Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Alpay Ulku on "Compensation," "Garage Sale," and "The Orange Sonata"

All of these poems are true, all of them really happened. One of them takes place a brisk walk from my condo here in Chicago, one of them takes place across the street. One of them takes place in another time line, that will merge with ours.  Which is which isn't obvious, isn't the one you'd think of first. I write this on my virtual keyboard, using finger swipes and predictive text, on my Kindle Fire. (My fingers fly, and I can type with two cats on my lap, so we all think this is cool.) Printing books is already becoming a thing of the past. You know that kills trees, don't you?  Think of the enormous savings to corporations if no one prints out documents anymore. You see the trend.

That incident a couple of years ago (July 2009) where Orwell's dystopian novels 1984 and  Animal Farm disappeared from people's Kindles, was of course a one time removal of an unauthorized edition, and not a "Proof of Concept," not a trial run of what could be done.

In 1984, the dictionary is constantly being revised so that there are fewer and fewer words, as Orwell believed that it was impossible to think a concept without the word for it. Orwell wasn't much of a poet, though, and he didn't give enough credence to the idea that knowing and vocalizing aren't the same, that people make up words to name the things they know already. But wouldn't it be interesting, in an Orwellian world, if predictive text simply didn't allow you to use certain words, was programmed to change them out from under your fingertips? If the Chinese government didn't like the character sequence "protest meeting planned." If typing the phrase "home-made bomb" triggered a script that sent a file to Homeland Security, or typing "Homeland Security" did, there are people who'd be ok with that. Just sayin'.

In Orwell' s world resistance is futile and is always utterly crushed, yet people resist. The rekindling of sexual passion between one man and one woman was an existential threat not only to the super state of Oceania, but to the entire dystopian world order, even though that possibility had been planned and accounted for. There are different resistances, even in the form of a token the oppressors themselves will let you have, or nostalgia, or a veiled comment about  "good flying weather," or anger, fear, or even, in a super surveillance super state, violence, bombs. We are one part "angel," one part monkey too clever for its own good.

Flattened affect is a form of resistance too. It's about survival, and survival is resistance. Ride the El at night, or even in broad daylight. Look and see. Other resistances: bonds spoken and unspoken between a nephew and his uncle, husband and wife, father and son. Expectations, written and unwritten. And trust. When a poem drops us into the unfamiliar turf of its landscape, how do we get oriented, where do we get our bearings? A poem that doesn't trust will fail, won't earn the reader's trust; the reader who never trusts will get nothing out of reading. Maybe that's why writing, art, has always been a form of resistance, a threat to tyrants, because it's built on trust, earning it and keeping it, and sharing a wild fragile hope for the human being in us and the humanity of which we're a part. What a shame to sell that for a bag of cashews, or whatever momentary gain you may earn by indulging your worst self instead of becoming your best. 


  1. I feel I'm the tooth fairy, as they call that wonderfully unreliable creature who slips a small coin under your childhood pillow in England -- because I haven't really got anything to say but I just can't bear emptiness under pillows.

    Let me put it this way.

    Once I forgot an important tooth of my youngest daughter. Waking up with a start just at daybreak, I jumped out of bed to ensure that Faith would continue to exist and found no change in my pocket. So I had to leave little Unity an enormous, unwieldy and unimaginable £1.00 pound note, a little girl who had never had more than a few pennies in her life.

    She never forgot that, and still spreads faith in the goodness of life wherever she goes. As I suspect you do, Alpay.

    As did George Orwell, my hero too. And I know you're right that he wasn't a poet, yet his heart was so big he still fires poetry even, and just thinking about him makes everyone a bigger and more patient world citizen. And how he loved women!

    "Trust" is your keyword, Alpay, but ironically it's the keyword of dictatorships too, so much so that countries in recovery still resist shaking off the sense of Unconditional Trust it nourishes -- Imelda Marcos is still adored in the Phillippines, Yingluck Shinawatra sits like a goddess enthroned in Thailand even as her family take away step by step the very freedom they promise the poor, not to speak of the money, and Joseph Stalin is getting a bright new Golden Calf in his image in Tilsit, I hear. And of course Kim Jong-un is still The Faithful Postman Who Delivers To Your Very Door!

    Poetry, on the other hand, often has a perverse kick to get us started. It knocks you about a bit, makes it difficult -- false scents, tricks and sleights of hand, insults even, to your reason at least, and sense of propriety. Whereas the language of dictatorship just says the one thing you want to hear over and over.

