Every morning when I wake up, I sit cross-legged, light a cigarette and plan something new
– küçük İskender, Semih Gümüş interview
He was the enfant terrible of Turkish poetry. Gay man and performer who studied medicine and psychology before earning his entire living from poetry. Author of 24 books of poetry, küçük İskender was the voice of Istanbul’s underground and underbelly, Beyoğlu: voice of the junkies, trannies, the suicidal and the broken-hearted. He was a film enthusiast, who wanted his film library to be turned into a foundation. A fan of Kurt Cobain, Kafka and Mayakovsky, Iskender would sit in his smoky basement in Beyoğlu, beer in hand, and hold forth with histories of film, hair-raising stories of literally fatal love affairs and the darker side of Istanbul.
Born Derman İskender Över in 1964, he went by the name “küçük İskender” which means ‘Little Alexander”, a nod at the poet Iskender Pala, who in his mind would be “Alexander the Great”.
He was, without doubt, Turkey’s most prolific and inventive poet of the post-80s scene. He was the scene.
Although he had a huge cult following, Iskender was not accepted, let alone celebrated by Turkey’s literary gatekeepers for most of his career. Maybe this was due to the perception of his seemingly reckless, gay lifestyle in Istanbul, the heavy drug use and drinking of his youth.
A remarkable performer of his own work, Iskender held regular poetry nights at the Roxy club where he always shared the stage with the young poets of Istanbul.
He was awarded the Orhon Murat Arıburnu Poetry Prize in 2000, in 2006 the Melih Cevdet Anday Poetry Prize for his book I didn’t kill Iskender and in 2014 was awarded the prestigious Erdal Öz Prize for Literature.
Turkey’s leading poet, Haydar Ergülen named Iskender heir of Turkey’s greatest poet of the modern era, Cemal Süreya when reviewing, The Poetry Notebook of my Dead Lover:
When Iskender first came onto the scene I likened him to some of our great poets. Was I bold to compare him? I’d found currents flowing between them. From Nâzım Hikmet to Edip Cansever and Ataol Behramoğlu. What’s more, there’s an even more valuable connection to make: Cemal Süreya. Cemal Süreya was a poet who stood within and among his own poems and the next great poet to whom Süreya passes his watch on the bridge is indeed küçük İskender.
In 2017, Iskender exchanged his back catalogue of poetry books for a palatial white duplex overlooking Turkey’s tourist and celebrity mecca, Bodrum. Of the move, he said in an interview with Semih Gümüş of Oggito:
Istanbul and I got divorced after 53 years together. We see each other now and again for the sake of the kids, but I returned to my first love. When I was seventeen, I sat on the beach here, alone one night and said to the sea, “I’m in love with you, one day I’ll come back – wait for me.” In the end I kept my word. I think the world would be a much better place if everyone went back to their first love. Believe me.
Iskender enjoyed only two years reunited with his first love. He fell ill in December 2017 and died on July 3, 2019, aged fifty-five.
His last words were “Those who are strong enough – should take refuge in poetry.”
This interview took place in his underground poetry laboratory in the summer of 2015 and was recorded by poets Şakir Özüdoğru and Ali İhsan Bayır.
CS: Many of your books go into a sixth pressing when they’re published. You’re very popular among the young people in Turkey. But you’re always known as a marginal poet. What do you say about that?
KI: The work of many poets in Turkey can be categorized and placed in the context of certain themes. But my concern, more than just producing poetic product is to lay my experiences on a testing bench and there, in my own laboratory, my word laboratory, my meaning laboratory, I try to obtain results. This can have aspects that are not seen as literary because I can put my own experiences into those words, I don’t write personal poems but my interpretation of what I’ve observed and the way that I then shape the words is the main core material, the filling of my work. When you do this, if you overstep the boundaries in literature then you won’t be a person who’s easily accepted in literary circles. I think that the Turkish reader is not so different from the Western reader. There are those who follow classical literature and consider work from a serious, academic perspective. But the person in the street is not like that. The person in the street is natural, can convey what they feel inside, has adventures, secrets, flings, betrayals and if you take all of these and put them into your poetry you are then mirroring people’s realities back in their faces and this is called being marginal in Turkey. In fact, I live a very normal life and within that ordinariness if there’s a tiny bit of what we can call honesty then I think that’s what captures young people’s attention. When you look at the political and social youth movements in Turkey in the last fifteen or twenty years you can see that people have come to the forefront, be they women, men, gay or LGBT but this is not some kind of honour to be borne on your shoulder, it’s to be taken seriously and appreciated. I guess that’s why young people like me.
