Placing poets among ‘ushpizin’ this Sukkot with Jerusalem poetry festival

The three-night Ushpizin’s Poetry festival in Jerusalem will reintroduce works by Dickinson, Vysotsky, Pessoa and Gouri under the baton of artistic director Benyamin Shvili.

 VICTORIA SEROYA (photo credit: Aharon Adam)
(photo credit: Aharon Adam)

The fourth annual edition of Ushpizin’s Poetry (Shirat HaUshpizin or Songs/Poems of the Guests) will open at Confederation House on Tuesday, October 11, with a special discussion devoted to Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. It will close on Thursday, October 13, with an evening performance honoring the legacy of the great late Soviet bard Vladimir Vysotsky.

“In light of the accursed Russian invasion of Ukraine,” artistic director Benyamin Shvili said, “we selected Vysotsky whom, we believe, expresses a universalist Russian perspective rather than a totalitarian one.”

Vysotsky, lauded today as one of the greatest Russian poetic talents, was a dissident under the Soviet regime. His music was banned from the airwaves and passed among fans underground through clandestine [samizdat] cassettes that documented his live performances.

In this country, singers Lior Yanai and Arkadai Duchin recorded Hebrew cover versions of his most famous works in the early 1990s. In “Idiot,” translated by Yonathan Geffen and sung by Duchin, Vysotsky describes a fool who starts a war.

In “Pilot’s Ballade,” sung by Yanai, the story of a Soviet airman who perished in the Great Patriotic War is described. “I wept daily for home,” his surviving friend tells us, “he was better than me.”

 BENYAMIN SHBILY (credit: Tamir Lahav Radlmesser) BENYAMIN SHBILY (credit: Tamir Lahav Radlmesser)

On Thursday, Shmuel Zeltser will perform works by the bard in Russian and Hebrew. A panel about Vysotsky will be held with theater director Efim Rinenberg, writer and translator Sivan Beskin and academic researcher Alexandra Mandelbaum Kupeev.

“I believe Vysotsky would have been against the Russian invasion,” Shvili offered, “last year, we did a homage to Bob Dylan, this year, we are honoring the Russian Bob Dylan.”

If Vysotsky raged against the walls built around the Russian people under Soviet rule, Pessoa rebelled against the tyranny of being just one person. The Portuguese genius invented a new form of literature which he named Heteronym. Unlike a pseudonym [false-name], a heteronym is a distinct imaginary person with a biography, physical traits and in Pessoa’s case, his own unique autograph and astrological chart. In this way, Pessoa lived the lives of 70 invented personas.

Different styles and themes 

RICARDO REIS, for example, admired Greek culture and lived in Brazil, Rafael Baldaya was an astrologer, Thomas Crosse was an English occultist – none of them were Pessoa and yet, they were created by him.

They wrote in different styles, on different themes, and were aware of one another to the extent that they offered reviews of works penned by other personas and sent them letters.

The chief translator of the Lisbon mage into Hebrew is Rami Saari. The Tuesday event will be devoted to Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by Yoram Meltzer) and hosted by Oded Carmeli.

Interestingly, Carmeli suggested that Álvaro de Campos, one of Pessoa’s heteronyms, predicted our start-up nation when he wrote “I predict the absolute coming of a human race composed entirely of engineers!”

The panel will focus on the city of Lisbon, a city Pessoa, in his brilliant mind, reshaped as a cradle for all possible humanities. Music for this special poetic event will be offered by singer Victoria Seroya.

What can patrons expect from the festival?

Patrons will be able to move between the great hall, where many of the panels will be held, and the Reading Café where poet Agi Mishol will read from the works of Leah Goldberg (Tuesday, October 11, 5:30 p.m.). Shvili will read works by Rumi (Wednesday, October 12, 5:30 p.m.).

The theme of Rumi is a rich one as many of the English translations of the Persian poet dwell in the twilight zone between forgery and spiritual belief.

