A Cacophonous Kind of World

A Conversation with Kazim Ali on the Creation of Music in the Heart of Poetry  


Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator. His books include several volumes of poetry, including SkyWard, The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books' New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day, and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. He has also published a translation of Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri, and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras. His novels include Quinn’s Passage, named one of "The Best Books of 2005" by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010), Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011). In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books. He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

On February 5, 2015, Kazim Ali visited the Writing House to give a Q&A and reading for Interlochen Arts Academy creative writing students. During his visit, Interlochen Review editors Nim Holden, Alexa Curnutte, Angelica Parker and John Baird sat down with him to discuss the importance of sound and space in his work.


Alexa Curnutte: I noticed that several times in your work you mention Hagar and Ishmael and the story of them in the desert. I thought that was really interesting because there are different sides to that story, and I was wondering do you have any special connections with that story or is it just something you are fascinated by?

KA: Yeah, I love that story, actually. There are poems in my first book, The Far Mosque, about it, about Abraham and his son and then about Hagar and then I tell that story in Bright Felon. I also wrote a book about fasting called Fasting for Ramadan and I tell that story in that book as well. I don’t know why it’s so rich for me. I mean, partially it’s a mother and her son so it’s the flipside of the other story, in which the father is willing to sacrifice his son, and in this story it’s the mother who’s trying to save her son. So, I think that resonated for me a little bit as a peacemaker, the one who believes in nonviolent resolutions to conflicts. We were and are in a pretty long period of international strife and violence and war, so I think Hagar was powerful to me because she was a nurturer, you know? She’s also powerful because she’s not the prophet, she doesn’t have access to God; she is separated from God. She is just alone in the desert and she doesn’t know what she’s going to do and she’s basically been abandoned.

That resonated for me really powerfully too and in the Muslim story of course, Hagar, the place she was left, is where Mecca is now and we believe that she’s actually buried there. There’s a cenotaph and a grave. The story goes that it’s her grave so she has a place of honor as someone who had this faith or this sense of belief, and even though not everything about any system of religion appeals to me specifically. Then that aspect of her desire to save her son, to find water for her son. So, I don’t know. I just kept coming back to that story. It’s also like my own relationship with my mother.  One of the first times that I became interested in that story is when I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and there’s a painting that one of the French painters did, whose name I actually forget, but it’s probably Courbet. They did a painting of Hagar in the desert and the angel coming to tell her about the spring of water but she hasn’t seen him. She is desperate, she thinks she and her son are both going to die. She’s looking up into the sky and she’s got this look on her face and that transfixion, that encounter with the something beyond herself is really powerful to me.  

Nim Holden: A lot of your works reference Muslim celebrations like Ramadan or things that are specific to Quran. So, do you have any concern that some of your readers might not understand the references at all?

KA: That’s a good question, because there are always these sections of notes at the back of the book where you can explain certain things, and there’s a lot that I keep minimal and I don’t explain. I guess that it depends who your reader is; maybe a smart reader who is reading this poetry in the first place who might want to come along and hope a word or a concept or something like that is unknown or not a part of the common cultural understanding that they might trust. They might want to understand something. There’s the word Qibla ( قبلة ) and now a lot of people don’t understand the word at all but maybe in twenty years people will understand what that word means. After many years of cultural exchange people now understand what Ramadan means. It’s kind of what’s attractive to me about American culture. American cultural life is kind of how everything comes together and transforms. My friend, Camille Dungy (who’s also a poet) does this exercise where she’ll read this paragraph and it sounds like normal language, but then she’ll explain the etymology of the words in the sentence—some of them from Latin, some Germanic, some from Arabic or Yoruba or Sanskrit. The sediment of linguistic influences is powerful and strong in the American English language and I feel that same syncretism in the culture itself.

Having said that, fasting people have a certain idea about fasting that I didn’t think was known so I figured, “Hey, I fasted for a year. I’ll just go write a book about it.” So I wrote that book as I was fasting for Ramadan. I didn't write it as a sort of theoretical exercise, I really wrote it while I was doing it, while I was hungry and I tried to explain to people what being hungry felt like. As a writer, you have access to whatever your own individual and powerful experience is. It’s better to go towards the most unique things.

