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Writeliving Interview – Kazim Ali


I have long admired the work of Kazim Ali, and the grace with which he writes in all genres. We’re thrilled to have him shares his insights into his creative process.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Physical practices (yoga and mid-distance running) and meditative practices as well. Anything to quiet the conscious mind in relationship to the world that exists. Sometimes words and phrases come on walks, sometimes in breath, once a couplet that turned into a whole book (The Fortieth Day) came as I sat in meditation staring at a white wall.

Certain writers have been important to me. It is hard to make a list but Donald Revell, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Jorie Graham, Li-Young Lee, Agha Shahid Ali, Lisel Mueller and Mahmoud Darwish would be a starting point. In painting Agnes Martin, Hans Hofmann and Makoto Fujimura. In music Alice Coltrane, Yoko Ono, Donna Delory and John Cage. In fiction Virginia Woolf, Carole Maso, Bhanu Kapil.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I write longhand. Drafts for a really long time. I need time and space between initial writing and trying to see the shape of something. Sometimes I wait three or four months, sometimes I wait a year or more. Often I will end up with a manuscript suddenly because it has been coalescing in scraps for so long. Then I can read it like a book and revise it for almost equally as long.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

It’s forced me to read more deeply. If I give enough time between draft and revision I can look at my own writing as if a stranger wrote it. That is why it is good for a student to write something good every week, so they can stay fresh and keep moving forward. What’s wrong with creative writing pedagogy (including, at the moment, my own) is that we then ask students to revise this work in the same semester it is written. That can feel false and forced. Better to keep turning the page, keep moving forward, keep generating material. I am not sure I believe in the “workshop” as a way of teaching. I would rather teach by just introducing and talking about the poems I love the most and then give the students assignments. Then they come back and read the assignment to the class. General discussion can follow on craft and energetic direction of the work.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

Read widely. Do not waste too much time trying to write a perfect poem. Write as much as you can. Expression is important. Vowels are important. Study another language long enough that you are able to read in that other language. Write a poem in English that you think would be impossible to translate into another language. Translate a poem from another language into English. Consonants are important too. You don’t have to read the tradition but you should study the mechanics of prosody. Be very very serious about making time for reading and for writing.

How do you go about balancing the mythic and personal in your work?

I’m not sure I do it. Icarus is me. The myths speak to our true human natures. My poems were filled with boys falling from the sky and boys drowning. So I guess it was because I couldn’t breathe. We are drawn to those stories that speak most clearly about our own nature. Though I am a maker of things, I never related to Daedalus, the father but rather with Icarus, the son.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

At a certain point you have to choose writing. Like Rilke wrote to the Young Poet, you think about it all the time. You stop getting attached to it as a “dream” and start thinking of it as a biological function. Diego Rivera said, “I make paintings the way a tree makes leaves.” It’s just something you do, it is a way of encountering the world.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Before I returned to school to study for my MFA I worked for four years as an organizer and was very active in the student movement, serving as the president of the United States Student Association (www.usstudents.org) and as a trainer for the Midwest Academy (an institute devoted to training social justice and union organizers).

About the Author:

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.

His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward(Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). He has also published a translation ofWater’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011), and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras (Open Letter Books, 2013). His novels include Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010),Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011).

In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books.

He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

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