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Adi Keissar

Adi Keissar

Adi Keissar

(Israel, 1980)
Poet Adi Keissar is perhaps best known for the politicized literary project of which she is founder and director, Ars Poetica, devoted to writing by Israelis of Mizrahi, that is, “eastern”, background: Jews with roots in Arabic and/or Moslem countries and regions.

The name Ars Poetica is Hebrew word play on the Latin phrase meaning the “art of poetry”. In Arabic the word ars means pimp; in Hebrew, an ars is a young, lower class Jewish man of Mizrahi heritage – an insult. So the movement, taking an in-your-face tack, means to celebrate what has been devalued.

But her poetry is not only political. On a poem from Keissar's first book, which depicts her father's stutter, blogger Shoey Raz writes that “she manages to capture something finely pan-human, in a way which  allows me to feel I share [an experience] with her and she with me”:

my father stut-
When he's excited
or angry
sand bags
fall on his tongue
and he gets stu- stu

The author of three books of poetry, Keissar is the recipient of literary prizes from the Israeli Writers Association, the Ministry of Culture, the Bernstein Foundation and Saloona magazine. Born in Jerusalem, she holds a B.A. in film and television from Hadassah Academic College, as well as an Open University B.A., and an M.A. in screenwriting from Tel Aviv University.

Keissar’s father’s family came to Ottoman Palestine from Yemen in 1882, settling in Jerusalem; her mother’s family immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. “When I began searching for my Yemenite roots”, she told journalist Calev Ben-Dor of Fathom last year,
everything was connected in some way to her and to women. I discovered that Yemeni women’s poetry was very different from the men’s poetry of that time – which was generally connected to diwan [a collection of poems related to religion CB].

The poetry by women – who didn’t know how to read or write – was passed down orally and was often connected to rites of passage such as birth, marriage, death etc. Parts would be taken out or added, so it became quite freestyle. These women were singers and performers, like today’s spoken word artists. Some of their poems were quite radical...

In Clock Square Keissar writes:

My nephew Itai and I
are walking around
the Clock Square
in Jaffa.
More than 80 years separate us
from Oum Kalthoum
who performed here on a stage
and I’m trying to discover if the applause
got tangled in the clotheslines.
But where is Oum Kulthoum
and where are we

and opposite us there’s a shopkeeper, talking.
And my nephew Itai asks in trepidation
Adi, is he an Arab?

sometimes people think we are Arabs
and they are Jews?     
[Tr. Vivian Eden]
In a 2016 article in the Jewish Forward, Ayelet Tsabari – an Israeli-Canadian writer (of English), also of Yemenite descent  – reported on opposition to Ars Poetica from more established Israeli writers with European roots who accused the group of practicing identity politics, and doubted the literary value of its work. “The organizers of the [2015] Tel Aviv Poetry Festival”, Tsabari noted,

lamented those who [they claim] are “eradicating poetry as an artistic medium and subjugating it to instant media representations, as though poetry is another episode of ‘Big Brother.’” On their Facebook page, they rail against “poetry that’s confined to [awarding approval or dismissing art] on the basis of race, gender and politics.” Reading their manifesto, it becomes clear that the festival operates mostly as an antithesis to Ars Poetica and to the movement it spurred.
“Poetry has become rock ’n’ roll”, Keissar said cheekily [to Tsabari], and perhaps that’s what the critics find most offensive. They accuse Ars Poetica of “reducing” poetry by making it accessible and – as dissent poetry often is – appealing to the masses. But those allegations stem from the elitist notion that quality must be saved for a select few, or that accessibility correlates with lesser value. Considering the diverse poets who participated in the series over the years, something in that critique reeks of bigotry.

“I went to a poetry reading” is the way Keissar begins  I don’t know how to read poetry

And all I wanted was
for them to read like
they are taking me to a family dinner
at their parents
and in the middle of everyone eating
the table cloth off the table
and fling it
up in the air
with all the dishes.    
[Tr. Ayelet Tsabari]
© Lisa Katz, Fathom, Jewish Forward, Plus 61J
In Hebrew
Shahor al ga-bay shahor (Black on Black) Tel Aviv, Guerilla Tarbut 2014
Musica gavoa (Loud Music)  Tel Aviv, Ars Poetica 2016
Divray hayamim (Chronicles)  Tel Aviv, Ars Poetica 2018


In English
Complete interview in Fathom October 2018
An appearance in Australia May 2018
Ayelet Tsabari on Keissar in the Jewish Forward March 2016

In Hebrew
VIDEO the poet reads
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère