Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ars Poetica: 'You can hear the hegemony crashing'

New-wave poetry is challenging Israel's 'Eurocentric cultural elite' and giving a voice to Mizrahi women. It's all  thanks to Adi Keissar, the founder of Yemenite origin of Ars Poetica, a beguiling mixture of parties and poetry readings. Ayelet Tsabari, herself an author of Yemenite origin, reports for the Forward


We squeezed our way toward the stage, where DJ Khen Elmaleh was playing high-energy Mizrahi and Arabic tunes. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and perfume. Minutes later, an excited murmur swept over the crowd as Erez Biton, the first Mizrahi writer ever to win the Israel Prize for literature, was ushered in like a celebrity. Onstage, Biton said, “I’m as thrilled to be here as when I received the Israel Prize in Jerusalem.” He thanked Adi Keissar for making the event happen.

Ars Poetica, a wordplay reclaiming the word “Ars”— Arabic for “pimp,” and a derogatory name for Mizrahi men in Israel — is Keissar’s brainchild. A young poet of Yemeni descent, Keissar started writing poetry late in life. “I saw poetry as white and elitist and unrelated to me,” she said in an interview. It didn’t help that the poetry she learned in school was almost exclusively written by Ashkenazi men.

Three years ago, feeling out of place at conventional poetry readings, she decided to create an alternative and make it a hafla, Arabic for a party. “It was my way of reconciling the dissonance in my head,” she said. “To create a space I feel comfortable in, a ‘room of my own.’” She invited a few poets, a DJ, a belly dancer. “There was electricity in the air that night,” she said. “We all felt it.”

Keissar curated another event, and then another. A dedicated and passionate following gathered around the series. Israeli media started to take notice.
Ars Poetica features more Mizrahi and Palestinian poets than your average poetry reading, giving voice to ethnic groups whose stories are rarely told in Israeli literature. It is also, Keissar proudly notes, run entirely by women. “In Israel, like in the world,” she said, “there’s one narrative that erases and defines other narratives.” The reading series also features Ashkenazi poets. “The idea of Ars Poetica is that it doesn’t exclude.”

Yet in Israeli media, the series is associated with a Mizrahi revolution, and its critics often neglect to see the inclusiveness Keissar so carefully constructs. “It’s guerrilla, it’s an eruption, it’s undefined,” she said. “It sidesteps the gatekeepers, and the establishment does not know what to make of it.” Or, in the words of fellow poet Naaman, “You can hear the sound of the hegemony crashing.”

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