/ 11 October 2018

A Poetry Ambassador

Interview with Safiye Can

Safiye Can was born to Circassian parents in Offenbach/Main in Germany. She is a poet, a writer, an editor and a translator, as well. Various books and awards, most recently she published the poetry book Kinder der verlorenen Gesellschaft with well-known German publisher Wallstein.

You are translating from the German language into Turkish and vice-versa. For example, you translated Else Lasker-Schüler. Your parents were speaking Turkish and you learned German only after entering school. You did not study translation, but you grew up with two languages. How difficult is it for you to translate?

I like to translate poetry, but one needs strong nerves and a lot of patience and time. I nearly feel obliged to translate poems. The level of difficulty of translating depends on the respective poem. If it uses proverbs, phrases or irony, it is more difficult to translate. As a rule, it may be said that good poems are easier to translate.

You were born to Circassian parents in Offenbach. Have you ever been to the home of your parents? 

You obviously mean Circassia? No, I have never been to the Caucasus, I have only seen quite touching videos and pictures. My parents, who were born in Turkey long after the expulsion of the Circassians and who emigrated to Germany quite early in their lives, having never been in their ‘original’ home. But unlike me, they are able to speak Circassian. My mother’s homes are Turkey and Germany, for my father, Turkey remains his only home.

What does your name ‘Safiye’ mean?

After my reading last year at Literaturhaus Mattersburg in Austria, I moved on to Vienna, and there the lady at the hotel’s reception desk gladly told me that my name means ‘the chosen’. I did not investigate any further. One should not question such nice things. Up to this moment I only thought that it is a female first name of Arabic origin, which is used in Turkey and I knew that the first three letters mean ‘pure and unspoiled’.  

Your poems deal a lot with ‘home’ and ‘affiliation’. In your poem ‘Möglicherweise ganz und gar’ (‘maybe outright’) you offer various solutions to what ‘home’ could be – among them ‘a line by Kurt Cobain’ or ‘radical 8’. Where or what is your favourite home?

Home is such a difficult word, impossible to cope with in prose. Maybe only poetry is able to succeed. In order to make it a bit precise: I feel at home in poetry. The poem is my home. Last December the local newspaper Northern Arizona Sun called me ‘a poetry ambassador’. In the ten days during which I was in Arizona, I felt at ease with reading these lines in a place completely new to me. You are at home in a place where you may arrive and where you feel understood. It’s a place where you don’t get the feeling that you are a stranger, an alien. After the reading at Northern Arizona University, students came and hugged me. An embrace may be a home, as well.

You have a migration background and you also write about it in your poetry – did you ever have any severe disadvantages or problems because of your background?

Of course! How shall I be spared something with which others are confronted daily and – sorry to say – increasingly? You are a teenager and you call up the newspaper because of an advertisement for a flat for your parents and yourself and they tell you: ‘We don’t rent to foreigners’! In school, you suffer disadvantages because you have racist teachers and you have to achieve double what others do. On the way to the Frankfurt Book Fair, you meet a Neo-Nazi at Frankfurt Train Station, who rams your shoulder.

These examples which immediately come to my mind are rather harmless compared to things, which relatives and other people have suffered, but you are also touched and harmed by the experiences of others. When a fire is set at a house in Solingen, because Turks are living there, this is an assault on all foreigners and, strictly speaking, to all people. You may do, be or achieve what you want, but you always get the feeling: You are a foreigner.

How political does a poet have to be nowadays? In writing, as well as in public appearances?

If injustice occurs, you have to raise your voice in public. For this there are many ways, not only in literature. Not one of us has the right to remain silent.

Of course, I wish that poets were political in their texts and would take a firm stand. We all, the whole world, needs these voices. But no author needs to write about something specific. If a poet does not want to be confronted with politics and if there is no inner longing for it, well, that’s it. No one likes to read artificial poems.

And you can only write in a good way about what you have really experienced. If you haven’t lived through racism and if you show no empathy, it is also fine to write a poem about a candlestick. But it still has to be good.

Performance is an important aspect of your poetry. What happens when Safiye Can gets on stage?

This is a very nice question. Indeed, something magical is going on inside. Poetry is focussed inside me into a special power which then communicates from stage with every single person in the audience. The room before the reading and the room after the reading are not the same any more. I don’t decide how to read a poem, the poem itself decides, how it likes to be read and that’s how it happens. 

You also write short stories. Did it ever come to your mind to write a novel?

Yes, I have it somewhere in the backyard of my mind, for the sake of poetry. You know that the majority of people stay away from poetry and really have something like poetry-phobia. In order to reach them, one maybe has to write a novel. Apart from that, there is hardly any poet who has never thought about writing a novel – by virtue of the simple reason that there are always worried people giving them advice to write a novel. Because one should not starve…

You once wrote a poem about a flying hedgehog. Do you have a special relationship to hedgehogs?

No, I never have touched one in my life. The hedgehog of the mentioned poem suddenly was in the room – in my home office, to be precise – and moved as I described it. He looked a bit like an inflated blowfish. But blowfishes can’t fly, as we all know (laughs).

Read more about the poet:


All poems translated into English by Dr. Marilya Veteto Reese

Quite possibly well and truly

Maybe home is a Kurt Cobain line

an Attila Ilhan verse

a thousand-year-old yearning, the hair gone grey

the scent of rain atop the pasture

a view from the window, blackwhite

foliage on a rutted path one autumn day

or Uncle Cemil with his woolen cap, when he laughs.

Maybe home is the shooting star

over Llorett de Mar

that one millisecond or the Republic of Adygeja

is the municipal library of Offenbach

that houses Ernst Buchholz inside

or the key to the door of a house, handed

to someone in exile

Maybe home is something dead-serious

with a moustache

or a barefoot-run bit of bridge over water

the fragility of the poppy blossom

of our childhood

a callithrix jacchus, a marmoset

or a Hello-Kitty-balloon

hiding away in cotton candy

Maybe home is a nomad in Tuareg garb

racing here and there

or a Mickey Mouse shirt and laced-up shoes

at the Baltic

and hair twisted into a braid

is a shattered glass you step on

that unexpected pang in the vicinity of your chest

Maybe home is falling into your own bed

after nights of partying, jeans and sneakers still on

and stopping short and stopping short.

Is a couple dancing to the beat of a tango forgetting themselves

the sight of two white-brown horses

sometimes Terminal B of the Frankfurt Airport

or just simply Fouzia’s voice.

Maybe home is the root of eight

or a coiled trunk-like thing topped with cinnamon

is a chameleon adapting itself.

Maybe though it’s Mrs. Grün

on the ground floor, who rants about everything




we’ll encounter each other

and behold

like two children

standing opposite one another

facing wonder.

I wonder

I wonder

how come today everyone’s smiling

they’re smiling downtown

they’re smiling at the station

they’re smiling eating ice cream

they’re smiling on the escalator

they’re smiling on the train

they’re smiling at the bus stop

but then I notice

that it’s not them who’re smiling

it’s me who’s smiling

they’re just responding.

Never made anything of herself

But do not tell

my uncle please

that I became a poet

he’ll just start crying again.