Kazim Ali has worked as a political organizer, lobbyist, and yoga instructor. His books include three volumes of poetry, The Far Mosque, The Fortieth Day, and the mixed genre Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, two novels Quinns Passage and The Disappearance of Seth, and two collections of essays, Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence, and Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice. Forthcoming is his translation of Waters Footfall by Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri. Founding Editor of Nightboat Books, he teaches in the Creative Writing and Comparative Literature programs at Oberlin College and in 2009 he received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.
Superstition Review editor Britney Gulbrandsen conducted this email interview with Kazim Ali. She says of the experience, "Kazim Ali is such an inspirational writer. I first read his words in issue 65 of West Branch. This poem, 'Persephone as a Boy,' captured me from the very first line. In all my correspondence with Mr. Ali, I gained an even greater respect for the man. He is open, honest, real, and a great conversationalist. I truly enjoyed his novel The Disappearance of Seth and would definitely recommend it to other readers. His writing is so poetic, even in novel form. It makes for beautiful and thought provoking writing. I want to thank Mr. Ali for taking the time to answer my questions and for making this experience one I will remember."
Superstition Review: I love that you infuse poetry into your novel, The Disappearance of Seth, for example, the lines, "The streets are coiled serpents. / A human spine can root the earth to the sky. / The line of white exhaust that writes the sky." Will you explain how this happens?
Kazim Ali: I was really following the chaotic mentality that followed the days after September 11th. I think we were (maybe still are?) crazy that we so quickly left behind empathy and attempts at understanding the world around us in our insane bloodlust and mania for more killing, more bombs, more death, endless, endless war. My characters were like the little bits of paper and ash that were blowing through the city in those days. Of course the narrative shifted backwards and forwards because how can you understand anything about history, anything at all about cause and effect when you live in a world on fire, a world governed purely by financial interests and political institutions (the Bush White House) whose only purpose is to protect, promote and expand those interests? I didn't need WikiLeaks to tell me half the things it told me—I knew all that stuff and so did anyone else who was paying attention. So the language of poetry, those lyric interruptions, the places language couldn't bear itself, they became the only way to tell the actual truth, which in this case, as has always been the case, was lies. I had these seven characters, Saif and Salman, cousins, Adil who is their nephew, Zel and Layla, who are Saif's friends but also know Salman, there's Seth (of the title!) who is a young man who works at Zel's restaurant, and finally Jack who knew Seth in high school but is also Salman's ex-boyfriend. Each of them has a narrative voice and a perspective that moves from the present into the past and all seven of these characters intersect with each other in expected and unexpected ways. Oracles began speaking in tongues to address what was literally "unspeakable" truth. And only in fiction could I find a golden thread out of the labyrinth of war-mad revenge. Only in this chorus of voices could I find the story I wanted to tell.
SR: In The Disappearance of Seth you write, "How can you preserve awareness of a single moment in time?" Please discuss how this statement relates to your writing and this novel as a whole.
KA: Well, my interest in the book (at least part of my interest) was this thinking about history—how it gets created, what forces it exerts on us. Every moment—Seth walking down a dark street in Brooklyn—has the million other moments leaning on us, affecting us. So you can't really be one place at one time. One of my favorite parts about Seth is that people keep bumping into each other, meeting each other in the oddest places. Saif and Seth never meet, never exchange dialog but they are in the same place at the same time once in the novel. That to me is so "New York," was such a huge part of my life there. Once when I was talking to a friend about how I could get the characters of Zel and Layla together she said I should have them meet at the Laundromat, which is a typical place to meet new people in New York. There's no Laundromat scene in the book nor does anyone meet while fighting over a cab, but people meet in bars, on the street, in restaurants, museums, airplanes, youth hostels, bridges, all kinds of lovely places. There is a scene toward the end of the novel where Jack and Layla, two characters meet who had never met throughout the entire novel, finally meet. I had been working on the book for years by that point and everything was done, but the ending sort of hovered a little bit, I couldn't figure it out. Finally these two characters, both more of supporting characters throughout the book, came face to face and said a few things to each other. And in that moment the whole book started to sing. How can you explain how this happens?
SR: The format of your novel The Disappearance of Seth is so unique. I love the back and forth motion through time, from character to character. How do you choose the right format for your work?
KA: Of course if you are a Woolf reader you would know that I had been reading Mrs. Dalloway and also The Waves while I was writing this book. I was interested in how subjectivity reaches from one mind to another. In one place in Mrs. Dalloway Clarissa has a thought in her internal monologue which Peter is thinking at the same time. It's the smallest thing, but Woolf was riding some kind of psychic wave. Earlier in the book the characters scattered across the city are looking up at the sky watching a plane skywrite a phrase, and then later as Hugh and Richard leave Lady Bruton's luncheon, she feels connected to them by strings as they walk out of her house and out into the city. So my characters, the seven of them, sort of represent how we are all connected backward and forward throughout space and time. Saif and Layla are friends in the present moment but later in the novel it is revealed that they must have met through Saif's cousin Salman who met Layla ten years earlier and shared a very intense moment with her. Jack is connected to both Seth and to Salman but Salman and Seth don't come face to face until near the very end of the book. There's a moment when Seth reaches out and touches Salman on the chest. Seth physically touches every one of the main characters and this touch manifests his emotional struggle—whether he touches people in intimacy, in violence.He never touches Saif but he brushes his fingers across a painting that Saif has been looking at. Some forms of contact only seem ephemeral. The original draft of the book was even more fragmented and had no section or chapter breaks or even divisions between characters—it was one long interrupted text. I became interested in that Nostradamus couplet that was floating around after September 11th and how the second line and the first line were apparently written decades apart from each other. Like this, some characters' effects upon each other are obvious and others very subterranean. I added Jack only in my second draft and to a single scene, the one where Seth first moves to the city. Then he just kept insisting on himself.
