A Poet Must Know How to Kick

"I can't meet on Sunday," says Tal Nitzan. That is not surprising. After all, these are the days of Hebrew Book Week and Nitzan, a poet who has just published the book "Lishkoah Rishona" ("To Forget First") with the Am Oved publishing house, and who is the most productive of translators, is no doubt extremely busy.

But it soon transpires we are not talking about her literary work. And not a matter of the head at all but rather of the feet. On Sundays, and in fact three times a week, this delicate and sensitive poet, who looks so fragile, stands opposite a punching bag to do her kickboxing workout and to get rid of her anger.

Kickboxing? What kind of hobby is that for a poet?

"What do you mean? Which poet doesn't need to know how to kick? The truth is this sport was tailor-made for me. Savagery without violence. My kind of work, sitting for hours and days without moving, without having to leave the house, is a difficult challenge for my temperament. By the end of the day, I really do need to kick something hard. In kickboxing, there is a moment when you are up in the air and land with a hard kick into the punching bag. At that moment, there is an illusion of victory, not merely over the force of gravity but also even over time itself. That is my meditation. I tried yoga a few times. It didn't end well."

Did these knocks soften the poet? Her political poetry in the new book is less dominant than in her previous volumes.

"I haven't lost my anger. But today I feel much more desperation. In the past I wrote about things that seemed to me the end of the world, that I felt it was impossible everything would go on after them, as if nothing had happened. But time and again it was indeed possible. A poem like "Basira Hashoka'at" ("In the Sinking Ship") is for me more of a dirge than a protest. It is possible I have lost the little bit of naivete that is needed for protest poetry, the naivete that believes it is possible to bring about change. It's hard to shout when you are choking."

Throughout the book, as well as in earlier books, there is a sense of danger hovering, over the house, over relationships, over the family. What is the quality of this danger?

"From childhood I have been constantly aware that anything, at any time, can disappear, be taken away. A kind of loss awareness of some kind. The difficulty of living with an awareness of this kind is clear, but it also has an advantage. Everything is more precious. Every taken-for-granted thing is a gift for which you are thankful it is still there. Of course, the anxiety intensifies when the gift is more precious.

Perhaps this feeling developed from the wandering Nitzan experienced as a child. Her parents were diplomats. When she was five, they went to the Argentine and then returned to Israel, and when she was 12, they went abroad again, this time to Colombia. "These moves are very difficult when one is a child," she says. "The social codes at this age are very rigid. In every place there is a concept of what is thought of as accepted and what is absolutely forbidden. I remember that when I came back to Israel, everyone here dressed sloppy, torn jeans and so forth, and I was used to dressing nicely from Colombia so I wore a skirt. They didn't forgive me that for a long time."

That was not the only difference. It was customary there to stand when speaking to a teacher. "It was already ingrained in me, a conditioned reflex really. I couldn't get rid of it, and every time, the class would burst out laughing, and rightly so."

This childhood with its feelings of wandering and being apart, has found its place in the new book; Nitzan has devoted an entire chapter to it, called "Be'eizo Eretz" ("In Which Country"). "There are things that are written naively, on the border of stupidity," she says. "I dug backward without realizing the full weight of this. Today I can see this is the focus and the starting point of the book.

"My childhood was not different from or more oppressed than the average childhood, if there is such a thing. The same amount of vulnerability and helplessness that characterize all childhood in my eyes. The same step away from tragedy - you almost jumped from the veranda, you almost drowned in the swimming pool. And I had a warm, stable and sane home. What did separate my childhood from others was the extreme upheavals, the moving from Israel to South America and back, and then again. Four times I was a new immigrant, or a migrant, and four times all my codes had to change.

"When I read 'Be'eizo Eretz', I understand this matter thoroughly, and how it is still alive today. The fear of sinking, of losing, of disappearing - it all starts there."

It seems these wanderings, and especially a childhood in South America, also gave Nitzan a wonderful gift, the Spanish language and the ability to serve as a translator between the different cultures. So far she has translated more than 60 books from Spanish and English, both prose and poetry. She says that for many years her translation work led to her poetic voice remaining silent.

"It is more difficult for me to translate prose into Hebrew. Just as Hebrew is convenient and easy for translating poetry so it is rigid and difficult to put into prose. One of the reasons is that there is no linguistic register that both conforms 100 percent to the standard and is also 100 percent natural. It's always either/or. Therefore when I translate prose, I often feel that I need to bend the Hebrew or to cheat it."

Some of your poems are written in the voice of imaginary characters such as the mysterious "passenger" in the book, Domestica. What is the source of this?

"These characters simply pop up with their own poems, which have something different from 'my' poems. Why? I can merely guess, in retrospect. There was a heavy burden that was too difficult for me to carry alone. It seems to me the darkest poems, the most absolutely pessimistic, are written in their voice. I feel that through them, I am translating myself for myself."