In Conversation: George Messo

In Conversation

George Messo is a poet, editor and prominent translator of Turkish poetry. Responsible for exposing the English-speaking world to many of the great Turkish poets including notably the recent Ikinci Yeni: The Turkish Avant-Garde (Shearsman, 2009), Messo has been an important intermediary in this cross-cultural dialogue.

With the release of his latest editorial work From This Bridge: Contemporary Turkish Women Poets (The Conversation Paperpress, 2010) this June, George speaks to David Nettleingham about the new book and his relationship with the language and literary culture of Turkey.

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What was it that led you to become a translator in the first place?
Translation is something I’ve done at various times when I’ve had too much time on my hands. In a cooler climate I’d probably be outside, doing something very different, but here in Arabia, in the Al Hasa where I live, it’s routinely 40 degrees centigrade and above, so I tend to sit indoors most days. And working as I do, in the military, involves mind-bendingly long hours of monotony, randomly punctuated by fits of chaos and activity. Boredom pushes me to translate as much as and as often as I do, and it was out of boredom that I first started. I’ve come to rely on a certain level of boredom to motivate me.

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What attracted you to Turkish poetry?
Chance, I suppose. I moved to Turkey in the late 90s and Turkish rapidly became my daily language. Turks are rightly proud of their poets and it wasn’t long before my friends started prodding me to read poetry in Turkish. It was pure chance that one of the first poets I read was Oktay Rifat. I was living in Trabzon at the time, and that’s where Rifat was born. I picked up one of his early collections, Tilki ile Karga (The Fox and the Crow), in a local bookshop. So right away, even as I was learning Turkish, I’d started to play around with translations and poems. It just went on and on from there.

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How has your own writing been aff ected by your relationship with Turkish poetry?
I’m inconstant about this because I can sometimes look at the poems in Entrances, my second collection, and hear Melih Cevdet Anday, or the later Rifat. At other times I think I’m flattering myself. Perhaps it was the close attention to Turkish poetry that gave me a more demanding sense of rhythm, as opposed to a strict concern for metre, which dominated my first book. Turkish has a particularly strong rhythmic value, which is precise and flexible, and I’ve learnt to trust it more, to let rhythmic values dictate the pulse of a poem.

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Is it difficult to retain the nuances of the Turkish language in the translation process?
There’s something inviolable and untouchable in a poem that translation, no matter its successes, struggles to approach or to approximate. It’s an unbendable fact that if you want to read Nazim Hikmet, you have to know Turkish. Translations do many things, and they can be engrossing and compelling for the same reasons that any poem or piece of writing can reach out to a creative, engaged reader. As readers I think we’re often overwhelmed by a desire to erase boundaries between poet and reader, and forgo the fact that a translation of Hikmet, for example, isn’t the same, in kind, as a poem by him. Good translation brings us as close as we can get to another language or culture, without actually knowing it, in the absence of any deeper connection. But it seems to me precisely here that translation does its work, in trying to bridge the gaps in our knowledge of other languages and our experiences of, and interactions with other cultures. Of course, it never can be bridged. But it’s the attempt, in principle, that makes it valuable. Broadly speaking, good translation rouses in us a desire to want to know the origin, the original language and all that it implies for an acquaintance with the culture.

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How has Turkish poetry been received in the rest of the world? Is there an interest in recognition outside of the country?
Since 2006 the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture has been off ering funding to overseas publishers of Turkish literature in translation. It’s an ongoing scheme that encourages publishers to take on less familiar authors by absorbing some of the financial stress that comes with selling and promoting foreign literature. Unquestionably, there’s more Turkish poetry being translated and published now than ever before. Unfortunately, there still exists this odd and persistent thorn about the people doing the translation work and the quality of the work done.

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With the release of “From This Bridge: Contemporary Turkish Women Poets” this June, why put a book like this together at this time?
The last major anthology of Turkish poetry to appear in Britain was Feyyaz Kayacan Fergar’s Modern Turkish Poetry published by The Rockingham Press in 1992. Despite its many merits, it’s gained a reputation as a book of omissions. It not only missed out important poets like Celebi and Batur, it considerably under-represented the contribution of women. To put it simply, my anthology grew as a response to Fergar’s and others’ received history of modern Turkish verse, a history that has persistently marginalized women poets. Anyone familiar with Turkish poetry over the last twenty or thirty years knows a very diff erent story. In recent years some very significant translations have appeared. Ruth Christie’s versions of Bejan Matur are a high point, and Lâle Müldür has also been translated and published by Poetry Ireland. My own selection of Birhan Keskin is forthcoming in the Arc Visible Poets Series in 2011, and I’ve just finished a book of Gonca Özmen’s poems, soon to be published. These are exciting times for poetry in Turkey, with women visibly and audibly at the forefront for once. I wanted to communicate some of that enormous energy through an anthology like this, to document, as it were, a very dynamic passage from the margins to the centre.

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What do you see as the major developments in the poetry of Turkish women over the last 50 years?
The dominant narrative of Turkish poetry in the Twentieth Century is one largely told by men, about men. There are, of course, exceptions. But as I’ve already said, women are visible now as never before, winning prestigious awards, taking prominent positions on juries, committees, on editorial boards, at festivals, and elsewhere in the media. A lot of this is bold, pioneering work. Women are taking risks, creatively, imaginatively – Birhan Keskin is one of the most astonishingly powerful examples of this, and Gonca Özmen’s poems explore and discuss aspects of the human experience that we’re seeing for the first time in Turkish. Zeynep Köylü is another extraordinary voice: unique and daring. From This Bridge might be equally bold in its aims, one of which is to challenge that dominant narrative. It has omissions, shortcomings, and I accept that a lot of people will question the rationale for a book like this. But it’s a point in time – far from complete – and a point from which I try to show a diff erent, more embracing picture of the last 50 years.

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To what extent are the concerns expressed in this book Turkish concerns or universal?
The anthology is broad and various. The socio-cultural milieu, the political forces the poets work in and around, exercise influences that, while uniquely Turkish in their specifics, nevertheless have relevance outside their particular settings. The political tensions at play in Gülten Akin’s poems, for example, resonate broadly and we can recognise them as concerns that touch many of us living outside Turkey today. Honest – and often urgent – imaginative engagement with the world draws us like moths to a light. I chart my life in poems, so I can’t really help but be caught up in other peoples’ concerns, no matter how elliptically they intersect with my own world.

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What do you think that a reader unfamiliar with Turkish poetry will get from this book?
A poet and a reader are two enormous books colliding. You’d need to be that poet, or that reader, to know what that collision means, what it signifi es to those engaged. To be caught up in such a relationship – it’s every writer’s dream, every reader’s ideal. What we take as readers depends largely on our willingness to give a little when the book opens up, to listen, to feel and to think. Works in translation are invitations to recognise the unfamiliar and to step, however minutely, into territory that is, for the reader, largely uncharted. We know the discoveries are there, off the beaten path, away from the crowds. To a certain kind of reader – and that’s me – it’s an irresistible attraction.

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