A voice for the poet

Local talent gets an outlet at Voices Israel Group of Poets.

A workshop in a home in Safed’s Old City (photo credit: Courtesy)
A workshop in a home in Safed’s Old City
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was indeed a dark and stormy night in January when the most dedicated of English-language poets met in Tel Aviv to celebrate the winning poems from the Voices Israel 26th annual Reuben Rose competition.
It was perhaps a tribute to English poetry in Israel that although the competition is international and poems were submitted from all over the world, the three principal prizewinners were veteran Voices poets who have lived in Israel most of their adult lives.
Voices Israel Group of Poets in English was founded in 1971 in response to a letter published in The Jerusalem Post.
The founding members – Reuben Rose, Leslie Summers, Moshe Ben-Zvi and Jacob Katwan – created the organization to provide an outlet for writers of English poetry in Israel, to encourage new poets in their art and to promote international friendships through poetry.
Starting in Haifa, the group expanded to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with monthly meetings where poets could bring their work to read and receive constructive but not cruel criticism. However, it was only in the last five years, after requests from poets living in more remote areas of Israel to make these monthly meetings more accessible, that groups were established in Safed, at Kibbutz Evron near Nahariya in the western Galilee, in Netanya for the Sharon area, Beit Shemesh and Modi’in, Efrat, Rehovot and Beersheba.
Each group is autonomous, meeting at the hour and day convenient for its own membership, but the format is according to the Voices constitution: the reading of original poetry and the selection of the best for publication in the monthly newsletter.
Poets have an opportunity to network at the regular workshops, which are organized each year in the various geographic regions, and a residential workshop held most years in Netanya.
One of the two focal points of the year is the publication of the Voices anthology, a full-length collection of poems selected and edited by the Voices editorial board, for the past two years with Dina Yehuda as chief editor, while her husband, Jair, created a user-friendly computer program for receiving the poems and distributing them to the five-person editorial board. When selection is complete, publisher and member Johnmichael Simon prepares the work for the printers, while the beautiful cover illustrations are painted by his partner, Helen Bar-Lev, whose art is inspired by their Metulla home.
And as a matter of poetic justice, it was Simon and Bar- Lev who won the first and second prizes in the 26th Reuben Rose competition, the other focal point of the Voices annual program. The third prize was won by Breindel Lieba Kasher of Mevo Modi’in, another veteran member of the organization.
Since all competition entries are judged anonymously, it was indeed a tribute to local talent that they and three of the honorable mentions – Rochelle Mass, Reuven Goldfarb and Ricky Friesem – were longtime Voices members living in Israel.
At the prizewinning ceremony in Tel Aviv last month, Susan Olsburgh, president of Voices Israel and Mark Levinson, competition organizer and leader of the Tel Aviv group, read the remarks of the judges. Traditionally, one of the judges is an overseas poet personality and the other two are winners from the previous year.
The overseas judge, John Smelcer, was named in the 1990s by Allen Ginsberg as one of the best younger poets in America, and indeed during the following years he has been a prolific poet, teacher of literature and creative writing as well as Native American studies. He is one of the last speakers of the Ahtna language, an endangered Alaska Native language. In the intervening years he has collaborated with many iconic poets in judging competitions, organizing festivals and preparing anthologies of poems and short stories.
In his comments on judging this Reuben Rose competition, he marveled at the diversity of the poems submitted.
“There was a handful of poems that I knew would be among the winners the moment I read them. They would win any competition anywhere in the world.”
The Israeli judges were two of the winners of the previous year’s competition, Gretti Isaac, of the Jerusalem group, and Bill Freedman, professor emeritus at the University of Haifa who still teaches part-time and is on the board of governors of the Sakhnin College for Teacher Education.
Freedman discussed the difficulties of judging such a competition. He compared the position of authority as that of a courtroom judge, “except that those who did not win do not end up in prison.”
“However, the difficulty in evaluating contemporary poetry is that the traditional criteria are far more flexible. So while structure and harmony are still valued, judgment is often a matter of personal taste. Whereas in the 18th and 19th centuries poetry was judged by its beauty, contemporary poetry is judged more for radical originality, emotional power, psychological depth, insight and relevance to the lives of individual readers or the society at large.”
That Voices Israel inspires poetry is obvious by the history of the Voices board and key workers, all of whom work voluntarily for this nonprofit.
Olsburgh, who took over the presidency a year ago, is also of the Netanya and Sharon group. She immigrated to Israel from Newcastle in England in 2010 with her husband, a retired general practitioner.
“I was always interested in English literature, but retiring here gave me the time and energy to explore it further,” she said. “Voices made all the difference. There is the challenge of creating a poem for the monthly group, then working on them after the criticism given at the group.” Olsburgh also runs a poetry appreciation group, Poetry Please, for the Netanya AACI.
