by Matthew Ankeny, former Managing Editor
Kazim Ali, a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator, sat down with Fourteen Hills before his reading at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center. His latest book of poetry is Sky Ward (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), and he is a contributing editor forAWP Writers Chronicle, 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 and teaches in the Masters of Fine Arts program of the University of Southern Maine. We sat down to discuss his new book, mythology, athletics as poetry, small press publishing, and the grand metaphysics of life—a casual weekday conversation.
FH: In Sky Ward, we see the prevalence of mythology, especially the Prometheus and Icarus story. Let’s get started with this: how do you see mythology’s role in poetics today?
Ali: [Mythology] has always been really powerful for me. I think it was always a way of understanding my own story and my own life. When I heard about the Daedalus and Icarus story, I thought I was supposed to see Icarus as foolish and stupid and that he didn’t listen. But, I always saw him as heroic and brave, and I identified more with him. So, that kind of obsessed me and I found myself using these mythologies as a way of telling the larger story without being directly autobiographical. [. . .] I think that poets are turning on to some myths because a lot of them feel very current still, and if you’re actually willing to go into these myths and engage them and use them as divination devices to understand something deep about the psyche, then they’re valuable.
FH: I love the line, which serves as an epigraph for the book, “When the white-leafed arms flew up in prayer I left.” Like you said, we always think of Icarus as a foolish person, and yet, seeing his flight as prayer seems very appropriate, too.
Ali: Well, his flight is prayer and he is fleeing prayer. He is fleeing the typical prayer. When other people begin to pray their normative prayer, when they try to bind the temporal word into an afterlife or a conception of the afterlife, when they try to put into language what God is, Icarus is out. He thinks, “I’m going to the sky instead of whatever [your] conception [of prayer] is.”
FH: Abandonment is one of your main themes, specifically the image of the lost or forgotten boy, and I’m interested: where should we interpret things as being autobiographical, and where should we assume this is a narrator? With the lines: “because of troubles with the union of you / the role of ‘Kazim’ will be played by a figure of stone,” can we say this is you speaking?
Ali: Well, the pun on “union of you” is that we are not individual entities; we have so many perceptions and multiplicities within us. We have different lives and experiences that we’re living out simultaneously. Some post-modern theorists suggest that as soon as one is seen in social space then one is “performing” an identity. Then, identity becomes a performance, and the performance is dependent on being seen, or being observed, and once the interaction begins, selfhood begins.
FH: Interesting. Now, in a completely different direction. You have a poem in the book called “The Promise of Blue,” which has an epigraph by Greg Louganis who is an openly gay athlete and a phenomenal diver. You often don’t see the intersection of athletics and poetry, and I’m curious how Louganis is an inspiration.
Ali: Well, the body is really interesting to me, and I take very seriously the body as an instrument that’s given to be experienced, to be used, to try to understand more about consciousness and the spirit and the self. I think athletes understand this, too—they see that the body can be used to understand not only the nature of itself but the nature of the physical world. [. . .] Greg was an inspiration to me because I thought about that idea of the body and falling into the water, and I was writing about Icarus, so it really came together for me, and, in fact, writing that poem helped me to finish that book. It’s basically the final Icarus poem.
FH: You have the line, “he’s swimming downward.” Another theme in the book is a continuity between sky and ocean. Now, you live in Ohio. Where does your inspiration from the sea come from?
Ali: Yeah, I’ve never lived on the coast. I’ve always adored the ocean; it’s always been spiritual for me. For eight years off and on, I lived up and down the Hudson river, and that’s a very powerful body of water that influences everything happening around it. So water in all of its forms, including rain and water in the air, has always been a powerful touchstone for me.
FH: I was fascinated by “The Plaint of Marah, Woman of Sodom,” which you said was “after Scott Cairns.” I think it’s interesting how you turn Marah’s story on its head—Marah’s always seen as a warning sign, and here, instead, you see being turned into salt as receiving a reward.
Ali: Why wouldn’t it? We are talking about Biblical times, and salt is like gold. It’s currency. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt; it was a euphemism for what we would call a “paycheck.” She wasn’t turned into a pillar of coal or a pillar of shit. She was transformed into a pillar of one of the most valuable substances on the earth at that time. So, to me, it was obvious she wasn’t being punished. It’s not that radical of a supposition.
FH: Would you see Scott Cairns agreeing with that position?
Ali: I can’t imagine anybody disagreeing with it. I started thinking about her after I read the poem he wrote about her in his book Recovered Bodies. He uses the name “Marah” for her in that book.
FH: Now, I’ve been reading a lot of Billy Collins and Wendell Berry, who are people I’d describe as very concrete writers. But, other poets, like Forest Gander, work a lot in the abstract. What do you see as the role of image in poetry, and the role of abstraction?
Ali: Well, I like music in poetry. So, whether something is physical or abstract, a little music goes a long way. The poets I admire most are ones that work in particularities and particular emotional particularities, when there’s something risky and something real at stake in the matter. An abstraction of thought could be intellectually interesting, and I may even like to read a poem like that, but I find myself drawn to poets who engage with the matter of the physical world, the existence of the physical body in the world, the way the mind encounters that world. All of those things are really important to me.
FH: A practical question: you’re going from [this interview] to the SFSU Poetry Center, and I’m curious how you feel your poems manifest themselves differently for the eye and the ear.
Ali: For me the recited poem is the poem. A poem is sound in space. For this book, when the copyedited manuscript came, I recited every single poem, and made tweaks and changes based on the rhythm and the sound. So even if a poem isn’t in a form or a meter, it has a rhythm that’s important. In fact, I’ll tell you a secret: most of this book is in a formal meter. And people may or may not recognize as they read it, because they read it quietly. But if they read it out loud, they would hear it.
FH: Let’s talk about the title. Sky Ward has two very different meanings; “ward” can be something providing security and protection, and it can also have the connotation of hospitalization and insanity. How do you feel the poems in the book fit under this title?
Ali: Well, I am trapped by this obsession with endlessness. But, such an obsession with the spirit or god can prevent you from actually living in your life. You can be imprisoned in the sky, if you’re always looking up.
FH: This book was published by Wesleyan University Press. We at Fourteen Hills Press are in the same world of the small press, and I’m curious what you see as the role of independent publishing.
Ali: I think [the small presses are] great, and we have to pick up the slack because the big commercial publishers are not as concerned with poetry anymore, and the bigger small presses have their hands full promoting various kinds of writers. So, for younger writers or newer writers or writers coming from more experimental perspectives, we need to continue to have a vibrant indie small press scene. Historically, a lot of the best literature was coming out of the small press movement of its day. If you think about 20th century poetry and try to list out all the people, almost all of those people are coming out of small press. So, we better keep doing it. I am also a great admirer of DIY publishing, collective publishing and self-publishing. What we want and need is to get our work out there and get the work of writers we admire out there. I’ve been privileged to be a part of Nightboat Books since its founding and our very first impulse was to support and develop audiences for the writers who were doing the kind of work we admired and wanted to see more of in the world. We are the ones we have been awaiting for, as June Jordan wisely said.