Kazim Ali, Poet

Kazim Ali

Photo: Brett Hall Jones

Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Canada and the United States. He received a BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. He is the author of several collections of both poetry and prose, the most recent being Sky Ward, which was published by Wesleyan University Press this year.

In addition to his writing, Ali is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College in Ohio as well as a professor of the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. He was a guest speaker at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2012, and he recently spoke with Kolleen Carney about his lecture, spirituality, and the writing process.

Kolleen Carney/Michael Passafiume: I wholly enjoyed your lecture at Antioch this past December, “Seminar in Sound and Silence.” One detail that stuck out to me was the idea that our voices are heard through our bones—that our body hears the words before our mouths do. Does your new book, Sky Ward, focus on this idea?

Kazim Ali: Much in Sky Ward surrenders meaning to sound. Library Journal said it was “gorgeous, if finally perplexing.” That’s high praise to me. The body has knowledges. We call it instinct sometimes. But it’s something intelligent in the tissues and muscle and bone of the body, meaning in its physical matter, rather than the normal places thoughts reside: in the chemical and electrical reactions of the brain, that is to say in the body’s “energy.”

KC/MP: You said that silences have a relationship with one another. How do you feel about the idea of silence, in a world where, due to social networking, we as a society keep nothing to ourselves?

KA: But we keep everything to ourselves. Social networking is a performance of identity, a trick. The worst part is that it is a trick we play even on ourselves. Because now we keep everything from ourselves. When told of the lunar landing Anaïs Nin reportedly commented, “But we have so much farther to go within ourselves.”

The new commercial I saw on TV (I participate as much in this electronic network of information as anyone else) was about a hand-held device that moved a person from scenario to scenario. In the beginning of the ad I thought it was for a gaming device but it was for a phone that would help you to constantly experience, constantly “Keep Moving,” as their ad slogan went.

Ultimately, the fear of death—the fear of what’s after the mortal body dissipates back into the air—is what drives us (literally, in this case) to distraction.

We’re turning into batteries for the Matrix. The film The Matrix used an ancient yogic sloka over their closing credits. It’s translation is roughly like this: “Lead us from the unreal to the real. Lead us from dimness into clear sight. Lead us from the fear of death to knowledge of immortality.” Ultimately, the fear of death—the fear of what’s after the mortal body dissipates back into the air—is what drives us (literally, in this case) to distraction.

But we need to find a place to be grounded in the moment, in the world, in our bodies. I find that poetry leads me to that practice of present, which means to actually be alive.

KC/MP: You also said that “the silence of God is God.” How do your religious beliefs influence your writing?

KA: When I said this I was quoting Lucille Clifton who was quoting Carolyn Forché who was quoting Elie Weisel. What I think about when I think about spirituality or religion is: what is this body? Who is inside it? What does it mean to be an aware person, a sensing person, a conscious person. The texts of yoga teach that the mind is a sense-making apparatus, like the eye, or the inner ear—so who is it I mean when I say “I”? It matters, of course, because you have to live in the world.

The rituals of religion were perhaps meant to help to organize the inquiry into this anarchy of matter. If there’s no inquiry (read: doubt) there’s no “religion” (which means “joining”) like “yoga.” Both “religion” and “yoga” come from the same ancient Sanskrit syllable which traveled forward also to “yoke” and “yolk.” Which do you choose, the “yolk” of essential origination or the “yoke” of subservience and surrender?

There is always some of both, I suppose. But for me, poetry and yoga become the most important form “inquiry,” one with the mind, the body and the breath and the other—look at that—with all three as well.

KC/MP: I especially was drawn to your work, Bright Felon. Do you think that a person’s geography shapes who they are? Do you think we can be different people when we move from place to place?

KA: Yes, I do think place determines personhood. Historically, people have had a connection to their place in the earth as it helps to determine the rhythm of their annual lives by its climates and ecosystem, it can determine the kinds of profession and trade and crafts they had as well as the food they would prepare. This diet and climate (sunlight, temperature, etc.) also determines the physical shape of the people who come to live in a certain place in the world.

Though in the modern world we migrate from place to place much more often, we still become attached and determined by the places we live in. It’s why, for example, the Palestinians still advocate for their right to return to their ancestral lands, why the Lakota still organize for the return of the Black Hills.

Bright Felon is primarily concerned with urban (and exurban) spaces since that is where I mostly found myself living in that time. The pieces are still essentially pastoral in nature in that they seek to explore the ways a person’s life (mine) plays out among these different spaces, layered with history.

KC/MP: From my understanding, you not only practice yoga, but you also teach it. Do you find that the practice helps connect you to your writing?

KA: I practice Jivamukti Yoga. I have taught various forms of yoga for nearly ten years. But I am still at the very beginning of a yoga practice, trying to learn to understand my body and breath, understand the nature of the self and the body. Jivamukti Yoga teaches also that sound has vibrational properties within and without the body and that these spaces in the body can be exercised and channeled in order to unlock awareness.

Jivamukti Yoga teaches also that sound has vibrational properties within and without the body and that these spaces in the body can be exercised and channeled in order to unlock awareness.

In order to do the least amount harm to the planet and its natural environments, we are also taught that a vegan diet has the maximum amount of benefit in helping us in our yoga practice. I can’t say directly how these practices have affected my writing but it is important for me to have this level of empathy for the many other living spirits in the earth and of course for the living matter of the planet itself.

KC/MP: In the spirit of “were all in this together”—it being life—what do you strive to accomplish with your writing? Do you feel any sort of responsibility to your reader beyond “entertainment”?

KA: It’s changed for me throughout the course of publishing. In my first book of poetry, The Far Mosque, I explored a lot of different wide ranging subjects and themes, including spiritual inquiry which became a main theme in my next book of poetry The Fortieth Day. Bright Felon was a turning point for me, not just because it was a cross-genre work of poetic prose, but because it was very autobiographical and engaged directly with my own life and experiences.

After that book I felt freer to go deeper both internally and into the shapes and spaces of language and breath. Recently, I encountered the work (and the persons) of two writers, Zubair Ahmed and Matthew Dickman, who feel fearless to me in both engaging their lives and utilizing all the mysteries poetry has to offer. So it makes me feel a little braver in the face of a lot of darkness.

I still feel new at poetry, like I don’t know what it is or how to write it. Or who I am. So thank God for all of that.

Kolleen Carney lives in the Boston area with her husband, son, cat, and several hundred Pez dispensers. She received a bachelor’s degree from Salem State University after twelve harrowing, non- consecutive years. She is currently working on her MFA in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. In her spare time, she sleeps.