After reading Kazim Ali’s essay “Faith and Silence” in a past issue of The American Poetry Review, Charles Coté interviewed Kazim Ali by phone about his lyric poetry and most recent book, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008).
Coté: Reading these lines from The Fortieth Day — “Would you choose to know what he is choking on or what he is trying to say?” or “is it possible the entire universe is scrap metal / for meditation or never-ending revelation?" or "should I draw the spirit / as a lantern or a cup?" — the reader is confronted with questions that have no clear answer.
Ali: The poem "Double Reed" gives a good example of this, with the second line in each couplet winking back at the first, or is an opposite of the first. In the poem "Pip", about the orphan in Moby Dick who is abandoned on the water, he wants, and does not want, to be found. He doesn't know what he wants.
Coté: That's what's so psychologically and spiritually true about these poems. I want to be found, and if you find me, I might feel stifled or suffocated.
Ali: That's exactly right! In this world do you really want to be found? "Should I ask for my thirst to be quenched or for unquenchable thirst?" In fact, you don't really want either.
Coté: Is that dialectical inquiry a poetic method for you?
Ali: I had a vague notion of opposites but did not consciously construct the book that way. At a much later date I re-read the work and see concordances I try to heighten or diminish. There's that line "should I draw the spirit / as a lantern or a cup?" then later on in the collection "Dear Lantern, Dear Cup."
Coté: I think of opposites more as dichotomies, but the dialectical expresses itself in both/and, both existing together, containing paradox and connection.
Ali: And there are things that want to transform it to each other. For example, in the poem "Ornithography", the broad narrative being a bird that has hit the window, shattering it, and a person is there to sweep up the glass with a dustpan. He's resistant to doing it for fear of finishing the act. Instead, he looks at the broken window, the body of the bird, the shattered glass, and sunlight coming through. He sees in that frame the entire universe. That is the meditation, and yet the narrative is suppressed.
Coté: Your poems are very lyrical in that sense.
"Ornithography" has a line that intrigues me: "Are you still, though all broken —" and several couplets later, this single line: "of dust and light and broken glass." That seems like a couplet that belongs together and yet is broken far apart, that seems to enact what's happening in the poem. Was that a conscious choice?
Ali: Yes, it absolutely broke off with that first line.
Coté: And then it's picked up again in that second line further in the poem, "of dust and light and broken glass." You've got the word broken in both lines and it's a broken couplet.
Ali: In both instances, those lines broke off from what surrounded it in the poem and would not be repaired. In terms of intention, that's a pure accident.
Coté: It's hard for people who are narrative-minded to find access to these poems. For me, you have to revisit them.
Ali: Good that you mention that. That point has been a criticism in several of the reviews: the one in the Publisher's Weekly said some of these poems are a little “slight” because they don't have a mooring in the physical world. I think that's a more conventional view of poetry. Not every poem needs to tell the story of the quotidian life. Take Dickinson's "I felt a funeral in my brain." Is that poem good because she's at a funeral or because it's doing a spiritual meditation? Katie Ford has a new book out called Coliseum which is very philosophical, about the ruin of society but is grounded in the literal ruin of New Orleans, what happened there, and why it happened. It was not an act of God but a conscious underinvestment in infrastructure that caused the levee to break, not the storm per se. Things do happen in the world. There are phenomena to which a poet has some moral responsibility to address, but I think the way we view those phenomena as being addressed is somewhat limited if you say every poem must have narrative. It's just not the case.
Coté: Another line in your collection, in the poem "The Far Mosque", the last line - "a person is only a metaphor for the place he wants to go" - came as a great surprise. What can you say about the place you wanted to go in this collection, or the place you found yourself going?
Ali: Let me say first off that the poem "The Far Mosque" was a reflection back on my book The Far Mosque. I didn't want a poem with that title in the first book. There's no poem called “The Fortieth Day” in my new book but I want to write that poem.
I think The Fortieth Day was my effort to understand the place that I want to go as where I actually am. So here I am, on the fortieth day. There's a line something like this: "On the fortieth night we’ll understand that the storm is never going to end and there's never going to being anything else than what we have right now."
Coté: Now what's the "89th question", referring of course to another poem in the collection? I'm working on number 88, so I'm very curious.
Ali: I think it's a question of superfluity. It's a version of "a million and one." The Fortieth Day is a specific period of time, taken from myths and legends. The 89th question is a metaphor for a long period of time, the idea that I've been asking myself question after question.
The whole point of human existence, that we are and then are not, is so terrible. Obviously there's no answer.
Coté: I think there's something about the process of actively dying, knowing your dying, that speeds up the process of developing wisdom, if you're open to it.
I liked what you wrote in "Autobiography": "why do I believe what I was taught?" I wrote in the margin, "I believe every poet unlearns to learn again."
Ali: For me, it was a conscious effort to try and write an autobiography. I have such a cultural imperative towards silence about my own life, the idea of shame being attached to being gay as well, because I was raised in a Muslim family. As liberated as we are, as much as we learn about the world, we still are so shaped by our family experiences. That poem, as cryptic as it is, is probably the most lucid for me. I was just asking myself, "Why do I believe what I was taught? Against all human logic, why do I believe what I was taught, still?" At the end of the poem, in order to even write the poem, I have to confront the question, "Am I a self, an individual separated from everyone else, or not?" This started as a much larger autobiography but then I thought, "That's the entire poem." The whole point of an autobiography: "Is there a self to be saying all this stuff?" No.
Coté: Then I think, if there isn't a self, why do I have to show up for work tomorrow?
Ali: I know! I know! It's all so philosophical.
Kazim Ali is is the author of two books of poetry, The Far Mosque (Alice James Books), winner of Alice James Books' New England/New York Award, and The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008). He is also the author of the novel Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of "The Best Books of 2005" by Chronogram magazine, The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009).
He is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of the University of Southern Maine. His work has been featured in many national journals such as Best American Poetry 2007, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Barrow Street, jubilat and Massachusetts Review. He teaches at Oberlin College and the Stonecoast MFA program and is a founding editor of Nightboat Books.