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I interviewed Agi Mishol in May 2002 at her home in a rural area of Gedera, a town near the Mediterranean coast, close enough to the Ben Gurion airport flight path to hear the planes landing and taking off. A modest rectangular house protected by shrubs from the road and with orchards behind it, with three lazy looking mixed breed dogs sunning themselves on the patio, Mishol’s home reminded me more of Iowa than Israel. From the kitchen table where she often writes (although she has a proper desk in another room)you can see a sign marking the first Jewish settlement in the area, dating from 1884, a few miles off on a hill now uninhabited.
Winner of the first Yehuda Amichai Poetry Prize, awarded this year, Mishol has two new books – her tenth and eleventh volumes of poetry – forthcoming: Wax Flowers and New and Selected Works. Excerpts from her last book The Dream Notebook, which was published in Hebrew in Israel, appear in this issue.
Lisa Katz: I want to talk to you about poetry but I must ask: how can you write in this situation?
Agi Mishol: It’s true that one’s mental state lately is quite bad, as if a coil keeps springing up at you, it’s impossible to relax, impossible to read, impossible to do anything for any length of time. On the days when I’m at home I move around restlessly, push papers from one side of the desk to the other, cook a little, talk on the telephone, everything in short bursts. It’s impossible to do anything really, to take a breath deep enough to accomplish something.
This is exactly the topic of “To the Muses” (online at Mississippi Review). It’s hard to write about anything else, apart from the situation. I remember around the time when I wrote this poem, I was standing over here in the yard, yellow flowers were in bloom over there, it was just beautiful. Naturally this is how one wants things to be, to write about, you know, the subjects poetry is drawn to – beauty, eternity, which don’t exist for anything, poetry doesn’t exist for anything, it doesn’t have a goal, it’s not about statements. Beauty isn’t for something. And poetry as I experience it is usually born out of quietness, nothingness. That’s poetry’s natural background. I often think about it as the image of a fish in water: living in it, the fish doesn’t notice the water. Poetry too lives inside this nothingness. Inside the quiet. It develops slowly. And suddenly the background changes and it’s noisy because of the changes and so poetry changes too – it can’t be what it generally is. I had the feeling that I couldn’t write about what I usually do; Rafah [in Gaza] is only a half an hour from here, and there’s a war; your antennae catch the signals, even me, living here in this terribly idyllic and pastoral landscape which seems escapist. I could say: I don’t care about anything, I’m just here among the flowers and the trees… But that’s getting pretty hard to do. I had never written about political or social topics before, or if I did it was ironic or well-hidden, and still it’s there (in the poetry) because I do live here but it was never the main thing. Today I almost can’t do anything else but write about “it.” This surprises me because this is new for me, to be inside something and also to write as if one were outside. All my attention is on “it,” the “situation.”
Lisa Katz: Do you think poets have a role in society?
Agi Mishol: Even if I didn’t believe in the role of a poet before, I’m seeing now that peculiarly enough there is one. The echoes (of current events) are so strong in the poems I’ve been writing lately that I’m beginning to believe in this role. I didn’t plan it but people identify, talk about and relate to, for example, the poem “Woman Martyr” [Forthcoming in American Poetry Review, the poem appeared in Israel in April in the newspaper Ha’aretz, where Mishol’s poems are often published]. A new television show opened with it, and it’s been read aloud twice on the radio, and…I don’t know. I didn’t believe in this role but the poem seems to have captured a mood. I personally hope very much that the situation will pass; I don’t like it much.
Lisa Katz: Let’s talk about the process of writing. I once heard you speaking about the way you begin to write– when a line comes to you. Is this what happened with “Woman Martyr”?
Agi Mishol: With that poem it was the suicide bomber’s last name [Takatka]. I heard her name, and that’s how it works – each time one catches things from a different angle. Her name sounded like the ticking of a bomb- taka-taka like tick-tock – and that was the first thing I noticed. Afterwards my imagination was caught by her walking in the market, a twenty year old in a maternity dress. I thought to myself that she was probably a virgin and had never been pregnant.
