James Womack, a poet, translator, and publisher from the U.K., has played a vital role in producing and publishing of the “Parting Song” poetry book by Batyr Berdyev, one of the disappeared. James finalized the translation of the Russian poems into English, making it sound as moving and captivating in English as it does in the original. Earlier this month, James attended the US launch of the book at a special event at Busboys and Poets in Washington DC (video). We sat down with James to talk about his experience with the poems, his view of Batyr’s verses, and the image of Turkmenistan in western media.
Before starting to work on this project, I had not known much about the Prove They Are Alive! campaign. I knew the information about Turkmenistan that comes through the media. And until Niyazov died, Turkmenistan was always presented as almost something humorous and eccentric. Cult of personality, golden statues, naming the days of the week after his relatives, making everyone studying the Rukhnama… By the time it got to England, to our mainstream media – it was something eccentric rather than terrifying. But as I learned more, it became clear very quickly that this is not just some eccentric ruler of the country, this is a man with huge power doing cruel things in a very direct and very unpleasant way.
The country came across like certain people talk about North Korea – a country that we don’t understand and therefore we laugh at, while actually there is nothing to laugh about. Actually, North Korea is a good example. Until maybe about ten years ago it was a topic that was not reported on very often and when it was, it was in very abstract terms. Then, about ten years ago we started to get all these memoirs of defectors from North Korea coming out and being published and now people are starting to realize that it is much more complicated than just a place with choreographed respect for the leader.
And I think that is why this book and the “Prove They Are Alive!” campaign are very valuable and very useful because they give a human face, a human dimension, to what might seem to be a straightforward geopolitical problem.
There are now 113 people on the list of the “Prove They Are Alive!” campaign. Each of these is an individual, each of these is a person. Batyr Berdyev was able to articulate his in this particular way, but every one of these 113 people has a similar story, comes from a similar environment, and is suffering in a similar way. And these poems are a very valuable document of that.
About Batyr’s Poetry
To begin with, I was interested in this project for technical reasons: because the story was interesting, as this poetry came from a particular political situation. But actually, as soon as I started reading the poems, I realized that they were also not just important as a statement, but actually very good poems in their own right.
Parting Song is a sad book and it is a very powerful book. Quite a lot of the poems have dates on them, and if you look at the dates you’ll see that many poems, maybe about a quarter of the book, are written in the first three months after his arrest. Batyr Berdyev was arrested on the 7th of December, 2002, and there are lots of poems dated January and February, 2003. And you get the sense that, to a certain degree, it is his testament and that he knows what we don’t know. What happened to him, where he is—we don’t know what his situation is— so little information came out about him. But you certainly have a feeling that in the first few months that he was arrested and imprisoned he – if not making his peace – at least is finding a way to say the things that he needed to say.
Lots of poems in the first half of the book are about his son or are addressed to his son, telling him that he needs to be the man of the house, that he is going to grow up. Maybe they will see each other one day, maybe they won’t. And the title, “Parting Song,” is just that – it is a series of poems about saying goodbye.
I think a translator has, to, to some extent, to relive the emotions of the author. I have translated some very sad materials before. I translated a book by a Spanish author Sergio del Molino called La Hora Violeta, Violet Hour, which is a book about his son, who died of leukemia when he was 18 months old. I was translating it, when my own son was 2. There were days when I couldn’t do it. You are employed to do this, it is a job, you have to do it, if you don’t get it done on time you don’t get paid. But there were days when I just couldn’t. You are putting these words down and you are getting so close to the text and you are giving a voice to the author, giving a voice to the thoughts that make up the text, and it is very emotionally draining and to a certain extent it is the same with this (book). And I think this is something that you always feel as a translator.
About Poetry and Prison
Historically, poetry and, in particular, poetry by people in prisons, has been a way of creating something that they can remember. If you think about someone like Mandelstam, who was arrested and sent to Voronezh to a Soviet prison camp, he always composed by walking. With the rhythms that he moved, he was creating something that was intimately connected to his body, connected to the person that he was. When he went to prison, it was a way that he would never forget. I think it is one of the reasons why people write poetry. Also, poetry is fundamentally opposed to the larger claims made by various types of dictatorial states. It is an act of resistance. Not just because it says something against the state. To go back to Mandelstam – he was arrested for writing one poem against Stalin – but all of the poems that he wrote after he was arrested can count as an act of resistance. What he was doing and what Batyr Berdyev is doing is creating a world in which words actually mean what they say. Poetry is a way of telling the truth. It is a way of avoiding euphemisms, the destruction of language that happens under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. And that is something that makes it very powerful even if the power is… I mean Batyr’s poems come to the audience, Mandelstam’s poems eventually reached an audience, but, on one level, it would not have mattered if they never have been published. Simply by putting into words the situation they actually form a personal act of resistance against the situation in which they found themselves.
I have heard that one of the accusations against Batyr Berdyev, one of the reasons that he lost his post in the government of Turkmenistan, is that there was a claim that he didn’t speak Turkmen really well. I don’t know if that is true. But even leaving aside the question of the language he spoke, it is significantly important that the poems were written in Russian. There has always been a tradition in Russian literature of poetry and literature of all kinds as a debate between the individual and powers outside of him. This debate is something classic in the relationships between the individual and figures of state or authority. I think that Batyr’s poetry fits very neatly into that tradition, which runs from Derzhavin, Pushkin, up to the famous poets who were repressed in Stalin’s period – Mandelstam, Akhmatova – and up to the present day.
I am very glad that this book is having an afterlife, it is a part of this campaign, and it is being used to promote the campaign. It is not something that I have done and can forget about. It is something that you have to keep on thinking about. The more I keep thinking about it – the more the poems speak to me.