On The Record: Professor Kazim Ali on His Feature in The American Poetry Review

Associate Professor of Creative Writing Kazim Ali graces the cover of this month’s American Poetry Review. It’s hardly his first time gaining national exposure: his work has appeared in more than eight national poetry journals and eight more self-penned books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. He is also the co-founder of an independent press, Nightboat Books. Ali spoke to the Review about his creative process, impressing Emily Dickinson and the poets he most admires.

Logan Buckley, Staff Writer

Can you start by telling me about your profile in the September issue of The American Poetry Review?

I’ve been in The American Poetry Review several times in the past, but this is the first time that I’ve been on the cover, of course. They’ve also included a feature of my work inside, five new poems. I just had a book of poems come out in March, actually, called Sky Ward, and this is one of the first publications of work that’s newer than that. And then there’s a scholar named Christopher Hennessey who did an interview with me. He’s doing a book of interviews called Our Deep Gossip — it’s a book of interviews with gay male poets. So he did these extensive interviews… it’s pretty cool to be in that book because he put me in really — it’s humbling, actually — in really good company. There are interviews with John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Dennis Cooper, Aaron Shurin, Wayne Koestenbaum — all of these really amazing writers. It’s a little intimidating and frightening, in a way, because… well, now people are going to be paying attention. So I can’t be a complete lunatic all the time. But it was really fun, and I’m really excited that they printed the new work, including a long poem called “The Astronomer,” which is about, among other things, my travels when I was on sabbatical during the 2011-2012 academic year. I traveled to Haifa in Israel, which is this very ancient Arab city, but very multicultural always, from the beginning. And it still is. It’s the site of an ancient observatory because it’s built on the side of this… in the Middle East they call it a mountain. We wouldn’t call it a mountain here, we would call it a hill, but it’s this mountain called Mount Carmel. And the city’s built into the side of Mount Carmel. I imagined what it would be like to live there a thousand years ago and be a poet still… I thought, a poet, but you know, I would probably also be an astronomer. Because I love astronomy as well, even as a child.

You have a body of work that’s quite diverse, between your novels, collections of poetry, essays, autobiography, translations and other things in between. I was reading your book Fasting for Ramadan…

Which is not really essays, not really poetry…

So has that diversity across genres been the result of conscious exploration, of pushing yourself, or has it been something driven by the specific things you ended up writing about, more by accident?

Well, it’s definitely both. My memoir, which is called Bright Felon, is very cross-genre, somewhere between poetry and prose. And I’m really interested in prose forms that use a lot of poetry or the structures of poetry. Very experimental, lyrical prose. I like reading that stuff, too, so as I was trying to write my memoir, I had a lot of difficulty in terms of approaching subjects and being really personal and autobiographical, since I’m not very autobiographical in my own poetry. I found that experiment of that prose form, a very nonlinear — fractured approach to the sentence and paragraph — really helped me to write it. So in that case, it really was driven by the subject matter that I was approaching. But definitely informed by a relentless, kind of restless approach to form. One of the poems in this issue of the APR is also in prose. So I have this excitement and interest in writers like Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf, Carole Maso, Salman Rushdie to an extent, Anaïs Nin. I actually wrote a book of criticism on Anaïs Nin. I’m interested in prose writers who use the resources of poetry in their work. So I found myself writing that kind of book. And in the case of Fasting for Ramadan, it’s both; the first half of it is a blog and the second half is this notebook I was keeping, and I really like that idea of the notebook as a literary form, where you’re not really trying to turn these notebook entries into essay or poetry but allowing it to be that third thing. And I’ve often thought about teaching a course in the notebook, as a form. The notebook and the diary as a literary form.

Do you feel like your approach to form has changed or developed over the years, or is it something you approach work by work — finding the shape of a new project?

It’s always work by work. And the reader has a lot to say about what something is. My first novel, Quinn’s Passage, is very narrative, to me, but it’s broken up into little pieces and there’s a lot of white space on every page. So people say it’s cross-genre, but I don’t really see it that way.  I just see it as a novel. It tells a story of a person who has this conflict, and he resolves it… It seems very traditional to me, you know? And it’s the same thing with my second novel, The Disappearance of Seth, which is about New York City after September 11. It’s nonlinear, it goes backwards and forwards in time, but besides that, it’s very normative. But the reader says something is experimental, something is cross-genre, or whatever. There are some definitions of what a novel’s supposed to look like, but that’s just a physical appearance, as far as I’m concerned.

What impact has your teaching experience had on your work? You teach here, and formerly also in the Stonecoast MFA program?

For me teaching is really exciting because it means that I get a chance to bring writing that I really admire to the students, and then what the students create also feeds my own work. It keeps me working as a writer, too, because I feel like if I’m not turning out pages, you know, and my students are turning out amazing work… [Laughs]. So I don’t want to lose my mojo or anything. But I’ve been fortunate to work with some really amazing students, both at Oberlin and at the University of Southern Maine as well. I go around and do a lot of guest teaching things as well, and it’s always fantastic. It’s a gift to be able to go to different places around the country because I feel like the landscapes of these different places are so beautiful and they feed you so much. And all the students are writing so many amazing things. It’s a fresher way of being in literature.

In addition to teaching, you co-founded Nightboat Books, and you’re still a founding editor. How does that side of literature interact with your work?

