Heartfelt Wanderings of an Israeli Poet

Anat Sharon-Blais talks about her new volume of poetry and how her family's travels in Iran and Nigeria have influenced her work.

"For other people distance exists only on a map,

measured in shrunken kilometers.

But imagine for yourselves the scale of the heart, not of the road

of a valley unraveling in the night."

Those words are written by Anat Sharon-Blais in her new volume of poetry "Tzido shel Hamerhak" ("The Side of Distance") by Keshev Poetry Publishing. Indeed distance, both physical and psychological, is one of the elements at the center of Sharon-Blais' poetry, with her current volume building on her previous, debut volume "Ha'adama Hi Merhak" ("The Ground is Distance"), published by Kibbutz HaMeuchad Publishing House in 2004.

That volume garnered an award for an anonymously written work from ACUM, the Israeli body that safeguards the rights of authors, composers and other artists. It also earned her the Bernstein Prize, an annual Israeli literary award for writers 50 years of age and younger given by the Bernstein Foundation.Today, Sharon-Blais works as an editor of literary programs on Israel Radio, records and edits conversations with poets and manages a college radio station.

The poet and radiowoman began her career working in Israel Radio's news department while she was studying for her undergraduate degree in communications and political science.

"I hated it – interviewing politicians, getting in touch with the parents of someone killed in a terror attack,"she says."I understood that it wasn't for me. I started to work on literary projects for Army Radio, and then Israel Radio also asked me to do some for them."

The poetry programs she has worked on have deeply inspired her. "Once they asked me to record Dahlia Ravikovitch reading some poems," she recalls. "So I picked her up from her house and we travelled to record her [at the studio]. I asked her specifically to read her poem about her father standing on a road (from the volume "Ahavat Tapuah Hazahav" ("Love of an Orange"). She actually read it for me. I have held onto this recording at all costs," she says, adding,"I'm just sorry that I didn't use that opportunity to interview her. Two years later, she was already dead."

It appears that at the heart of Sharon-Blais' poetry are her childhood wanderings with her family. These travels eventually led to the break-up of her family and may have strengthened the tie between physical and psychological distance. In 1970, when she was just a year old, Sharon-Blais moved with her family to Iran where her father, a building engineer, had received a work assignment. They lived there until 1973 before returning to Israel, then heading back to Iran for another two years before leaving again just before the revolution in 1979.

"I think that the issue of distance in my poetry is related to feeling a lack of home – to be born here, then to live in a different country and then to return here. I remember when we returned to Israel I was ostracized in class because I was 'Persian.' There was teasing and ridicule."

Despite her many years spent in Iran, Sharon-Blais doesn't speak fluent Farsi. "I knew a bit when we were there, but most of the time we spoke in Hebrew," she says. "Before the revolution there was a very large Israeli community there. There were even neighborhoods there with (Hebrew) names like Shikun Avivim. We didn't come into contact with the locals though.It was forbidden to play around downstairs in the yard. Everything needed to be done with our parents; everything was very organized."

Between 1981 and 1983 her father went to Nigeria on behalf of the Israeli construction company Solel Boneh.

"We, my mother, brother and sister [and me], arrived [in Nigeria] for a very short time and then returned to Israel," she recounts. "There, too, I had a feeling of foreignness. It really made me connect to the books by J.M. Coetzee and his feeling of being white among black society in South Africa."

Little by little, she relates, the distance between her father and the rest of the family grew, until her parents separated when she was 19. When that happened, she went to live with her mother, while her younger brother and sister remained with their father.

Becoming a mother herself has had a major influence on Sharon-Blais' new volume of poetry, which also deals with the topic of parenthood.

"I became a mother at a relatively late age, and I certainly felt that pressure in Israeli society on women to have children,"she says."People get into your private life in a really rude way. Even after my son Jonathan was born, they would ask me, 'what about a second kid?' This is something that exists only in Israel, and I don't quite understand where it comes from."

It was in part her dedication to family that accounts for the decade separating her first volume of poetry from her most recent one, she says.

"I write a lot, but I am very wary with regard to my own writing and I need quiet. One doesn't always have either psychological calm or quiet on the day-to-day level. But I must also admit that sometimes I simply prefer to edit another radio program than to get engrossed in my poetry. It makes me happier. I think that I'm not capable of being a total poet. I cannot put poetry above my spouse and my child. I can't give up on poetry, but I also can't abandon them for it."

Noa Yafeh