In Need of Plain Bread

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Interview

 

Shuddhashar:  What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?

Gunel Movlud: I would define myself as a civic poet. From a very young age, when I started writing simple poems, poems about love, feelings, heartache, etc., I always felt as if something was missing there. As a university student, I became interested in politics, in the situation in the country, and learned of the many injustices there, and I realized that art, including literature and, of course, poetry as part of it, cannot avoid all these social factors. If only for the simple reason that there can be no “creative soul”, this kind of gentle, hypersensitive, delicate poetic soul that would ache because of some “ethereal”, “existential” problems and yet be oblivious to what goes on in the country and in the world. You cannot be a good poet without being a good citizen. What I am trying to get across in my poetry is pain and protest. Not just personal pain, but social pain as well. The pain a modern person with a soul feels at the sight of the local and global chaos, poverty and injustice. The pain one feels at the sight of old people left without support, children begging on the streets, women beaten and oppressed in a patriarchal society like this one. The protest against all this. The protest calling on all the oppressed to stop tolerating it.

 

Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?

Gunel Movlud: I grew up in a very poor family. We were so poor that I was 19 when I first had ice cream. I got my first salary from the newspaper that time, and the first thing I bought was ice cream. I didn’t like it, by the way, and I still don’t like ice cream. I don’t like “elite” food in general, because I’m not used to it. When someone orders a banana split in my presence, I find it ridiculous—this is how much I’m used to minimalism. Even as a child, the only thing that interested me, apart from books, literature, was finding a way out of poverty. This is why I started working in the cotton fields at the age of 12. And when I got into university at 18, I immediately went to look for a job in the local press offices, and then commissions to write about literature or art began coming in. When I was finally making good money and I thought that everything in my life was finally great, a beggar girl approached me and asked me to get something for her from the nearby bakery. We walked into the shop together and I was going to buy some sweets for her. I told her shecould pick anything she wanted. But she asked only for a loaf of bread. This incident traumatized me as a person and as a poet. I was so shocked that I knew right there that my life would never be a happy one, that I could never feel content as long as there are children in need of a plain loaf of bread in my country and in the world in general.

Our world today is full of problems. Hunger, wars, environmental issues, communication issues. The capitalist world measures everything with money, advertising pushes only goods and products, the entire world revolves around money, sex and power. With each passing year, with each passing decade, we as the humanity lose our simplest but most important qualities. If there are poets in this world who don’t see that and can write about the sky, flowers and butterflies instead, I suggest they step out of their ultramodern caves and take a look at the real, ruthless, chaotic world.

 

Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?

Gunel Movlud: I grew up with the Russian classics. As a result of certain geopolitical processes and events, my homeland, Azerbaijan, was also a Russian-speaking country and we were able to read Russian classical literature in the original. Even as a schoolgirl, I had a chance to get to know the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Bunin, Chekhov and others. I call Russian classical literature a “third eye”. Once you have gotten to know it, once you have appreciated it, you look at the world through different eyes—the eyes of great understanding, sympathy and compassion. Just like you empathize with the oppressed, with those suffering, you try to understand and forgive a criminal, a rapist, because you look at them through Dostoevsky’s eyes. Of course, I was also greatly influenced by the European humanists of the eighteenth century, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, by the nineteenth century French literature— Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant, Stendhal… And as Azerbaijani is one of the branches of the Turkish language, I could also read original Turkish literature, in particular leftist writers and poets: Nâzım Hikmet, Atilla İlhan, Sabahattin Ali, Suat Derviş, Orhan Kemal. I think of their works as the good, right literature, because not only do they dig deep into the souls, the inner world of the characters, but they also find a connection to the outside world, explaining the characters’ problems by social factors.

 

Shuddhashar:  In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?

Gunel Movlud: When I was 11, I and almost a million of my compatriots became refugees. The First Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia (1989) began, and we lost our villages, our houses, everything we had. For 14 years, those refugees lived in tent camps without even the most basic amenities. My family and I spent five years in those tents. Half-starved, half-dressed, living like beggars, people were losing their morality, their human face, degenerating—prostitution, alcoholism and crime were thriving in those refugee camps. At 11, I witnessed a rape, a murder, a robbery… But the most horrible thing was that I lived in the conditions where cruelty and brutality were the norm. Even back then, I knew I would write about it someday. Those cruel snapshots of life gave me a lot of material for my creative work. And, of course, they didn’t let me harbor any illusions about people, life, and relationships.

 

Shuddhashar:  How do you use structure, language and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?

Gunel Movlud: The classical Azerbaijani verse has clear forms, rhymes, breakdowns, etc. Even modern poets prefer sticking to form and rhyme. But I and many of my poet friends from the 2000s generation have moved from form and rhyme. When a poem has a precise form and rhyme, it is difficult to preserve all this in translation.  The translator has to look for similar “systems” in the other language to preserve the structure, and the most important element—the thought, the idea—ends up distorted. That is why we decided to modernize contemporary Azerbaijani poetry. The only thing I adhere to religiously is the “music of the verse”, “music of thoughts”.

