Poetics of Conflict and Vision
The unique complexity of Israeli society and culture is at times fascinating, at times unbearable. Now it seems to be a bridge, now a limbo, at the point where East and West meet. Israel has about 4.5 millions Jewish citizens whose families emigrated from Europe and Russia after the World War II, about 3 millions Jewish citizens whose families emigrated or fled from Arab countries in the 1950's, and 1.2 millions Arab citizens, subdivided into Moslem, Christian and Druze. Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, and Eastern culture is to a large extent shared by half Israel’s population, including Jews and Arabs.
On the other hand, Israel is a modern state, its founders European by origin, upbringing, ideology and mentality. Consequently, if you watch the Israeli condition in real life, it's ambivalent: Israelis and Palestinians may fight, but at the same time they have a lot in common. For sixty years Israeli Jews and Arabs have shared a society and culture that are liberal and democratic; since Israel became independent, its Palestinian and Eastern Jewish citizens have interiorized free democratic values, more than anywhere in the neighbouring Arab states whose culture they share. And have you noticed? Often the two sides of a conflict become more and more similar over the years, like husband and wife. Characteristically, other Arabs currently call Palestinians “the Jews of the Arab world”.
Now, what has all this to do with poetry? Not much if you consider poetry an old-fashioned form of artistic amusement. If you look at poetry as an art that deals primarily with speech and thought, however, much more is entailed. Poetry has provided society with a sense of existential meaning beyond dry facts, and an ability to touch the essence of life. This remains the case with both Hebrew and Arabic poetries in their respective societies.
This understanding was at the root of my vision when founding Helicon Poetry Society in 1990. As I see it, an important factor in widening or narrowing the spiritual capacities of a society is its attitude towards artistic creativity and creative imagination. A society that fails in the field of art and literature can become mentally fossilized and harmed in its capacity for self-renewal and rejuvenation. After all, the story of human evolution is in fact the history of creative ideas: each human achievement begins in the imagination. A poet creates with the most primal materials. His or her works serve to enhance and revision the world in which we live. A poetic insight can renew perceptions of reality and suggest new patterns for development. Whether the poet is conscious of it or not, by creative adventure he or she creates the mental future. Poetry touches a basic set of potentials we share: thought and feeling, imagination, the sense of beauty and freedom. In our country, splitculturally, socially and politically, poetry has an additional role: with its power of elevation, it may be able to bridge between worlds and reducethe distance between cultures. If it could fulfill this potential, it might contribute to the realizationof the peace for which our region strives.
Helicon Poetry Society is a non-profit organization founded in 1990 with ambitious visions and objectives: 1. To be the forerunner of nurturing poetic culture in Israel; 2. To bring poetry to new audiences; 3.To supply a permanent and appropriate platform for poets and their poetry; 4. To foster poetry’s next generation; 5. To integrate poetry within the local educational and cultural frameworks; 6. To bring people closer through poetry.
Over the years the initiatives of Helicon included a poetry journal, a poetry theatre, a publishing house, an educational website, work in the community, an international poetry festival, and a poetry school. We chose two of these activities, the school and the festival, as the best instruments to open the possibilities Helicon offers for both Arabic and Hebrew writers. These two projects are bi-lingual and bi-cultural, and offer equal opportunities for young poets in both languages.
In 1993 Helicon Society started a poetry school at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. It later transferred to Zichron Ya’akov in the Galilee. 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. The Hebrew-Arabic Poetry project is formally and methodically part of the Helicon Poetry School: like the other frameworks we’ve been running it’s meant for a select group of poets in their initial steps. Our methods and framework are designed for poets who wish to write as a major vocation in either one or both languages, its participants seeking to become “Carriers of a Poetic Message” in our society.
