Andrew Wessels currently splits his time between Istanbul and Los Angeles. He has held fellowships from Poets & Writers and the Black Mountain Institute. Semi Circle, a chapbook of his translations of the Turkish poet Nurduran Duman, was published by Goodmorning Menagerie in 2016. His first book, published by 1913 Press, is A Turkish Dictionary.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
This is a question I’m still discovering, as the book is still in its early stages of release. My circumstances haven’t changed at all, but something emotional has. I’m both more relaxed (no longer worrying about finding the home for the first book) and more anxious (worried about whether people will read the book and find it interesting, worrying about my next projects). In the end, I’m finding myself in basically the same space: working every day, trying to write and read every day, and hoping to do something interesting in my work and my life.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve never really worried too much about genre, which I think probably comes across in A Turkish Dictionary. It’s a hybrid work that utilizes aspects of poetry, history, memoir, photography, travel narratives, and other forms. I didn’t really think about writing “poems” and I didn’t really think about writing “a collection of poems.” I really just thought about writing “a book” and this is the form that happened. Right now, the publishers that are open to this kind of work tend to classify themselves as poetry presses. And, in general, the poetry publishing world is more open to this multitude than other genres. So I don’t really concern myself too much with the classification, but I feel like the book is at home in this poetry world and at 1913 Press.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I’m a slow worker. A Turkish Dictionary was crafted over about eight years of work. Four years to get to a first manuscript version, and then another four years of incremental editing and revision. Within that stretch of time, though, it’s common for the writing to come quickly. The initial version of the middle section of ATD was written in about a day and a half. That day and a half, though, came after months of reading, thinking, false starts, and abandoned attempts. And then it was followed by many more months of editing and revision. Looking back at that first full manuscript version, I think the same book is in there but it’s also changed fundamentally. Much of my work over the years has been as an editor for various literary magazines and presses, and I think I bring that approach to my writing: I create a cohesive draft and then edit it over and over and over again.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
ATD was a book-length work from my first conception and the first words I wrote. My initial idea ended up being very different than the final published version, but I had an image of a journey I wanted to take and the book was going to be the result of that journey. My two manuscripts-in-progress are similar: I have an idea that I want to investigate within a book-length space, and so I start writing in, about, and through it. I’ve written individual poems off and on, here and there, but my focus and interest has always lay in the book as a space of investigation.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I just completed a little book tour where I read in California, Chicago, and along the east coast. Before that, I’d rarely read from the book—or done many readings at all. I always was reticent to seek out readings, feeling that I should present completed and published material. When asked, I would read, but I never sought them out on my own. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and eternal tinkerer with my work, so things never seem finished until the publisher literally takes it out of my hands and prints it up. As I say that, I also know that my favorite readings are when others are sharing in-progress work (like Trace Peterson’s amazing longer poem she shared in our reading at Berl’s). So there’s a distance between what I want to experience in the audience and what I’m willing to share of myself.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think I could describe the book as a search for a beginning, an attempt to find a concrete starting point. At times, I’ve called it the dark zero, which I think is a gravitational core of the book. In life there really are no firm beginnings, and the book reflects this. Everything is always preceded and followed, at best it’s a lineage and in reality everything is just another point on a nexus. I’m always wondering “how do I start? how do I start? where is the beginning?” and what I find through the book’s journey is that the search for a beginning is in and of itself sufficient, whether that’s the origins of language, of life, of one’s own life, of meaning, of understanding, of a culture or country. Those searches in the book take me through Istanbul’s streets, the histories of Istanbul and Turkey, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and arabesques. So it’s this ongoing question, and I think the book proposes that there isn’t an answer—and that an answer isn’t the point, anyway.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
This is a question I’m trying to figure out right now. I always considered myself an ongoing apprentice—practicing and training to become a “real” writer (whatever that means). And the book was the inflection point. When I had a book, then I’d move from writer-in-training to writer-in-the-world. So I’m seeing what that means now, and what my responsibilities are and should be. I recently wrote an article for Lit Hub, my first non-fiction essay that wasn’t a book review,about the current political situations in Istanbul and the United States, how they’ve affected my ability to live and find a home, and how to navigate all of that with the book coming out. So I do think that a writer should be involved in the larger culture in some way, and I do feel compelled to do something that expands my literary voice and helps bring that literary work into a wider space, and vice versa to bring that wider space into my literary world.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been lucky to find a number of mentors, friends, and confidants who have been essential in helping me see my work. And as an editor myself, I know the value that an additional set of eyes can be on a manuscript. It’s going to be an inherently difficult process, as these are works of deep and intense love. But I do also think it’s an essential and positive process, as painful as it can be in the moment.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Just hold on.” The expanses of time between beginning a writing project, finishing it, finding a publisher, and getting the printed book in hand are incredibly long and filled with rejection and failure. Early on my path, I was told by a mentor that success oftentimes just comes from hanging on long enough for the success to arrive. I’m not sure if one book is success, but it is at least a success. Reminding myself of that advice through the ups and downs of these years has helped me remain both persistent and patient, and along the way I’ve learned to trust myself, at least a little bit.