Assistant Professor of English Peter Davis Reflects on the Current Israeli Controversy Surrounding his Second Collection, Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!

My second book of poems, Poetry! Poetry! Poetry!, was translated into Hebrew and, this past summer, published in Israel. Of course, I thought this was very cool. At the release party, I read some poems, via Skype, to an Israeli audience. I was on a computer screen held up by a guy onstage who was wearing a costume that made him look like a giant puppet. It was funny.

The translator is a youngish Israeli poet named Oded Carmeli. He’d seen some poems from the book in the online journal Jacket and asked if he could translate a few; before long he’d translated the whole book and found a publisher. It all happened very quickly.

Soon after the release party, a number of Israeli reviews started coming in. And this is where it gets interesting: some were very critical of the book because they didn’t think that the book was actually poetry! They thought it might be something else entirely, but certainly not Poetry.

My father-in-law is a dentist and knows nothing about poetry. He read Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! and said he liked it. He told me, “I think I get it, but I’m not sure.” I said, “Then you get it. That’s good enough.” I told him about the Hebrew translation and the charge that I wasn’t writing poetry. He said, “Well, they can’t prove that.”

Before I knew it, I was in the middle of a small, Israeli literary controversy. I did some interviews via Skype and telephone with Israeli journalists. It felt really terrific. I mean, as a poet, I’m accustomed to getting very little feedback. I’m used to being almost completely ignored. It turns out that causing controversy in Israel is every bit as fun as being a nonfactor in the United States—if not more so!

The book was even on one of those cultural maps (I’m not sure what to call them, but large magazines make them) which highlight the ups and downs of pop culture.

You can see Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! in the upper right hand corner. The caption to the book reads something like, “Irony is the funnest ton.” What’s great about this graph, for me, is that the book is in the good corner, up there with the Turkish elections and Gabriel Giffords. It’s far, far away from Lebron James and Tracy Morgan, who, in the bottom left corner, can’t feel too great about themselves. I don’t know why Russell Crowe was in the bottom left corner too, but I’m sure they were justified in putting him there.)

I sort of saw the criticism coming but didn’t recognize it at the time. Before the release party, Oded and the publisher created a Facebook page for the event. Oded then began periodically posting some of his translations from the book. And, then (as God said), there were Facebook comments.  And you know how that goes.

Of course, all of this was in Hebrew. So for me to know which poem Oded posted, or what the commenter wrote, I had to copy and paste the text to Google translator and hope for the best. Sometimes I didn’t know what the argument was, or who was on which side. So, in a way, I still know very little about the reception of the book in Israel. Just weird little bits and pieces.

So, when Dr. Beach asked me to write about my experience for this blog, I asked Oded if he’d write a paragraph or two about the reception the book got in Israel. This is what he wrote:

For reasons both local and universal, not many outside poets make it to the Israeli reader. Before PPP! came out, the last American poet to be translated into Hebrew was Mark Strand in 2007, and that was highly unusual. I think it’s fair to say that Beat poetry is still considered to be “contemporary American poetry” here in Tel Aviv. And when a poet does get translated – after his death or shortly before that – the translation is usually his or her collected work. If I’m not mistaken, PPP! is the first single volume of “American poetry” that was translated in real time into Hebrew.

So I can understand the outcry some critics cried after reading the Hebrew PPP!. Here was this unknown poet of about their age whose second collection of poems got published in the biggest publishing house in Israel just one year after its original publication. To be blunt, some Israeli poets/critics were simply jealous at the “respect” Peter Davis got. I bet that if PPP! was an original Hebrew work, the same group of people would have been the first to praise it.

At the same time, PPP! was very well received within certain poetry circles. Many experimental poets were thrilled to read the work of their newly-found American colleague. As one poet put it: “reading PPP! was like reading Orwell’s Animal Farm for the first time. You think to yourself: why didn’t I think of that before? And it was only last year!”

So that’s the word from Israel. I like what Oded says because it makes me seem like the unfairly prosecuted victim, as opposed to the fairly prosecuted perpetrator. And I am really happy to see Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! favorably compared with Animal Farm because, well, how could I not like that?

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