Desert Devotees

What started in 1998 as a gathering of a few poets in Sde Boker has since turned into an annual festival of poetry in the desert.

This year, too, Sde Boker College in the Negev will host a small poetry festival, "Poetry Days in the Desert." The festival started out as a modest local initiative by poetry lovers. But over the years, it has turned into an event that regular participants are unwilling to relinquish. Every year at the beginning of winter a group of poets comes to Sde Boker for a weekend to read from their works, give lectures, lead writing workshops and honor other poets.

The person who initiated the festival and is responsible for its organization and production is Ilana Shahaf, a lecturer on literature and creative writing, who has herself published a number of books of poetry. Shahaf came to Sde Boker College 22 years ago; she works as a teacher at the Environmental High School. She has also taught writing at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Sapir College, where she encountered students who had never met a poet in their lives.

"At Sapir College there are a lot of Bedouin students, alongside inhabitants of development towns and all kinds of smart people who come to study," she says, "and my students told me that they had never met a poet. At the same time, a writing department was developing at Ben-Gurion University, and writers and poets like Agi Mishol, Nurit Zarchi and Gabriela Avigur-Rotem came there. I decided to put into place a connection between poets and students."

In 1998 Shahaf invited a number of poets for a weekend in the Negev: Ori Bernstein, Agi Mishol, Rafi Weichert, Israel Bar-Kochav and Nurit Zarchi. They slept at the college or in private homes, met with students, read poems and gave workshops on writing, all on a volunteer basis. The result of that weekend was four books of poems by new poets.

The festival continued to exist in this format throughout its years of expansion - each time new poets and a larger local audience came along. On average, a total of about 2,000 people attend the festival's events each year. At some point Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, entered the fray; it budgets an annual amount of NIS 50,000 to the festival. Sapir College pays for notices in the press, while the communications center at Ben-Gurion University (Haskharim) produces short films (10-25 minutes) about various writers. Thus far films have been made about Tuvia Rivner, Israel Pinkas and this year, Haim Gouri.

"At first I considered this a one-time effort," Shahaf says. "We had no official sponsors and there were only a few organizations that volunteered to help cover lodging and expenses. Even as things stand today I would be glad to have additional help. A nucleus of poets who come every year has emerged - I call them desert devotees - including those poets who came during the first year, as well as groups of poets like Meshiv Haruah, 'Daka, Ktovet, Ma'ayan and others. Arab poets are also regularly invited to the festival, among them Salman Masalha, Hiyam Qablan and Fatma Diab."

How different is this southern poetry festival from the one held every year in Metula in the North? While there is a certain similarity between the two, unlike Metula, the festival at Sde Boker focuses on poetry and features fewer music and theater events and fewer video-art installations, as have become customary at the annual Helicon poetry festival. "We aren't just hosting a festival, like Metula," says Shahaf. "We make a connection between the place and the festival. The desert is part of the event. We invite local writers and a local audience. Poems about the desert and its landscapes have featured in the festival. We try to act in the spirit of humanism and pluralism: Veteran writers appear alongside young writers - Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, rightists and leftists. Eighty percent of the festival's events consist of writing workshops for the general public, all of them voluntary."

This year's festival will begin at 2 P.M. this Thursday and end on Saturday evening. The program includes an event discussing the poetry of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs; an event called "Metamorphoses - World Poetry, from Ovid to Franz Kafka," with the participation of Professor David Shulman, Aminadav Dykman, Shimon Buzaglo, Mordecai Geldman, Israel Bar-Kochav, Tzvia Litevsky, Shahar Mario Mordecai and Uri Hollander; an homage to poets Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Pinchas Sadeh, Amir Gilboa, Zelda and T. Carmi with the participation of Raquel Chalfi, Erez Biton, Elisha Porat, Esther Ettinger, Miron Isaacson, Zali Gurevitz, Riki Raskal, Liat Kaplan and Rafi Weichert; a musical performance by David Peretz called "Haiku Blues;" an event called "Metamorphoses of the Patriarchs - Poets in the Footsteps of Abraham;" a session on the weekly Torah portion, Vayeshev; "Metamorphoses of the Panther" with Amos Oz reading from his novel "Panther in the Basement," with the participation of Daniel Oz and Nir Baram; and the event "Poetry and Time," with Haim Gouri and his daughter Yael Gouri.