When I started writing this interview with Ilhan Sami Çomak, I imagined a way to escape from prison. If I were in Ilhan’s position, I think I would think about it all the time. Lacking any handyman skills, I wouldn’t choose to dig a hole in the ground or tie my clothes and bedsheets into a long rope. I don’t think that I would be able to deceive the guards and steal the key. As a poet, I would probably choose the most impractical way to escape yet the most beautiful: Climb a ladder to the sky.
By Jhon Sánchez
I’m not alone in the endeavor of looking for beauty above everything. Dostoyevsky, an engineer by trade, also designed a gateless fortress for Nicholas I, according to my professor of Russian literature, Val Vinokur.
Maybe, building a ladder to leave prison through the sky is what Ilhan Sami Çomak is doing. After 27 years and having the European Court of Human Rights on his side, he’s still waiting for his release day as he continues perfecting his poetry. In part II of this interview, he writes,
To write poetry in prison, with all the difficulties it entails, you need to take yourself you’re your poetry seriously. As well as that, it’s vital to love poetry and have the determination to persist with it. I have to add that writing poetry in prison is in no way the same as just writing poetry. In the void left by the removal of different life opportunities and possibilities, in the deprivations of being imprisoned, it carries meanings more rooted in emotions, more on a par with life and more foreseen, meanings that make a person more full of affection and understanding of themselves and others, gradually going beyond a form of expression. It’s like finding yourself in the familiar world everyone knows but experiencing it entirely differently.
We want to invite you to continue reading this beautiful interview, and for those who haven’t read parts I and II of this interview, please check #Freethepoet.
JS: You didn’t write poetry before you were in prison, did you? I would like you to describe as much as you can how you start writing. How did you get formed as a poet?
ISC: I didn’t write poetry before I was imprisoned. It never crossed my mind to do so. It’s not possible for me to write poetry in my mother tongue of Kurdish. I never got the chance to have any Kurdish education. There is still no chance to do so. I am someone who was beaten into learning Turkish. I learnt Turkish after terrible, indescribable traumas. The attempt to force me into forgetting my mother tongue through compulsory education initially distanced me from the Turkish language, but over time, we made peace with each other. I had worked out that I had a writing ability while I was still at middle school. But I had no idea of how to work at it and had no space in which to experiment. Poetry came along later, in 2002, several years after entering prison.
At the start, I wrote down the things that welled up inside me whenever the inspiration took hold. But I was always stuck at one or two verses. I thought that poetry should be mostly written through inspiration. At the time, I was studying, and I didn’t have a lot of inspiration. Later, I sensed that the main thing was work not inspiration. So from the middle of 2002 onwards, I began to take it more seriously and became very determined to work at it. Rather than waiting for inspiration to arrive, I was reading and reading in order to summon it up. I tried very hard, encouraging myself with the thought that if any talent existed, it would surely come out. There was no-one to guide me through the steps with their knowledge, no-one to show me the ropes. Right from the start, it was a path that I travelled alone, taking timid steps without really knowing what I was doing and working it out as I went along. I really struggled. There was no familiar ground over which I could move with ease. I could well have turned back in a fit of indecision, but this feeling was transcended by the desire to express myself by somehow accessing the feelings welling up inside me. Poetry drew me into its own vast realm of existence. I struggled a lot to open the door.
I was alone right from the start. Keeping up with current poetry in the limited conditions of poetry was a very tough lesson. It’s still the same. I can only have seven books with me; any more is banned! I haven’t been able to follow any magazines for a while, that’s also banned! For a long time, the problems must have stemmed from the fact that I had no access to poetry collections. I was writing, but there was no-one to look at my work with a critical eye. But I still didn’t give up. Mine is a persistent poetry. I persevered hand in hand with the poetry. We waited patiently together for it to eventually see the light of day. It wasn’t until ten or even fifteen years after writing that I got the chance to publish a lot of my poems First of all, I came up against a wall of silence. In recent years, I can see that this silence has been broken. Of course, I’m pleased about that.
JS: In the documentary, you said, “I’m a master of returning.” Are you talking about memory? Is your poetry based on the ability to remember? If memory is gone, what’s the other source for poetry?
