NISHT A’HAIR UN NISHT AHIN (NEITHER HERE NOR THERE), WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AN ENGLISH-LANGUAGE POET IN ISRAEL, BY MIKE STONE

“Language as the technology of human extension, whose powers of division and separation we know so well . . . ” Marshall McLuhan



 For Mike’s poetry visit him at Uncollected Works. [recommended] / J.D.

What’s it really like to be an English-language poet in Israel? What’s it like to speak, read, and write in more than one language? I was inspired to write this post after reading an excellent article by Dara Barnat, entitled No One’s Mother Tongue: Writing in English in Israel, appearing in the English & French poetry journal “Recours au Poeme”. It is well worth your reading, but don’t be daunted by the French at the beginning of the article if you are monolingual; the original English follows immediately. For those Francophiles struggling along in English, Sabine Huynh translated Dara’s article into French. Sabine is a talented poet in both French and English, and translates six languages at last count.

To answer the first question, I suppose it’s somewhat like being a Hebrew-language poet in America; not because so few people read English in Israel or Hebrew in America, but because so few people read poetry in any country. More people would rather read a blog post on poetry or see a movie about a poet, than read an actual poem. But seriously, Dara makes a valid point that being an English-language writer in Israel makes one “different”, “not normal”, and casts one in the undesirable role of being an outsider, insiders being those who are “normal”, who eat out of the same mess kit as you, who love what you love and hate what you hate. The funny thing about that is that’s the way I felt in America too. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing, except that’s the way I feel in a synagogue too.

Now would be a good time to explain the title of my post, “Nisht a’hair un nisht ahin”. It’s Yiddish for “neither here nor there”. That’s how a true outsider feels.

As for the second question, I speak, read, and write in English and Hebrew. English is my native language, my mama lushin, but I’ve lived in Israel more than half my life, so I don’t have to translate my thoughts from English to Hebrew. I think in both languages. I used to speak Spanish and German too, but unfortunately those tongues have atrophied in my mouth. So a curious monolingual might ask “what’s it like?” We see the world around us through our eyes but we filter what we see through the structures of our language. Actually there are a lot of different filters that raw reality has to pass through before it enters our minds, such as the structures of culture, of religion, and of nationality, but language precedes them. If we experience something for which we have no word or form of word, then we are not likely to remember that thing. We may not even be aware of it. Most languages possess common structures, or else we’d never be able to translate from one language to another, but every language also has its own unique structures. Hebrew speakers see the world through both common and unique language structures, for instance the concurrency of biblical time with modern time, the timelessness of the Holocaust, the synesthesia between our children and our soldiers, our love-hate relationship with religion and politics, our dependence on and mistrust of the outside world, the suspicion of abandoned baggage, to name only a few of our unique language structures. These will never be translatable into English or any other language. So what I am saying is that I see the world through both sets of language structures at the same time. The realities I see are painted from a richer palette. Richer is not necessarily happier. In my case, it’s sadder.

There is so much to love, but there is so much to lose and it can be so lonely when you’re an outsider looking in.

Mike Stone 

Raanana Israel

© 2019, Mike Stone; illustration, a public domain photograph of The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

MIKE STONE (Uncollected Works)was born in Columbus Ohio, USA, in 1947 and was graduated from Ohio State University with a BA in Psychology. He served in both the US Army and the Israeli Defense Forces. He’s been writing poetry since he was a student at OSU and supports his writing habit by working as a computer networking security consultant. He moved to Israel in 1978 and lives in Raanana. He is married and has three sons and seven grandchildren.



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Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. I currently run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers. My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation PressThe Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman. My poetry was recently read by Northern California actor Richard Lingua for Poetry Woodshed, Belfast Community Radio. I was featured in a lengthy interview on the Creative Nexus Radio Show where I was dubbed “Poetry Champion.”


The BeZine: Waging the Peace, An Interfaith Exploration featuring Fr. Daniel Sormani, Rev. Benjamin Meyers, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi among others

“What if our religion was each other. If our practice was our life. If prayer, our words. What if the temple was the Earth. If forests were our church. If holy water–the rivers, lakes, and ocean. What if meditation was our relationships. If the teacher was life. If wisdom was self-knowledge. If love was the center of our being.” Ganga White, teacher and exponent of Yoga and founder of White Lotus, a Yoga center and retreat house in Santa Barbara, CA

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton

LATE BREAKING NEWS: A Celebration of the Whitmanian in Israel, December 11

Walt Whitman (1817-1892)

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”  Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


Monday, December 11, 8 pm – 1 pm UTC+2,
Therefore For Thee
hosted by Jerusalism, Fostering Local Literary Community
at the Barbur Gallery, 6 Shirzil Street, Jerusalem, Israel

“Walt Whitman is considered the father of American Poetry. Jerusalism invites all lovers of literature to an evening celebrating his work. Hosted at the illustrious Barbur Gallery, deep in the heart of Nachlaot, the evening will feature local Israeli poets, reading Whitman’s poems alongside their own original poems written in the Whitmanian tradition.”


