NOTES ON WRITING IN ENGLISH IN TEL AVIV
(from Modern Poetry in Translation New Series, #4. Winter 1993-4, 13-16.)
1. THE PUBLIC STORY
The significant date, as I recall it, is 1978. Dik Flantz, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and known to both English and Hebrew writing circles, "organized" the "Tel Aviv Poets." He began with a broadsheet publishing the works of Richard Sherwin, Riva Rubin, himself, and me, and then organized a number of exciting and unusual readings where the broadsheet was sold. There was a reading at a nightclub in Jaffa, for example, one of the first readings I'd ever participated in, which was - in its excitement, its atmosphere, and its big audience response - comparable to a rock concert. There was a big happening in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, in which English poetry was mixed with Hebrew poetry and music. There were readings at the various universities in the neighborhood, all extremely well attended, and extremely stimulating. One reading at Tel Aviv University, featured slides and music to accompany the poems, and the crowded room was filled with a kind of excitement of being in on a new and exciting experience.
The response we experienced stimulated all of us, as I recall, to writing newer and better poems. A poem by Flantz inspired me to write a poem about his poem, which we read - and published in New Zealand - as a kind of dialogue, and there was a general feeling of a sudden opening up into an audience.
This was very different from what we'd experience in the years before, I think. All of us, and there were many more poets than the four of us, had been writing in isolation, feeling - perhaps - a bit guilty that we were not contributing to the culture of our adopted land because we were not writing in Hebrew, and longing to communicate with an immediate audience who could understand us. Some of us said that writing in a vacuum had been good for us, because it helped us develop an original voice, but all of us were grateful for the chance of feedback.
It began to be clear that we did not have to apologize for not writing in Hebrew. On the contrary, we could be used as bridges to the western world, explaining something of what it feels like to be living in this country without the barrier of translation.
The Israel Association of Writers in English (IAWE) was one of the results. Ben Zion Tomer, then Chair of the Federation of Writers' Associations of Israel, became aware of the existence of English writers in Tel Aviv and asked me to organize a formal association, parallel to the Writers' Associations in Arabic, Russian, Rumanian, Polish and Yiddish. This became a reality in 1980 and has continued since.
The maintenance of this unity is quite remarkable considering the variety of personalities and styles and backgrounds. The fact that we all write in one language does not mean at all we come from the same country or even similar cultures. Zyggy Frankel, whose native language is Polish (and who sees himself as parallel to Joseph Conrad in this respect), may share a platform with the Afrikaans poet Olga Kirsch, who has only recently begun writing in her native language of English. Poets from Australia mix with poets from New York and sometimes find each other very hard to understand or judge. And there are poets from Great Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Ireland, all writing in English, all in Tel Aviv and all fiercely loyal to their native cultures.
Most literary venues for poetry evening have become available to the English writers. The Writers' House has become a center for literary evenings for the Association, but there have been readings in the Z.O.A. House, Zaavta, The Diaspora Museum, and numerous other public places, as well as local pubs and schools.
A literary journal (arc) was also established in 1980, and has continued to introduce new writers as well as the original members for the past fifteen years. Recent issues include translations of Israeli literature as well and a future issue devoted to translation is being planned. Because of the diversity of styles and tastes in English literature in Israel, the editorship rotate with each issue, and although it is one magazine, it reflects something of the catholic quality of the English writing here.
Although the writers in English in Israel seem to be known in other countries and have been published all over the world, featured in journals, promoted with prizes and awards, and interviewed in films, there is a sense in which they remain isolated. No matter how enthusiastic the English readership is in Israel (and it is limited because of the lack of communication - The Jerusalem Post, the only daily newspaper in English in Israel, is also the only newspaper in Israel that does not have a literary section, and does not feel the need to promote local writers, particularly not local writers in English. And because English speakers come from so many different countries, there is no single community with internal lines of communication, like that of the Russians or the Spanish speaking communities here.
