Meet the Iconoclast of Israel's Poetry World

Yehuda Vizen doesn't care how many people read his literary journal. And forget Facebook – it's for the rabble.

Yehuda Vizan dropped out of Tel Aviv university just before he was due to complete his bachelor's degree. "On the day that they taught me Shakespeare as if it were post-colonialist literature, I got up and left class, and never went back. I still have a semester to go toward my B.A., but I am not willing to do it. As far as I'm concerned, the academic world is a disgrace. Shakespeare is not post-colonialist literature; that is not how you read Shakespeare."

Vizan has strong opinions about his field of study - the poetry, the journals, the foundations and politics of literature, the academic world, the "herd" and the fashionable politics of identities. And he's determined to make those opinions heard. He's even been known to speak out against friends, if he feels that they have strayed from the path, as he sees it. He is young and he is angry. Vizan is derisive of today's "love and be loved" culture.

Vizan, 27, is a poet and translator, and the founder and editor of the literary journal Dehak. To date, he has published two books of Hebrew poetry, "Shirei Yehuda" ("Poems of Yehuda," Ah'shav publishing ) and "Mavo Le'estetika Kala" ("Introduction to Light Aesthetics," Plonit ). A third volume of poetry is ready, but it doesn't yet have a publisher. Vizan's oeuvre of translations includes the T.S. Eliot play "Murder in the Cathedral" and "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" by Art Spiegelman.

Volume 1 of Dehak contains 430 pages; Volume 2 has 570. Vizan says that the model that inspired Dehak is Hatekufa, the Moscow-based Hebrew literary journal edited by David Frishman between 1918 and 1922. In a foreword to the first issue, in June 2011, Vizan explains that true radicalism is conservatism, and that his objective is "to create a journal that will be inaccessible to a large share of what is currently known as 'the literary milieu.' We will seek to influence taste and educate toward an understanding of good literature." Vizan quotes Eliot, from whom he learned that "it's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them."

The journal includes translations by Ronen Sonis, Aminadav Dykman and Aharon Shabtai, translated interviews with James Joyce and Eugene Ionesco, translations of Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant and Robespierre, Hebrew poems of Efrat Mishori, Shalom Ratzabi, Tzipi Shatashvili, Yotam Reuveny, Harold Schimmel and Eran Hadas, and translations of Homer, Louis Zukofsky and Wallace Stevens, Edward Lear and Dorothy Parker.

In 2006, together with Oded Carmeli, Vizan began to publish a poetry magazine called Ketem ("stain" ), which offered scathing satire and criticism of poets, its venom vented in every direction. Vizan and Carmeli placed a box at the entrance to the building that houses the Helicon Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel. On it they wrote: "Tick tock, tick tock, Ketem 2 in another two weeks." The Helicon people called the police, who called Vizan and Carmeli in for an interrogation.

"Poetry has mainly turned into a series of gags," he says. "I had a conversation with Nano Shabtai. I asked her about a certain poetry evening at which she appeared, and she replied that it was outstanding, that the audience laughed. When I read Uri Zvi Greenberg or Eliot, I don't, in fact, laugh. Perhaps it's my own personal preference, but I like the ones, who when you sit before them like a pupil in a heder; it's like they are clucking their tongue at you. I like this feeling, sitting before a poet who is teaching you a lesson, even if indirectly. People think that I scorn the present, but you have to know the past in order to move something in the present. You need a foundation."

So what does Vizan want? "When the first issue of Dehak came out, Eli Hirsh and Menahem Ben immediately rushed to write a critique of it, within two days' time," he says. "What did they write? 'Why publish Kant? Kant is boring.' Okay. What can I say to that? Eli Hirsh was insulted, in the name of the present, and wrote, 'Vizan scorns the present.' Scorns the present? Not too long ago, I said to a poet: 'Listen, you ought to read Mendele' [Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim]. So he says to me: 'Who are you, [literature professor] Menakhem Perry? That's what you're recommending to me?' It's all sorts of things like that. You simply can't believe how far this has gone.

"I am asking for very simple things. On the one hand, I am an incorrigible romantic, because I believe that anyone who is profoundly engaged with literature has to in some way be a romantic. But I do not believe in the myth of genius, in someone who sits at home and just farts out something. There's no such thing. If you haven't read, you won't know. There is no writing without reading; there's no such thing, not even in a Derridean sense. No, no, no. You have to follow the order. Sit down and read.

