Monday May 27

AliKazim Kazim Ali was born in the UK to Muslim parents of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent. His books include four volumes of poetry, The Far Mosque, The Fortieth Day, the mixed genre Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities and Sky Ward. He has also published two novels Quinn’s Passage and The Disappearance of Seth, two collections of essays, Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice as well as translations of poetry by Sohrab Sepehri and a novel by Marguerite Duras. Recently he co-edited the essay collection Jean Valentine: This-World Company. In addition to being associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College and founding editor of Nightboat Books, he teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program and is a certified Jivamukti Yoga instructor.




Kazim Ali interview, with John Hoppenthaler


Kazim, given your relatively young age, 41, you’ve compiled an incredibly rich, significant, and varied body of work, including three collections of poetry, two novels, two collection of essays, an autobiography, and a book of translations of the Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri. Additionally, you co-edited a collection of essays—with me, as chance would have it—on the poet Jean Valentine. Also, you are a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle, associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD, and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books, and you are an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College and teach in the Masters of Fine Arts program of the University of Southern Maine. You also have written a number of columns for American Poetry Review and blog for the Huffington Post. Frankly, it boggles the mind as to how you’ve managed to accomplish so much so soon. To what do you attribute this impressive set of accomplishments? How do you juggle all of these hats and genres? Are you good at multi-tasking, or do you need to do one thing at a time? Does one thing you do tend to inform or energize any other in a particular way you’ve found to be of value?

It may be that I have done too much, tried too hard. But I really adore writing and literature and language and all of my pursuits stem from that. All writing starts from poetry, for me. And editing and translating and publishing other writers seems an important and generous act in writing. I learned that generosity and kindness was part of how one should live from my mother and father but I learned it was equally true of how one should write from my first college teacher Judith Johnson.

I am a multi-tasker, working on many things at once. Occasionally a project comes fast—I wrote the first draft of Bright Felon in one shot, during the course of four months and I wrote Fasting for Ramadan in two separate one-month periods. But that is not the norm for me. I write poems over the course of years. The APR columns and the Huffington Post blogs were both commissioned and written on deadline—incredibly hard for me.

In general I feel like I have written too many essays and have to be quiet on it for a little while. But then something comes along and I find myself writing again. The work on the Jean Valentine book wasn’t work at all, but pure pleasure, every second of it. And translating is such rapture, almost more fun than worrying about my own poetry. (And teaching translation is definitely more fun than teaching poetry!)


How would you describe your aesthetic as a poet? Can you point to any specific poets who’ve mattered a great deal in how you’ve come to perceive your ambitions for your own poetry?

Someone else will have to define my aesthetic. I’ve thought of myself as an experimental writer in the past but I am not sure if that is true anymore. Certainly I am interested in formal innovation, in the surface of language, in the music of a line. I learned a lot from Richard Greenfield, Sarah Gambito, Susan Howe, Olga Broumas, Meena Alexander, Jean Valentine, Donald Revell, Agha Shahid Ali, Jorie Graham, Fanny Howe, Brenda Hillman. I’ve just discovered the work of Zubair Ahmed, who transports me utterly. I dream of the primal, the bodily, the magnificent—what we call “unearthly” but which is exactly the opposite of that: it’s the sounds of the spheres and planets, music in every place.


You were born in the UK to parents of Indian descent, and raised in Canada and the United States. You are also gay and a Muslim. How would you say the circumstances of your interesting birth, upbringing, and cultural identity have factored into your poetry, specifically, and into your career as a writer and educator generally?

I found my love of sound and the mouth in Broumas. I didn’t know she was half-Arab until I met her at a reading and we each talked about having Egyptian ancestry. I’m of course affected in a million small and large ways by crossing four international borders before I turned four, by having my first language acquisition being in four different languages at once, none of which I speak any more.

English being my fifth language has not escaped the suffusion of those first four forgotten languages because they are the ones that configured the chemical pathways of my brain. Where does language come from anyhow? If Chomsky is wrong, then I am a poet of breath and belief alone. If he is right then there are as yet undiscovered corridors and passages in my brain where the patterns adopted by other languages—Greek, Chinese, Russian—may yet make patterns and space and it is a matter of “practice” alone.

But likely both things are true at once.