SR: The Disappearance of Seth focuses around September 11th and its aftermath. You do a beautiful job of creating emotion with your words. What drove you to such an intensely emotional setting?
KA: I needed to keep my eyes and my ears and my mouth open. I learned how to write fiction from Virginia Woolf. And Anais Nin. And Carole Maso. And Fanny Howe. And Leslie Scalapino. They were my graduate faculty. It was a good school.What I wanted to describe was not the bricks and stone of the city, its glass and greenery but rather the currents of the mind, the map of physical human desire. Layla dreamed of fire, so there was fire always around her. The morning after Seth was beaten nearly to death he woke and heard a sound and didn't know what it was—a bird's wing against the window? He wondered about it for pages. Zel watched the planes hit the towers from the roof of her apartment building on 8th street, but you never actually know what she has seen, what she is looking at. You only see how she sees it, how she feels.
SR: In "Interrupted Letter" you write, "the floor above creaking with the weight of / someone who wears shoes even at home." This is a beautiful image. How do your images come to you?
KA: Well, I am South Asian and we don't wear our shoes in the house. They are all lined up at the door or in the closet. So for me the ultimate feeling of alienation, of not knowing where you lived, was wearing shoes at home. So there was no place you could feel comfortable, you see. But for every image that's like that, that comes from bare autobiographical actuality there's another that the ghost of an amber flicker drew in gin on my skin.
SR: You mentioned that Bjork's song "Venus as a Boy" inspired your poem "Persephone as a Boy." I personally feel that other art forms greatly inspire my writing. What role does music—and other art—play in your writing?
KA: I have just finished a long series of poems inspired by the sound and the life of Alice Coltrane. She was always reaching toward the unknown and undoing of matter into pure energy. She used voice, breath and strings (she was a harpist) to sing into the cloud of unknowing. She could see its edges and the limits of her own breath by so doing. The connection between voice and art for me is ultimate. The body expresses itself in human terms and we have to learn to pay attention. My yoga practice and studies in dance led me through The Far Mosque. After I started to chant and breathe I wrote The Fortieth Day. The paintings of Makoto Fujimura led me to my series of poems called "Hours." So you are led and you are fed. Someone said a bird does not sing to fill the world but because it is filled, but I am rather like an empty thing, filling and emptying and refilling. All matter and energy is dynamic and in a constant state of motion. Open up and breathe in, yes, but then you have to exhale and empty yourself. What then fills that space?
SR: In The Disappearance of Seth, you write, "Salman reminds himself, after Karbala, after the towers fell down, after any burning, there's this part too, the embers getting faint, settling themselves into thick drifts of ash, settling themselves into warm sleep." This is so powerful. Explain the impact you wished this statement to invoke.
KA: What Salman is thinking about is that there is an inhale and an exhale, but even those embers fallen have potential to reignite and burn the house down. Rage sleeping inside is still rage ready to burst into flame and destroy everything. But Salman is someone who is afraid, trapped in his life, unable to really communicate with the people around him. What he is unable to say to his cousin who is his best friend and who grew up with him he is able to say to complete stranger who he has just met. Saif gets a little bit of a bad rap I think for being cold and intolerant of Salman, but I understand a little bit—Salman has held him at arm's length their whole lives, falsifying a kind of closeness—of course Saif would pull away and stop caring. But it meant a lot to me to write the early scene when they are both 13-year old boys, the scene with the sacrifice of the goat. To see how consumed by jealousy Salman is, jealousy of his cousin who isn't conflicted, who is straight, who is comfortable in his skin, who doesn't have to keep all these secrets.
SR: I love your poem "Quiz." It was captivating. Where do you get your inspiration for such unique poems?
KA: "Quiz" began when I was teaching a seminar on aesthetic movements of the 20th century to students at The Culinary Institute of America. I loved doing it because these were not all students who had backgrounds in poetry and art but they were all very hungry (excuse the pun) to learn. So I was able to introduce them to people like Malevich, Anais Nin, Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, Alice Coltrane, Agnes Martin, Virginia Woolf, Mina Loy, people whose work had meant so much to me. At the end of one of the units I gave them a quiz. It was a matching quiz where you had to match column A and column B. With their answers I revised the quiz, then took out the lines and the column titles and that's what you see in the book. I don't think of myself as particularly formally innovative, though experimental writers are among my favorite writers and in my mind that's who I write towards.
SR: The titles of your poems are unique, and they do a lot of work. Could you describe your process for titling poems?
KA: It's the hardest thing in the world to do and usually the title comes at the very end after a lot of other work has happened. A title is a frame or an arrow that points you somewhere, so it means something if it is vague or obvious or cryptic, there are a lot of different choices to make. But no, I haven't the slightest notion how to do it. Or how to write poems, thank god.
SR: In The Disappearance of Seth you write, "The body remembers what people forget." This is such a powerful statement. Explain how this statement relates to your writing.
KA: Because we do hold wounds and old hurts in our bodies themselves. My left ankle which I sprained badly once is still stiff sometimes, though twenty years later. The mind is excellent at walling off and away deep traumatic experience but they still live deep, deep inside, not only within the body but in the psyche itself.But also that the individual remembers pain or loss and passes it along to others in the form of history, even when the social polity as a whole doesn't process information or think about it. We (the United States) annexed, conquered, bought, trade and/or stole every square inch of the continent we are standing on. The majority of the treaties we made were either abrogated, forgotten or are still in contention. But is this newsworthy? Do we hear about it on a daily basis? Hardly.History moves darkly and we are small, soft things. With little voices, perhaps, but voices nonetheless.