For award-winning Northern Irish poet Nick Laird, the Üsküdar International Poetry Festival has been a way for he and Istanbul to discover each other. This convergence of poetic energy on the Asian shore produces a mix of nations, views, and styles that suits the eclectic mosaic of Istanbul. Bringing his own experience of Northern Ireland to bear on the responsibilities of art in troubled times, Laird offers insights into the uses of culture in Turkey.
Speaking to The Guide Istanbul, Laird explained how the opening speech of the festival had emphasized the power of poetry to create unity or communal cohesion. While he does not deny this aspect, Laird believes that the more exploratory sides of poetry are badly needed for a healthy society. “Certainly for me, and in Northern Ireland, poetry has also been a disruptive force, a vital way of initiating another space. A way of stepping aside from these received narratives of church and state and school and media, to really make a space for second thoughts,” he says. “I think poetry is something that emanates not from the state but from the individual behind the statistic. Certainly in Northern Ireland, for me reading poetry like Seamus Heaney or Paul Muldoon opened up a space away from the things you see when you read the newspaper, turn on the TV, or listen to politicians.”
From Virgil’s Rome to Yeats’ Dublin
In the particular mix of politics and religion that has segregated Northern Ireland, the uses and abuses of poetry take on a clearer potency. But as Laird explains, the tensions inherent in the art form can be traced back millennia, taking the example of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. “At times the Aeneid reminded me of a book, ‘Lost Lives,’ written by a couple of journalists in Northern Ireland. It’s a potted biography of 3,000 people who were killed in The Troubles. It’s filled with an enormous sense of pathos and sadness. You can describe a war, but when you describe how someone dies from a wound it becomes something else.”
Poetry that aims to harass the reader with a propagandistic message, he says, tends to lack the interaction of layers that draws us in deep. According to Laird, the best poems on this subject express the unresolved nature of conflict and loss. “I’ve been looking at some of the poetry that led up to the Easter Rising and came from it. It’s all universally bad, apart from Yeats’ ‘Easter, 1916.’ The reason that’s good is because it’s very ambiguous about what happened. Any kind of poetry that has designs on us, as Keats would say, we reject. We want the poem to be a discovery, to be as surprising to us as it was to the writer.”
A space where all voices can coexist
Describing himself as alternating between atheism and agnosticism, Laird also appreciates religious texts and architecture for their aesthetic qualities. During his time in Istanbul he took a trip along the Üsküdar shore to see the neighborhood’s many historic mosques. “The Alhambra in Spain is one of my favorite spaces, and I love the geometric designs of mosques. They’re immensely peaceful spaces. In some ways they’re more beautiful than churches, which always seem to be narrativizing space with stained glass windows with scenes of the Bible. The designs in mosques make the space more abstract and open for reflection.” His attraction to Islamic architecture can also be seen as a reaction to the kind of narratives that are imposed in sectarian societies such as Northern Ireland.
Similarly, he sees poetry as a space where all voices can coexist and mingle to whatever degree the poet’s thoughts allow. “All of us know that life is not just the quotidian. There are periods and places of luminescence in our lives, and poetry is about discovering those places and capturing them. Organized religion tells you that there are only certain ways of doing things, but the poetry church is a very broad church.” If Laird’s experience is any measure, then poetry is also a global church – he has lived with his wife, the writer Zadie Smith, in thirteen different countries over thirteen years. Observing that writers are often outsiders who need distance to observe, he says, “For a writer it can be very useful to get out of the radio reception of home. I went to university in England when I was 18, and it was only then that I saw the strange little place that Northern Ireland was and started looking at a lot of the things that I had accepted.”
Along with poet Don Paterson, Laird has selected poems from the 14th century to the modern day for the Penguin collection The Zoo of the New, to be published in September 2016. He is also working on a documentary film called “Trouble,” in which those affected by the violence in Northern Ireland tell their stories and read short poems. Stressing that there will be only victims and no perpetrators of violence in the film, Laird says, “It seems to me that if people were forced to look at the consequences of their actions, a lot of their actions would be different.” When the social space is occupied by warring narratives, the most urgent voices are often lost – those of the little people caught in the crossfire. Lending an ear to these voices is as necessary in Turkey as it is in Northern Ireland and the world.