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The Interview : Kazim Ali

(Rachna Singh in conversation with Kazim Ali)

The Wise Owl talks to Kazim Ali, a renowned poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter and a lover of dance and music. Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France, and the Middle East. His books encompass multiple genres, including the volumes of poetry Inquisition, 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 Day; All One’s Blue; and the cross-genre texts Bright Felon and Wind Instrument. His novels include the recently published The Secret Room: A String Quartet and among his books of essays are the hybrid memoir Silver Road: Essays, Maps & Calligraphies and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. He is also an accomplished translator (of Marguerite Duras, Sohrab Sepehri, Ananda Devi, Mahmoud Chokrollahi and others) and an editor of several anthologies and books of criticism. After a career in public policy and organizing, Ali taught at various colleges and universities, including Oberlin College, Davidson College, St. Mary's College of California, and Naropa University. He is currently a Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His newest books are a volume of three long poems entitled The Voice of Sheila Chandra and a memoir of his Canadian childhood, Northern Light.

Thank you, Mr Ali, for talking to The Wise Owl.

RS: You are a poet, a novelist, a short story writer, an essayist and a writer of cross genre texts. Which genre do you feel is contoured to express your feelings and thoughts the best?

KA: I can’t really choose; they each proceed from different urges. Often for me poetry starts in a phrase or sound or an image I catch. When I start explaining too much, I get lost and feel maybe it ought to be explored more fully in prose. But prose too has its mysteries: the sentence, the fragment, the lyrical turn (as in the novels of Woolf or Duras or Nin). Fiction is normally pleasurable to write and I rarely feel stuck. Poetry is a kind of sculpture or music or choreography. There’s something like working with fire about the act. That’s thrilling.

RS: Did you write cross-genre texts like ‘The Wind Instrument’ or hybrid memoirs like ‘Silver Road’ because you do not want to be fettered by the structure and framework of one genre or is it because you feel that one genre cannot adequately express your feelings or thoughts or musings or the world as it were?

KA: Wind Instrument acts like poetry though it’s in prose. It has a novelistic feel though most of it is autobiographical. I wonder what a novel that drifted like wind would sound like. “Genre” can be just a jacket a body wears, sometimes it is no more meaningful or important than that. Sometimes it’s like when you go out to try clothes on at the store; one behaves differently in different kinds of clothes too, moves differently. A text can change its genre the way some bodies change genders.

RS: In the ‘The Voice of Sheila Chandra’ you seem to be playing with the poetic form and innovating as you go. There is the almost a meditative, chant-like quality of ‘hum’ and ‘OM’ and then there is the prose like quality of some of the verses. What was the creative process, if I may ask, that went into this beautiful creation?

KA:  In one way there was a sense of improvisation around the sonnets themelves, but I was drawing from hundreds of pages of journal writing and letters I had written to myself during one summer. I’d been writing the first poem in that book (“Hesperine for David Berger”) over the course of many months (May-August of 2016) and during that time I was writing my letters to myself in blank notecards and sealing them up. I’d been in Cassis during the summer of 2016 and then in Berlin that fall. By November I’d returned to the States and was staying with my sister in Chicago. One afternoon I sat with the journals and the letters and started transcribing and shaping poems out of the material. The sonnet form emerged like a ghost, a form that could both contain and release, which is the best of what poet form does. The sounds I started playing like a musical instrument I suppose, both hum and moan.

RS: As an Indian, well versed the classical vocal music, my first reaction when I recited ‘The Voice of Sheila Chandra’ was -it sounds like the rendering of a classical ‘khayal’ gayaki. You begin with the ‘alap’ of sounds (OM), go to a ‘Bara Khayal’ (the long verses), ‘chota khayal’ (the smaller pieces) and there are interludes of ‘tanas’ in short bursts. And yet Sheila Chandra’s singing was not inspired by Indian Classical music. Was this movement consciously done or a spontaneous composition?

KA: The work consciously imitates the structures of Indian classical music, including the percussive sound of the drum and the singer’s kannakol, which Sheila Chandra also explored as a vocal form. Also, the concept of the drone is at work in the long poem in which multiple notes are heard rising out of the single note. Chandra started out as a pop singer but then started leaning into and exploring classical forms, including using her voice to build layers of notes in a drone.

