Helicon School of Poetry
No one has ever questioned the benefitof studies for the visual artist, the actor or the musician. Why then does our era accept the notion that poetry needn’t be studied? It’s true that talent can’t be learned – in any field – but as we know, in Ancient Greece, in the aiodoi tradition in Homeric Ionia (8th-9th cent. BC), in Lesbos (7th cent. BC) or in Hellenistic Alexandria (3rd cent BC), in the various meistersinger, troubadour and other European traditions, through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, there used to be schools for poetry. Homer, Sappho or Callimachus stand in the tradition of a school, as do Kalidassa in India or Basho in Japan; in just the same way as there are schools for dance and fine arts today. Broadening a poet’s horizons, familiarizing her/him with various styles and techniques of writing as well as with the writings of different cultures and eras, can only enrich their poetic “tool-box”.
In the evolution of Helicon's professional practice I saw great importance not only in bringing new sectors of the public closer to poetry but also in providing a platform, and professional advancement, for young poets. The Helicon Society for the Advancement of Poetry, which was founded in 1990, already had a journal, a book series, and a poetry cabaret series and was making a contribution that could be felt in the cultural discourse in Israel; but to make real change this was not enough. In 1993 I was offered the opportunity to establish a framework for learning to write poetry and I started to formulate the concept and form the staff of the Helicon School of Poetry.
The idea was to give young poets more writing tools, just as music or theatre, dance or art academies do for artists in these fields. To promote excellence, and due to the high costs, the chosen students received - and still receive - full grants. The classes took place at and in conjunction with the culture centre of Mishkenot Sha’ananimin Jerusalem; and were later transferred as an independent Helicon project to Daniel House in Zichron Ya’akov, an estate donated by the family for artistic activities.It’sa very quiet place, in beautiful nature in the Carmel mountains, which encourages artistic concentration and creativity. The whole place is closed to visitors when classes take place.
Our workshops are limited to a select group of writers who have submitted poems chosen by our lectors. The participants (a total of 16 a year) meet for a full weekend once a month for 6 months, working from Friday at noon until late Saturday evening. Between meetings they send in work they’ve been asked to do in the various workshops, and have personal meetings with the tutors on their own texts and on reading/performing poetry. The curriculum includes new experiences in writing, translating and editing poetry, along with reading poetry aloud and poetic dialogues. Each poetry class concludes with the publication of an anthology of the participants’ poetry, along with their translations and "food for thought" by the instructors, as well as poetry-reading events.
Cultural processes are long-term, and making a cultural impact takes a long time. The school started in 1993 but it took about eight years before its extensive effect on Israeli culture could be seen. Since then,graduates of the poetry classes have published close to fifty poetry books; they have participated in international poetry festivals and have won many awards, from those for young poets to the major national prizes: including the Ministry of Culture Prize for a First Published Book, The Jerusalem Award, the Teva Prize of the Metula Poetry Festival, and the esteemed Prime Minister’s Literary Prize and Amichai Prize. Many of our graduates have also gone on to write criticism, teach and run various poetry frameworks around the country.
Following 11 years of successful work, we decided in 2001, just before the second intifada broke out, to offer the same programme to young poets who write in Arabic, along with a framework for mutual cultural, personal and poetic acquaintance between writers of Hebrew and writers of Arabic.
The Arabic-Hebrew class requires a large staff of instructors able to work in each of the two languages; and extensive translation work. These needs make the project more costly and complex to carry out, but we see them as crucial so as to achieve the project's objectives.Our staff is composed of poets, editors, theatre people, translators and academics from both the Arab and the Jewish sectors of Israeli society, along with two assistants who are graduates of previous classes. It has been our belief from the start that talented poets should not be excluded because of financial limitations, and this consideration is further stressed in the Arabic-Hebrew classes.
Fostering the next generation of poets: to develop and refine the writing skills of each participant in the project; to enable the deepening of their knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic poetics through experiencing creative writing in the various poetic traditions, as well as practicing various writing techniques, with an emphasis on translation of poetry; to supply a missing platform for new poetry in Israel. Young poetry is a “weak” sectorwhich lacks funding and promotion, although it embodiesthe future of both Hebrew and Arabic cultures in our society.
Bringing people closer through poetry: the Hebrew-Arabic poetry classes, along with Helicon's bi-lingual “Sha’ar” International Poetry Festival, which was originally for new poetry, and its two accompanying bi-lingual annual publications, seek to make a bridge between Jews and Arabs in Israel, to create a framework for a cultural dialogue among the most promising poets of the future generation, and to transmit the achievements of this collaborative activity to the general public. Such endeavors are vital to open each culture to a better understanding of the heritage, philosophy and difficulties of the other, and thus contribute to mutual respect and enrichment.
