Reading Sara Deniz Akant’s Babette is like stepping into an alien bog, where matter is composed in language that looks vaguely Earthlike, vaguely English, but is actually largely foreign, partially invented, but familiar enough to tether the reader to the world. Babette, frankly, is an amazingly odd book. Reading it feels like decoding a puzzle where the lack of certainty is exciting and productive. It irritated my desire to reach outside of its pages, caused me to stuff my head into the Internet portal to unearth clues and concepts or new words, like Cheburashka, the creepy/cute cartoon character of Russian children’s literature. I say “irritated” because “unavoidable,” because the wanting to learn was impossible to ignore—a brisk jolt in the dome of poetry. So, I interviewed Deniz Akant to find out more about her creation of language and texture in Babette.
Sara Deniz Akant is the author of Babette, which was selected by Maggie Nelson for the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize. She has written two other books, Parades (Omnidawn Publishing, 2014), and Latronic Strag (Persistent Editions, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in Lana Turner, The Denver Quarterly, jubilat, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Who is Babette? Is she the “gohst”?
Oh man, I don’t know. Babette is a bitch! I’m just kidding, but only kind of. You’re right that she is a central figure in the book, she who sort of rose up from the floorboards of the writing at hand, lets say. And in the process she became something like the daughter or the mother of the other named and unnamed roaming female characters: Lucy, Cora, la Marté … Sandy, Penny, the Cheburashka … Septimus (-a, -um), and of course, Beliza. You know the scene in Hellraiser, when that horrible dude puts himself back together out of the blood in the floor? But Babette isn’t necessarily evil, she is a necessary nucleus—and yes, a “gohst”—that stands her ground, repeats her name, and reminds the reader that something is fkd up with time and space. And if you’re wondering whether Babette is me—a sort of rep for the multiple self—one name or noun used to mark the infinite language of the body—that’s a good way of thinking about it, too.
We’ve never met before, so I feel like I want to warn you that I’ve never read or studied Old English, I don’t know multiple languages, and I don’t even remember facts very well. Babette (the book) is “without sympathy for / the abyss.” The fabric of language is sometimes hieroglyphic in that some of the words are not easily translatable (ovâtron, ovitem, roshie/roshels), but we get some sense of their meaning just by looking at them. How much do you want your reader to use the Internet to look up or translate words they don’t understand?
No warnings necessary! I also don’t speak multiple languages, at least not categorized, rule-governed ones. That said, my father is Turkish, and my family spoke an amalgam of Turkish, English, and French when I was growing up. Then I went to an international high-school where at least twenty different languages were being tossed around every day. For a kid that was already confused by English on its own—I’m the kind of dyslexic that is a little weirder than textbook dyslexic, “learning disabled,” “language disabled,” sure, fine—I think having all these other sounds and structures was not only overwhelming, but influential in a good way. In one ear out the other perhaps, but also leaving some residue behind. Basically I just thought of words and sounds as frustrating and fluid, so I started to play with them, mostly based on my own personal associations, mis-readings or mis-hearings. So while there was never really any “research” or intentional difficulty involved in these words, I don’t exactly like to call them “neologisms” either. They mean something: visné is a Turkish sour cherry, for example, moca-choca is an inside joke with friends (eg: “moca-choca latte”). Both my sister and I translated salt as dalst—and what Nineties kid doesn’t remember those cool Umbro shorts? I gotta admit that I find Old English exciting, and was glancing at some Old English poems—not for meaning, but for texture. I will probably always spell “eyes” as eies from now on—it just makes real pupils appear for me. Which is all to say that each word has some point of origin (even if I don’t always remember), and then they start to mean something different in the poem. It’s really a chicken-egg sort of thing. So yeah, I can see how whatever turns up on the Internet could be useful for getting closer to my poems, in the way that all things that turn up on the internet can be useful. There’s no trick answer though.
When reading, I noticed words that connote names or places that seem outside of an American or Western sphere, like Hal’Dahal, Hosh-De-Lil or even Tolac, but on further research I couldn’t find a whole lot of concrete information to help orient me in the poem. What do these phrases/names mean? What is their intended function in the poem?
