclaim their ideas and feelings. As for me I’m a member of the Writers Syndicate of Turkey, Turkish Authors Association and Professional Association of Owners of Scientific and Literary Works. Before getting retired from teaching, I was a member of the Union of Education Workers. These associations independently live by the pays of their members and the supports of sponsors. They organise poetry readings, book fairs, readers’ day, seminars and festivals. In these activities the works of writers are presented to public.

On the other hand, the State has some art institutes, academies, orchestras, such as the Association of the State Theatres, the Chorus of the State Folk Music, the Presidential Symphony Orchestra, etc. Artists, musicians, and actors who perform their art in these institutes take salaries from the State.

7- What are the general and recurring themes that charaterise your poetry, and generally the Turkish poets ?

Poets are really the people who rise against all kinds of power and dogmas. Whatever disturbs my inner world can be the theme of my poetry. I think there is a word like this from Dostoyevsky: “Writing is to get rid of the jinn  in me.”

I can say that philosophy, mythology, nature and human being characterise my poetry. In this frame it is based on loneliness, hopeless, love, desperation, death and alienation… But also I carry social problems and events to my lines, such as wars, hunger, poverty and epidemics, etc…

8- How hard or easy is to publish in Turkey ? In South Africa there is reader apathy, usually as a result of low literacy levels. How would you explain poetry and its readership ?

It is too hard to have a poetry book published in Turkey, but as I said before if you write false and ordinary poems as a famous film-star or a singer, your book can be published easily and it can be the best seller. But I must state that the publications of the leading poets such as Nazım Hikmet, Orhan Veli, Fazıl Hüsnü Daglarca, Metin Altıok, Ataol Behramoglu, Hilmi Yavuz etc, sell the best. In Turkey the young and talented poets can’t reach to their own level easily. Unfortunately the poetry criticism are mostly made by the poets in my country. But a poem must be criticised or commented by an academician, not by a poet. The criticism made by poets can’t be objective and impartial. Some low poets can reach to the high level by writing about each other in literature magazines.

Yes, there is also reader apathy in Turkey. But I think the case is a bit better than in South Africa. For Turkish poetry readers attend the poetry festivals, book signings, conversations with poets and other activities more frequently than the South African readers. And there are more poetry magazines in Turkey than in your country.

I divide readers into two categories. Some of them prefer thinking deeply and trying to catch the meaning in the background, while the others prefer the meaning on the surface. Whoever is in the first category is a good reader. Poetry is a mental activity. A good poetry reader must be equipped with knowledge.

9- What are some of the highlights of your “career” as a poet and translator ?

I began the work of translation with South African Poetry about three years ago. My three translation manuscripts I said of above will be published this year. These are the poetry prizes I have ever got: Ali Rıza Ertan Poetry Award (1994), The Poetry Award of Damar Literary Magazine (1995), and Orhan Murat Arıburnu Poetry Award (1995). I give talks on poetry and perform my poems at readings and festivals. In 2007 I was last invited to the third Izmir International Poetry Festival. 

10- What prompted you to develop such an affinity towards South African poetry ? Who introduced you to South African poetry and when was that ? Who was the South African poet you encountered first ?

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. And also I wanted to come the people of the two countries together through poetry. Karen Press is the first poet I translated in Turkish. I remember writing to her in the aim of asking for the email addresses of  some South African poets. But here, I must state a name especially: Robert Berold. He is the most helpful poet with my translations, and in presenting Turkish poetry in South Africa. Nowadays we are in a co-translation work with him. Later I began to write to the poets such as Alan Finlay who published some English versions of Turkish poems in New Coin, Micheal Cope who, Mzi Mahola who gave me an interview for a Turkish poetry magazine, Karen Press, Gabeba Baderoon who sent me her books ‘A Hundred Silences’ and ‘The Dream in the Next Body’, Kelwyn Sole, Angifi Dladla who answered my questions about Zulu poetry, Vonani Bila, Lesego Rampolokeng, Joan Metelerkamp who posted me her own publications and a selection of Ruth Miller, Charl-Pierre Naude and the others… I can’t utter all the names here, because there are more than thirty.

11- How does South African poetry compare with Turkish poetry, if at all there are similarities ? 