Spreading the message: enabling graduates of the Hebrew-Arabic poetry classes in the role of “Carriers of a Poetic Message” in both cultures; and spreading in our troubled society the message of an ongoing dialogue and of mutual respect and tolerance. Much work has already been done in these few years in cities and villages, schools and cultural centres in Israel. For example:a Haifa group of our graduates, Martef (Basement) 29 runs poetry events and workshops in that city. A Jerusalem group Ktovet does the same there, with the addition of bi-lingual workshops, an internet magazine and mini festivals. These groups collaborate at times with Helicon, but are basically independent. Smaller groups and activities take place in smaller places like Karkour and Arabe (Jewish and Arab villages, respectively). A few of our graduates went on to write as critics in Israeli magazines and literary supplements. Others run the Beit Byalik literature centre and Matan – literary education for high school age gifted kids.
Exposure of graduates' achievements in contemporary poetry; presenting them to the public and especially to the younger generation.
Back at 1993, when I began our project, my thought turned on the question of the format required for such a framework. What I came up with was as follows:
A. The number of participants should be limited to 16.
B. The workshops should be residential, so that participants will not be distracted, and the concentrated atmosphere will contribute to the intimacy of contact between them.
C. We will have six full weekend workshop meetings once a month, with home assignments and individual work sessions between instructors and participants between the group meetings.
D. The workshops should be held in a quiet aesthetic place that enables artistic concentration and creativity.
E. The workshops will include: Exercising (of various styles and methods), Poetics, Editing and Feedback and Reading Poetry Aloud. Later we added Translation and, in the bilingual Hebrew-Arab classes, Inter-translation workshops.
F. In each of the six weekends all the sessions will focus on one aspect of poetics, working on it from this range of disciplines and approaches, a strategy which creates a kind of “total immersion”, more than the sum of its parts. These aspects are:
1. the poetic word, line and stanza;
2. metaphor and imagery;
3. rhythm, metre and other musical poetic qualities;
4. rhyme and poetic forms;
5. composition and integration;
6.review and thematic possibilities (for example, "Dream", "Self-Portrait").
This basic programme worked with a remarkable effect, and after 11 years of the school we still work with it rather successfully with few changes and adaptations.
From our cumulative experience we have learned that the dynamics of the group benefit from attention and work, and to this end we have devoted the Friday evening of each weekend to a less formal format of group dynamics through poetry. This ranges from dealing with disgusting or frightening experiences through writing games, to using meditative imagery techniques, or letting group pressures and conflicts out by similar methods, to the point they write homages to each other, where even criticism is humoristic and not destructive. We have also instituted regular feedback, oral or in writing, at the end of each monthly meeting; as well as activities to "warm up" and relax the body and the soul, such as an early morning walk, "free writing" for release from self-criticism, group dynamics through writing exercises and a "reading circle" in which participants share with the group poems and books that they have brought.
The classes are residential so as to enable acquaintance and collaboration between participants, and enable intensive work of participants from all over the country. It is important to choose a very quiet place which enables artistic concentration and creativity. We use Zikhron Ya'akov in the Lower Galilee, which is also easier for both Arabic and Jewish participants to reach. The concentrated atmosphere contributes to the intimacy of contact between the people. This nurtures the ability to open up to one another, to each other’s cultural heritage as well as to each others’ contemporary writing; to accept differences and to discover similarities in true intimate proximityand through creative processes. This is a truly optimistic effort, the short-term fruits of which have already been proven by the students’ achievements (see above),despite initial skepticism (from people who think conflicts should be endlessly discussed rather than bridged through the common cause of working together).
However, it is also definitely a professional framework; and stringent literary standards are applied throughout the project. Candidates' works are read by lectors and graduates' achievements are evaluated by an editorial board. Publication of poems, as well as participation in the Sha'ar International Poetry Festival, are decided accordingly. This is in line with our mission statement, which is: to promote excellence and offer the best teaching to the best young poets, in order to enable them in the role of “Carriers of a Poetic Message” in Israeli society.
These goals also serve as guidelines for our target audience and as terms of acceptance. Candidates are writers of poetry of above high school age, who have either published little or not yet published, and whose writing shows talent and is found to be potentially interesting by the lectors. Finding the best writers is one of the primary challenges of this workshop. Therefore 3 lectors in each language read the applicants’ material and decide on acceptance.
All the workshops are specifically planned for and aimed at poets; the work is very intensive and intimate, and in this sense has no direct equivalent in other frameworks known to us in Israel and elsewhere, despite the very rich range of international models, from university creative writing courses such as those at Iowa, Marseilles or Gottenberg to centres for intensive activity such as the British Arvon foundation.
