When I met Murat Nemet-Nejat in the 1980s, I knew him as a Persian poet and the author of The Bridge, one of my favorite long poems of all time. It was many years later when I learned of his translations, and began to read some of the poems that would appear in I, Orhan Veli.
I hadn’t read any Turkish poetry before. It was quite different from what we were writing or reading here in New York City. I loved it. Turkish poetry was a strange mix of old and new. I could feel the sparking, the light of the poet shining through. Yet the writing was grounded in more than a thousand years of poetic tradition.
In those years I was working on an ambulance and playing in a rock band. The only language I knew other than English was a bit of health-related Spanish I picked up in East Harlem. When Murat asked me to translate a poem for his upcoming book, EDA, I said, “I don’t speak Turkish!”
“That’s not important,” he replied. “Anyone can translates the words, but I need you to translate the essence.”
It was true, I guess. Putting a poem into google translate would only give you a bunch of words. So I agreed.
I didn’t really know what I was in for. I bought myself a Turkish Dictionary and met with Murat over coffee. He handed me a longish poem from the poet Lale Muldur called, “The Yellowing.” Muldur was a Turkish poet who had a rock and roll sensibility and a background in science. She was born the same year I was.
I went home and tried looking up words in my dictionary. It gave me a possible vague general idea of what was going on, but nothing that even made sense.
I called Murat and he said it didn’t matter, but he gave me a basic sense of the poem. Just write, he said. I’ll know when you’ve got it.
The weeping sweet baby the mint leaves swirling
The kids are wearing their colors baby,
oh it’s only knives they’re happy . . .
I began to get a sense of Miuldur’s voice, and Murat and I kept meeting, Murat is a poet who is willing to put everything into art. He was still working at the time, but we’d meet after he was done and slowly an actual poem emerged.
in a tinkling of knives
a cloud of fireflies
love showed up crackling light cracking light
I rose sadface I got
an armful of oranges
made time stop then made it go
like the sun and her shadow
As we got deeper into the process, I felt like I was channeling something--not my voice and probably not Lale Muldur’s voice, but something brand new, real and true in the twining of Muldur’s and Murat’s voices with my own.
well love slipped out the back way
in the blast of a horn the rain of pollen
headed west into the violets
and sepals hair
matted with the chicky-chick of
y el noche noche noche
something twined around my heart
it was just a lost tornado
folding up its wings
in this cold dark forest
in this land of yellowing
y el noche noche noche
just look at that light
it falls like gold dust through the night
I must have rewritten that last stanza fifteen times, working with Murat over a coffee house table, until finally we hit on it. Though I am credited with translating the poem, I consider it more of a collaboration, and I was honored to collaborate with a poet of Murat’s caliber,
Excerpts of “The Yellowing” from the book EDA, edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat