Andrew Wessels’s book traces a day’s walk through Istanbul, placing itself in dialogue with the flâneur figure in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Yet A Turkish Dictionary also regards the profound impact a nation’s leader can have on language, historical record, and artifacts. It can be chilling to read, considering the tack many current world leaders are taking, the echoes of the past into the present. The collection is a thoughtful investigation of these concerns in conjunction with the self, curiosity, documentation, religiosity. So few poets can hold all these subjects in a single volume with such poise. Andrew and I only began to know one another after meeting randomly and agreeing to exchange our first manuscripts, and, even while reading an early draft, I was thrilled by the engines of the book, its lineage — and where it might lead. It reminded me of Barthes: “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? […] it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.” What the body of A Turkish Dictionary reveals is a complex act of guiding that Wessels accomplishes with apparent ease.
DIANA ARTERIAN: Andrew, I’m so thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you about A Turkish Dictionary. I saw an earlier iteration of it years ago, and it matured to an even richer text than the one I had originally encountered.
Last year you were living in Turkey at a time when the pendulum, which once swung hard in the direction of Westernization (via Atatürk), was pushed toward extreme nationalism (via Erdoğan), forcing you out of the country. Though books are often written far ahead of publication (and I know ATD was, too), there is a puncture of the present moment in a footnote regarding a suicide bomber attacking a place you wrote about in the book. Erdoğan’s increasingly despotic acts in conjunction with the publication of ATD made you decide to leave in order preserve your safety, which seemed beyond unlikely years before. When you were writing the book did it feel like you were documenting this transition?
ANDREW WESSELS: The book was written before the current upheaval in Turkey (failed coup attempt, terrorist attacks, government’s hard move toward authoritarianism). That moment of the suicide bomber came after the book was finished but during the final editing and production process, so the present was continuously pushing into the book. Istanbul is, if anything, proof of constant change and the impossibility of true stasis. So the current changes are a continuation of that reality. I’ve noticed how some lines in the book mean new things now: “Oh Atatürk, where did they put your words” initially was written to interact with the Turkish language reforms. But now, with Erdoğan’s rise toward dictatorial powers, the curtailing of secular institutions, and the general move away from Atatürk’s Kemalist policy, that line has taken on a different significance. Everything changes, including the meaning of the words in this book.
This feels ironically apt considering the book is, in fact, a sort of dictionary, shining a light on Atatürk’s decision regarding the Turkish language’s speedy metamorphosis.
The Turkish language reform was two primary things. First, Atatürk transitioned the Turkish language from Arabic script to Latin script. Second, as part of creating a Turkish nationalistic identity, the Ottoman Turkish language was purged of any words that had been borrowed over the course of previous centuries. The idea was to create a “pure” Turkish language written in Latin script. So, virtually overnight, a huge chunk of the language suddenly ceased to exist, at least officially. New words had to be created on the spot to replace words that had ceased to exist.
What I was interested in with the opening section “&language” is seeing what happens when words are used in different ways. What happens when this word is placed next to this word? What happens when this word is removed or erased? I wanted to explore that process in real time, and, as I mentioned before, what I’ve learned is that these words have continued to change meaning as the world changes rapidly.
ATD circles predominantly around a kind of awe and terror in the face of such absolute power, and how that power influences historical legacy and knowledge. There is the power of extreme linguistic modification that Atatürk enacted, or Erdoğan demanding the destruction of a recently erected statue meant to signify peace between Turkey and Armenia. In the face of this, you state, “I must accept the rate at which information degrades as time carries it forward, away from its source.” This can be read as flippant considering the circumstances, no?