I tried to get inside her mind as she was walking and I remembered when I was pregnant and I always thought people were noticing my stomach. I was so proud of being pregnant, of “showing,” and thought that everyone was looking at me (although they probably weren’t). I thought about how she felt about her strange “pregnancy,” walking with a bomb, looking at the people and picking a place to explode, what went through her mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There have been many terror attacks and I can’t think about them all, I don’t allow myself; it’s as though I haven’t got any more room for them inside me. And then she entered that space, along with the list of names of people who died in her attack, and the irony – someone from Afghanistan, and someone from Iran. The most ironic was the two Chinese, like the Israeli children’s song: “There were two Chinese, and along came the police…” And the connection between Bethlehem [in Hebrew beit lekhem – house of bread] and the bakery, out of all places to explode, in a bakery, amazing. Doesn’t a pregnant woman have “a bun in the oven?” Instead of giving birth she gave death. Everything began to cook inside my head and I remember that after I began writing I didn’t know in which direction to take the poem. The descriptions were there but I didn’t know where to go or what I wanted to say, and then I understood that the subject was what everyone was saying, “There’s nothing to say, nothing to say,” while talking all the time. And that was the point. In relation to your question, I am always caught by something peripheral, not the big issue, it’s always some detail from a different angle, like the bakery.
Lisa Katz: Do you think of yourself as a poet first? You’re also a teacher, a farmer, a mother, a citizen….
Agi Mishol: Well I’m not such a young poet anymore, and after all these years, it’s a major axis inside me. Maybe I don’t call this “poet” but rather the experience of attentiveness, paying attention all the time. Even when I’m not writing I’m a poet, and I know a lot of people who never write poetry but they are poets in this way.
Lisa Katz: What do you mean? Paying attention to details?
Agi Mishol: Yes, I mean always watching reality from the side, hazarah, what do you call that in English?
Lisa Katz: Estrangement, perhaps, in the sense of making strange.
Agi Mishol: Seeing things from a different perspective, as if the poet’s eye has a different angle of vision. At first I thought everybody saw things this way, but (now) I think that every poet is a bit of an outsider; to be a poet is to be an outsider. I’ve had this sense since childhood. I arrived in Israel at the age of four. I was different and I suffered because of this.
Lisa Katz: Many Israelis weren’t born here.
Agi Mishol: True, but I arrived with my parents in Gedera, which is a kind of exclusive place: everyone Israeli with biblical sandals and blue pants with a white stripe down each side. The feeling of being outsiders was strong.
Lisa Katz: If you had remained in Hungary and felt more as though you belonged, do you think you would have had less need to become a poet?
Agi Mishol: I once wrote a poem about that: I would be living on some street in Budapest talking to loved ones named Bela and Yanoush. Still I think wherever I would have lived I would have become a poet quite apart from my biography. When I came to Israel I had to become a translator, a child translator in between several languages. Hunting for words and checking whether they are exactly the same sharpens one’s sense of language. And then I wasn’t accepted completely in school. I was a new immigrant, the way the Ethiopians and Russians are now, exactly like that, which strengthened my feeling of being an outsider, and afterwards found an outlet in writing.
Lisa Katz: Does knowing Hungarian in any way interfere with your Hebrew?
Agi Mishol: No, I don’t think so. My mother tongue isn’t my mother’s tongue; it’s strange, but I haven’t got that feeling, as you do, of living in two languages. Hebrew is my home, I’m completely at home in Hebrew.
Lisa Katz: I have some of your poems posted on my door at the university and recently I found a linguistics lecturer standing in front of it, reading and laughing. She says your poems are “playful.” How would you place yourself in contemporary Hebrew poetry?
Agi Mishol: With regard to humor? I’ve heard that humor is one of the characteristics of my poetry, but it’s part of poetry because it’s part of life. I mean there is something funny about life, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive, right? And everyone who deals with art is playful, a child who remains a bit of child. There’s a beautiful book by [D.W.] Winnicott, which talks about artists being artists because of this childlikeness: an artist doesn’t let his or her child self disappear completely. Isn’t that so?
You look at me, and I may not look like a girl but I am.
Lisa Katz: How would you describe Israeli poetry? I myself think it’s quite good.
Agi Mishol: I also like it very much. With me it’s a bit more complicated because I know all the people involved. Of course a relationship between people is a completely different thing from a relationship with poetry. We Israelis have a special kind of jealousy; there’s even a name for it in Hebrew – “writers’-envy.” There’s no “lawyers’-envy,” but it’s written in the Talmud: “Writers’ envy increases wisdom.” It’s good that everyone wants to surpass the others. I think that poets, at this mechanical level, are like everyone else, everyone has an ego: “Everything you can do, I can do better.”
So when I talk about Hebrew poetry I have to discount what happens between poets, which isn’t so “poetically correct” – lots of tension. Let’s say that dead poets are much more appreciated than living ones, and much easier to get along with too!
