How has your first book changed your life?
38. Kazim Ali
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
It's the question of "finished" that interests me. So I'll avoid answering this question two different ways, and then (maybe) I will answer it.
I had been working on the poems in the manuscript for so long, reading them out loud at events, writing and rewriting, that I think I lost the capacity to even see them as works separate from my own desires and attachments. In October 2003 I put the poems away and in February of the following year I began writing new poems. That summer, I was planning on going to California for a month to teach a Food and Wine Seminar (I was on the faculty of The Culinary Institute of America at the time) and decided I would like to take the manuscript with me. I had corrections all over the last hard copy and so I tried to find the computer file of the manuscript. It had disappeared and so I had to sit down one morning and over the course of eight hours re-type the entire manuscript.
In the course of the re-typing I sliced lines out of poems, pulled poems out of the manuscript, and completely rewrote other poems. It was a radical revision and when I was finished the manuscript had dropped from 74 pages to 55 pages. That's the version I took with me to California and edited. That was the first "finished" version of the book and I honestly felt, before sending it out to publishers that fall, that it had arrived at a form I was proud of and could stand behind and would not need to revisit and edit again and again as I had been doing the previous four years.
It felt really good to be "separated" from the work, that they were poems on their own and could live without my personality illuminating them, that they didn't need me to breathe into them to make them alive but that anyone could read them--that breath was in them. Well, that's the hope anyhow.
The book was accepted very quickly by Alice James Books and I entered into the AJB's legendary editing process, which involves first working with a member of the collective on the book (I worked with Sarah Gambito and later Catherine Barnett) (and then in my second year in the collective had the pleasure of working with Jean Paul Pecqueur on his collection The Case Against Happiness which will be published by AJB in November 2006), and then working with April Ossmann, executive director of the press. Working with April was like doing post-grad in revision and re-reading. She really forced me to look at nearly every single line, every single poem. Her edits were from the profoundly structural to the minute (e.g. "You use the word 'the' way too often in this book!").
I went away from my sessions with April unsure that any book could be "finished" regardless of whether it is set in print or not. In particular I had ghastly trouble with one poem that was later singled out for criticism in a review of the book. It made me think that I needed to head back to the earliest versions of the poem and see what I might have excised out that needed to be there.
When the book was finally printed, AJB sent me 10 copies of the book in a brown envelope. When it arrived in the mail, I knew exactly what it was, but I threw it in the back seat of the car while I drove around town running errands. I felt like it was my last chance to be "barefoot," as Emily Dickinson put it. It was an important state for me, to be innocent, to not-know, to have that poverty of expression I always felt before my book was accepted (Why am I doing this? Who will ever read these poems?), to have the purity of hunger. I felt I was going to turn a corner when I opened the envelope, that I would leave one state for another--I am not sure this actually happened or not, and in fact one of the issues I am wrestling with now is how to return that to that state of beginningness, doubly challenging since I make my living as a teacher and am supposed to know what to say about poetry.
So I drove around town for eight hours, and didn't open that envelope until the end of the day.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Alice James Books is a great press to work with. Since it is a collective we have a lot of input into how our book looks and its cover design. Mike Burton is the guy who designed my book and did it beautifully I think. I chose Centaur font because the bottom like of the "e" is slanted, because the dots over the "i" and "j" are not round, and because the tails of the "y" etc. are really carved. There was a quality of handwriting to the whole enterprise that appealed.
I told AJB that I didn't mind too much about the cover but that I didn't want an actual mosque on the cover--it felt too literal to me. I kept sending images which the designers were ruling out for various reasons--they didn't want it too abstract, I didn't want to use a photograph--so we were going back and forth and then I sent AJB a series of images of my own paintings. They loved them and really convinced me that the one painting was perfect.
It's ironic because several weeks earlier I had been home visiting my parents and I was telling my Mom that I was having a hard time choosing a cover image and she said, "Didn't you do a painting once that had just the outlines of a mosque on a red background?"
It speaks a little bit to the elusiveness of the actual "far mosque" in the poems of the book. I was happy that my own art could be used on the cover of this book as it was also on the cover of my novel Quinn's Passage. Perhaps my new publisher will let me use my art on the next cover too, though if that happens I will have established a pattern that I will never be able to get out of!
How has your life been different since?
My life has certainly changed. I accepted a teaching position, I've been doing lots of readings and events in connection with the book, and I've had my second book of poems accepted by an amazing publisher, BOA Editions. The critical question for me is now that I have two things I had sought after for so long (a first book and an accepted second book) how do I generate the emptiness of spirit necessary for poems to find their way to beginning? I don't want to become dependent on outside validation, but of course I can already sense it happening. The fact that I even ask these questions speaks to what has been taken away from me through the publication of the book. Is it true it is the "auction of the mind of man"?
At the same time, it is lovely and makes me feel brave to have to consciously work towards the blankness and lack. It is harder now because I actually have people who tell me they have read the work or like it, there have actually been a few reviews here and there, some attention has been given to this book, and so it is important for me to go back to my feeling at the beginning before it was printed, which was that these poems are not mine anymore, do not require me, though I myself may go back to them and love them and breathe them or read them.
What have you been doing to promote the book, and what are those experiences like for you?
