A man of our word

Ronny Someck shares his poetry with the man on the street.

Eran Tazur (left) will perform at a tribute to Ronny Someck  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eran Tazur (left) will perform at a tribute to Ronny Someck
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At noon today the latest installment of the “Ten Lamilim La’asot Becha” (“Let the Words Wash Over You”) series, at the Mediatheque Center in Holon, will honor one of our finest and most accessible poets.
The work of Ronny Someck, 61, will be saluted by a glittering array of musicians and even by one of our most senior politicians, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who will read some of Someck’s works at the event.
“Yair and I have been friends for 30 years,” says Someck. “He appreciates and understands poetry, and he reads it wonderfully. I just hope he doesn’t have some unexpected important government business to deal with on Friday.”
Besides Lapid there is an impressive musical cast lined up to put Someck’s words to music, including some of the poet’s contemporaries, such as Mickey Gabrielov and Hanan Yovel, as well as younger performers like Yali Sobol and Karni Postel. Veteran actor Sasson Gabai who, like Someck, was born in Iraq and made aliya as a small child, will also be on hand to lend his seasoned velvety vocals to the occasion, as will TV personality Modi Bar-On.
It is a high-quality and wide-ranging roster of talent, fully befitting Someck’s poetry.
While many may consider poetry outside their regular lifestyle domain, as his 11 books to date testify, Someck’s work is eminently user friendly, and his poems can be seen almost everywhere, including in some of the most unlikely of places.
Someck recently saw some of his lines written out on the display window of a local ice-cream store, and was delighted.
“No one asked me if they could put the poem out there, but that’s great,” he says.
“That means people are interested in my poetry, and that it has some relevance in everyday life. That’s the way it should be.”
Mind you, one may have thought that some placements of his work might have tested Someck’s tolerance level to the limit.
Not a bit. “A few years ago I was sitting with a French journalist who came to interview me, and while we were at a café, three garbage trucks drove by with poems of mine written on the side, and some with my picture,” he recalls. “The journalist was a bit shocked. There was a campaign at the time to put poetry on garbage trucks – I suppose to make them more appealing – and some poets refused, but I was quite happy with the idea.”
Someck has been producing poems for quite some time and, naturally, his first albeit unplanned work of poetry was fueled by love.
“I write a love note to send to a girl in my class at school,” Someck explains, “and when I read it back I saw it was a poem, so I thought maybe I could do some more of this.”
Today, in between writing books, lecturing and working with a variety of artists from across a range of creative disciplines, Someck also teaches literature at schools. And while he does his best to convey the beauty and street-level cred of poetry to his young charges, there is still the odd generation gap to be bridged.
“The other day I told a class about that first poem which I wrote on a scrap of paper and sent to my classmate, and a young girl in the class asked me why I didn’t just text her,” says Someck with a laugh. “It was a bit difficult explaining to her that there were no cellphones around back then.”
Someck manages to get his work out there via all kinds of creative channels. He has worked with a wide variety of musicians, both here and abroad, performing and recording with the likes of stellar violinist and oud player Yair Dalal, who also has Iraqi roots, and leading light of the New York avant-garde and experimental music scene Elliot Sharp. And there have been fruitful confluences in other areas of the arts, including photography.
Still, had Someck been of a more “manly” nature, none of this would probably have happened. At the age of 16, he was a budding basketball player and trained with the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth team. At the time, poetic pursuits did not sit too well with the macho image of sporting exploits. But a couple of unforeseen developments led the teenager away from the basketball court and into the world of poetic endeavor.
“I sent a poem of mine to the editor of the literary section of Ma’ariv, David Giladi, just to get his opinion of whether it was worth anything, not for him to publish it in the paper,” Someck recalls. “But they did print it. At the time, that was the biggest literary section in the Israeli press.”Naturally, the young basketball playercum- poet was happy with the publication, but he was a mite worried it might have an adverse effect on his standing at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Luckily, thanks to a spelling error, there was a temporary stay of judgment. “My original family name is Somekh, but because of a spelling error, they wrote my name as Someck. I thought that no one would identify me as Ronny Someck and I could continue being a sort of ‘double agent’ – playing basketball and writing poems.”
Initially, the spelling mistake smokescreen worked well. “My coach told me there was someone with a name similar to mine who had a poem in the paper, but he didn’t suspect it was me.”
Ultimately, Someck was responsible for nipping his own sporting career in the bud.
Suitably encouraged by the unintentional media exposure, Someck decided to “come out” of his literary closet. “I took out a load of poems I’d written, and which I’d been hiding away in a shoebox, and I sent them out to newspapers. There were plenty of newspapers around in those days – Hatzofeh, Al Hamishmar, Davar, etc.–and they were all published.”
Again, the poems did not escape the notice of Someck’s coach. “He told me he’d seen some more poems of the guy with a name like mine and when he told me he liked the poems, I owned up and told him it was me.”
And that was that for Someck and basketball. “I didn’t feel it was right to write poetry and play basketball. It was a stupid decision, and today I tell people they can write poetry and do anything else they want. But at the time, that’s how I felt. I believed the gap between the basketball court and the paper on which you write poetry was an unbridgeable chasm.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s loss is the literary world’s gain. Who knows what sporting heights Someck may have achieved, but he has certainly done all right with his writing. His books have been published in 41 languages to date, including Arabic.
Notwithstanding his Israeli identity, the Arab world has embraced Someck’s oeuvre with open arms. “A book of mine came out in Cairo. The publishers say I am Israeli, but they note I was born in Baghdad.”
There’s more. “There is an anthology of the 15 most influential Iraqi poets coming out in the States in a couple of weeks’ time, and I am one of them,” says Someck. “I told them I am an Israeli, but they relate to me as an Iraqi poet in exile. They say I was born in Iraq and I can’t return there, so in their eyes, that makes me an exile.”
Someck was also the recipient of kudos from iconic beat poet Allen Ginsberg when the two appeared at a festival in Poland two years ago. “He called me ‘tyger’ [perhaps referring to the poem by William Blake]. I don’t know why,” chuckles Someck, “but it was a nice compliment.”
The poet says his synergy with artists from other disciplines and, for that matter, today’s show is a perfectly natural development for him, and says he likes to keep his fingers in several pies.
“I believe in the Zen Buddhist story about the cat chasing a mouse. The mouse hides away in a small hole until he hears a dog barking. When he pops out of the hole he finds himself faced with the cat, and he says to it: ‘I know you are going to have me for lunch now, but can you explain to me why I heard barking?’ and the cat says: ‘These days, it’s hard to manage without two languages.’ “I am a strong believer in music as a vehicle for conveying my work. Music helps my poems take off to other spheres.”
Someck does not know where the musicians in today’s show will take his words.
“I have no idea what music they have written for poems. That’s fine with me.
Blues artists like Blues Rosh Pina, ethnic musicians like Yair Dalal and experimental artists like Elliot Sharp have put my poems to music. I am happy musicians want to work with my words.”
For tickets and more information about “Ten Lamilim La’asot Becha”: (03) 502- 1552 and www.mediatheque.org.il