Still the English writers seem to be generating their own enthusiasm and finding their own audiences, particularly since Cable TV has made English not only legitimate but familiar. Young Israelis appear to be the biggest fans of the English poets in Tel Aviv today, and who knows what that can lead to? Perhaps someday the English poets will be at the forefront of a new literary movement!
II THE PRIVATE STORY
Let us say you are doing something very private, something very intimate, something you only do when you are alone. Maybe you are lovingly examining the pimple on your chin, or distending your nostril with your index finger for a good scratch. In any case you are totally absorbed in this activity when suddenly you realize you are being broadcast on national television. That is what writing in English in Israel has been for me.
For years writing in English in Israel was a totally private, self-absorbed activity, one that engaged in because there was no audience, because no one could understand me, because English was my language alone. It was an amazing experience for learning to find my own voice and my subject. There were no poetry friends or models but the classic poets I taught at the university, no critics but the rare friends who were handpicked to be flashed a poem, no negative attractions of financial gain or fame.
It was a particularly important time for me because I was extremely vulnerable. On the rare occasions when I dared show a poem to a visiting poem or critic from the world outside, and I was answered with a gentle criticism, I would find myself shutting up shop for months, unable to write a single word.
I was like that as a pupil - working away at some idea the teacher would say was ridiculous - but persisting nevertheless - and then eventually coming around to making sense and communicating to the teacher that I did have something to say. In retrospect this problem was probably confounded by a combination of dyslexia and diglossia (we spoke Yiddish at home), but whatever the reason it takes me forever to find the words and the system I need, and I don't always feel I've succeeded.
So this long time of isolation was valuable. It was also complete. I was unaware, when I first arrived in Israel, of the large numbers of Hebrew poets and the active literary scene, and my Hebrew was too tentative for me to connect with these people who lived and flourished near me. Perhaps, had I become involved then with warm and supportive poets like Eyal Megged, Asher Reich, Rachel Halfi, and Yehuda Amichai when I first arrived in Israel, I might have been encouraged to attempt to master Hebrew and write poetry in that language. But by the time I met these and other writers, I was already set in my habits, filling up little notebooks in English in lieu of being able to communicate with my neighbors and contemporaries in Hebrew.
I didn't know there were other English poets in Israe, and when I found out about poets like the South African Riva Rubin, the English Dennis Silk, and later the Americans Shirley Kaufman and Robert Friend, I was too awed to make myself known to them.
This situation would probably never have occurred in Jerusalem, where the English-speaking population appears to me to be large, active, and - now - vociferous. But the English speaking people I knew in Tel Aviv were more concerned with assimilating, with becoming Israelis. "Jew, speak Hebrew," the old command for new immigrants, seemed to me to be more strictly enforced on the beaches and cafes in Tel Aviv than in Jerusalem.
But I think my poems became more simple and sharp under the influence of the elementary Hebrew I was forced to speak. And perhaps this simplicity made it easier for Hebrew poets to appreciate and translate so many of my poems in the mid-seventies.
Sometimes the poets who translated my poems taught me valuable lessons in poetry. Giora Leshem would sit with me for hours over his translations, and after discussing the poems in detail, I would find myself changing them. There was even a poem about writing in English in Israel, called America, that Giora gave me the final lines for!
And the editors were so encouraging! Editors like the late Yossi Krime of Proza, Gavriel Moked of Achshav, and Zissi Stavi of Yidiot Achronot made me feel I had actually learned to write poetry, and the ricochet effect was that I screwed together enough courage to send some poems to the US journals. Even though the first editor in the United States to accept a poem of mine, the late Menke Katz of Bitterroot, wrote me a letter in Hebrew asking to see the poem "in the original," I felt I was on my way to becoming an English poet in Israel.
Only after a number of poems had appeared in English did I realize I had been publishing my most intimate and private thoughts. The isolation and anonymity I had become accustomed to and comfortable with was suddenly gone. People began asking me how I dared expose myself so openly. And really, all I could say was - it was a question of living in a private language in a public land.