Kazim Ali

When did you set your foot on the path of poetry? Did you feel a sudden bolt? Or did you grow gradually more passionate about poetry?

I first thought I could speak in oppositional language when I, the only brown boy I knew at my school (there were others around somewhere), stumbled upon Mari Evans poems in an anthology. Engluage bent in the service of authentic voice. Finally. I continued in college reading poets like Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton who brought jargon, accents and dialect into English-not-English. By the time I read Salman Rushdie and Agha Shahid Ali, to name two poets who bring cadences, grammar, and accents of Urdu into English, I was ready for it. Though I wrote fiction first and only turned to poetry when I came to think that my fractured sense of narrative, erotic lust for the truncated and unfinished and inclination to the sketchiness of both plot and character were all incompatible with book-length prose. I think differently now and am happily trans-genred though still also work solidly in the form of the poem.

Is there a collaborative element to your writing process and what do you think it is?

I seek to see my self at any rate in all forms of language and poetry. When one is an other to oneself, every attempt at putting experience into words is collaboration. But lest we forget the other meaning of collaborator. Currently having my mind blown by Expeditions of a Chimaera, a collab by Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Moure. And have always been made halfway to delirium by Sappho's Gymnasium, a collab by T Begley and Olga Broumas.

Do think that poetry can have an effect on everyday speech? How?

It has an effect on my own everyday speech in that it asks me to see deeper, to see language as other than a denotating mode in service of the surface, of commerce, of the transfer of meaning to money, which is most of what everyday speech is for.

Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry? How did they do that?

Nearly too many to talk about here, but to talk about one single poet, Jean Valentine. I find her poems to be formally beautiful, spiritually weighty, though materially light, formidable in their commitment to the human and local, though ambitious and grand in their intentions. I don't just want to write poems like Jean Valentine, I want to be like her as well: kind, soft-spoken, passionate, generous, intense, and yes, beautiful.

Also to list a not quite exhaustive litany of poets who have influenced me both by their writing and their example: Fanny Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Meena Alexander, Donald Revell, Mahmoud Darwish, Lisel Mueller, the list could go on and on. Younger poets who rock me constantly: Matthew Klame, Jessica Smith, Sarah Gambito, to name only three of many.

Are there aspects of painting or photography or dance or video art or music or architecture or theater or film or any other art inform your own poems or that your poems are in conversation with? If so, how?

At one moment I was very influenced by the photographs of Manuel Alvaro Bravo. I liked how there were two seemingly oppositional things happening in the same photograph, like the spiny tumbleweed in front of the nude reclining on the roof. I thought a poem too could have two energy poles within it, oppositional impulses that pulled it in different directions. I wrote this in my poem "Lostness" from The Fortieth Day, and also in "Interrupted Letter" from that same book.

Agnes Martin is one of my totem saints, mainly because of her relationship to silence, both visually depicted and actual silence, her way of being in the world.

Dance and architecture (sort of the same thing, aren't they?) were definitely strong influences in The Far Mosque, particularly related to the way breath moved across a line and then reversed itself, often, in the subsequent or answering line. I write a little more about architecture, particularly the vexed architecture of Muslim Spain in a book of essays called Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence that is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2010.

Did you start off with an idea that your book grew around? Did you move away from that idea as the book progressed?

 Both The Far Mosque and The Fortieth Day were not organized around any central idea, though an idea did indeed "rise to the surface" or emerge from the poems themselves; though these books had different compositional periods: The Far Mosque slowly accreted over the course of the years from 1999 through 2004. Poems entered and were dropped and the manuscript underwent many shifts in shape and focus. The Fortieth Day, though revised and rewritten gleefully and thoroughly, was written with more intention as a draft of a book--first version completed in roughly 2003-2004 and then worked on through summer of 2007.
As George Braque somewhat famously said (in a rough paraphrase): I do not plan the painting beforehand. It must make itself under the  brush; I insist on this point. The painting is not complete until the orginal idea has been obliterated.
Are you interested in the relationship between poetry and politics? Do you believe that your own poetry has political implications?
Everything we do, especially with our tax dollars that support the American Military Industry, has a political relationship and impact on the material well-being of billions of beings around the world. Poetry, I hope, can at least help us move toward acting with compassion, not just toward ourselves but ultimately to all sentient beings.
Do you think that your poetry or poetry in general speaks to spiritual or religious yearnings and struggles? If so, how?
Certainly for me it does, though it was, I swear, without intention or plan. A prayer is a form of panic, I suppose, in that we wish into being an audience for Whom we can never have proof or response. This let me to write my missives to abstract concepts like "Dangerous," and also to natural phenomena like avalanches and primal sound.
I think our primary spiritual struggle of the present moment is how to return primacy and important to the flow of breath through the body and blood through the circulatory systems of all the billions of bodies on the planet, how to return to all of us our essential selfhood as spirits-in-bodies and not continue to privilege the body as a pleasure-sensing vessel, consuming and valued only insomuch as it facilitates the flow of capital from the many to the few and the flow of resources, natural and otherwise, in the same directions.
But to know the individual, the human, the single body, is to know all space and time, all molecules of matter in creation, all eternity. So one poem, just one small single poem, can be miraculous. Of course.




Continue browsing New American Poets