This is a story about poetry, but like many Israeli stories, it too begins with Netanyahu.
When Netanyahu was minister of the treasury, in the mid aughts, Israel’s anti-monopoly laws became less than tightly enforced. One sector to suffer the implications was the publishing business. Israel’s two major retail book chains merged at the time with two major publishing houses. The combined force of these leviathans wrecked the smaller book chains, the private bookstores and every other publishing house around.
Today we have here a duopoly of two book chains: Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim. They make the rules. They have the liberty of take up to 90 percent of the book’s cover price, and the habit of throwing books into crazy sales that leave virtually nothing for the publishing house and the author.
An Israeli author typically gets between 1-2 sheqels (25-50 cents) per book, regardless of the price at which the book is sold. If it is sold for a typical cover price of 90 sheqels, Steimatzky will pocket up to 80 times as much as the author. The publishing house, which must also produce the book as a physical object, will end up with about $2 to do so. Hebrew culture is a tender flower. Only 5 million readers or so can enjoy its treasures in the original language. Their purchasing power cannot possibly keep Israel’s writers alive – certainly not under such conditions.
When culture is harnessed to a ruthless market, it is harmed. Our identity as Israelis must go beyond the military, and Hebrew letters are what holds its core values. Israel’s neocon government couldn’t care less, and all of us, writers and readers, feel the results. The readers get more commercial literature, and the writers get less and less for their work.
Even if we give up on pay, and simply ask for our work to appear in print, we may prove unlucky. Take my book of poetry, “Twenty Love Poems and one Poem about Kubbeh Soup.” It is a collection of poems composed between 2007-2011, taking its name from Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.” My publishing house, Ahuzat Bayit, intended to release it, but then backed down. “Until there’s some sort of legislation to protect us,” explained my dear publisher Sarai Guttman, “we cannot publish anything that isn’t profitable, and poetry is never profitable.”
My only option was the internet. I went to 21 branches of both chains, out of the conviction that poetry belongs there, and filmed myself reading the poems, one in each store, always wearing a necktie, out of respect for my hosts: the omnipotent masters of Hebrew culture.
At first I asked for permission, but the booksellers did not have the authority to grant it, and I soon learned to spare them the dilemma and shoot in hiding. Sometimes I was noticed, and the response was often warm. In the video appearing below with English subtitles, that of the seventh poem, a costumer stopped to listen with her little girl. She noted that “they do this in bars now as well.”
I went on to explain that this was an act of protest, but no, I don’t think she is entirely wrong. A surge of spoken word events and poetry slams around the country, felt over the past half a decade, is among other things the fruit of an age in which poetry no longer has a place in the bookstores, which have become purely commercial. Other Hebrew poets such as Noam Partom and Eran Hadas have also been using Youtube as a medium. In a way, Netanyahu is paving our way back to the days of Biblical poetry, when Hebrew verse was spoken rather than written.
Twenty love poems and one poem about kubbeh soup.
Love poem number 7: You Told me Summer in the Middle of Winter
Filmed at a ‘Book Junction’ branch at the Seven Star Mall, Herzliya,
in the presence of an audience.
In your room Hopper’s girl is catching some sun
And a narcissus in a bottle.
She doesn’t look at us, not to be jealous.
She’ll stay there till cherry season,
then forget to turn off the boiler.
You told me summer in the middle of winter,
you told me slow in the morning.
In your room, books lean against the rafters,
A bar is hectic in the wee hours (all hours here are wee)
Stuffed with ghosts of your smoked moments.
In your room is my toothbrush and the briefest of silences.
Outside a torrent commences and we must leave.
“Hug” says the inscription over your beautiful door.
Its frames are soft.
Narcissus in a bottle is the Gatekeeper.
I’ll be the night watchman.
Come night already. On the way to my place, buying a croissant.
Maybe we’ll be dense like the buildings,
Maybe there will be an umbrella
And an airport terminal’s smooth-sliding doors.
Coffee? No thanks, already had some
But I make more at home and think
Of somewhere that is never empty.
Thank you! Whose poem is it?
Mine. I take my poetry and read it in bookstores
What a charming idea. They do it in bars these day too.
Yes, but I’m putting it up on Youtube,
I’ll tell you the reason.
The entire book is available (though alas with no subtitles) through the Youtube playlist linked here. For those of you who wish to train your Hebrew – the text is attached to each video in the details box. But I’m not sure there’s any good reason to train it, it’s a dying language, and you know whom to blame.
Finally, for your pleasure – and trust me, you’ll enjoy this whether or not you know Hebrew – here is the most recent work by Israel’s foremost Youtube poet, Noam Partom, initiator of the “Poetube” series, who soon is due to publish her first tome of verse against all odds. This poem, “Pretty and Pretty with stars in their eyes (lovesmetoo),” describes the bliss she experiences in her current relationship with multilayered Hebrew and hip-hoppy grace. It appears that poets will find something to be happy about even when the situation seems truly hopeless.