ABOUT THE POET BY DAY

W/rites and Rhapsodies: Travel Israel and write poetry with Adeena Karasick and Michael Dickel

OriginalThis is a very special event my friend Michael Dickel, Ph.D. has designed in concert with Adeena Karasick, Ph.D. You’ve read some of Michael’s work in The Poet by Day and some in The BeZine, where he is Contributing Editor.  Link HERE for an interview with Michael. J.D.

July 3-18 2016 Travel Israel—write poetry! Immerse yourself in a spectral past and resonant present with renowned poets and performers Adeena Karasick and Michael Dickel.

Deadline for registration is 15 April.

Registration: CLICK HERE

Write! Tour! Perform! Listen! Learn! Feast! Through the labyrinths of the old city of Jerusalem, mystical mountains of Tzfat, Bedouin villages, caves and waterfalls, The Dead Sea, Galilee, Masada at sunset, or on a camel through the Sinai, write through the specters of the past into a resonant present with tour leaders and renowned authors, performers and essayists, Adeena Karasick and Michael Dickel.

AdeenaAdeena Karasick, Ph.D. is a New York based poet, performer, cultural theorist and media artist and the author of seven books of poetry and poetics.

Writing at the intersection of post-Language Conceptualism and neo-Fluxus performatics, Adeena’s urban, Jewish feminist mashups have been described as “electricity in language” (Nicole Brossard), “proto-ecstatic jet-propulsive word torsion” (George Quasha), noted for their “cross-fertilization of punning and knowing, theatre and theory” (Charles Bernstein) “a twined virtuosity of mind and ear which leaves the reader deliciously lost in Karasick’s signature ‘syllabic labyrinth’” (Craig Dworkin).

Adeena’s most recent publications are: This Poem (Talonbooks, 2012) and The Medium is the Muse: Channeling Marshall McLuhan (NeoPoiesis Press, 2014).

Adeena teaches Literature and Critical Theory for the Humanities and Media Studies Dept. at The Pratt Institute and is co-founding Director of KlezKanada Poetry Festival and Retreat. The “Adeena Karasick Archive” has just been established at Special Collections, Simon Fraser University.

B&W Pompeii copyMichael Dickel, Ph.D.is a writer, photographer and artist, is chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. He received top awards in the 2008 and 2009 Reuben Rose Poetry Competitions, co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010) and was managing editor of arc–23 (2014) and arc–24 (2015).

Michael’s poetry, prose, and photographs have appeared in small-press literary journals, anthologies, art books,and online. His latest book of poems, War Surrounds Us, came out in July 2015.

Michael holds degrees in psychology, creative writing, and literature. He taught college and university writing courses in the United States and Israel for nearly twenty-five years. He directed the Student Writing Center at the University of Minnesota and the Macalester Academic Excellence Center at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN).

Michael has published articles, presented conference papers, and led workshops on writing and the teaching of academic writing. He lives in Jerusalem, Israel, where he writes and occasionally teaches.

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© W/rites and Rhapsodies (Dr. Michael Dickel and Dr. Adeena Karasick)

The Poet As Witness: “War Surrounds Us,” an interview with American-Israeli Poet, Michael Dickel

5182N5cYeEL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_“That some of those labelled as enemies
have crossed the lines to offer condolences
at the mourning tents; that the mourning
families spoke to each other as parents
and cried on each others’ shoulders;
that we cried for the children who died
on both sides of the divide; that the
war began anyway; that hope must
still remain with those who cross
borders, ignore false lines and divisions;
that children should be allowed to live;
that we must cry for all children who die”

– Michael Dickel, (Mosquitos) War Surrounds Us

Jerusalem, Summer 2014: Michael Dickel and his family including Moshe (3 years) and Naomi (1 year) hear the air raid sirens, find safety in shelters, and don’t find relief during vacation travels.  In a country smaller than New Jersey, there is no escaping the grumbling wars that encircle. So Michael did what writers and poets do. He bore witness. He picked up his pen and recorded thoughts, feelings, sounds, fears, colors, events and concerns in poetry. The result is his third collection of poems, a chapbook, War Surrounds Us.

