Peter Cole tells Mark Thwaite about what inspired him to produce The Dream of the Poem.
I am not religious in the conventional sense, but every Friday night/Saturday morning the first year I lived in Jerusalem, I went with an Iraqi-Jewish friend to these middle of the night sessions which simply blew the lid off of any notion I had previously held of what poetry was and might do. Traditional and religious Jews from a variety of Eastern countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Bukhara, and elsewhere, would gather at 3 a.m. between the autumn holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles) and the spring festival of Passover and, for some four hours, sing intensely beautiful, kaleidoscopic and sometimes mystical poems along a variety of Arab scales and modes, with soloists stretching the lines in the aural equivalent of arabesque fashion and the ragged, informal chorus (of which I was a part) joining in as the solos trailed off.
This “devotion” — though the English word hardly begins to get at what was happening — was accompanied by whiskey, snuff tobacco, boiled potatoes with salt, pepper, and fenugreek, phyllo pastries filled with spinach, cardamom-spiced tea, and much more, including the occasional fistfight. That first year in Jerusalem showed me not only a new kind of poetry and a new notion of literary reality, but a new kind of Judaism.