Contributing Editor, Helen Bar-Lev, IL




Interview with Johnmichael Simon

Question: When did you begin to write poetry and what prompted you to write?

Answer: When I was sixteen, I wrote a sonnet that was published in the school magazine. Round about that time I also started composing comic operettas that we performed at camp fires in the Jewish youth movement Habonim. From then onwards until my mid sixties I wrote maybe 20 poems in all, most of them prompted by moments of anguish or grief. At age sixty-something the muse surfaced again and since then I have been compulsively writing poetry, often daily. I now have a collection of well over a thousand poems and I’m still going strong.

Question: How long have you been a member of Voices?

Answer: I joined Voices Israel in 2004, first as a member of the Jerusalem group and after we moved to Metulla, started going to the meetings in Haifa. Currently I am webmaster of the Voices website:

Question: Do you belong to any other writing/poetry groups? Please tell us a little about them.

Answer: We have a small group of writers from the Galilee that meets once every two weeks in one of the member’s homes. The group consists of about ten writers and is of a high standard. We read poetry and short stories and one of the members recently brought a play she had written. We hand out copies of the work we are reading and each of the participating members writes his or her comments right on the copy. Then we hold a general discussion of every piece. I have found these meetings to be very helpful and the critiquing to be constructive and professional. We have enriched one another in this group and many a lack-luster piece has been honed to a glowing finish with the aid of the group’s input.

Question: What are the most important changes you’ve seen in Voices in this time?

Answer: Voices, as the English speaking poetry organization is Israel has undergone several changes in the last few years. The most notable being an influx of younger poets: university students, younger faces from outlying settlements, professional people. Membership has also been augmented by the addition of overseas poets who have joined and contribute their work to the annual anthology. The Reuben Rose annual poetry competition sponsored by Voices Israel also attracts a growing international interest due in part to the increase in prize money offered.

Question: What inspires your poetry?

Answer: Everything. Day-to-day events, from the minutest to the news headlines. The changing faces of the environment. Interesting people met on the way. Science, medicine, the huge environmental challenges of our age. Above all, others’ poetry, books, periodicals, magazines, Internet publications. The meeting of minds. Like and unlike, voices from other cultures, other ages, other languages. It’s never ending.

Question: Which forms do you prefer? Why?

Answer: Depending on my mood and muse I write in a multitude of styles and voices. Children’s poetry is often a favorite, often but not always rhyming. I enjoy writing sonnets, ballads and other classical forms. A lot of my poetry is modern where style and form take second place to substance and content. I like bumping different metaphors up against each other and watching how they interact. I’m experimental more in content than in form, preferring the lyrical to the exhibitionistic. Striving always to preserve the music of the phrases and stanzas. In fact many of my poems are about musical subjects which is one of my great loves.

Question: Who is your favorite poet?

Answer: I don’t really have one favorite poet. There are so may wonderful ones out there. Mary Oliver is one whom I keep returning to. Our own Yehudah Amichai is another. I still love some of the classic poets whose work I grew up with, Blake, Wordsworth, the Fitzgerald translation of the Rubaiyat. Tony Hoagland, Sylvia Plath.

Question: Where have you been published?

Answer: I have several books of poetry: Sonatina, mostly on musical subjects, Bordwinot, a collection of ballads, balderdash and other strange ingredients, Silly Wishes, a collection of children’s poems, Phyrrs Hierwals and Bouldergeists, mostly zany stuff. These can be viewed and purchased from the website  of which I am chief editor. In addition two collaborations together with Helen Bar-Lev, Cyclamens and Swords, poems about Israel and The Muse in the Suitcase, poems from our travels around the world. In addition my poems can be found in numerous anthologies, in print and online and can also be viewed at my personal website

Question: Where do you live? family?

Answer: I live in Metulla, a small village on the northern border of Israel together with my partner Helen Bar-Lev. I have four children, a son who lives in Ireland, another son in London and a third who lives here in Israel. I have a fifteen year old daughter who is at school here in Jerusalem. Helen has four grandchildren who have adopted me and call me grandpa.