While some use poetry to galvanize war, Michael’s poetry is a cry for peace. He watched the provocations between Israel and Hamas that resulted in war in 2014 and he illustrates the insanity.

            And the retaliation
Continues, reptilian and cold,
retaliation the perpetrator
of all massacres.

Though the poems change their pacing and structure, they present a cohesive logical and emotional flow, one that takes you blood and bone into the heart of Michael’s experience as a human being, a poet, a Jew, a father and husband. He touches the humanity in all of us with his record of the tension between summer outings and death tolls, life as usual and the omnipresence of war.  Both thumbs up on this one. Bravo, Michael.

– Jamie Dedes

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MY INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DICKEL:

Jamie: Putting together a poetry collection and ordering the work in a way that enhances the meaning and clarity of poems included is not easy. One of the first things to strike me about the collection as a whole is how it flows, so well in fact that it reads almost like one long poem. I found that quality contributed to the work’s readability. How did you work out the order? Was it consciously ordered or did it arise organically out of the experience of the war?

Michael: I’m very gratified that you noticed this about my book. I hadn’t thought of it quite in that sense, of being one poem, but I like that it reads that way. The sense of a book holding together, a collection of poems having some coherence, is important to me. I don’t think my first book achieved this very well, although it has some flow poem to poem. The whole is not focused, though. My second book has a sense of motion and narrative, from the Midwest where I grew up to arriving and living in Israel, and now being part of the Mid-East. However, War Surrounds Us, my third book, finally has a sense of focus that the other two did not.

Unfortunately, I probably can’t take too much credit for that coherence. Even more unfortunate, a real war raged in Gaza, with rockets also hitting the Jerusalem area, not that far from where I live. As we know now, thousands died, most apparently civilians, many children. Just across the border to the Northeast, diagonally opposite of Gaza, a much larger scale conflict burned and still burns through Syria—with even larger death tolls and even more atrocities over a longer time. These wars had, and still have, a huge impact on me and my family.

During last summer, the summer of 2014, this reality of war surrounding us had all of my attention. And it came out in my writing as obsession with the war, my family, the dissonance between living everyday life and the reality of death and destruction a missile’s throw away. So the topic filled my poems those months, as it did my thoughts. And the poems emerged as events unfolded over time, so a sort of narrative wove into them—not a plot, mind you, not exactly, anyway.

This gives a chronological structure to the book. However, not all of the poems appear in the order I wrote them. I did move some around, seeing connections in a theme or image—if it did not jar the sense of the underlying chronology of the war. Some of the events in our life could move around, and I did move some poems to places where I thought they fit better. I also revised the poems, reading from beginning to end several times, trying to smooth out the flow. A few of the poems I actually wrote or started before this phase of the ongoing conflict broke out—but where they also fit into a pattern, I included them. In the end, I moved and revised intuitively, following my own sense of flow and connection. I’m glad that it seems to have worked for you, as a reader, too.

Jamie: What is the place of the poet and poetry in war? Can poetry, art and literature move us to peace? How and why?

Michael: This is a difficult question. Historically, one place of poets was to call the soldiers to war, to rile them up and denounce the enemy. There is a famous poem from the Hebrew Scriptures. Balaam is called by Balak to curse Jacob and his army. The story sets a talking donkey who sees an angel with a sword and other obstacles in his way, but long story short, he arrives and raises his voice. He is the poet who is supposed to curse the enemy. Instead, he begins, “How beautiful your tents, O Jacob…” and recites a poem that is now part of the Jewish liturgy. This is not necessarily a peace poem, but it shows words and their power to curse of bless. I think the place of the poet is to bless and, rather than curse, to witness with clear sight.

There is a long history of poet as witness and observer. Czeslaw Milosz in The Witness of Poetry and Carolyn Forché, following him, in her books Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness and Poetry of Witness, which goes back to the 16th Century, argue that the poet’s role is to observe and bear witness to the world—to the darkness, the atrocities, genocide, war… Forché quotes Bertolt Brecht: “In these dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times.” I think that is what we do as poets. That’s what I hope that War Surrounds Us does at its best, albeit as much a witnessing of my own family and context as of the Other. Then, as feminist theory has taught me, the personal is political, the political personal.

