Israel, Tali Cohen Shabtai

Interview with Tali Cohen Shabtai

Tali is a poet, born in Jerusalem, Israel. She has written four bilingual poetry books and her literary works have been translated and published in many languages.

A few details about yourself.

My name is Tali Cohen Shabtai, I am a poet and I was born in Jerusalem, Israel.

I first started writing at the age of six, became a straight-A student in high school and was submitted in ninth grade to the matriculation exam in literature. 

I wrote for the school newspaper, and my first poem was published in a well-known, popular journal in Israel for adults when I was only 13.

I have written three books:

“Purple diluted in a black’s thick” – bilingual, Gvanim publishing house, Tel Aviv, 2007 
“Protest” – bilingual , Sifrei Iton 77 publishing house, Tel Aviv, 2012
“Nine years from you” – bilingual, Sifrei Iton 77 publishing house, Tel Aviv, 2018.

During 2021 my thick-volume book will be published as a book of poetry, written in Hebrew and English.

My works have been translated in many languages and my achievements are many, especially in my publications in English as a second language.

I have been living for years in the United States and Europe.

What does being an exophonic writer mean to you?

“Man is but his native landscape pattern” – [Russian-born Hebrew poet] Shaul Tchernichovsky.

I do not accept with a strong nod and side with this well-known proverb, and if I do, I have to turn the tables: I mean, me and my homeland-Jerusalem, Israel, but does my belonging as an “Israeli”—only by definition—belong and/or connect to Israeliness, to the culture in my country, and moreover to the world of literature in Israel? The answer is unequivocally no!

I am a woman with a broad-minded vision, very cosmopolitan and interested in the universalism of cultures, landscapes and livelihoods other than those in my reach and familiar to me (which has earned me a reputation as an international poet). I lived for years across the ocean and from here I strive so that even what is expected after these statements, I will also use what is most precious to me—my poetry in a foreign language. It does not indicate detachment, on the contrary, it indicates that a person can be flexible with their “native landscape pattern,” that a man has the fundamental choice of how to use his art, and for that matter in what language.

Also, Hebrew is very dear to me, and there are no mistakes with me. The maximal potential of my messages feels clearer and more complete in Hebrew.

However, I write in English because there is less friction, war, there is lightness and freedom in my second book of poetry, which was published in 2012, called “Protest “—it was written about it that “the poems express real and mental exile, and they are necessary”. . .”The book’s symbolism plays a considerable role in the division of poetry into two different languages, reflecting the exile element in existence, Hebrew poetry expresses the exile of Cohen Shabtai, while the poetry in English documents the freedom.”

From here, there is an element of exile in my being and I emphasized it before, when I described it as a loose affiliation to my home country yet very grounded. 

Not for nothing are all my four books written in English and Hebrew.

It used to be considered a paradox, nowadays it has a name: exophony.

What do you write? What is your writing process like?

This is unequivocally the tactic of a poet that is very subjective to each and every one. In the past two years, I have begun to make it easier on myself and make room for publishing intuitive poems that were written in the blink of an eye, and did not go through the processing stages from first draft to a completed poem. I revealed that these are the poems that the audience connects with the most. I often look through journals to investigate from different aspects or a specific aspect the issue about which I am writing. The poem begins with a sentence or paragraph, and after that comes a moment of musing and concentration and inspiration as I expand this raw material into a written work, erase, add, read it to myself—hear how the tone of the poem sounds, until the poem is ready and completed so that I directly add it to the file of poems for future publication in my books. I hope I have clarified this.

Also, I need four walls that envelop me where my desktop is situated (in my home). This way I don’t feel detached, my concentration level is healthy and clarity of mind at its utmost. Indeed, I write everywhere, but in order to process the writing into a written poem, I have to sit on a wide wickerwork chair and do it at my desktop with a double-glazed window beside me that overlooks a narrow courtyard containing three generations— grandmother, mother, and daughter. Their talk is always vocal and loud and lacking restrain, and they are the symphony as I write my creations. By the way, all 350 pages of my fourth book I wrote from this space.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

I don’t have one of those in stock, nor in my lexicon. 

I can be saddened by things that I read, but between the feeling of sadness and the reproduction of a tear or moisture in my eyes there is a great dissonance in me.

What advice would you give to other exophonic writers?

To those who write in a language not generally regarded as their first or mother tongue, and to some exophonic authors that may be bilingual or multilingual from their childhood years, even polyglots, while others may write in an acquired language; 

and to the writers whose second language is acquired early in life, for example through immigration, and it is not always clear whether the writer should strictly be classified a non-native speaker;

and to those who write in a non-native language, in cases where the language is acquired through exile or migration;

I have one piece of advice:

Keep on writing your way!


Read Tali Cohen Shabtai’s poem for Litehouse here

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