    A poem delivers a £1.00 pound note for a penny, and even though you know that that's nonsense, indecent even, and will never happen again, you'll never forget it.

    Like that bag of cashew nuts of yours with the cop's fist resting on it. That crushes trust alright, that brings us back to our senses.

    I'd love to hear others talk about what Alpay says about George Orwell, and the role of the political in poetry.


  2. Christopher, I think that's a good point: trust can also be manipulated, twisted up. I like the connection you make between trust and the worship of false idols (Actually, idols are by definition false, aren't they? They misdirect our good intentions, steal them.). Especially in a political context, such as you laid out. The dictators ask for unconditional trust, without the mitigating factors such as reason, one's own knowledge and experience, one's own gut feeling, that small voice inside.They ask you to trust THEM, and not yourself, not your private, quiet self. They push you to become your public face, which is easy to control. And of course, they are often essentially nihilistic, snapping bonds between family, friends, moral codes that precede their rule. I believe there's something inside that intuits the difference the bad from the good, what Winston Smith named "the human spirit." It's interesting that even in battery farms, the animals are miserable, inuit and sense physically that their life isn't normal, that they were made for better than this. The belief in this spirit was crushed from Winston Smith under torture. I suspect that Orwell believed that therefore there was no such thing, but not me. They got Winston Smith, but the human spirit can't be crushed, because it is not a man-made concept, not an idol but the real thing.

  3. Such a lot!

    I think you have to be a little careful about 'idols.' I remember when I first came to Chiang Mai in the mid 90s hearing a much respected American pastor offer up a prayer to open a youth festival: "Dear God, deliver Thailand from the demons of Buddhism." I was so shocked, and nobody else seemed to notice!

    Indeed, many westerners feel images of the Buddha are 'golden calves' too, and feel a bit quesy entering the temples, despite the beauty. Whereas the Buddha never even addressed the question, "Does God exist?" what is more if there is any part of the human being that's immortal. He didn't say there was or there wasn't, because he felt any answer was bound to screw people up even more than they already were. And the huge golden Buddhas you see everywhere are there to remind you of what you can be yourself, not of what you have to worship to be a believer, or safe. And I think that distinction can be applied to political idols as well, like Freedom, Democracy and Justice.

    I wonder if you know anything about the Turkish 'Ozan,' the political bards that were so important in Turkey during the military dictatorship, and I feel sure are still continuing the art. I spent some time on the Lycian coast in the late 70s, Marmaris, Bodrum etc., and was very struck by the folk musicians who improvised long political poems -- in secret, of course, to very small audiences in cafés, for example, because the police were out to get them. Of course every repressive regime triggers off secret arts like that, but the Turkish tradition is ancient, I believe, and I'm sure still exists. Indeed, you may yourself be one, in English!

    And do we have anything like it in America, Alpay? Can bards exist if life isn't dangerous, I mean? And is the danger behind Rap equivalent to political repression, for example? Can you say something about that, political poetry without danger and sacrifice?

    Many thanks, Christopher

    1. Hey Christopher,

      I think my definition of an "idol" is pretty clear in my post, so I'd refer you back to that. To take a real world example, how about Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand? Has he been made an idol? The official media reports that he is "much beloved." But even the slightest criticism of King Bhumibol Adulyadej can and has resulted in a good long stretch in a Thai prison, under the highly ambiguous an open-ended Lese Majeste laws, so I'm not sure why that's necessary as the King is so beloved. Any thoughts?

      I remember reading somewhere that the Thai government is extra touchy about foreigners coming to Thailand and criticizing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Why does this man have final say over the Air Force and the media, if his rule is symbolic? Is it time to end this system, Christopher?

      Dear Christopher, will you be brave? Will you be the crafty, crazy, British bard of your adopted Thailand? Will you recite brave poem-songs about the difference between the golden Buddhas and the State-enforced reverence for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in those secret gatherings in those little cafes out there in the back woods of Thailand? Could you be Thailand's answer to PSY, dear Christopher, you could start the revolution? You could be the one to fuse ozan and rap, both rich and complex, but seemingly very different in their musical idioms, roots.

      Conventional wisdom has it that it takes about twenty years of intensive effort, with a mentor, to learn to play the saz on a professional level (the instrument that accompanies an ozan), so I'm thinking I'll demur as of now, but you never know. Art is long and life is short, as they say.