RS: A lot has been said by the critics about Sheila Chandra’s symbolism. Could you please tell our readers what ‘Sheila Chandra’ represents for you? What do you mean when you say ‘Sheila Chandra lost her voice along the same time I found mine.’

KA:   She’s a magnificent artist, the way she uses her voice, the way she sings from breath and bone. She did lose her voice, she no longer sings. To me it is the same as the destruction of a great painting or sculpture, a tragedy in the history of human art. And chronologically she was losing her voice in the same year I was writing my book Bright Felon, a book which I felt released me—not necessarily formally but spiritually. I felt like a new writer after I had finished that book. But I think a person has many rebirths within one life. I feel as if new at this present moment as well. New as a writer anyhow, about to try something new in language.

RS: Your writings are about music or one of the art forms. At the heart of some of your writings is an artist- a violinist in The Secret Room or a sculptor in Quinn’s Passage. Some begin with musical scores like Silver Road that begins with Yoko Ono’s ‘Secret Piece.’ Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music and The Voice of Sheila Chandra are also about music. Your writings (both poetry & prose) have a lyrical and melodious quality. What is it about music that attracts you and how have you seamlessly blended music into your poetry (way beyond the musicality inherent in any form of verse)?

KA: Thank you for noticing that! I’m not sure I have an answer except that I myself always want to make art out of the world, whether it’s in language or drawing or paint or movement. I haven’t any training as a musician; it’s one thing I always wished I could do or had done. But I love music and I love sound and I like listening to the sounds of the world—a keyboard clacking, conversation in the next room, the echo of emptiness in a house, the sound of cars driving down the street outside the window, a bird chirping. The whole world is a tapestry of sounds happening at once and I suppose a poem or a novel could be like that too. The violinist in The Secret Room is contemplating quitting and there is another character in that book who used to play a musical instrument but gave up long ago. Throughout my own life I have balanced the desire to make art with the necessary pursuit of supporting myself and my family. There’s something in that balance that any artist must contend with that is in and of itself a manifestation of the artistic process.

RS:  For the benefit of our readers please tell us about the ‘hesperine’ form of poetry that is attributed to your innovative skill.

KA: The “hesperine” is something I started inventing as I wrote that poem (“Hesperine for David Berger”) itself. As I wrote those long choric lines, I thought of ancient forms. Unlike the “aubade” (a plaintive song by the lover lamenting the break of dawn) or a “serenade” (a love song by a lover to the beloved in the evening under the light of the moon), I thought instead of a song begging night not to fall, a song of lament against the end of day, against death. The term “hesperine” was coined for me by the poet Olga Broumas. Elsewhere, I wrote about what I thought of as the formal qualities of a hesperine, as a way of interrogating a history through multiple viewpoints: “It includes formal elements such as long lines with no punctuation, non-linear arguments, lack of narrative hierarchy, rejection of the question and the answer, and actual mysterious verses from the Quran that have no accepted meaning.” But I don’t really think of it as a fixed form with fixed “rules.” It’s a mode rather than a “form,” I suppose.

RS: In ‘Northern Light’ you talk about your time in Jenpeg where ‘the doors were always open.’ But in the same breath, you talk about being a ‘wanderer’ and wonder ‘what it means to be from a place.’ Your poems also echo with a sense of sadness, of dislocation almost. ‘I did not want/To be alone.’ Does this reflect your own sense of isolation or alienation on account of cultural differences and perhaps your creative genius?

KA: That’s very flattering but I don’t think there’s any such thing as creative genius; it’s locally created. The best thing a writer can do is write, the best thing any artist can do is create in a practice, that is to say in an ongoing way. I do feel lonely. I’ve lived in many places in my life. I do not have intimate relationships with most people in my family. We talk, but not often. We visit, but not often. They do not visit me, I have to go across the country to find them. I have friends from across decades in my life and time zones on the planet but rare is the occasion when I am in a room full of people I know and am comfortable with and love and who love me. Isn’t that what every day should feel like?

RS: I was going through your essay ‘Why we need poetry?’ where you lay emphasis on the need to ‘restitch the fabric of society.’ Do you think literary genres like poetry have the power to make the world a better place? ‘Can we sing over the noise […] can we move forward without breaking.’

