I learned to read by reading the Bible. For me, the Bible was a giant black book with the engraved image of the Sacred Family on the cover. I used to love the words printed there with straight letters. Gold powder glinted along the edges of each page. As I turned them, I found the paintings of Michael Angelo, Leonardo DaVinci, Goya. I most enjoyed caressing with my hands the glassy pages. They were so smooth. One day, I dreamt I was the Bible itself. Instead of reading me, my mother, who was illiterate, simply slid her fingers across the pages as if she were tickling me when she touched the soles of my feet. I cannot recall having another dream like that, and I haven’t read the Bible in years either. And even though my narrative has a strong biblical influence, I don’t write with a spiritual purpose, and I don’t write in my native Spanish but in English.
By Jhon Sánchez
The British magazine ‘the other side of hope’ published On WriNting, one of my essays, where I try to find the reasons that bring me to write in English. I write in a language that I have not mastered, but quite on the contrary, I trip over every single sentence. But each time I fall, I find a world underneath. Each misspelling, each mispronunciation means to enter the terrain of the profane, away from the strict rules. How far I have moved away from the kingdom of the sacred and the correct. I don’t want to be the Bible itself any longer. Probably, I’m, instead, the notebook that rests next to my toilet. My words make smudges on the page. Each sentence becomes unique by my sins and my grammar mistakes. I enjoy caressing the pages of my notebook. The handwriting is not straight; the words crumple against each other. Still, I love to rub my fingers against the patterns they form, imagining the message I would understand from them if I were blind.
I’m talking about the reasons for my writings because Ihan made me think about it during the previous installment of this interview. He writes, “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.” Each writer always asks himself, why do I write? Ilhan finds some freedom in the past when he was truly free.
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.
Ilhan Sami Çomak seduces us with his words, telling us his struggle to find poetry in memory from his prison cell. If you want to read the previous three installments, please click here.
JS: You said that you refuse to enter the realm of suffering, that your poetry takes a different path. Is this path resilience? Is this path a path of delight? Is this path the yearning of what it’s missing? What’s suffering? What’s delightful for you now?
ISC: Suffering, pain and the feelings that develop in relation to them can be very fulfilling, in the sense that they offer justifications that can be used in every area of life – that is, if someone wants it to be that way. These feelings give you the chance to shout loud and clear that you are in the right, without making too much effort. But by its very nature, this is a cheap method, which inevitably means you end up exploiting the experiences.
All along, I have avoided the space for exploitation that pain and suffering have offered up to me. I would never think of utilising the assumed rights that suffering has given me. I grounded myself in truthfulness and being on the side of truth and good, rather than in my right to use the crushing language of suffering. My poems are built of these specific feelings.
In fact, there are many ways that suffering, or being unjustly imprisoned for most of your life like me, can vindicate a person. But so few of these ways are empowering. It would be fair to say that while working on poetry, I also worked on myself.
I wasn’t at all resilient or forbearing. But since I always sought out purged and cleansed feelings when writing poetry, time gave me a maturity that is born of patience. By transporting me from the world I live in to another, poetry has given me the opportunity to live and to reconfigure my pain without forgetting it. I don’t attribute that solely to the power of poetry. That’s how I wanted it to be. That was the choice I made, and poetry has always supported me.
I think that my relationship with poetry, and with art and literature in general, is meaningful because from inside this cell, it enables me to recall the life that was stolen from me, with all its elements. I recall life, not as it is, but after it has been cleansed and stripped of its excesses, a life on the side of people and nature, sometimes sad, sometimes happy. I recall it in a measured, sincere and respectful way, by remembering the realities that there is a desire to forget and recognising the constructive power of love.
This imprisonment, which seems like it will never end, is a huge cause for pain. But there is a fine distinction to be made here. It is the fact of not being outside, being unable to live and wander freely, that gives me pain rather than this wholly undeserved imprisonment.
I know that at this moment there is a life flowing outside that is very different to mine: an expansive, boundless life surrounded by a million possibilities whose beauty I am unable to touch. All the same, there is still the matter of being cut off from life’s boundless beauty and possibility in a way that is so amoral, contrary to reason, to justice and to the law. Being aware of all this is very hurtful.
Susan Sontag said that people earn the right to speak through suffering. If that’s the case, I have the right to speak and I should make good use of it. So if pain is immeasurable, how far does this right to speak go? I don’t know. I think those who see how I have suffered should answer that, not me. I have satisfied myself with longings and desires. While catching the whisper of the ever-distant voice of life, on one hand I tried to understand what I was hearing, and on the other, I used my imagination to seek out everything that is lacking in here and to place it into a world of poetry. But my poetry never conformed to the belligerent voice of pain. In contrary to my experiences, the poems that emerged were filled with genuine joy rather than disillusionment with life.
In truth, I don’t enjoy talking about the pain and injustice I have experienced. Rather than learning about my torments, I want people to know about the life I have created with poetry. I want them to see the beauty of this poetry that has given me resilience in such harsh conditions, a power that can grow everywhere whatever the conditions…. Wherever we are experiencing life, it’s better if it is through poetry. This is what I want people to hear from the voice of my poetry. These are the things that are delightful and precious!
JS: In an interview for P24, you said, “I have experienced and still am experiencing the deepest, the most severe oppression. Yes, anger has paid me a few visits, but I never let it become a constant feeling.” Can anger be a positive feeling as well? Now millions of people are confined in their homes for reasons of public health. What’s your message to those people to help them to control their negative emotions?
