Poets’ diaries

Rami Saari

In Jerusalem, the poetry readings at the 6th International Poets’ Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim contrast sharply with the attacks killing Israelis and Palestinians elsewhere in the country. Hebrew poet Rami Saari kept a diary: “A few festival poets read from their work as a kind of appetizer for those invited. (The same evening three Israelis were killed in a terror attack; to be continued).”

Sunday, October 19

Before dawn. Accompanying me on the Olympic flight from Athens to the airport near Tel Aviv is Border Country by the Estonian poet Emil Tode. The book’s title resonates in my mind as the condition of my homeland, a country which the Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernikhovsky characterized this way:

Oh my land, my homeland,
bald mountain of boulders,
country of the weak, lamb and sheep,
joyfulness of golden citrus.

Tchernikhovsky died too young to participate in any poetry festivals in Jerusalem, but his words reverberate in my thoughts as the Greek plane touches the runway on the edge of the Tel Aviv shoreline. A soft landing in a hard land, my own.

At breakfast I become acquainted with Pablo Armando Fernández, a Cuban poet whose work I translated for the festival. Upon reading his poetry, I recognized a soul mate. Now his blue eyes and heartening talk radiate the same message, heartening as his poetry, warm and blue like the waters of the Caribbean.

At the opening night, the auditorium is too small to contain the crowd piling up at the door but luckily the program will be screened on video outside the hall. After three speeches in Hebrew (by Michael Shilo, Ruth Heshin and Gabi Hadar), the artistic director of the festival, Natan Zach, spoke sharply in English, his words spiced with humor and liquor, balancing political criticism with words of welcome. A few festival poets read from their work as a kind of appetizer for those invited. (The same evening three Israelis were killed in a terror attack; to be continued). Before the panel discussion that served as the program’s dessert, Nurit Galron sang popular songs with words by Israeli poets, her velvety voice sweet as honey.

Monday, October 20

The first four poetry sessions. Large, enthusiastic audiences. Words and more words – deep feeling, jokes and pain. Haim Gouri, with the wisdom of his years, Jenaro Talens, touching on love and cinema, Nurit Zarchi, force mixed with gentleness, Bei Dao and the richness of his world. (The same day eight or ten or twelve Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air force attack on Gaza; to be continued.) The curious mosaic of the festival is revealed tonight. And this is only the beginning.

Tuesday, October 21

About Tuesday (the “third day” in Hebrew) it says in Genesis: “And God saw that it was good.” Tuesday at the festival was intense, filled with programs and activities (and, yes, the battlefield outside the festival also continued to be active with its programs and activities.) In the morning I met Agi Mishol, a good friend and one of the most talented woman poets in Israel; we spoke about our forthcoming books. The high point of the afternoon was a reading by several festival poets in the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market. This place, which has witnessed many terrorist attacks, was rewarded with the pleasures of poetry, and I would hope that these precious interludes might be continued. Afterwards, in Yael’s Garden at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a Poetry and Music Café was opened for young poets and the broader public. Later some festival poets participated in a panel moderated by the journalist Emmanuel Halperin, on the subject of “Poetry and Globalization”.

Between 6:30 and 11:00 pm, there were three nearly continuous readings. Despite my admiration of the poets involved, it wasn’t in my power to sit through another poetry marathon and I was forced to take a break from word poisoning in favor of the calming landscape of the Judean hills and the peaks of Jerusalem. It is hard to believe that such a magical panorama exists, the moonscape above the earth in the city I left last year for Athens, but which has never left me.

Wednesday, October 22

Together with Lisa Katz, the English editor of the Israeli pages of PIW, I conduct a translation workshop in the morning. Participating poets translate Hebrew poetry into their native languages. Unfortunately, but in accordance with the instructions of the festival’s artistic director, the meeting is closed to the public. We offer the poets two poems by Lea Goldberg, and two by Nathan Alterman. Most of the participants prefer to translate Goldberg and at the end of the meeting we are in possession of a healthy sheaf of translations. The work has been done from English versions, but rests of course on close readings of the originals. Although this is a work meeting, it allows for free conversation, fraternizing, and a deeper familiarity between those present. The festival photographer Vadim Mikhailov deftly passes through the room, preserving poets on camera, as he has done during the whole festival.

In the afternoon and evening, there are four more poetry sessions. I attend the first and the third. In the first session the audience enjoys the talents of the Irish poet Desmond O’Grady, the words of Israeli Moshe Ben-Shaul, and the forceful and lilting poems of Yolanda Pantin of Venezuela. The third session opens with Samih el-Kassim’s rhythmic reading in Arabic, Hebrew and English – in all three languages one hears the poet’s heart and the echo of his pain. (The continuation that arrived yesterday and the day before yesterday arrived as well today and will be here tomorrow too, but that isn’t what I’ve been asked to write about.) Next followed Jacob Besser, editor of the literary journal Iton 77, with poems that dealt with, among other things, the uprooted languages of immigrants and the accents of their mother tongues. Next came “El Poeta” of Cuba whose poems filled the audience with excitement. The third session closes with Shin Shifra, who, along with Jacob Klein, translated Akkadian and Sumerian poetry into Hebrew in their anthology In Those Far Days. There is still another session to come, and the hour approaches midnight.

