Quintessential Rebel Wins Establishment Prize

Oded Carmeli took first place in Tel Aviv's 'Poetry on the Road' competition - despite having attacked the municipality, the competition and several of the judges.

The winning poems in the Tel Aviv "Poetry on the Road" competition are already posted along major arteries, at bus stations and on garbage trucks throughout the city, along with poems by famous poets from Bialik to David Avidan.

The competition, launched by the Tel Aviv Municipality four years ago, invites residents of Tel Aviv and Jaffa to submit their poems, and five winning poems are chosen each year. The five winners of this year's competition create a poetic human mosaic: Each of them has an interesting personal story. Most of them have had poems published in the past and have attended writers' workshops. Oded Carmeli's Achshav HaDirah Atzeret Rotzah took first place; Zipporah Melech's U'bhetkef Lev Ha'ir Gan Meir Meir Panim took second place; "Jouissance" by Ili Avidan Azar took third place; "Sunset" by Maayan Buni took fourth place; and "In the Beginning" by Osnat Re'em took fifth place.

One advantage of the project, the brainchild of Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Councilman Zohar Shavit, is that poems are sent to the competition anonymously. In contrast with other competitions, including literary prizes, the judges' choices of the winners in this competition are based only on the text. This year, the panel of judges included Ariel Hirschfeld, Anat Weisman, Dori Manor and Benny Ziffer. A book of poems by the first-prize winner will be published by Ahuzat Bayit, and the four runners-up were given gift certificates worth NIS 5,000 to purchase books at the Steimatzky bookstore chain.

An ironic choice

Oded Carmeli won first prize. Those who are familiar with Tel Aviv's young poetry scene may understand the irony of that choice: Carmeli, the quintessential rebel, won an establishment prize. Carmeli is one of the editors of the youthful literary magazine Ketem, which has produced more than one scandal. It has slammed, among others, the poetry festival in Metula, the Helicon nonprofit poetry organization, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, the "Poetry on the Road" competition and even Ziffer, the literary editor of Haaretz, who was one of the judges.

Carmeli's win surprised everyone: the judges who discovered that the poem they chose as the winner was written by Carmeli, and the poet himself, who discovered that the panel included judges whom he had attacked on more than one occasion.

"I am happy that the judges chose me," Carmeli said. "A division was created, which does not usually exist in the world of literature, between the text and the writer. The judges were nearly forced to choose the text itself, against their will. It's almost entertaining. We published an obituary about Benny Ziffer in Ketem, and I pronounced him unfit to edit the literary supplement. We critiqued Dori Manor and the 'Ho!' gang more than once."

Carmeli is only 23 years old. He was born in Kfar Sava and lives in Tel Aviv, and is currently completing a master's degree in literature at Tel Aviv University. He published his first book of poetry, Orsheled (Achshav Publishing), a year ago. He is currently writing his first novel, to be called Calcalat Bayit ("Home Economics"). The book, which is slated to be published by Keter, will address "the privatization of the human fabric of Israel, how privatization actually infiltrates the family unit."

As an anti-establishment writer, you were empowered by the establishment.

"I never thought that you have to be anti-establishment in an all-inclusive, nondiscriminatory way," Carmeli responded. "It's fair to assume that I won't win the Prime Minister's Prize, for example. The Tel Aviv Municipality engages in important work, and I didn't have a problem with the municipality. In Volume 4 of Ketem, which I didn't edit, they claimed that the first 'Poetry on the Road' competition was sold to the Helicon poets. But I didn't agree with this claim."

The poetry scene blossoms

The Metula Poetry Festival also incurred the wrath of Ketem, which called it educational and outdated. Last year, Ketem initiated an alternative festival that took place in Tel Aviv on the Shavuot holiday, at the same time as the Metula festival.

The young poetry scene has blossomed in recent years. "We have left the desert of the 1980s and 1990s. It was really barren here then," Carmeli observed. "There were a few aging, closed-minded and amply funded magazines that lacked any connection to what was happening on the ground. But things are slowly changing. There is a changing of the guard, and the critical aspect has returned to the arena. It's still not what it was in the 1960s and 1970s, in the golden age of literary criticism, but somehow a combination of new forces that strive to effect change has been created. It's fascinating to see how Chicky Arad of Maayan, Shlomo Kraus of Urbania, and Yehuda Vizan and I from Ketem sit with Gabriel Moked and Aharon Shabtai and talk about different issues. There is a lot of poetry activity in Israel."

The poetry of the second-place author, Zipporah Melech, is no less oppositional than Carmeli's but different in spirit. Her winning entry is a prose poem that describes the sewers of Tel Aviv, its poor and miserable.

"All my life, I've lived near Meir Park and its surroundings," Melech said. "The first version of the poem was written 30 years ago and published in the context of 'black prose' by combative poets, who wrote very harsh poetry, in protest, from a belligerent place. I found myself returning to that poem now, as I faced all the homeless people who wander around in the Allenby-King George area [two Tel Aviv streets]. I see the poor roaming the streets, and facing them all the heartless people in key positions, who exploit and discard [them]."

Melech was born in Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek neighborhood in 1956, and she now lives in the heart of Tel Aviv. She is a painter and a visual artist. She studied at the Telma Yellin High School for the Arts and the Avni Institute College of Art, participated in a number of group exhibitions and published poetry in the Prosa magazine.

"I published very little in comparison with my expectations of myself," she admitted. "I was preoccupied with personal events that distanced me from creating for years."

There is something so strong in the poem. It appears that you experienced the misery yourself.

"It's connected with periods in my past. I was part of a group of poets that included Meir Wieseltier, Yona Wallach, Yair Horowitz. And we would often find ourselves wandering around drunk. My poetry is combative and piercing. This poem is a manifesto of protest against people with thick skins. In the arts, these are publishers and curators with whom you have to sleep to advance. And I was actually raped once by a very famous curator of the arts. I went through a lot in my life."