Landscape From My Country
Selected Poems of Nazim Hikmet
An Interview with translator and poet Randy BLASING
by Bircan ÜNVER
"Over the years we have learned more and more about
Nazim's life, thanks to the numerous biographies published
on him, and they have helped us understand the circumstances
of many of his poems that had been a mystery to us.
For example, the revelations about his mistreatment in the
former Soviet Union, which came out after the KGB files
were opened in 1994, clarified a number of late poems for
us and rendered them translatable at last."
HIKMET's, "Human Landscape From My Country"
and "Selected Poems of Nazim Hikmet" books
revised and new editions were published in April
2002 in New York by Persea
Books. Randy BLASING and Mutlu KONUK are the
translators of the books.
proposed our questions to Randy Blasing and Mutlu
Konuk via e-mail who live in Rhoden Island.
is Mr. Blasing answers to our questions based on
their translations journey and contributions from
Nazim Hikmet's poems and his books into English
and American culture.
Blasing: I'll try to answer your questions in order,
speaking for Mutlu--who's been in Turkey since mid-May
and who gave me permission to do so--where appropriate.
When did you move to the United States? What was the primary
Mutlu Konuk came to America in 1963 to attend Carleton
College in Minnesota.
Were you familiar with Nazim Hikmet's poems prior coming
to the States?
She had never heard of Nazim in Turkey, even though she
majored in literature at the prestigious American Girls'
School in Izmir.
How and when did you meet Nazim Hikmet's poems first?
In the fall of 1965, when I started graduate school as
a poet in the Creative Writing Program at the University
of Chicago after returning from a three-week honeymoon
with Mutlu in Turkey, I was curious about Turkish poets,
but when I went to the Near Eastern and Oriental Languages
Library, the only book by a Turkish poet I could find
was in French, a 1964 translation of Nazim's selected
poems called ANTHOLOGIE POETIQUE.
What did struck you in his poetry?
As I said, Mutlu had never heard of Nazim, but we both
liked what we read with our college-knowledge of French,
especially his fresh imagery and spirited tone.
For my part, I wanted to translate him to see what he
was saying, my French being only adequate, and Mutlu wanted
to see what he would sound like in English.
What were your first initial reactions?Do you remember
the title of the very first poem you translated?
We began translating Nazim in the fall of 1966 when we
returned from a summer in Turkey with the only Nazim book
we could find, an edition of 9-10 P.M. POEMS edited by
Where and when was Nazim Hikmet's first poem published
in English? What journal or magazine?
Our first publication of Nazim's poems was in THE AMERICAN
POETRY REVIEW, March-April 1974. Ten of our versions were
published there as a "Special APR Supplement,"
complete with photographs.
What attempted you to translate his poems into English?
And how was the distribution channels?
A week after the issue hit the stands, Michael Braziller
of George Braziller, Inc., called us from New York City
and asked us to translate a book-length selection of Nazim's
poems, which he would use to inaugurate his new literary
press, Persea Books, in 1976. The book, THINGS I
DIDN'T KNOW I LOVED, appeared in both cloth and paper
editions and sold out in a year and a half. I don't know
the print run of the book, but I do know it was distributed
nationally and in Canada by George Braziller.
general, what impressions or reactions did you receive
from poetry lovers or poets about Nazim Hikmet poems?
The response to these poems was so enthusiastic that the
30,000 copies of the issue quickly sold out and soon became
a collectible among poetry lovers. The book was met with
rave reviews in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, BOOKLIST, LIBRARY
JOURNAL, and KIRKUS REVIEWS. It featured blurbs
by Denise Levertov, Stephen Berg, W.S. Merwin,
David Ignatow, and Paul Zweig.
was the time frame from first translation to publishing
first edition of the HUMAN LANDSCAPES & SELECTED POEMS
OF NAZIM HIKMET?