CS: Most of your poems take love as their subject matter, they’re all about love. Have you got anything left to say about love? Have you said it all?
KI: There’s a great saying in Turkish, Aşk Olsun! “Let there be love!” It’s a phrase that we use more when we’ve been offended, hurt, or we’re ashamed or shy about something. As you know, our people, the people of the Middle East and Mediterranean region are not well able to articulate their feelings and so if they get offended by something they always express a wish that there is some love in the mix from the opposite party, they say, “let there be love!”. in other words “I was expecting a response from you that entailed some love and you’ve just gone and broken my heart”. So, you could say that we, that is the people of this part of the world can’t do anything without love. It’s like everyone, no matter what type of employment they’re in, they work with love, in other words we’re a people who are fond of love. In our word for sex, it means to mutually make love, it’s from the root of the word to be in love with each other. However, I don’t consider love to be something that exists in relation to a person, or nature or god. Love, for me is the essential basis for the existence of a person. But it’s not the love we see in films, poems or as subjects of novels. I don’t believe in that kind of love to be honest. In other words, I do not believe in the concept of love between two people. Whatever a person does, or feels or thinks, if they do that with love then I say to them, “bless you, let there be love”, because they are doing that thing well and I would guess that I’m also a person that tries to do that well.
CS: Which of Turkey’s poets do you like the best?
KI: There’s a master and apprentice tradition here but I wouldn’t say that I mean that an apprentice is reared by a master in this case. You get a master and apprentice situation now and again and, even if young people reject this, young people of all generations, the concept of a master and apprentice is very widespread here and very important. It’s common all over the world. I think that every poet takes a master, a poet who is greater than he or she, whether they be living or dead and they start writing poetry by reading that person and by imitating them. Maybe this is more widespread in our Eastern culture because we believe in both respecting and loving in terms of the master and apprentice relationship. I too, of course, have my masters, my teachers. Nazım Hikmet is of course one of the most important poets but following Nazım, following the realist and socialist poets there are lots of poets who contributed greatly to the canon of poetry and of these there are many who are important to me, such as Edip Cansever, Ilhan Berk, Ece Ayhan, Cemal Sureyya. But you have to be very careful with this master apprentice relationship. If you concentrate too long in one particular vein, if there’s a particular type of thinking that dominates then you begin to serve that purpose alone in your writing and you end up just travelling that path. I try to read those poets too who are on the other side of the screen, by which I mean that ones who have fallen foul a little, or ones who are a bit conservative, or fanatical so that in this way I can balance my own inner set of scales, I like to correctly determine my own coordinates so that if one day I get into trouble, and I need to call out for help, I need to know exactly where I stand, I need to know my own address so that I can weigh myself correctly and know what I’m faced with, whether that’s good or bad. For this reason, the Nazıms and Edip Cansevers are really important to me. But when you go back even further then you have the Yunus Emres, the Karacaoğlanlar, there is a very serious culture of Turkish poetry going back into the past.
CS: And what about foreign poets?
KI: Yes, in fact, you could say that I am a man who really does enjoy Western poetry. I mean, I do love Turkish poets but you could say that I follow Western poetry. It may be that I cannot follow all of the contemporary magazines and books written in today’s languages because my English isn’t that great but there is a healthy translation culture in Turkey and for this reason the reader and those interested in literature are very fortunate. But Rilke and Rimbaud are very important for me, so too is Baudelaire and when you go a bit further north, Mayakovsky is very important. But if you extend this towards America then the Beat Generation poets are really important to me, both in terms of their poetry and their prose. If you then go further down to South America, you have giants such as Neruda. You can choose as many great poets as you want. Years ago, I stayed in the home of a writer in Switzerland and they had a library the size of a house that contained thousands if not millions of books, poetry books. And I said to myself, “you don’t really have to be a wise-guy in your own country, we are all brothers and sisters, and everyone writes amazing material in their own languages.” We, as people, are perhaps the most important gem crafters and sculptors of meaning and we try to give our work value and we don’t try to sell it. That’s one of the most important things, we distribute it to whoever wants to read it. Poetry is something like this and that’s why it’s important to me. But in your country, the UK, there are a few that I really rate, for example, you wouldn’t believe just how much Shakespeare is loved in Turkey. And James Joyce, of course, holds quite another place for me.