A1oKsOxRrJL._UY200_Can art and literature move us to peace? I don’t know. I hope it can move us to see more clearly, to feel more acutely, and to embrace our humanity and the humanity of others. Perhaps that will move us toward peace. There is so much to do, and it is as the rabbinic wisdom says about healing creation: it may not be ours to see the work completed, but that does not free us from the responsibility to do the work. As poets, we make a contribution. I hope the songs about the dark times will also be blessings for us all.

Jamie: Tell us about your life as a poet. When did you start and how did you pursue the path? How do you carve out time for it in a life that includes work, children and community responsibilities. You live on a kibbutz, I think.

Michael: Well, starting at the end, no, I don’t live on a kibbutz, I live in Jerusalem (the pre-1967 side of the Green Line). I do teach English at a college that was started by the Kibbutz Movement as a teacher’s college in the 1960s, now Kibbutzim College of Education, Arts and Technology. That appears in my email signature and confuses some people outside of Israel, who think I teach as part of living at a kibbutz. I’m actually more like adjunct faculty, but no one at the college works directly for a kibbutz as far as I know, and the college is open to anybody who qualifies.

While I only have a short day, from when the kids of my current family go to pre-school until I pick them up, I also usually only teach part-time. Some semesters I teach full-time or even more, but usually not. And, many of my courses in the past couple of years have been online, meeting only a few times during the semester. This helps.

My wife works full-time in high tech, which allows us to survive on my irregular, adjunct pay. She also has some flexibility, which allows her to usually be free to pick up the kids as needed around my teaching schedule, and we have on occasion hired someone to help with the kids so I could teach, not so much for my writing. But that has allowed writing time on other days.

Mostly, I write during those few hours when the kids are at pre-school, after the kids have gone to bed, or even later, after my wife has also gone to bed. If I’m working on a deadline or a large project, such as some of the freelance work I do for film production companies, I write after my wife gets home from work even if the kids are still awake. Usually, though, I write when I find time, and I find time when I don’t have other obligations.

Perhaps of relevance to this book, the writing took over. I was late in getting papers back to students and delayed other obligations and deadlines, even canceling a couple of other projects—although it was not just the writing, but the whole experience of the war, dealing with it and wanting to be very present with my children. As the poems relate, we went to the Galilee, in the North, for a month, a vacation we have taken before. Last summer, though, it had extra urgency because of the war. Unfortunately, during an outing picking apples in the Golan Heights, we heard artillery across the border in Syria, and that’s when I wrote the title poem of the book, “War Surrounds Us.”

The summer before, on that same month-long getaway, I wrote a lot of flash fiction, which makes up most of my next book, which should come out by the end of the year. I wrote during both summers when the kids were napping or after their bedtime, mostly. The place we stay in, a friend’s house (he travels every summer), has a lovely courtyard, and after the children went to bed, Aviva and I would sit out in it, usually with a glass of wine. She would read or work online and I would write on my laptop into the night. It was lovely and romantic.

I have to say that I almost don’t remember a time when I didn’t write poetry or stories. I recall trying to stop on a few occasions, either to work in some other aspect of my life, or when I did a different kind of writing, such as for my dissertation (which devolved into creative writing for more than half of it). But really, going back into my early years, I wrote stories or poems of some sort—influenced I suppose by A. A. Milne, Sol Silverstein, Kenneth Grahame and, later, Mark Twain and even Shakespeare. I had books of Roman and Greek myths, the Lambs’ bowdlerized Shakespeare for children, and some Arthurian tales as a child, not to mention shelves of Golden Books. Later, I read Madeleine L’Engle and a lot of science fiction. And everything I read made me also want to write.

I owe the earliest of my poems that I can remember to exercises from grade school teachers, one in 3rd grade, maybe 4th, the other in 6th grade. However, I’m sure that I wrote stories and possibly “poems” earlier. My first sense that I could become a poet arrived via a junior high school teacher, who encouraged me to submit some poetry to a school contest. I tied for first place.

So, I started writing forever ago. By the time of the junior high contest, I had read e e cummings, Emily Dickinson, some Whitman. By 9th grade, I discovered the Beats through a recording of Ginsberg reading “Kaddish” and other poems. Hearing him read the poems, then reading them myself, changed everything.

Alongside this development, one of my brothers brought Dylan records home that I listened to. All three of my brothers, with my parents’ tacit approval, played folk music and protest music in the form of songs of Woody Guthrie; The Weavers; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; in addition to Dylan. These influenced both my writing and my world view. The same year that I came across Ginsberg’s work, I was involved in anti-war activity in my high school. That spring, four students were shot at Kent State. In another way, that changed everything, too.