ISC: Sadly, although I made the documentary six years ago, I still haven’t watched it. Such is life when you are a prisoner. You can’t be part of anything positive that develops around you, no matter how rare it is. Negative developments, black clouds loaded with foreboding, are always overhead. I’m used to it. I’m not complaining. Now I’ve turned this awareness of reality, the pain of this experience, into knowledge.
When I said I was a master of returning, it must have been difficult to work out the context. Yes, I was talking about memories and the effect they create when they spill over into the present. As J.L. Borges said, “The only thing we have is the past. If you forget everything, you cease to exist.” This pithy maxim he distilled from life is doubly true for me as a prisoner-poet. The past, with all its memories and experiences, is an essential part of my connection to poetry. While my poetry is a place where I talk of the future in the context of wishes and longings, it always draws on memories and the feelings that have existed since the time of the memory to the present, changed and transformed over the years. Without doubt, this is something I have to do.
Such a long imprisonment has the power to mutilate a person, to strip them of anything akin to identity or personality. Your memories are erased along with your personality and you can forget everything.
Taking refuge in memories helps me create a place for my poetry, while at the same time ensuring that I don’t forget. Actually, this is a form of protecting my own existence – yes, it can be interpreted like that. What was it that Borges said, “…if you forget you cease to exist”? At the same time, memories never stay the same, they are constantly fertilised by the wants and needs of the present, making them more colourful and eclectic. Therefore, to remember the past in my poetry is to dust it off, refreshing and recreating it. I know that living is not an easy step. But it’s also not at all easy to build a new life around the ever-changing nature of memories. The past is always slippery, always difficult and never silent!
The memory can’t be trusted. It can mislead us. Writing poetry enables me to rescue something from that deep well we call forgetting by creating new realities out of memories; on the other hand, knowing that nothing in life is forever, it is also a way of continually confirming and renewing my sensitivity and dependency on the beauty and sensations of memories by adding new colour and a fresh outlook.
Life in here is based on a definite and grinding repetitiveness, but the type of relationship I have established with my memories distances me from the difficulties it causes. It gives me some breathing space. Memories feed my poetry and the memories are protected by the poetry that propagates them. From that point of view, I might have annoyed Borges, who said “I am a disciple of the past.” Disciples don’t ask questions, they just repeat and believe. I affectionately question memories and the past with my poetry. While I might have complete belief in memories, I don’t express that through repeating them, but rather by expressing a fresh belief that renews the memories, thereby rescuing them from oblivion.
Memories are certainly not the only source of my poetry. Ultimately, there are limits to the memory and memories. In this merciless desert, my eyes and ears have always been on life outside, despite being so shut off from it. A lot of happenings can feed creativity. Events that affect people outside are also reflected in me; they ripple through my emotional and intellectual world, and it’s understandable that all these have left their mark on my poetry.
But poetry writing is mainly linked to inner processes and it occurs via a highly subjective path. Can poetry writing be learnt? Yes, but only to a degree. After that, I think it requires a gift. Just like drawing or playing music… if you work at it you can improve. But if you have no talent, you will always be limited.
As well as having a gift, I adopted a disciplined attitude to life and a determined approach to my work right from the start. I worked hard. I educated myself for poetry. When I say “work”, I don’t just mean acquiring intellectual knowledge and applying it at the writing stage. Working perhaps mainly consists of calling on the power of imagination and learning how to moderate it as you progress towards a poem. In here, my life has a definite and narrow, very narrow, boundary. But imagination is so boundless and creative that the combination of my gift, my perseverance and my faith in life became the source of my poetry’s development and transformation. This is how my innocence, and that of my poetry, was strengthened. My desire to gain admission is somewhat back to front. I want my poetry, built with memories, perseverance, ability and imagination, to give me admission to the outside.
1) Translated from Turkish by Paula Darwish (PEN Norway)
İlhan Sami Çomak (born 1973) is a Kurdish poet from Karlıova in Bingöl Province in Turkey. He was arrested in 1994. In jail, Çomak has released eight books of poetry and become one of Turkey’s longest serving political prisoners. In 2018, Çomak won the Sennur Sezer poetry prize, for his 8th book of poems, Geldim Sana (I Came to You).
Paula Darwish is a poet and translator from Turkish into English.
Caroline Stockford Turkish-English Legal and Literary Translator. She serves as Turkey Advisor for PEN Norway’s.