Karen Alkalay-Gut


Insight into Human Understanding:
An Israeli Writer’s Reflection on Literature

Amanda Ostrove & Gabrielle David
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3

English has been my secret language ever since I came to Israel, the language in which I communicate thoughts and feelings that perhaps would not be helpful to — or would not be understood by — the people close to me.

THERE IS NO ONE REALLY QUITE LIKE KAREN ALKALAY-GUT, the daughter of two Polish Jews who fled from Lida in Lithuania to Danzig, were persecuted for her father’s communist background in Danzig and fled on the proverbial last train on the night before Hitler invaded. Alkalay-Gut was born in a shelter during the bombing of London, raised in America, transplanted to Israel with a husband and daughter. She is an Israeli poet who writes in English and has published over 20 poetry books and chapbooks, mostly in English, some in Hebrew translation (she has also translated hundreds of Hebrew poems into English). She has performed with a rock band half her age, hosted a television show, and teaches poetry at Tel Aviv University, where she encourages students to produce an anthology of their poetry in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Alkalay-Gut moved with her parents and brother to Rochester, New York in 1948. She graduated from the University of Rochester, cum laude with a Bachelor of the Arts in English. She then went on to complete her Masters, and taught at the State University of New York at Geneseo for a three-year period before returning to complete her Ph.D., with a doctoral dissertation entitled “Spiral Knowledge: A Study of the Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke.” In 1972, Alkalay-Gut and her family moved to Israel for a number of reasons: because of feelings of exile and of being displaced, her religious education which emphasized Israel as its center and as the new home for Jews, along with a first visit to Israel as a teenager which made it clear that this is where she belonged. She began teaching at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and in 1977 she moved to Tel Aviv University, where she continues to teach. During the 1980s, she studied American Literature at the Salzburg seminar and Biography at New York University. She also was a visiting scholar at the University of Columbia.

Alkalay-Gut developed a career and a niche of sorts as an Israeli who writes primarily in English. The author of over 20 books, she struck gold with her award-winning debut poetry collection, Making Love: Poems (1980). During this period she produced the biography of the American poet Adelaide Crapsey, Alone in the Dawn: The Life of Adelaide Crapsey (1988). The Love of Clothes and Nakedness (1999), one of her most popular volumes of poetry, consists of poems reflecting on the significance of clothes, the body, and identity, and the relationship between these three factors. In My Skin (2000), is Alkalay-Gut’s most obviously political volume of poetry. It engages on myriad levels with the histories of both the state of Israel and the Jewish people; the plight of the Palestinians and Israelis; immigrants and natives; women and men in a nation perpetually at war. So Far So Good (2004) is a collection of poems and sequences that rake over the personal rites and traumas of apartment-hunting, surgery, sudden death and sudden lust in a vibrant and wise feminine monologue. Open Secret: Poetry and Popular Culture (2007), is about the intersections of poetics and everyday life in Israel. Her work has appeared in English, Hebrew, French, Arabic, Yiddish, Romanian, Polish, Russian, German, Turkish, Persian and Italian.

Alkalay-Gut has translated over 100 works from the Hebrew to the English by authors such as Asher Reich, Mordechai Geldmann, Yehuda Amichai, Raquel Chalfi, Ronny Someck, Azriel Kaufman, Elan Schoenfeld, Naim Araidi, Sabina Messeg. Nidaa Khoury, Aida Nasrallah, and Hanoch Levin. She has also translated works into Yiddish, French, German, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Polish that have been published in journals, anthologies, magazines and books around the world. A scholar in her own right, Alkalay-Gut has published numerous articles on the modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Susan Glaspell; Victorian poets Charles Swinburne, Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde, and William Ernest Henley, and on poetry and popular culture.

Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The American Voice, Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, Bitterroot, Webster Review, Cedermere Review, Moving Out, Lilith, Argo, New Outlook, Jewish Frontier, Jerusalem Post, Ariel, Hoopoe, grasshopper, Forward, Jewish Quarterly, Israel Horizons, Present Tense, London Calling, Israel Magazine, Understanding, Gypsy, War, and Literature and the Arts, among others. Her short stories have appeared in journals in New Zealand, Israel, Canada and the United States.