ISC: We need to be cautious about the idea that anger can be a positive emotion. I think it can only be looked at in a positive light in the sense that it stirs people into action by acting as a warning of malice. As long as we stay within these limits, we can put a positive spin on anger, because it functions as a defense mechanism. Therefore, we should value it as a shield of protection against mental and physical abuse. But it’s clear that it can’t be maintained for a long time, because it keeps people constantly on edge.
We know that people have a tendency to justify, rationalise and legitimise their negative feelings, without taking into account the destructive impact these feelings have, both on themselves and others they interact with. This can have incredibly damaging consequences and is perhaps one of the main sources of malice.
Anger provoked by a real injustice can turn into a sweeping iron rod of righteousness in the hands of the victim. Such a rod is rarely a force for good, more often than not leading to new injustices and grievances. Anger should have a purpose! But in this case, as time passes, anger loses touch with reality and with its purpose, ultimately just feeding off itself.
Powerful people have no justification for defending their wealth and the circumstances of their existence, but they create the illusion that such a justification exists by constructing a narrative and wielding it with power. Yet the great and valid justifications of the oppressed, the underdogs, the persecuted and the exploited are mostly abandoned because they lack a voice; they are replaced by an aimless anger, with which the victims take refuge in the weak discourse of victimhood that has no power base. Knowing how to transform victimhood, rightfulness and anger is crucial!
Covid changed our habits, our lifestyles and the backdrop constructed from the language of our relationships – in other words – the whole paradigm. That much is true. There will certainly be time to catch up with this new development, because it won’t suddenly disappear. Acquiring new habits, replacing the life and behaviour patterns that we are comfortable with is not something that can happen overnight. We should also not presume that people will be willing to do it. We humans always seek out comfort. Perhaps it’s in our nature: comfort in relationships, comfort in love, comfort in friendship… and it is a comfort mostly protected by what we refer to as habit – a safe space where we act almost without thinking. Covid has changed that. As we struggle, our eyes and ears are always on the safe harbours of the past.
It’s said that, among other negative developments, aggression against women, domestic violence, intolerance and rates of divorce are rocketing. We may have entered a brand new era without even noticing yet. It may require a definition – a new definition, a new name and a consciousness that shapes life accordingly.
It’s obvious that we have drifted a long way from our own nature. Because we believe in our own omnipotence in all areas, we have left nature and inter-human relations horrifically bruised and tattered. Therefore, one solution might be to return to our true essence. There is a pressing need for us to remember that we cannot be separated from nature and other human beings, that building a hierarchy in nature and humans is unnecessary.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an all-embracing suggestion for controlling negative emotions, but as I have been living in a similar confinement for so many years, I can share the things I’ve learnt from my experiences as a potential solution. I suggest that people view this confinement as the unavoidable consequence of necessity and listen profoundly to themselves. We always tend towards extroversion. To some degree, this stems from the need to test and measure up our existence alongside others. It’s a consequence of the fact that we are social beings, products of the entirety of relations that emerge from the framework of habit. So, we can see this experience as an opportunity to get some respite, to reassess by listening to our inner voice, a chance to rebalance, free from outside interventions.
Maybe it’s a good idea to quietly assess today and the past, because apart from revitalising the past, reaching backwards into the memory also gives you the chance to seek answers to weighty, unopened questions, like: ‘Where did I make mistakes?’ ‘How much did I go astray in life?’ ‘What did I miss?’ Perhaps finding genuine answers to such questions is a way of purging and being prepared for these tough conditions. When I say that we’ve become distant from simplicity and naivete, from our own nature, I’m referring to the things we have lost. Simplicity and naivete. Happiness is an unsophisticated concept, just like affection, love, loyalty, goodness and fidelity. We should focus on the things we need, they should make up our requirements.
I never allow myself to fall idle. That is a major reason why I am still standing and still creating, why I can keep my distance from negative emotions after so many years inside – and certainly the prohibitions due to Covid, and people having to take refuge in their homes, are immeasurably harsh. People need to have a purpose in order to maintain their way of life. By that I mean some occupation which will test their talents and therefore make their time valuable. Sitting idly at home and sinking into a routine, firstly leads to inertia and complacency – just like in here – and this eventually turns into a deeply embedded indifference to all of life’s convolutions. Repetition, the type of repetition enforced by the limitations of place, unleashes a crushing pressure that grinds down firstly the body and then the beautiful and joyous sides to the spirit – in other words the very values that make us human.
Perhaps the secret is this… a pastime and a task that open up a hiatus in the blocks of time built up by the boredom of routine working hand in glove with the setting, with the same four walls; in other words, an endeavour that will satisfy you as you work towards an aim that you can furnish with things you love…. It works for me, and it’s been working for a long time. Bearing in mind the vast possibilities of communication networks during these times of Covid, it shouldn’t be too difficult for people to find areas in which to test themselves. I think we should try.
“Home is black,”: this was the name of a documentary film by Füruh Ferruhzat about the life of leprosy patients isolated in hospital and shut away from society. The home is enclosed, and if walls contest all the wishes that freedom evokes, then the home is black. In that case, the home must be rebuilt and reinvented! Even the mere thought of such an idea can be enlightening.
Can’t we take Covid as a warning about the way we have so famously erred in the way we have constructed life? Why not? It’s not a matter of bringing back the past, reinstalling life just as it was before Covid… Since we have succeeded in building a life riddled with mistakes that leave us gasping for air, surely it’s also possible for us to build a better, happier life? Let’s begin with ourselves as we set off along this new path. Let’s start from the darkness of our houses, from the blackness of what is home.
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.