KA: I don’t know if it’s possible or not. I’m optimistic but there are a lot of reasons not to be optimistic. Profit and power are terribly dangerous things. The oligarchs of the world do not have our best interests at heart. We’ve come so far as a civilization and yet are plagued by all of the same evils: alienation, unfriendliness, the interests of the wealthy few outweighing the interests of everyone else. There is no reason at all—none—that people on the planet should be hungry. Or sick and infirm. This is the great passion of humanity: what can we do, what ought we feel incumbent to do, in an unjust world?

RS: Your painting on the cover of ‘The Far Mosque’ is beautiful. When do you feel the urge to pick up a paint brush and paint?

KA: It’s a meditative pursuit, I can lose myself in the paint or the surface of the canvas. What I’ve been doing more of recently is draw. There is a suspension of meaning and a pure pleasure of working with shapes and lines and the field of composition. While I have a somewhat more plastic and abstract relationship to language than most poets I know, it still is language and so will always have semic and semantic properties. To work in a visual medium is something of a release from ego or individual considerations and be released into a purely expressive practice.

RS: Considering that Gen Z is rapidly moving away from the written word (they have a short form for everything) towards quick fix TikTok’s or shorts, do you feel apprehensive that literary genres or traditional art forms would decline in the future or take on a form completely different from our current structures?

KA: They will for sure change, they already have been. I can’t say “decline” because maybe they are ascending! It won’t be me who decides or judges. I’m not a follower of TikTok, though something appeals about a form that is a “glimpse”—a brief moment that plays out and then disappears. I can see the potential in that. It is sad as an artist to know that you will be left behind by whatever comes next, but that is something you can’t really know until it happens.

RS: What would you say if I asked you what Literature means to you? Can you please tell us who your favourite poets or writers are and why?

KA: I’ll always say I need a good book to read or a good poem to live with for a while. It’s how I experience the world, it’s what gives me pleasure. I can’t say anything about my “favorites” only because I’ve talked about my touchstones so much. But what am I reading right now? I spend the last several months (since December) reading the novels of Willa Cather. I just finished a book of poems called Creep Love by Michael Walsh which struck me quite hard. I’m also entering the work of Kimberly Johnson, an American poet who has published three or four books and is a scholar of English Reformation poetry as well. Finally, I am reading Michael Robbins’ new book Walkman, which I find very beautiful and sad. It draws its sense of narrative, in my opinion, from the second generation of the New York School (Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer) though is also international in scope and deeply spiritual in intentions.

RS: What advice would you give budding writers and poets? Any tips to hone their craft?

KA: None except to read and to write. And to pay attention to the world, how it looks and sounds and smells. How it moves, how it responds to your movements. Spend part of each day silent, spend part of each day in your body moving and paying attention to it, how it feels to have a body, how it feels to breathe.

RS: Our readers would be keen to know if you are working on a new book. If so, when are we likely to see it in the bookshops?

KA: I am working on new poems; I don’t know when I will do a new book of poems, but I publish them here and there when I feel they are ready to fly. Next year Wesleyan University Press will be publishing a book of my selected poems that will also be available in Canada and the United Kingdom; I am not sure if it will be available in other parts of the world. I’m also in the middle of a novel about a writer who is traveling through India during a winter of his own discontent. It’s the opposite of the normal “Westerner goes to India to find enlightenment” cliché. In this case, everything falls apart for him—his family betrays him, his lover and he drift apart, he loses his own sense of what’s important in his life. Though it’s a book about winter, I’m hoping to finish it this summer. He’s traveling throughout the book, he never stays in one place long enough know it, and yet at the same time the travel itself replaces itself as his sense of home.

Thank you so much Mr Kazim Ali for taking time out and speaking to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative pursuits and look forward to works that experiment, innovate and have the characteristic stamp of a master craftsman.

Some Works of Kazim Ali

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The Voice of Sheila Chandra

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All One's Blue

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Bright Felon

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The Fortieth Day

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Northern Light

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Uncle Sharif's Life in Music

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Quinn's Passage

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Silver Road

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Resident Alien

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The Citadel of Whispers

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