The Last Stanza – An Anthology of Poems from Tel Aviv is the first book from StanzAviv, a creative collective of writers associated with Bar Ilan University and Tel Aviv University. STANZA members (or ‘Stanzites’) come from Israel, USA, UK, France, Canada, Latvia and beyond.
Israel is a dramatic place and the poetry in this selection is humorous, political, tragic and inspiring. Topics range from seeking refuge, travelling in Africa, war, love, meditations on existence, being Jewish at Christmas, internet banking, waking up drunk on a riverside and more.
Most poems in this ‘Stanzology’ are in English, plus there is a section in Hebrew. The Last Stanza was published in 2011 and the Kindle Edition is available on Amazon.
All profits from this book go to the ARDC (African Refugee Development Center), an NGO in south Tel Aviv that provides shelter, education, counseling and advice to refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.
Here is the Introduction from the book…
Most of us reading this book are not likely to be refugees. We have no idea what it is like to leave a country we love because we may be killed if we stay. We hear the word ‘refugee’ almost daily in the news, but what does it really mean? According to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is: “A person, who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
But, as always when defining groups of people, there are grey areas. Aside from refugees, there are millions of stateless people, people in limbo, returnees and asylum seekers. The terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are often confused, but in general an asylum seeker is someone applying for refugee status. The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution goes back thousands of years. Indeed, throughout history, the Jewish people have been forced to find refuge in different parts of the world.
When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, following a wave of immigration after the Holocaust, it was stated that this new nation “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex… and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Today, due to its location and being one of the few democracies in the Middle East, over 1,000 people from troubled African nations try to cross the Egyptian border every month to seek asylum in Israel. Not everyone makes it across.
Those that do make it to Israel, find that it is not some abundantly wealthy Promised Land, but a small country, the size of New Jersey, with 60 per cent of its landmass being desert. Not surprisingly, they endeavor to head north to Tel Aviv. The ones that make it then have to battle with the barriers of bureaucracy, language and finding shelter. This is where the ARDC comes in.
The ARDC was founded by refugees for refugees. It is a small NGO with a humble headquarters on Golomb St, near the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv. In many ways, it is a remarkable place. It comprises an office, activity room and a small storeroom where people can get toilet paper, tampons and clothes. Nearby, it also offers shelter for pregnant women, victims of rape and orphans. The ARDC completely relies on the help of volunteers, who often tend to be olim (new immigrants to Israel). Funding is a challenge and ARDC struggles to find the rent for classrooms to teach Hebrew and English. Plans for an ARDC library were, for want of a better word, shelved. So it is fitting that all profits from this anthology will assist the ARDC with its educational projects.
Israel is a country of many languages – Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish, Tigrinya (spoken by most Eritrean refugees) and more. It is a land where languages intertwine; on the streets of Tel Aviv it is not unusual to hear sentences in ‘Hebrish’ or ‘Gibberish’. Of course, English is widely spoken between different populations and is the main language of poems in this anthology, which unites some of the best new writers in Israel.
Poetry is a language of its own. Robert Frost famously said that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Readers have their own interpretations of poems and each new reading can produce new interactions. In poetry we encounter a myriad of meanings, unconscious influences and what Roland Barthes would call ‘intertextuality’. Some poems require us to look at the nature of language itself. In Touched with Fire, Jack Hydes said that “Poetry is literature at its best. Sometimes a poem is immediately enjoyable… At other times a poem may be so delicate and subtle in working through a complex idea that the reader has to read it several times before the ideas become thoroughly understood.”
Despite such complexities, poetry can also be universally enjoyed. You do not need to be a student of literature to enjoy poetry. It was on this basis that STANZA, a collective of poets and musicians based in Tel Aviv, was created in May 2009. STANZA events, usually held in a bar, provide a platform for poets and musicians to air their work. Tel Aviv is not short of poets. When STANZA began, poets seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. Perhaps it is Israel itself that inspires such poetry. After all, this land has brought forth generations of poets from the ancient Psalms of David to Israeli poets such as Bialik and Alterman.
Israel is a dramatic place and the poetry in this selection is humorous, political, tragic and inspiring. Topics range from seeking refuge, travelling in Africa, war, loneliness, meditations on existence, internet banking, being Jewish at Christmas, the life of a cat, waking up drunk on a riverside and more. The Hebrew translation of the anthology’s title, The Last Stanza, is HaBeit HaAcharon, which literally means ‘The Last House’. For thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, Israel and the ARDC really is their last point of hope.
Themes of hope, displacement and alienation are commonly found in poetry and there is a wealth of classic poems on refugees including ‘Refugee mother and her child’ by Chinua Achebe, ‘Refugee Blues’ by WH Auden and more recently ‘We Refugees’ by Benjamin Zephaniah, which ends with this verse: “Nobody’s here without a struggle/ And why should we live in fear/ Of the weather or the troubles? / We all came here from somewhere.” Sometimes it is all too easy to forget the words of the last stanza.