Feature Poet: Janice Silverman Rebibo

Soul-Lit Interview with Janice Silverman Rebibo,
Author, Zara Betzion
, by Co-editor Deborah Leipziger

Janice Silverman Rebibo received a President of Israel Award and others for her fourth book, Zara Betzion [A Stranger in Zion], a collection of her original Hebrew poetry with one chapter of poems she wrote in English – her native language. Within the Song to Live, translations to English of Israel's beloved poet, Natan Yonatan, is in its third printing. She judged the 2013 RAVSAK Hebrew poetry contest for North American students, grades 1-12. Her poem "My Beautiful Ballooning Heart" was nominated by Muddy River Poetry Review for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. A volume of her English poetry by the same name will be published in the summer of 2013. Her poem, “How It Has Always Worked” appeared in the inaugural issue of Soul-Lit.  


Who are your biggest influences?

Criticism, Philosophy, (with a capital C/P), linguistics and all of the usual, marvelous poetic assumptions, from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child’s Garden of Verses, through Yeats, Dickinson, Cummings, Moore, Stevens, Ginsberg, and O’Hara, with individual poems by Donald Justice and Alan Dugan taped to my wall. Plath and Sexton and more.  The Romantics, the Symbolists, Dada, Confessional Poetry, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and critics and, yes Ferlinghetti! Then the overlap period, studying Bialik in the original, translating Uri Zvi Greenberg to English and poems by Levertov, Glück and Moss to Hebrew. And almost everything new that keeps bubbling up. The process of translating Natan Yonatan’s poetry to English and all my work and reading for my extended thesis on biblical intertextuality in Yonatan, Amichai and Gouri, “Why Quote God?:  Three Modern Israeli Poets Allude to Sacred Texts” (Hebrew College, 2008).  Although I'm influenced, as are all the poets I suppose, by every poem I read and every poet I encounter for better or for worse, I’m particularly thankful to have studied, worked and published with many Israeli writers and editors, now living and not, including S. Yizhar (novelist and polemicist, Yizhar Smilansky), Y. Besser, M. Bejerano, R. Halfi, M. Ben-Shaul, A. Reich and the brilliant critic and intellectual poet, Amos Levitan. The study of Jewish texts with a few gifted teachers affected me deeply.

What advice do you have for emerging poets?
“Mine the vein.”

Which are your favorite literary journals?
I do not have established favorites in English although I am unequivocally enthusiastic about Soul-Lit’s venture and support Boston’s vibrant writing and publishing community. While I, too, thrill to the touch of a bound book, online periodical publications are my preference.  In Israel, where I was well-published in Hebrew for almost two decades, I preferred the populist literary journal Iton 77 (primarily print), especially under its founding editor, Yaakov Besser.  Besser provided a non-precious platform for professor and novice, alike, and remained socially conscious to the end.

What most inspires you?
Language.

What cultures or traditions have shaped your poetry?
Everything I was exposed to in school, including what led to my 6th grade paper on the Mayans, my high school interdisciplinary study of the Romantic Movement in Germany and my award-winning college paper on language strata and meaning in a poem by Bialik.  Judaism, pluralistically. The highest and the lowest in the arts – music and visual arts in particular. Choral singing. American folk. Vietnam, etc. British rock. The kibbutz. Israeli pop. A little Zen.  Dual nationalism and multiculturalism per se.

How do you structure your writing life?
I’ve always worked demanding day into night jobs. I write when I can.  Comment by a boss at a book launch: “Oh, that’s what you were doing on your lunch hour.”
For the most part, I have enjoyed participating in writing groups and leading them and found that in both cases they spur thought and productivity.

You write and publish in both Hebrew and English. It is unusual for a poet to write so beautifully in two languages. How does being bi-lingual impact your writing?
In the case of Hebrew, many immigrant writers made the transition to the language from their native tongues, some beginning idealistically as I did – before they were relocated. Haim Gouri, the poet who recommended my very first Hebrew poems for print in the literary supplement of a national newspaper, insisted that most of the noted bilingual poets were from Hebrew-speaking or at least Hebrew-literate homes, which I am not. I began my close acquaintance with Hebrew only at age 21. The most recent wave of Russian immigration to Israel, however, seems to be producing some fine bilingual writers.

Like any love affair, or shall we say “relationship”, my life with Hebrew has gone through stages and, hopefully, has more to come. As a student of the language and literature, I was compelled to begin writing in Hebrew to gain access to the critical acumen of an outstanding professor (sadly no longer with us). Much water under the bridge since then, including four books of primarily Hebrew poetry and a great deal of joy in the process. Now, I’m immersed in the final preparations for publication of my book of English poetry, My Beautiful Ballooning Heart.

How would you define “spiritual poetry”? Can you name poems/poets you find spiritual?

For me, the poetic venture, itself, is spiritual. It proceeds upon belief in every sense – is an act of faith, explores the boundaries of consciousness and the magic of the phenomenon of language. Sometimes, the skillful interpolation of a sacred text, directly or indirectly, for its simple narrative value, alone, or with irony, intensifies our experience of the confluence of time and humanity, as in Natan Yonatan’s akeda [the binding of Isaac]poem, “Wait for Me Dad”. Yonatan recalls his son, who fell in the Yom Kippur War, opening and concluding as follows (from my translation from the Hebrew):

It’s as if I heard him say
Wait for me Dad, for three days
I will go to one of the mountains
and I’ll bow down in worship and come back.

I heard him say
For just three days
I will get me to the land of Moriah
go to one of the lofty mountains
go to one of the
mountains
go to one
god
and I’ll bow down in worship
and come back.