‘I guess I’m obsessed with words’, poet Eli Eliahu told American interviewers Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller a few years ago, echoing an almost universal sentiment among poets. ‘I like the rhythm, the order of the letters in the words. I am obsessed with the different meanings a word could have in different contexts. I also spend quite some time thinking about the connection between the soul and the body; I think it reflects in my poetry’.
Eliahu is an editor at the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, where he also writes regularly about Israeli and foreign literature. A graduate of Tel Aviv University, he majored in Jewish philosophy and Hebrew literature, has studied editing and translation at Alma College, and participated in writing workshops at the veteran Helicon School of Poetry. He was born in Israel to parents who emigrated from Iraq.
Interest and activism around poetry written by young Mizrahim, or Jews with roots in Arab or Moslem countries – the children and grandchildren of immigrants – is at a high point in Israel these days. A poem of Eliahu’s that deals with this experience, ‘Under the ground’, states, ‘And how can I help it if for me / the operation succeeded and Baghdad/ died and all that is left / is the music . . . ’ (translated by the poet).
According to Adia Mendelson Maoz, in her book Multiculturalism in Israel, the poem became the focus of public attention in 2012 when it was used in an Israeli high school matriculation exam. The poet’s irony was apparently lost on the students. They failed to ‘identify the identity crisis’ presented by the poem, perhaps, the book suggests, because they were so used to Israeli multicultural roots that they did not sense a problem, or, conversely, because ‘this younger generation is so tightly bound to the Israeli hegemony that it is blind to those who are different’.
Like many poets of different backgrounds, Eliahu says, ‘I started to write poems when I was in elementary school. I was fascinated with books and words from the beginning and when I had the ability to write, I tried to recapture the magic of the music created by words and syntax. But it took me a long time to feel that I have my private poetic language and that I could speak through it about my life and not just imitate other poets’.
For Eliahu, who is secular, the Hebrew Bible is nonetheless a great literary influence, in addition to a string of modern Hebrew poets. And, he says, ‘I read English poetry. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Billy Collins, Carl Sandburg, and above all Walt Whitman. I also read [foreign poetry translated into Hebrew]. We have great translators of Polish poetry in Israel. I like Szymborska and Milosz. They have a great influence on me’.
About the particular place he lives, he comments, ‘Israel is a very stressed, crowded, violent and noisy country . . . I think part of my poetry is a documentation of the struggle of the individual against this background. I also live in a city… with its buildings, roads, sidewalks, stairs, windows . . . a main source of metaphors and images’.
Eliahu has been awarded one of the first $12,500 Matanel Prizes for Young Jewish Writers (2013) and the Israel Prime Minister’s Prize in Poetry (2014), which provides recipients with a teacher's salary for one year. His work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, Arabic, German and Turkish.
[Interview excerpts from Poetry International (San Diego State University), 14 April 2013, by Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller.]
Ani veh lo malakh (I, and not an angel). Helicon, Tel Aviv 2008
Ir veh-beh-helot (City and fears). Am Oved, Tel Aviv 2011
‘Alibi’, a poem written in the bloody summer of 2015, in English
Eliahu's work discussed in Multiculturalism in Israel
‘As long as the canary still sings’, an interview with Haaretz
Poem ‘The meal’ in Haaretz
Poem ‘Moi et pas un ange’, in French translation
Poem ‘Memento’, in Spanish translation
Judges' comments on the awarding of the Matanel Prize
Literary essays from Haaretz in English
‘On Transtromer and the Nobel Prize’
‘On Elhanan Nir, an Israeli settler poet’
‘On Israeli poet Natan Zach at 80’
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