Sunday 22 October 2017

'Poetry is the only place that I feel human.' An interview with Kurdish poet Bejan Matur

This interview can be found in the new issue of Wasafiri Journal of International Literature. 

Bejan Matur’s poetry is put down as if engraved rather than written. Her ideas are expressed with a carved simplicity, a resonant depth, formal control and an imagistic mastery which is at once varied and disciplined. What she writes about, however, is shocking in its jagged violence and unresolved grief. Matur was born in Maraş in Turkey and writes mainly in Turkish. She is of Kurdish-Alevi heritage and her experience has been one of injustice, discrimination, silencing, denial and erasure. She witnessed the massacre of Alevis in her hometown during her childhood and was tortured in prison during her university years. Her law degree remained unused as she lost faith in established forms of language, argument and authority to gain justice and convey the truth. In the aftermath of torture, she turned to literature.

Matur’s poetry is a declamatory reclamation of history, identity and land which, while it may be emotionally rooted in her past, reads as universal. She could have been writing a thousand years ago; she could be predicting the aftermath of wars to come, a thousand years from now. Her poems evoke felled civilisations, buried truths and broken links. Her narrators wander through a ravaged society in which the very stones are soaked with mourning because of man’s inhumanity and violence. Rubble and earth reverberate with grief, pain and longing. Nature absorbs what really happened but cannot speak it back.

Matur is a prolific and award winning poet whose work is gaining a strong English-speaking readership thanks to two volumes produced by Arc Publications. In The Temple of a Patient God (2004) contains an extensive selection of work from her first four collections: Winds Howl Through the Mansions (1996); God Must Not See My Letters (1999); Sons Reared By The Moon (2002); and In His Desert (2002). The poems have been translated by Ruth Christie, who also translated Matur’s most recent complete collection, How Abraham Abandoned Me (Arc Publications, 2012), along with translator Selçuk Berilgen.

Most recently the Poetry Translation Centre in London have produced the pamphlet If This is a Lament (2017), which contains a career-wide selection of Matur’s poetry in new translations by Jen Hadfield and Canan Marasligil. In this project the image of the razed homeland abounds: it is depicted as a place that never was; a charred forest; a cold, dead heart full of black stones. The landscape is alive, a repository for human suffering in which “almond trees and stones…recognised me” but cannot speak what they know. Nonetheless, nature can give comfort as well as reflect human pain. In the poem Glacier, “White light from the depth of the glacier/ floods into my skin.” Other people, however, provide less comfort. Even love is a morbid union, a joined march towards death where “together, our hearts decay.”

Matur’s cynicism comes not from iconoclastic contempt but from the devastation of cultural betrayal. Formal religion is nothing more than a justification for political and cultural abuses; a temple is “just a place”, she writes in the poem In The Temple of a Patient God. Ritual has lost its ability to safeguard against annihilation, so ceremonial robes are mere “roots swaying on the hanger”, symbols of death rather than protection, “wan shrouds sweeping.”

Words, appearances, the official version of events and voices of authority are not to be believed. But in the absence of those, what is there? “What words can we use to speak of pain,/ in what language can we ask to be forgiven?” asks Matur in Growing Up in Two Dreams. We feel the bitter irony of her writing in the language of her oppressor, following Ataturk’s excision of words of Persian, Arabic and Kurdish origin from the official Turkish lexicon.  Truth eludes language but the truth, let alone justice, is so slow in coming that there is no vindication when it does break the surface; truth is a “last gift” grasped “too late” by accident “when I looked back” and it represents only “harm”, Matur writes in I Know the Unspoken.

Despite Matur’s own lack of faith in language to convey the truth, the reader is struck loud and clear by her work’s ringing beauty, effigy-like strength and stillness, its eloquently expressed pain and its haunting quality of permanence, timelessness and universality. I meet her in London in the summer of 2017, during a busy week of readings and talks about If This is a Lament.

What were you like as a little girl?

I grew up in a Mediterranean climate, in the cotton fields, with all these oak trees around us, in a very large tribal family, with five sisters and two brothers. My father’s a farmer, he used to grow cotton, It was a very picturesque, beautiful scene and there was this feeling of beauty, of paradise. This was shattered and collapsed by the tragic events that happened to Kurds and Alevis, all these [military] operations I witnessed, this massacre [at Maraş] which happened when I was ten.

I was very different from my siblings and the villagers felt sorry for me, a little girl who was always carrying big, heavy books, sitting in the shadow if the oak tree, reading Tolstoy and Zola and Hugo. In my mind I was like the characters from the novels, while the others were living in a simple, pure, archaic world where life was real, strong and very earthy. I was writing poetry when I was very young and even then it wasn’t what I call “pink poetry”. It was very rebellious.

When I was a child, we had a big house, a family house. The women were cooking and doing their daily things and I was always on the terrace reading my book. When my mum called me to come and cook, my father always protected me. He said, “Don’t call Bejan, don’t bother her, she’s reading.” He always protected me and I always feel his eyes, his gaze on my shoulder. He was supportive to all my sisters and he sent us all to good schools – but I continued my education after that. It’s important, in that kind of society, when you have support from a father.

How did you come to be tortured? And how did that lead to you becoming a poet?

