Author of the Week / 7 January 2023

Memoir of an imaginary student in Efe Duyan’s imaginary poetry class

Author of the Week: Turkey

On Efe Duyan’s poetry

Efe Duyan is one of the most prominent young contemporary Turkish poets. The most salient feature of his poetry is balance of content and style, the abstract and the concrete, dramatic and lyrical, contemporary and historical, local and international, social realism and surrealism, words and lines, poetic and everyday language. This may strike those unfamiliar with his poems as boring, but he knows how to surprise the reader, exactly where to throw off the poem’s balance and restore it with captivating ease. Perhaps it is because he teaches architecture that he has such keen awareness of structure. Every word in every line, every line in every poem and every poem in every book has a role to play. At first, Duyan’s poems seem to flow naturally, like the rain on the pavement, but when you finish the poem, you notice its quirks, inconsistencies and tempo changes, and their purpose becomes obvious. Efe Duyan comes from the tradition of social-realist poetry and even his love verses carry political undertones, while his overtly political poems are tastefully laced with surrealist metaphors. He finds the universal in local stories, which makes his work both novel and familiar to the reader. It is no surprise that his work has been translated into many languages, and that he enjoys the status of one of the most prominent ambassadors of Turkish poetry.

A few years ago, when he attended the prestigious Iowa Creative Writing Program, he generously sent me one of his lectures on his own work and poetry in general. As I read the text, it melded with two other texts in my mind – Joseph Brodsky’s famous poem, ‘At a Lecture’ and another poem that I love, ‘M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School –Detroit 1942’ by Phillip Levine. I dreamt of myself in that class and made a collage of Efe Duyan’s lecture and the two above-mentioned poems, creating a fictional text which I think speaks perfectly for and about Efe Duyan’s poetry using his own words.

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, ‘What have I done?’[1]

‘You’ve drawn Mt Fuji’, said the Japanese girl. The Latvian boy said, ‘It is possible you started to draw a barn from the roof down.’ He found the most eager student in the class and asked, ‘Do you think this is the right answer?’ She said, ‘No, Sir.’ However, her face said, ‘I have no idea, please let me go.’ Then he pinned his eyes on me. I knew it was my turn, and I had to give him something to finish this. I said, ‘You’ve begun to separate the dark from the dark.’ He smiled and said:

Since mistakes are inevitable, I can easily be taken
for a man standing before you in this room filled
with yourselves. Yet in about an hour
this will be corrected, at your and at my expense,
and the place will be reclaimed by elemental particles
free from the rigidity of a particular human shape
or type of assembly. Some particles are still free. It’s not all dust.[2]

He broke the chalk and put the smallest piece in his mouth like the whitest truth pill, the glass of water on his desk at a gulp and spoke again:

‘There is no universally beautiful form in itself. Everyone in the world has a different viewpoint and different things to say, and everything that is said deserves a form that suits it. The form always carries a hidden message; even if you make sure it doesn’t, that in itself will be the message.’

So how to decide on the form? Bring the primary motivation for writing into the equation. Ask yourself: ‘What is my main issue? Why do I write?’

Again, he stared at me, I needed to find a clever answer, but I could think of nothing except the oldest student trick. I said, ‘We are all trying to find out why we write. But you, why do you write, sir?’

‘The catastrophic political climate in Turkey brings pressing issues onto our agenda, turning our direct perception of the world into a tragic one. All I do is try to imagine a better world, which is not the hell I happen to live in now and then. As you may have noticed, I am enthusiastic about myself, and I’m still trying to understand myself and make sense of my emotions. To make sense of your complex self, you might need a complex language, too.’

That sounded interesting but still more of a question than a path to follow. It wanted to be critical enough to get a more convincing answer, one which suited the occasion, but not too critical to engage the poet in a discussion. So I asked which path we should follow, and if he had any advice. It could be a useful takeaway. But he said, ironically, ‘There’s a saying in Turkish, I’m not going to give you a fish but teach you how to catch one. I can’t give you your answers as they belong to you and you only; I can show you where to find the right questions, though.’

I understood what he meant immediately, yet there was something elegant and witty to that answer, something that concealed its evasiveness and the fact that he actually dodged the question. I decided to press further, and the only way to do so was to repeat my successful tactic and invite him to switch his position from that of a tutor to that of a poet. I was sure he was not going to be able to resist.

‘How do you place yourself between these two very different and appealing tendencies, sir?’ I asked, looking him directly in the eye, just as he had done to me at the beginning of the class.

He paused for a while, hesitated like a chess player feeling the trap but unable to find a way around it. He did not hesitate too long and accepted the challenge, maybe even too willingly, as if hoping to revert to his true self, the poet.

‘The dilemma is the solution itself. I base my poetry on bringing these two worlds together.

To face who I am in a personal way and to face the world politically. I choose both. But to be able to choose this, you must ask yourself and give an honest answer to the question of who you are.

So my unwillingness to admit it’s I
facing you now, or the other way around,
has less to do with my modesty or solipsism
than with my respect for the premises’ instant future,
for those afore-mentioned free-floating particles
settling upon the shining surface
of my brain. Inaccessible to a wet cloth eager to wipe them off.[3]

What kind of form would suit this duality? Isn’t the form the skin of what we say? Without it, the flesh would be different. A good poem is one where neither the form nor the content can exist without each other. They rather co-exist and complement each other. They make up a unique whole. Not because I want it to be unique but because uniqueness guarantees that I find the perfect fit for my starting point in a poem. To achieve the goal of being simultaneously rational and subjective, I use structured forms, and I let my pen move freely.’

I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds.[4]

‘If you bend the language and force it to the limits of the grammar, you can create a space between poetry and everyday language. The reader can get into that space, to that house of difference, and see the world from a different point of view. This house is a safe, tolerant, fascinating, intriguing and provocative home. Different from everywhere else, made of mirrors and its walls transparent. You face yourself, and you face the world.’

I stopped listening to him and listened to the wind instead. I thought he could go on like this forever.

‘Yet I do not rule over the language; no one can. It is like nature; you can only think that you rule over it. But all you can do is respectfully build your home, your space, with your own words. I know that I am not a master of the language. I am a student of it. We all are.’

[1] Phillip Levine, ‘M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School–Detroit 1942’.

[2] Joseph Brodsky, ‘At a Lecture’.

[3] Phillip Levine, ‘M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School – Detroit 1942’.

[4] Joseph Brodsky, ‘At a Lecture’.