Leylâ Çolpan is a poet, translator, and undergraduate CREaTE Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, where ze has won awards for best undergraduate poetry and fiction. Hir interests include the poetics of Turkish-American diaspora, delinearization and multiplicity in language, fragmentary texts, and the Anatolian and Central Asian folk traditions. Hir current work examines Black Sea grief poetry, biracialism, bilingualism, and Sufism as queer spirituality, and it appears most recently in Recenter Press Poetry Journal. You can follow hir on Twitter @autogalatea.
I wanted to start by asking you about bilingualism in your work. There’s a line in the poem RE/BIRTH SCENE - ‘I … plug myself with foreign words’ - which made me think about the gaps that an additional language fills, and the tessellation that occurs between two forms of speech. Your work sometimes interweaves Turkish and English, and I was wondering what bilingual writing affords for you? What are the added considerations of writing in more than one language (I guess other than that the reader may need a translation)?
God, looking back, that was such an angry poem. In that case, I was thinking about how the classical—the Latinate and Neo-Greek in English—has been leveraged by biomedicine, psychiatry, and academia against queer bodies, and what that’s meant for our self-articulation. I’ve always had the sense that, regardless of the language I’m using, it’s hard to come out with dignity—to express gay desire on my own terms, to talk about my body and the things I want to do with it. That experience hasn’t been limited to the gender question for me, by the way—I think every bilingual person has moments where one (or both!) of their languages fails them, and they have to modulate into this sort of multi-lingual patchwork to express what they’re feeling.
To be clear, I grew up speaking English! My mother’s Turkish and Romani heritage always colored my home life and my social experience, but the Turkish language was almost completely lost to our family through diaspora and through our assimilation. We had to go back and relearn, do the excavation, and
rebuild a connection to our mother tongue. The manuscript I’m working on currently is, in part, an attempt to reconcile that gap. It’s written in
English-Turkish parallel, but I’m specifically trying to avoid translation and instead develop a poetics that’s bilingual all the way down. What that looks like, for me, is writing each piece in each language simultaneously, allowing the Turkish and English to loop back into each other.
Most often, that feedback is lexical. In one piece, for example, a Turkish idiomatic expression for ‘daybreak’—‘şafak sökmesi’—is brought literally into English as ‘dawn-unstitched’, and then develops into a textile metaphor that gets caught up on the veil, traditional and contemporary medicine, cross-dressing, and a number of other detours. In another poem, the kind of folksy English-language expression, ‘It all comes out in the wash’, dovetails with a family of Turkish verbs derived from açmak, ‘to open’, which see use in lightening, bleaching, opening, and—here’s the meta-linguistic money shot—coming out of the closet. Opening up those kinds of associations isn’t something I could do in either language alone and, while a bilingual reader might be able to see the scaffolding behind these pieces, I think a monolingual reader can still use them to get a glimpse of one language through the other.
To that effect, the more interesting cases are where the grammar and logic of one language starts bubbling through into another. Turkish, for example, loves reduplication and uses it to form adverbs from other parts of speech. In one suite of poems, this shows up as “köz köz bakmak”—to look at someone in the way of burning coals—and “kanat kanat açılmak”—to be opened like wings. It’s taken me a long time to conjure that in the English-language versions of these pieces: does it become “staring coal by coal” in the first case, or something more abstract, like “winged open winged” in the second? I’m also wondering about how the certain granularity of English, and the dissociative clausal ambiguity and motility that it’s allowed me in previous work, can show through in my Turkish-language poetics.
Bilingualism is also just a great place for humor! For instance, the provisional English-language title of this new manuscript, Tulip Inversions, is a play on the Turkish word lâle and my own name, Leylâ, as well as a riff on vaginoplasty.
That poem is from your collection MAD(E)WOMAN, right? How did the collection form, when, why?
MAD(E)WOMAN the manuscript started with a piece memorializing Leelah Alcorn on the second anniversary of her death, specifically, how we processed it as a community and how I processed it as a newly-minted transsexual. MAD(E)WOMAN the project dates to a few years before that, with the poetry of my early biomedical transition in 2015, after the seven-year slow-burn which had constituted my coming out. After that extended slow-burn—all I’d known since I was maybe thirteen—everything about my biomedical transition felt urgent, including the need to archive it and to memorialize everything I had lost and was losing—everything we had lost and were losing as a demographic. Alongside that came the need to talk about the community and family I was starting to find.
