Turkish Poetry and the Language of Resistance: A Conversation with Necmi Zekâ

Necmi Zekâ is one of the foremost avant garde poets working in Turkey. After finishing Istanbul’s German High School, he graduated from the Department of Political Science at Boğaziçi University before completing his M. Phil degree at Leicester University and conducting doctoral work at Northwestern. He has published nine books of poetry over the last twenty years. Zekâ has also edited two books, one on the German green movement and one on postmodernism, and has translated various German and English-language poets into Turkish, among others Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan, Thom Gunn, and Mark Strand. In addition to teaching postgraduate courses on aesthetics at several Turkish universities, Zekâ is also a multi-media artist whose work has been showcased in six solo exhibitions. In 2003, he received the city of Antalya’s Golden Orange Poetry Award, which led to a symposium on his poetry, the proceedings of which were published as The Poetry of Necmi Zekâ (2005). His work has appeared in translation in Turkish Poetry Today and Two Lines: World Writing in Translation. Zekâ currently lives and works in Istanbul.


Erik Mortenson: In your contribution to South Atlantic Quarterly’s special issue on Turkey, you quote Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky’s comment that he “came to Istanbul to look at the past, not at the future—since the latter doesn’t exist here” in order to illustrate the Western perception that nothing interesting is happening in Turkish poetry. Do you still think that Turkish poets are neglected and, if so, why do you think that is the case, given the vast amount of Turkish poetry being written today?

Necmi Zekâ: The huge discrepancy between Turks’ pride in their poetry and its lack of worldwide recognition is quite puzzling. When Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel prize in 2006, some Turkish intellectuals dismissed it as a wrong decision, arguing that a Turkish poet should have been chosen instead to honor what they felt was the country’s most accomplished literary art. In fact, poetry has traditionally been considered an indispensable part of intellectual erudition, and is still valued as a favorite form of expression for personal and even political feelings.

The reasons for this international neglect are manifold. It would be easy to blame the scarcity of influential translators or the orientalist biases of academicians and the publishing industry. Yet there is also a long list of other reasons: the Turks’ limited interaction with contemporary world poetry, their usually unsubstantiated self-esteem, and the delusion of thinking that a long history automatically makes something precious, to name a few. The bottom line is that Turkish poetry is in a difficult position. On the one hand, it doesn’t fit neatly into the Middle Eastern framework. Although it shares a common heritage of poetic themes and devices with Persian and Arabic poetry, it reflects neither the mystic characteristics of the former nor the passionate extrovertedness of the latter. On the other hand, it can hardly be considered Western despite its heavy engagement with European poetry. Having its first significant modernist movement only in the 1950s, Turkish poetry represents a peculiar belatedness. While it would be absurd to claim that Turkish poetry is one of the world’s best kept secrets, I do believe that it has a unique character stemming from this in-betweenness. Maybe it is fair to say that Turkish poetry is waiting for its time to come. Everything is great when the time is right. Right?

EM: Right! The payoff, it seems to me, of this in-betweenness is that it is capable of disrupting common expectations. One of the things that impressed me most about your poetry is that its interest in language is also very much an interrogation of the sort of corruption of expression that we are seeing take place globally. In both Turkey and the U.S., discourse is under attack, and one of your favorite words, the underused “bluster” (kesip biçmek), nicely captures the sort of rhetoric rampant in current political discourse. What role do you see for poetry in the face of what appears to be an unravelling of faith in the spoken word?

NZ: Unfortunately, we are exposed more and more to obscene abuses of the public discourse. Shameless lying, inured indifference, and stereotyped judgements have become the norm. However, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves with the idea of a totally coercion-free or neutral discourse. That has never been the case and will probably never be. We should be suspicious not only of the media, but also of our own private articulations. No privilege should be given to any voice, and we should be wary of blind allegiances. Thankfully, the elusiveness or unreliability of the spoken word often lets people give themselves away. And again, thankfully, there’s still this mischievous art of poetry, which is a compulsive informer and a killjoy, too. It helps us discern what is at stake and gain clear insight into the rhetorical battlefield. Of course, poetry can also hint at an ideal situation, which we can only dream of but never achieve. I consider poetry’s main task as laying the groundwork for a deeper interrogation of the public discourse. Here the key word is, I think, strangeness. By unleashing and colliding different voices, I hope to produce those “hey wait a minute” moments that are essential in undermining political cliché.

EM:  You are one of the foremost avant-garde poets working in Turkey, and your writing cites modernists like Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and American painter Cy Twombly who produced difficult, self-reflective work. Is a focus on the exploration of language prohibitively difficult for readers saturated with more easily-digestible forms of media, and is it a detriment for non-Western writers who are often expected to provide writing that offers political commentary or a glimpse into the culture of their home countries?

NZ: In my opinion, even the most accessible poems should possess a kind of mystery or enigma. Readers of poetry should be puzzled by the work, especially by the functioning of it. We should find it somewhat odd, perhaps unlikable or even wrong-headed. Unfortunately, there are many talented poets who fall into the trap of producing work ready for immediate consumption, work that is easy to analyze, categorize, and enjoy. A true, or rather interesting, poet for me is someone who isn’t bothered by the reception of her work. Our age is imposing two kinds of obligation upon poets: meeting established expectations and sticking to unambiguously lucid images. I think poets should resist making confessions not only to the general audience but to their own intellectual self-concepts, as well. For truthful poetry, self-denial is essential. I would even dare say that poetry isn’t a “meaningful” activity at all—most of the time, it succeeds despite the poet. Yet poetry has an enormous power to join unexpected conversations and to create totally new ones which inevitably challenge our preconceived opinions. I suppose we should just give in to the “call of the open.”

