Interview with Kazim ALi
Conducted by Megan Ross Rodriguez and Jillian Mannarino
Transcribed by Megan Ross Rodriguez
Just after 1 p.m. on a sunny autumn morning, the Head Editors of The Susquehanna Review began an interview with author Kazim Ali as he waited in line at Starbucks.
Jillian Mannarino: So what’s going to be your drink of choice?
Kazim Ali: My drink of choice is probably going to be a soy cappuccino with two shots...
JM: Where have you had the best coffee before?
KA: Definitely in Ramallah in the West Bank. Real Arabic style coffee—here in America what they call Turkish coffee, same thing. Small, very muddy, usually flavored with cardamom, made with very fine grinds, unfiltered. So the grinds sink to the bottom of the cup and then you just drink it. You drink it out of that, so it’s a little sludgy. It’s not watery coffee. Really good.
JM: In Bright Felon you say that everywhere you go you have to go to the coffee shops—that’s how you define a home.
KA: Yeah, for me a coffee shop is more than just the coffee you drink there. It’s also the environment of the place, a place where I can sit and write. Because I don’t want to write off in the wilderness somewhere or in an office, like a quiet office studio. I want to be out in public space, and I feel the energy of the room, and not disruptive sounds, but the ambient sounds, the vibrational feeling of being in a room when there’s a lot of people just having conversations—the cafeteria for example. And I can kind of sit there and—I don’t know if it’s about the sound. I really believe in the vibrational powers of sound, so I think that might actually be my consciousness in some way. I find those kinds of public places really congenial to write in and think in.
Megan Ross Rodriguez: What types of places other than coffee shops have you written in?
KA: I’ve written in parks before. I haven’t done so much in libraries before because libraries are too quiet. Bars. I’ve written in bars before. And that’s for poetry. I think writing prose is different. I can sit down at a table in my house in the quiet and write prose. But for poetry I like to be around people. It feels more connected to the world for me.
JM: I’m wondering about genre and your ideas about it.
KA: I like blurring genres for sure. I mean I’ve written fiction, and I’ve written essays, and I’ve written poetry, but I like things that drop in between all of those. I like really lyrical and poetic stories and essays.
MRR: How do you choose which genre you want to use to explore a particular subject? Do you decide on subject or genre first?
KA: Normally something occurs to me first and then it kind of directs itself into a pattern. I’ve had pieces that I thought were really going to be fictional—they were going to be stories—and then when I started working on it, it kind of veered off and became poetry. And the reverse is true.
JM: I really admire your syntax because it goes from a very concrete conversational tone to something very strange, and I was wondering if those shifts are natural to you or if that’s something that you consciously play around with.
KA: I love those tricks, and I love those moments where the syntax moves off and changes up, and I really work towards it. My own language is sometimes a little tumultuous. Even when I write prose, copy editors are kind of correcting it and being like ‘that’s not really what you’re supposed to do.’ I heighten that sensation in the poetry, to have the syntax move off and leave English syntax. I’m so interested in language and its properties that I want to get away from the familiar and I want to move into the dizzying, where our own perceptions are deranged a little bit.
JM: Do you have any tips for young writers to work toward that interesting syntax? A lot of our readers are aspiring writers.
KA: I would say read a lot. Write a lot. Do something physical with your body. I do yoga, and I go running, and I used to do dance. I think that especially poetry, but all language, all writing is physical. It’s in the body. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to run a marathon because that would be foolish, but to find something that helps you to breathe more deeply. That’s going to bring you in touch with the poetic line of breath and expulsion of breathe, and it’s going to help you experiment more with the forms that are available.
I think for me doing yoga was a part of my use of syntax because in yoga you’re really twisting your body up into different shapes and you’ll bind one part of your body and try to expand with the other. There are lots of oppositional things happening at once in these yoga poses. Pressing down with your feet but then lifting up with your chest, that kind of thing. And I really did find ways of searching for analogues in language or analogues in a single poem. Like, could there be one part of the poem that’s reaching in this direction and another part of the poem that’s reaching in the opposite direction? So that there’s some dynamic energy and tension in the shape itself, in the body of the poem for example.
