Monday, February 12, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Kazim Ali

by Domenica Ghanem

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.

Early-bird registration has been extended to Friday, February 23, at midnight EST at Split This Rock's website. Visit the registration page to register now.

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Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian, Iranian, and Egyptian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY and an MFA from New York University. His books encompass several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry; The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award; The Fortieth DayAll One’s Blue; and the cross-genre text Bright Felon. His novels include the recently published The Secret Room: A String Quartet. Among his books of essays is Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. Ali is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College. His new book of poems, Inquisition, and a new hybrid memoir, Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies, will both be released in 2018. Learn more at his website. Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones.

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Domenica Ghanem (DG):  What do you think is the relationship between your poetry or poetry in general and politics, especially in “Trump’s America?”

Kazim Ali (KA): Well, we have all of us always been "political," or functioned in a political and social context. To be given additional context or attention since the election due to the racism and prejudice slung my way does not make a better situation for me or other Muslim writers. Still, I am glad to see many younger Muslim voices in poetry--Tarfia Faizullah, Solmaz Sharif, Kaveh Akbar, Ruth Awad, Fatimah Asghar, Leila Chatti and Zeina Hashem Beck all come to immediate mind but there are so many others, so many I couldn't even count them.

Truly in the past ten years there has been a wave of young Muslim poets publishing and for this reason I feel very sure, very confident, not at all in crisis. I write about the body, I write about the spirit, I write about music, art and dance, but none of these things, none, are separate for me from one another or from this vague term "politics." Politics means how we live in the world. Unless you live with the privilege of being able to ignore that then you are political.

DG: Many people have become more aware of social issues because of the Trump administration’s open assault on many communities. But for many people, including us in the Muslim American community, we haven’t had the privilege of ignoring these issues. In what ways has the work you’re doing today in your writing and in your classes changed or been affected by today’s political environment, or are you working with the same themes you’ve been building on? What themes remain relevant?

KA: A little while ago I thought I ought to stop writing about God. The reason is that I was starting to have ideas. Ideas mean a system of ideas. Every idea you have may preclude another. I thought that it would be better to have a space of unknowing and that other poets would continue to make poems about God. I don't know if I have kept my promise or not, but by turning away from the task of trying to know the unknown and from the vocabulary of the spirit, which is necessarily the language of abstraction, I was able to come back into the world.

What occupies me now is physical landscape, the history of places, the ways human communities work in time and space -- maybe I have become a sociologist or a geographer -- but I still work in sound and gesture. At the moment it's contested places that interest me --the struggles of the Pimicikamak Cree of Northern Manitoba against the provincial government which dammed the river that gave them their livelihood and compromised their culture and their way of life; or perhaps the work I do in offering yoga teachings and trainings to Palestinian people in the West Bank. Or the "border" communities that exist in every American town and city, not just those on our southern border.

DG:  You’re described as an “American poet”, but I understand you have a layered ethnic and national background and do a lot of international travel -- how do you find your poetry is received differently in different countries? What themes seem to resonate on a universal level?

KA: I have traveled a fair amount, but it is (mostly) not to do poetry readings or participate in international literary communities. I have done some of that in India and was fortunate enough to publish a book of selected poems in India a couple of years back. But my travel in other places has been as a private citizen, a wanderer, an explorer, a writer (to be writing, not to have a public life as a "writer"), for international solidarity work or for my work as a (volunteer) yoga teacher. I have been strongly affected myself by the literary contexts of the places I visit. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and Urguayan Cristina Peri Rossi have both been very important to me. Among French writers Ananda Devi and Marguerite Duras are both touchstone figures. In India I met many incredible poets and writers whose work nourishes me.

DG:  How do you use poetry as a tool to teach about subjects not necessarily having to do with poetry – like social issues, or general self-expression? Things you often learn about in college that aren’t necessarily dictated in the curriculum. In some of your work you talk about being both Muslim and queer. Do you find that there’s a lot of push and pull between those identities? Has poetry helped you reconcile them?

KA: On the one hand for me there isn't a push and pull between the identities because they each live inside of me. Also, the identities are fluid and I construct them and they construct me through my life. My relationship to each has changed. Certainly, of the poets I love, dearest are the ones who can reveal to me the internal life, the strange negotiation that we all have to make in a larger external world that does not include us. That's not unique to being Muslim or to being queer but to every person. Poetry too can give us a sense of how time works, how place/space and its construction by political and social forces govern our beings. 

