Interview with Kazim Ali on The Far Mosque — June 22, 2011
Kazim Ali is the author of three books of poetry, The Far Mosque, The Fortieth Day, and the cross-genre Bright Felon; two novels, Quinn’s Passage and The Disappearance of Seth; and two books of nonfiction, Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry and Art and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. His translation of Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri recently appeared. He is a founding editor of Nightboat Books and teaches at Oberlin College.
Christopher Nelson: I think of these poems as mystical; i.e., they pulse with longing for things beyond reason, things in the domain of the spirit, and they question the validity of linear time and space. Do you think of them as mystical? And is our hyper-scientific age receptive to mysticism?
Kazim Ali: I like the way you define “mystical” as beyond reason and questioning “validity of linear time and space.” Yes, in that case they are. But hard science—the harder the science the more clearly they agree—tells us that neither time nor space is “linear.” So I don't like to think of “mystical” as opposite of material or immediate. Space bends. So does time. We haven’t half the perceptual abilities our actual biological brain affords, so once you start talking intangibles like “mind” or “psyche” or “soul” then the sky (material, small, actually quite contained thing that it is) couldn’t even be the limit.
Nelson: In some of your poems, such as “Prayer” and “The Studio,” there’s a sense that it is something within ourselves that we seek in the external world—a haunting feeling I’ve experienced. Can you expound on that paradox?
Ali: In “Prayer” I mourned the passing of a poet, Agha Shahid Ali, whom I desperately wanted to show my first book to. In the end—is it sentimental?—I realized I had to be him. For myself and others. In “The Studio” I wondered where Paul Cezanne went. How sad I was that we didn’t live in the same place and time and couldn’t know each other. I felt that way when Agnes Martin died as well. And Alice Coltrane. Then I made a vow I had to meet my heroes, that I had to love every person in my life so I would never regret lost time. Luckily last year I met Yoko Ono. Now I have to meet David Lang. He did guest teach at Oberlin last year but somehow my path didn’t cross with his. Someday soon.
Nelson: Your own painting is on the cover of the book, and music recurs throughout. These other arts, how do they inform your work?
Ali: Yes, art and music feed me in great ways. But the art that really went in the background of that book was dance. I was dancing with a company and rehearsing hours and hours a week, trying to find time to write, and so of course the actual experience of the physical body came into my lines—they’re long, they’re couplets answering each other; the syntax torques out of synch the way a body does, or at least mine was doing at the time. The choreographers I was working with had been dancers for Alwin Nikolais, so I was always under duress: once tied up and suspended from the ceiling, another time caked and covered with dry mud and so on.
Nelson: The couplet, the sentence, and a refined awareness of the musicality of language—in my reading, these are dominant features of your style in The Far Mosque. Why the couplet? How does that form affect your language acts?
Ali: I was on the train with a friend, on the way home from a poetry workshop we were taking at the 92nd Street Y with Jean Valentine. And my friend, Kythe Heller, also a poet, said something offhand about the Oracles at Delphi speaking in disjunctive couplets. And that seemed to really hit home for me. A couplet could hold a thing and its opposite or a question and its answer or a call and a response. Even in my later book The Fortieth Day when I made a conscious and concerted effort to leave the couplet behind and move into new forms, it was pointed out to me (at a reading where in answer to a question I was declaring myself free of bondage to the couplet) that only three or four of the poems in that book weren’t couplets!
Nelson: Do you see poets helping us to overcome the many challenges of our time—ideological strife, climatic changes, economic upheavals, food and water issues?
Ali: Well, I think they have to in a way. I wrote about this in a short essay called “Why We Need Poetry Now” that was published on The Millions. Poetry changes us. We have to change our ways, restitch the fabric of society, retrain ourselves and our children. It’s not a question anymore; our way of life—by “our” I mean “first-world” way of life with its attendant consumption, nonsustainability, greed, and commitment to pan-global military and economic hegemony—is over. We have to go another way.