But it’s also reading a ton, and reading widely, and reading across time, and reading across cultures. So not just reading, for example, contemporary American poetry, but reading lots of different types of things. And for me in The Music of Language I was reading British poets or other poets who were writing in traditional forms.
JM: I was wondering if you read a lot of translations of poetry.
KA: Yeah I do, I read a lot of translations. As they say, some parts of poetry are untranslatable, but a lot of poetry is translatable, and you do the best you can as a translator because I am also a translator. And as a translator you really try to rewrite that poem in English. Make it as best as you can to bring some of the poetry through, even if some of the sonic qualities of the poem—for example in Polish, if you’ve ever heard a Polish person speak or recite poetry, it does not sound like English. And there’s something to be said for a translator who tries to imitate certain sounds—its never going to have the same quality. It’s automatically going to be different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still bring some of those images and those languages into the new language. One of the best parts about translation—there’s a theorist Friedrich Schleiermacher who said that the translation brings—there’s a German poet called Hölderlin, and he translated the Iliad and the Greek epics into German, and this theorist was saying that his translation of those Greek epics into German changed German literature because it brought those images and those structures into the language. And I think that’s the best part of translation, that you’re bringing something into English, or Arabic, or Chinese, or Polish, or Czech, or Turkish, or whatever it is, and you’re changing English. You’re making English better. You’re bringing new possibilities for poetic form and subject into our language. That’s the best part.
So I do think translation is really important. And I actually think that creative writing students should study other languages. I think for an MFA in poetry, for an MFA in creative writing, you should have to study another language and study translation.
MRR: I was curious about the process of writing and putting together Fasting for Ramadan because the first part of it was originally a blog. So I was wondering about the process of doing that. Were you posting every day?
KA: Yeah, I was posting every day. It was tough. It was really tough. I would post it at night even if I’d written it during the day, and some of the time I mark where it says morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, so people would know what time of day I actually wrote the draft of it, but then I would wait because I’d want to make sure that it was what I wanted to say. And I would sometimes revise it and stuff to make it really good for the blog. And then after we decided to turn it into a book we revised it again as a book, but we really tried to stay conscious of its original form as a blog, and I wanted it to keep that kind of feeling of dailyness and that kind of feeling of—not quite repetition because it’s not as though I repeated myself—but things happening over and over again, like me commenting on how hungry I was would happen every couple of days I’d be like ‘well I’m hungry,’ and I wanted to have that to let people know what it’s like to actually fast for a whole month.
So that book was really fun to write actually because I wasn’t really writing it as a book. I was writing it just day by day as a blog. It wasn’t until the end of the thirty days that I had like 120 pages of material that it occurred to me that it should be published. It’s still online. It’s a blog, in its original blog form. If you go into the archives of that magazine where it was published you can find it. But it occurred to me that it should be a book and be together with the other part, which had never been previously published, that was just something I took out of a drawer.
MRR: Also in Fasting for Ramadan, the way you move between subjects is so fluid, but it all seems to make sense. So I was wondering if you could talk about that. How you write, basically.
KA: Well, I guess I’m thinking all the time about different stuff and maybe a little obsessively, so I just kind of write through my own process. I’m thinking like four or five different things at the same time and then they kind of come together in some way that maybe is interesting. I’m not sure what else to say about that. Except to say that I had a lot of fun writing it, and I had a lot of fun because I was writing it as a blog, just as individual pieces and I wasn’t trying to make a full, unified book, I was kind of able to follow the trailings, the trackings of my mind to whatever random place they would lead. Because of course, Freud and other people have talked about how the subconscious is the key to the conscious mind. I’m not sure I believe that. I think the conscious mind and the subconscious mind may just have their own agendas, that may or may not necessarily—I mean, obviously they’re both inside your brain, so they do reflect and refract of off each other, but I don’t think the subconscious mind is the key to the conscious mind or the conscious mind is key to the subconscious mind. I think these are two aspects of our thinking process that each define us in different ways. I feel the same way about dreams, when people talk about wanting to remember their dreams and write their dreams down, and I feel like, I don’t know, maybe the dream life has its own integrity. It doesn’t need to be brought into the waking life. It can be left in the dream life and allowed to act upon us in its own way. It seems to make sense to me.