In Turkey before the 1980 Military Coup there were students movements, general strikes, boycotts, kidnappings, and street fights. I see the same case in South Africa. Your people experienced the same social events such as 16 June 1976 Students’ Rising-Up, and the death of Steve Biko under torture in 1977. In this period of 1970’s  both Turkish and South African poets wrote the poems related to socialist realism, freedom, equality, peace, poverty, sisterhood and brotherhood. After 1980’s in Turkey the poetry had a turning from these themes, and was drifted into an individual path. And a similarity is with your praise poem. In the Divan poetry of the Ottoman Empire there is a laudatory poem dedicated to the Sultans. We call it “Methiye”. But today it is written no longer.

12- Who are your favourite South African poets, and why ?

There are so many poets whose poems I enjoy reading. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach some important poets and publications of South African poetry because of my shortage of the sources. For instance; I wish I had read “Emperor Shaka the Great” of Kunene, “Yakhol Inkomo”  of Mongane Wally Serote, “The Sound of a Cowhide Drum” of Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali, “Mad Old Man Under the Morning Star” of Tatamkhulu Afrika, “A Dead Tree Full Of Live Birds” of Lionel Abrahams, “The White Hail in the Orchard” of Patrick Cullinan, and “The Iron Cow Must Sweat” of Breyten Breytenbach etc…

With these poets, I must utter the names such as Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lesego Rampolokeng, Seitlhamo Motsapi, Robert Berold, Makhosazana Khasi Xaba, Isobel Dixon, Charl-Pierre Naude, Vonani Bila, Mbongeni Khumalo, Mzi Mahola, Angifi Proctor Dladla, etc… By the way, Robert berold’s poem “Two Meditations on Chuang Tsu” was among the thirty poems selected by a famous Turkish poet in the literature annual of 2006.

Why is it that I like these poets ? For Lesego Rampolokeng has an enfant-terrible angry-voice; for Breyten Breytenbach has surrealistic images; for Vonani Bila sings his poems in wildness and roughness, and brings contemporary African melodies beyond the borders; for Charl-Pierre is a keen observer in his poems; for Keorepetse Kgositsile wants us to dance with his polyrhythmic lines; for Angifi Dladla praises life by his poems; Mzi Mahola draws his words from his life experiences; for Makhosazana Xaba writes autobiographical poems and prefers the themes of racism, sexism and abuse against women and children, and for the other poets… 

12- Who are your favourite Turkish poets and why ? 

These are my favourite Turkish poets: Tevfik Fikret as a poet of free, rational and scientific thought; Yahya Kemal Beyatlı as a poet who mixed the traditional Ottoman poetry with the Turkish modern poetry; Nazım Hikmet as a poet of socialist realism; Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca as a living epic poet; Cahit Külebi as a poet who modernized the Turkish folk poetry; Can Yücel as a poet who used a swearing and ironic tongue; Hilmi Yavuz as a poet of sophisticated tongue and mysticism; Cevat Çapan as a poet of simplicity and sincerity; Gülten Akın as a poet who has presented a traditional, patriarchal society’s themes from a female perspective; Melih Cevdet Anday as a poet of philosophy and mythology; Hayati Baki as a poet of nothingness; Kucuk Iskender as an avant-garde poet and Metin Altiok as a poet of blues and pain, etc… 

Finally, I still get in touch with more than thirty South African poets, editors and academicians. They supported my translation work of South African Poetry in Turkish by posting their publications, by sending their poems, by giving me interviews for Turkish literature journals, by helping me with translation difficulties, by giving the email addresses I looked for and by publishing Turkish poems in New Coin. These are the names I must thank: Firstly, Robert Berold and then Alan Finlay, Karen Press, Mzi Mahola, Vonani Bila, Charl-Pierre Naude, Amanda Botha, Angifi Dladla, Gabeba Baderoon, Shabbir Banoobhai, Crystal Warren (NELM), Helize van Vuuren, Malcolm Hacksley (NELM), Jeremy Cronin, Antjie Krog, Joan Metelerkamp, Ingrid de Kok, Micheal Cope, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Kobus Moolman, Rustum Kozain, Kelwyn Sole, Danie Marais, Lesego Rampolokeng, Nadine Botha, Micheal Cope, Finuala Dowling, Ilse van Staden, Henning Pieterse, Zolani Mkiva, Sandile Dikeni, Ari Stas, Peter Horn etc… And there may be a few names I have forgotten. Really, I apologize them.

Warm greetings from Turkish people to South African people !…