CS: And how do you view Western culture?
KI: This is a very broad question. Are we talking here about the West in general, or of European cultures? Because you are within Europe, in Britain, or are we to go as far as America. Because no matter how far we go West, it’s a classic situation, we’ll get all the way to the East again and find ourselves where we began in the end. I think that Western culture is very scientific, very rational. The advantages of this are very high but I wonder how important this really is for literature and art, the fact that you’re so rational, could that mean that it dulls your ability to indulge in fairy tales, in daydreams or in fantasy? I don’t think it does dull it too much because there is a different balance in the West anyway, but you don’t have a lot of time to daydream because the dreams you do dream you always end up trying to turn them into reality in Western culture. With us, though, dreams should always still stay a little bit as dreams. You know, its beauty is like that of a fairy tale, it must not fully come true, maybe it’s like the phoenix inside us. It’s as if we have to protect the ashes of the phoenix, that framework, so that it’s not destroyed and so that we can think of it as being able to come back to life as a flaming bird. I think this idea gives hope to Turkish people. In other words, I don’t think there’s the same concept of hope in Western culture. Because everything is settled in its place and appears to have been sorted out. I don’t know what it’s like from the inside of course but the view from here is that it looks like you have everything sorted out and that you live ordered lives. Whereas here it’s a much more chaotic a place. Let’s not forget that the world was forged out of chaos. But as for us, we’re a bit like a people who haven’t quite done with chaos yet and there’s lots of chaos in our part of the world. You know we have the TV news? Our TV news programmes are longer than the entertainment programs because there’s always something going on here. But this is something that really provides fuel for a writer of literature, a musician or a painter. There are lots of events that are too damaging, painful and wounding but all of these things can be turned into a separate poem, or painting, piece of music or theatrical play.
CS: And your own poetry – you’ve published over 30 books, you’ve done essays, theatre, novels, short stories, 21 books of poetry, you’re extremely prolific – so do you value sound over images, or – you like wordplay I know, which is more important?
KI: For me, sound is a very important thing because sound is also something you use when you want to protect yourself. When you look back at the first humans the main reason for them to bring forth strange sounds was to frighten the enemy or animal they found in front of them. If you take a look at animals in the street or in other places, you’ll see that their first reaction is to make a sound. In nature, everything that makes a sound is either trying to show itself or to protect itself. I think poetry is something that captures all of this and for this reason sound is one of the most important components of poetry for me. We spoke of Nazım a short while ago and he really is one of the most important Turkish poets in my opinion. Nazım, for example, while he was walking in the street, that is to say on an island, would compose his poetry by speaking it aloud. You know, when he was lost for a word, or got stuck on a word he’d wander about shouting it aloud, as we would consider a crazy person to do. And he’d be doing this of course in the woods and not in a street full of people. First of all, he’d find that sound within the acoustic. And me too, when I first started writing, I’d read my work aloud. I can’t say that I’ve had an education in the theatre, but I’ve been interested in it since childhood and it’s one of my greatest hobbies, I did do a little bit of work in the theatre at one point. To capture that sound, for me, is so important, because in my opinion poetry is not the greatest form of art in the world, music is. Because music exists already in nature, poetry does not. We don’t need to make it fit with nature because we are already within nature. So poetry, in fact, is human beings’ effort to contribute to the sounds of nature because we feel a sense of loss, because we have abandoned nature, we’ve evolved, moved to cities, become buried in concrete and we’re still trying to recapture that sound of nature and this is why I think we write poetry or we write lyrics that resemble poetry and sing them. The thing that is being tried to be put across is not a meaning, as such, it as just a sound, a syllable. If these do contain a meaning, if they can do so then that is really important, that’s what I think.
CS: You are an openly gay poet living in Istanbul, a great example for the gay community because you are a brave poet. What is life like here on a daily basis for the LGBTQI population and have you ever been the subject of attacks?