1978 we published another selection of Nazim's poetry,
THE EPIC OF SHEIK BEDREDDIN AND OTHER POEMS, also with
Persea Books and also in both cloth and paper. This
book was also greeted with universal praise and sold out
in three years. In 1981 I was awarded a $12,500
Translation Fellowship by the National Endowment for the
Arts to complete a translation, begun in 1977, of Nazim's
17,00-line epic verse-novel, HUMAN
LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY, and in 1983 Persea brought
out our abridged version of it under the abbreviated title
of HUMAN LANDSCAPES and only in paperback. It received
rave notices in PUBLISHERS
WEEKLY, THE HUDSON REVIEW, and the VIRGINIA QUARTERLY
REVIEW, and Raymond Carver gave it a Writer's
Choice Award sponsored by the National Endowment for the
Arts. With Nazim's two selected poems out of print
for five years, Persea issued SELECTED POETRY in 1986,
which reprinted poems--some of them revised--from the
two earlier selections and added new ones. In the
meantime, in 1985, Nazim's RUBAIYAT appeared
in a limited edition from Copper Beech Press in Providence,
RI, with the support of a grant from the National Endowment
for the Arts and was reprinted in 1989 with the support
of grants from the Rhode Island Arts Council and the Rhode Island Foundation. Five years later
this book was also out of print, and in 1994 we put all
three selections together, plus some new translations,
and called the collection POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET,
which went into a second printing in 1998, as HUMAN LANDSCAPES
had done in 1994.
Any changes of your perception of Nazim Hikmet due
to translating his poems? And in what time frame?
the years we have learned more and more about Nazim's
life, thanks to the numerous biographies published on
him, and they have helped us understand the circumstances
of many of his poems that had been a mystery to us.
For example, the revelations about his mistreatment in
the former Soviet Union, which came out after the KGB
files were opened in 1994, clarified a number of late
poems for us and rendered them translatable
at last (see my essay "History and Translation"
in THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, May-June 2001).
the years we have also become more confident in our abilities
as translators, just as I've become with experience a
more versatile poet, so that we've tackled more formal
poems by Nazim--"Rubaiyat," for example—and
kept his formal markers, believing as we did from the
beginning that a translation should be faithful to the
form as well as the content of the orginal.
KONUK & Randy BLASING are translators of Nazim
Hikmet's books "Selected Poems Of Nazim Hikmet"
& "Human Landscape From My Country"
from Turkish into English for 25 years in America.
(Photo by Bircan Unver, Cesme - Izmir, 1998)
other words: Do Nazim Hikmet's poems still convey some
subversive meaning and concept against TODAY's world system
in favor of humanitarian issues?
as Nazim's poems take a stand against, as he says in "To
Vera," "bossing, boasting, and whining," and insofar as he holds out the hope, as he says in "Optimism,"
that someday "people"--not "governments"
or "money"--will "rule," his poetry
retains something of a subversive political charge even
today. But I don't see his poems making any attacks
on any contemporary political systems that are any more
effective than they were when he first issued them as,
essentially, propaganda. In other words, once agitprop,
period do you consider was his best period in terms of
prison period is his best, both because his incarceration
led him to simplify his style--to become more direct because
his immediate audience was common people rather than Istanbul
intellectuals, and to be more serious, i.e., more inward
and less satiric--and because he wrote his masterpiece
in prison, HUMAN LANDCSAPES FROM MY COUNTRY. No poet I
know of today can compare with Nazim, in terms of the
scope, range, and quality of his achievement, but there
are, here and there, poets trying, as Nazim did, to keep
it real--that is, to get down on paper just how it feels
to be alive and to remind people life is a gift, not only
your own but other people's lives as well.
Which other Turkish poets would you consider worth to
be recognized internationally but not introduced well
on the international platform yet?
Mutlu and I have no knowledge of contemporray Turkish
poets whatsoever. For better or worse, we have given
all our time and energy to Nazim.
Some says that Nazim became internationally famous due
imprisonment and his political point of view than than
his poetry! What is your opinion?
Since more people can appreciate politics than poetry,
I'm sure it's true Nazim became world-famous first because
of his imprisonment, but as times change, certain politics
matter less, and what matters in the end is poetry, so
that Nazim's fame today rests on his artistry as a poet,
not on his politics or imprisonment.
What are the most powerful poems of Nazim Hikmet? If you
have to choose 10 of them from all of his 30 books!