Question: How long have you lived in Israel? In which country were you born?
Answer: I was born in Northampton, England, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and have lived mostly in Israel since immigrating here in 1961.



Sample Poems


From Sonatina

To Hold the Notes


There was a time
when the notes slept, hibernating,
breathing thumbed parchment,
quiet as cathedrals locked up for the night
while around parish hearths
stout voices sang their pious words

Then came wax cylinders
wound tightly as bobbins
and squashy shellac blobs
that pressed out and dried the notes to brittle patties
where winding roads and bumpy paths
guide scratchy thorns along their quavering circuits

Scant revolutions later notes hiss over speeding decks
in and out of skimpy see-through dresses
while jockeys whirl them back and forth
like dolls at a barnyard square dance
and singles stand around waiting to join the jig

Still fading, the notes, collapsing further
sought refuge in wires, shiny ribbons, skin thin wafers
that held hieroglyphics of their shrinking glory
while packets of ones and zeros
carried them from ear to busy ear

Amidst this impersonal mechanical going on
we set our feet upon the northern road
that leads between the towering peaks and rushing streams
where bird song, rosy apples, fields of cyclamen
and shady cypresses walked beside us down the peaceful ways

And in the valley, beneath the spreading oaks
a classroom beckoned, just a wooden shack
but from its open windows came forth such a blessed sound
that we, compelled by its beauty, approached

There seated on simple wooden chairs four youngsters sat
at cello, viola and two violins
and as we watched them play and pause
and play again and annotate and then again
our hearts began to sing with them
and as we smiled and listened on
we knew the notes had found their home



From Bordwinot

Mona Lisa and David


She was the match that lit the fire
that burns down the centuries
a darkish sweet mystery
her serene smile
so well known so loved
her thoughts her private existence
so little understood
where did she go after work?

And he
whose manly curves grace
a thousand books
was there a nice fire
glowing unseen in the background
to lull him into immobility?
into which world did he step
after donning his robes
what kind of manuscripts did he enjoy
reading in the lonely evenings?

Had they lived on
as their effigies do
perhaps they may have met in the street
had a cup of coffee, a pizza, fallen in love
her match might have lit the coals of his fire
he might have bought her a ring
and she him a jock strap

Such are the flames of culture
that brighten the halls of the world
while we comfort ourselves anonymously
in their warmth
before going on our way



From Silly Wishes

A Funny Goat Dream


Godfrey the goat had a dream one night
that woke him up, so he turned on the light
but as hard as he tried to remember the dream
the details kept running away from him
so he emptied his head out on to the ground
and started to sort through what he found
and to make sure there was nothing that he missed
he picked up a pencil and made a list

and here’s what he found…

One old rhyme that he’d completely forgotten
about wooly pajamas (or was it cotton?)
a chewed up multiplication table
which explained why at math he wasn’t so able
three jokes about Englishmen and Scots in some other land
the point of which he didn’t quite understand
two telephone numbers that he’d learnt off by heart
useless now since they’d changed how they start
rules about which way to cross the street
and stuff about closing your mouth when you eat
a few new words to God Save the Queen
some nasty things he’d said that he didn’t mean
several lies he’d told that sounded quite neat
and some secrets he’d promised not to repeat
but of that funny dream there wasn’t a trace
and now in his head there was lots of space
so he turned off the light and went back to bed
and woke up in the morning with this rhyme in his head



From Cyclamens and Swords

Masada Ceremony


We were in the mouths of ancient stones, looking out
the world was sky, stars forever, blackness.

Ascending in single file, silhouettes of knapsacks, shadow lanterns
against ridges, rocks dividing dark from denser dark.

Moonless; a millipede of thoughts and concentration
snaking back two thousand years in memoriam.

Below, the deadness of water glinted raw oil,
a truck beetled its headlights from the gulf.

Above, those who have gone before watch in pride,
eyes of generations mouthing words of piety and strength.

A snake of words consuming itself in dust, blood and flame
to lay down their lives that words might live…

Hear O Israel!

Sunrise glints on weapons hushed in peace.









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