Taking poetic license

Metulla Poetry Festival guest Lior Sternberg has been inspired by the capital.

Lior Sternberg 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lior Sternberg 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The biblical description of a stranger in a strange land does not quite fit the bill, but Lior Sternberg is clearly something of a hybrid adopted son-émigré. The 44-year-old Jerusalem resident poet, who is on the roster of next week’s Confederation House 15th annual Poetry Festival in Metulla (May 25-27), was born in Petah Tikva and gravitated to the capital, initially to study at the Hebrew University.
“I have been here for 20 years, so you could say I feel at home in Jerusalem now,” says Sternberg.
His evolving oeuvre, which currently stands at five volumes of poetry, reflects that social and cultural duality, but Sternberg says he does not have a sense of displacement.
“In some of my poetry, I address Jerusalem and the complexity and beauty of life here, and in others I draw more on my childhood and youth in Petah Tikva,” he says in an interview in the capital, adding that there are advantages to coming from elsewhere. “I think that maybe it allows me to look at life in Jerusalem from the side, more objectively and, in a sense, more critically. I think I can see the historical and the mythological aspects of Jerusalem and can look at them together.”
He says he did not make a conscious decision to relocate.
“I came here for university, and I sort of stayed here until I realized that Jerusalem was my home. There is a split in my poetry.
I am completely a part of Jerusalem, but my past comes from Petah Tikva.
That’s part of who and what I am.”
It seems, however, that Sternberg is the sum of numerous cultural parts. His writing covers a wide spectrum of subject matter, ranging from the somewhat ethereal – such as in his delightful short work “Hasussim” (The Horses) – to the cozy intimacy of his family in “Haim Hadashim” (New Life).
Sternberg says he always keeps his personal and poetic feet firmly on the ground.
“I look at life as it is,” he declares. “I am not a believer in putting out airy philosophical ideas that people find difficult to relate to. I don’t want to challenge people, I want to communicate with them.
From the very beginning, I have written about home and the family and the street, but there is also the mythological side of what I do. My new book has a part that portrays a sort of archaic culture, which I do not put in any particular time or place, and there is another part that relates to everyday life in a part of 1930s Israel. So it’s not all about the tangible and the immediate.”
Sternberg sometimes applies a nonnative Jerusalemite street-level angle on life in a literal and literary sense.
“When they were building the light rail here, and there were all those piles of rubble and mess and there was no end in sight, I’d drive in the traffic jams, or by bus. I observed it all objectively,” he notes.
In fact, the seemingly endless urban project spawned a new Sternberg tome.
“I have a book coming out called Harekevet Hakala (The Light Rail), which depicts the light rail as something close to mythological, and also the everyday elements of the work. It is sort of like the celestial Jerusalem and the nether Jerusalem that encompasses the history, the graves, the dead and all the tectonic baggage of this city. On the one hand, it is so difficult to live in this city – everything is so complex. But then you get the light rail which, as it were, binds all the various parts and elements of the city but doesn’t quite manage it.”
Sternberg has other areas of interest beyond our geographical and cultural borders. His work includes well-received translations of works by a number of English and Irish poets, the latter including poems by Patrick Kavanagh, who died in 1967; Eavan Boland and 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Seamus Heaney.
“To my mind, there is a strong common denominator between Israel and Ireland,” proffers Sternberg. “Both countries/civilizations have known a lot of sorrow. From what I have read and what I learned from my visit there, Ireland has experienced a lot of pain, over hundreds of years, even though that has abated somewhat more recently. They were ruled by England, and they fought against the English, and there were all the troubles between the Catholics and the Protestants, and other things, all the bloodshed. And, of course, we have had that, too. At least the Irish have found some way of living together in peace, some hope of better things.
They have arrived at a fragile settlement.
I hope we achieve that some time.”
Music is also a prominent component in both cultures, he says.
“There is the music and also the respect the Irish have for the word and for literature,” says Sternberg. “In pubs all over Ireland and in Dublin airport, you see large posters with pictures of the great men of letters, like [James] Joyce and Seamus Heaney, with quotes from their work. The Irish are proud of their writers.”
It would be nice, Sternberg feels, if that were a feature of life here, too.
“In Ireland there is an official body that chooses artists that the state supports and gives them enough money to live on so they can get on with their artistic work without having day-to-day worries. I’m not saying the state here should pamper artists, but it would be wonderful if we could just get on with creating works without having too many financial concerns.
I work as a teacher, and I am happy about that, but I would like if, for example, poetry was supported better and made more accessible to the general public.”
That certainly isn’t a problem at the Poetry Festival in Metulla, where each year several hundred people go to our northernmost reaches to enjoy poetry readings, lectures and discussions in a definitively relaxed ambience.
“The festival is wonderful and I enjoy being there, even just as a member of the audience,” says Sternberg.
Next week he will share a poetry discussion slot with professional colleague Anat Levin.
“Anat also has a down-to-earth approach to her work, so it should be a good session,” he says. “I am sure we will find common ground and intriguing topics to expound on.”
Other frontliners at the Poetry Festival include Jerusalemite Israel Prize winner, author and poet Haim Guri, Tuvia Rubner, Israel Prize laureate Shimon Sandbank, Iraq-born Ronnie Somek, and Benny Tzipper.
There will also be some quality musical entertainment over the three days, including a reprise of the iconic Shlomo Gronich-Matti Caspi Me’ahorei Hatzlilim show and a performance by singer-songwriter Rona Keinan.
For more information about the Poetry Festival: (04) 695-0778 and www.confederationhouse.