Why do I like Hebrew poetry? First of all because the Hebrew language has so many layers and there’s so much you can do with these layers. Hebrew contains a kind of objective wisdom; Hebrew isn’t only words that signify things — table and chair, for example. If I think “womb” [reh-khem] and “compassion” [rakh-ah-meem]— show me another language that has a semantic connection between the two. Or — tsa-phone (north), mats-poon (conscience) and tsa-phoon (hidden). The structure of Hebrew [words built on three letter roots] contains life’s wisdom within; I really believe that the world was created in Hebrew. Every word contains so many links to other words. In Hebrew, before you’ve said anything, just a few words…for example, “north.” Where indeed is our sense of direction? Hidden deep within us, within our consciences, and hard to locate. The words are a kind of poetry themselves. It’s amazing. When you learn to read Hebrew poetry every word is like this. You say “compassion” and you see womb inside the word. Entire families of words.
I don’t like what’s called “women’s poetry.” I don’t know if we should get into this, but I like women’s poetry with balls. I love Yona Wallach. There’s something beyond gender there. I don’t like soft poetry.
Lisa Katz: Do you mean introverted? What do you call feminine?
Agi Mishol: The poet Rachel (1890-1931) is considered feminine; it’s hard to explain but I prefer power, not passivity and softness, beauty and romance.
Many first books of women poets deal with feelings about themselves, inside a tiny radius. I have a problem with that.
Lisa Katz: Do you read poetry in translation?
Agi Mishol: Of course. When I discovered translated poetry my own work moved up a grade. I’ve always thought that translation is a very generous act. I wouldn’t have been able to know the great poets without translators. To be a translator is to be generous, giving people what they otherwise wouldn’t get.
Lisa Katz: How do you teach writing?
Agi Mishol: First of all, I really like to do it, because I think it’s the best way to study poetry. There’s really no way except to try writing. That is, there’s the academic approach: “This is metonymy.” But there is no substitute for trying yourself. I teach very methodically, dealing with each poetic issue, for example metaphor. Experimenting with the way metaphors are developed, what makes a metaphor strong, how to begin a poem, composition, editing. Actually I use translation to teach, in order to feel the words. Lots of questions. I think that it’s much harder for someone who doesn’t write to study poetry. If you write you understand the problems from the inside.
Lisa Katz: A lot of Israelis are writing poetry.
Agi Mishol: Yes, there’s a big demand for workshops. I think that my role is to set limits, to prevent inflation. Just like there are trespassers, there are “graphomaniacs” who enter the field, and I feel I have to take care, to keep out the trespassers and the graphomaniacs.
Lisa Katz: How would you define “graphomaniac”?
Agi Mishol: Someone who writes too much and doesn’t write well.
Lisa Katz: There are published poets like that too.
Agi Mishol: Yes. I think my role is to guard poetry, to set limits. I don’t like to see Saramago [Portuguese novelist] on the same best seller list with Ram Oren [Israeli pop fiction writer]. I think there should be borders.
Lisa Katz: But there’s also a demand for the poetry of statements, lists of statements which people can easily understand. For me that’s not poetry but there is a demand for it apparently.
Agi Mishol: To everything its own demand.
Lisa Katz: The final poem in The Dream Notebook – it took me a while to realize that you dreamt about a peace that you weren’t sure you even agreed with yourself about. Could you talk a bit about how you wrote the book.
Agi Mishol: It began when I realized that we sleep for a third of our lives, it came to me suddenly as a big shock that that’s something like 20 years or more, a long time to be “out.” I thought that I couldn’t sleep for 20 years without knowing what was going on there. I decided to pay attention to what I dreamt, and the thing is that if you move in the direction of a dream, the dream comes toward you. I began to keep a diary. For me poetry is similar to dreams. The two are mysterious and speak in signs and logic is applied only afterwards. Dreams interest me even without content. I have stacks of dream notebooks. I conducted a sort of little ceremony, like going to synagogue, sitting in the morning with coffee and a cigarette, writing down the dreams.
Lisa Katz: You didn’t have to write in bed?
Agi Mishol: No, I have a technique. I didn’t open my eyes right away when I woke up (I’ve written about this in the introduction to the book). It’s like photographic film. The dream is inside and if you open your eyes and light enters, the film is ruined. I discovered that if I didn’t open my eyes and I reconstructed the dream it was like pressing “Enter” on the computer; it remained saved even when I opened my eyes. And I saw that it was important not to move when I did this. It’s like those glass balls with plastic snow that are given to children; if you shake them you don’t see the picture inside, just the snow. I taught myself not to move and not to open my eyes, and the dreams stayed. When I wrote them down – and it’s known that in the morning the brain works on alpha waves, different from regular brainwaves – I discovered some amazing things. For example, my dreams have titles. They are different from what my ordinary intelligence would dictate. And I noticed that when I wrote down the dreams, they came out poems, as if without doing anything, they were simply there, a great treasure; I’ve been doing this for years. From the dream notebooks I’ve learned the biography of my Other self, there’s a continuity of motifs that are repeated, and if I hadn’t written down the dreams I wouldn’t know they existed. Suddenly you have two parallel lives that have a dialogue with each other and influence each other. It’s known that what you do in the day influences what you dream, but the reverse is also true. What you dream at night influences your day. The reality of dreams is even stronger than reality’s reality.