 

Shuddhashar:  What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?

Gunel Movlud: There is a fine but important line between a political poem and propaganda poetry. I am against slogans and appeals in poetry, but I do not see poetry in isolation from politics and social factors. The mission of “civic poetry” is not to serve political systems, parties, or interests but to politicize seemingly non-political phenomena, events, and things, all the while caring about the artistic merits and quality of the verse. Thus, I see no conflict between civic poetry, political form of narration, and high literary values of poetry.

 

Shuddhashar:  Does your poetry transcend national boundaries? Does it appeal to different nationalities or linguistic groups?

Gunel Movlud: Of course, many issues I write about are relevant in all of the Caucasus, perhaps in all of the East, but not so much in Europe, in the West. These are mostly topics related to women’s rights, their way of life, patriarchal traditions. I recited a poem of mine, “My name”, in front of a Norwegian audience once. The poem is in the first person, and its narrator is an Eastern woman, who says that all her life she has been called somebody’s daughter, sister, wife, then mother, but she almost never heard her actual name, because her society doesn’t care about her as a person. Women in her country represent the name and honor of men in their family. The audience loved the poem, but they had many questions because they had a hard time wrapping their heads around the phenomenon itself and the reasons behind it. But I don’t think that problems of different nations and countries are much different in general. There are similar problems everywhere: issues related to LGBTI+, ethnic and religious minorities, social gap. Since these are the subjects of my poems, I believe that my poetry can be understandable and relatable in many countries. I write in Azerbaijani and Russian, so my poems can be read in Turkish-speaking and Russian-speaking countries, which is quite a lot.

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Poems

 

Putin and my grandma

Translated from Azerbijani: Zeyneb Rza

 

Putin has been threatening the international community

to drop a nuclear weapon

for several years.

Such a statement from Vladimir Vladimirovich

pushes me into depression.

My fear is from nucleus,

it is massive, my depression is geopolitical!

 

Siberian forests burned for a year,

Amazon burned, Greek burned,

What the heck, it devastates me!

On top of that, Hamida insists that

she will go and extinguish the fire in Amazon.

She is doing fundraising.

I’m afraid I’ll sink into a depression again.

What can I do? My fear is again massive,

my fear is climate fear, my depression is climatic!

 

There is no room to swing a cat in our Earth,

and galactic bangs have made it unbearable for us.

New news come from that hellhole every day;

once they say asteroid is coming,

once they say The Solar System will burst after billion years.

Clearly, I’ll not live billion years but

explosion of the humankind,

even in such a distant future

pushes me into depression.

Hey, people,

But why does humankind explode?

In short, mine is a fear of billion years,

my fear is futuristic,

my depression is cosmic!

 

Even more, Harari says,

Artificial intellect will queer our pitch,

it will blow its top, and slaughter everyone

I’m scared silly to death by this information.

At this juncture, all hope is to Elon Musk.

And he’s broken up with his girlfriend behind the scenes.

Crazy man, smoked a weed in the livestream,

they say Tesla’s shares have lost value,

it’s all about depression.

Musk suffers the pangs of love

What’s the world coming to,
Elon Musk’s depression is romantic,

mine is technologic!

 

My grandmother asks what happened to me

that leaves me in the sulks all the time.

I respond Putin will drop atomic bomb

and destroy the world’s hearth and home!

“Putin eats shit!” – she says carelessly,

while sending “bless” to someone,

“How bad I am, my God, even my grandmother

does not take Putin seriously” – I think

and breathe again,

then I start to chop up for my Russian salad…

 

 

 

The Snake in the Pillow
Translated from Azerbijani: Arturo Desimone

Autumn, again.
The apartment is cold, sleep concurs
between slow hot breaths of two chimneys.
There are still truths I kept hidden from you,
there are still Lies,
but a year transgressed without proper sleep,
I think someone cold and malevolent planted
a hissing snake
in my pillow.
I search my hair for the origin
of the bourgeois oppressor; my autumn
with a snake that does not embrace me like a friend,
Mirror hunted down one white collaborator-snake, on my head,
I might just leave him there to multiply, the white strand.
What have I done, in my 30 years?
Let the passionless snakes breed,
multiply on my head I don’t care
What have I done for a red future
for my country, for revolution?
Dear poet of a people,
let us get together and drink.
Let us see what remains of the tears that did not organize,
unfed by the trouble.
This is a time when notoriety
was meant to crackle around my black hair,
Let the devils multiply, I don’t care
Let us get together and drink, dear poet,
Let us see what remains of tears.
The most innocent angels are dying in me,
the most beautiful women grow old.

 

 

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