Willing poets are trundled into a small bus and a series of taxis for a surprise – a midnight supper in Abu Ghosh, an Israeli Arab village on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway which is known for its restaurants, the remains of crusader buildings and a few churches where concerts are often held. The foreign poets may or may not know that Abu Ghosh symbolizes the only definite meeting point of different cultures in Israel – food. “Mopping up” your plate of humous with a piece of pita bread seems a truly shared experience in this divisive land – sometimes mocked for not in fact constituting much of an experience, and sometimes celebrated as the true meeting of hearts and minds.

Thursday, October 23

Surrounded by a few friends and a dozen poets, I stand entranced by Vadim’s photographs: in his special way he has managed to capture each poet and bring out the most characteristic aspect of his or her personality in a picture. The photographs make me think of the statements I have heard lately on television, statements made by the army spokeswoman and certain politicians, about the documentation of what is taking place in Israel: a picture is worth a thousand words. As a poet, a thinking person, a human being, I am not sure I agree with this statement. But if all the pictures on tv were as beautiful and edifying as Vadim’s wonderful photographs, it would be easier to accept this view…

Lisa and I conduct the second session of the poetry workshop, this time with a few guests from outside the festival. (While the workshop is supposed to be closed to outsiders, we decide to ignore this rule in the presence of welcome guests who genuinely add to the proceedings.) We listen to the translations made on the previous day: Jenaro Talens’ crisp and fresh Spanish; the musical, ringing Italian of Roberto Piperno; Ayyappa Paniker’s fantastic Malayalam – a language so distant, with such winning music; the calm Dutch of Willem van Toorn, percussive and soft at the same time; and the original Englishes of Abdullah al-Udhari and Desmond O’Grady. Although Lisa and I serve as moderators and editors, we keep a low profile, raising questions and expressing wonder, rather than our opinions. It is more important to us to listen to the voices rising from the discussion table: is translation the work of one or many? Should rhyme be preserved, even at the cost of changing the content? May foreign landscapes really be transmitted in the words of a different language? What is the importance of cultural background or affinity with a language? We received answers to some of the questions; sometimes there was agreement, and sometimes disagreement. The enriching meeting came to an end, but continues within us, and this, too, I wish to be continued.

The most successful poetry session of the festival takes place in the evening, successful not only because all the tickets have been sold out, but because of the quality of the verse, the connection that develops between the poets and the audience, and the delightfully modest approach of the poets to the people who have come to hear them. Agi Mishol begins the evening with two political poems, focusing on the name of a woman suicide bomber, and some stolen olive trees. She follows with ars poetica poems, the sharp shift between politics and poetry-examining-itself a kind of evidence of the extremes of life. The Indian Ayyappa Paniker is next, beautifully singing his chant (to a woman? to a muse?), after introducing himself with self-deprecating humor. Earlier in the day, co-participants in the translation workshop heard him read the Malayalam version of ‘Pine’ a poem by one of Israel’s best-known writers, Lea Goldberg, learning that Paniker’s southwestern coast town has neither pine trees nor a word for them. A young poet, Moatez Abu Saleh, born in Damascus in 1968, growing up in the Golan Heights and living now in Haifa, bears the distinction of being not exactly Israeli and not exactly Palestinian, according to his own definition; a blond, Abu Saleh joked that people mistook him for a (possibly Russian) new immigrant to Israel. He read his poems in Arabic, Hebrew and English, ending with a verse about an eternal optimist whose shadow stands on his shoulders when rising water engulfs his head. Willem van Toorn, Dutch poet and translator read last, including a dream poem in which the poet realizes he is in love with a woman who has died.

The final session of the festival closed with a musical performance which must have been a mystery to the foreign guests – songs of the old Israel, with images of love against a farm background, and no intifada in sight, a kind of Israeli country music.

At the very end, when poets raised a toast to the festival, a birthday cake was brought out for Elaine Feinstein, who had to be awakened from bed to receive it – the cake was somehow decorated with an edible photo of the festival poets – when you got your piece of cake, you could eat a poet, or poke a fork in his (they were mostly male) eyes.

Friday, October 24

Before dawn: The way from Mishkenot Sha’ananim to the airport on the coast takes less than an hour on the highway empty of traffic at three in the morning. After the passport check, on my way to Athens, I’m sorry I didn’t manage to say thank you to Gabi, to say goodbye to Vadim, to drink another cup of coffee with Lisa. Never mind, I tell myself: to be continued.

The Hebrew poet Rami Saari (Israel, 1963) divides his time between Jerusalem, where he translates books, and Athens, where he is currently working on post-doctoral studies in linguistics, in addition to editing the Israeli pages of PIW.

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