To promote excellence, because of the high cost of a bi-lingual framework, students have received full grants. Our workshops have been limited to a group of writers who have submitted poems to six lectors (three for Arabic, three for Hebrew). The participants, sixteen a year, meet for a full weekend each month for six months, working from Friday noon until late Saturday evening. Between meetings they submit work assigned in the various workshops and have individual meetings with counselors on their writing and performance. The curriculum includes new experiences in writing, translating, self-editing and poetry on stage. Each poetry course ends with the publication of an anthology of the participants’ work and major poetry-reading events in Jewish and Arab cities. The class is taught in two languages, and the staff includes some of the most acclaimed people in the field, Jews and Arabs.
Each weekend session consists of workshops in: 1. poetics, 2. writing exercises, 3. reading poetry aloud, 4. editing and feedback on the participants' works, 5. principles of poetry translation, and 6. collaborative inter-translation (the translation of the participants' works from Arabic into Hebrew and from Hebrew into Arabic).
The program is structured so that each month all the six different workshops that take place emphasise a particular issue or aspect of poetry, in a logical sequence: 1. the word, the line and the stanza; 2. the image or metaphor; 3. sound, rhyme, mete; 4. poetic forms; 5. a general review; 6. composition.
Our approach has been non-academic in the sense that we don’t teach our students history of literature. We specialise in creatiive methods, exercises, and approaches that are useful specifically for the poet, and meant exclusively to develop creative tools. All the workshops are planned and aimed at poets; the work is intensive and intimate.
The culmination of each class is the annual bi-lingual book of participants’ poetry which they have mutually translated into Arabic and Hebrew. It also includes poems from other languages translated by the participants and relevant essays by the instructors. The anthology is a platform for the poetical outcomes of the class process. Readers encounter the participants’ poetry, and a bi-cultural dialogue is possible. The SIPF (Sha'ar International Poetry Festival) complements the intimate coaching by brining the work into public view, creating a cultural momentum and giving the writers authority as intellectual agents of the next generation, spreading their messages effectively.
Since the foundation of the school, graduates have published over fifty collections; they have participated in international poetry festivals and won awards, including the most acclaimed ones in Israel. Many have also gone on to write criticism, teach and contribute to various poetry frameworks around the country.
The Arabic-Hebrew Poetry Master-class and the SIPF were established at the outbreak of the Intifada (the Palestinian uprising), during a period of political unrest and in the midst of questions of identity and belonging. Through these projects we have been able to bring together cultural worlds in encounters that raise and answer questions through dialogue and creativity. Participants have described the poetry class as "an island of sanity" in the midst of the political crisis. On it went: against the backdrop of the Jewish-Arab conflict, year after year, sisxteen people met to write and translate poems together.
Can you imagine it? An Arab student who grew up in a refugee camp near Nablus translating poems of his Jewish colleague about his army service, and vice versa: “What did you feel? What did you think about us?” The questions that have been asked and this process of dialogue go deep into the hearts and minds of the participants. Did they discuss the political situation between workshops? Of course. But they were not there as Jews and Arabs, but as human beings and poets who share common interests. Our experience shows that once the conflict is not the focus issue, people find out how much they have in common and form friendships and new projects on their own initiative.
After these years of activity one might conclude that in the long run, the Helicon Poetry School has contributed to a change in the status of poetry in Israel, developing young poets and young Arabic writers. But cultural processes are long-term, and making a cultural impact takes a long time. For the Hebrew classes that started in 1993 it took eight years before their extensive effect on Israeli culture could be seen. If we can go on offering the Hebrew-Arabic master classes, we will see the same escalating effect in Arabic culture as well. We hope that the poetry classes may serve as a model for bi-cultural co-existence in Israel and may even be a model for development in other areas of unrest.
The Hebrew-Arabic classes ran for five years; then last year they stopped for lack of funding. Our appeal to the European Union went unheeded, the term for the Suisse fund’s support elapsed. Yet the need to foster the vision and dialogue of future intellectual and artistic leadership of our stricken region is more acute than ever. It's time to continue striving: we do need your help.