Kazim Ali: The yogi poet

The poet, who is ready with his new book, talks about being gay, brown and Muslim in the US

Kazim Ali, who teaches creative writing in the US, says he faces criticism from American, Indian and Muslim writers; and (above) the cover of his book. Photo: Sridala Swami
Kazim Ali, who teaches creative writing in the US, says he faces criticism from American, Indian and Muslim writers; and (above) the cover of his book. Photo: Sridala Swami

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator. His books include several volumes of poetry, including the most recent Sky Ward (Wesleyan University Press, 2013). Ali is an associate professor of creative writing and comparative literature at the Oberlin College, US. A collection of poetry, All One’s Blue: New And Selected Poems, is forthcoming from HarperCollins India. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did you find poetry or did poetry find you? Were you headed somewhere else before?

I like to say that the first poem I heard was when my father whispered the call to prayer into my ears when I was a newborn. I feel like that sound made a shape in my ear. Growing up we were always hearing Urdu poetry and the Shia mourning songs. To me, the typical American free verse poem paled in sonic comparison. This may be why I am so interested in music, even fractured music.

I worked for a while as a political organizer and a lobbyist before I gave myself fully to poetry. I felt that the political life was incompatible with the kind of listening and inner attention I would have to give as a poet.

You said in an interview, “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.” Can you talk about your relationship with Agha Shahid Ali’s work?

I discovered his work at an important moment in my life—when I was leaving political work and trying to devote myself to poetry. I was working in the office of a factory and on my lunch break I would sit alone and read through poetry journals. I saw his name in the table of contents. It was the first Indian name I had seen in poetry (this was a long time before the Internet and it was not so easy to find or read poetry journals from South Asia). I was immediately taken with his devotion to form—an interest in aesthetic beauty that was not compromised by an inattention to political or material conditions.

I went to Provincetown to study with him for a week when he was teaching a workshop devoted to traditional and received forms. Among the forms he taught us was the ghazal, which he had written several of to show how this very Eastern form could properly be adapted into English. Later I studied with him for a semester at New York University as well, but this was the semester when he took ill, an illness from which he did not recover.

You live in a university town. Post 9/11, you wrote about an incident where you were arrested because of some papers you were recycling. “My body exists politically in a way I cannot prevent,” you said at the time. Could you talk about identity—on being gay, brown and Muslim in the US?

The cover of Kazim’s book.
It is tricky because as a poet you don’t want to feel obligated to address certain things or have your subjects chosen for you (or stolen from you in the case of writers who are actually criticized for trying to address their varied identities) but at the same time it is “your” life and you have to be able to embrace all of its facets and complexities. I have been criticized by American writers for writing that is much too dependent on an Indian cultural context, criticized by Indian writers for being too interested in a Western Romantic sensibility, criticized by gay writers for engaging too much in spirituality and religion, criticized (or more likely ignored) by Muslim writers because I am openly gay.

I have no defence or apology except to say that each human body in the history of the planet has been unique and it has been the entire project of organized civilization to force these unique bodies to follow systems and collective structures. We have to be able to strike a balance between providing for collective well-being and welfare and still honouring the power and beauty of the individual soul.

You teach both writing and yoga?

Teaching yoga is very instinctive for me—and physical in terms of observing the body of the student and offering corrections or adjustments; you can also plan a trajectory for a student who is coming time after time on a regular schedule. Teaching writing, especially poetry, is much more alchemical. Often you can do no more than coach; you cannot, as a yoga teacher does, go in and change a writer. You can only open doors (and windows!) and offer them for the student to walk through.

Although, I must say, Agha Shahid Ali was a very different kind of writing teacher. He would take my poems and cross lines out and move others around, often rewriting the poem in the process. Then he would slide the marked paper back across the table and say, “There, that’s ‘much’ better!” I still learnt immensely either way.

Could you talk about translation and working with other translators: What made you pick the poet and writer—Sohrab Sepehri and Marguerite Duras?

Duras I chose because I loved her and loved reading her other books; and the book we translated, L’Amour, had not yet been translated into English. So doing it was a way of knowing Duras better, getting inside her writings. I translated another book from French, a book of poetry by Ananda Devi, an Indo-Mauricienne novelist and poet. In her case it was that her poems were so very different from mine. I feel like she lived closer to her skin, she could speak more plainly than I, she included a different range of emotions into her work—like anger—that I felt still uncomfortable to include in mine. So translating her became a way of accessing a whole other packet of powers as a poet. Certainly, translating Devi affected my own work.

But French I know and Farsi I do not, so translating Sohrab Sepehri was like trying to see a country beyond the veil. Fortunately I had an excellent co-translator in Jafar Mahallati. We would sit and he would recite the poem and then go through it line by line with me, talking through each image, the nuances. I would work up a draft of a translation and he would offer feedback. In this way we went through three of Sohrab’s collections.

What is, for you, the basic poetic unit or measure?

It’s breath. A long inhale and exhale is one kind of poetic measure and other interrupted forms of breath, as demonstrated by various kinds of pranayam practices, can measure a different kind of line. As different pranayam practices release or reveal different kinds of energy, so too do different kinds of poetic lines.

So I am less interested in the “stanza” than the poetic line and less interested in the paragraph than the individual sentence.

Kazim Ali’s next collections of poems will be released by HarperCollins India in 2015.

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