The prize-winning Kurdish poet Ilhan Sami Çomak has been in prison in Turkey for 28 years, since he was 22 years old. During his confinement, Çomak has written eight award-winning collections of poetry. His first collection in English, Separated from the Sun, edited and with an Introduction by Welsh poet and translator Caroline Stockford, was published in September by Smokestack Books.
During his confinement, Çomak has become a highly-respected poet, with a growing international reputation.
Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann is honoured Ilhan Sami Çomak has accepted to be our first Honorary Member. Please find below Ilhan Sami Çomak’s powerful letter to Irish PEN members.
I think the reason why people make so many mistakes in life is that they have no access to the possibilities of words, to the opportunity to speak and write. In fact, speaking is a youthful behaviour, while silence is ancient. But it is this youthfulness, above all else, that has the capacity to change the world or us as people.
However you look at it, words and writing are the resistance point as we reach into the infinitely distant expanse that we call the future. When those of us who reject the tyranny of the present seek to invoke the new and beautiful, words are the most viable and humane invention we have at our disposable. I’m sure you already know this story, but I feel the need to share it with you again as it has had a great effect on me: According to belief, Saint Patrick prayed with such fervour and sincerity in the yard of the church on Church Island that the imprint of his knees was left in the ground stones. I think this is a very accurate representation of the proven power of words – be it prayers, poetry or novels – to bring about change and the place this has in our lives. That’s why I sincerely believe that words and writing are a critical factor in our tenacious grip on life.
As far as I can see, this is the reason why every poet and writer writes – more than anything, it is to change their life and themselves in line with their beliefs.
I write poetry for the sake of life and to stay alive, for my deep connection with life, because I miss life, because it brings life to my cell, because I love life and people with a passion and because I believe in life and myself. The continuity of this belief is all I have.
Discovering and understanding life through poetry, together with the persistence of my efforts, eventually altered me and my expectations from life. In fact, life has changed with me. Over these 28 years of unrelenting confinement, I missed life so much, I spoke of so many longings that in the end the longings took on a life of their own; with poetry, above all with poetry, I woke up to life.
Poetry took me by the hand; as I negotiated the unending contradiction of living between the heavy, poisonous pain of my experiences and the beauty and lightness of the things I wanted to experience, it gave me the acute insight I needed to keep my balance. It protected me from reality by supporting my dreams in the circumstances of this place, where time and space are defiled by constant repetition and high walls. The fact that I am still alive and well, despite all these years of unjust confinement, is undoubtedly due to my unrelenting efforts to reach the life envisioned by poetry, and through the act of writing about them, to reach all the things I miss. I may not have the fervent power of St Patrick, but I do have avid, tireless desires that know where and what they should gravitate towards. I want to live; that is why I cling to words and writing, the greatest invention of humankind.
Dear friends, despite this immense ordeal, my voice and my words crossed the seas to reach you. You called out to me with your friendship, taking my hand and my poetry. I see that as proof of poetry’s mighty heart, which can overcome any adversity. And I also see this call as a beacon, signalling that somewhere in every time and space there are warm-hearted people who know what is good, who create goodness and recognise the capacity of words and imagination to change the world.
It is an honour to be accepted as a member of Irish PEN. The step you have taken has given me great strength. Now I am closer to the outside, nearer to clean, fresh air. It’s beautiful to feel the warmth of your hand of friendship! I thank you with all my heart.