Photo credit::Lucy Purrington | Interview by Zoë Brigley
I don’t think of my work as having a song-like structure, as to me poetry is more free and I believe you can craft a poem in any way you like… I like to follow the inner voice and see where it leads
THIS GUITAR SILENCES FASCISTS
(For Nûdem Durak)
“Because I sing songs they put me in jail. They can take everything from me but never my tongue or my voice’Nûdem Durak
Your Mother told you to ‘Sell my ring and buy a guitar’ Now the space around her finger Echoes with your absence As the night fills with terror And your voice brutally silenced Deep in Erdogan’s dungeons Freedom’s songs still sing They may smash the guitars But their vibration lives on And the hope that brings The more they break The more noise we must make As this choir masses And awakes, Begins to resonate around the globe They punished you for singing in Kurdish, Erased your Quiet Words against the Xenophobes * Called it a crime, subversive A policy of terror through example Any criticism they quickly dismantle But solidarity must not be shuttered Let our tongues remain unfettered Language no barrier to unity Six strings call to Six billion A beautiful blasphemy Over the barbed wire Between the tanks Above the mines A cosmic clarion across solemn skies A borderless breath That births a song of freedom Echoing what must, what must be told A ring around the world To replace the one your Mother sold * The Government outlaw using the letters Q W and X in official documents in Turkey because they are used in Kurdish. Nûdem is not due for release until 2034.
First, could you tell us about the dedication and the epigraph of this poem?
Nûdem Durak is a Turkish singer/songwriter of Kurdish heritage and was arrested in 2015 for performing Kurdish political songs.
I wasn’t aware of her work and her situation until this year when I read of how Roger Waters had donated a guitar which was sent to Nûdem in prison and signed by many musicians on its way. Then I did some research and was just utterly shocked by her treatment by the Turkish authorities and felt I had to write about it. I had recently been concentrating on more personal reflective work dealing with grief, loss, and healing, but this story just hit me in the gut and I just wanted to ‘bear witness’, as Albert Camus said of his writing. The oppression of the Kurdish people in Turkey is tantamount to apartheid and Nûdem’s story needs to be heard all over the world. All sorts of activities that Kurds engage in be it cultural personal or linguistic, are used against them in court. It is prime ‘othering’ and aims to crush the spirit and being of this proud people.
The letters Q, W and X in Kurdish, which are not included in the Turkish alphabet, cannot be used in official documents in Turkey – but only when they are used in Kurdish words. This seemed such a petty excuse for discrimination but when you think about it, it is delegitimising a language, a way of communicating and therefore oppressive and smacks of Orwell’s 1984.
One of the victims was a seven-year-old Kurdish child named Welat (a Kurdish word for “homeland.”) A citizen of Germany where his father lived as a political refugee, Welat was not allowed to enter Turkey at the airport in June 2008 because his name included the letter W.
Welat was sent back to Germany by plane while his mother and two siblings were allowed to enter Turkey. Truly shocking and dehumanising. Imagine the outrage if other languages were treated that way? Hence I reference it in the poem.
Finally, the title is inspired by the timeless protest singer Woody Guthrie who had ‘This guitar kills fascists’ written on his guitar.
Music is a theme here, and your work is well known for bringing the musicality of song to political poetry. Do you see yourself as belonging to a tradition of political songwriters from Bertolt Brecht to the Manics?
Firstly I don’t see myself as a songwriter – I think that is another distinct art form but yes I do feel ‘music’ in my writing and have released three spoken word albums with music. I never really liked Brecht – too dour and grey (sorry unpopular opinion maybe!), but I’ve always been drawn to poets that take their words to new and different audiences and fusing them with music is one such area so people like Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Lydia Lunch have always appealed to me. I don’t see myself in any tradition really, I just do what I do. Of course bands and songwriters like The Clash, The Slits, Stiff Little Fingers, Rage Against The Machine, X Ray Spex, The Jam, The Specials and Ani Di Franco have inspired and influenced my own work and as for The Manic Street Preachers well, Nick and I came from the same womb – though we are very different writers too! Also, I don’t see myself as overtly political – but I feel everything can be political these days so all one can do is witness and raise issues and debates about things one deems pertinent to the human condition.
Do you ever think about form in the way that songwriters do? E.g. having an introduction, a pre-chorus, chorus, bridge etc.
No, I don’t think of my work as having a song-like structure, as to me poetry is more free and I believe you can craft a poem in any way you like. I really dislike the elitist attitude prevalent within many poetry circles that only acknowledge a certain ‘poem’ to fulfil the(their) criteria and look down on other more Avant Garde or indeed more direct expressions. You don’t have that same narrow vision with regards films or painting so why should we operate within these out dated parameters in writing a poem? I like to follow the inner voice and see where it leads. I’ve always loved e. e. cummings as well as Derek Walcott alongside Paul Celan, Walt Whitman, Carol Ann Duffy and Mary Oliver. To me poetry has no limits. I did write lyrics with James Dean Bradfield on our 2020 album Even in Exile and I found it quite difficult to reign in my free flowing poetic brain and chisel it into a more distilled form that did have a chorus, verses, bridge etc and even though James was a hard taskmaster it was a wonderful experience as poetry can be a lonely old game so it was humanising to work in a more collaborative way.
Ironically though, the Welsh protest singer Martyn Joseph is turning the piece into a song which will be released next year.
If you would like to learn more about Nûdem Durak and the campaigns to free her, you can do so by following one of the social media accounts set up for her: Instagram @freenudemdurak, Twitter @NudemDurak, and Facebook @nudemdurak.
You can also sign a letter asking for her freedom via the Voice Project here, where you can also learn about other similar political prisoners.
Nûdem Durak is currently scheduled to remain in prison until September 2034