A Conversation with Kazim Ali

by Jim Hanna

Kazim Ali has published books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including his most recent poetry collection, Inquisition, and the nonfiction book Silver City: Essays, Maps, and Calligraphies. Among his other works are Bright Felon, The Secret Room, Sky Ward, The Far Mosque, and Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music. He is also an associate professor of creative writing and comparative literature at Oberlin College.
 
Ali came to Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, and he spoke to Jim Hanna of Booth about yoga, architecture, urban spaces, the evolution of art, and letting go of your creations.
 

Jim Hanna: Let’s start with yoga. I know that’s a regular practice for you. Thinking about your asana—your breath—and the act of writing, do you see those things as intertwined or coexisting?
 
Kazim Ali: Absolutely. For me, yoga was really about learning to focus my attention, focus my breath. And those two things did translate into poetry—conceptually but also physically, in terms of the breath, the duration of the breath, and the way a poetic line works. It’s very much a rhythm.
 
People talk about the heartbeat as the rhythm of iambic pentameter. But there are so many other rhythms in the body. The heart is the dominant rhythm, obviously, but the breath, too, forms a rhythm. And the brain has a rhythm. Different hormones have their own pulsations: the ones that put you to sleep, the ones that wake you up.
 
JH: That gets me thinking about the rhythm of eating, and about your book Fasting for Ramadan.
 
KA: Yeah, fasting disrupts your day: the normal way you would experience and move through your day is gone. And when your body doesn’t have its rhythms anymore, the rhythms of the mind come to the fore.
 
JH: How does writing fit in there for you? Do you feel compelled to write?
 
KA: I used to, for a long time. I’m not sure I feel that now. I’m working on things that I feel are important. I sometimes feel like the candle is lit, and the candle burns and melts, and then the wax has to be shaped into another candle again. I’m working on a couple of poems here or there, but I don’t work at a fever pitch or write every day. I think that also moves in rhythm. I’m reading a lot right now.
 
JH: What are you reading?
 
KA: I’m reading a book about performance studies called Kinesthetic City, by SanSan Kwan, who is a dance/performance studies professor at Berkeley. It’s about Chinese urban spaces, dance, street protests, and the architecture of cities. It’s obscure. Not my wheelhouse.
 
JH: It seems like it fits you, though. One of my questions was about buildings and architecture in your writing, so to hear that you’re reading more about architecture doesn’t surprise me.
 
KA: I’m fascinated by how architecture creates urban space, and how urban space creates mood and the movement of people through a city, and how that affects not only the spirit of the city but also the individual lives of the individual bodies. So I’m reading about that in different disciplines—some urban studies, some geography, some performance studies/dance studies—and thinking about the intersection of all these disciplines. Another book I’m reading is by a geographer named Derek McCormack, about the architecture of cities and its impact on the emotional life of people inside those cities.
 
Oh, and I’m reading the Mahabharata. It’s an epic of ancient India. The Ramayana is the earlier one, and the Mahabharata is the later one. The Bhagavad Gita, which you may have heard of, is a long chapter in it.
 
JH: You’ve talked a bit about how the structures we live around shape our moods or behaviors. One of the things that I noticed about both Fasting for Ramadan and Bright Felon is the way you’re using and exploring structures through your writing. With Bright Felon I felt that you were setting up those structures so you could mine your past.
 
KA: That’s right.
 
JH: Was that something you were consciously trying to do, or did that structure come to you naturally?
 
KA: With Bright Felon it was a coping strategy. It was a way of telling the story so I could skip around, so I didn’t have to commit to a narrative, so I didn’t have to figure out what I was saying before I said it. I could just scatter it out. Very early on, within the first page or ten lines, I realized I wasn’t going to revise the manuscript into a proper form, that the scattered structure was going to be the structure of the whole book. It wasn’t just a way of beginning.
 
JH: Do you find yourself returning to that idea of breath and structure?
 
KA: Well, in my new book, Silver Road, several chapters do use that single-line, skipping-around, non-sequitur kind of approach. They’re not as jarring because they all take place in a certain place and time, but they use the same formal structure. But they’re all shorter, one to three pages, not like Bright Felon where they are six, seven, or eight pages long.
 
I think everything that you try will reappear, but maybe not exactly the same way. And I don’t feel like the kind of writer who can write the same book twice. I’ve gotta keep moving and find whatever the shape is for whatever comes next.
 
JH: Saying shape makes me think of yoga again.
 
KA: And architecture. And dance.
 
JH: Right! How has dance been a part of your life?
 
KA: I love it. I love performing, and I love moving. I mean, yoga has a certain kind of choreography: it’s held and breathed movement, so there’s an aspect of dance moving through some of those poses. But the real expressiveness of dance and of working with the body is a complete pleasure . . . but there’s just not enough time for everything. Dance is a huge, huge commitment.
 
JA: Grueling, too, I’d imagine.
 
KA: Grueling but wonderful. I couldn’t make it a commitment now, but it’s something I think will be part of my life again at some point.
 