AC: Do you hope that in some of your work you create an understanding for your readers about the subject of religion?

KA: I guess so. I don’t set out with an agenda or a program or a plan. I think it’s really important to stay really personally focused. If you are going to be a political writer or journalist, obviously you have a topic or an entry point; but if you are going to be a literary writer though, if you’re trying to create art, you’re trying to be internal. As a poet specifically, I should say I think you should have a side benefit. I don’t know, but maybe it’s a dream to keep us separated from the world, the stereotype of the artist who is removed from everything despite, in reality, actually being a part of the world. We’re all influenced by things around us. It’s really something we can’t escape.

John Baird: What decisions do you make when you enjamb or make white space in your poetry?

KA: That’s an interesting question and I could probably give you five different answers for that. I could tell you a bit about Bright Felon if you want? Part of the technique of the book was using very difficult subject matter, a very difficult thing for me to start writing about. I’ve been out to myself for fifteen years before that book and I’ve been out to most of the people in my life for almost as long, but not to my parents. Not yet, not then. I was thirty-six and I had never written about it in my two previous books of poetry. I wanted to try to do it and it was very difficult for me, because then you question who’s going to read it and how it’s going to change those relationships. It was a way of tricking myself that I had to come out to my parents before I published this. Out of that very difficult subject matter, this reticence and this fear, came the lines and then a break and a single line and a break and then I wouldn’t have to build on anything and I could skip back and forth. I didn’t think I was taking notes. I was writing a book and writing it the way I wanted. I wanted it to be nonlinear, I wanted it to be confusingthere are mostly single sentencesI wanted the book to be that shape so that I could be brave.

Angelica Parker: I noticed that book to book, poem to poem, you play around with form and length. So how do you think form and length play a role in conveying the different themes and messages you were trying to get across?

KA: Well, in my first book The Far Mosque I wrote longer poems—poems that were two pages long, three pages long, even one that’s seven pages long—and then in my second book, The Forty-Eighth Day, I only really did short poems, like some of them were only four lines long or something. Bright Felon was totally different. It was practically outer space. In terms of that book, I think the question of length was really important, because you want to push yourself past when you yourself want to close it and wrap it up. There is such a thing as something that is very brief but not very well explored, like the emotional balance or the subject matter from both sides. There is such a thing as doing ten pages of writing and then ending up with a page long poem, that happens too. There was a multiplicity that was important to me and not just multiplicity, but a sustained attention, especially at the very difficult subject matter. I gave myself the assignment of typing the book (which I had never done beforeI had only handwritten it in journals), and each chapter had to be five pages long typed. Frequently, I would finish three pages and think that was enough and either I would stop or force myself to go on, but the chapters have a rhythm, a lull. Then I kept going; it was very crucial in confronting this internalized self-hate that came from growing up gay in a not very gay-friendly milieu.

AP: How were you able to write short poems with elongated beats and what role do you think short work plays in literature?

KA: I love, love, love short poems and I love poems with a lot of space in them. I love poems that pause and really let you live inside them and Emily Dickinson is really like that. I am attracted to the concept of the page, with thinking about it, like why the composer might have the rests. I like that space. There’s a poem called “Dry Dock” in  Skyward that has these colons that make you pause a bit and then there are other poems that have spaces between the lines or words. I think that there are different ways of approaching it, because the world is so noisy in general, there’s so much information, and there’s always something happening (not just conceptually).

It’s the kind of information like you get from the internet that kind of seeps everywhere into your daily life. Right now we’re sitting in this room and it’s quiet, but if you go out there into the real world in the café or something, there’s always some racket going on. Music or something on the speakers. You can’t just sit and have peace anywhere, but reading and poetry specifically gives you that. We’re sort of out of practice with that. The younger you are, the more likely it is that you’re better off in this loud, cacophonous kind of world, so you might have better coping mechanisms in blocking that out.

