By Abriana Jetté
Staten Island, NY, USA

Fear, anxiety, helplessness, and trauma aren’t necessarily words one might associate with politics and American life, though these days, they have marked themselves as familiar phrases, especially in regards to particular communities. The rhetoric of politics and about politics is consistently changing. This is something poets can’t help but notice.

Since the nightmare-turned-reality of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida this summer, friends, colleagues, and students who belong to the LGBTQ community

have shared their sorrows and fears regarding the way they are viewed, the way they are treated, and the way they are remembered. Some threaten to repeal the right to marry. Some advocate that homosexuality is a choice. These thoughts alone send my mind spiraling—in what country, in what century, am I living?

And, since that nothing-less-than-controversial day in early November, friends, colleagues, and students of mine from the Muslim community have gathered together
Kazim Ali
to articulate their concerns about their safety and standing in this country. I remember learning about religion in elementary school and the fantastical American ideals portrayed: if you want to begin a religion in which every member loves trees, you can, my third grade teacher would said, that’s what it means to live in America—you can practice whatever religion you want. Is that what it meant? Is that what it means?

Often these two communities, the LGBTQ and the Muslim community, are considered separate. Obviously, they aren’t. Obviously, they needn’t be. There are plenty of wonderful venues today promoting the work of Queer poets; in the same sense, there are plenty of venues that promote the work of Muslim poets. This Autumn, I learned more about how both of these communities intersect from speaking with the poet Kazim Ali, a poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator, a wordsmith of wordsmiths, a lover of the body, of the spirit, of the soul, of language, of education, and of saying what needs to be said. I was honored to talk to him about identity, the politics of poetry, the madness of American life, and much more.

Kazim Ali has published several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward, winner of the Ohioana Book Award in Poetry​; ​The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books' New England/New York Award; The Fortieth DayAll One's Blue; ​and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. He has also published a translation of Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras​, ​Water's Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri, Oasis of Now: Selected Poems by Sohrab Sepehri, ​and (with Libby Murphy) L'amour by Marguerite Duras. His novels include Quinn's Passage, named one of "The Best Books of 2005" by Chronogram magazine,​ and The Disappearance of
All One's Blue
​. H​is books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence and Fasting for Ramadan. In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company, he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books. He is the series co-editor for both Poets on Poetry and Under Discussion, from the University of Michigan Press.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: You’re an experienced yoga teacher and runner, and the idea of the self as the body as breath, I think, resonates throughout much of your work, especially The Fortieth Day. I was hoping we could start off by talking about some of the ways your recent writing is influenced by spirituality and physicality. How do these beliefs and practices intersect with political and social issues?

KAZIM ALI: A human’s right to his (in my case) own body is the ground point for existence in the universe. We coalesced into the physical form and the history of what we call “civilization” (anything but civilized) is a history of the use and misuse of this body for the benefit of a smaller number. #BlackLivesMatter offers all of us the opportunity to critically engage with the fact that we have always devalued lives of others based on race, gender, sexuality, national or tribal affiliation and so on.

I have left the mythological and the epic behind me. I no longer want those narratives. I want to understand what is happening in the particular of my own life. “God” in Islamic thought, is an abstraction, undefinable, unknowable. The end of “god” is the assignation of value—any value—and I mean in the economic, chromatic, mathematic and moral senses all—to “It.”

So a while back (in a conversation with Ilya Kaminsky that is collected in my book Resident Alien) I posited that I was done talking about god. I didn’t mean done with the spirit, done with the unknowable. But as Fanny Howe wrote, “Human is god’s secret name.”

The body is not the opposite of the spirt, nor are physical matters oppositional to abstract ideas of the spirit. Even without considering the way that communities’ spiritual and religious beliefs and practices govern their politics, we have to confront the way that we in our ordinary lives embody a whole set of spiritual beliefs whether we know it or we don’t. It’s worse when we don’t realize or critically engage with why believe what we do, or even realize that we do have codes we have processed and created on subterranean levels. I suppose in my poetry I aim to uncover and engage these streams of thought and feeling.

In that sense, how can poetry not be political? How is this type of poetry dangerous? How do you consider political poetry dangerous?

KAZIM ALI: All poetry is political of course, whether it engages directly with political issues or it doesn’t. The incantatory power of a poem can function in the moment (whether that’s an instantaneous moment or a so-called “historical moment”) and that’s a separate question from whether or not that poem will be enjoyed for its artistic and literary qualities. I appreciate a good phrase and a rhythmic line as much as the next person and I prefer poetry that inspires deep deep thinking—but that’s not the only kind of poem there is. Some poems do not confuse—they describe, they inspire to action, they critique and so on. There is space and need and purpose for these poems. Other poems—call them “difficult poems”—may ask the mind to decolonize, may reconfigure how we think and engage with the world; all this while they behave very much like “high art” or whatever you want to call it. I find those poems as profoundly political. Myung Mi Kim is as important and vital as Pat Parker, for example, and vice versa.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: In 2009, when you wrote “Why We Need Poetry Now”, you said, “We need a new solution.” Do you think we’ve found it? That we’re close? When you reflect on that essay, what do you think has changed? What has stayed the same?