JH: I’m thinking about Secret Room, then, and how you incorporate the different musical voices. That’s such a cool idea. I’m a little bit of a musician myself, and my wife plays piano. As soon as I got the book home, we just started poring through it.
 
KA: Yes, you can read it together. And it’s been performed as a play by students at Davidson College, which was great. The voices go simultaneously. You hear stuff, or you don’t hear it, or you focus on one person and miss the rest. There’s several different things happening.
 
JH: With that simultaneity, each reader is going to hear different things.
 
KA: Yeah, every reader will read it differently. One reader might read one voice for a few pages and then backtrack, or just read them all at the same time. There’s many different reading experiences. And I think that’s part of the fun. It becomes a score for the reader: you’re choosing how to read it, how to experience it.
 
JH: That’s one of the things I liked about it but found a little intimidating. I wasn’t sure how to approach it, exactly.
 
KA: We could have put a note in there, I suppose, but it was a really hard book to get published. It was a hard book for the designer to figure out. They didn’t turn it on its side until very late in the production process. Now it looks like a music book. And there’s a brand of staff paper that it’s designed after, that has the same dark color and the same untreated paper cover.
 
JH: You seem like you’re so busy teaching yoga, teaching college classes, doing readings and translations, and coming here, yet you’ve had a bunch of books out. What’s your writing discipline like?
 
KA: I get focused on different projects and then work on them for a long time, so it looks like being prolific from the outside. But I work on things for a very long time and then try to put them together. And I don’t abandon a lot—I just keep working and working and working. So, Secret Room, for example, I wrote in 2003. It just took a really, really long time to publish it.
 
JH: It came out just last year.
 
KA: So it took fourteen years. I wrote it in a couple of years— 2002, 2003—and then for three or four years I tried to find someone to publish it. It was just too bizarre, and too hard to explain to people. So in 2006 or ’07 I put it away, and I moved on and worked on other things. And then, lo and behold, there was an opportunity.
 
So, in terms of my writing discipline, it’s just to take everything seriously, work really hard, do as much as you can with the work, and then put it away and start working on something else. Try to publish what you can publish, and if you can’t publish it, don’t worry about it. Just keep going.
 
One year I was traveling a lot, and I wrote all these poems and had them in this loose-leaf folder. And I lost it. I just lost it. And I thought, OK, what the fuck do I do now? I just have to start over again. I just have to keep writing. So we can think that way about work that we haven’t lost, as well. We can just keep moving, write new things.
 
People say about someone like Elizabeth Bishop, Oh, she worked on her poems for so long. She only published four books in her whole life. And then we find out that there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of draft poems—five hundred pages behind those four small books. So if I gave craft advice to young poets, it would be, Yes, work hard on your poems, but keep moving.
 
JH: When do you get the sense, either externally from the work or internally within yourself, that it’s time to move on?
 
KA: I guess I’d say when I get bored. I get bored easily, frankly. I don’t necessarily lose interest—I know that the work is interesting and should be completed—but I don’t get any pleasure out of it anymore. That’s when I shift things around.
 
I started to work on a narrative about activism and yoga in the Middle East when I was in Palestine, in the Occupied Territories, in 2011. So it’s seven years later. Any ordinary person would have finished this book by now. But I’ve come back to it, and then gone to work on other things, and then come back to it. That’s my curse.
 
JH: A sort of cycle.
 
KA: I need a little more focus to complete projects more quickly. So my priority for 2018 is that project. I’m also writing a nonfiction piece about the town where I grew up in Northern Canada, when my family immigrated from India to the arboreal forests of Canada—the sub-tundra, what we call the taiga.
 
JH: How old were you?
 
KA: I was four.
 
JH: So some of your earliest memories must be on the cusp of that.
 
KA: Yes. That’s when I learned language. I have a handful of memories that are earlier, in Winnipeg before we moved, but most of them are there.
 
JH: Speaking of putting things away: in Fasting for Ramadan the book eventually comes together from two different writing experiences.
 
KA: Yeah, two different periods. The second half was written first, when I was just writing in a notebook, lyric essays and prose musings. The first half of the book, which was written afterward, is more like essays.
 
JH: So, this project you’re working on now, is it possible that it just needs some other piece to make it whole?
 
KA: Maybe that’s true. It takes a long time to see it. But I feel like it’s ready. It needs to be done.
 
JH: Will you need to go back to Palestine to do that? You seem very tied to place.
 
KA: I am. Writing is very experiential for me, and I don’t have much of a memory. So to “recollect in tranquility” is not going to work for me. I have to be somewhere, be immersed in it. So I plan on going back, but it’s just a question of when. It’s not an easy journey to make.
 
JH: I don’t remember where I read this, but you were quoted saying, “Write it, publish it, write it, publish it—no one else is going to judge it, you’re not going to judge it.” I’ve been thinking about this idea in the last year, that you sometimes just have to let it go.
 