That said, I don’t think I’ve ever referred to MAD(E)WOMAN as my Leelah Book—I always refer to it as my Galatea Book. I imagined Galatea, the classical fabricated woman who acquires her own consciousness and her own sincerity, as a kind of shell building up between the world and me, protecting me as I incubated myself (I think, actually, that the first piece published from MAD(E)WOMAN in 2015 was an early version of “Shell Theorem”, from way back when I was still using my father’s last name…). It was a book about Galatea the egg—to use trans vernacular—and about the conditions of her hatching, or her being broken-open.
In my head, there were these three figures talking to each other: Galatea, Leelah, and Aphroditus, and I was somewhere outside them trying furiously to scribble down everything they said. I think that was the tone of MAD(E)WOMAN—urgency, catching something as it flew by, and a certain inevitable
When I think about MAD(E)WOMAN now, somewhere between two and five years later, I think about poetry that’s a bit earlier than me—or at least poetry written by someone much more wounded, much angrier, and certainly much more desperate. I hope I can come back to it someday, maybe to do the book I anticipated in MAD(E)WOMAN’s last pages: the one where Galatea gets a happy ending, gets to settle down.
I guess in connection with the diasporan theme, your poems also have some roots in Turkish folklore - I’m thinking particularly here of your short story VARIATIONS ON RED. It incorporates a version of the Ferhat and Şirin folktale alongside the present-day narrative, and the two run parallel to each other, in conversation. I wanted to ask how folklore, and, more generally, diasporan traditions inform and shape your work?
I’m in the process of reimagining myself—in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way, but also quite sincerely—as a ‘conceptual ozan’, a conceptual folk poet. Going back to the stories and customs I grew up with—whether that’s music, Ferhat and Şirin, or something as simple as the nazar evil eye bead—and reimagining them in the present of the new country is central to that project.
Maybe it’s a little paradoxical for someone like me, living the kind of life I’ve chosen, but in many ways I’m quite traditional and quite attached to those real or imagined roots. The important thing, I think, both politically and personally, is not to limit yourself and your imagination to that backwards motion. The goal should always be to carry something forward, or to use what you find in the past to imagine a better future. I’m thinking here of Nathaniel Mackey’s lifelong projects and the way they dive in and out of West African folklore, Jos Charles’ feeld, Trish Salah’s Wanting in Arabic, and so many others. Especially in “Variations on Red”, I wanted to return to the folk story not simply to retell it, but to challenge its idea of devotion and show where and why it breaks down in my present world. It was also a proving ground for a suite of poems I’m working on, a closet drama loosely based on Nâzım Hikmet’s version the same story, interspersed with scenes of sex work, intergenerational trauma, addiction, coming out, and recovery.
What brought you to writing? What keeps you there?
This is the type of thing I really want to give a pithy answer to, but, if I’m honest, it was my grandmother. We sang folk songs together every night when I was little, and we improvised stories over my bedside. Those are all such uncomplicated, good memories, some of the best from my early childhood. I’m increasingly trying to get back to those moments where art has no project—it’s just something the human animal does together. Every poem is a chance to be honest, to be sincere, to use language to show or create the truth. I’m absolutely not the first poet to say this—Maya Angelou famously said something similar, and I think Angel Nafis was quoted recently to this effect as well—but they’re onto something, and it’s worth repeating.
For me, it’s an almost religious translucence, it’s a place where you can let the light of God move through you—the motion of which, by the way, is trans—and where you can allow yourself to be open. I think poetry, like good prayer, can be the opposite of the closet.
In JANUS you write about temporal glitching, ’queer time’, hybridity, transitions: you’ve mentioned ‘trans aesthetics’ regarding your writing before and so I was wondering how gender and genre interact in your work?
A couple years ago, in a rare moment of lucidity, I think I might have coined the term ‘genre dysphoria’—at least in reference to the way trans art tends to resist classification in its approach to questions of gender. The example I always go to is Susan Stryker’s 1993 piece, “Performing Transgender Rage: My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix”, which vibrates between critical writing, performance art, poetry, diary, historical writing, and manifesto. Today, you’d probably hear it called lyric essay, but I think the phenomenon is often significantly more extreme and more specific than that.
My own approach (so far) has been a little more muted—I mostly stick to poetry, although I think a lot of my poetry hinges on sudden tonal shifts and changes in perspective. My partner Theis Anderson has a similar sensibility, I think, in terms of tone. You can see it especially in their piece “Three Fields to Leave You”, which won the 2018 Adroit Poetry Prize. Another case might be “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen” from Rickey Laurentiis’ Boy with Thorn, which rockets between historical, mythological, lyric, and narrative modes across fifty small sections.