After HUMAN LANDSCAPES, Nazim's Top Ten poems are, in
chronological order, "The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin,""Letters
from a Man in Solitary," "9-10 P.M. Poems,"
"Rubaiyat," "Since I Was Thrown Inside,"
"On Living," "Some Advice to Those Who
Will Serve Time in Prison," "Straw-Blond,"
"Autobiography," and "Things I Didn't Know
How do you evaluate and compare his poetry to current World
_ As Mutlu Konuk has written, Nazim revolutionized Turkish
poetry by introducing free verse and colloquial diction
and by combining modern poetic techniques with traditional
and even folk poetry. His international importance
today derives from the way he presents, directly and unflinchingly
but with the highest degree of formal sophistication,
the varieties of human experience, i.e., of
feeling; as the American poet Ezra Pound remarked, "only
my part, I value most his emotional directness and his
fresh, down-to-earth imagery, e.g., "you must live
with great seriousness / like a squirrel"; "one
red apple: / my heart"; "the evening star /
sparkling like a glass of water."
No poet I know of today can compare with Nazim,
in terms of the scope, range, and quality
of his achievement...
What are the most striking aspects of his poetry and his
The most striking "aspect" of his life and work
is the way he followed his heart wherever it led him,
whether in his life or in his work, without regard for
how he appeared to others or the world at large. He didn't
keep up appearances but acted on his feelings in his life
and put his feelings into poetry, no matter how he looked.
How do you evaluate UNESCO's declaration for Nazim Hikmet's
100th Birthday Celebration internationally?
If UNESCO's declaration of the Year of Nazim draws more
readers to his poetry, it's a good thing.
New editions of HUMAN LANDSCAPE and POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET
arrived mid-April. Are there any differences from the
previous editions? What are the basic revisions and expansions
in comparison with the previous editions?
The second edition of POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET (Persea, 2002)
enlarges the first with 21 new poems, for a grand total
of 100, and presents significantly revised versions of
more than 20 others. HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY
(Persea, 2002) is the first complete English translation
of Nazim's epic novel in verse. It revises, from beginning to end, the abridged
edition of 1983, restores all the sections that had to
be cut then for reasons of economy (about a third of the
whole poem), and adds almost ten pages that, until very
recently, were censored and banned from all Turkish editions
of the book.
What initiated the idea of new editions? Did Persea Books
propose to you for the new editions? How did the procedure
of new editions proposal develop?
Early in 2001, Persea Books invited us to expand and revise
POEMS and to translate HUMAN LANDSCAPES in its entirety
for the centennial of Nazim's birth in 2002.
How wide were (or will) the distribution will take place?
As always, the print runs of their books is Persea's business,
but both Nazim books are distributed world-wide by W.W.
Norton. 27) What initiated the idea of new editions? Did
Persea Books proposed to you for the new editions? How
did the procedure of new editions proposal develop?
_ After some research; I was not able to find some of Nazim
poems translated into English written between 1950-60, in
particular related atomic bombing, Hiroshima, "Kiz
Cocugu", "Stransium-90", "Japon Balikcisi",
"Nereden Gelip Nereye Gidiyoruz", etc.!
Did you translate some of these poems reflecting his concerns
about atomic bombing or nuclear danger?
_ Mutlu Konuk
and I have not translated any of Nazim's poems against the
What is your poetry teaching experience in Brown University?
Did you cover some poems from Nazim in your classes?
Mutlu Konuk teaches American poetry at Brown University;
she has never taught Nazim there.
In general; how do you evaluate young generation's interest
in poetry? Are they aware of Turkish poetry?
She finds students more interested in poetry now than
they ever were, and just as uninformed about Turkish poetry
How do you evaluate Remembering Nazim" event in terms
of introducing Nazim Hikmet as first time to such a wide
audience in New York?
Mutlu was delighted and honored to participate in "Remembering
Nazim Hikmet" and was particularly pleased with the
subsequent coverage of the event in an article in THE
NEW YORK TIMES*. There. I can't really speak for
Mutlu beyond this. I hope my answers are of interest.
Here are our bios:
Would you also briefly touch on your participation as
well as your impression about the event, "Poets on
Poets" which was realized on May 23, 2002 in New
I greatly enjoyed participating in the "Poets on
Poets" night of Nazim in New York on May 23.
I met so many fans of Nazim and our translations
that I was grateful I could be there, because once a book
of translations is published, you don't know how readers
will react until you come face to face with them at events
like the Poetry Society and Moon and Stars Project's night
with Nazim. I'm
thankful to both organizations for their sponsorship of
such an evening.
you study Turkish? Would you explain us your experiences
in Turkish language? Such as, where did you study, for
how long, do you speak Turkish? Was learning process difficult?