Alkalay-Gut has performed poetry and recorded with musicians, and in conjunction with visual artists. Often hailed as refreshingly original and interesting, she performs her modern poetry convincingly and passionately, whether she is describing relationships and urges, everyday life or revisiting historical scenes. She has performed her poetry at the annual exhibition at Ein Hod, at the Kennedy Center with Liz Magnes (producing a CD with Liz Magnes); and recorded a CD and video with Ziv Yonatan. She participated in a multimedia performance at the Israel Festival, HaZira and at the Tel Aviv Museum. In 2003, Alkalay-Gut performed in “Dance,” a multimedia installation based on a joint poem with Palestinian poet Nathalie Handal, created by Alexandra Handal, which was presented at WILL, a Multi-Disciplinary Group Exhibition about Negotiating Peace, in Toronto, Canada. Her extensive work with Roy Yarkoni and Ishay Sommer (both are also members of Ahvak), two leading figures of the Israel progressive music scene, culminated in the CD THIN LIPS (2004). Her continued work with Yarkoni has resulted in several CDs.

In 1980 Alkalay-Gut helped found the Israel Association of Writers in English, and has been the chair since 1995. She also serves as vice-chair of the Federation of Writers’ Unions, is editor of the Jerusalem Review, a trustee for the Aslop Review, and a board member of the Yiddish Writers Association. Alkalay-Gut has also hosted and organized lectures that range from feminism to English writing in Israel to poetry translation.

Much of Alkalay-Gut’s work centers around gender identity and the difficulties of negotiating daily life in Israel, with mediations on war and peace. This is exemplified in her daily, uncensored diary about her life in the always complicated landscape of Israel. Choosing to write in English, Alkalay-Gut finds her work somewhat marginalized within the dominant Israeli literary culture, and for this reason, her work has become representative of the concerns of many expatriates in Israel. However, Alkalay-Gut is known in poetry circles around the globe as a lover of literature, and her willingness to participate in or provide a public forum for poetry, whether it’s on the page or on the stage.

Despite having been born during the London blitz, Alkalay-Gut strives for a peaceful existence in her daily life and uses her gift of crafting language to work towards this goal. She believes literature and poetry offer insight into human understanding, and with understanding, ideally tolerance, and eventually, peace. What Alkalay-Gut does for poetry in Israel is not unlike what the Beats did in America — she loosens it, shakes it up, makes it unpretentious and accessible to all, always in a woman’s voice, always in a Jewish voice. It’s not ornate, nor is it encrusted with imagery and symbolism, rather, it’s full of independence, curiosity and commentary. All you have to do is reach out and touch it.

§ § §

In your essay “The Poetry of September 11: The Testimonial Imperative,” featured in the Summer 2005 Poetics Today, you quote Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who said poetry will now be classified as “B.S. and A.S. — Before and After September 11th.” Can you explain, in short, this phenomenon of “A.S.” poetry, or in other words, what the effect of September 11th on poetry was at the time you wrote this essay, a mere three years after the tragedy? Further, in your opinion, is this a positive or negative effect?

The tragedy is still fresh, and I will never forget watching it in my living room as it happened. There have been so many more tragedies in our living rooms since then: earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, terrorist attacks. But the seemingly random maliciousness of September 11th woke us up in a very special way to the vulnerability of our lives and the hate directed towards democracy. We can no longer write poetry as if our lives are the center of existence only. The focus on the self has altered somewhat. I don’t mean that we can’t write about our lives, because the truth of an individual life is humanity revealed, and the importance of focusing on humanity is even more necessary. But we also see the world, and our responsibility to be connected to that world, and consequently, poetry has been reaching out more. The international access of the web makes this possible. I don’t have the statistics on this, but I do have access to so much more poetry written around the world, and this helps me to understand the human needs of a greater community.

I also think that September 11th brought Arab-American poetry to the fore. Some poets, like Naomi Shihab Nye and Lawrence Joseph, have been around for a long time before that, but have honed in on their Arab identity with greater consciousness. Some poets, like Suheir Hammad, grew up in the shadow of the post-September 11th suspicion of Arabs, and have created amazing political and poetic identities.

Is this positive or negative? There is an awful lot more poetry on the web than has ever been exposed to the eyes of strangers. Some of it isn’t even poetry. But the idea that poetry can be a media for direct and immediate communication is amazing and should be nurtured as much as possible. The more I read poetry, the more I know about the existence of lives outside my own. The more I understand humanity, the less likely I am to make war against it.