Writing, activism, and politics, for me have always been interwoven. I also heard that year about “The Woman’s Movement,” which today we call Feminism. Later, much later, I would read and take to heart the idea of the personal being political, the body being political. I think my poems, even the most personal, always have a political and theoretical lens. And the most philosophical or political or theoretical, also have a personal lens. I don’t think that we can help but do that, but I try to be aware of the various lenses, of using their different foci deliberately as part of my craft. I’m not sure that is the current trend, and much of my work doesn’t fit well in spoken word or slam settings (some of it fits). However, this is my poetry and poetics—and they arise from a specific cultural context, the complexity of which I could not begin to convey in less than a lifetime of writing.

My development from those awakening moments looked like this: I read. I wrote. I shared my work with other people who wrote. Sometimes I talked with others about writing. My first degree in college was in psychology, not English, because I naively thought that psych would help me understand the human condition and that English would “ruin” – suppress – my writing voice. However, I took a lot of literature courses and my study abroad term focused entirely on literature.

After college, I had a career as a counselor working with runaways, with street teens, with children undergoing in-patient psych evaluations, and in a crisis intervention and suicide prevention center—a career that taught me a lot about politics, gender, race, and justice. I continued to write, often about some of the most disturbing realities that I encountered, but not well.

I had been out of college nearly a decade when I took some courses in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, at the suggestion of some friends in a writing group who had also taken some. One of the professors encouraged me to apply to the Creative Writing Program, where I was accepted. The acceptance was a poignant moment—I was out of state at my father’s burial. My now ex-wife remained back with our then 2 year-old daughter. She saw the letter in the mail, so called and read it to me. It was also my 32nd birthday. So many emotions all at the same time. Mostly, I remember wishing I could have told my father—from when he first heard that I’d applied, every phone call we had included his asking if I had heard yet if I had been accepted. It was the most direct way he had of saying he was proud.

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Jamie: Tell us a little about 100,000 Poets for Change (100TPC) in Israel and how people can get in touch with you if they want to participate this year. Are you able to manage a mix of Arabs and Jews?

Michael: The thing about 100TPC is that it’s pretty loose, as an organization, and very anarchic in governance. Which is to say, I’m not sure there is something I could call 100TPC in Israel. There’s a wonderful poet in Haifa who does some events, I don’t think every year. She is very active in peace activism and poetry. There’s an Israeli mentor of mine, Karen Alkalay-Gut, who has organized 100TPC events in Tel Aviv since the first year. For the past two years, I organized a poetry reading in Jerusalem. The first one was small, a few people I knew and cajoled into reading. The second one was much larger, over 25 poets. We had one Arab writer, who writes in English, at the second reading. Her poetry is powerful and personal, written as an Arab woman, a mother, and an Israeli. An Arab musician was going to join us, but he had a conflict arise with a paying gig. It is difficult to manage the practical, political, and social barriers, but people do it here. I am just learning a bit how to do this now.

For this year, I am working with two other organizations—the Lindberg Peace Foundation, which has held annual Poetry for Peace events. This year will be the 40th anniversary (yartzheit, in Hebrew) of Miriam Lindberg’s tragic death at the age of 18. She wrote poetry, was a peace activist, and also an environmental activist. Her mother was a poet and professor, and passed away a few years ago. Joining us in planning the Jerusalem event will be the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. Their mission as I understand it is to develop interfaith leadership for common goals related to eco-justice that would also provide a model for solving the Middle East conflicts.

The Jerusalem events won’t be the same date as the national event (26 September)—our dates will be 15–16 October, to honor the 40th anniversary of Miriam Lindberg’s death. Dorit Weissman, a Hebrew-language poet and playwright, also has become part of 100TPC this year, and she and I are having a smaller reading on 8 October with other poets.

We are just setting up a Facebook page for organizing with the three groups, 100TPC, the foundation, and the center. People could look for me on FB and send me a chat message there to be in touch. I hope that we will have the events posted on FB in the next few weeks, but we are still working on the details. The devil is always in the details, as the saying goes.

Michael will host The BeZine‘s virtual 100TPC this 26 September 2015.

Poems from War Surrounds Us:
Again
Musical Meditations
The Roses

TLV1 Interview and Poetry Reading

Be the peace.

© 2015, book review, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; words, poetry, photographs of Michael, Michael Dickel, All rights reserved; cover illustration, The Evolution of Music, by Jerry Ingeman, All rights reserved