What did you find the most unique part of the language?
_ I learned Turkish translating Nazim. I religiously studied Turkish grammar
by using his poems as examples, and I learned vocabulary,
and memorized it, by drawing on Nazim's poems.
I had a lot of help from my co-translator, Mutlu
Konuk, and I picked up more Turkish during the summers
when I went to Turkey and worked on translations. But I reached a plateau and could never
in the language, either because it is so difficult or
because I'm just not very good at foreign languages.
In any event, I can carry on in Turkish at a fairly
basic level, with shopkeepers and so on, and can manage
even to begin to translate some of Nazim's simpler poems
before I run into trouble and need help, but I can't make
out too much in Turkish newspapers, which are often cryptic
and colloquial. I know enough, though, to be in total awe of the resources
of Turkish, which, like English, draws on any number of
other languages to contribute to its richness.
And I can hear its sounds, which Nazim so clearly
exploits in his poems and I can only barely begin to approximate
_ . _
biography of the translators:
BLASING was born in Minneapolis and was educated at Carleton
College and the University of Chicago.
He has published eight books of translation--most recently,
POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET, Second Edition (Persea, 2002) and
HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY (Persea, 2002)--and six
collections of his own poetry, including SECOND HOME (Copper
professor of English at the Community College of Rhode
Island, he has received a grant in poetry from the Ingram
Merrill Foundation and a Translation Fellowship from the
National Endowment for the Arts.
KONUK, a native of Istanbul, graduated from the American
Girls' School in Izmir and was educated at Carleton College,
the College of William and Mary, and Brown University.
She has taught American poetry at the University of Massachusetts,
Pomona College, and Brown, where she is a professor of
English. She has published eight books of
translations most recently, POEMS OF NAZIM HIKMET and
HUMAN LANDSCAPES FROM MY COUNTRY and three critical studies,
including AMERICAN POETRY (Yale, 1987) and POLITICS AND
FORM IN POSTMODERN POETRY (Cambridge, 1995).
About the Persea
Books' contribition of Nazim Hikmet's books into English:
Persea has published Nazim Hikmet in translation for over
twenty-five years. The complete Human Landscapes from
- Hikmet's masterwork about turmoil and humanity - and
the revised Poems of Nazim Hikmet - his one hundred best
shorter poems - is the culmination of this long associtation.
Each book contains a striking new foreword by a distinguished
American poet-sholar: Edvard Hirsch for Human Landscapes
from My Country, Carolyn Forche for Poems of Nazim Hikmet.
publication of these books commemorates Hikmet's centennial,
which is being observed in the U.S. and around the world
by a variety of literary and cultural institutions. There
is currently an enormous interest in Nazim and the middle-eastern
Also a brief introduction of Nazim Hikmet and his Human
Landscapes from My Country:
"Hikmet, (1902 -1963), called poetry "the
bloodiest of the arts," and this magnum opus is,
in a crucial sense, a war poem. Hikmet is one of the great
poets of social consciousness. He is a figure comparable
to Federico Garcia or Pablo Neruda. To read Hikmet deeply
is to be stirred up and confronted by unabashed emotion,
connected to something mortally, even nakedly human. It
is empowered by the idea of the poet as a singer of tales
telling the tale of his tribe. Hikmet's epic poem is filled
with social information usually reserved for novels, but
it is animated by lyric feeling, by human wishes.
life is the content of legend. He spent 13 years in prison
charges, and during his 13 years in exile, he won the
World Peace Prize.
These hardships and the trials of WWII provided the raw
material of adventure and suffering that informed and
inspired this great work. There is now an effort in Turkey
to get Hikmet's citizenship re-instated, and in 2001 The
New York Times reported that half a million signatures
have been collected on a petition toward that end.
the perfect oneness of his life and art, Hikmet emerges
as a heroic figure. He
was a revolution in life & literature, flouting Ottoman
and introducing free verse and colloquial language.
As his incredible career dramatizes, poetry is a matter
of life and death.
Books web site
For more info about the books: firstname.lastname@example.org
HIKMET: National Poet,
International Figure, But Not A Turkish Citizen
by Julie MARDIN
To Many More Millennia
* "A Turkish Poet Whose Struggles and Art Touch a
by Stephen KINZER
April 20, 2002, New York Times,