The Hebrew-Arabic poetry class is taught in two languages, and includes workshops on the poetics of Arabic poetry and mutual group translation. The culmination of the class is a bi-lingual book of the participants’ poetry, which they have mutually translated. The anthology also includes poems from world poetry translated by the participants into both languages, as well as methodological essays and articles written by the master-class instructors, and is accompanied by documentary photographs of the class. The anthology is a platform for the outcomes of the master-class process, and enables the public to become familiarized with the participants’ poetry; thus it also promotes bi-cultural dialogue, in the hope that this will become the public norm. The “New Poetry” issues are distributed in an edition of 600. The fact that it’s an issue of a leading poetry magazine rather than a faculty or programme anthology makes all the difference. These issues are on sale and are reviewed. For example: “This poetry class certainly has an undoubted seriousness regarding poetry. It seems to me that these poets grasp poetry not only as writing, but as a stance. In my view this is an essential condition which is realized again and again in an admirably impressive manner.” (Dror Burstein, Haaretz, September 15, 2002).
Masterclass graduates are not only beneficiaries of the project but also agents who pass on what they received to a much wider target group. The Helicon Poetry School has contributed to a change in the status of poetry in Israel and to the ability of various audiences to face the challenge poetry offers, to enjoy it and be enriched by it. For example: the achievements of graduates, the surge of new young good poets getting a platform, and the Sha’ar festival – have all contributed to a revival of poetry as “trendy”: with new prizes for young poetry, numerous poetry events, tens of thousands entries in poetry sites, graduates taking over the Helicon Cabarets and so on.
After completing the workshop, our graduates are invited to submit their work for publication in the regular framework of Helicon Journal; and are encouraged to submit work to other forums as well. They are invited to participate in the annual bilingual Sha'ar Festival of New Poetry that Helicon holds annually in the mixed community of Jaffa, and often graduates of a class will continue to meet independently, for mutual feedback, translation and work on interdisciplinary projects.
Many of our graduates have also gone on to write criticism, teach and run various poetry frameworks (see above) around the country. They have continued to contribute knowledge and poetic tools outside Helicon’s framework, in various cultural centres, workshops and colleges around the country. New ways of reading and writing poetry have been spread by them in the community, in schools and youth movements. These are the people who will shapetomorrow’s ideas, each in their own language, whether as poets, critics, writers or teachers.
Appendix1: Helicon Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel
Helicon Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel was jointly founded in 1990 by the poet Amir Or, Helicon’s chief editor and artistic director, and by Irit Sela.Helicon is a poetry journal, a poetry press, a training centre for young poets, a producer of poetry performances, an initiator of interactive ventures between poetry and the other arts, a promoter of communication and sharing among poets writing in the various languages of Israel – Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and more – and an importer of poetry from the world into Israel and an exporter of Israeli poetry to the world. In short, Helicon is an independent locus and catalyst for poetry. Helicon is a non-profit organization, headed by an executive committee. The present chairman of the committee is Dr. Liora Barash-Morgenstern.
Our mission statement: 1. To be the frontrunner in nurturing poetic culture in Israel, 2. To bring people closer through poetry, 3. To bring new audiences to poetry and poetry to new audiences, 4. To supply a permanent and appropriate platform for poets and their poetry, 5. To foster poetry’s future generation, 6. To integrate poetry within local educational and cultural frameworks.
In addition to the Helicon School of Poetry Helicon's other initiatives include:
Helicon Poetry Journal: Publication of a poetry journal which has become a central platform for poetry in Israel. The journal has been published regularly since 1990, and today has six issues a year. The print-run of each issue is about 600 but some have a 2nd edition. Its objective is: “To supply a necessary platform for poets and poetry and to enable continuousand available publication of poetry in Hebrew to culture enthusiasts in Israel.” Helicon Journal has set itself the aim of expressing poetry’s point of view on human themes pertaining to us all, and supplying suitable exposure for young writers. Almost seventy issues have been published so far, including contemporary and classic poetry alongside first publications, translations and visual art works by Israeli artists. Prominent poets, translators and artists have been published in Helicon, including: T. Carmi, Tuvia Rubner, David Avidan, Shimon Zandbank, Hezi Leskli, Hayim Gouri, Yoram Brunovski, Ronny Someck, Agi Mishol, Aminadav Dykman, Dan Daor. Translated poets range from Ancient Greek, Indian, Chinese, or Scandinavian poetry, via Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Tagor, etc. to Plath, Auden, Paz, Neruda, Tanikawa… the list could fill some pages.
