JOHN ASH was born in Manchester in 1948 and read English at the University of Birmingham. He lived for a year in Cyprus, and in Manchester between 1970 and 1985, before moving to New York. Since 1996 he has lived in Istanbul. His poetry has appeared in many publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Village Voice, Oasis, PN Review and Paris Review. Two of his Carcanet collections, The Goodbyes (1982) and Disbelief (1987) were Poetry Book Society Choices. He has also written two books about Turkey, A Byzantine Journey andTurkey: The Other Guide.
This interview first appeared in Near East Review in 2002.
GEORGE MESSO: You’d written three books in England, The Bed (1981), The Goodbyes (1982) and The Branching Stairs (1984) before you moved to New York in 1985, where you went on to write two of your finest collections, Disbelief (1987) and The Burnt Pages (1991). Evidently New York was a productive city for you creatively. So I’m curious to learn why it was, a decade or so later, you decided to move not just geographically to the other side of the world, but culturally from the New World to the Old World – why Turkey? And why Istanbul in particular?
JOHN ASH: Well I’ve been asked this question many times, often aggressively by paranoid Turks, some of whom suggested I might be working for the CIA or other ludicrous things. It was very simple really, I’ve been visiting Istanbul and Turkey since 1967. I came here when I was a teenager and I always loved this area, Greece, Turkey, the Eastern Mediterranean in general. I love Syria and Lebanon as well. I’d been in New York, and I was getting a little tired of it. I had to find a new place to live, and finding a new place to live in New York is impossible because you know it will be a shit hole and it will cost you two thousand dollars a month. So I thought, well, I can’t do this. I’d recently been to Turkey twice, doing research for my book, A Byzantine Journey, and I also felt that New York really was too far away from what you call the Old World. I love ruins. I love ruined cities. I love crumbling ancient buildings or even crumbling nineteenth century buildings, which is what I’m living in now. And all of that was too far away from New York. In a way, you know, I felt that my… much as I enjoyed New York, much as it was very productive for me, much as I met huge numbers of wonderful people there, some of the most wonderful people on earth, I felt my soul dwelt somewhere around here. Does that make any sense?
Absolutely. But what particularly drew you to Istanbul?
Well, if you’re going to move to the Near East, if you’re going to move to Turkey, as far as I’m concerned you have to live in Istanbul. It’s the most interesting city, the most vital, but curiously neglected by the West. You rarely have articles about Istanbul, except when I write them for The New York Times. You know, it’s an infinitely fascinating city, just topographically or geographically it’s fascinating, all the hills, and the islands out in the Marmara, the European shore of the Bosphorus, the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, you know, vast contrasts all the time. That is another reason because living in New York you’re also used to vast contrasts between the suburbs and Manhattan, and within Manhattan great opulence and great poverty. And here you get the same kind of contrasts and juxtapositions, strangeness and confusion, but also a kind of energy that is exciting and makes you want to do something. You have to respond to it. It’s a huge city and it’s much bigger than New York. I feel I have to record in some way what is happening here, which I think is very interesting, with all the rural migrants coming in, people from the Black Sea, from the Anatolian plateau and the Kurds, adapting themselves to city life, sometimes not very well.
Many of the poems in The Anatolikon, not least the title poem, seem to draw upon the same rich material as that of your travel book A Byzantine Journey. How crucial was the writing of that book in relation to the poems in The Anatolikon?
The writing of that book was very important because I became so obsessed with the material, it became another reason why I had to move here. In fact A Byzantine Journey seems to me now completely inadequate because I’ve found so many more Byzantine towns and monuments in Southern Turkey that are not in that book. I found twelve Byzantine towns in a very small area to the east of Silifke, which are not in any guide book, and they’re absolutely magnificent, almost perfectly preserved. And I found a sixth century Byzantine Mount Athos near Demre in Lycia, where there are these huge churches of cathedral size, of which there are no photographs, no studies, nothing.
The title poem of The Anatolikon is almost like the pocket version of the entire book, boiled down into a few pages. Although I wrote that poem when I was still in New York, that started the book and started the process of me moving here. Virtually all of the other poems where written after I moved. So, ‘The Anatolikon’, the title poem, is full of a yearning to be in this Old World, the Eastern Mediterranean and to drop shopping malls, and delli’s and whatever else, though there is a shopping mall in Istanbul I’m very fond of…
In a recent article for The New York Times (‘Celebration Istanbul’) you say that “in Istanbul you must orient yourself in time as much as in space.” This statement seems just as applicable to your own writing about Istanbul, Anatolia, Turkey. In what ways do your poems represent a crossing, conflating or even a re-conceptualization of the limitations or possibilities of time?
Oh my God! You have to remember I’m just a poet, not a philosopher. I don’t even regard myself an intellectual. The question is certainly very relevant. I am very much concerned with time and how time affects us and how people lived in the past and how finding something beautiful that is thousands of years old and perfectly preserved can actually make you feel as if you can touch the past, which is especially true of the Byzantine sites I was talking about. There are moments in specific places where you can feel the past and touch the past, and it sort of enters you. I was in Northern Syria exploring the Dead Cities, of which there are 820 would you believe – I saw 21. That was incredible. You enter a Byzantine town of the fifth or sixth century and everything is still there, the churches, the houses two or three stories high, the porticos, the olive presses, the wine presses, the baths, everything. So I think in a way that’s why I’m so obsessed with ruins because there I think you can feel you can make contact with the past, contact with past lives.
