Monday, May 23, 2005

L'Affaire Alcalay

Back in March the conservative group Campus Watch published a pretty underwhelming attack, intellectually speaking, on Ammiel Alcalay, one of a number of poets who, said the article, "openly declare their allegiance with ‘Palestine,' and implicitly, with terror." Lumped in with Alcalay in this attack were Tom Paulin, Amiri Baraka, Marylin Hacker, and Alicia Ostriker, although they--unlike Alcalay--got slammed for things they had written in their poetry.

Now, I don't yet know Paulin's work, and I shun Baraka, whose post-9/11 pronouncements seem to me truly despicable, though in keeping with many of his earlier poems and works in prose. But I know and admire both Hacker and Ostriker, as both artists and women of conscience. They deserved better, even from the folks at Campus Watch. I've also been reading Alcalay's work, in both prose and poetry, for many years. He deserved better from us.

You see, although I'd hoped that this little fracas would actually stir up some interest in Alcalay as a poet, and not simply as a writer on politics, the response that Campus Watch received from poets on-line--their summary of which you can find here--didn't deal with his poetry at all. And let's be honest: if you get the poetry right, your politics can be pretty damned horrific (fascist, Stalinist, Maoist, even apologist-for-terror) and you can still get justifiably, even pleasurably read.

So: a challenge to you, whoever you are. Pick up a copy of Alcalay's mysterious the cairo notebooks, if you can find one used in your price range, or his more recent collage-poem about the Bosnian civil war, from the warring factions, see what you think, and report. (There's a useful interview in the back of the latter volume, to get you started.) If you want to read some of his prose, take a look at the essays in Memories of Our Future or the book that made him famous, briefly, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture--but I'd be more interested in hearing what you think of the poetry on its own terms, in its own right, first. If you know his work in prose, I'd love to hear what you think of the poetry, not simply as an extension of the other work, but as a counterpoint or complement to it.

As Leonard Cohen says, "There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's where the light gets in." How's about we use this Campus Watch piece, whatever its flaws, to shed a little light on Alcalay?

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