In Israel, one of the most striking figures in a new generation of the poetic and literary circles is, without a doubt, Roy (Chicky) Arad. An enigmatic figure who is always one step ahead (and never short) of a new verse, Roy is everywhere . He is the co-founder of Ma'ayan, an art and poetry magazine, the editor of Adouma [Red], an anthology of socialist contemporary poetry, Latzet [Go Out], against the 2009 War in Lebanon, and The Revolution Songbook, about last summer's social protests. His list of affiliations is endless—he is one of the founders of Free Academy and Cultural Guerilla, social justice groups that advocate for political causes through art and poetry; and curator of “Iran,” an art exhibition organized last winter in opposition to the government's plans to go to war with Iran. In addition, Roy writes for Haaretz, one of the leading newspapers in the country.
We met in one of the few newly opened cooperatives in Tel Aviv, founded by last summer's protest leaders. The place is bustling with activity—the atmosphere is open, young, hopeful and convivial—a portrayal of the society a younger and optimistic generation dreams of establishing. Roy is clearly at home there. Within minutes of meeting him, you quickly see how his life is so deeply shaped, one soon realizes how dedicated he is to his craft.
Roy started writing at the age of 15, “as a joke,” he explains, as he thought the medium was old-fashioned. However, during his teenage years, this joke became a call for life and the only jokes left are the ones he now skillfully inserts in his poems. “Humor is the tool of the weak,” he says with a smile.
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Many of his poems are about sex and politics, because, he explains, "These are the most interesting subjects. Inspired by Japanese Haiku, he has already published three collections of poetry: “The Nigger,” “Kimo,” and “The Owl.”
I asked him about the appeal of poetry to the younger generation, especially in the age of internet, web-surfing, and a slowly declining book publishing industry. According to him, there seems to be no problem, and on the contrary, his print magazine, Ma'ayan [Source of Water] is the best-selling of its kind worldwide, publishing at a rate of 4000 copies, once or twice a year, while "The Revolution Songbook" published 10,000 copies.
Roy attributes the sales to his belief that the average readers of Ma'ayan were born in the 70'-80's. Most of the poets published are from the same age group, with a few exceptions such as Aharon Shabtai. "Poetry is still elitist, but it is changing,” he says. “The magazine is sold in vending kiosks,” to get as close to the people as possible.
According to Liza Katz, whose works have also been published in Ma'ayan, “[P]oetry here, as elsewhere no doubt, is no longer the province of one clearly identifiable artistic elite, and certainly not the province of only a few poetry kings or queens. There are hundreds of poets active in Israel.”
Through his work and the magazine, Arad has met many renowned authors from the region who regularly feature in Ma'ayan, such as Ahmed Matter. From the beginning, Roy wanted Ma'ayan to be Middle Eastern and made a deliberate choice to include authors from the entire region.
The poets of Maayan relish the characteristics of The Middle East. They are taking their heads out of the car window, shouting at the wind. Consumed with desire, they take in the smell of exhaust fumes.
Roy’s activism does not end with his writing poetry. He also advocates on behalf of the artistic community through his recent fight for a “Poets' Union,” whose main demands are higher state allocations for authors and publishing of books. Besides financial requests, the Union hopes to expand their audiences by introducing poetry as part of the elementary school curriculum.
In an interview Roy gave Haaretz last December, he explained his motivations behind the union, saying, “People think a poet must starve and suffer, and wonder what the connection can be between poets and a union. We stand not only against the establishment and the state, but also against Israeli capitalism. We won't accept it. Poetry isn't merchandise. Poetry is like love—poetry is culture.”
As we wrap up and prepare to leave, Roy adds: “We [the artists] are not an alternative. We are the centre of the world. States act through fear, [but] new ideas always come from culture.” He mentions the irony in the fact that even the Occupation could be said to have borne out of the dreams and lines of overly romantic poets. It is Roy’s hope that the winds will turn and that poets and artists will help Israel's status in the Middle East change from that of a policeman to that of a thief, he says with a sardonic smile.
Luckily, he continues, “There is a new generation in Israel that does not want war, they see it but as something played in X-box.” He ends our chat by praising this new generation that believes a rhyme is more efficient than a gun.