It was Edwin Muir who said ‘The past is a living past, and past and present coexist… [imagination] opens the past to us as part of our own life, a vast extension of the present’. That could easily, however, have been said by you – and I’m thinking not just of The Anatolikon but of The Burnt Pages and in particular your poem ‘Forgetting’ in which you say:
‘I know I mix the present with the past,
but that’s how I like it:
there is no other way to go on.’
In The Anatolikon historical details are constantly rising to the surface of the present, details that are perhaps both temporally and culturally remote, if not ancient. What is it about those particular historical archives – Byzantine, Selçuk, Ottoman – that draws you imaginatively and in which you’re able to situate your present self amid so much chronicled history?
The important thing is the Byzantine connection. As soon as I discovered the existence of Byzantium, when I was a teenager, I became completely fascinated because no one had told me about this and if something is not generally well known or no-one has told me about it I have to find out about it, historically. I’m now obsessed about the Parthians. Who were they? No one tells us anything.
Who were they?
Well, they were an Iranian tribe who were originally nomadic who for almost four centuries ruled Iran and Mesopotamia. They wore baggy pants and had huge moustaches and wore make-up when they rode into battle. They were constantly at war with the Romans who they found rather puzzling and thought “why do they keep bothering us” because they were busy fighting with nomads on their eastern border… Anyway, so that’s one example. You know as a young gay man I sort of identified with the Byzantines who had been consistently slandered and abused, for example, by Gibbon and the nineteenth century historians and it was only really in the second half of the nineteenth century that people began to appreciate the magnificence and beauty of the Byzantine heritage and how much it contributed to Western European civilization. I mean without them we would not have the plays of Eurypedes, for example. So that was a big draw and I felt then, I still feel, a very personal connection with that culture because it’s hybrid, it’s… well, the Byzantines are almost postmodern, which is a sort of a ridiculous thing to say. And compared to Western Europe during the Middle Ages they were vastly more tolerant and cultured and literate, and they of course were also obsessed with the past. The reason Byzantine poetry isn’t very good – some is okay – is that they felt that they couldn’t possibly surpass the work of the ancients so they just imitated it in archaic forms of Greek. And that I find on one level rather sad but it’s also deeply sympathetic.
Nazım Hikmet has a vitriolic poem in which he lambasts Pierre Loti for his “romancing the Orient”, and of Anatolia Hikmet writes that it’s
‘The common property of everyone
except those born to it.’
Returning, then, to Edwin Muir’s remark, to what extent, if at all, do you think imagination alone might legitimize the appropriation of other people’s pasts, of cultural histories to which the writer is “foreign”?
I don’t feel that I’m appropriating a cultural history of Anatolia or Istanbul because, as I said in response to your last question, it has contributed so much to what we laughingly call Western European civilization that it’s a part of a civilization I was born into. I mean, you could regard my coming here as a search for the roots of the civilization I was born into. It began here. Virtually nothing I encounter in Anatolia strikes me a foreign. I have a sense of recognition rather than a sense of strangeness or orientalness. It just seems normal. The only thing that’s strange about it compared to North Western Europe is that people immediately invite you into their houses and say “you must sit down and have tea”. Their traditions of hospitality and politeness have not been eroded by too much contact with the West. And of course the same is true in the Arabic countries too. I remember the first time I went to Syria and when I first came back my colleagues at Bogaziçi University said “well what were the Syrians like?” – I think they actually said “what were the Arabs like”? You know, Turks are so prejudiced against the Arabs – And I said actually they were rather like Turks.
It’s partly to do with the dominance of the English language. If something is going to be expressed now, to be known to the outside world, unfortunately it has to be said in English. Turkish is a very beautiful language but how many people in the most powerful nations of the world speak Turkish? So for Anatolia to be expressed in English doesn’t seem to me an example of colonialism or orientalism. Of course it depends what you say. But it’s a way of making it known, a way of making it real to other people, a way of making people aware of how essential it was to the development of civilization and how important it still is. So I don’t have any guilt feelings about writing about Anatolia or Istanbul. I think that’s ridiculous. I hope I don’t write about it in any kind of condescending way. I just write about the things I encounter. Especially now, my poems are getting more and more brutally direct. It’s just in your face. There you are, you’re here, in Istanbul, you’re in Anatolia: deal with it.
In a review of the Talisman House (U.S.) edition of The Anatolikon, Robert Kelly discusses your poems as “travel literature”, particularly what he calls “a poetry of being there”. Several of the poems in The Anatolikon openly depict travel, while others seem to imply the idea of a voyage or quest. How would you describe your relationship to travel literature and that idea of the travel writer? And in what ways can your poems themselves be understood as travel?