In this 2005 reflection, you also noted that Ferlinghetti’s claim may have been premature; you said, “it is too soon to evaluate the long-term changes in poetry and their relevance to contemporary events, this may be a great exaggeration.” Six years later, has your stance on this matter changed? Is all poetry now “A.S.”?

It is still too soon to evaluate this, especially since September 11th changed not only poetry, but also the political and existential situation of everyone. Al Qaeda, which developed greatly after the ‘success’ of September 11th, is involved in the latest terrorist attacks on Israel, as well as elsewhere in the world, and may yet change the face of society and the face of poetry.

I also feel the need to ask, what genre of poetry are you, and was Ferlinghetti, referring to? In the essay you mention that well-known poet Billy Collins “warned against immediate reactions in poetry.” He notes that, “American poets will have a hard time if they attempt a direct response . . .” a claim possibly reminiscent of Theodor Adorno, who also suggested that to write poetry after a devastating event is barbaric.

I wouldn’t put the reactions of Collins and Adorno in the same sentence. Collins was warning against bad poetry — spontaneous bursts of emotion that might be bad for poetry. Adorno was warning about building careers on the tragedies of others, and therefore minimizing the enormity of tragedy. Ultimately, they should both be listened to. But it was precisely the spontaneity that made this poetry fascinating to me; just as now I find the poetry coming in from American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan truly remarkable. Sometimes they just use the old clichés to describe their experiences, but there is often something about the way language changes in the midst of these experiences from which we can learn.

Adorno’s agony at the enormity of the tragedy of the Holocaust cannot be overlooked or forgotten in any consideration of poetry. Some things are beyond words. And yet we need them to understand, to communicate. If we didn’t write about the Holocaust, there would be no way to transmit its multiple agonies to the future, even if what we write cannot do it justice.

What effect does September 11th have on Jewish and/or Israeli poetry?

September 11th changed the world, but we had a number of other traumas in Israel around that time, and it is hard to separate the incidents. The feeling of helplessness and the necessity for suspicion of others troubled me the most. I think the need for a different way of seeing things might have emerged from this muddle of violence and tragedy, but I’m not speaking as a critic or an expert.

I have looked at your online diary from September 11th each year that you have posted. You have offered many wise words. In 2006, you wrote “I don’t think the day of September 11 should be built up. It’s a memorial day for the people killed but not a day to build up Al Qaeda,” I think this may help many people cope on the 10 year anniversary. Do you have any thoughts on how the 10th anniversary should be handled?

There should be no celebrations for the death of Bin Laden. Instead we should try to inquire why he, and so many others, feel they have a duty to destroy our civilization, and we should see if there is any basis to their beliefs.

At the same time, we should be very aware of the vulnerability of our own lives, the need to celebrate each day and protect tomorrow carefully.

When we mourn the wasted lives of those killed, we should remember that the more time passes, the more these people could have done. Some may have had more children, who would have grown to become the saviors of our society. It’s not only those people who died, but all the years of potential accomplishment that have passed with them. The mourning becomes greater with each passing year, not less.

Just a year ago in your diary you wrote, “As for September 11, we’ve learned nothing. We’re still too busy with our petty quarrels to figure out who and what is against us and what has to be done.” Do you still feel this way?

For me, the wonderful thing about my diary is that I don’t read it. In a way, that absolves me from the burden of responsibility. As if it isn’t my problem.

But, of course, it is my problem. And I do agree that we have not learned to work together as a universe to transcend the ultimately petty quarrels. The U.N. seems to be oblivious to the major problems of the world and passes resolutions that are more reflective of petty quarrels. If 40% of the resolutions in the U.N. are against Israel, with an entire population of 7 million, and far more than that 7 million have been killed in massacres in other countries around the world from Nigeria to Syria, we’re just whistling Dixie when it comes to solving problems. There are thousands of refugees in Israel right now from Eritrea, Darfur, and other African countries, many of whom lost their relatives in the massacres at home and the trek to Israel. I don’t think there is any world organization helping them or their families.

I would like to see a true United Nations that feels a universal responsibility and works toward creating a single world. It would take an educated world population to create that mentality, but I am sure we can do it.