Most of this sound is there to sell you something. It’s tapping into that part of the brain that is not the part that is engaged in the act of being human like loving or building human relationships with people. That aspect of being human is not what all that sound is being used for. It sometimes pretends to be that, but it’s mainly just used so that you’ll buy another pair of pants. To me, the blank space and the interruptions and the kind of creation of music is the heart of poetry.

AC: Moving back to the Bright Felon for a moment, we noticed that you either lowercased the g in God or spelled it G-D and we were wondering if it was related to faith or something related to your work?

KA: Yeah, well there are three types of God in Bright Felon. There’s God with a lowercase ‘g’, then there’s G-D, and there’s God with an uppercase ‘G’. When were going to press, the press said “We should make these all the same, right?” and I replied with “No, no, no. They’re three different words, they mean three different things, and each time they appear in a different way.”  I’ll tell you this, “G-D” is when I’m referring to actual God, and when I used “God” I was referring to how human people define whatever God might be. And then when I use “god” lowercase it more in the abstract and neutral dictionary definition of that word. “G-D” is spelled in the Jewish religion with a hyphen to acknowledge the fact that you know nothing about God; it’s a mystery and whenever people start defining it, or explaining it, or “knowing” what it means, it’s always bad news, because someone always gets hurt in the process.

JB: In Bright Felon, you chose to have an entire book of poetry dedicated to various cities you have lived in or visited. What was the thought process of having an entire book of poetry organized around all the places you have lived in or traveled to and how have these places influenced your work?

KA: I was dealing with the fact that I was not yet confident or able to come out to my parents. We were Muslim and they were more traditional—pretty religious but not really politically conservative, if that makes sense. Neither of my sisters covered [their hair] when we were younger, and my mom didn’t then but now she does. I was living apart from them and being very brave, very bold in my own private life in my city with my friends there but not open with my family at home. I moved from place to place often and started and ceased relationships frequently and came to wonder if my inability to really have fixed emotional relationships was somehow related to that. I moved around so much—I moved from city to city, afraid of putting down some roots and living my own life, afraid I wouldn’t be able to do that until I dealt with this larger issue. So that’s why I decided to base each chapter on a city, so then I would travel back in time. I was living in Marble Hill when I was writing Bright Felon, so that was the first chapter. It keeps going backwards, backwards, backwards, so that the last chapter was Home, which was about my life with my parents. We were even transnational people— before I was ten we lived in England, India, Canada, and the United States. That’s four countries in ten years.

NH: This had sort of been answered before, but did you write any of the poems while living in those places you were writing about, or was it mostly reflective?

KA: I wrote the whole book in Carlisle, because I was teaching at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania but living in New York City. So I was doing this crazy back and forth between Marble Hill and Carlisle at the same time, but most of that book I wrote in Carlisle. Some of the sections I took from journals that I kept—some of the Cairo section was taken from a journal, most of the Washington D.C. section of the book was taken from my journals—and some of it was written in the immediate, but most was written after in retrospective. The only exception was the epilogue, which was about Barcelona and actually written there in Barcelona.

NH: I noticed that in a lot of poems you convey these really broad messages of complex ideas like bravery and faith and a lot of other emotions, but you can condense them down to just stanzas. Do you have a process for trying to condense all these ideas to short spaces without losing any of the impact or emotional value?

KA: No, I don’t have a process. There’s a poem in my first book, The Far Mosque called “Renunciation” and it was three and a half pages long. At a certain point, pretty much right before I put it in the book, I cut it down to ten lines and took almost everything out. Other times I have written poems almost completely the way they appear in published form. I think a lot of times in poetry you explain, and instead of explaining you can let the image itself do the powerful work. Let the poetry be poetry, basically. And to explain less… explain less and feel more. But that’s not a mechanical process, not a way that I do it. It’s all just instinct a lot of the time, with poetry. With poetry you read a lot, you write a lot, you find your way of doing it. And that’s kind of it. There’s not too much of a “how” to me.

JB: Have you ever read Frank O’Hara? I felt like there were some similarities between your work and Frank O’Hara’s, just because I feel like both you and he seem to have a very clear sense of place and time. You also kind of name-drop some specific locations—especially in Bright Felon, I noticed it. I’d like to know if you were influenced by him in any way.

