The Babel in Us

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These days we are all a bit confused. In English, “confusion” is one way to translate “Babel” but it also means “a mixture of sounds and voices” and that’s what Poets of Babel, the multilingual poetry club that I created, is about.

I could say it all started, after talking the night away on the subject of poetry versus hip hop, when a friend suggested we start a poetry club. But it wasn’t until I came across an article, with one magic word, which led me to find a poet who would transform my perspective on language and poetry, that I made the first move.

The article, a literary critique, taught me the word “macaronic.” And, yes, it does come from the same root as macaroni. It means “composed of a mixture of languages.” It was while reading everything I could online about macaronic usage that I discovered: Antoine Cassar, a Maltese poet and translator.  His multilingual poem Merħba, a poem of hospitality, was the Grand Prize winner of the United Planet Writing Contest in 2009, which incorporated over 70 languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish. I fell in love with it. I couldn’t even understand all of it but loved it. It’s not just the love of speaking languages or even hearing them, but just seeing the text of another language is a mysterious pleasure. Merħba and my silent obsession with the Tower of Babel liberated me from the unrealistic expectation and limitation of a single language. I decided then and there that I would read Merħba at the opening event of Poets of Babel and, indeed, it even became a Poets of Babel tradition.

Israeli society is a cultural mosaic. Even Hebrew is macaronic. The slang is Arabic; the academic world and everyday language uses English daily; there are Russian suffixes. How many of you, reading Space,are bilingual? How many of you speak or have learned English, Arabic, Russian, or another language? 99% of the people I know are at least bilingual and I wanted anyone who was a poet there. This is why I did not want to limit Poets of Babel to only Hebrew, or only English, my native tongue. Poets of Babel is a place where poets are not limited in participation based on the language they write poetry in. With a common lingua franca (any language that is widely used as a means of communication among speakers of other languages, such as Hebrew or English), people who speak different languages can sit together and share their tesserae, their piece that is part of the mosaic. Thus, Poets of Babel was born, the slogan: “If you are a poet, we speak the same language.” The mission: to enjoy the human voice in variation, to love the spoken word, both poetic and foreign.

I believe there is a hunger for the expression of the multicultural identity that we all live in. There is evidence in the existence of Space, Poets of Babel, “Simply Sing,” and the groups that we have yet to discover or yet to create. We just have to find each other. There is a lot of ‘Babel’ everywhere, many mixtures of voices, and they all have a story to tell. Poets of Babel is the attempt to learn everyone’s stories. It reflects our generation of widespread multiculturalism, complicated identities of people in immigration countries, and breaks the boundaries of poetry or identity belonging to a single language. Walt Whitman once said, “My dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties or diplomacies.” Babel does not only mean “confusion” or a “mixture of voices.” Its origin is the Akkadian, word Babilli which means “the gateway to god.” It is my dearest dream is that we become bound in the shift of Babel from “confusion” to “the gateway to god,” the place where we find holiness in coming closer davka in our differences.

Originally published & translated into Hebrew:  “The Babel in Us,” מרחב الفضاء Space Poetry Magazine, Issue 3, August 2013. (print)

One response »

  1. Delicious read, LoveJoy. My native language is German and I have been living in Britain now for over 1/3 of my life and have started writing in English. My favourite poet by far is Rose Auslander (who incidentally was advised by a friend not to write in English but only her native German). The experience you mention – delight in sounds I have had with some Farsi poets I met in England, but also Hebrew and a bit with Welsh. (Perhaps it just sounds poetic if you don’t get the words?)
    And I love the muezzin calling, in Arabic – hasn’t turned me Muslim, but changed my travel experience in Jerusalem, staying in the Old City, in a christian hostel, and being woken by the muezzin from the loudspeaker on the neighbouring roof. As for the Babel experience, I once met with a (late) friend of Neve Shalom’s where she spoke French and I replied English. Worked pretty well. Again, thanks for writing.

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