Mola Coffee is a little cafÃ© on the east side of Hoboken’s Washington Street. On any given day one can find a motley collection of caffeine seekers, and a cursory glance on this day reveals just such color: a lounge playing jazz pianist woos the passers-by with his portable keyboard; most don’t tip, but he doesn’t seem to care. A deadhead plays his iPod nano while veiled behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke; a textbook-sized dissection of his favorite band’s lyrics sits before him, and he follows it page by page. A group of bookish youths from the local university ignite Camel Lights and maddeningly try to forget about their school work with each heavy drag. A disturbingly attractive woman studies group psychology at a nearby table, her yellow highlighter poised like a deadly knife above the text. A comic book colorist adds detail to a strongly jowled, cartoonish face that reminds this author of “A Scanner Darkly”; his laptop and stylus-pad double as a studio. By the window a writer struggles with the third chapter of his first novel, a work of historical fiction. In the cafÃ©’s garden, a bunch of teenagers pseudo-surreptitiously smoke pot; one wonders if they think they are being discreet. Other patrons tap on laptops or turn pages of their books, but most just sit and talk. And if you wait here long enough, on any given day, you will most likely hear the resounding voice of an employee berating the customers for no apparent reason.
“You want a cappuccino? Why should I give you that?” he says in a thick, Israeli, accent. “What have you done for me lately that I should help you?”
It’s a joke, of course, yet you can’t help but stutter. He speaks curtly with one customer, and in a complete reversal of tone that throws you off guard if you’re not paying attention, he speaks endearingly and charmingly to another. His abrasiveness, you see, is reserved for those he knows and cares about, a kind of inside joke. And though his first language is not English, his retorts are always eloquent, as if prepared before-hand, but inside his beleaguered pauses you can almost see the gears turning inside his head. It’s impossible not to notice this loud, witty man with a shaved head and glasses as he bounces from one end of the cafÃ© to the other, commenting unabashedly.
And after a time sitting, sipping your coffee, you begin to realize that this is all part of the banter of this place, that the motley collection of people come in here not just for the coffee, but for the conversation, the atmosphere — perhaps even just for him.
His name is Eliyahoo Talgam, though he goes by Eli (a name that rhymes with “Eddie”). And though he is hesitant to call himself a poet, Eli has been writing poetry for more than twenty years.
“By not calling myself a poet,” Eli says, “I avoid the criticism that goes with the title.”
And he is very much a self-made creation. For a few weeks, next to the cafÃ©’s register, there was a piece of paper with the word “unfortunately” translated into several dozen languages, each in unique handwriting. The translations were provided by the customers, awaking the patrons (and this author) to the incredible diversity of the coffee shop, but the genesis of this idea was solely Eli’s. Today, there sits a scribbling book on the counter where anyone can write down their thoughts. Flipping through its pages one finds everything from laments against the current political situation, to poetry, to teenage scrawls about “How much I [heart] Mola coffee.” This scribble book is also his creation.
“Since an early age I was involved with art in many different forms,” he says. “I wrote poems and short stories, and created some music which has appeared around the world.”
Born in Jerusalem, but a Tel-Aviv-nik at heart, he came to the US three and a half years ago. Originally published in Israeli newspapers, his Hebrew poems garnered some acclaim, but he has only recently started writing again in English. Yet, in only two short months, his English poems, posted on his website, Florecita Plastika, have attracted wide attention, including a guest appearance on Radio Hudson.
“His poems are deeply personal,” says Melissa Knott, a co-worker of Eli’s. “Yet they are naked and obvious to readers.”
On thing is certain: they are powerful, even with the occasional mistake.
“There’s a quality [in Eli’s poems] that only a non-native speaker of a language possesses, the combination of verbs is more concise and clever than a trained speaker could concoct,” Melissa says.
Sometimes abrasive, yet endearingly compassionate, fiercely dedicated to his son, often to the chagrin of others, unstoppably creative yet totally approachable, Eli Talgam took time out of his busy life to sit with me and discuss his poetry. The mp3 podcast is below.
(Eli has graciously offered to be available for comments on this post)