KA: I do have to recognize that I’m in a weird position, where people are asking me to send them things. That’s pretty great. I recognize that for a young writer it may not be so easy to just “publish it.” But if you’re not publishing, you can still be involved in literary communities, such as performance or open-mic situations. I mean, do people still do that? So you’re sharing it. I think that’s important. And you don’t get too attached to the poem itself.
 
JH: Can you say anything more about that attachment to your work?
 
KA: I guess, if you feel like you want it to be received a certain way, or be successful in a certain way, or be about what you want it to be about—none of that is ever true. I think poets generally recognize the slipperiness of a poem, that a poem is not going to behave or turn out the way they think it’s going to. So, you have to also agree that when you fling it out into the world it’s just going to have its own life.
 
JH: This next question goes in a different direction. In your Divedapper interview, you said, “We’re screaming ourselves out in rage as a species.” I agree with that, but I wonder how we continue making art through that dissolution.
 
KA: How do we continue to make art through the end of an era?
 
JH: It’s a darker place to take it, but yes.
 
KA: Well, we are our perceptions. It’s our only way to encounter the world. In the beginning, when people started to develop spoken language and grapple with the formation of semiotic communication, I think art must have happened immediately. Dance probably predated language, but the very second thing must have been poetry. They needed a way to explain things, whatever the mysteries were. Like, what are the stars in the sky? Or what is death? And what is sex? Or pain? Bloodlust? All those things that people experience that there was no mythology or language to explain.
 
We are kind of facing the same situation now. We don’t have language for this kind of mass extinction. We won’t have language in the next thirty years when something like 160 million people in Bangladesh are displaced by rising ocean levels. That’s a refugee crisis on a level we’ve never seen.
 
Those kinds of crises are coming. They’re going to happen. There are policy approaches, and then there’s the human approach of responding with art and with writing. We’ll be creating a literature for a different kind of world, whatever it’s going to look like. What’s it going to be like to be alive in forty or fifty years?
 
Syria, four or five years ago, was considered to be the most stable place in the Middle East. And when I asked people from the Middle East, What’s the one city we should go to, the best city, now that Beirut is destroyed, everyone would say Damascus. Oh, Damascus is great. They have all the clubs, the street life, and the restaurants. It’s wonderful. And look what happened. So why do we think we are so secure here in the United States of America? Why do we think that things can’t fall apart just the same way? A lot of the situations are analogous. People have guns, and they’re pissed, and they don’t respect each other. I don’t feel great about being an American right now.
 
JH: So, thinking about bodies, about trying to remain present in them but also be part of this world—I think there’s always that conflict between the hunger, the desire, the needs of the body and the needs of the mind, trying to get those into balance. Is that a formula you’re conscious of when writing a lyric poem?
 
KA: The body and the mind—they’re the same. So, for me, a lyric poem is a place of encounter. It’s not a rhetorical place in that classic idea of the lyric, like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Emily Dickinson’s poems. I return to an earlier notion of the lyric, meaning the musical phrase or expression. In classical times, song lyrics and lyric poems were closer to the same thing. For me, the lyric does not have a narrative, does not have rhetoric, does not have argument. It’s a way of creating a record or moment of this, in language. It’s not like a Frank O’Hara poem, where he’s walking down the street, recording what’s around him. For me it’s going to include abstraction, as well. And meaning is also created by sound, not merely by description. So, with all of those things, the poem has an anarchy about it. I don’t think of it as having a beginning and an end as, say, a sonnet would. I think of it as having a beginning and an end the way music does. There might be an overture. There might be a cadence at the end. But ultimately it’s a phrase that goes on forever, developing different themes.
 
JH: You were talking about observations, and one of the things I loved most about Bright Felon was the precision of your observations. You were able to draw those through time. Is observation something you’re conscious of?
 
KA: Absolutely. And Bright Felon has textures. Not every chapter uses the same mode. Some of them are direct observations of places where I was living, like the Carlisle chapter or the Marble Hill chapter. Then there are places I wrote from memory. At least two are cannibalized out of my diaries—lifting out language and reconstructing it. The Washington, DC, chapter is like that, one of the Paris chapters, one of the New York chapters. It’s intentional. Chapter by chapter, that book has a similar form visually, but each chapter is different. Some are more essayistic, for example the Carlisle and Cairo chapters. Other chapters are very diffuse, skipping around all over the place. And other chapters—the Buffalo chapter, the Albany chapter, the Washington, DC, chapter—actually have a tighter unity. I wanted to have that kind of scintillation of textures.
 
JH: Do you keep a diary still?
 
KA: When I’m not teaching, I do keep a diary quite well. I want to, and I will again someday. There’s something about the teaching life that disrupts that.
 
JH: I had a teacher friend say once that teaching is like water: it will occupy every space.
 
KA: Yes, it is like that.

James Allan Hanna joined the English Faculty of Cathedral High School in 2014, where he teaches American Literature and Creative Writing. Formerly the Assistant Editor of Booth and Assistant Editor of The Frederick Douglass Papers Project at the Institute for American Thought at IUPUI, he earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Butler University. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife, two dogs, a cat, and some mice in the walls.