DG:  I’ve often struggled with what it means to be a “good Muslim woman” and sometimes more importantly a “good Muslim daughter.” Have you had similar struggles of trying to be a “good Muslim son?” What level of support have you had from your parents?

KA: I can't talk too much about my family here, beyond what I've put in books. We are trying to find our ways and some times have been easier than others. But I will tell you this much, Islam is a religion of plurality and always has been. You must find what truth is in it for you and what place it has in your own life. That too has fluctuated and changed for me throughout my life. As I say in a poem called "OriginStory," "I have not been a good son." It's as ironic a statement as it is sincere. I have no answer.

DG:  There are so many prolific Indian, Iranian, and Egyptian poets -- do any of them in particular inspire your work?

KA: So many. I am working on editing a (very small compact) selection of contemporary Indian anglophone poets for POETRY; I'll say Eunice de Souza, who recently passed away, was a favorite for me. Sohrab Sepehri, the twentieth century Iranian poet, is a major touchstone figure. I've translated three of his books (published in one volume by BOA Editions). I find in his work a marrying of physical and spiritual, concrete and abstract, that I have found nowhere else.

DG:  In a recent interview about your poem “Checkpoint,” you said that sometimes you feel like a journalist and that “Checkpoint” is an interrogation of passport control at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Life in the occupied territories is certainly an under-reported story. What are some of your other poems that might offer us a glimpse into the stories you’d like to see reported in the news? 

KA: I worked on many poems from my experiences traveling that are in my two forthcoming books; I'm working on two current projects, both of them are nonfiction. The first is a short book about the Canadian dam I mentioned earlier. The part of the story I didn't tell you is that my dad was one of the engineers who helped to design the electrical systems of the dam. I don't think any of the workers back in 1976 knew what the impacts of the dam would be, but I grew up there, in a trailer-park town in the middle of the boreal forest, for four years while this dam was being built. Last year I went back up there to the reservation and stayed for a little while and researched and interviewed aboriginal elders, activists, and government officials.

I am trying to recount the simultaneous stories of my own personal journey and the story of the Pimicikamak. My second project is about teaching yoga and making connections between the ancient teachings and the current situation in the Middle East. What most people may not know is that yoga has been in the middle east for hundreds of years. In the 1500s one of the more enlightened princes of the Mughal empire, Dara Shikoh, commissioned Farsi translations of all the texts and yoga made its way across Persia and into the Arab world. It may be new to teach in the context of life in the contemporary West Bank, but it's not new at all.
DG: You have two new books coming out this year, what excites you about each?

KA: I have a book of essays called Silver Road: Essays, Maps, & Calligraphies. It intersperses short essays with diary fragments, short poems, and lyric "prose maps," that each try to tell the story of a place in movement. I like the braided form and the book has been a long time in the writing. In fact, all the braided strands were written separately and apart from each other-- there was no intention at the time of original writing that they would make a book together-- so it feels organic, an archive of my life and a pattern of my way of thinking.

In March, my new collection of poems is coming out. It is called Inquisition. I am excited about it because I feel like I have moved into different modes -- it includes lyrics, narrative poems, even two pieces that had their origins as spoken word pieces. With each new collection I want to turn a corner formally, but I also want to challenge myself as a poet in terms of subject matter, how honest I can be, how many risks I can take. So, this book has a couple of poems that worry me, that frighten me in terms of making me feel exposed by putting them out in the world. So that's thrilling and anxiety-inducing.

DG: If someone were exploring your work for the first time, which work or works would you suggest?

KA:I couldn't say. I have written in so many different genres and modes that they make a beautiful pattern for me. If I could suggest anything I would hope a reader would not just read one book but would try two or three or four.

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Additional Links

A reading of the essay "Poetry is Dangerous" by Kazim Ali from ORANGE ALERT: ESSAYS ON POETRY, ART AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF SILENCE (University of Michigan 2010).

Interview with Kazim Ali, by Kaveh Akbar (Divedapper).

Interview with Kazim Ali, by Britney Gulbrandsen (Superstition Review).

"Peach" by Kazim Ali (The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database).

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Domenica Ghanem is the media manager and co-manager of the communications team at the Institute for Policy Studies. She is an activist and writer on issues of the drug war, criminal justice, justice for Palestine, rape culture, and Islamophobia. She graduated from the University of Connecticut with degrees in journalism and political science in 2015.

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