This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
Carl Boon lives and works in İzmir, Turkey. Recent or forthcoming poems appear in Neat, Jet Fuel Review, Blast Furnace, Kentucky Review, and many other magazines. Two of his poems appeared in issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review.
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3288 Review: How and when did you first start writing poetry? Was there a particular event or person which acted as a catalyst?
Carl Boon: I started writing poems in college to impress a girl who ended up rejecting me, anyway. Around that same time, a fellow named Brett Fitzpatrick from Buffalo showed me “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. I never knew such a thing existed; I didn’t know a poem could look like that, do like that. So I was writing these miserable love poems to LuAnne and at the same time these Howl-ish poems about being 18 in Granville, Ohio, I suppose. A certain poetry professor at Denison, Ann Townsend, put me on the right path by making me take writing seriously.
3288 Review: You currently teach literature at Yeni Yüzyil University in Istanbul. How did that come about? What was the path from Ohio to Turkey?
Carl Boon: Actually, I left Istanbul in February to take a teaching job in İzmir. I lived in Istanbul for seven years, but it’s a city (15-20 million people) that can really chew a person up. It has a tremendously powerful spirit, though.
Getting to the question, though, I came to Turkey in the first place because I married a Turkish woman in the U.S. We met in Athens, Ohio, and then spent several years in Gainesville while she completed her doctorate in music education at the University of Florida. Because of her job situation, we relocated to Istanbul in 2008. With my Ph.D. in English, it’s fairly easy for me to find teaching jobs here. I certainly miss the U.S., but as a writer it’s been a blessing to live in and experience a foreign culture. Turkey has provided me a lot of writing material.
3288 Review: What is the literary community like in Istanbul and İzmir? For instance, is there much interaction between the locals and the expats?
Carl Boon: Literary achievement is not held in high regard in Turkey. One would think that novelist Orhan Pamuk (the country’s only Nobel Prize recipient for literature; he won the award in 2005) would be a revered figure. He is not. Unfortunately, he receives more scrutiny and attention for his political statements and criticisms (which by Western standards would be very tame) than his novels do. I feel he is more widely read and appreciated in Europe and the U.S. than in his own country, and this is a shame.
On a more positive note, in large cities like Istanbul and İzmir there continues to be a thriving (though limited) artistic community. Concerts, cinema festivals, and art exhibits are popular. Istanbul has some of the finest art museums in the world; in my time here I have seen exhibits of the work of Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera, to name just a few. And from time to time Istanbul and İzmir do hold literary events. Later this month [April 2016-ed] I will be participating in the 2nd Annual İzmir Poetry Festival, where ex-pats and locals alike will hold workshops and read their poems. So I do have some reason to be hopeful. Moreover, at least once a semester, a student in one of my classes will ask to share his poems or stories with me. There are young writers here, but they simply lack outlets and support for their creative expression. Turkish culture by and large does not promote individual thought and achievement (there continues to be a sort-of clan mentality here), but in my classes I work to change that, and encourage individual expression.
3288 Review: Has the prevailing attitude toward artistic expression made itself felt in your classroom? Does the administration keep tight controls on what you can and cannot teach?
Carl Boon: My students are majoring in American Culture and Literature, so I’d like to say that the majority of them really like reading and thinking about books—some more than others. A few of them write poems or stories, but I don’t have the opportunity to read much of their stuff in English because they’re self-conscious about their lack of fluency. And I must also add that their political beliefs tend to be left of center, which means they don’t subscribe to the Party’s views on artistic expression.
At some universities in Turkey—mostly private ones—there are controls on what can be taught. These controls might not be written, but they’re certainly understood. I taught at a conservative university in Istanbul for several years, and it was clear to me that texts questioning faith, for instance, were not too welcome. Obscenity, overt sexual themes: not too welcome. I skated through with Ginsberg’s “Howl” one semester, and later I learned that students submitted complaints to the department chair about that choice of text, though in class they didn’t have much to say about it.
Where I teach now, the environment is much more liberal. I’m confident that the administration—and especially the higher-ups in my department—would fully support any text I would wish to teach.
3288 Review: How has your time abroad influenced your own writing? Have you started to pick up a “local accent”?
Carl Boon: This question calls forth the connection between place and the creative process. I often wonder what kind of poems I’d write if I lived in Kansas City or Seattle instead of Turkey. To be sure, place influences me a great deal; my daily experiences provide many ideas for poems: scenes, bits of the landscape, bits of conversation. But then again, I’ve written (moderately) successful poems that take place in places I’ve never been—Sumatra, La Paz, France, Vietnam. Every writer has to be attentive and attuned to place, I think, or risks losing material. I jot down observations during the day and sometimes work them into poems in the evening, and this process involves remembering and contemplation, but then again, I do the same thing with scenes from Ohio or the Midwest from ten or twenty years ago. The essential part of the process is how any material is shaped, be that material right out the window this morning or years ago from a faraway place. It’s always about being true to the poem rather than to the material—which is to say that what I see in İzmir today or remember from Ohio ten years ago or imagine in Lincoln, Nebraska right now must be given the same care in the writing process.
I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “local accent,” but I would say that the rhythms of the Turkish language do influence the way I write, even though I might not be aware of it. When you live abroad for an extended time, the new language chips away a bit at the native one, and usually this makes for delightful conclusions. I hope my poems are enhanced by Turkish language forms that (probably unconsciously) seep inside them. A nice analogy here would be to cooking. The omelet I would make in Ohio is different than the omelet I make here: different ingredients, different spices, differences in egg production, differences in climate. This “seeping” is probably more evident in everyday speaking, in which my English is sprinkled with Turkish words, phrases, and forms of grammar—those little linguistic shortcuts.
3288 Review: How are you weathering the recent (and current!) political upheavals? Does the instability have an immediate impact on you as a foreign national?
Carl Boon: As an American, I grew up in a culture in which voicing one’s mind was not only the norm, but also encouraged. It’s not like that everywhere in the world, obviously. So as a foreign national and a guest of Turkey (especially given recent and current events), my best policy is to keep my head down and go about my work. On Friday, July 15, 2016 (the day of the failed coup attempt), I was on the road between Erdek (a summer resort area on the Marmara Sea) and Istanbul, and was lucky to arrive here in Istanbul about an hour before the events began. Hunkered down in an apartment with my brother-in-law, I was safe, though the night was continually abuzz with the sound of low-flying fighter jets and helicopters. The windows rattled at times. Now that the coup attempt has been suppressed (although there are sporadic clashes here and there), it is even more important that I keep my head down, as the backlash against military officers, journalists, academics, and judges has already begun with great intensity. Especially after the failed coup, there is palpable anti-American sentiment, with many folks under the impression that the U.S. somehow was behind the coup. I was scheduled to fly to the U.S. on Monday the 18th, but my flight was cancelled. I hope to be able to fly out on Wednesday the 20th.
In terms of how this instability will affect me, it’s too early to tell. We are all hoping things will calm down quickly, but it seems unlikely, especially given the ongoing ISIS threat, Turkey’s simmering conflict with the PKK, and fallout from the war in Syria, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees entering Turkey.
3288 Review: What are you working on now? Do you have any work scheduled for publication in the near future?
Carl Boon: I continue writing poems and sending them out. I’ll have work out this summer and fall in Poetry Quarterly, the Sweet Tree Review, and other magazines. While in the U.S., I’ll put the finishing touches on my first book-length collection of poems, tentatively titled Strawberry & Yes. With a little luck, I’ll have a book published in 2017.