Turkey, and around the world, March 2021

Ilhan Sami Çomak is Turkey’s longest serving student prisoner. He has been in prison since being arrested as a geography student in Istanbul in 1994.  Ilhan is Kurdish and has published 8 books of poetry in Turkish from prison. His latest, Geldim Sana (I Came to You), won the prestigious Sennur Sezer prize for poetry in 2019.

PEN Norway is campaigning for Ilhan and will publish an anthology of poems for him, as well as his first selected works in English in 2022.

This is a recording of an event held jointly by PEN Norway and Wales PEN Cymru on March 8, 2021 to celebrate Ilhan’s birthday. The event includes poetry readings from around the world, plus Kurdish folk singer (and Ilhan’s cousin) Suna Alan, who sings ‘The Ivy’ (Song for Nûdem Durak, who was jailed for 19 years for singing in Kurdish).

Ilhan Çomak was 47 in 2020. He has spent more than half his life behind bars, innocent of the crime of which he was charged as a student in 1994. #freethepoet

What Good Is Reading Poetry by Ilhan Çomak

It’s good for making hands fine enough to touch silk
And for feeling the moment that stone turns impatient

It’s good for looking in the eyes of hungry cats
And extending curiosity out among all animals

It is the darkness that makes my night voice heard
And makes it easier to say ‘the moon will come up late’

For years my feet have been cold, so cold
When I say this, it helps me compare winter to snow

Spring will begin today, I know
Reading poetry helps me believe that feeling

It reminds me I don’t miss the Istanbul bustle
Lets me know things to tell my love in a letter

When I’m tired, to stop and rest, not to drink water when I sweat,
It helps me to cry and fret over wildfires, over death

To know anger’s reserved just for evil
To stop and ask forgiveness of women

To feel youth when young, to understand it later on,
It’s good for helping me to sit and write new poems

Good for helping me seduce and flatter
Then to kiss my love when the leaves turn yellow

Translated by Caroline Stockford

More of Ilham’s poems can be found here.

Video reading in honour of Ilhan  Sami Çomak 

EVENT SCHEDULE (with timings of running order for ease of navigation)

0.00 Caryl Bryn reads Ilhan’s poem ‘Things that are not Here’ in Welsh to a piece for harp composed for Ilhan by Shelley Musker Turner

2.35 Event hosted by PEN Norway’s Turkey Adviser, Caroline Stockford

5.00 Message from Ilhan’s mother & Ilhan’s “Mackenzie Friend” Ipek Özel



14.30 Alice Oswald reads ‘Trial of the Soul by Physics’

16.22 Menna Elfyn, President, Wales PEN Cymru reads “Wild Ponies’

19.00 New Zealand poet Sophia Wilson reads ‘The Captive’s Song’

21.00 Liz McManus of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann reads ‘For Ilhan’

22.19 Norwegian poet Aasne Linnestå reads Ilhan’s poem “I Came to you, Life’

25.55 Member of Turkish Authors’ Union, Hakkı Zariç, speaks about Ilhan’s work

34.20 Turkish poet Nilay Özer reads Ilhan’s poem ‘What is Poetry Good For?’


38.40 Lee Herrick reads ‘In a Daydream’

40.55 Jeffrey Cyphers Wright reads ‘Star Harbour’

44.08 Haleh Liza Gafori reads ‘Lit by Lightening’

49.02 Kurdish folk singer (and Ilhan’s cousin) Suna Alan’s song, ‘The Ivy’ (Song for Nûdem Durak, who was jailed for 19 years for singing in Kurdish.)

54.34 Screening of Øivind Hånes and Karsten Brustad’s video and operatic rendition of Ilhan’s poems

Menna Elfyn (b.1952) is an award-winning poet and playwright who writes with passion of the Welsh language and identity. She is one of Wales’s best-known and most translated modern Welsh-language poets. Author of over twenty books of poetry including Aderyn Bach Mewn Llaw (1990), winner of a Welsh Arts Council Prize; the bilingual Eucalyptus: Detholiad o Gerddi / Selected Poems 1978-1994 from Gomer and her previous collection, Cell Angel (1996) from Bloodaxe, children’s novels and educational books, numerous stage, radio and television plays, she has also written libretti for US and UK composers.

Haleh Liza Gafori is a poet, translator, vocalist, and educator.  In addition to the poems of Rumi, Gafori has translated the work of Hafez and contemporary Iranian poets. She has also released music as Haale and as The Mast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Lee Herrick was born in Daejeon, South Korea and adopted at 10 months old. He grew up in California. He is the author of the poetry collections Scar and Flower (2018), Gardening Secrets of the Dead (2012), and This Many Miles from Desire (2007). His poems have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, including The Bloomsbury Review, ZYZZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (2nd edition), One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form, and Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, among others.

Aasne Linnestå is a Norwegian author, lyricist, and literary critic. Linnestå is interested in the history of ideas, and studied at the Forfatterstudiet i Bø. She is a freelance writer for the newspaper Morgenbladet and runs courses in creative writing.

Liz Mcmanus is a novelist and poet and member of Irish PEN. She is former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and was a columnist with Sunday Tribune. Winner of the Hennessy Short Story Award and many other literary prizes, she has spent her life writing and serving in politics, including representing the people of Wicklow for 9 years as a Labour County Councillor. One of her latest publications is The Shadow in the Yard (2015) which is set in Letterkenny and Derry in 1969 during the ‘Troubles’.

Alice Oswald is the current Professor of Poetry at the Faculty of English. She took up her post in September 2019. Oswald is a multi-award-winning poet whose accolades include the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2002 and the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize, which she won for her seventh collection of poems, Falling Awake.

Nilay Özer is a poet and educator from Istanbul. She teaches Turkish, Creative Writing and modern Turkish Literature in major universities. Her early poems were published in various literary magazines including Varlık, Adam Sanat in 1995, Her first book titled Zamana Dağılan Nar, was published in 1999. She received the Cemal Süreya Poetry Award in 2004 with her second book titled Ol!.. Her third book Korkuluklara Giysi Yardımı was published in 2015. Nilay Özer’s literature for children has been published in Yapı Kredi Yayınları and other places including Meşe Palamudu Macanda (2015), Uçan Kaçan Bir Pijama Öyküsü (2016), Yara Bandı Fabrikası (2016), Üç Ejder Masalı (2017).  

Sophia Wilson is a member of NZSA/PEN New Zealand. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. She was runner-up in the 2020 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems and both commended and shortlisted in the 2021 Hippocrates Prize. ‘The Captive’s Song’, written in response to Ilhan Ҫomak’s poem ‘I Give Praise to Flight’, won the Dunedin City of Literature 2020 Robert Burns Poetry Competition.

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright is an American poet, writer and publisher. Beginning in 1976, Wright studied with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notleey at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery. He also studied with Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College from where he received an MFA in poetry.