KI: It’s really difficult in Turkey because from a political point of view it’s already very conservative. At the same time of course the concept of religion is very widespread among the Turkish people and although we may all look as though we’re all in the same boat, I’m not just gay, I’m an atheist at the same time. You know, of course there are times when I’ve experienced episodes of violence, I’ve experienced them from individuals and I’ve experienced it from the population, for example especially, there was a group of religious newspapers and in way it was amusing to me that they portrayed me as both being gay and as being a Kemalist. You know there is a Kemalist ideology in this country, where people hold up Atatürk as their hero, well, today’s Kemalists are slightly ostracised by the leftist intellectual people in society. I don’t know how these religious newspapers managed to make it fit in their head, but they claimed that I was both gay and a Kemalist, and anyway, let’s just say that I’ve experienced times when hired killers have been after me. Some factions in society, because I have hung out a lot with young people, they’ve used my being gay to try to portray me as a child abuser. I don’t mean to say that this happens all the time of course but because we have a figure like Passolini before us, well, when some horrible thing happens to me I have to ask myself whether it’s down to my leanings and my views regarding sex that these things are happening or whether it’s something political that’s going on. I always want to analyse this correctly if something happens to me. Most likely it’s usually political because, like any gay person I like to be full of life and yes, I too can be a bit reckless and careless like any gay person, but I’m a gay person who lives with a certain awareness and I’m quite lucky because I live in Turkey’s most sophisticated city in one of that city’s most relaxed neighbourhoods, between Cihangir and Taksim, and I live right in the centre. In fact, you could say that I have quite a protected life. However, there are other dear LGBTI persons who are spread out among various places in Turkey and they live in much more difficult conditions. They can suffer violence from their family members, at the same time they can be subject to violence from other people and suffer problems that go as far as actual abuse. Our trans friends in particular can even be killed in certain cities in Turkey. These are really big problems for Turkey. But there’s a sentence I read once in a Gay Guide that was recommending Turkey to our gay friends and it really hit the nail on the head. Because gayness is not out in the open at all in Turkey and yet Turkish people really love gays. A lot of the biggest pop stars are all gay, to the point where you have the Sun of Art (Zeki Müren). There’s a secret penchant here for transvestites and transsexuals. And some of those young men who walk around like they’re god’s gift to women have almost certainly had an escapade in their youth, a gay escapade. So, the sentence in the Gay Guide was, “You can enjoy being gay, but do so carefully”. As people living in this country, we always pay attention to this. We take it on board but at the same time we do enjoy it. It really can be a gay paradise here but at the same time it’s very dangerous. So that’s the thing you have to bear in mind as you’re going along. You have to be aware of how you bear yourself and what you can come up against, and you have to act accordingly for your entire life.
CS: In Turkey I find people love poetry. It’s obvious. It’s been on the streets during the Gezi riots, the salons are full of people, young people love poetry, some of your books go into sixth, seventh pressings and it’s a big event among young people when one of your books comes out. Why do you think so many people in Turkey love poetry so much?
KI: I’ll try to explain this by giving you an example from the cinema. When I look back at my youth there were these adventure films, these action films and in Turkish films, when everyone was in a really tough place, when absolutely everyone was in a dangerous situation then the door would be smashed down and the young hero of the film would burst in and would save all the victims, save all of the people in the tricky situation. Then the whole cinema hall, the kids, and all of us would get up on our feet and start applauding wildly, and you know, our eyes would be filled with tears, as if it was us being saved and we’d bring down the house with our applause. Turkish people, maybe you’ve notice, they all applaud when the plane is landing, you know, when it lands on the runway because we’re all being saved, all together, we’re all being rescued together. Maybe this love that we have is seen as too much in the West, you know, and we have that culture of treating visitors so well and all that, but it’s really true. Poetry is something like this for us, if we can express our feeling really well, and if there’s a bit of thought and attitude in the poetry then the person we call the reader will, no matter who wrote that poem, they’ll get up on their feet and applaud them, and they’ll really love that person. That person is a hero to them, he or she is just like that hero in the film. So that’s why we love Nazım, we love Ataoğlu, and from the outside world we love Neruda, Mayakovsky because they have stood up and have taken action to save the population, to save the people. For us, no matter what a war-mongering nation we appear to be, you know, that poor suffering soul, that person between a rock and a hard place, we do care about them. And you have to be honest. If you have a problem, you have to say so, if you’re gay you have to be able to say that you’re gay, if you come out and lay it on the line and tell everyone what’s what, then you will be loved a lot. I think this is the main reason why I’m liked and read so much in Turkey, but not only me, from my generation and from