A Conversation With Peter Cole

Poet, translator and winner of a MacArthur 'genius' grant.

The new year brought with it some astounding news for Jerusalem poet and translator Peter Cole.

The 50-year-old, New Jersey-born co-founder of the Ibis Editions publishing house learned from the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago that he was one of two dozen "geniuses" it had chosen this year to receive a half-million dollar grant for his work. The stipend, which is paid out over a period of five years, comes with no actual obligations attached, but is awarded to "people of outstanding talent" (either U.S. citizens or residents) who are seen as likely to put the funds to good use pursuing "their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations."

With assets that today exceed $6 billion, the MacArthur Foundation may be best known for the Fellows program, which has bestowed grants on 756 artists, scientists and other thinkers since it began in 1981. One cannot apply for a fellowship, and the selection process is carried out secretly, so that candidates are not supposed to know they are being considered. Some well-known recent recipients have included novelist Jonathan Lethem, singer Dawn Upshaw, surgeon-writer Atul Gawande, and jazz musician John Zorn, but this year's winners also included an environmental geographer, an inventor in the field of nanotechnology, and a biologist who studies the qualities of spider silk.

Cole, who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 25 years, divides his time between his own writing, translating poetry from Hebrew and Arabic into English, and co-managing Ibis Editions. Since 1998, the boutique publisher has been bringing out high-quality, low-cost, English-language versions of "literature of the Levant." This includes works by Emile Habiby, Haim Nahman Bialik, and most recently a selection from the diaries of Greek Nobel Prize-winning poet George Seferis.Haaretz interviewed Cole by e-mail while he was touring in the U.S., doing readings in connection with his latest and highly acclaimed book of translations, "The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492" (Princeton University Press).

How did you get the news that you'd been named a MacArthur Fellow?

Through fairly elaborate back-stage machinations, and without my knowing that it involved them in any way, the MacArthur Foundation had arranged for me to be waiting by the phone for a call on September 17 at a specific time. It was, obviously, a tremendous surprise - with an emphasis on the tremens, as in the sort that goes with delirium.

Do you know if the award is intended more for your work as a translator or as a publisher - or perhaps for your own poetry - or for "Peter Cole" in his entirety? And what are your plans for the money?

The award is for the entire package and refers to me as a translator, poet and publisher. My translations - of Aharon Shabtai, Taha Muhammad Ali and the medieval Hebrew poets of Spain, among others - have drawn the largest readership, and that's to be expected. But I consider all of these facets of my work to be expressions of a single drive or desire, and they feed one another.

My poetry lies at the heart of that project, and also informs in a central way the work that I do at Ibis, together with my wife, Adina Hoffman, and Gabriel Levin (we all work as volunteers). I plan to use the money - which is doled out in installments-to continue doing what I have been doing, though the emphases will shift some. I have a book of new poems due out next fall with the New York publisher New Directions and at this point hope to concentrate on beginning the next volume of poetry.

I think I read somewhere that you began your translation career almost as the result of a vision, that is, when a poem you didn't even know you had memorized came to you while you were sitting in a library, and you began translating it on the back of the proverbial napkin. Tell me more.

That's not how I started translating in general, but, it is essentially how I began translating the medieval work. A poem that a friend had recited to me in his Rehavia kitchen (not a library) in 1981 percolated some eight or nine years later in a San Francisco diner one Sunday morning while I was having coffee and watching an East Coast football game. I reached for that proverbial napkin, and that was pretty much that. For nearly the next two decades, and with more than a little help from my friends, I immersed myself in the world of medieval Spain, Arabic and Hebrew literature and the scholarship around them, Islamic art, the history of translation into English, and much much more.

Where did you grow up, and what brought you here? Do you think of yourself as living in Israel, or more as living in Jerusalem, if you follow the distinction?

I consider myself a Jerusalemite. I was born in Paterson, NJ, and raised in North Jersey. Our family was largely assimilated (witness my nam?) and I had a minimal Jewish education at best. I came to Jerusalem in 1981 in order to learn Hebrew, and not for any ideological reasons. I had a strong sense that my own poetry could only be reached, paradoxically, by moving away from English and entering Hebrew. That hunch was borne out and took me far beyond anything I'd previously thought about.

Am I right in thinking that a lot of what you do takes place under the radar of the Israeli publishing/literary world? Does this bother you?

Yes, that's accurate, and no, it doesn?t bother me, though it's sometimes amusing (as, for example, when the MacArthur was announced in The New York Times and virtually every other major paper in America, while the only paper to cover it in Israel, initially, was [the financial daily] Globes! But again, that's to be expected: I lead my literary life in English, which means, for the most part, America and the U.K. I've had meaningful and rich friendships with writers and scholars and artists here in Israel, and that matters to me much more than "notice" or "being a player."

The only area in which a little help from the local radar would be appreciated is the bookstore front. My own poetry is one thing, but Israeli bookstores rarely carry the Ibis books, let alone translations of the notorious Aharon Shabtai, the marvelous Taha Muhammad Ali, or the wondrous Yoel Hoffmann - all important writers who write in the national languages. And that's a shame, because they're among the most interesting writers this country has to offer, and should be in stores at the airport, in all the major cities, and of course in the independent bookstores, or what remains of them, throughout the country.

Do you see the fact that you translate from both Hebrew and Arabic, and concentrate on the "Golden Age" when Jews and Muslims famously lived in harmony in Spain, as having political or even ecumenically religious significance?

Yes, there is, quietly, a political dimension to what I do, but I translate the work I translate because it's the work that gives me the greatest pleasure, provides the greatest nourishment and, as I see it, matters most in this particular cultural context. Literature isn't going to make much of a difference in that larger context, but it is what I know best and I feel obliged to do what I can, with whatever gifts I have, and to speak up for what I think is just and most valuable.

Tell me something about your most recent book of translations, "The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492." I know that you see this as an anthology for the general reader. Are there really still general readers who have the intellectual energy and patience for poetry?

You'd be surprised. "The Dream of the Poem" has been out just over eight months and is already in its third printing. So, clearly there are readers who are curious, patient and thirsty for poetry that does what poetry at its best has always done: intensify, challenge and extend our sense of what it means to be alive in the world. The Hebrew poetry of Spain has much to say, implicitly, about our own notions of secularity and the sacred, the ways in which the Arab world can nourish Hebrew culture, our relation to beauty, sensuality, and their place in our lives, and our understanding of what being Jewish might mean. It?s a world-class poetry, as fine as any I know.

Now that you are guaranteed a degree of financial independence, at least for the near future, what's the main thing you'd like to change in your life? And should we be afraid - are you? - that success will spoil Peter Cole?

I suppose that one should always, at some level, go in fear of "success," if that's what this is, and duck in the face of every compliment that comes one's way, but no, I'm not particularly worried about getting spoiled. If they wanted to spoil me, they should have gotten to me earlier. I turned 50 this year, and at this point I am who I am and do what I love (for the most part), and the award is for having done just that and so that I can do more of it. I don't see any reason to change anything - though of course I'm glad that the work itself is suddenly getting some additional attention. But I have no illusions about it. Things will soon go back to the way they were and I'll be here in Jabib doing what I've always done, just with a little more wind in my sails.