It is very hard to write a review about something others can’t read. Turkish poetry hasn’t been widely translated, it is a loss for literature, and of that I am sure. Iskender, class of 1964, is probably one the most actual and contemporary Turkish poets. We have stepped into the same office, yet our lives are probably incredibly different.
As a poet, I always try to bridge a gap and create a dialogue. I ask myself questions, “Will they understand, what will they feel? Will it resonate?” “They” are, of course, the readers. In Cehenneme Gitme Yöntemleri (translated as Ways to Get to Hell, Sel Publishing 2015), under his now very famous – at least in Turkey, for a lack of translation – pen name Küçük İskender, which means Little Iskender, Derman İskender Över drags his readers to hell, his own personal hell, without further explanation. As a reader, you are excluded from the story, forced to listen to his anguish, outcry, namely the devil that lives within his body, and those of his friends. Here I am! Here we are! Listen to us! Don’t try to understand us. We are either dead, or possibly dead.
How can we understand Istanbul’s underworld? It is Iskender’s underworld. The heroin addiction, the homosexuality, and the angst; the druggies of Beyoğlu, and the death of one of them, Can, thrown off a cliff by his friends, who thought he overdosed, though he actually died from the fall, when he was only 17 years old. It was the 90s, the “Z generation” as they called it. In 1999, a first edition of the long eulogy came out, and it is now considered one of Iskender’s best collections; mainly because of its sincere, real, and struggling appeal.
George, Ralph, Oscar!
We always came to this street!
George, Ralph and Oscar are fictional characters, the poet’s schizophrenia, people he talks to, excluding us from the conversation. They are a group, and we also hear about Osman, Mustafa, and the poet. They are all poets. In the middle of the collection, you can read Mustafa and Can’s original poems and diary entries. They are a group, and they all want to go to hell, somehow. It is a confession, a love poem to heroin. A love the poet has a hard time sourcing anywhere else.
You don’t use heroin. You should.
Your body will numb, you will be free from the world and this prison.
You will fill the universe’s liver.
You, you will enjoy being meat and words.
Your disease will grow you will be leaning against death.
Your unrelenting dissatisfaction, a circle, a trap.
(*translated from the original for this article’s purposes, it is not an official translation)
I never met Küçük İskender, although our paths crossed in the person of my friend, the prominent Turkish writer, Selçuk Altun’s office. My friend is responsible for smuggling Iskender’s poems into my life. Without a fault, and for more than a decade, whether by mail, or in person, he gave me all of his books. His life, and writing, is opposite to that of any other Turkish poet, and therefore impossible to evaluate comparatively. All of his collections stand out for their open-mic quality, as if what we end up reading is the result of a recording in which the poet yells, screams, cries out, hates, suffers, doesn’t have a clear idea of where the poem starts or ends. Stylistically speaking, the outraging number of question marks and exclamation points make you instantly recognize his signature.
You are breathing away his pain as you read, rarely understanding the entirety, or the purpose of the poem. After a decade of reading, you realize that he tends to make a fool of you by repeating the same poems, collection after collection. He’s got you. Pain is not something you can understand or explain easily in words, but he helps you, he takes you to hell, he rips out what lives underneath your surface, your hidden darkness, and you become fascinated, he knows it, and continues. He holds you with his manga covers, his name-dropping, pop culture references, or by naming a poem after the heavy rock band Metallica. There is not a single word of hope, of encouragement, no poems about the happy; every word requires a microphone, and not necessarily an audience.
He is calling us names like an eternal teenager, angry at this world, trapped in the nonsensical effects of self-medication. This is a collection/poem about a real tragedy. We could comment on it as a warning, or rather an explanation, in it the quality of pain.
I couldn’t help but think how Michael Lee’s tribute to a friend’s tragedy created a dynamically diverse outcome, it was in fact a pause to change, and create something better.
Excerpt from Pass on by Michael Lee
The day Stephen was murdered
everything that made us love him rushed from his knife wounds
as though his chest were an auditorium
his life an audience leaving single file.
Every ounce of him has been
wrapping around this world in a windstorm
I have been looking for him for 9 years.
Our bodies are nothing more than hosts to a collection of brilliant things.
When someone dies I do not weep over polaroids or belongings,
I begin to look for the lightning that has left them,
I feel out the strongest breeze and take off running.
Two worlds separated by continents, two generations not much apart, each speaking of the streets, the underworld, and the cruel sense of impossibility that ends young lives. This is, to me, the interesting fil rouge in today’s young male poetry, alongside women poets like Sarah Lowe, who look for identity in a multi-cultural world.
Küçük İskender’s second edition of Cehenneme Gitme Yöntemleri is the genuine story of what could have been. Becoming adults, finding peace with our own identity, getting on the right path, is not a given. Everyone can fall off the track, and he tells us how easy it actually is. We can all find ways to get to hell, some might get there sooner than others, but we are all at in absolute danger any given time.
Is he using his friends to write a poem? Is it a sincere eulogy, or a trick? A display of postmodernist irony? It is the glorious soliloquy of a performer-poet, the inventor of a new slang, inspired by the atmosphere in Bukowski’s books? He has written 21 collections so far, a body or work worth noticing, the poet everyone reads in Turkey in times in which poetry is not the hippest trend. Everyone knows his name and his finely honed blade: he has become a hell of a character.
A final disclosure: the mesmerizing prose of Turkish poetry has been virtually excluded from the canon available to English readers, which did not allow for a study of longer passages of Küçük İskender’s poems. Worth mentioning also some other names in Contemporary Turkish Poetry awaiting translation: Cemal HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cemal_S%C3%BCreya" HYPERLINK "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cemal_S%C3%BCreya"Süreya, Birhan Keskin, Turgut Uyar, Edip Cansever, Aras Onur, Mehmet Erte, Mehmet Altun and many more to fill a book.
A final note on the poet; born in 1964, in Istanbul, he dropped out of Medical School and went on to study Sociology. He started in the 80s by publishing reviews, essays, and his own poetry. In 2014, he received the prestigious Erdal Oz Edebiyat Odulu, a Literary Award, with the mention: “For the breath of fresh air he brought to Turkish language and Turkish poetry, and for his determination in style over the last thirty years.”
I certainly fell for his name, why Little Iskender? Under the gruesome sky, there is humor, not irony, but humor.
On his own words:
bu gece gökyüzü yeryüzüne düşecek altında durma...
tonight the sky will fall onto the earth, don’t stand beneath…