I’ll probably say something similar here, but err more towards this question of names and proper names. I’m fascinated by names—the word(s) we use to mark or define a complex identity, a human body, a personal location, etc—and so is Babette. For me, “naming”—and creating a particular world out of names—is perhaps what the book is most “about.” In retrospect I mean, since I wasn’t thinking anything grandiose while writing. Absolutely the Hal’Dahal and the Hosh-De-Lil are here to denote the non-Western world, probably some badly excavated, defunct or bunk (as in, “this acid is bunk”) version of the Turkey I visited each year as a child—an ode and a moan to Orientalism, from both outside and within. Its supposed to be both alluring and uncomfortable, which is how I find myself treated as a woman with insider/outsider, East/West, or ambiguously “exotic” daily status. But then we also have Penny the hamster from the Upper West Side, Cheburashka the Russian cartoon character who “came from Tropical,” and Tolac the traveler between different worlds. Cora was named, perhaps, for the Chora Church outside of Istanbul, but I was also thinking of the coral color that my mother always said looked best on my murky-green skin, my Italian friend Carola, and the ocean that I feel attached to by middle name, “Deniz.” In the poems, I guess I hope that unfamiliar names and places might spark whatever strange personal associations that allow a type of familiarity for the reader.
How is Babette different from the other books you’ve written?
That’s funny; I strangely keep writing a poem that ends up being “about my previous books” in some way—perhaps mocking or impersonating a self that would or could answer that question earnestly? But I can try a little. The first manuscript I wrote was Latronic Strag, a loose translation of my younger sister’s second grade journal. In its celebration of the perverse and dyslexic language of “strag,” it was the real inspiration behind all my playful inversions of words and syntax, then and now. Latronic hung around in various forms before it was published, but it was a weird family secret that was informing everything around it all the time.
Parades was an air-tight little number, like a really tiny dress that squeezes everything into one strange but totally aesthetic and party-ready shape. It’s like I wanted something so new for language, but it also had to be as dark and cryptic as I felt at the time. It was a little emo: an apocalyptic world populated by characters and places tinged by sickness, self-lashing, and collective eating. Looking back, I can read so much angst and resistance to the structures around me, even if it came out more opaque than I would have it now.
Babette came about in a search for more room to breath. I still had that language of “strag,” and an urge towards narrative guided by the low-fi visual effect you can get through a basic keyboard. But the book itself was woven by a new cast of characters that emerged more slowly and organically. I feel like I had my eyes shut all winter and no idea anything was spinning. Unlike previous manuscripts, I didn’t have much sense of the book as a whole until well into the editing process with Rescue Press. The selection of the title was really formative, for example, because I realized I had written a book about real people, human beings, and not just the claustrophobic machines in my mind. I like to think this will continue to happen; that real faces will keep emerging from behind the curtains of the act. Mine too.
Are there any poems, books, projects that you would like to take this moment to plug?
I’m working on a project now, also conceived as a book and so on, one long poem. At the risk of sounding over-determined, I’d say it’s a series of semi-autobiographical texts that focus on another female character, by the Turkish name I was not given: “Perihan.” So there’s probably a lot about what is given and not given, what is perceived and not perceived, and the politics of language and names. I already think of most of my poems as pretty narrative, but what’s happening now seems more directly so. It’s also got this sci-fi/horror bent I’ve been into ever since Parades, so there are gohsts and planets and aliens hanging around. Sometimes I think of calling it “The Life and Death of Perihan Deniz Akant,” but again, only at the risk of naming a thing before it is born.
Ally Harris is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in Poetry and Poetry Editor of Heavy Feather Review. She is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Her Twin Was After Me (Slim Princess Holdings, 2014), and Floor Baby (dancing girl press, 2011). You can read more of her poems online at Typo, BOMBLOG, Sixth Finch, Sink Review, and Tarpaulin Sky. She teaches and writes in Portland, Oregon.