previous generations there are lots of writers who’ve been adored and who’ve had long queues at book fairs. One of them, for example, is Atilla Ilhan, for years, until he died there was massive queues of people waiting to get their books signed. And from all walks of life and all ages. The most significant factor regarding my readership I think is that in a line of people at a book fair waiting to meet me I’ve seen people from the most anarchist kids to the most covered and headscarfed of our girls, let’s call them that, and they all stand in line together and there’s no arguments among them. Everything is down to the politicians, otherwise we all get on really well together, there’s no problem. We have things in common, we have shared pain, just like everyone else in the world and however anybody wants to live, that’s how they live, whoever wants to cover up, covers up, whilst others go about completely naked, some go to the mosque or to church all day and some don’t pay any attention to that kind of thing and prefer to lie down in nature, on the grass, looking up at the sky. I, of course, am of the latter kind. By which I mean, I like to look up at the sky, to make love, to sing love songs, to write beautiful poems, to drink good drinks and visit great places, I always prefer to do that. But I share the planet with those other people too, what’s more they are my readers, my friends, and I even include in this people I don’t know who live in other countries, they are all my planetary friends, you know, my buddies. In fact, when I first started writing poetry that was the main thought I had in mind – instead of being famous. I thought, if, in a completely different country, in a cafe, at a table right at the back, if someone was reading my poetry then my poetry has served its purpose. That’s enough for me. I reckon that’s enough.
CS: And a couple more questions. Will you say a few words about the new generation, the young poets in Turkey, what do you think of young poets in Turkey?
I think I know them really well, and I don’t mean from the inside, but I mean that for the last twenty years or more I’ve been continually performing poetry with them. And I don’t mean just now and again, I’ve been organising performances from autumn until the summer almost every week in Istanbul and then in a different city every week, and whenever I take to the stage, I always get up there with the young poets of that particular place. This isn’t something that’s planned out in advance, it’s more of an improvisation, a spur of the moment thing, you know, they write their names down and I don’t know them personally, most of them, but I always prefer to share the stage with them because, I feel like I’ve matured, you know how a fruit becomes ripe, well I feel matured, you know, it’s over sort of thing, you know, I can’t add one more brick to my own wall, I will certainly write new books, new poems, but for those younger friends, well, at the beginning of our conversation I mentioned the master-apprenctice relationship but actually I don’t consider myself a master to them and I don’t want them to be my apprentices but I do share the stage with them in a small sense of the term master-apprentice, because that stage does not belong to me. There’s something people say that I really like, and that is that the stage is a mistake of architecture, it was made higher than the rest of the room by mistake, so I mean that to get up there shouldn’t mean that you can just hold forth and rule over people, and that’s why I like to share the stage because even if you’re a little genius, poetry will all fit on that stage, we can all fit on it and that’s why we don’t have a problem and those young poets, sure they write poetry that’s different to mine and that’s the wonderful thing. Every generation lays out their own troubles, their own interpretation and just as we could develop our own opinions freely in the eighties in Turkey, it’s the same now, young poets from the two-thousands up until today, young poets coming up can share their views and we call them Generation Z. You know, the generation that’s come up since Taksim and the Gezi park happenings express themselves in a slightly different way and they’re quite lucky because, well, this is why I say I’ve had problems with language, because I haven’t been able to read foreign poets and foreign books in the original language, but some of the poets from the young generation have managed to get it and because they’ve had the chance to read these foreign poets one-to-one, they develop more quickly. And so, of course their fertilization, by which I mean fertilization by being fed like this when compared with us, means that they write more quickly, more powerfully and perhaps they’ll end up writing finer poems than all of us. But then again, there’s no such thing as fine poetry, there’s just poetry. There’s no such thing as good poetry, what we call “good poetry” is just poetry itself, if it is, it is. There’s no such thing either as bad poetry, because that is not poetry. It should not be weighed on the scales of poetry. Because the young poets of today have manged to capture poetry they then go on to produce good pieces and maybe they don’t get to become really popular, maybe their names won’t be known across continents, but we’re in the year 2015, you know, the poem that a person bequeaths can be something that can really easily become known about, or it can be really difficult, by which I mean it can be really hard to make that poem’s importance be felt but then again there’s no such problem in poetry because we’re not producing pop stars here, because poets are not pop stars. A lot of our friends from the new generation know this and they produce really good pieces, they get their issues out there and the young generation in Turkey is becoming one of the best generations of poets we’ve seen for years in my opinion and it seems to me like it’s rolling and rolling and growing.