I thought a lot about power as I wrote this, and specifically about the power to tell the stories of the past. Standing in Sultanahmet Square, one can see the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the remnants of the Hippodrome. It’s a space that has been fought over for thousands of years. To stand there is to stand where countless wars and deaths have occurred and, as the recent suicide bombing shows, continue to occur. I began to be interested in what names remained and what names were erased. Constantine and Justinian and Enrico Dandolo and Fatih and Atatürk and Erdoğan: These are the leaders whose names remain inscribed over and over and over again, and thus the names that are the hardest to erase. But to stand there is to recognize that there were countless people who were beneath these leaders, sent to their deaths. If we look for them, we won’t see their names, but the tracings of their ghosts might still remain.
In ATD you see how those who had power made quick work of altering that space in order to hew a particular narrative that served the vision of what they wanted for Turkey. Thus in your book you document the physical palimpsest of a city that Istanbul is, once being Byzantium and then Constantinople, while also a prodding at what is visible, dormant, or invisible. The images are so evocative, as with the Christian mosaics covered in plaster by the Ottomans, which archeologists are now carefully uncovering. I found your investigation destabilizes trust in the visible and the powerful in the face of curated cultural or historical spaces.
Again, there is really no stasis. The Hagia Sophia (which is actually the third Hagia Sophia built on that site) was a great cathedral. Then, upon first conquering the city, Fatih rode in on his horse and consecrated the space as a mosque, eventually adding minarets to the building, covering the interior designs in plaster, and adjusting the prayer space to face Mecca. After the formation of the Turkish Republic, it became a museum space designed to show this split history. Most recently, Erdoğan’s government has allowed for the call to prayer to emanate from the minarets for the first time (other than very special occasions) in nearly a century. Buildings and cities are nexus points or sites for change, and thus are places for power to exert themselves and to display their exertion.
In the United States, we see that on a grand and totalizing scale with the nearly total destruction of Native American histories and archaeologies at least outside of museum exhibits. A function of power is to control what we see. By not seeing these Native American histories, we are freed from realizing our history of genocide and destruction. We can be absolved of (or at least forget that we need to impose upon ourselves) guilt. We can rationalize our actions.
While I hadn’t considered this topic as one so clearly connected to your book until now, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the violence in our own country in response to the removal of statues and markers of our past violence and bloody history, particularly in the South. The poet Robin Coste Lewis recently stated that the Confederate statues need to be put in a museum so we don’t forget. I was so grateful for that insight as the removal of the statues terrified me nearly as much as the white supremacists’ responses to their removal. Pulling these statues down blots out not only the physical markers of the Civil War and slavery here in the United States, but, more important, the desire to commemorate those brutal practices — and the vocal portion of the white American population’s enduring interest in saluting what they represent.
I think this is a great and important connection to make. In The Patria, one of the oldest histories of Constantinople written in approximately the ninth century, there is a famous section on statues that outlines a walking tour of the city. It was designed to guide a tourist through the Greek and Roman sculptures that had been brought to Constantinople by the various rulers, statues that were quite strange and unknowable to the now-Christian populace. Within a few centuries of the initial writing of this text, virtually all of these monuments had been lost or destroyed, and as the city has continued to change, it is impossible to accurately describe on a map what the walking tour itself was.
Keeping problematic monuments up is obviously wrong to hold up violent, oftentimes evil values or histories. Destroying them creates an erasure that can paper over the past and absolve without restitution. But institutionalizing them creates its own problems. A museum can contextualize, but a museum can also contextualize in equally problematic ways depending on who is doing the curating. By taking monuments in and presenting them as critique, these institutions also coalesce greater power themselves. There is also the ethics of acquirement as moving cultural capital from one location to another, such as the Pergamon Altar in Berlin or the Elgin Marbles in London. It is hard to find a good, firm answer because we’re talking about the most inhumane things that humans can possibly do to each other.
The thing I find most strange is the belief that a monument is static in some way. That a statue that we know was erected 85 years ago didn’t exist before then. That we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that it will remain. That the monument is anything more than an expression of power and belief at a single point in time, and thus a site for us to reevaluate power and belief now. These representations, whether in Istanbul or in the United States, are sites of power struggles and determinations of who gets to say how we see and represent ourselves right now.
