„A poetry ambassador
Safiye Can urges students to read, feel“
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Before reading her poem “Der Garten” (The Garden), German author Safiye Can holds up the page from her book of poetry for her audience to see.
In the poem’s title, the letters G and A dip lower than the rest as if to invite the reader to plant something in the void. The words of the poem are in the shape of a tree, or maybe a well-groomed bush, or maybe a flower bud, or whatever the reader sees.
“This is what the poem looks like,” she says.
Can encourages people to read, see and feel the poetry. She visualizes her verse and gives it form. This typographical device is often called concrete poetry, where meaning is conveyed not only through words, but also through shape and form.
“The poems are not finished if they don’t get this form,” she said of her work.
Can read Thursday afternoon to a group of German language students in the student union at Northern Arizona University. A popular poet in her home country, this is her first visit to the United States. She came to Flagstaff courtesy of the German Embassy in the U.S., NAU’s department of Global Languages and Culture and other university and German sponsors.
As an ambassador of poetry, her slogan is “Lest Gedichte!” In English: “Read Poems!” Around her neck she wears a chain with the word “poetry” scrolled on it.
“Germans don’t often read poems, so I work for this,” she told the NAU students.
When people think of poetry, oftentimes they think of something old or foregone. But Can’s poems are youthful, modern and inviting.
We don’t always realize that poetry is all around us, especially in music, she said, like in hip-hop music or other song lyrics. “These are also poetry.”
She said much can be transmitted through a singular poem: “The compactness of poetry is what gives it its zing.”
At age 40, Can is the recipient of two prestigious German literary awards, the Else-Lasker-Schüler poetry prize and the Alfred Müller Felsenburg prize for civil courage.
She was born in Offenbach, Germany, to Circassian parents who emigrated from the Black Sea region of Turkey. Her poems touch on topics of love, relationships, home and place.
From one of her poems, she read, “Do not tell my uncle that I became a poet. He’ll start crying again.”
She said the lines touch on the experience of many artists — the struggle to accomplish their art and thrive from it.
“It’s the reality of many artists. … Your family worries about you,” she said. That’s the irony though, “Without their support, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”
Can says poetry is not profitable. She said that only recently she’s been able to live off her writing, and the funds do not come primarily from her published works but from the speaking and reading engagements that come from them.
Can is expected to share her poetry during the public segment of Tuesday’s meeting of the Flagstaff City Council. She said she would like to create a poem about Flagstaff, but she’s not yet sure it will come to her.
During her time with the NAU students, someone asked what inspires her poetry.
She responded, “Everything!” But poetry requires time, she said.
“Writing poetry is a journey [and] you don’t know where it will take you. … It takes time. It needs to be taken seriously.”
Will Can find inspiration in Flagstaff? It’s possible she said. “First, I need to feel it.”