When people ask me this, I always give a little smile. Because it’s obvious in Turkey, it’s political: if you are a Kurdish Alevi, of course you’re put in prison. During my university time I was always asking questions because of this oppression and inequality. We weren’t treated as equal citizens as Kurds, as Alevis. It was a basic human rights problem: they treated Kurds like second class people. We were in a group with other Alevis, we were talking, so they detained us. And in the end, after a year, they couldn’t produce any proof [of wrongdoing] so they let us out.

I was tortured in detention during that year. I was locked in a very dark cell, darkness all around me for more than twenty days. This darkness was like mercury, very concrete, very strong. I had no light, I couldn’t see anything, I was trying to not lose my connection with my being. Then I found a strong feeling dragging me in a kind of shamanic ritual. I was trying to say something without words; it was a kind of humming. After a while I found words like diamonds in the darkness. They were shining like stars and I found them, but I didn’t have a pen and notebook so I couldn’t make notes. I wish I could have.

Writing poetry wasn’t in my control. It was the only way that I could heal. I couldn’t stop it. When I heard it, I had to write it. My early poems are darker, stronger. My latest ones still have a sense of sorrow, but they are not heavy.

You write your poetry in Turkish. How do you feel about that?

I have only my second language, Turkish, to write in. I was born Kurdish, I spoke Kurdish with my family, with my mother – I still speak in Kurdish with her. My first shock was when I started primary school, because I had to leave my mother’s language at home. I was forced to learn Turkish because the education system was in Turkish.

When people say my Turkish poetry sounds so beautiful and so soft, it makes me feel sorrow because my Turkish contains my Kurdish. I am writing in a different way compared to other Turkish poets and writers, because I have another layer of understanding, I come from a different world, I have a story to tell about the things I witnessed since I was a child and the things I read about in the history of my people. All these tragedies bring a feeling of elegy for me, which is what makes it different.

Turkish is the language I was tortured in – the police were speaking to me in Turkish. Some people say my poetry is revenge, artistic revenge, taking Turkish and using it back against them. ‘They’ try to ruin your being, they try to shatter your existence, paralyse you through torture, through killing, through oppression. And to tell them NO, I do exist, I am here, I won’t have you to ruin my being, because hatred is very destructive. In my writing I always try to keep the bitterness away. Poetry for me was a kind of tool by which I healed my soul and spirit, it was a kind of consolation or therapy.

I have begun writing more poetry in Kurdish, which for me is a language of music. It’s like lullabies. Language is not about grammar or vocabulary; your mother tongue is the music you remember from your early childhood. The sound of wind, the sound of your mum calling you when you’re playing somewhere, the sound of the river stream passing by your house – all this is language. Now I feel in my mind that these sounds are coming to me in Kurdish.

Do you see your work as political?

I don’t use any political terminology or political slogans. Nonetheless, my poetry is very political, because being political is about changing people’s viewpoint, showing them a different way of seeing things. When my poetry first came out, the first Turkish readers were shocked, surprised, because my viewpoint was not familiar to them. I was trying to show them that they have to recognise that we are here, we have a voice, we are people, we are  human, we deserve respect, we deserve understanding. When I go to my village or to Kurdistan or all these Alevi societies, the moment they see me they start telling their stories because they don’t have access to representation, they have no opportunity to speak about themselves. It’s a kind of responsibility I feel towards my people.

What is your process?

I don’t have a strategy to write, it just comes. Usually I hear the sound when I walk, it’s a real shamanic ritual for me. Then there are two different stages. The first is not in my control, it’s just a very strong inspiration that comes to me as a kind of music. If I have a notebook I make notes, but then I leave it, because I want to create a space, a distance between myself and my first emotions. Poetry is not just about the raw emotions, it’s more deep and philosophical. The second part is a very disciplined editing part. Editing, for me, is like making a sculpture. My first notes are like a piece of marble, then I bring it to my atelier, then I carve it. I don’t add, I carve until I reach the concrete essence of the poetry. It’s there, I know the shape, I know the sound, it’s waiting for me. And I throw away all the emotional stuff. I am very perfectionist about the things I published.

Your poetry has a mysticism and spiritual resonancet. Do you see yourself as religious?

I’m not a believer, I don’t believe in religion and I don’t believe in God. But I use all these allusions because it’s a cultural thing for me. The environment I grew up in has these references. I just give them new meanings; it’s a personal ontology, a personal mythology. The way I use God is very equal: I criticise him, I ask questions. That’s very Alevi, it’s in my blood.

You tackle huge cultural, political and historical themes in your work. Do you think poetry can make a difference?

Before, I thought that politics could change the world. I took a break from poetry [after her fourth collection] and did journalism for eight years. I went on TV as a commentator and my newspaper columns were very effective. They were shaking the country. But I came to hate all these ready political slogans and clichés. During my time doing all this activism, I saw that there are minor and major politics, and that activism is about minor politics. Major politics is about [bigger things like] natural resources, the arms trade and macro economics. And when everything is corrupt, on all sides, it all becomes a game. I wanted to go deeper, to return to literature and defend human rights through literature. Poetry is everywhere, in political speeches, in social media. Poetry is the essence of all that. Writing a tweet in 140 characters, having to summarise your feelings in that space, that’s poetry, and people are always looking for it. Poetry is the only place that I feel human.

This interview with Bejan Matur was facilitated by the organisers of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, where Matur performed from If This Is A Lament in summer 2017. Ledbury is the UK’s biggest poetry festival, running annually for ten days in late June or early July. A preview of the 2018 festival can be found at