JM: So, how do you feel about surrealism?
KA: I like surrealism. I like anything that helps you look at the reality of the world in a new way. And I like anything that kind of redefines the reality of the world. How does time work? What is space? What is identity? Who are we? How do our lives intersect? What are our responsibilities to each other? Those questions can all be answered through philosophy or through ethical and moral discussions, but there are also answers to all of those things that are instinctual, that are immediate and personal and intuitive and live inside the body. Like, if I reached out and slapped you right now, that would be an unkind thing to do. It would also be an illegal thing to do—you’re not allowed according to criminal code to slap somebody. If you didn’t do anything, and I just slapped you. I’m not permitted to do that. I’m not permitted to do that by the law, and it’s also unkind, and you would judge me, and you would not like me anymore. But I would feel in my heart a certain thing too. You yourself have a personal recoil or a personal disgust, or revulsion for doing that to somebody. That’s why we don’t just slap each other. Because we’re like ‘that’s not a right thing to do, I don’t want to slap that person.’ I’m using this as a metaphor, and it’s kind of stupid, but... And then there may be people that have clinical issues, like what people say about these serial killers where they have some kind of chemical, medical imbalance where they don’t feel empathy for other beings, and they’re able to make other beings suffer. An ordinary moral person would actually... I don’t just not slap you because its not morally right for me to slap you. I don’t slap you because it’s horrible. Why would I ever want to do that? That’s what I mean.
I think that there are truths about the world that are written about, and they can be talked about, and they can be discussed and figured out. Like why you are not allowed to do certain things in your life. You know you shouldn’t do them. This is an incorrect behavior. That’s all discussion. We talk about it, and we figure out what our boundaries are and what we owe to each other and all that. But another part of it is you internally as a person—you have instincts about stuff. You feel things in your heart about things that come from your own body and your own body’s experience as a living thing in the world. Animals have it. It’s like animal instinct is allowed, but human instinct for some reason is mistrusted. Like when you meet someone and you’re like, "Oh, I don’t like them," and it’s like, "Well, why don’t you like them? Let’s talk about this." And sometimes it’s a stupid thing like someone has a prejudice that’s very deep-seated that they don’t really understand and you process it out. And sometimes it’s just like...there’s such a thing as an intuitive feeling, that you’re just responding to something. And we don’t often know the difference. As humans, we can’t always tell the difference. That’s the hard part. To what extent are we behaving in a certain way because we’ve been socially conditioned to think that, like being gay is wrong—that’s just been such a socially inculcated thing for so long that even today very reasonable people in other ways who are kindhearted and generous and love their families and the whole nine yards and don’t steal and don’t harm other people, will still believe that about gay people, that it’s wrong because that’s what they’ve been taught. That’s what they’ve come to believe. So to what extent are the reasons we do things and how we behave based on the social and the external, and what’s really coming from our own experience? And I do think that we trust the one more than the other. Just as a species we trust the external more than we trust what’s inside.
And I think if we trusted more what’s inside, you have a different set of problems. Because people are selfish. They do have survival instincts. They will steal food from someone if they’re starving, or someone who would never ordinarily steal would go out and steal in a desperate situation and you have to protect your family or something. So it cuts both ways. Neither is the right, neither is the absolute answer to anything. But I do think about all of these things in my writing and in my life.
I don’t think that answered any question you had at all, but it’s interesting for me. So that’s how a book about fasting can come to be a book about family, a book about yoga, a book about spiritual alienation, a book about hunger, a book about world hunger and food policy. All of these things come into that book in different ways. To me everything is connected in that way. Everything has a relation to everything else.
