Feb '03 [Home]

Series/Event Reviews

The Art of the Fugitive:  The Paradoxical Life of Paul Celan
Nine Circles Chamber Theatre at the 92nd Street Y (1/13)

by Paul Winston

Poetry is News:  Operation Counter-Intelligence
Poetry Project at St. Marks Church (2/3)
Transforming Literary Events Into Pro-Arab Forums

by Alyssa A. Lappen

. . .

This well-attended event presented by Nine Circles Chamber Theatre juxtaposed recitations of the work of the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan (1920-1970), who wrote in German, with musical compositions by J.S. Bach, Olivier Messaien (1908-1992), and the contemporary American composer Bruce Saylor. I wish I could speak to the point about Mr. Saylor's work, but I arrived late and had to leave early, missing precisely those parts of the program on which his compositions were presented. I regret this.

I liked the set by John Michael Deegan and Sarah G. Conly. The lighting (not credited in the program, but perhaps by the same people) managed to change the appearance of the projected chicken wire backdrop, lit most often with a steely blue, and the sloping red platforms on the stage in very interesting ways.

The music was well-played by Gil Morgenstern (Musical Director and violin), Jean Kopperud (clarinet), Sophie Shao (violoncello) and Eric Huebner (piano). Mr. Morgenstern's performance of the Bach D Minor Chaconne was enlightened. How much better things might have been if the audience, ignorant of when one section of the work was ending or beginning, could have applauded these musical interludes. No one knew, however, whether silence or approbation was in order, which gave the entire evening a defeated, miasmic quality not easily suffered by the material.


I have been put off in the past by the somewhat purple cast of Messaien's titles. He has a penchant for prefacing his purely instrumental compositions with appellations such as "Hymn To The Blessed Virgin", "Praise To The Eternity Of Jesus", and "Canticle Of The Seven Paradisiacal Circles" (I made that one up). However, I was pleasantly surprised. Unable to read the titles in the dark, I had to listen minus the Doré mental prompts, and enjoyed the music much more this way. I now understand a little better why contemporary audiences find his work interesting. Photo credit.

The recitations of Paul Celan's verse were hindered by the audio balance, which favored the musicians. Reciter Fred Sanders had to strike a declamatory style for most of the evening, although I hope that his original conception was less monothematic. A clue to that effect was offered by his presentation of "Conversation In The Mountains", a poem in a more easy-going, anecdotal vein not so badly hindered by the thunderous volume of the instruments. This selection was amusing, touching, and even relaxing, after the cannonades which preceded and followed it.

I applaud Misters Celan, Saylor, Bach and Messaien. I applaud the performers and especially the designers. I even applaud reciter Mr. Sanders; I hope to hear him some day. I do suspect the producers have tried to combine the work of some very talented people who would not have had much to say to each other in life and, frankly, do not deserve to be bedfellows in death.

(Paul Winston studied first with his musician mother and then at NYU, writing his first mature work at nineteen, a musical comedy about Abe Lincoln and Anne Rutledge. He later studied composition and counterpoint, wrote shows to order, taught piano, and played in jazz and other bands. Winston began and eventually chaired the music department at Touro College. Composer of the full-length ballet, Beauty & the Beast, his current projects are a ballet based on the legend of Staggerlee and an opera based on Bulgakov's novella, The Heart of a Dog. He is a Regular Contributor to the magazine [Masthead].)

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Poetry Is News:  Operation Counter-Intelligence
Transforming Literary Events Into Pro-Arab Forums

by Alyssa A. Lappen
[Responses received.]

On Saturday, February 3, I had the supreme displeasure of attending a poetry event at the Poetry Project sponsored by Anne Waldman and Ammiel Alcalay, a professor of Hebrew Literature at Queens College.

Last fall, Professor Alcalay wrote to Campus-Watch.org to stand with radical colleagues who support violence against Israel. In a subsequent email correspondence with me, he denied supporting such people or acts. But his attitude was confirmed by his letter to the LA Times last year, his own words to me, and on Saturday. This man openly despises Israel.

I received his email invitation (with Ms. Anne Waldman, a fellow radical poet) to "Poetry is News: Operation Counter-Intelligence," and sat in disbelief for four hours on Saturday afternoon as several speakers maligned Israel and (by extension) the Jewish people. Elias Khoury, for example, compared Israel's siege of Ramallah to the Holocaust, and Israeli leaders to "tyrants and fascists." (Alcalay said, "I cannot improve upon those remarks.")