"A young woman poet approached me and asked me to give her a few tips. I took a shelf out of the bookcase and said to her, 'Go on home, read this. What do you want from me?'"

So what are you?

"As opposed to the usual type of person found in semi-intellectual circles, I am not a pluralist, to say the least, and I do not sanctify pluralism. On the contrary, from where I stand, I can testify to the paradox in which pluralism finds itself over and over again, an inherent paradox, which is basically the non-possibility of including within the framework of pluralism he who is not a pluralist - in the very same way that democracy sees anyone who is not a democrat as a barbarian; in the same way that a liberal excludes, with a level of violence that would not embarrass [Soviet politician] Andrei Zhdanov, anyone who does not share the same values with him. Standing up to pluralism, the capacity to make your own decisions, the ethic that necessitates decisions and choices and hierarchies - these are the primary elements in the enterprise that is known as Dehak."

In Dehak you declare that the publication does not accept manuscripts. Usually, literally journals solicit manuscripts. Are your gates shut?

"[Israeli poet] Alexander Penn wrote 'Suru Mimeni' [Stay Away from Me]. For me, that is the difference between me and [Gabriel] Moked [long-time editor of the literary journal Ah'shav]. He is forever experiencing the joy of discovery, he finds new talents, whereas I, I am not Indiana Jones. I'm not interested in discovering new talents. I want to create a community, even if it is reduced in size. If Bialik, when he was putting together Sefer Ha'agadah [The Book of Legends], spoke about convening a conference of the past, I am speaking of convening a conference of the present. I like the fact that in the same issue we have Aminadav Dykman, [Moshe] Muki Ron, Shimon Sandbank, Amos Edelheit, Amnon Navot, Natan Zach, Aharon Shabtai, Efrat Mishori and Roee Chen all together. I choose them very very carefully."

What about new poets?

"In poetry, it is harder, because it is in a dreadful state. The vast majority of poets today are crappy, and this derives from the same brand of ignorance, and lack of thinking about the issue of 'nusah'" - a term Bialik had used to refer to an established and commonly accepted literary and cultural convention style. "Not a single one has a well-arranged continuum in mind. Right now, we find ourselves, horrifyingly enough - if I am reading the map right - hopping along the Anglo-Saxon axis. Before Zach, you had what was happening in Russian. We broke free from the Russians and now we are behind the English.

"I am trying to find an intersection at the corner of Zukofsky and [Eliezer] Hakalir, the place where the song of the language connects with the Hebrew language, where the poetry is contemplative without being philosophy and prose. Not unlike Dory Manor, music is very important to me, but I do not believe in a single chord. Baudelaire, Mallarme and Dory Manor all sound the same."

Vizan asks if I read the review of Dehak that appeared in the newspaper Makor Rishon. "Do you know how the review began? It begins with the sentence, 'The journal Dehak is the most intelligent platform existing today in the State of Israel.' Period. And it is true."

So you can confirm it?

"I confirm the report. Not only is it true, but it is also valid for the past 30 years, going back to the days when Siman Kria was closed and Moked's Ah'shav began to decline. Not since then has there been any such journal in Israel, although Hadarim was an interesting attempt."

With a single blow you dismiss things like the journal Mita'am, which is edited by Yitzhak Laor, about which you simply cannot claim that it was not serious.

"I always had a feeling that in the context of Mita'am, they use writers and harness them to a certain agenda, which is okay, every journal has an agenda. It had essays and at times some wonderful things, but how many times can you print [Gilles] Deleuze and [Slavoj] Zizek? It is a very 'bon ton' journal, at the bottom line. The occupation, the occupation, the occupation. The binding is occupation, the articles occupation, the poetry occupation. At the end of the day, there isn't too much literature in it.

"Laor is very enthusiastic about it. I don't know why a person who speaks German and Italian, such an intelligent and sharp-witted person like him, busies himself so much with this thing. The same holds true for a person like Hannan Hever. There are a lot of people for whom this is their prism, so very narrow. Everything is viewed through the occupation. And they say that we have no existence with the occupation. But we do exist! Empirically. You can say it isn't good, that there are problems, but empirically speaking we are here and are speaking Hebrew."

The thinking is that if you are a moral person, you cannot permit yourself to live a seemingly normal life while you are occupying another people.

"Look, there's a commercial on TV with a guy listening to a Walkman, and he's kind of skinny, and he says, I have big muscles. But just because he says it doesn't mean that he actually has big muscles. All of the poor wretches who were at the demonstrations here in Tel Aviv earned their gloomy state of existence the honest way. If they put David Grossman up on the stage, they have earned their dismal state. Their symbol is the golden calf. If all of them would sit with [Yosef Haim] Brenner, they would be more moral people, people of greater action, but in the end all they want is to cry. It's the same impotence."

I understand that you did not go to the social protest demonstrations.

"I did not go to the demonstrations, and I received a ton of phone calls, where are you, why aren't you here. I said that I wish them nothing but bad, I am opposed to everything they represent, and then some. That's all."

Against social justice?

"It's all simulacra. They put up a sculpture of a guillotine, erect a pseudo tower and stockade. What's up with that? It's all one big summer camp. Head over to a spot near the Hiriya [the former garbage dump], there are citrus groves there. Build a city out of real stone, and when they come to evacuate it, put up a battle. But that won't happen and shouldn't happen, for one simple reason. The situation is not bad enough. We don't know what a bad situation is, one that leads people to action. When I visit my family in Yehud, I see the Ethiopian contract workers. We are talking about people who earn NIS 4,000 a month; they have eight children who they send to the Chabad kindergarten. They are people in a state of distress, but they are too busy to demonstrate. They're busy working."

A Zionist

The poetry situation is terrible, the wheeler-dealers are doing their thing, and the readers are few in number, but Vizan sees magic in this landscape, and even declares himself a Zionist.

"I can't understand how a poet could not be a Zionist. I live in a country in which there is a newspaper in Hebrew, television in Hebrew, people around me speaking Hebrew. As a poet, there is nothing dearer to me than Hebrew, and here we have a country that is maintaining this language. Gabriel Moked called me last week at 2 in the morning. 'Yuda, you won't believe it,'" says Vizan, imitating Moked, "'I open my Bible and there is a verse here, "And in the room is a chair, a table and a lamp." Incredible!' And it really is incredible.

"The thought that in spite of the gap in years, that if King David were here we could talk and he would understand me, is inconceivable. Meanwhile, there a constant patronizing attitude, and derisiveness. People say, 'Okay, Hebrew literature is a young literature.' This is by no means a young literature, and they are more virtuoso than any of us, but people can't read them."

Why not?

"Amos Edelheit said that a first generation of illiterate poets is growing up here. I don't believe in linguistic registers at all, as far as I'm concerned all of the Hebrew language is laid out in front of you, grab and take it. There is no difference. One time a word is in a palace, the next time it's in the market. The greatest compliment I've ever received was when someone looked at the list of authors appearing in Dehak and said, there's not a single dunce here, and that really is the filter. Maybe it seems snobbish or elitist. I called it conservatism, out of a desire to charge the word with a slightly different meaning."

What is the meaning of your conservatism?

"Conservatism, in the way that I see it, is the belief in the existence of elements that you cannot do without. For instance, as I said, there is no writing without reading. Most poets today are not conscious of the issue of 'nusah'; it's alien to them. I often emphasize in Dehak that the poetic struggle of the journal is being waged against the 'Zachian' style that has been ruling for 50 years. It is a language-poor, music-poor version, which places at its center a whimpering psychological me. Me and me and me."

You also speak out in favor of public denunciation.

"We don't know how to criticize publicly, poetry is a wide-open field, you accept everyone because it would be unpleasant not to. All of the wretched and the despondent come to poetry. You're seeing it now with all the demonstrators, with all the protests. People write poetry for an anthology against a war or in favor of protest. Sometimes I receive these press releases. I know who will respond to this e-mail, I know the speed with which they produce this text, how easy it is, how meaningless. That's the problem. In general, every link-up between society and poetry is so wrong. You can see the chase after high ratings in literature, too. There's no separation.

"The demonstrators will supposedly hold a demonstration against capital, but whom will they run to first? Straight to the media. Can you see Robespierre running to Channel 2 and saying, 'Hey guys, at 5 P.M. we're going to be lopping off a few heads, bring your cameras'? I'm seeing people maintaining their Facebook pages, responding to every person individually, writing abominable things like 'Woe is me, I've gone bourgeois, they've put a translation of my writing on the matriculation exam,' all the sort of things that a 15-year-old girl does."

Facebook is the new world.

