Thomas: Hello, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Mel. Since this is the fifth volume of the project, I thought it would be nice to start off by asking how the project has changed or stayed the same since it began?
Mel: Interesting that you should start out with this question, since the 2017 issue is the final issue published by Red Hand Books. While the sales of TPT 2017 weren’t so bad, the publishers found that their budget couldn’t sustain the printing and distribution costs. How they managed to keep it alive since 2013 is a bit of a mystery, but apparently George Messo, who founded the magazine and edited the first three issues while he was simultaneously teaching English in Oman and Saudi Arabia and working on a Ph.D. in literary translation and publishing at a university in England, was able to keep it going through private or other means until he finished his Ph.D., at which point he asked me to take over as head editor of the magazine. He and others at RHB may have thought that we could find a funding source in Turkey, but that was a futile prospect since times could hardly be worse for procuring funds for literary ventures in Turkey. So now we’re left high and dry, so to speak, with no publisher or distributor, although some members of our translation group in Istanbul are thinking of continuing to publish the journal here in Turkey, or a similar one with another name. At any rate, I had a great time editing the magazine and am grateful that I was offered the job by George Messo, and supported in producing the last two issues by the other folks at Red Hand Books.
Thomas: Oh wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m especially sorry to hear about the project at such a late phase. I hope you can find a way to continue in one format or another. So, I really loved the selection of Gulten Akin as the Featured Poet. I’ve read or have a decent idea of most of the big names of Turkish poetry, but, honestly, she was a big weak spot for me. This section was fantastic and did help me to easily see why she obtained the reputation she did. Who are some of the other poets you’ve presented in the Featured poets section and what goes behind that decision?
Mel: Actually, we’ve only had a Featured Poet section for the last two issues. When we (I, Saliha Paker and İdil Karacadağ) took over as editors of the TPT 2016 issue, we decided to change the format to include three sections — the Featured Poet section, a general poetry section, and an essays and reviews section — as a means of providing greater depth and a stronger contextual structure to the whole. The content of previous issues had only been a collection of Turkish poems by individual poets in English translation, with no introduction or supplementary explanatory material. We wanted to transform it into a journal that would appeal to readers with little or no knowledge of Turkish poetry and give them an idea of the breadth and depth of the poetry scene in Turkey from the beginnings of literary modernism in the early 20th century up until the present day. Our featured poet in TPT 2016 was Behçet Necatigil, another very influential poet who didn’t fit so well in the literary movements of his time and never achieved the fame he deserved. We’ve chosen our featured poets by using two principal criteria: how important they were/are in the field of modern poetry in Turkey, and how crucial it is for their poetry to be translated and made available to readers of English. Of course, the latter criterion fits most contemporary Turkish poets. And we naturally wanted to have a gender balance among not only the featured poets but among all the poets we publish.
Thomas: Ahh, I see. I think you guys definitely did a great job in accomplishing that goal in terms of making it accessible to readers who are new to Turkish poetry and bring attention to poets who should be translated. Speaking of poets who should be translated, I really lliked the inclusion of Sezai Karakoç, the first poet in the general section. I’ve always thought the Islamist poetry in Turkey is greatly underappreciated and under-translated. Even names like Necip Fazil Kısakürek or Ismet Özel who are important for Turkish literature as a whole are still untranslated. Do you guys plan to continue drawing attention to this in the future? Are there any other poets who you feel like it is criminal they have not yet been translated?
Mel: That’s another very pertinent question. Yes, we as editors felt that Islamic poetry has gotten short shrift from translators and publishers of translations of Turkish poetry. Fortunately one of our editors, Neil Doherty, knows a great deal about these under-exposed poets, and in the general poetry section he included the work of several of them, along with a good selection of women poets and younger poets writing now. If it turns out that the journal has a second life, I hope that whoever edits it continues this trend, as one of our main goals has been to introduce readers to good poets who need to receive more attention internationally, to bolster their reputation and motivate them to keep up the good work they’re doing, regardless of their political or religious inclinations. Poets whom I feel really, really need to have poetry collections published in English are küçük İskender, Haydar Ergülen, Lale Müldür, Gökçenur Ç, and Asuman Susam. They’ve all had individual poems translated and published, but none have yet had a full collection published in English.
Thomas: I’m happy to hear that. That list sounds like a great place to start. I thought the general section was a great introduction for those interested in Turkish poetry in that it had a wide range of poetry, but still managed to show exactly what it is that makes Turkish poetry unique. Are there any particular books or materials you think readers wanting to dive into Turkish poetry more have to read?
