Karen Alkalay -Gut

Dressing Up for a Book Party

There is a fashion house in Israel that puts part of poems in their labels. The labels are inside the dress, meant only for the wearer, a kind of secret compact between the clothes and the body. When I first heard about this conception, I was already pretty well advanced in my exploration of some of the meanings of clothes in my collection of poems, "The Love of Clothes and Nakedness," and I promised myself that when the book came out I would find a way to combine the enormous creativity exhibited by these designers with my own poems. Poems and clothes are so much alike-they demand revelation and concealment, art that appears artless, individuality and convention, shape altered to the self, and so on and so forth. One day as I was shopping with my friend Laura Boss and we were shifting back and forth from poetry to bras we got confused for a moment and the deliberately continued talking about both interchangeably - structure, control, release, engineering and the appearance of ingenuousness. So a celebration of fashion could well be a celebration of poetry. I even wrote a fantasy about going shopping in Bloomingdales with the author of the "Poetics," Aristotle. (Editor's Note: Click here to read several of the poems)

When the books came out, one version in English and another version in Hebrew translation, a book party in the elegant shop/coffee house of COMME IL FAUT seemed consummately right to me. So even though I'm not exactly a party person, I asked the partners to let me use their setting. Out of a commitment to the arts they agreed, expecting a modest literary gathering.

But the idea seemed to grow of its own volition into a complex production. When I discovered that the date I picked would exclude my filmmaker daughter from attending, we came up with the idea of her doing an installation that would consist of a kind of poetry fashion show, with different people from various backgrounds and ages reading poems from the book in all kinds of settings, alternated by shots of me standing with the dummies in the shop window. A fifteen minute film, it was presented as a loop in the shop as people came and went. Aside from its artistic value, the effect of readings by professionals and amateurs, men and women, in interpretations from deadpan to sign language, gave a remarkable democratic effect - everyone wears clothes-and with its clipped, ironic style, something of the sense of a parodic/real fashion show. It also gave me a chance to include some of the people I love who couldn't be there, or who didn't feel comfortable reading out loud, or who felt that a different environment would contribute to the interpretation of the poem, an opportunity to expand on its meaning. So it was that the opera singer Mira Zakai stood in her garden next to a favorite statue and read a poem about hair styles, the rock singer Sharon Moldavi sat next to his piano and read about torch song fantasies, Alona Frankel, who writes children's books, declaimed a piece inspired by her late husband's book (Diary of a Deliciously Plump Woman by Zygmunt Frankel) and my own daughter, Orit Alkalay, jeered out a poem about clothes jealousy into the camera.

There were also a number of technical benefits to this installation. The 150 odd people in attendance could learn something about the poems without arriving exactly on time, or even stopping their conversation for an entire quarter of an hour. They could move in and out of the poems the way a shopper fingers blouses on a rack, and that was exactly the right atmosphere.

The reading was short, shorter even than I expected, because it turned out that the participants, poets and writers all, who were going to read a poem of mine and perhaps one of theirs, and perhaps tell a story or two, were all a bit intimidated by the crowded atmosphere, the seemingly ubiquitous television camera from channel 3, and the fact that their audience was standing up (and in a room where the air conditioner could not possibly continue to cool us all for long). But Alona Kimchi, Asher Reich, Rony Somekh, Dahlia Ravikovich, and Rafi Weichert bravely withstood this chaotic atmosphere, and cut not my poems, but their own.

The surprise, to me the piece de resistance, was a belly dancer. I was particularly excited about Barbara's dancing, in part because I have been studying with her for two years and have become more and more aware of the physical complexities and subtleties of the dance. It was also a statement of empowerment as significant as the empowerment I wanted to give to the usually belittled subject of attire. Like shopping, which is so central to the contemporary woman, but marginalized in any intellectual discussion of female identity, belly dancing emphasizes the unique potential of the female body, even though it is so often mistakenly associated with the anti-feminist concept of enticement.

Food was also an important element to me. Not because I am a Jewish mother, although I am, but it seemed to me that the atmosphere of benevolence and acceptance could only be completed with that most generous female art of cooking. But who would cater a book party in a place with almost no kitchen, and for a poet with almost no budget? The two brothers I found (through my hairdresser of course), Eidan and Amit Pilo, were just learning their trade and willing to test their wings in this strange experiment. Like the poets and the dancer they altered their art to the environment and effortlessly provided us with amazing cakes, quiches, punch, wine, lemonade - everything that could comfort and soothe even the most troubled shopper/poet.

While all these people, cameras, and waiters milled about, the sales people continued to help out customers, a 'gesture' we had agreed upon, but one that had unexpected benefits and pitfalls. I saw many shopping bags leave the store that night - sometimes with books and sometimes with dresses - but I also spotted an orangeade stained t-shirt disposed of discreetly by the staff.

What was the purpose of this little experiment? As a teacher, I am always thinking about the lessons to be learned, the effect the things I do have on others. "Listen," the poet Yael Globerman whispered to me on her way out, "I'm going home to write a book called 'Chopped Liver' and have a party at the butchers'."

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