The first prizewinner of this year’s competition, Simon, who is also the Voices webmaster, only started writing poetry in middle age. He made aliya from South Africa in 1963, but only after meeting Bar-Lev, in 2003, did the floodgates open. She is his muse, and not a day goes by that he does not write a poem. He excels in the ballad genre.
Unlike the iconic poets of previous centuries, today’s literary artists can’t give up the day job. Simon was employed as a technical writer of user manuals for the hi-tech industry.
“Helen asked me if I wrote anything other than technical stuff and I wrote her a poem. That started it all.”
Bar-Lev, the second prizewinner, first came to Israel for a year in 1959 on a teaching scholarship. She was born in New York and lived in Los Angeles until she made aliya in 1973. She is an acclaimed landscape artist, and at one time had a studio in Safed.
“I didn’t write poetry until I met John. Then we wrote a joint collection for the Ibbetson Press titled Cyclamens and Swords and Other Poems about the Land of Israel.
This developed John’s idea of starting our own online publishing company aptly named Cyclamens and Swords.
“Voices helped us both develop our poetry,” said Bar-Lev. “The monthly groups, the workshops, the anthology and the competition all motivate us to keep writing.”
The third prizewinner, Kasher, said: “I was born a poet; it was part of me from the beginning. My father was a Yiddish writer, my mother a poet, and my brother a painter.
Even before I could write, I would dictate poems to my mother to write for me.” The family included bohemians, leftists, dreamers.
Kasher regrets the decline of poetry appreciation. In the ’60s living in the East Village in New York City, every block had a bookstore with shelves full of poetry.
Kasher made aliya in the late ’70s and worked at Yad Vashem. At that time it was believed that the Shoah should be taught like a history course, void of emotion.
This did not suit her, and she became an independent filmmaker recording the last remnants of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Voices Israel has a diverse membership and is run democratically by its members. A long-standing Nahariya poet, Ezra Ben-Meir, edits the monthly poetry page for the newsletter, which is edited by Jerusalemite and former Brit Avril Meallem. Susan Rosenberg, membership secretary, is a Haifa poet and a former actress for the Haifa English Theater. She celebrated a landmark birthday by publishing an autobiographical collection of poetry. The treasurer, Chanita Millman, a wizard with the figures, keeps the modest accounts on an even keel, having inherited the job from her late husband, Mel, of Jerusalem, who was known for his limericks.
With the oldest members reaching their 90s, Voices is open to every age group. The youngest member is 20-year-old Itamar Blumfield (disclosure: yes, he is related to this writer), who until his enlistment in the IDF regularly attended the Haifa group. The other poets listened and criticized with sympathy his poems about the pains and love of adolescence.
There are no auditions or entrance restrictions to join Voices, but the standard is high, as seen by the competition and anthology submissions. There are also connections with other literary groups and publications in Israel, and Voices poets regularly participate in poetry slams and open mikes at popular literary venues, and attend events of the Bar-Ilan University creative writing course and other university literary departments. There are also attempts to reach out to English-speaking new immigrants, and poetry readings have been organized through ESRA and AACI.
In spite of innovations, online publishing and the introduction of modern poets and exponents of English-language poetry, the legacy of the late Reuben Rose lives on.
Reuben and his wife, Susie, had no children, but they gave love and support to all in their community in the Haifa neighborhood of Naveh Sha’anan.
The son and nephew of rabbis, Reuben was a truly righteous person, reading poetry to the elderly in retirement homes and tackling social issues. Among his papers found after his death were letters to the queen of England and to the party chairman of the former USSR for an explanation of the Wallenberg affair. He was particularly active on behalf of Russian Jews and women’s rights. Extremely modest, he did not call himself a poet, although he wrote beautiful verse, and he was blessed with a wicked sense of humor.
At one time Haifa Voices meetings were held at the Stella Maris Monastery, hosted by poet Brother Elias, and the room rocked with laughter created by the jokes of the religious Jew and the monk.
Susie outlived him by several years and continued to support Voices. She moved to Jerusalem after his death but traveled each year to Tel Aviv to award the prizes to the winners of the annual competition in his name. Only a few days before her death she addressed dozens of envelopes to enclose copies of a newly published collection of Reuben’s memoirs, poetry and letters, Culled from My Roses, edited by their old friend and colleague Mark Levinson.
The organization’s international outreach includes poetry and literary groups throughout Europe and the US and is affiliated with the Kenton Literary Society of Northwest London. The newsletter gives information about international competitions and publications, and Voices members are well represented throughout the world.
When the first Voices meetings took place in the early 1970s in the Roses’ modest Haifa home, little did those poets dream that it would grow into such a far-reaching poetry forum.