Absolutely — and I believe we discussed Thessaloniki, Greece, (Atatürk’s birthplace) months ago when I traveled there and saw physical palimpsests and traces of struggle between Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. There was an ancient cathedral in particular with the last standing minaret from the Ottoman period in its courtyard. Above the cathedral’s entryway is Arabic script from when it functioned as a mosque, as well as a more modern painting of Saint George just above that text. In the spirit of ATD, I’ll include the photo I snapped of that doorway.
Having these physical remnants feels so urgent to learning what took place throughout the world (if the remnants survive conflict, governments, and/or erosion). As a traveling outsider, it is an entry point to a more comprehensive understanding of a place. How did you decide to engage with the city of Istanbul this way through your writing? Though you have substantive connections to Turkey, did it ever give you pause to write about the country and its capital, especially concerning the long and checkered history of an Anglo male body moving through an “exotic” space and attempting to document it?
This has been a deep concern of mine and a line of interrogation as I wrote the book, and as I traveled in and lived in Istanbul and Turkey over the years. The short and personal answer is that this book is, in large part, about my faith and conversion. I’m a straight, white man, and I am also a Muslim man, and at least for me writing this book was part of my coming into my faith. Istanbul is where and how that happened. Additionally, writing this book was about me building a dual-cultural life with my partner Zeliha, who is Turkish. It is a space that is not my home but that has become my home.
The history of Istanbul at least in the Western imaginary is primarily seen through the lens of Western travelers. For a variety of reasons, very few Ottoman-era writers are translated, and while there have been more modern Turkish writers translated, they still are largely ignored outside of a certain subset of readers. So I sought to engage these histories and these elisions and the ongoing transformation of the city alongside my own personal transformations. I wrote a little bit more about this larger question for LARB in response to Suzy Hansen’s recent book on Turkey and American imperialism.
One concept you’ve brought up a couple of times that I haven’t engaged with yet directly is the idea of the palimpsest. The city is always recognizable as itself and yet is always changing. As I converted, my body felt similarly. Some physical aspect (discounting the fact that our cells themselves are constantly regenerating us anew) stayed the same, while something else — my perspective, my belief system — was revealed to me as similarly fluid and negotiable. I was simultaneously the same and different. And as I explored this in my walk and in compiling the final book, this palimpsest arose again and again, in the word, in the image, in history, in faith itself.
Part II. Andrew Wessels Interviews Diana Arterian
The most direct thing I can say about Diana Arterian’s writing is that the more time I spend with her work, the more engaged, challenged, and enlightened I am by it. Playing Monster :: Seiche is a blistering and important work of poetry, a book whose impact far exceeds the boundaries of a typical debut collection. As I write this introduction and return again to this book, I find myself unable to stop myself from reading it again in full. So often, we talk of how much we like and enjoy a book. Arterian’s work demands that weightier conversation as each page investigates the fallout of our personal histories and traumas, the possibilities and boundaries of confession, and the ways that we can create, heal, and recreate ourselves through writing and reading.
ANDREW WESSELS: I read Playing Monster :: Seiche first in manuscript form, and when you see a book designed and published, something happens to it. I think this overall design changes the book in really wonderful ways.
DIANA ARTERIAN: Indeed the work, once designed and printed, is a totally different animal. I have to give credit where it is due, and you’ve given me the opportunity: Joseph Kaplan designed the book, making it totally gorgeous and modern while simultaneously giving it the necessary markers to relay a complicated form. It moves between two (or, really, three) different threads, and I had a lot of anxiety leading up to Joseph’s work on how exactly this would manifest itself.
It really is gorgeous, and the design helps a reader navigate the various threads and complexities naturally. I want to start our conversation talking about the subtitle of your collection: Seiche. Would you explain what a “seiche” is and how that concept relates to your collection?
Your question points to the complicated nature of the form of this book, actually — “Seiche” is a second title, rather than a subtitle (initially these were two books with those two titles). “Seiche” is a standing wave that moves across a body of water without ever breaking. This doesn’t necessarily happen on its surface, but also can occur in its depths. Oftentimes a seiche is precipitated by a traumatic event, such as an earthquake.
