Ardakh Nurgaz: Personally, during the pandemic, I became one step closer to nature…

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A well-known poet Ardakh Nurgaz's poems "Dolls in the Sky over the City" and "Illusion" were published in “Angime" in four different languages: Kazakh, Russian, English, and Chinese. “Angime" is edited by the diverse faculty of Nazarbayev University and independent editors. The main aim of “Angime” is to promote international, multilingual, and multidisciplinary literary and artistic conversations. The poem "Dolls in the Sky over the City" was translated into Russian by an honored writer Yuriy Serebriansky, from the Kazakh into Chinese by Akhan Gulnar, from the Chinese into English by a widely known Austrian poet Ouyang Yu. 

Ardakh Nurgaz was interviewed by Aibarsha Kazhyakpar. The interview was published in three languages: Kazakh, Russian, and English.

AIBARSHA KAZHYAKPAR: What is happening today in modern Kazakh poetry—both in Kazakhstan itself and beyond its borders: in China, Turkey, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Europe and the United States—really, in any country where something really important and relevant is being produced in the Kazakh language?

ARDAKH NURGAZ: You know, in an era of change, people become brave not only in politics, but also in literature. Now is the period of such great changes in Kazakh literature. World literature is available to us now, and this is an unprecedented situation. The youth has lowered the bridle; they strive for new things as much as possible. Watching them, I remember my youth, which ended thirty years ago. And nevertheless, I know that on their way forward, young people of today will encounter many difficulties.

AK: Your poetics have ventured far ahead, or, one might say, deviated away from the main trends in Kazakh poetry (the trends familiar to us from textbooks, books, and magazine publications), and so the poetry you write is quite radically different from the usual forms of traditional steppe poetry. How did you come to this? What influenced you when choosing your poetic and creative strategy? Why do your poems speak in such an unusual language, and why did your voice become so different from the voices of other poets?

AN: I was born in China in a doctor's family. I found myself in poetry only at the age of thirty. What I had read, what I had learned, and what I had absorbed pulled me in different directions, so I just followed them and tried not to control the situation. In my youth, I was engaged with everything - prose, poetry, drama, literary criticism, translation. In 2003, I wrote the poem “Sayabaq” (A park), which consisted of 580 lines. A couple of years before that, I had written the novel Batystan Bult Shyqsa... (If a Cloud Appears from the West...). About ten chapters of the novel were published in the literary magazine Tarbagatai. I was looking for my own path in fiction-writing, starting with James Joyce and ending with John Maxwell Coetzee, but I couldn't write a novel with the kind of quality that I wanted. Apparently, I didn’t have enough talent in prose-writing. And then, when writing "Sayabaq", I completely let go of myself, wrote without restrictions, freely, tried to follow my inspiration as much as possible. I wrote in the poem what I could not express in the novel; and so I found my own voice. There is an explanation for why I differ from other Kazakh-speaking authors. During my youth in China, others collected books of Kazakh poets and wrote poetry, imitating them. They clearly blindly admired those Kazakh poets. Yet I learned literature from Western works. I learned to look at any work through the prism of textual studies, so I clearly saw the advantages and disadvantages of the works of poets that others admired. I've learned to avoid blind admiration for anyone. Due to this, I read other Western poets from different centuries and representatives of different isms and absorbed what I considered necessary. I wrote six long poems and each of them has its own peculiarity. I try not to repeat myself. I strive for accuracy. A reader can see the overall picture of all of my works by combining them. It looks like a quilt with a variety of colors; sometimes it even sounds like a symphony with a great number of musical instruments. The moment you find yourself as a poet, memory and the unconscious become not twins, but one integral sensation. The most delicate concepts in language merge into image and come to life. This is a tricky business. Creativity has its rebelliousness that defies reason. However, I was able to succeed. I had an idea of some kind of "representative work". I think that all of this distinguishes my work from the work of other poets.

AK: Poetry of which countries and which eras do you look to for inspiration? Who in world poetry impresses you the most? In general, how well are foreign classics, modernism and important contemporary authors represented in the Kazakh language? Do translations appear regularly? Who, as a rule, creates these translations: professional translators, writers themselves, or are they mostly done by people who one might call amateurs, connoisseurs of real poetry, who care about the development of their native literary landscape? What place do you think translations of foreign poetry occupy in the minds of Kazakh authors?