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (your own poetry to collaboration to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I see my poetry, collaboration, and translation as all part of the same whole, with one slight difference. When I’m writing my own work, it requires a total expenditure of all my time, focus, and energy. It’s all-consuming, which means that I also need to be in a specific space both physically and mentally to work through it. Collaboration and translation are creative works that I can perform in different mental spaces. When I collaborate (with Kelli Anne Noftle, as the author Steph Wall) I can write with a sense of play. Translation is a little bit different—it’s a combination of both creativity and labor. I can always sit down, even if I’m not able to create on my own, and do the “work” of translating and thinking about how to move a poem from one language to another. These activities keep my literary brain working, even when my own writing is stalled.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m trying to figure this out right now. A few months ago, I moved back to the US from Istanbul. I had a routine set up there, but my work situation was different. As I set up my life again here in the States, I’m trying to figure out the best ways to carve out time to dedicate to writing and reading. The one constant is that I try to read something every day, and I try to write every day even if it’s just my 5-10 minute journaling session in the morning. I’ve found over the years that the more that I read, the more that I write. So if I can keep myself reading, I trust that the writing will find a way.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read and I walk and I travel. Those three things seem to feed my ability to produce writing. One of the bellwethers telling me I’m about to write is that I’ll start reading voraciously for a week or two. When I get into that headspace where I’m reading a few books a week and pulling books from my shelf with abandon, I know that my own writing is on its way.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
As I mentioned, in January my partner and I moved back to Los Angeles from Istanbul. The move has been a challenging one, as we were happy in Istanbul and building a home together there. It was a decision we felt forced to make; not one that we wanted to make. I’ve dreamed of the city and our home, which had a balcony overlooking the Bosporus, every night since we’ve moved back. While I didn’t grow up in Istanbul, this is the home that I’m thinking about most now, and missing the most. Just in front of our balcony was a fig tree that stretched up to our third-floor apartment. Our two summers and falls, I loved sitting on the balcony through the weeks and months and watching the fruits bud, grow, ripen, and finally be devoured by the birds. When I smell fig or a dark saltiness that reminds me of the Bosporus, I’m transported back.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The first art form that I practiced was the piano, so musicality has always been important to me. But the form that I seek out the most now is visual art, though as a viewer more than a practicer. In particular, I love art that defies my ability to render it into language—paintings that force me to just stand, stare, and experience. Artworks that I don’t even want or care to explain, that make me feel like I just want to be totally enveloped by them.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’m going to list 10 writers, somewhat off the top of my head, that have been important to me both as a reader and a writer, both over a long span of time and more recently: W.G. Sebald, Ece Ayhan, Susan Howe, Bilge Karasu, Jena Osman, Nazim Hikmet, Rosmarie Waldrop, Solmaz Sharif, Juan Goytisolo, and Craig Santos Perez.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
As a writer, my primary goal right now is to complete and publish collections of translations of Nurduran Duman. As a person, one thing my partner and I have talked about a lot is spending a long stretch of time together in Spain and learning Spanish cooking.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
The natural or easy answer is to say that I’d be an editor, because it’s something I’m already doing. But to think beyond books and literature entirely—I’m really not sure. A lot of my work as a writer involves historical research, and I find myself constantly doing this kind of research even when I’m watching a movie. I always want to know the historical context that something exists within. So I’ll say I’d be a historian.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As that last answer probably implies, I can’t think of doing much of anything else. The act of writing is a way of moving toward understanding. I often have difficulties verbalizing my exact thoughts and feelings. A spoken sentence seems to demand a more linear, conclusive statement than I can usually create about something. The written word, and more than that the open field of the blank page, allows for a complex and interconnected space where meanings can by multiplied.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished a pair of translations of Turkish novels—Hasan Ali Toptas’s Reckless and Yusuf Atilgan’s Motherland Hotel—that were both beautiful and devastating. I’m never as good at picking movies, but a few weeks ago I watched Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno, which was a strange but striking approach to volcanoes both scientifically and anthropologically, and the film made me return to his Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I’m enamored of that movie, if only because of a brief line of narration a few minutes into the film that Herzog gives as the crew approaches the cave for the first time: “From the first day of its discovery, the importance of the cave was immediately recognized, and access was shut off categorically.” I can’t get over that idea that the cave is so important that everyone must be prevented from ever seeing it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m primarily focused on translating Nurduran’s poems. She has a series called Neynur, which is a complex and challenging response to Rumi’s “Song of the Flute.” For English-language readers, I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to re-discover the depths and complexities of Rumi’s work that are often lost in many current translations. I’m also working with Nurduran on a separate collection of her poems in English.
I have two manuscripts of my own I’m working on as well, though they’ve been mainly put on hold during my move and while A Turkish Dictionary is being released. One is a writing-through of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and the other is a book-length work thinking about philosophy of mind, neuroscience, and the self. I’m planning to return to both of these over the summer to see what they can become.