Daniel Ladinsky, who translated poems by the Sufi master without learning Farsi, is responsible for many of the lines Westerners like to quote in the context of Muslim spirituality. Just how much freedom can a translator take? What is the moral responsibility that comes with introducing poetic genius?

“I translate from an inner experience of an intimate meeting with the poet I am translating,” Shvili told The Jerusalem Post, “I grant myself an ample amount of freedom.” He offers a comparison to Tchernichovsky, who translated Homer’s Iliad into Hebrew in a poetic surge that was anything but of his own time.

The late scholar Aminadav Dickman, who passed away in June, was compared to Tchernichovsky in a moving tribute written by scholar Dan Miron who noted this exact tendency toward the brilliant Hebrew poetic verse positioned Dickman in opposition to poetry translators of his own generation who sought to employ the parlance of contemporary native Hebrew speakers.

Miron pointed to the Hebrew translations from ancient Greek made by, for example, Aharon Shabtai, as contrasting examples to the artistic choices made by Dickman.

A discussion honoring the immense treasures Dickman offered the Hebrew reader will be held on Thursday, October 13, at 5 p.m.

Surprisingly, the festival honors late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky with a special discussion to be held on Wednesday, October 12, at 4 p.m.

Politics and poetry

DEVOTED TO the poet’s 1983 publication “New Stanzas to Augusta,” the panel is unlikely to treat an ongoing discussion within the Russian-speaking world [Russkiy mir] about the hostility Brodsky expressed towards Ukrainian culture in his other works. In them, he described works by Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko as “bullshit.”

“It is important for me to say there are no good countries and bad countries,” Shvili explained, “both Russia and Ukraine are present in the festival.” Indeed, Ukrainian poetry will be read on Tuesday, October 11, at 3 p.m. at Reading Café.

“This holiday [Sukkot] is a holiday for all of us,” he added, “as described in Isaiah 2:2 ‘the Lord’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains... and all nations shall flow unto it.’ In this holiday we allow what is on the outside to enter our innermost self.”

“I am against boycotting,” Shvili offered, “if I censor Brodsky because of my views concerning him, I will be hurting my own self. By censoring myself, I will deprive myself of wisdom and beauty.”

Shvili moved on to discuss the late American poet Ezra Pound. “Pound was a huge poetic talent, at the same time, he was antisemitic and served the Nazi propaganda machinery,” he noted, adding he suspects the explanation offered after the war, that the great poet was mentally ill, is untrue.

“Yet,” he added, “the poems Pound penned are brilliant. Should I inflict punishment on my own self? Great art does not always mesh well with ethics.”

Among the poetic joys the festival offers this year is the return of Mishol as a guest reader of works by late poet Haim Gouri in a special panel focused on his love poems to be held on Tuesday, October 11, at 7 p.m. Shvili will serve as moderator of the discussion and, as fitting the Independence War poet, accordion music will accompany the event.

The singular voice of Emily Dickinson will be transported from Amherst to Jerusalem on Tuesday, October 11, at 4 p.m. Musician Efrat Ben Zur will perform music from her 2012 English language album Robin, which contains nine works by the great American genius.

Discussing his childhood near what was, at that time, the Israeli-Jordanian border which cut through the capital, Shvili described what it was like to grow up facing a wall.

“I was deeply impacted by the idea there is a wall I may not pass,” he said, “I always wanted to smash walls, to move across borders that might have helped my own writing.”

Shirat HaUshpizin will be held at the Confederation House, 12 Emile Botta St., from Tuesday, October 11 to Thursday, October 13. Tickets are NIS 30 for most events with some, such as the Thursday, October 13, 8:30 p.m. event for Vysotsky costing NIS 50 per ticket. Call *6226 to book. Nearly all events are held in Hebrew only with some musical performances being held in Russian or English. The festival is supported by the Jerusalem Municipality.