For me, my life as a teacher, as a publisher, as an editor, as a translator, these roles all keep me devoted to the word and keep me devoted to poetry as a tradition. My life as a writer and my work as a writer is very personal, and very internally focused. I would have a hard time being able to go that deeply in and have so much at stake without the external work, the community building work — the teaching, the editing, the publishing, the translating. That provides a balance for me to be able to get so intense in my own personal writing. Because I’m not doing more of a public or community-based poetry. There are writers who do it very successfully; I don’t. I’m very self-absorbed in my own writing, actually. It’s really, really personal. So it helps to give me the whole picture, basically. And I like supporting younger writers, and I like when I come across poems in a journal or something and write to that person, or something comes over the transom to me. We’re publishing a book by Laura Moriarty, who’s a writer I really admire. I approached her and said, “Can we publish one of your books?” And now I’m able to work with her really closely, and I’m editing her work. Not very much, she doesn’t need a lot of editing — she’s amazing — but this is a writer whose work meant something to me and now I’m actually working with her on her books. So it’s kind of a gift, in a way. I’ve really enjoyed it.


It seems like the world of poetry, to the extent that there is one, might be moving more in that direction — all the poets are teachers, publishers…


Well, we’re not really interested in money. We don’t really care about selling a million copies. We’d like to sell a hundred, maybe [Laughs], but we’re really interested… we do what we do for poetry… for poetry itself. You know? If I want to impress anybody, I want to impress Emily Dickinson. Or I want to impress Agha Shahid Ali. They matter to me. They’re not alive anymore, but, that’s my paycheck. If Emily Dickinson visits me in my dreams and says, you know, good job, then I’ll feel like, “Oh my god, it was amazing.” [Laughs]


Your writing frequently engages issues of conflicts and contradictions between identity, faith and culture. Your novel The Disappearance of Seth, as you mentioned, deals explicitly with the aftermath of 9/11. Can you tell me more about how politics or current events influence and inform your work?

I always progress from the experience of the body. I’m really interested, as a practitioner of yoga, in how a single person exists in the world, in society, and how we can coexist and support each other in our own development and growth, and I think one of the questions that spiritual inquiry has led us towards is, “Who am I? What’s my role?” Fanny Howe has a little quote that I love… Fanny’s a writer who’s meant a lot to me through my life and we’ve also published her through Nightboat. She has a quote that goes like this: “Little word, who said me? Am I owned or free?”

So she’s addressing it to the word — whomever the word is. I mean, in a sense, Fanny Howe is Catholic, so she could be referring to Jesus or God, but it’s not capitalized in the quote, so it’s a little ambiguous. I’m interested, especially as someone who comes from a more traditional cultural background… South Asian cultural background… and of Middle Eastern and Iranian descent, and a Muslim background, that you know, what are your obligations to the larger social unit around you? What are the expectations on you as a member? How does gender affect the experience of the individual body in society, how is your body read? I’m interested in all of that: how the spirit functions, how the mind functions, how the body functions. And politics governs how bodies are treated, how law affects bodies. So we have this case of these guys who are being held in Guantanamo prison, and they’re being force-fed.

To me, politics always breaks down to what’s happening to individual bodies. We think about it in abstract terms but it’s not abstract. It’s an individual body and what happens to the body, and bodies are frail and fragile things. They can get beaten, they can be killed, and that fear is what’s used to control people. We think about violence as these things that happen very far away, but… in summer 2012 there were two terrible mass shooting incidents, and then just a couple months later in Connecticut another. The Batman theater shooting, the Sikh temple, the elementary school. So you have three incidences: evening at the movies, religious services at temple, elementary school classroom. These safe spaces don’t exist anymore in America.

In 2012, we cannot pretend… it’s a complete idiocy to imagine that violence doesn’t go in a circle. We think about the circle of abuse in a family… physical abuse that maybe is passed on in a certain way. Violence in the air is like that radioactive water from Fukushima that goes into the ocean… the violence is radioactive. When you act on it, it’s going to be in the air, it’s going to be in the water, it’s going to be in your food, and it will draw you into behaving in certain ways, too. It can make you crazy. We want these people to be crazy, and sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t.

Are there any other influences that you’d like to mention, whether poets, or outside poetry?

I’m definitely influenced by a number of poets. I’ve talked about Agha Shahid Ali, Lisel Mueller, Lucille Clifton, Fanny Howe, Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet who passed away a couple years ago. But I’m also influenced by visual art, by performance and dance in particular. I’ve taught the work of the Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, and the visual artist Agnes Martin. I’m also influenced by music… I’m very interested in the music of Yoko Ono, who we brought to campus a couple years ago. That was great fun. But her music is fantastic.

Is there anything you’re reading and loving right now?

I’m reading a chapbook right now by this guy named Ben Fama, which I’m really enjoying. I’m reading things for my class, getting together all the poets that I’m going to be teaching [this semester]. I’m bringing some really exciting poets to campus this year, including Jean Valentine, Gerald Stern, Anne Marie Macari, and then a young poet who’s published his first book with McSweeney’s. His name is Zubair Ahmed, and his book is called City of Rivers.

Last question: do you want to tell me anything about what’s next for you?

I have a book I just finished translating with Libby Murphy, who’s a professor in the French department, a novel by Marguerite Duras, so that came out this year. And then Joffern Melodi from the Religion department and I just did a translation of an Iranian poet named Sohrab Sepehri, and that’s coming out in November. I had a book of essays that came out in 2010 called Orange Alert, essays about poetry, and I have a follow-up volume of essays that’s going to be I hope coming out in 2014. And I’m just working on new poems, as always. Publishing some in APR, some in Tin House, a couple of other magazines. And I’m writing new poems in this notebook here with the whale on the cover [pointing]. I’m always writing poetry.