As I read, I couldn’t help but apply the concept of the seiche to everything, from the overarching narrative threads weaving through the book to the interplay between words. I’d like to investigate some of these a bit deeper, if you don’t mind. First, can you talk about how the seiche relates to some of the main narratives: the binary of the father and mother, the relationship between the speaker and her family/history, the saga of the mother?
I gravitated toward the seiche image predominantly because it so perfectly encapsulates a feeling of dread. Or an image of simultaneous stasis and movement. In the “Playing Monster” pieces, you’re seeing the impact of an abusive sociopath on a family from the perspective of his child (myself). This damage is rarely enacted through instances of rupture, but rather through the cultivation of extreme psychological terror between those moments.
In the narrative ascribed to the “Seiche” thread, my mother is years beyond extracting her children and herself from that life, yet finding herself terrorized by several people, predominantly a stalker. I also included the abuse sustained by the woman who helped care for us as children — the prevalence of danger to us, her, and so many other (often) women and children, felt important.
This book is acting simultaneously as a witnessing of these events and as a confessional. Your collection intersects with various approaches to the confessional that make me think of how Alice Notley incorporates the real, the remembered, the abstracted, the surrealed, the felt, the sensed, the predicted, and the propheted, all within the confessional. Can you talk more about how you’ve approached the confessional?
When I started writing “Playing Monster,” which came before the “Seiche” poems, I wasn’t really thinking all that much about what I was doing. It was during the final year of my MFA and I needed to write a collection for my thesis — I wasn’t thinking about how these poems were possible in large part to many poets who laid the groundwork for exposure of the personal on the page and the feeling that nothing is sacred. This was a thoroughly naïve act in many ways, not simply for its lack of regard for literary history. I became aware of this naïveté through the emotional responses to the completed thesis from those close to me, which gave me serious pause. I had many friends write me and provide a list of page numbers that caused them to break down into tears. In addition, my mother, with my permission, began sending the manuscript to friends. These friends would often write back with similar reactions (which she then forwarded back to me). I didn’t much know what to make of this strange circuit of sadness, and it provoked a deep anxiety regarding the production of such material in the world that often seems defined by suffering. It felt, for the most part, like a spreading of pain or an attempt at emptying my own pain into the reader, which was not my intention. After some years of hand-wringing I decided it felt important to publish predominantly because the stability of the home is often a false facade — the home of the educated, white, middle-class family, in particular.
I’m really interested in how you see the manuscript. It seems like you still see the dividing lines between “Playing Monster” and “Seiche.” As a reader, the collection feels like such a complete whole. I couldn’t begin to parse out what would be in one versus in the other. I want to look at the untitled poem on pages 64–65, which presents an “I” speaking that isn’t you, and then there’s the story of a woman and her mental illness, life, and death in two different versions. How do these doublings, these binaries, these two separate manuscripts, both break apart and fuse?
Well, you’ve caught me in my being slow to accept these books as one. My continued discussion of them as two has mostly to do with the fact that they were two books for longer than they have been a single volume, so I’m excited for its lifetime as a unified entity as it always should have been! They are indeed one story, as so much of life is — particularly the lives of those who survive abuse, which, more often than not, include the resurfacing of that reality again and again despite one’s best efforts (a kind of terrible subconscious self-sabotage frequently experienced by survivors). In addition, so much of adult life can feel like a recognition of echoes of your past.
What I hope is formally compelling in Playing Monster :: Seiche is that it illustrates moments of clear intersection between past and present while simultaneously honoring the depth and difference of each reality. Including my mother’s voice in a poem (and other voices in other pieces) felt important for this reason. I’m not the only player in this series of events. So maybe the book feels less like a binary than a diptych, to me.