As you can tell, I am very fascinated by your online diary, which you started in 2002. What made you start writing this journal? Usually when I think of a journal, I think of a private place to record one’s thoughts. Why put it online for everyone to see? A caption to your online diary says, “I seem to have become addicted to writing something every day,” I think that is lovely; can you discuss this “addiction?”

This particular diary began when bombs were exploding every day in public places in Tel Aviv, and my son had just opened a coffee shop. As a mommy, I felt like I had to be there as much as I could, even though I’d rather be hiding under my quilt in bed. So I met all my daring friends there, brought my mother-in-law in a wheelchair, watched as a robot disabled a paper bag that contained nails and explosives, etc. The worst part of it was coming home at night and getting terrified emails from friends — are you okay? I wanted to be sure that whoever really was worried about me would know, just by the continuation of my babbling, that I was okay.

I was also into an Anne Frank thing, I think. That someone, somewhere, would someday discover that there was a human being who was leading a personal life despite the public events.

I was born during the last attack of the buzz bombs on London at the tail end of World War II. At about that time, my mother discovered that almost all of her family in Lida had been killed. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to find traces of their lives — but there is no one left to tell the story of nearly forty people who disappeared. The need for evidence of existence is therefore more crucial to me than for others.

There was also the element of language. English has been my secret language ever since I came to Israel, the language in which I communicate thoughts and feelings that perhaps would not be helpful to — or would not be understood by — the people close to me. Suddenly, with the internet, my secret language was immediately public, but not to the people who I was trying to keep strong, support, and give hope in those trying times.

Incidentally, I have always been careful about not including my intimate life unless it made an immediate impact on the fact, or the subject upon which I was writing in my diary. I keep my children, grandchildren, and students out of sight. My love life, the only subject of my youthful diaries perhaps, isn’t there. Because my husband’s health is taking up a great deal of my time at the moment, and dwarfing my participation in the monumental social revolution in this country, at this moment, I write about that too.

I kind of imagine no one is reading this diary anyway – Most of my friends and the people I meet every day have an idea that I write it, but they have enough of me in their everyday lives to not want to look up more of me on the web.

Why am I addicted? As much as I struggle for openness and versatility, I have an addictive personality and summarizing thoughts of the day sometimes makes me understand things better.

Your CV is very impressive, and seemingly never-ending; among other things you teach, you write poetry, you write essays of literary criticism, you journal online, you edit, and you translate. Do you have a favorite of your many contributions to the literary world? Do you find any one is more important than the next?

Hey, I also write lyrics to songs and have done a few albums here and there. Panic Ensemble, headed by the composer Roy Yarkoni, is about to release their second disc with my lyrics. It’s a fascinating form. It really makes me conscious of the voice of words outside my own existence since the poems are sung by Yael Kraus, an external force. I’ve also worked with other musicians, like Liz Magnes and Ronen Shapira. Liz is a jazz pianist, and I love reading certain poems with her interpretations. Ronen is a crazy classical composer with a completely different spiritual dimension, and both of them give me all kinds of identities.

Lately, I’ve been involved with audio installations. Ziv Yonatan recorded Ezi’s voice and mine in all kinds of places. In my role, I try to play the place itself — what an archive would say to you, for example, what kind of tone forgotten manuscripts would have in a hollow space. It was a fascinating contrast to a book of poems I recently recorded for the Ravenna Festival in Italy, for which I sat alone in a studio and spoke in my own voice for hours and hours.

As for literary criticism, I see myself as a kind of matchmaker, introducing and explaining works I admire to other people. I wrote a biography of Adelaide Crapsey after I’d made fun of her as the ultimate anonymous woman poet and then came to identify with her joy and hunger for life. Literary criticism should be a way to help people to get to challenging and/or forgotten works. I learn so much from others’ poetry, and I want others to have the tools to do that as well. It’s not preaching — it’s a form of enabling.

The major point here is that I love being involved in new and creative activities. In seventh grade, I used to write plays for my class and direct them. Sometimes I would act in them too. Since then, I haven’t been able to write a play. But I really would like to.

The really important thing is that I love whatever I’m doing as long as it challenges me. Sometimes I think that it’s the passion for everything else that makes for successful poetry. But I write a lot of duds too in the throes of passion!

The one thing I hate is publishing, marketing, and the whole side of selling yourself.