Elias Khoury is a far cry from the tolerant saint portrayed by Daniel Belasco in the Jewish Week last May, as a Lebanese novelist who, in Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and English, "invoked the hallowed name of Al-Andalus." All peace and good, except that this member of the Institute for Palestine Studies is not a liberal, not a moderate, and hates Israel. No doubt, he also seeks its destruction, as does the Palestinian Authority, according to its current PLO charter and Fateh Constitution.

Ostensibly to oppose the war in Iraq, the event's subtext was to oppose Israel. And Alcalay effectively said as much, in claiming that "Israel/Palestine" was "tied" to the impending war. Whatever one thinks of it, Israel will most certainly not be the war's "root cause."

There was not one mention during this event of the more than 16,000 terrorist attacks that have purposely targeted and murdered more than 800 Israeli civilians since early 2000, and disfigured for life more than 5,500 others. Nor was it mentioned that Saddam Hussein pays $25,000 rewards to each family of each Palestinian Arab terrorist who murders while killing himself.

Indeed, Alcalay introduced with great fanfare a "report" from Rebecca Murray who went to Jenin and Tulkarem last year with the International Solidarity Movement, urging the 160 poets there to like her join the ISM, which is a mere propaganda machine. Analysis also revealed most of Murray's "report" as hearsay. Her comments were largely based on what others had told her, not things she witnessed. For example, a resident of Jenin claimed that two of her relatives had been shot and left to bleed to death, because Israel prevented ambulances from reaching them. Did she see these events?

No. But she reported as if she had, ignoring the fact that even the anti-Israel UN has admitted there was no massacre in Jenin last spring, that only 52 Arab persons were killed there, most of them combatants. And that 21 Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush they could have avoided had they been willing to use tanks to flatten the houses, as Murray claimed they did. In short, her comments were filled with malicious and baseless lies.

In addition, she expressed support for the head of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade in Tulkarem, and her entire presentation oozed with sarcasm and hatred for Israel, whose people she falsely accused of "talking openly about transfer" and whose government she falsely accused of planning to carry it out. Accompanying her talk was the distribution of fliers from Al-Awda.org, urging "the Palestinian Right of Return" to escape "the bounds of colonialism and political oppression." This would amount to death or exile for 5 million Israeli Jews.

It would be funny if it were not so sad that this "anti-war" poetry event was openly anti-Israel, not-too-subtly also supporting anti-Israel violence.

My concern is twofold. First, this is not innocent. Ammiel Alcalay urged others to use literary events to invite Arabs to present the Arab and pro-Arab point of view. His heretofore hidden agenda, which Alcalay made clear on Saturday, is to transform literary events nationwide into pro-Arab forums.

What's wrong with this? The intention is not to evenly match such voices with Israeli terror victims, Zionists or Zionist poets. Indeed, at several poetry events, Arab and pro-Arab comments and poems (like those of Amiri Baraka and Taha at Dodge, and Khoury on Saturday), have presented their not-so-secret anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, and at times, even anti-Semitic views. And there have been no Jewish or Israeli voices to counter them. One speaker hailed these events as raving successes, citing the work of Sam Hamill, whose poetry for peace website prominently features harsh words against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This, too, smacks of anti-Israel dogma.

Not only did Alcalay make this agenda plain; so did two others who boasted of pulling off a "coup" (their word) at the Associated Writers' Program this year. I had heard from another Jewish poet who always participated in the past that this year's advance AWP announcements listed Arab Palestinians as "Hebrews," and featured no Israelis or Jews (of course). My friend is not going this year.

At the risk of freezing myself out of poetry forums, I am compelled to expose this threatening trend, which will increasingly lock Jewish poets out of literary events and the publishing market—unless they too unconditionally condemn Israel.

So be it. I will not stay silent in the face of such slander against my people, as they are victimized by terrorists, by the world press, and by many in the literary community as well.

(Alyssa A. Lappen is former writer and editor at Forbes, Working Woman, Institutional Investor and Corporate Finance. Her collection, The People Bear Witness, won the 2000 chapbook award from Ruah:  A Journal of Spiritual Poetry.

[The magazine's editors invite equal and opposite comments from responsible authors on this or other events where poetry has been brought into controversial interface with politics.]

[Responses received.]