KAZIM ALI: In some ways, not much has changed in seven years but we are moving forward, I do believe that. When the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriages I wondered how fast the backlash would come. I also realized that a lot of people were arming themselves. After a life of fierce optimism and belief in American pluralities I worry now that intolerance and hate has much deeper and more violent and more armed roots in American culture and people than I had ever imagined.

Poetry is going to help me prove myself wrong and help me go out into the world and try to create greater spaces of generosity and tolerance. It is a queer and funny tool and it might not even be a very powerful one, but it is the one I have been given, the one I trained in how to use so for better or for worse that’s would I have in my array of superpowers. Believe me, I am going to give it everything I’ve got.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: You’ve spoken before about American madness, about a “bloodlust for killing”, complacency with mass-shootings, and a resistance of acceptance that resides within the people. I was hoping you could talk about how poetry eases and fuels that madness.

KAZIM ALI: It probably doesn’t. The language of poetry and the form of it can help us question accepted truths but poems as easily reinforce accepted truths, national
Resident Alien
narratives, and so on. Art absolutely is used in the service of empire and power and the poets who resist that use are usually crushed to powder. I’m so cheerful. But it’s true. Neruda. Darwish. Ritsos. Celan. Dickinson avoided being smashed to smithereens by withdrawing in the extreme and more or less hiding her work except from the very chosen few.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: From birth, children are exposed to homophobic society. Songs, books, movies, nursery rhymes, they all promote a specific type of life: grow up, go to school, get married, have kids. What connections have you observed between homophobia and American violence? How can the poetry community do better in creating a safe environment for gay, lesbian, homosexual, trans, or queer writers?

KAZIM ALI: As a gay Muslim I’ll just speak very personally. I viewed myself as a criminal and an aberration. Eventually I evolved to think of myself as ecstatically wounded, marked by this impossible “dichotomy”—to be Gay and Muslim, to be both not one nor the other. Listen, these were days before the internet, I was fairly sure with not a whole lot of doubt that I was the only gay Muslim in the world. I was definitely the only gay South Asian person I had ever met until the age of 25. All the gay people around me (some of whom I was sleeping with) (OK, OK, a lot of whom I was sleeping with) wanted to be very public with their activism and what personal counseling they were involved with was connected to helping people come out to their families. I neither wanted to come out to my family (ever) nor did I want to be a public activist as a gay person.

My journey to accepting myself, choosing to live publicly, to write about queerness, that all took a long time and the road had a lot of bends in it.

I think as Americans develop a saner and more nuanced relationship to gender and sexuality it will necessarily change the way we think about “property,” and ownership and labor and that can only be a good thing.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: I’ve noticed a rise in the use of the erasure form in poetry journals and presses. The click-bait news and general hysteria we are bombarded with on a daily basis is actually in and of itself the stuff of poetry. Have you recognized any changes within the poetry community in response to the madness you’ve described? Is there anything you’d like to see from established and/or emerging poets?

KAZIM ALI: I am really impressed by several trends I see—first of all a critical and philosophical engagement with social and political issues emerging in poetry, secondly a really sophisticated wrangling with techniques of poetic form, both inherited and new and finally a return and privileging of orality and performativity not just from Western and canonical paradigms. This past year I participated in a project being curated by Todd Fredson in which I translated from French a couple of poets from Ivory Coast and I found their approach to performance and music to be a wonderful postmodern African approach that I had only rarely seen. There a number of writers of African, Indian and Indigenous American descent—Patience Agbabi, Layli Long Soldier, Aditi Machado and Henri N’Kuomo among them—who are doing really amazing things innovating in the form of the poem.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: What can readers expect from you in the future?

KAZIM ALI: I have several books in finishing stages that will be unrolling over the

next several years. My first book of short stories, Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music, appears this fall to be followed in the spring by a short book of hybrid fiction, The Secret Room: A String Quartet, as well as a critical book Anais Nin: An Unprofessional Study.
Uncle Sharif's Life in Music
I also have a new book of poetry coming out, hopefully in the next year (though I don’t know when) as well as a short book of essays and diary entries called Silver Road that I hope you will see in the coming years.

Other than that, I am writing new poems, translating a couple of poets here and there and finishing editing a collection of essays written by twenty different poets and critics on the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali. It is going to be published by the University of Michigan Press and I hope you will see it very soon.

ABRIANA JETTÉ: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. As always, I’m grateful to have learned from your words, your ideas, from you.



Abriana Jetté
Abriana Jetté is an internationally published poet, essayist, and educator from Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals, including the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg ReviewThe Iron Horse Literary ReviewThe American Literary Review, and 491 Magazine. She teaches at St. Johns's University and the City University of New York, writes a regular column for Stay Thirsty Magazine that focuses on emerging poets and she is the editor of The Best Emerging Poets of 2013 that debuted on Amazon as the #3 Best Seller in Poetry Anthologies and the author of 50 WHISPERS that debuted on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Women's Poetry.
All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.