You are fluent in both Hebrew and English, and you translate works into and from both languages. Approximately 5,000 books are published in Israel each year; for a small country with a relatively obscure language, top Israeli writers are often translated into different languages at an astonishing speed. Despite international recognition and favorable reviews, the rich literary tradition of Israeli literature has failed to reverberate and find significant readership in America even among the American Jewish community. In fact, Europeans are familiar with new writers in Israel while American readers have no inkling of their existence. Why the disconnect? What has to change in order for Israeli literature to attract an American audience?

I wish I knew. The consumer element is the part of literature I can’t understand, but it’s America’s loss. Life is so complex here — physically and ethically — and the stories that emerge are worth making an effort at, discovering, and cultivating. My feeling is that reputation in literature is connected to marketing and political zeitgeist.

But there is also more of an association between European literature and the literary arts in Israel. In poetry, for example, we’re probably more influenced by Pushkin and Heine and Baudelaire than William Carlos Williams or Billy Collins. I’ve actually been doing my best to bring American poets to Israeli audiences, and we’ve been lucky to have Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, and many other amazing poets in the past few years.

Israeli literature is unique in that it reflects a shared national identity. While most works classified as Israeli literature are written in the Hebrew, some Israeli authors write in Yiddish, English, Russian and Arabic. Specifically, the tragic reality of the continuing Israeli-Arab conflict has built a chasm between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs (Mizrahi/Sephardi). How can the literatures of these ethnic groups, which are both part of Israeli culture, coexist and grow beyond their differences?

Big, big question. I can only answer a little portion of it. A literature is composed of many individual writers. The key is to nurture every individual writer. There are a number of Arab writers writing in Hebrew who are well-known and a number of English writers who are unknown. In fact, there are more prizes for Arab writers than for English writers. But, in general, we need peace, government support, and time.

Yiddish literature and culture have been in decline since the end of World War II. During the formation of Israel, Yiddish was abandoned seemingly in its entirety for Hebrew as Israel’s official language. Why was that decision made? And how do you feel about this as a board member of the Yiddish Writers Association?

The official languages in this country are Hebrew and Arabic.

The decision to promote Hebrew was part of the decision to develop an Israeli identity. Foreign languages in Israel threatened the development of the language at the beginning of the twentieth century, and literature is one of the major means for developing a language.

Still, I think it was a mistake to deprive so many people of the wonderful, ironic, and flexible language of Yiddish. Very few of the Yiddish writers have persisted, and with almost no audience, there can be little progression in a culture. That need to help out in that area is why I’m on the board of the Yiddish Writers’ Association.

Also, in the past few years, there has been a revival of sorts in that a new generation of Yiddish writers has emerged from the Hasidic and Haredi movements of contemporary Orthodoxy. How, if at all, does this affect Israeli literature? And do you think this revival will bring Yiddish literature back to the forefront?

I really don’t appreciate the Yiddish spoken by the Haredi movement, and I don’t think they are writing literature in Yiddish at all. Yiddish is being revived by the grandchildren of those whose lives existed in that language. And they are usually not that religious. It seems to me that whenever religion is at the center of existence, the brilliance and creativity of literature fades.

Israeli literature has gone through many changes and transitions. Beginning in the 1960s, writers such as A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Natan Yonatan, Yoram Kaniuk, and Yaakov Shabtai have endeavored to place Israeli culture within a world context that stresses not so much the unique aspects of Jewish life and Israel as the universal but instead, identifies with the protest literature of other countries. Today, a new generation of writers such as Etgar Keret, Michal Zamir, Sami Berdugo, Eshkol Nevo and Assaf Gavron have a more “global” approach to their writing that retains their cultural pride. What can you tell us about this trend and the future of Israeli literature as you see it?

I think you have more of a handle on this than I do. I love the independence of the contemporary writers, and I hate the compartmentalization of generations. Yoram Kaniuk, for example, is still writing, as are Oz and Yehoshua. And which generation would I belong to? Oh, no, it’s too much to think about.

As for the future of Israeli literature, I have great hopes for it.

I have only touched on a small number of your accomplishments. What do we have to look forward to in the future from the multi-talented Karen Alkalay-Gut?

My mother used to ask, “Would you like some of yesterday’s dinner?” and if I took the bait and answered “yes,” she’d say, “Come back tomorrow.”

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Source: Amanda Ostrove and Gabrielle David

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