Why the Book of Things: House?
Above all I want to start with the things I’ve experienced, been intimate with, known. Perhaps that’s why the house became a subject. I’ve said it before in conversation, objects fascinate me. I can’t just call paper, for example, paper. It’s love that binds me to it. I can’t simply look on those things I love, like the pens and papers on my desk or any other thing, without feeling. In fact, I personalize them, view them as intimates. For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the table. It’s the same with my study. At a certain time I move into the salon, but such is my relationship that as I leave my study, closing the door, I say “farewell then” to the room. The house is the same. I wanted to write about it because it’s a place I’ve experienced and known.
With this book your adventure, your exploration in writing continues…
First I ought to say that I seldom conceal the workings of the poems or essays that I’ve written. But if I am to conceal it, it’s on the paper to hand I conceal those deeply felt things of use to me in what I’ve written. Otherwise it doesn’t occur to me to hide what I want to say. But it’s in the nature of writing, that things get hidden, concealed, obscured, and you see it in this book. Within one vast page sometimes you see three lines, sometimes you find four, sometimes nothing at all. But the very next day you feel you can just about grasp the end of a sentence you looked at previously. At these times, yes, I’m hiding the work, and underlining it in those lines.
Could we read the book as a kind of “Dictionary of İlhan Berk”?
I’ve never been able to avoid it. I want to put a name to the notebooks in which I’ve collected my prose, and I imagine it will be called “Auto-I”. It’s as if there is an entirely separate person living with me and we’re both bound to each other in some terrifying way. I want to say that I’ve never been free of my identity. So in some books I’ve wanted to use things like a “Berk Dictionary”. I want to create my own universe. The poet wants to place himself at the centre of reality. That’s to say, in a poem, in a piece of writing, I want the writer to be seen. Only then do I feel that art has been made. I want the reader to be with me, to know and to feel as I do. That’s when I think the work acquires real meaning.
There’s an almost mathematical presence in your poems – would that be true?
In the prose poems I want to impose a visual structure. Let’s say I’m typing a piece of writing, when I type I want the text to present a visual appearance too. I once had a mind to write about Süleymaniye Mosque and I wanted the mosque to be present to the reader, even if Süleymaniye itself had ceased to exist. By looking at my text I wanted that structure to emerge. I think I achieved this in my book Galata. I covered every square inch of the place in Galata.
You say: “In the house everything is there for each other / (confinement requires it)…”
The house is in fact an enclosed presence. But the relationship between those things enclosed together begins there. You enter the house by the door, and thereafter the door extends its proposition to you; it says, look what’s happening here. It says there are rooms, sofas, balconies, windows, ceilings. After such an entrance, when you step inside there’s a mysterious power. You come up against a wall separating all of this off. The wall suddenly blocks our way and says, yes, there is everything the door says there is but I partition them all. So then I announce to the wall my wish to see a room. Instantly I’m passed through to a corridor. Once in the corridor it begins to ask questions, like where do you want to go. I’ll select a room, I say. I come to a door. After we check the door I’m left alone to look for a place to sit. Then I enter into negotiations with the window in order to learn what I can see from the room. The window indicates the nearest spot and from there I begin to look outside. The window is that part of the room containing the greatest freedom. And in the first moment I see the garden, then the street, if the street is visible. But the room is there neither for the window nor for the garden. The room is a freedom unto itself. It’s a place in which to dream, to lie down, to sleep or to write. In truth you can’t go far in a room. It has that confinement. So when I say the house’s confinement requires it I’m talking about partitioning. There are many partitions inside a house, all there for each other but I want to say that they all live apart from each other too. Their togetherness is necessarily an aloneness too. And aloneness is in the room more than anywhere else. A room could prolong aloneness to the very end. Between them, stairs, corridors, balconies and sofas establish intimacy but rooms are closed. They form no relation with rooms. I mean to say that stairs, sofas, and corridors form an inner cosmos between themselves. You see, that’s how the house fosters both togetherness and confinement.
The question of time and place in your poems…
A poem is written in a time and a place… It’s written in a street, on a table, in a house but then there is the question of time. There is a passage between time and place. A poem might be written using a present tense or we might recollect something in the past and the poem pulls us towards the past tense. As the poem is drawn out it brings place along with it. If we leave place out it’s as if the poem were in a void. Consider a line that begins “I’m walking…” As soon as we say “walking” the poet wants to know where. Let’s say it’s a road, a narrow street, the poet wants to write about the street. The street is vital to the completion of the poem. In that case, it’s important that time and place are always actively present in the poem. There’s no getting away from it. And of course, where it is, where it dwells, when it thinks the things it thinks, are all at work within the poem. The poet has to have a tight grasp on all of this. I generally like to mix times a lot. Then I’m fully conscious of the two times in which I live. And I want the reader to see that too.
The house and death…
At some point in the book I wanted to reconcile the house and death. We live in the house, yes, but it later occurred to me that we die here too. It reminds me of Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of our time. He learned from his good friend, a doctor, that he was going to die. For a while he’d been living in one hotel after another. “I want to die at home” he said. And that’s what the house is — we live there but people must die somewhere and they die at home… I’ll never forget, I’d been invited to one of the former socialist countries, I’m guessing it was Hungary, and there was an old man who escorted me around, a poet whose name I forget. “What are you writing?” I asked, and he said “I’m writing about death”. That affected me. He was writing an essay on death. “And what are your thoughts on the subject?” he asked. For me it’s a word like any other, like tree, earth, pen. It doesn’t carry the same weight for me. I use it as I’d use any other word.
Sometimes I meet young people who say “I want to be a poet”. I tell them, being a poet will bring nothing but unhappiness. Look, can there be such a thing as wanting to write about the world! I want to write about everything. It’s a huge discomfort to me. What else could it mean to write about everything, except to take life away from me? To write about whatever I see or love. I can’t just sit on my own and comfortably look at a cactus or an oleander. I look at it as something that must be written about. Such a man’s life is a terrible thing, not something to be coveted. The poet is such a man. And for that reason I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The first thing I say to these young people is: “Poetry is like tuberculosis, like cancer.” The poet’s life is a kind of hell…
If I hadn’t been a poet I’d have chosen to be a cartographer or a greengrocer, or else a ticket inspector on a ferry like Arif Dino. Cartography became extremely developed in 18th century England. There was a very famous cartographer whose name I can’t recall now. Very famous, but seldom one to stray. His wife grew very tired of him sitting from morning to night drawing. One day as he was drawing a map his wife, looking over his shoulder, saw a beautiful village and said to her husband “put down an island there, why not.” And momentarily putting aside his responsibilities, there he placed an island. From the 18th century on cartographers searched but could not find that island. Only much later did they learn the truth. That’s the kind of mapmaker I would have been.
Interviewed by Dilek İçensel and Seçil Yersel
From İlhan Berk’s Inferno: Essays, Poems, Notebooks, Interviews, translated by George Messo