JM: Eboo Patel came here in 2015 to talk about interfaith dialogue, and he said that he went to Notre Dame with his father—they always went to the football games. So before every game Patel and his father would go to the chapel there. And Patel was like, ‘Why are we here, I just want to go to the football game." And his father would literally sit there and be like, "Say a prayer to the Virgin Mary" so that Notre Dame would win the game. So one day Patel was like, "Dad, we’re Muslims, what are we doing here with the Virgin Mary?’" And his father looks at him and looks at the candles and says, "Shh, look for the resonances.’" And I feel like that look for the resonances is so true in writing specifically. Everything is so interconnected. Do you look for the resonances when you write?
KA: Yeah, the resonances. That puts me in the mind of sound as well. What resonates means what echoes off of something else. And the resonance changes the sound. The echo of something changes the original sound. It thickens it. It makes it deeper. It extends it. That is a very good metaphor, actually. The football metaphor for poetry.
MRR: In a lot of our interviews we ask about how authors got started writing or came into writing. I know just a little bit from reading bios on the back of your books that you didn’t go to school for writing.
KA: No. I did study English Literature when I was in school, but I didn’t think that I was going to become a writer. I had been writing. When I was in high school I took a creative writing class for the first time, and in college I was taking English classes and writing things here and there, small things, poetry and stuff like that. And I did love writing, but after college when I graduated I worked professionally as a political organizer for four years. I was telling the classes earlier, this was in the 90s. We didn’t have Facebook, we didn’t really have email addresses, we barely even had fax machines. So a lot of our organizing was happening either by making phone calls or by getting out into the communities and going to the dorms and going on the streets, and going to the parties, and throwing parties, and giving speeches, and all kinds of that kind of stuff.
So, I had a very different life for a long time that was far away from literature, even though I always wrote in a journal. I always liked writing as a practice and even wrote poetry now and then, but I didn’t think I was going to make a life as a writer, not until much later. Not until probably 27 or 28, and I’d been working. I’d been out of school for six or seven years by then. Then I started really thinking about what I was going to do with my life, and I realized that poetry had been a constant the whole time, even though it had been in the background. It had been something that I truly loved all along. So I started moving back to words then. And here I am. What was that, 1998? So almost 20 years later. 18 years later, after that moment. In the cafeteria of the Motorola factory in Elma, New York, realizing I wanted to be a poet. No, actually it was earlier than that. I was sitting in the mall. I was working at the mall. I was working at a calendar kiosk, and I was writing in my journal, and I was so terribly depressed. That was so sad. That’s when I realized I wanted to be a poet. But I didn’t know how to do it. I was just struggling. That was October of 1997. So that was 19 years ago. Then it took me another two years, probably, to begin writing poetry again, to start thinking about what I wanted to do. Think about grad school. Then I went to grad school in the fall of ‘99. So it took two years from when I realized I wanted to be a poet. It took two years then to get to grad school. Two more years to graduate. Couple more years after that to start publishing my poetry. 2005 my first book came out. So eight years after. Eight years later. And that was 11 years ago, my first book came out. That’s kind of cool.
JM: Do you feel like you’ve grown as a writer since your first book?
KA: I hope so. I do. I hope I’ve grown and changed as a writer and as a person. We’re always struggling to move forward. We’re always struggling to break past our old habits. We are always hoping to grow, get better, change. I don’t know if I change as much as I evolve. Just continue developing. The most important thing in the world to me is to do good for myself and grow, and to do good for other people and help them to grow. And not to act selfishly or destructively in a way that would harm other people or prevent them from achieving their best potential. So that’s pretty major, but it’s also kind of small. That’s a low bar. Don’t hurt other people. Do good. Do good for yourself. That’s pretty basic. So if I can manage that I’ll be happy. And I don’t always. But you forgive yourself. You move on. You hope other people forgive you. Then you keep trying to do better. That’s more like life advice than writing advice. But it’s good advice.
JM: So, how about a silly question? I was asked this once. You’re given a giant box of crayons. Which crayon are you?
KA: I am the crayon that is used so much that the paper is just covered in brilliant color. And the crayon itself, instead of having that point, it’s all rounded. I don’t know which color that would be, but that’s how I want to live my life. I just want to be exciting and dramatic and out there in the world. I don’t need to be pristine or perfect or the best color. I can be an ordinary color, but I just want to be in the middle of the action. Yeah, that’s me.