KA: Well, I like Frank O’Hara a lot, but I wouldn’t necessarily count him as an influence. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t influenced me indirectly. I haven’t read a great deal of him. I probably read the poems that everyone else has read and a handful of others too. What I admire about him, and I think maybe what you’re responding to, is the way that he embodies a moment and allows the language to stay in that moment. It isn’t looking back and writing about something after the fact. It’s trying to maintain that presentness in the recorded document. It is not “recollected in tranquility” or however Wordsworth put it. What I mean is that the poem is a recorded document of a moment, but with Frank O’Hara it doesn’t feel like a document at all, it feels like you’re in the moment with him. I was trying to do that a little bit in Bright Felon, and in general I do try to do that in my poetry. Where I want you as a reader to be saying this poem out loud, and to have those sounds and the vowels and the consonants of that poem be embodied in your breath and have that. It’s like a magic spell in Harry Potter where they say the words and something happens because you’ve actually said the word. So the poem itself is like that. I want it to happen in your life; I don’t want it to just be a recorded document that you’re reading, or a story that you’re being told and you’re listening to, you know?

AC: Speaking of influences, in this chapter of Buffalo, you talk about Brontë. You talked about Wuthering Heights and Crime and Punishment, and I love Wuthering Heights. Do you have works that have really inspired you and made you want to write?

KA: I never finished [Wuthering Heights], I only read the first half of it. But absolutely, I love poetry in general. I’ve always loved poetry. From before I even read a lot of poetry I loved poetry, and then I started to read Lucille Clifton, Fanny Howe, Meena Alexander, Mahmoud Darwish, Agha Shahid Ali. I just loved those, I love the sound of it, I loved the music of it. My parents and I used to recite used them in Arabic and we were South Asian, so we recited in Urdu as well (a religious devotional text). And I didn’t even know what any of the words meant, but the sound and the rhythm of it was really beautiful. A lot of it was sung as well, so my mother in particular would sing these Urdu devotional songs, and I think that’s kind of how I decided I needed to be a poet.

AP: You mentioned a book of poems. I was wondering if you could talk about some projects you were currently working on, or considering for the future.

KA: Yeah, I have a book of poems that’s finished. I worked on it and it’s finished and it’s at the publisher. But I’m working on new poems now in bits and pieces, and it takes me a long time to write things. I don’t always know what they’re going to look like at the end. There is a desk in my study, but I don’t actually sit at it and there’s a futon and I lie down on it (or I sit). That futon right now is covered with all these different notebooks where I have a lot handwritten things that I might weave together at some point. I’m also working on a sequel to Bright Felon. It’s a prose memoir that travels around the world and I go to India, I go to the Middle East, and I go to Europe. It’s like Bright Felon in that it goes city by city by city. That’s kind of in the mix right now but I haven’t had as much time to work on it as I should. So that’s happening, and then I just completed a book of essays about poetry that’s coming out in the fall. So I’ve finished that and I’ve been working on it for a long time.

Those are my main projects currently, and I’m doing a translation. I translated a novel by Marguerite Duras that came out last year, and I’m doing another one right now, so those four things are the major operations.

AC: Really quickly, could you actually talk to us about your experience as a translator?

KA: It’s really fun. I mean, translating is like writing. You’re basically writing the poems or the novel again. So with Marguerite Duras it’s really fun, because I love her writing, so I actually get to write her books for her, basically. I’m writing them in English and that’s what translating is; it’s re-writing the book in a new language. You’re not actually transferring it word by word, or phrase by phrase, or line by line, you’re reading it and then you’re rewriting it. You want to make it kind of sound in English the way it sounds in whatever the original language was. It’s also a really good way of learning a lot more about the new language, so if you’re studying French or Arabic or Spanish or whatever, then translating a poem will actually help you learn more about the language you’re translating from. It’s good for the poet or the writer that you’re translating as well, because then they get an audience in a new language and then American audiences will get exposed to the literature of the other country. So… I think it’s really important work to do, and it’s really fun as well. Especially when you have writer’s block and you can’t figure out what you want to write about, you translate someone else! Problem solved.