Sha’ar International Poetry Festival: started as a bilingual festival of new poetry which enabled the best young writers to have a platform; and allowed Israeli audiences to discover new writers of the future. At the same time it built new audiences for poetry through multimedia presentations. Sha’ar, all of whose performances are multidisciplinary (including, music, theatre, dance, video, rap and the visual arts) pushes poetry out of a traditional isolation into collaboration. Since 2004, Sha’ar has built on these strands and become an international festival. Already it has presented poets from Asia and America as well as Europe; the radical mixture and pacy format remain the same and the festival plays to packed houses.
Helicon Cabaret: Helicon Cabaret, which was founded as a poetry theatre, aims to revive the contact between the poetic word and its listeners by giving poetry a live stage, promoting interdisciplinary artistic approaches to poetry, and bringing new audiences closer to poetry. The cabaret takes place once a month and includes poetry reading, discussion and multimedia, with poets, translators and performers participating. Artists from various fields, in various languages and of various ages meet, and the events are held in an informal atmosphere. An annual Cabaret event is produced for the international “Bridge between Cultures” initiated by the UN, and under the auspices of UNESCO and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Helicon Publishing House: Helicon has published over twenty poetry books so far, and its logo represents quality to every book lover in Israel. Helicon publishes two poetry series:
1.Helicon Poetry Series–poetry books by renowned poets as a platform for high quality contemporary Hebrew poetry, 2. Pegasus Series – first collections by selected young poets.
Helicon Poetry School is a novel phenomenon in Israel. The School includes: 1. A Poetry Class for Beginning Poets – founded 1993, 2. A Hebrew-Arabic Master-Class - founded 2001, 3. Graduates' Master Class – founded 2003, based on personal projects, for chosen graduates of the poetry classes.
The site is dedicated to contemporary Hebrew poetry and is the largest of its kind in Israel. It was founded in 1998 together with Snunit, the Hebrew University’s information centre for education and teachers. The purposes of the site are: to give service and information to students, teachers, researchers and lovers of Hebrew poetry in Israel and abroad; to give tools for teaching poetry in schools; to encourage poetry reading and experiencing writing; and to support young poets and offer them appropriate critical standards. The site’s contents include: Poets reading their poetry, Poetry Reading – a shared interpretative reading of poetry, a workshop of poetry writing, Poems of Tel Aviv, Helicon Forum, etc.
2. Helicon’s home page: www.helicon.org.il , in Hebrew with English pages, covers the whole range of the organisation’s work.
Poetry within the Community: Since 2002, Helicon has been operating, in collaboration with the Rishon Lezion municipality, a pilot project for work within a community. The project included meetings between poets and high-school pupils, a creative poetry writing workshop, and a final evening event, in which the community’s work was exhibited alongside that of the guest poets. Following this success we are now seeking funding to apply this model to its full potential in the community, and offer it to other communities as well.
Appendix 2: Future Programmes of the Helicon Poetry School
1.Instructors’ seminar: Residential workshops limited to a select group of graduates and prominent young poets in both languages, who wish to take this course. The participants (a total of 16 a year) will meet for a full weekend once a month for 6 months, working from Friday at noon until late Saturday evening. Between meetings they will send in work they have been asked to do in the various workshops, and have personal meetings with the counselors. The curriculum will include group dynamics, instructing and editing poetry, teaching basics of poetics, working with bi-lingual groups, leading poetry reading and discussion groups, instructing mutual translation workshops, leading panels and staging performances. The seminar will be taught in two languages. In the workshops participants will be asked to put into practice the knowledge they have acquired, and receive feedback from their instructors as well as from the other group members. The Instructors’ seminar is aimed at “spreading the message” to the benefit of the communities all over Israel, and at promoting cultural dialogue on a larger scale.
2. Hebrew-Arabic translation seminar : Residential workshops limited to a select group of graduates and prominent young poets in both languages, who wish to take this course. The participants (a total of 16 a year) will meet for a full weekend (full board) once a month for 4 months, working from Friday at noon until late Saturday evening. Between meetings they will send in work they have been asked to do in the various workshops, and have meetings in smaller translation groups with the instructors. The curriculum includes fundamentals of translation, poetics, mutual translation, feedback and editing.
The culmination of the translation seminar will be an annual bi-lingual book of the participants’ poetry, which they have mutually translated, as well as other works they have translated from Hebrew, Arabic and English. This publication will serve as a platform for the poetical fruits of the seminar process, to make the public familiar with the participants’ poetry as well as other works, and thus promote a bi-cultural dialogue, in the hope that it will become the public norm.
The Hebrew-Arabic translation workshop is aimed at exposure, as well as creating a long term support group for cooperation and common initiatives among promising writers in both languages.