AN: At different periods of my life, various authors were near and dear to me. At 20, I loved the poetry of T.S. Eliot. The reason for my interest, most likely, was his position on "historical consciousness". When I was 30, I was interested in William Yeats; I was attracted to the aesthetics of his work from 1914-1932. I was very fond of the works of Seamus Heaney, Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens, Wisława Szymborska. The works of these poets do not resemble each other and that fascinates me. Some poets do not appeal to me, although they are good creative people, on par with the ones mentioned above. If a poet appeals to me, it means that we are somewhat similar.  

For a time, translation had a strong influence in Kazakh literature. I believe that the works translated from Russian literature have had an immeasurable influence on the formation and development of Kazakh Soviet literature. It seems to me that since independence, literary translation has become less popular. The great works of world literature in the last century are not translated into Kazakh and are not well known in the literary world. Because of this, the creative search for modernism and postmodernism in Kazakh literature lags behind. Contemporary Kazakh literature has not completely separated from Soviet literature. It is also an indicator that literary translation right now is not doing the work that it should. Creative youth know that a vibrant translation scene has a positive effect on the formation of their aesthetics in accordance with the requirements, trends, epiphanies of the time. Unfortunately, we have neither a literary environment nor a translation environment that meets their needs. Despite fluency in a foreign language, for example, Russian, and reading foreign poets in that language, a young poet who has not seen a variety of poetry in the Kazakh language will have to start all over again and will face various difficulties. Yet, traditional poetry has solved this problem and there are no obstacles in following tradition. As they say, there is both a form and an example. This is the contradiction at the heart of the origin of today's Kazakh poetry.

AK: With regard to translations of your works into other languages: how do you perceive them? Do they faithfully convey your style, imagery, atmosphere of poetry, or do doubts always remain? What does such an event mean to you—your poems in a language that is not native to you and, perhaps, does not quite accurately convey the idea of each individual text? Do you accept translations and end up resigning to the inevitable discrepancies or try to work with translators to find a more relevant form? In other words, what are translations for you after all: simply a translation of your poems or new works written by other authors in other languages based on your poems?

AN: Translation is always necessary. Before my poems were published, they were first translated into Chinese and then into English. This year, my collection of poems in English was published by the Australian publisher, Puncher & Wattmann. The Chinese translations of my poems were composed perfectly and correspond to the Chinese literary language; one might even say they are at the level of an original Chinese poem. The translator is G. Akan, an experienced specialist, plus it helped that I am fluent in Chinese as well. Shen Wei (沈 苇), a renowned Chinese poet, and Lu Xing, state prize laureate, remarked once upon reading a Chinese translation of my poem “Quz Basynda Quiyn” (“A Storm on the Rock”), "Wasn’t this poem originally written in Chinese and not translated?" Almost all poems translated into Chinese, namely"诗 林", "西部 西部 文学", etc., were published in popular Chinese literary magazines. I often talk to the poet Ouyang Yu, who translated my poems from Chinese into English and we share our thoughts on translation. He writes poetry in both Chinese and English; therefore, the quality of verses in Chinese is preserved in English as well. The translated poems have been published in English-language journals abroad. My poem, “Teatr” (“Theater”), was published by the Australian magazine Eureka Street in 2018, issue #28. Mr. Ouyang Yu often says, “I am translating poetry into English just as it was translated into Chinese. I am not adding or removing anything.” I also support this position. The main condition is the preservation of the literary language and poetics of the language into which the poem is translated. Without this, the resulting translation cannot be a piece of poetry. If the translation does not meet an established standard or was translated poorly, it will be a great insult to the author. Dozens of my poems have been translated into Russian and published. Personally, I cannot say for sure how well they were translated. This is because those translations were not mentioned in the literary world. The poem "Korkyt", which the famous poet Bakhytzhan Kanapiyanov translated into Russian, was published in the literary almanac Kazakhstan - Russia: 2017. He is a good Russian-speaking poet and translator, but even that translation was not mentioned in the literary world.

AK: How do you see the future of your native language? Does it inspire optimism or, on the contrary, does it raise concerns—do you think your language is developing, or gradually dying out due to the fact that, as a result of well-known historical events, some ethnic Kazakhs cease to see their native language as something essential for self-identification?

