Poetry: a neglected art?

It is known that there is a dearth of publishing opportunities for English-language writers in Israel.

The Reuben Rose Competition Awards Ceremony: With the winners are competition organizer Mark Levinson (left) and president Susan Olsburgh (second right) (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Reuben Rose Competition Awards Ceremony: With the winners are competition organizer Mark Levinson (left) and president Susan Olsburgh (second right)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

There’s many a would-be poet
Rhymes of a love that he hath never woo’d
And o’er his lamp-lit desk in solitude
Dreams that he sitteth in a Muses’ bower
– Robert Bridges
For the English-language poet living in Israel, there is no need to sit in solitude waiting for the Muse.
 
Voices Israel Group of Poets in English was founded in 1971 specifically for the purpose of providing a forum and inspiration through group meetings, workshops, publications and competitions.
 
It is known that there is a dearth of publishing opportunities for English-language writers in Israel, not just the poets. With the dwindling printed media, many experiment with self-publishing for which one needs to be perhaps a more efficient business person or promotions expert than a gifted writer. And many of us have taken day jobs as technical writers or in the PR departments of hospitals and universities.
 
The demand for poetry, in particular, has dwindled in recent years not only in Israel, but also in the mainstream publishing world. Go into Waterstones in London or Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, and the poetry section is pathetically small. Most of the volumes on the shelves will be the classic poetry that is still on school curricula, or by the poetry icons of the first half of the 20th century.
But poetry was not always the orphan of the publishing world. Even as late as the 1960s the more prestigious publishing houses used their profits from the more popular volumes to subsidize their poetry and belles lettres.
 
My first job was in a small, highly respected London publishing house. Long before I worked there they had discovered George Orwell, and their chairman had nearly gone to prison for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Up in the attic of the Georgian Bloomsbury house was the poetry department where its editor sat, who to my young starry eyes at the time seemed very elderly. I would love to climb those stairs and chat with him and hear his stories of his youth in the Bloomsbury Set.
However today, browsing through the British publication Writers and Artists Year Book for information about outlets for different genres of literature, the majority of publishers and agents pronounce: No Poetry Please.
 
Knowing that poetry is an art of the soul, one cannot discourage a poet merely by lack of commercial recognition. Therefore Voices Israel can feed that soul by giving poets opportunities to read their poems aloud, publish in the annual anthology, and win a prize in a competition.
 
Starting with very humble beginnings in 1971 following a letter in The Jerusalem Post by Haifa resident Reuben Rose, of blessed memory, a small group gathered to share their poetry. Rose was a modest modern-Orthodox talented poet with a conscience. He was involved in many socially minded pressure groups, and he and his late wife, Susie, were known for their many acts of kindness and hospitality in the community. He had a rare sense of humor shared by another member, a monk who sometimes hosted Voices meetings at the Stella Maris Monastery. Between the monk and the Orthodox Jewish Rose, there was the entire spectrum in the Voices membership, coexistence and tolerance that continues today.

A Voices workshop in Safed (Courtesy)A Voices workshop in Safed (Courtesy)
 
New groups evolved in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and within a couple of years, Voices produced an annual anthology, typed on a portable machine by Rose, run off on a Gestetner, stapled together and distributed to the membership that was growing from all over the country.
 
Today Voices produces a beautiful full-length publication each year, computer printed with a glossy cover illustration. The chief editor, Dina Yehuda, herself a prize-winning poet, is assisted by her hi-tech wizard husband, Yair, the full-color cover illustration by poet-artist Helen Bar-Lev, and the graphic design and printing supervised by another prize-winning poet, Johnmichael Simon, all working voluntarily from their home computers. The editorial board rotates every two years and entries are reviewed anonymously.
After Rose’s sad premature death in 1989, the organization’s leaders were determined to continue his legacy, and each succeeding president and executive board added innovations to widen the activities and promote English poetry in Israel.
 
Mike Scheidemann of Kibbutz Yizre’el created the international competition in memory of Rose, and each year he sought out prestigious judges, a tradition continued to this day by Tel Aviv poet Mark Levinson.
 
This writer, during her presidency, expanded the organization so that today there are 10 regional groups meeting mostly in private homes, from Safed in the Upper Galilee and Nahariya in the Western Galilee, down the coast to Haifa, Netanya, the Sharon and Tel Aviv, going east to Beth Shemesh/Modi’in, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and south to Ashkelon and Beersheba and the South, with affiliated groups in Northwest London and Berlin.
 
In addition, there are many overseas members whose poetry groups share ideas and information about competitions and publishing opportunities. Today’s president, Susan Olsburgh, a Netanya poet who also runs a monthly “Poetry Please” workshop for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), is constantly searching for new ideas for networking events, projects and workshops. The rest of the executive board, treasurer Chanita Millman of Jerusalem and membership secretary and Haifa poet Susan Rosenberg, are among the most veteran members.
 
Judy Koren, a poet and active member of the Haifa English Theater, has revitalized the website. And secretary Linda Suchy from Netanya produces a 10-page monthly online newsletter containing news of all the groups, publishing opportunities, achievements of Voices members – many of whom are launching their own collections – and the monthly poetry selections from the regional groups.
This year the Bar Sagi Young Poets Prize was launched in memory of a talented teenage poet who tragically died of cancer. Deeply mourned by her family, they are collaborating with Voices to encourage young English-language poets throughout Israel.
 
In Israel, poets do not have to sit at their solitary lamp-lit desk to wait for the muse. Throughout the year the regional groups host workshops facilitated by well-known poets from overseas or by the members themselves, all of whom are talented in the many genres of this art form. 

Voices is a non-profit organization, and all its activities are organized by volunteers. For details of regional groups and activities see the website: www.voicesisrael.com, or contact the secretary, Linda Suchy at secretary.voices@gmail.com


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