      Alpay Ulku

  4. Thanks for that, Alpay,

    Your questions about Thailand are spot on, and I spend many hours each day wrestling with them. Unfortunately, and much to my wife’s dismay, I also spend hours writing about them , and though I use a pseudonym she’s sure I’m going to get shot. For this reason she’s very reluctant to help me with my Thai. “Christopher phut phasaa thai anderei, she says, “When Christopher speaks Thai it’s dangerous.”

    I don’t think this is the right place for me to say more about Thai politics unless it casts light on your BPJ poems and your very interesting introduction to them. But I will say this about political writing in general – if it’s effective it’s probably going to have to be indirect, i.e. coded, humorous, and cleverly satirical. In Thai society, like in most East Asian cultures, it’s forbidden to criticize anybody who is in a superior position to you, even in Parliament -- indeed it’s considered not just ill-mannered but immoral, “not Thai!” So the political cartoonist is looked upon with great suspicion here – indeed, the Prime Minister of Thailand has just taken a huge lawsuit out against a very well-known satirist even though everybody, including herself, knows that what he posted was spot on. And who is baying for that cartoonist’s blood? The very poor Isaan farmers who are the ones most at risk from her government’s cynical, unregulated, unsustainable plans for economic development. And those poor supporters constitute 60% of the electorate. In addition, almost none of them could have read the paper in which the cartoon appeared, or indeed read any 'news' at all!

    So that’s going to be my main point, Alpay, and it’s a very Orwellian one. We are mainly up against mind-sets when it comes to constructive change in any society, even our own, and the codes that enshrine those mind-sets are extremely difficult to crack -- like family-values, the right-to-bear arms, or just plain ‘being American.’

    And the problem is often, as it is in Thailand, that the oligarchs own and control all the media. The poor are not only told what to believe and who to vote for over the local audio system that encircles every village, but how much better their life is as a direct result of who they vote for. And the poor are even told to believe that as their crops are washed away by the floods which are a direct result of ill-planned and rapacious development -- and the drought that then follows ditto.


  5. Perhaps I should add that I write mainly for the regional English language press -- which is in any case the only news coverage in Thailand that isn't owned and controlled by the Chinese-Thai oligarchs (not by the King -- when he speaks he speaks directly face-to-face with the people). The Bangkok Post is Rupert Murdoch, of course, so although it's an excellent newspaper it's not 100% free of business interests -- the Chinese-Thai oligarchs have accounts with all the big western lobbyists, and some of the information that you, Alpay, take for granted can be found nicely spun in The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. In fact, the 'revolution' in Thailand today is not about the people at all, but about money, and of course it's money that creates the most visible and persuasive 'information.' Yes, the Thai people are waking up too, big time, but that's not what's intended -- indeed, the oligarchs are working so fast and dangerously to ensure they don't in the end get outed!

    The interesting factor is that the political opposition to the self-interested, rapacious policies of the present government is mainly from the small, free-thinking Thai middle-class that is just developing, and many of them have been educated in international schools or even abroad. For that reason the new thinking gets its most important news in English, not Thai, and I get to write for an Asian audience that is able and willing to hear me.

    It would be interesting to do a study of the language of effective opposition to dictatorship in history, and see how many of the movements in the past were sustained in another, external language, almost like a secret code. Up until recently it was French in Thailand, not English -- many of the leading Thai communists in the 60s and 70s were educated in France, as were all the Kmer Rouge leaders. A number of the current Red Shirt intellectuals are French-speaking academics too, as the basic Thai law is Napoleonic and not English. They were communists in the 70s and now have bought into the capitalist new deal.

    Didn't we used to call them 'yuppies?'

  6. I'm sorry if I side-tracked this thread -- I watched it in silence for over a week before I came in, and then tried to give both the themes and the poems the hand they deserve.

    Here's what I liked best in Alpay Ulku’s introduction:

    "A poem that doesn't trust will fail, won't earn the reader's trust; the reader who never trusts will get nothing out of reading. Maybe that's why writing, art, has always been a form of resistance, a threat to tyrants, because it's built on trust, earning it and keeping it, and sharing a wild fragile hope for the human being in us and the humanity of which we're a part."

    “Earning it and keeping it, and sharing a wild fragile hope” -- I feel a forum like this ought to be heartened by that, as I certainly am.

  7. I've not replied to the questions Alpay Ulku asked me about abuses in Thailand, for obvious reasons.

    On the other hand, I'd like to be more specific about what I'm doing. BPJ Forum readers may also be interested to see how a political discussion here can get straight into the action where it matters.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Christopher. I'm hoping to hear from others out there reading this too ...