Well I have written a travel book and I’ve written a lot of poems which are about travel but I would hate to think that I’m just writing travel poems, or what I call “tourist poems” – the poem written by a young American in Fiesole with a hangover, all about art and culture and how wonderful it is. I hope I’m not doing that. I hope I’m really writing about being here. But the idea of travel and the experience of travel are very, very important to me. I’m actually happiest when I’m traveling, in Anatolia or Northern Syria particularly. The Bekaa Valley I love as well, despite Hizbullah and Syrian soldiers threatening me with guns all the time. I think travel is probably one of my, to use an awful phrase, central metaphors, of finding something, of looking for something, finding it in the past, finding it in the present or wherever, or it’s possible existence in the future. All of that is very important to me. One of the things that feed my poetry is my ability to travel and to see everything. I’ve traveled with other people and they just don’t see what’s going past from the bus window. I virtually have no eyelids when I’m traveling. And if I have a talent that is exceptional it’s that. I see things and I can turn it into words. I see details, I see people, I see buildings, landscapes and I see all the details of a landscape and I remember them for the rest of my life.
What advantages or disadvantages might there be for a writer, a poet, in actively choosing to live outside of his native language community, as opposed to having been forcibly expelled from it?
Now we get on to the subject of exile. I don’t regard myself as an exile. I can go back to England whenever I want. I’m an expatriate. I chose to live outside my country. Ovid was an exile. He was sent to a dismal town on the western shores of the Black Sea. Also I haven’t lived in England for over sixteen years now. Before I moved here I was in New York.
Is the language thing problematic in any way though?
It frustrates me because I do not have any ability to pick up Turkish. My Turkish is perfectly adequate in that I can buy what I want, I can go to restaurants, But I can’t have a real conversation with the very nice guy who runs the büfe on the corner, which I find completely annoying. A friend of mine has been here only three years and she’s picked up fluent Turkish without having any lessons. I find it incomprehensible. I don’t know how you can do that. My mind doesn’t work like that. So that is annoying. But of course not speaking a foreign language can have its advantages. If you’re in a restaurant and they’re speaking complete bullshit, you don’t know.
But the linguistic thing is very interesting. The strangest thing is that some times Turkish sounds to me like English. I’m so used to hearing it around me that I almost think I can understand it. I was once in Iznik, I was on my own and had no one to speak English with and I started having these linguistic hallucinations. It was totally weird. Everyone was talking Turkish and my brain was translating it into English, but into the most weird sentences and phrases. “Dancing on a glass floor with fish underneath it”, for example, and another was “Oh I have to go to this ridiculous country club”. I said “John, get a grip on yourself, you’re losing it!”
Finally, The Anatolikon has been released already in North America, in a beautiful bilingual edition in Turkey and is soon to be published in England by Carcanet. The Carcanet edition, I understand, will also include a hitherto unpublished collection of poems called To The City – what can you tell us about those poems? I assume the city is Istanbul?
Istanbul means ‘to the City’ in Greek. For me it was very interesting writing that book because it was like a sudden visitation. I’d been working on a guide book commissioned by Yapı Kredi for three years. My whole life was occupied with writing this guide book so I didn’t write any poetry. And then when I handed the disk in: Boom! Poems started streaming out of me. I would write three a night, minimum, and mostly quite short, some of them longer I guess. For me what I’m doing now is in a new style. It’s much more direct, much more brutal, it’s much more in-your-face. I’ve reached the age of fifty-three. I feel as if I don’t have to disguise my feelings, I don’t have to fool around, I don’t have to dress things up anymore, and I’m just saying what I feel. And I’ve no idea how people are going to respond to these poems.
So it will be coming for the first time from Carcanet?
Yes, it will be coming out in April. I don’t really know how I’m going to feel about it. Since writing that I’ve also written most of another book as well. I had another explosion of writing recently, so I now have forty-six new poems, including a long dialogue with my dead mother, which will be one of the most bizarre and morbid exercises in literature. But I like it, and it’s one hundred and twenty-six lines long. So I really feel that moving to Turkey, moving to Istanbul has actually been very good for my writing. It’s pushed me in another direction. It’s made me try and write in a new way, to try and escape my own cliches.
I know that your Turkish translator is Güven Turan and he in his own right is a very well established and well regarded poet. Are you at all influenced by contemporary Turkish literature?
Güven is a lovely man. He is my best translator. I am influenced by Orhan Veli. I love Orhan Veli. I could never write really short poems, and I always wanted to. I think it was really his example that has enabled me to do this. Though, the content and everything is completely different from Veli’s. He’s a very important poet for me. More important than Nazım Hikmet who I think, much as he’s wonderful, there’s a certain amount of bullshit in there. Whereas Orhan Veli is just perfect, and you look at those poems and you think it’s so easy to do this and it’s the most difficult thing. Writing a poem about sitting in a tea-house, seeing the waiter and looking at the Bosphorus and bumph! That’s it. It takes an enormous amount of skill to be able to do that.
I also like, though I don’t understand at all, Ece Ayhan. He’s a completely demented poet. Wonderful. Also impossible to translate. So I don’t know what kind of version of his poems I’m getting because it’s full of puns and plays on words. But the general tone of his poetry is absolutely fascinating and he’s a very important poet, not just for Turkey, but for the rest of the world.