Forgive me, but I’m in the middle of watching the new season of Twin Peaks, so I’m thinking a lot about Americana and how America is both filled with highly unique locations due to its geography as well as this uniform Americanness that blankets the country. How did you see location and place while writing this, and how did you let it embody and inform your poetry?
In terms of location, the events in the book take place in central Arizona (“Playing Monster”) and upstate New York (“Seiche”). These two regions felt and feel to be, in many ways, polar opposites from one another. Playing Monster :: Seiche has a “uniform Americanness” not so much due to the physical landscapes within the book but rather because abuse has happened and is happening everywhere in this country. The events in the “Playing Monster” poems took place at a time when that fact was receiving more and more attention — divorce proceedings began to include information regarding abusive spouses and parents in the 1990s. Prior to that point it was considered a private affair of the family or — particularly in the height of heteronormative 20th-century America — a father’s appropriate means of running his household. This is not to say that abuse is an American phenomenon (in the least), but rather the “Playing Monster” poems are an attempt to give insight into the abusive American household that is domestic, middle class, very educated, and white when it is otherwise often an experience ascribed to the foreign, poor or working class, less educated, and/or families of color.
Beyond this, to include the “Seiche” thread in this response, the overarching aim of the book is an attempt to document the ubiquitousness yet simultaneous invisibility of the patriarchal oppressions in the United States, and the many forms in which those oppressions manifest themselves.
One thing I’ve noticed as my book comes out is that there is a divergence or at least a distance between my own purpose for writing the book and a reader’s purpose for reading the book. I think the personal nature of poetry especially highlights this difference. How do you see this distance between your purpose and a reader’s purpose, and how do you think that might add to the ultimate impact of your collection?
Considering a “reader’s purpose” is a tough charge — especially a reader of poetry. It is often a moving target (to be moved? to learn something? to complete a reading assignment?). I suppose my hope is that my readers do learn something — and that something is beyond merely the fact that patriarchy is a drag (to put it lightly). I’m not entirely sure what I hope that takeaway is, or that it is easy to label. Overall, my deepest hope is that my work does not simply upset people.
My mother read a galley of the book and her takeaway was that everyone can and often does function as a monster to one person or another. That slippery shifting of victim to perpetrator and vice versa is one most of us have witnessed or experienced. While that was not my impulse, I think she’s right.
In addition to this book, you’ve previously published two chapbooks, and have a second manuscript in a final draft state. How do you see Playing Monster :: Seiche interacting with these other works, and how does it undergird, add to, and expand upon the work you do and want to do as a writer?
M. NourbeSe Philip writes, “As with most writers, an issue chooses you.” The issue that chooses me again and again is the role of the witness in oppressive environments. Often I find myself pulled in a direction only to recognize later that what provoked me to write Playing Monster :: Seiche also drew me to translate the late Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman, write poems on an ancient Roman Empress, and pen hybrid nonfiction about my romantic relationship with a Pakistani-American man while we watch Islamophobia reach the point of fever pitch. So who the witness is and what they are witnessing may change, but it is always present in my work.
Often witnessing can feel like the final means of exacting agency when a person, group, or system has thoroughly stripped it from you. You become a recorder, anxiously waiting for the opportunity to recall what you have endured before someone who can enact justice (at best) or recognition (at least). I felt like so much of my childhood was defined by what I was seeing and watching for (which are ultimately different endeavors). This is why I include a poem early on in the book in which my father told me to look at a deer and “remember for the rest of [my] life.” I followed his instructions, but with a more damning and personal focus than he intended, and an extended interest in “remembering” other horrors, both personal and public.
Diana Arterian is the author of the poetry collection Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press) and Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse), and co-editor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet).
Andrew Wessels is a poet and translator who currently lives in Los Angeles. He has lived in Istanbul, Turkey, where he taught writing at Koç University. His first book of poems, A Turkish Dictionary, was published by 1913 Press in 2017, and Semi Circle, a chapbook of translations of Nurduran Duman’s poems, is available from Goodmorning Menagerie.