Mel: We need more collections of Turkish poetry in translation, certainly, but there are some excellent books of poetry by individual poets as well as anthologies that have been published recently, or in last couple of decades, including many collections of work by Nazim Hikmet by excellent translators such as Mutlu Konak and Randy Blasing and Ruth Christie and the late Richard McKane, as well as anthologies of Turkish poetry edited by the late renowned poet and translator Talat Halman, published by Syracuse University Press. Ed Foster, the publisher and chief editor at Talisman House, Publishers, in the U.S., has been a great supporter of Turkish literature for many years, and has published work by many of the most renowned Turkish poets, including that of Enis Batur, Gülten Akın, Edip Cansever, and Melih Cevdet Anday. Other independent presses in the U.S. and the U.K. have published collections of poems by Birhan Keskin, Gonca Özmen, Orhan Veli and Oktay Rifat, to name a few. A collection of poetry by Turkish women called From This Bridge, translated and edited by George Messo, was published by the Conversation Paperpress in the UK, and Aeolian Visions / Versions has a great selection of Turkish poetry and works of fiction produced at the Cunda International Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature. Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry is an interesting and quite controversial book edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat. All of these collections can be found easily on the internet.
Thomas: I noticed that a lot of the translators' names are repeats. Do you usually keep the same translators or do they change a bit every year?
Mel: We encourage and accept submissions of anyone who’s doing good translations of Turkish poetry. The problem is that quality translations and devoted translators of Turkish poetry are still rather rare. Because of this we’ve relied heavily on a group of translators who held workshop sessions in Cunda for ten years (2006 - 2015). The group, The Cunda International Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature (TEÇCA), which was the brainchild of Saliha Paker, a professor of translation and interpreting studies at Boğaziçi University, was underwritten by the Turkish Ministry of Culture until funding was cut off in 2015 for reasons that need not be explained here to those familiar with the controversial political issues that have arisen in Turkey in recent years. CIWTTL translated the work of numerous Turkish poets and writers of fiction, including the poetry of Gülten Akın and Behçet Necatigil, so we had a group of dedicated translators ready and waiting in the wings to have their translations published, or whom could be called on to work on new translations.
Thomas: I appreciated the poems that did have Turkish translations with them and the ones that didn’t at least having the title in Turkish for those wishing to look it up. What went behind which ones had the Turkish original presented?
Mel: We chose to have bilingual versions of particular poems based on how interesting the challenges were that the poems presented to their translators. Every translator has to deal with trade-offs in translation — some things lost, other things gained in the search for equivalences in phrasing and meaning. We presented both original texts and translations when we thought that readers proficient in both languages would like to know something about the strategies used by translators in dealing with certain choices they faced in rendering subtleties and nuances of phrasing and meaning in particular poems.
Thomas: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you yourself would like to expand on?
I might just encourage your readers to support Turkish poetry, which is one of the richest and yet least known veins of literary ore in the world, by buying and reading magazines like Turkish Poetry Today and collections of Turkish poetry produced by small, independent presses. These presses specialize in translated work and niche literature that would otherwise remain unknown, and so expanding their readership is vital to the cause of literature in general.
Thomas: Is there any chance we could get a peek at what the next issue would have possibly looked like?
Mel: I can only say that before we were told that the journal would no longer be published by RHB, we were considering Birhan Keskin as our next featured poet and hoping to include some translations of poems by küçük İskender and Haydar Ergülen, as these three poets are surely operating on the cutting edge of Turkish poetry and really need an international readership. If the magazine is revived with a new brand name that may still happen.
Thomas: Oh wow, what a coincidence. Our review editor actually wrote her first review on poetry on Birhan Keskin this issue. Perhaps, they were right when they said aklın yolu birdir. So, as the last question of the interview, since this is the Bosphorus Review of Books, what books are you reading right now?
Mel:Now that I’m retired and have some time on my hands, I’m trying to catch up on my reading by trying to finish books that I started years ago. The main one is Herodotus’ Histories, tr. Audrey Selincourt. I live in Eski Foça, which was known in ancient times as Phocaea, a key city in the Ionian League that Herodotus discusses in great detail. Others are Mimesis, by Eric Auerbach, tr. Willard Trask, and the Popul Vuh, tr. by Dennis Tedlock. I’ve also just begun to read the stories in Selahattin Demirtaş’s Seher.