CS: In one of my favourite poems of yours, Abi, which is a long narrative poem about a young man’s obsession with an older guy, there’s a line in it that really bothered me, translating, you compared Franz Kafka to a mathematical equation, it was like, “Franz Kafka, my favourite mathematical equation”, why would you do that?
KI: I received an education in medicine, not for long, for about five years. I didn’t become a doctor but the most vital thing that helped me gain that education, the most necessary thing was mathematics, in other words, I’ve always done things with mathematics in mind. Also, when I’m editing my poetry I’ve always got mathematics in mind, in some hidden way. We spoke of sound in poetry, maybe I do give importance to sound, maybe that’s what some of our friends could think. I think that every person is a mathematical equation. On the one side of the equation is the person’s inner self, their soul, their mind, and on the other side of the equation is the world, their experiences and their interpretations of it. For this equation to balance, one side has to balance with the other and to figure out a person we are given the opportunity to consider the conditions they’re surrounded by. So, with Kafka, he’s so far out in terms of breaking that equation, you just can’t make an equation of a person like him. You know, every equation can be solved, all the X’s can be solved by the Y’s and a person, well, this is known best by psychologists and psychiatrists, that person can easily be solved and with a misguided approach can start to be treated. So, in my view, because solving people in that way is like saying that there’s no such thing as mental illness, those difficult equations (people) contain complex mathematical equations. Kafka, in terms of the framework of what I’ve read so far, is a very difficult equation, maybe he’s not even an equation, you know, the one side of the equation is missing, there’s just eternity there, you know, you can’t figure out that side of the equation and that’s why you can’t solve Kafka. I gave the example earlier of James Joyce and the same thing is true of him. In Turkey there are important names such as Oğuz Atay, Bilge Karasu and these people are unsolvable equations. There’s Sevim Burak, who’s very important, another difficult equation that can’t be solved. I’m thinking of those mathematicians we see in films who are going crazy because they’re in front of blackboards for hours writing out formulae. And then along comes a little fella and in two minutes he’s solved it. Well that young fella, he’s the reader actually. The poet will try to solve that equation, but he can’t solve it, the reader is the one who solves it. But how does he or she solve it? We all know how to read well, you know too that as long as you read well that equation should give up a result, shouldn’t it? You know, this this and this number should come out of it, X equals 2 and Y equals 1. Therefore, solving the equation sometimes entails knowing what that equation is, and there’s no actual need for a result. The moment you say ‘this is a difficult equation’, then, the equation is solved.
CS: And of your own poems, and there are many of them, have you got a favourite?
KI: My writing is to me a family, so asking this is like asking which of your children is your favourite. You can’t do that. Some of my poems are long, some are short, some of them are fat. I love all of them because I wrote all of them but if a person loves everything they write then this too would be dangerous as you can guess, but because they come out of my soul then I do really love each and every one of them and I give importance to each of them. And of course, with pleasure, I’ll now share a short poem with you all.
Beyoğlu, Istanbul, 30 July 2015
(c) Caroline Stockford and İskender Över 30 July 2015
the first day you spoke my name
blood came out of my ears that night
quickly I left home
I searched for you for hours
find you and I’ll shoot you
when you died I was going to kiss you on the lips
to keep off the germs
was going to put iodine on my mouth
all the pharmacies would find it funny
God damn me!
I love you, that’s all, what can I do
reunion is just conjecture, a slim chance
longing is a passionate muse, a broken dream
but that crushing, distressing blue voice of yours
keeps saying “you will suffer, you will fade away”
and I protest to god
you must exist, I cry
yes, yes you are there
you even have a gown and
your gown has fur lapels!
And I, as I’m dying will fasten tight to those lapels
give me an answer, I’ll shout, give me an answer
why why why why why why
all the demons will applaud me
the first day I saw you
a gull picked out both my eyes
Translated by Caroline Stockford