Lisa Katz: Did it ever happen to you that you were angry with your husband for something he did in your dream?
Agi Mishol: What a question. It’s even more embarrassing if you have an erotic dream and he doesn’t know what he was doing all night.
Lisa Katz: I noticed a lot of American movie culture. Why are Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin in your dreams?
Agi Mishol: Movies are an influence. When I was younger I was blonder and I had a fantasy of being the Jewish Marilyn Monroe, the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe. For me she’s a symbol, although in the poem, the cosmic usher shows up and calls me “The lady with the chickens,” as if to say: “You, madam, are the lady with the chickens and not what you imagine yourself to be.”
Lisa Katz: How would you characterize current Israeli poetry?
Agi Mishol: I see that there’s a renewal of rhyme and formal stanzas. Perhaps because of the disorder, the chaos we have here, people suddenly long for order, even inside poetry. It’s coming back, a kind of poetry I don’t know how to write, the poetics of (Nathan) Alterman (1910-1970) (Alterman’s poetry in a previous issue): stanzas, rhyme, meter.
Lisa Katz: Do you feel the poetry that appears in newspapers is representative of Israeli poetry today?
Agi Mishol: What you see in Ha’aretz represents the taste of the editor; it’s a matter of taste. I feel very lucky that he likes what I write and gives me an outlet although I don’t know him personally, and I don’t want to, I don’t want personal matters to intrude. I don’t know whether the poetry in the newspaper is representative; this specific editor also likes Aharon Shabtai…
Lisa Katz: Whose poetry is completely different from yours…What is the situation like for young poets?
Agi Mishol: I am on the board of Helicon (published by the Society for the Advancement of Poetry), a magazine which presents a genuine panorama of young writing. It may be the only place which acknowledges young poets and gives them an outlet to the sea, meaning that there’s a problem today of where to publish. There almost isn’t anywhere. We also publish books of poetry, and conduct workshops and publish students’ work, and hold cabaret-style readings – the whole route, and it’s the only place you can do the whole thing. I just received two books that Helicon published by former students of mine; it makes me happy that there’s a place for poetry in the Israeli market, a context.
Lisa Katz: What are you thinking about at this moment?
Agi Mishol: Suddenly it occurs to me, I think that what a person writes is a kind of symptom of his or her spiritual development. I’ve belonged for 18 years to a group that works according to Gurdjieff; the encounter with this world made an enormous change in my writing, though very few people who read my poetry pay attention to the fact that it expresses a spiritual quest. I don’t write directly mystical poetry, but it is poetry which searches inward.
Lisa Katz: Could you describe the teachings of Gurdjieff?
Agi Mishol: It’s almost impossible to describe, but what I can say is that it’s essentially a kind of meditation, looking inward and “self-remembering.” I teach a group in Tel Aviv with someone else; via specific meditative exercises, meditation is the key. It’s connected to the quietude I mentioned at first, and you will find it in the poetry of Admiel Kosman (for poems by Kosman translated by Lisa Katz in Summer 2002). Admiel practices Buddhism as well with a teacher. Benjamin Shvili is more in the direction of the Sufis. It’s a subject that’s hard to discuss, but for me it has been very influential. It’s like when you use the clutch in a car, you’re not consciously connected to everything that happens.
Lisa Katz: You’ve studied Kabbalah…
Agi Mishol: I began a doctorate with Professor Joseph Dan at Hebrew University, after two degrees in literature, and I was enchanted by the kabbalistic texts, but I didn’t want to understand them, I couldn’t understand them. There are texts about chariot riders on mystic journeys — it’s cryptic poetry. And then luckily I got to travel with London with my husband Giora who was working there and I interrupted my studies. The texts were more interesting to me than writing a doctorate. In London I met someone in a store with books about mysticism, and started to read a series of books by Ze’ev Ben-Shimon Halevi. I wanted to join his study group and they told me it was closed to new members. So I called and said “I’m from Jerusalem” and that opened the door; I studied with them three years, and I translated a book into Hebrew, and I found what I was looking for: the experience rather than the history of Kabbalah. I think I was born out of this encounter. It made a big change and from there I arrived at Gurdjieff when I returned to Israel, but I don’t talk about it because it makes you seem weird. I’m not weird, I’m very down-to-earth like someone doing a split: one foot here and one foot there, balanced.