I’m interested in the figure of Janus as the embodiment of both-and—temporally, sexually, spiritually—and as the personification of all those things localized into one place. Also, can I say what a criminally underutilized name Janus is for transmasculine people? Like, patron of transitions, two faces, vaguely androgyne, what more could you want?
Is the confessional bullshit?
It’s just another closet, man. Another way to trivialize gendered traumas, another place for male scholars to penetrate while labeling the objects of their theory indulgent. I’ve got no time for it.
I love your poem CRIME SCENE: MELOS, GREECE, ca. 1820 about Galatea. It begins with a kind of excavation, but not, I guess, in the assumed sense of being brought into the light. [The image of] Galatea’s face is ’hanged in every artist’s home’, and yet she is defaced and effaced through various violations. I wanted to ask about the role excavation plays in your work, and how you navigate the exposure, erasure, and defacement that digging things up again can bring?
There’s a clear line you have to be conscious of in these projects, I think, between excavation and exhumation. When I think about excavation, I think about going back for something as-of-yet-unlived, something that will speak for itself or maybe find its own voice through you in the present. Excavation is, for me, linked to salvage—again, that project of going back to go forward. It’s a kind of paradoxical futurism, whether we’re meaning to grow from our personal histories or allow ourselves to channel our cultural histories.
On the other hand, I think exhumation is digging up a body that someone else put to rest. It’s grave-robbery, it’s American and British universities and museums pilfering indigenous artifacts and remains, it’s the looting of places of worship in the name of archeology or anthropology. Whether it happens in
the content of imperialism or interpersonal relationships, there’s something curatorial in it, something of appropriation, entitlement, dissection, and sticking your hands where they don’t belong—and that’s what the “Crime Scene” piece was written against.
There’s questions of heritage and consent at stake in this delineation, as well as a question of motive. When you go back, what are you trying to do? Are you trying to put your own words in the mouths of the dead, to reshape history in your own image, or are you trying to reconnect yourself to a historical field and allow it to live out through you?
When I went back for Leelah, I wanted to use her own words. When I went back for Galatea, I wanted to hear what she had to say to the made-women of the future. Now, when I go back to the Turkish folk tradition, I want to know what happened to my family and my language to better understand what’s happening now, and to have something to pass on to my own children someday.
Which media (poems, books, songs, plays, etc) have been most influential and meaningful in your progression from when you first started writing to now - as a writer, but also as a person navigating the world?
Music has been so important to me in the past couple years. It’s where poetry comes from as an art form, and certainly where I come from in terms of heritage and getting back to my own folk traditions. More people—and certainly more poets!—should listen deeply to folk music.
Favourite writers atm? Do you feel a part of a ‘writing community’ in any sense of the term?
I was really happy to find out that my favourite book by my favourite poet—Y’ol, by Birhan Keskin—appeared in English for the first time last September! The translation comes from Murat Nemet-Mejat; I haven’t been able to read through it yet, but I’m glad I can finally point my English-speaking friends to Keskin’s extremely important work on grief and healing.
It’s been out for a few years now, but Rickey Laurentiis’ Boy with Thorn left me completely floored this past spring. Their work really captures this trans-historical approach I’ve been interested in lately, this carrying of the past into the future, and their treatment of penetration and what it means to be a ‘poet of the bottom’—with all that might entail—is something I’m going to be carrying with me for a long time.
Spiciest literary hot take?
The thing that ruins ‘Instagram poetry’ as a genre isn’t necessarily its aesthetics—it’s the extent to which it’s built around viral marketing and to which it’s allowed poetry, a site of radicalization for so many of us, to be subsumed by the ethos of digital capitalism. The spicy part is that you could make a similar criticism of the advent of the online-only indie litmag, or about the ways innovation in form and content can be curtailed by publishers’ knowledge of HTML.
What are you working on at the moment?
Like I said, I’ve got a manuscript coming! I was really floored when I was given funding by my university to do this book as an undergrad, and I’m hoping to get a draft, at least, finished by the end of the summer. I’m also trying to publish more—2019 is the year of Gays Getting Read!—and get more involved in community-oriented art. More long term, I’m hoping there’s an MFA in my future, and maybe the occasional long-winded interview…
You can read MAD(E)WOMAN and more of Leyla’s work here.