EM: Describing the work of visual artist Thomas Bayrle in his Istanbul exhibition catalogue, you write, “This is opening up the thing-world.” It strikes me that your work can be categorized as opening up the “speech-world.” Much of your poetry is concerned with interrogating what people say and why they say it, especially in your turning spoken expressions into adjective and noun phrases that are deftly repurposed throughout the poem (“a secret blasphemy of no need for that” being one such example). Can you talk more about this process?

NZ: Mallarmé famously claimed that we write poems with words. For me, it is rather with utterances, as you have rightly observed. Turkish, as an agglutinative language, enables one to turn any idiom, even a whole sentence, into a noun or an adjective. I am probably pushing the limits of this capacity but consider it an effective way of exposing hidden and not-so-hidden attitudes or agendas. I delve into various sorts of real or imaginary conversations and select some odd phrases. The bizarre verbal compounds I create with them mostly reflect insincerity, cruelty, or plain stupidity. On one level, they shatter the illusionary innocence of conventional communication. Decontextualized and deformed phrases pave the way for unexpected revelations. On another level, I hope, they challenge the reader’s trust in the authority of speakers, including the poet. I am very suspicious of any kind of sympathy in these matters. I rather prefer an uneasy, uncomfortable relationship with the reader. That could also be the reason why cultural conflict (Kulturkampf) is a recurring theme in my poems.

EM: In addition to your poetry, you are also a prolific visual artist yourself, with numerous exhibitions to your credit. The bulk of your artwork juxtaposes image with text in provocative ways reminiscent of the collages of Kurt Schwitters, where the visual and the written combine to exceed the sum of their parts. What are the payoffs for bringing words into contact with images, and what are the limitations, if any?

NZ: Even though contemporary culture tends to prioritize the visual, I think images always rely on both the signs and sounds of language. I regard my whole artistic production as an attempt to form unusual arrangements or odd installations. My poems and paintings share a common mode of composition and decomposition, not as a creative strategy of “playfulness” but rather as a necessity. I don’t believe in pure visual communication or in pure poetry or in anything pure at all. Visual or verbal fragments don’t matter. Sometimes this process leads to making better sense of our deservedly broken world. Occasionally it also results in more confusion, which can be bothersome, yet also quite illuminating.

EM: While this interview might be presenting your work as overly serious and concerned with aesthetic questions, it is also very humorous and oftentimes sarcastic, with much of that barb directed at the poet himself. Does poetry need more humor, and perhaps more self- deprecation? Have we taken ourselves, and the act of creation, a bit too seriously?

NZ: Indeed, taking oneself too seriously has become a defining characteristic of our human condition. For one thing, we overvalue predictability and personal control of our fate. Thus, we assume that criteria for success and happiness can easily be pre-established and that all we need to achieve our goals is just a reasonable, “serious” game plan: analyze, plan well, work hard, and you’ll get there. This mindset creates an enormous striving to conform without us even realizing it. That’s possibly the reason for the deadly seriousness of our institutions, too. Life, however, always plays dice. Poetry can make use of various attitudes, it can tackle complicated issues in a serious way, yet it cannot function properly without some wit (or what the French call esprit) and energy. These are the essential qualities which I think poetry needs most. The real problem, perhaps, is boringness. We’re producing too much boring stuff and literature isn’t excluded. Humor, especially in the form of irony, is for me the antidote to not only dullness but also predictability. It celebrates contingency and perversity which are indispensable for powerful poetry. Humor usually is taken as defensive, but I think of it as wonderfully offensive. It agitates and unsettles, in other words, forces everyone to put their guards down.

EM: Where do you see Turkish poetry headed, given the increasing willingness of politicians to stifle and suppress the written word?

NZ: For nearly two years now, access to all language editions of Wikipedia has been banned by the Turkish authorities. Yet, as we all know, bad times make great art. So, paradoxically, we should feel happy for poetry. In the Turkish context, I observe a readiness to take more risks and experiment more fearlessly. There’s an intense engagement with not only various genres like visual, concrete, or narrative poetry but also hybrid forms like hip-hop and media art. Social media poetry also seems to be on the rise. Furthermore, we are witnessing a revival of interest in the radical modernist movement of Turkish poetry—the so-called Second New. Some of the best representatives of this movement like Ece Ayhan, İlhan Berk, or Oktay Rifat have already been translated into English. Their rebellious spirit, especially their uncompromising attitude towards language, appears to be a new source of inspiration for younger generations. Additionally, works by Kurdish and Islamic poets are also becoming more and more visible. For me, this diversity and vitality indicate that poetry is still one the fundamental areas for soul searching in modern Turkey. In time, this new poetry’s non-conformist inventiveness will enable us to better cope with banality, injustice, and most importantly, speechlessness. Hopefully, it will also equip us with new sensibilities that will enable us to surpass our worn-out assumptions and habits.


Erik Mortenson

Erik Mortenson is a literary scholar, writer, and translator. He is the author of three books, all from Southern Illinois University Press: 'Capturing the Beat Moment: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Presence,' which was selected as a Choice outstanding academic title in 2011; 'Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture' (2016); and most recently, 'Translating the Counterculture: The Reception of the Beats in Turkey' (2018). After earning a PhD from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mortenson spent a year as a Fulbright Lecturer in Germany and a decade at Koç University in Istanbul where he helped found the English and Comparative Literature Department. In addition to his scholarly work, Mortenson is also an avid translator whose work has appeared in journals such as Asymptote, Talisman, and Two Lines. He is currently working on a book-length translation of Zekâ’s selected poetry.

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