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.
The cover of Kazim’s book.
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