Eli Eliahu, born in 1969, is an Israeli poet based out of Ramat Gan. He has published two highly praised books in Hebrew, I, and not an Angel (2008) and City and Fears (2011). Aside from writing poetry, he writes for Haaretz Daily Newspaper on poetry and culture. Most of his work has not been translated into English, but following our interview with him below, you can read two of his poems that contributing editors Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller recently translated into English.
Other than poetry, what occupies your time?
I work at Haaretz Daily Newspaper as an editor and a writer on subjects of culture and literature. So every day I’m at the editorial board. I have a daughter, she is four years old, and I try to be with her as much as possible.
When did you start writing poetry and why?
I started to write poems when I was in elementary school. I was fascinated with books and words from the beginning and when I had the ability to write, I tried to recapture the magic of the music created by words and syntax. But it took me a long time to feel that I have my private poetic language and that I could speak through it about my life and not just imitate other poets.
What are your obsessions and how do they come out in your writing?
I guess I’m obsessed with words. I like the rhythm, the order of the letters in the words. I am obsessed with the different meanings a word could have in different contexts. I also spend quite some time thinking about the connection between the soul and the body; I think it reflects in my poetry.
What tensions live in your poems? What wakes you up at night to start writing?
I think that art in general is based on and is about tensions. Everything that I write is about tensions between two or more things or feelings or thoughts, and poetry is the place that you can put some order to all these contradicting feelings. I also think that the main tension in poetry is between beauty and truth, between the aesthetic and honesty. But what makes me wake up at night to write is usually not an idea or a thought, but a combination of words that appears in my mind that demands to be developed.
How does living in Israel inform and shape your poetry?
This is a very complicated question. Almost as complicated as this country. One of the main shaping experiences of an Israeli man is the military service, especially to serve in the occupied territories.
There are some poems of mine that deal directly with this experience. But more than that, I think Israel is a very stressed, crowded, violent and noisy country. And this is the background of my poetry. I think part of my poetry is a documentation of the struggle of the individual against this background. I also live in a city, and the city with its buildings, roads, sidewalks, stairs, windows, is the background view of my poetry and a main source of metaphors and images.
Who are your poetic influences? Whose books do you read over and over?
First of all there is the Bible. This is the book I read over and over; it has great poetry in it. Maybe the best poetry written in Hebrew. And then, there are many poets who have influenced me in different ways. Some of them influenced me by the subject of their poetry, some with their specific and unique vocabularies and others by the music of their poetry. If to list some names – Amir Gilboa, Avot Yeshuron, Nathan Zach, Bialik, Alterman, Dalia Rabikovich, Itzhak Laor and others. I also read English poetry. I’m very fond of the poetry of Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Billy Collins, Carl Sandburg, and above all Walt Whitman. I also read translated poetry. We have great translators of Polish poetry in Israel. I like the poetry of Szymborska and Milosz. They had a great influence on my poetry.
What would you call your poetic aesthetic?
I think that poetry is the combination of beauty, wisdom, and music. I try to combine these in my poetry. I think a poet should not only pay attention to the meaning of the word, but also to its rhythm, music, to the associations it brings, and to its connections with the other words that it follows. Above all, poems must have inner music, even if the poem is not written in a structural way.
What do you love about the Hebrew language?
I love that the Hebrew has an ancient background, and that there are different kinds of Hebrew throughout the years. I like the fact that in the Hebrew, different words come from mutual roots. One gets a feeling that there is always a strong connection between things in the world. Hebrew also has an ability to say much in few words. The Bible does it in the most distinct way.
Do you translate any work into Hebrew?
Yes, sometimes. I am not consistent with it, but once in a while I discover a poem that I like so much that I want to read it also in Hebrew, so I translate first of all for myself. It must be a poem that I feel could also stand in Hebrew. There are poems that I like very much, but I feel that most of their power and beauty will be lost in translation. Up until now, I have translated “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” of Eliot, and some poems of Billy Collins, Walt Whitman and Philip Larkin.
In the poems we’ve translated of yours, we’ve noticed the themes of family and your home life—do these subjects come up often in your work?
Yes. Since the beginning of my poetry, I have been trying to find the right poetics in order to be able to talk about my life and my experiences, because, for me, this is one of the main differences between modern poetry and prose or philosophy. In philosophy, you begin with a big idea and then go to the individual, and in modern poetry you go from the individual experience to the big idea. I am also fascinated with the gap between the things that are on the surface and the things that lie beneath, between what is exposed and what is hidden. The place that this gap is most protrusive is within the family, because it is the most intimate place, and still, many things are happening under the surface.
The day will come, and this war
will also be a chapter in the learning books.
Schoolchildren will memorize dates, names
of battles, warlords, states.
Some bored girl will draw hearts
in her notebook, a boy will yawn,
someone will ask to be excused.
Next to a black table,
a teacher will scold the student
who forgot the number
Knocked on the door at noon (a misunderstanding
with the city regarding property tax collections),
came with guns, pulled out forms,
so-and-so, square by square, they said.
So-and-so, debts accumulated, interest,
delays. They saw books on the shelves,
on the couch, on the table. The tall one asked
If I was working on a PhD. No, I said,
poet. He saw my book on the table,
opened it and read aloud: “The world is peeling back
like a giant snakeskin.” Beautiful, he said, the world
peeling back. Really beautiful. They agreed
to split the debt into equal payments. From all
the books, they foreclosed one line and went away.
Interview and translations by Rachel Gellman and Carly Joy Miller