  9. Me too, Alpay -- that's what I've always been hoping. There's no reason why you should do anymore than you have, putting yourself and your work out there, which takes courage.

    My fear is that a Forum, even at the BPJ level, has little more to offer than shop-talk -- poet's talking to each other, graduate students trying to sound like to the manor born, and friends wildly patting each other on the back with a wow and a whoa and a wonderful.

    Prove me wrong, somebody.


  10. I don't like the tone of my last one comment, and fear that my own impatience may have put some of you off. Very sorry if that's so -- I'm so old, that's why.

    I'd just like to say that, for me, poetry is far more than just a bunch of unusual words, images, styles, schools, vogues, influences, and methods of teaching it. For me what poetry is about also matters a lot, indeed matters most of all. What it says.

    Like a graffitti on an unruly, sore-thumb wall. Beautiful or not, it's a statement, a cri du coeur, perhaps, sometimes even a last will and testament. And do we just remain silent? In Gaza do we do that? In Bangkok or Ankara?

    This is one of the rare times BPJ has chosen to feature a politically engaged poet, and not only that but one who dares to introduce his poems with a passionately political introduction that flies as high as the poem themselves, perhaps even higher. " When a poem drops us into the unfamiliar turf of its landscape, how do we get oriented, where do we get our bearings? " That's what Alpay Ulku asks us. So how do we? Or is that just not important?


  11. Going back to your May 14th questions, Alpay -- as nobody else seems interested perhaps I will be forgiven for saying a bit about them here at the very end.

    The King of Thailand has expressed his views in a number of informal talks watched by absolutely everybody over the years, including me. He always insists:

    1.) Development must be appropriate to Thailand's unique environment and culture. It must be on Thai terms, and it must above all be sustainable;

    2.) Having enough (phor phiang, a central principle of Buddhist economics) should be the goal of every Thai policy – as opposed to striving for maximum GNP as in the West;

    3.) The Thai courts must be independent and must be respected -- without the rule of law, democracy can never be established in Thailand;

    4.) The King is not infallible. If he does wrong he can and should be criticized like anybody else.

    These four points are directly contrary to what the present government is doing, but only a minority of the people have the experience to understand that. Unfortunately, the King is so old he hasn't the strength to speak anymore, and words have always been his only power. On the other hand, he has made it clear that it's now time for the Thai people to work these things out for themselves. And dangerous as it is, that's what's happening.

    The draconian Lese Majesté law was drafted by dictators in the past, not by the king. The irony is that it's now being used as a political tool to threaten rivals, not of the king, in fact, who has none, but of the business cartels whose sole objective is to maximize profit for themselves and their families. And it has now almost come to the point where the Lese Majesté restrictions are being extended to cover the Prime Minister and her Cabinet!

    The message is stark, and punitive: nobody in power should be criticized, and what checks and balances remain on the government's activities, and this means by the Supreme Court in particular, should be removed because they restrict the government's "freedom" and "democratic rights." Justice is, in other words, unjust!

    George Orwell would have had a field day with that. As would Orhan Pamuk!

  12. "If words are any use at all, they are the words of the poet. For poetry has the ability to point us toward the truth, then stand aside -- while prose stands in the doorway relating all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass."

    -- from the Introduction by Red Pine (Bill Porter) to his translation of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Chin

  13. Like this poem by Jean Valentine that just appeared in The Boston Review on-line [I don't know the copyright etiquette so don't dare just post the poem on my own. Hope this is o.k.]

  14. Dear Alpay,
    The latest edition of the NYRB just arrived in my box in Chiang Mai -- I feel sure you will have seen it in Chicago already. [May 23rd to June 5th, 2013].

    I would just like to say that Timothy Garton Ash's review of the new book by David Streckfuss on the Lese Majesté Law in Thailand can be read side by side with what I said about the subject just above. Indeed, there is no contradiction whatsoever -- unless of course you've never had faith in anything, or never looked up to any real person or institution with unconditional love and respect, even a grandmother or primary school classroom, or maybe an Emmeline Pankhurst or Abraham Lincoln, or if you're someone who just hates authority with a vengeance, a Raskalnikov, let's say, or more likely a very young, very inexperienced, very good but not very wise yet Occupy anarchist.

    Nobody would say the U.S. Constitution was a bad document because it facilitated assault weapon ownership in America, or that all religion was bad because people kill in God's name -- or that God must be bad for the same reason.

    And forgive me for this One Man Show too -- I didn't mean for it to be this way, as you didn't either, Alpay, for sure

    And I say thank you anyway, and I won't let it happen again.