"The rabble is the rabble, and it has human weaknesses. You can see on Facebook the speed with which people seek others' opinions and join in, and the pressure that is placed on people to join and to do a Like. Notice that there is no 'Dislike' button on Facebook. We are a society that is incapable of doing Dislike. Either you shut up or you like. It is astounding. The answer to this lies in education. In order to truly educate, and I declare this in the preface of Dehak, we have to ease up a bit on democracy. We have to decide for people, because people aren't always capable of deciding for themselves."

Yes, democracy is a foundering business, but the problem is who decides. Right now, for example, Gideon Sa'ar is deciding that we will go to visit Hebron and not that the children will read Brenner.

"Gideon Sa'ar decides that the children need to visit Hebron and Yair Lapid declares that Bible should be removed from the core studies curriculum. Both are unacceptable. And for me, both represent the same thing. I do not differentiate between the Israeli left and the Israeli right."

Whom do you vote for?

"I don't participate in the democratic system. Are you kidding? Most of the choices are not intelligent. Once I suggested to Yossi Sarid in a conversation we had that the right to vote be conditioned on a basic test that would show if the individual knows what the platforms of the parties are. He said, 'But then the more educated people would immediately win.' I said that wasn't the case, that every party would want to enhance its voters' voice, and would invest more heavily in them. But all this is just talk."

The things you are saying sound like you are in despair, but you don't look like you are in despair.

"Because I am always doing something, and always learning. I sit and think about what I feel like putting into the next Dehak. So now I found an article of Baudelaire's that never appeared in Hebrew, about the philosophy of toys. It is fascinating. I began to investigate the subject and discovered that Edgar Allan Poe has an essay on the philosophy of furniture. So I have these two. Roee Chen is giving me his translation of Gogol's 'The Inspector General,' and Ronen Sonis is about to translate something for the first time from Joyce's 'Finnegans Wake.' There is constant thinking about what else we can do, and what is missing here."

You don't mind that your journal has no readers? Whom are you doing all this work for?

"I believe in a discourse of the higher-ups, I do not believe in culture of the masses. Natan Sharansky was chosen as one of the most influential people in the world because he wrote an unsuccessful book about which George Bush said it had a strong effect on him vis-a-vis the doctrine of warfare in Iraq. That is a discourse among the higher-ups."

Where did you grow up? What do your parents say about all this?

"They're still trying to figure it out. I was raised in a home that, had I not been raised in it, I would not have the perspective that I have. I grew up in a family that has no bullshit and has laws: Respect older people, no cursing. Dad has the last word. There is something about the traditional in the atmosphere in which I was raised. I keep kosher. I fast on Yom Kippur and that is my favorite day of the year. I arrange piles of books for myself, prepare a reading light beforehand, and read all Kippur long. Three hours before it begins, I make a round of the synagogues. This way, I have quiet, I have my hubris philosophy, and the spirit of God is walking in the park."

'East Jerusalem is theirs'

Vizan's father is the deputy managing director of the Yehud municipality and his mother is a kindergarten teacher. Says the son: "My father started out as a contractor, doing house renovations. He and [novelist] Haggai Linik were plastering partners. They would build a house, and as a child I would come to put sand in the rooms that needed to have a floor installed. He's a Likudnik whom I am not so certain the Likudniks would accept. I look up to him. He's very pragmatic."

Vizan is also quite pragmatic, and feels that reality forces one to be so. "We don't really have to give back East Jerusalem because it's already theirs. On the other hand, we don't have to return Ariel because Ariel is already ours. This is where the left, and also in many instances the right, disregard the details, ignore what is happening on the ground, take no notice of 20,000 people here, of 30,000 people there. They draw maps and when they go through an olive orchard they go out to demonstrate. History has influenced the map. If we went back a hundred years, all of Europe would have to change its location."

When he is asked how he pays for Dehak, Vizan laughs and says with the help of all sorts of building contractors, friends of his father, whom he asks for support - and for whom NIS 7,000, the cost of publishing the journal, isn't real money. One of these backers was very touched when he saw in the latest issue of Dehak the poems of 17th-century rabbi Moses ben Mordecai Zacuto. He himself earns his livelihood, like his father before him, from doing renovations.

"Once I built a little house on a moshav, a housing unit. I built walls, put up the tiles, everything. In the end I came to the guy and said, 'Listen, take off NIS 5,000, because I don't know how to build a roof. Bring in someone else to do the roof.' But you know, when you are offered work, the first you say is yes."

Poet and editor Yehuda Vizan.
Nir Kafri