AN: We know that the Kazakh language has faced many obstacles in its development due to historical and political causes. Clearly, the consequences were devastating. After Kazakhstan gained independence, the Kazakh language received the opportunity to develop freely. Despite various obstacles and difficulties, the language has survived. Kazakh people did not abandon their language; in it is the power of independence. I think that this tradition of the Kazakh language will continue for some time. The poet has always been a defender of his native language and poetry is the pinnacle of linguistic art. The capabilities of a language are reflected in the language of its poetry. As a poet, I want my native language to have a bright future and to be no worse than the languages of other nations. True, for historical reasons, some Kazakhs work and produce poetry in Russian, and not in their native language. I have my own position on this matter. What's done is done, and now we must look at it from a different point of view. As for the language, Kazakhs should not be against each other. Nobody needs it. The modern requirement is to understand the concept of a nation in a broader sense. The Jewish people are scattered all over the world, they live in different countries, speak different languages, but in the interests of their religion and nation, they unite, despite their differences. They even revived a long-dead language. I would like for Kazakhs to also have this quality. Then we will have more opportunities. Our independence will be long-lasting. There is a saying: "Those sailing on the same ship have one soul." Independence concerns all of us.  

AK: What do you think of the present state and the future of Kazakh poetry? After all, it is inextricably linked with the existence of the Kazakh language and strongly depends on its well-being. Where do you see possibilities for yourself and for Kazakh poetry in general? Whose creative path do you find especially interesting?

AN: The present and the future of the Kazakh language are to a certain extent linked to Kazakh literature. When there is a strong literary tradition, it strengthens the nation spiritually, boosts self-confidence and national unity. A strong, united nation will not easily fall out of history. For example, I love reading modernist Greek poetry. It is because they convey in the language of poetry the values created by mankind from the time of Ancient Greece to the present day. It contains the pride of the Greek people, their regret, and even tragedies caused by the mistakes of history. In a sense, Greek people live and breathe for poetry. For this reason, Greek poems have a high reputation in world literature. We must look at literature from the point of view that it modernizes a nation's past, gives vitality to its culture, and influences its future.

AK: Can you honestly say that, in spite of the conflict you mentioned, a dialogue is being conducted in Kazakhstan between traditional Kazakh poetry and so-called avant-garde poetry? Or do they exist in isolation from each other? And what about the dialogue with Russian poetry in Kazakhstan (which, as you know, is represented by various ethnic groups, including ethnic Kazakhs)? What can you say about the dialogue of modern Kazakh poetry with world literature?

AN: Kazakh literature is changing, a change that began after gaining independence. Kazakh oral literature and written literature, which formed during the Soviet era, continue to develop in the same vein, whereas modern literature, which is just beginning to emerge, is interested in the transition from traditional literature to a more modernist approach. Russo-phone literature in Kazakhstan has its own developmental path. Even though it seems that everyone creates and lives separately, there is still a dialogue. Since we all live in the same era, there is a common requirement for us—to write a work at the level of world literature. If your work looks like the texts written two hundred years ago, no one will read it. However, when there is a desire, there will be a dialogue. The problem is that in Kazakh poetry, there cannot be a good quality dialogue since the works of our older generation poets are weak in this respect. In world literature, you will not find a single Kazakh poet except Abay. Therefore, the literary environment of Kazakhstan should strive for a dialogue not only within itself, but also with world literature. In modern Kazakh literature, a lot of work has to be done in this respect.

AK: How have you personally been influenced by such an unprecedented human experience as the COVID-19 pandemic? Have you realized something for yourself, discovered something new in the nature of man and society? During this time, did you write new texts or did the downtime put a stop to production?

AN: There are those who argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the course of human history. Probably, they are right. But how did we end up in this situation? This question needs to be carefully considered. At the end of last year, I wrote a poem "Karangy” (“Darkness”). In less than a year after that, it was as if our world plunged into darkness. Michel Foucault argued that the history of human society is the product of an artificial system of control and punishment (weak scientific basis). In the case of quarantine, we clearly saw the weakness of the machine of the state. At first, the global authorities did not know what to do. Then they worked to define or redefine who they were. Particularly, if earlier ideas like “human rights” seemed like a vague philosophical issue, now we understand its political significance. We learned, world-wide, who is a modernized nation and who is not. We realized what culture and savagery are. In general, the scales fell from people’s eyes. Personally, during the pandemic, I became one step closer to nature and felt the power of the earth, soil, and sun. I thought about the secrets of existence, the value of life, beauty, traces of time, the future, and death. I thought about the realism of creativity. I wrote poetry that was different from my previous works. Both I and my poems have changed. From another perspective, you can say quarantine pulled me out of a kind of darkness.

Aibarsha Kazhyakpar graduated from Nazarbayev University in 2020 with a major in World Languages, Literature and Culture. She is interested in contemporary Kazakhstani literature, and problems of bilingualism, national identity, and post-Soviet trauma. Aibarsha is engaged in translations of works of contemporary Kazakh poets into Russian. She currently works in education digitalization.


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