Of course being gay and Muslim put my body and my spiritual at bloody war with one another for decades. That’s a war I am glad to have brokered an armistice to. That “and” (as in “gay and Muslim”) was a dearly won peace treaty. We’ve put down our arms.

I wrote that treaty into the very skin and tissue of my body.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask a question about the project on which we worked together, Jean Valentine: This-World Company. Your affection and identification with Jean’s poetry is apparent; what I wonder is if, in the process of assembling and reading through the various essays we’ve compiled for the collection, you found the various takes on the work affecting your own negotiations with poetry in any way? Was there some passage or idea that led you to say, wow, that’s of value to me in my own negotiations with the empty page?

What’s fantastic is that no one in that collection, not any two contributors, shared the same take or response to Jean’s work. Everyone brought his or her own gifts of perception to the reading of her work. So it was a real education for me. I also found a lot of writers I wouldn’t think would have an affinity with Jean’s work. And many more writers, in the solicitation process, who begged off the chore, who said they couldn’t talk about the work critically because its own privileging of silence and the unsaid and the half-said was too important to them as readers, that they could not “break” that silence. Where, to me, the whole of Jean’s work has been this incredible effort to speak what is unspoken.

I was so glad to be a part of that project, John! I thank you for inviting me to work on it with you; but just to say it—you are the one who had the vision for that book, a long time before most of Jean’s books were readily available, a long time before she won the National Book Award and gained the wider readership we both knew she deserved!

So thank you!


You’re welcome! You’ve worked as a political organizer and lobbyist, and your engagement with literature has been one that, I believe it’s fair to say, is political. What defines your personal negotiation with the intersections between literary arts and you position as political body?

“Political body” means a body among the polity, which is to say a body in the polis, a body that is part of civilization. But what we call civilization is anything but civil. Our current economic system depends on exploiting labor, unsustainable utilization of natural resources, the enslavement and force-feeding and force-breeding of millions, if not billions, of sentient animals—it’s no good and it changes our bodies themselves.

We use language to understand and reveal the social relationships and conditions that define our relationships to ourselves, one another and to the physical world as well as spiritual atmosphere we may sense beyond the physical. This practice of poetry depends on the body itself being alive in space.

I find myself wondering how we can have a practice (meaning a way of life) that privileges that body, that respects its connection with the natural world and with the creatures in it. A lot of this is written about in a fabulous book called Yoga and Vegetarianism by Sharon Gannon. I recommend it to all my poet friends!


What can your followers look forward from you down the pike? What sorts of things are immanent or on the back burner?

I’ve just published Sky Ward. I’m working hard on a manuscript of new poems. New meaning poems I’ve been working on since 2011. About seven or eight of these new poems are included in Sky Ward, but there are many more I wrote while traveling in the Middle East and in India. In addition to a recent translation of Duras coming out from Open Letter, I have been working on translating Mauritienne poet Ananda Devi. My translation of Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri is coming out in November from BOA.

And also (it’s a secret—well about to be not any longer a secret) I am working on the sequel to Bright Felon. It has no title at the moment, but its working title is “Autobiography and Cities, Volume 2.” It is a series of lyrical essays/prose poems not precisely in the vein of Bright Felon, but close enough that it takes up the questions of identity and sexuality that linger at the end of Bright Felon. I took the title of Bright Felon from a poem of Gillian Conoley’s so it is possible I may find the title for the new book in her work also.



Abu Nawaaz
to Marilyn Hacker
One note emerges from the drizzle of sound
On the horizon of the southern sky hangs the constellation Abu Nawaaz
Who drunk and in love knelt at places rivers split
To refuse paths and offer mosaic prayers
Unhinged he peeled from yellow-leafed birches enough paper
To fashion a barque and make for the moon
Floating in the moment where one wave becomes another
Amber driftwood or lost unmapped stars we are what washes ashore
Jerusalem Syndrome
Prophet a sonic imbalance in the inner ear
Whose is that voice hollering
Map with three legends
Begins at the same stone heart
That was arrived at, sacrificed upon
And leapt up from
Lashed by verses in the city of nowhere
At the Damascus Gate I catch a glimpse
Of an almost-stranger in the crowd:
Someone I knew once
In another city, years and years ago
On the other side of the world
The painter climbs the ladder leaning against the grey-dark house
His cup of sun-yellow writing letters of flame
Annotations of wind rattle the pane when you arrive storm-torn
Nothing in your pocket to pay him but rain