I have always enjoyed doing readings and having a book to promote is a perfect excuse to be bolder than usual. I was pretty lucky in that I got several invitations that semester and I love saying yes to things. I read in the Academy of American Poets' Bryant Park series, read in a couple of different places around New York City and Beacon, NY, where I was then living, and then in the winter, Eve Grubin, Katie Ford, and I read together as "Young Poets of Faith" at the Auburn Theological Seminary and then at the Folger Library.
After the Folger reading, Jorie Graham moderated a question and answer period. It was an amazing experience because we all got to exchange thoughts with one another and with the audience itself. Katie had pretty much just come from a three-month stint in "exile" from her apartment and job in New Orleans post-hurricanes. Eve, a follower of Orthodox Judaism, was writing these incredibly complex and problematic poems about belief, human nature, morality, etc. And Jorie Graham was asking these brilliant, painful questions that I didn't want to answer. At one point she was asking about what it means to be "incarnate," i.e. a spirit made into flesh, and I started talking about my belief that every object in the world lives and speaks with a divine voice. An audience member challenged my belief saying that this sort of thought is what gets you into trouble--thinking that you are hearing the spirit speak and you know what the spirit wants. Rather than try to resist that or further clarify what I meant, I chose to be shaken. I chose to allow my belief to buckle under his idea. I carried his comment around with me in my head for weeks (and clearly it's still there since I am recounting it you!).
It was a nice (and terrifying) feeling to suddenly think: what if everything I wrote about was wrong? What if what I believe about god/universe is completely wrong?
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? What was the best advice you got?
My thesis advisor in graduate school, Mark Doty, was always telling me to mix up the book--make it stylistically uneven, you know: long poems, short poems, narrative poems, lyric poems, abstract, specific. He said something about thinking about a book like musical composition or architecture. Because I was writing a little experimentally, he gave me books like Ronald Johnson's ARK to see how a book could sing. I tried to get some of that disorder into The Far Mosque.
When I was initially trying to decide what was going to go into the book, I gave a folder with the same one hundred pages into it to two different friends. One friend, Kathy Graber, warned me that she was the wrong person to read my work--our aesthetics are different, our favorite poets are different, she honestly didn't think she was going to be fair to my work. Well she picked less than thirty pages out of the stack I gave her--eighteen poems I think, and that's the core of what became the book manuscript.
It's nice to think of the book as a record album--it's a compendium of all the writing that went on at that time but you know there are lots of other ghost-poems hovering behind and underneath the poems that made it into the book.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing (or other artistic pursuits)?
The book's acceptance forced a rupture or interruption in my writing of the new poems I began in February 2004. It wasn't until nearly April of 2005 (the submission of the final manuscript to the designer) that I was able to go back to the earlier work. After several more months of working, I began submitting that second manuscript to publishers and it was accepted in February 2006. So perhaps that "interruption" of the process is important to my creative process of being able to have distance from the work and hence being able to finish it.
As a matter of fact, in February 2006 I started writing long-hand poems on loose-leaf notebook paper (my regular writing process). As usual I did not save anything to the computer in the beginning. By summer I had roughly forty pages of work in a folder I was carrying around with me on my travels. Well, you guessed the end of the story: the end of summer comes around and no folder. It has just disappeared somewhere. I had to start writing again from scratch, memory, and very occasionally an earlier draft. That new manuscript is now cheerfully called "Dear Lostness."
I type things up on the computer now as soon as they are done. If I were Freudian I might say I was writing those poems just so I could lose them.
Do you want your life to change?
That's a beautiful question though currently phrased it only wants a "yes" or a "no." And is change a question of individual desire?
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Nothing can "change" the world the way you think it can. The world changes all on its own, all on its own accord. It's not "random" but the result of decisions and actions of countless eons past. If you are of a certain religious persuasion you can say this lifetime is an accumulation of choices made in past lifetimes, but even if you aren't inclined to that form of spirituality you can still agree that our current state of mind and body is determined by choices and decisions that go back years and decades, often to before we can even remember.
This is what Oracle was talking to Neo about on the park bench in Matrix Reloaded.
But the American government definitely showed you could change the world through language and quickly in the years between late 2001 and early 2003. I was thinking about a dear friend who I met for the first time in late August 2001 and the subsequent course of our relationship through the beginning of the "war" "on" "terror." How different our private friendship would have been had we as a polity chosen constructive action and not fear and revenge in that moment. So that's the smallest part of the world being affected by the biggest part of the world. I think it must work the other way around too.
I think we have to do what we do. Poetry (to me) can certainly be an influence for humanizing, for awakening the spirit to the present moment, which I think is critical. I have tremendous respect for poets like June Jordan, Mahmoud Darwish, Fanny Howe, Rachel Tzvia Back--it could be a long list if I keep going!--who are all political, some of them directly political as activists, others who address political situations in their work, and still others who act politically by tackling in art some of the eternal human situations and questions. Rachel Back's poem "Notes from the Wait" is going to stand as one of the great artistic statements about life in Israel in the last part of the 20th century/beginning of the new century. Will our world(s) be changed because of that poem? Yes, in a million different ways. But it is impossible to say how or see it happen.
A poem from The Far Mosque by Kazim Ali:
Eight white birds, wings tipped with black, flying away. Snow stretches below from dark to darkness.
This is the image of the soul leaving, says Catherine. I sent this postcard to my friends to announce the death of my sister.
Dusty blue above the pyramid of Saqqara. The kingdom ends here and the desert begins.
Near a carved doorway, a guard lurks. For five pounds he lets me go down into the cold inner tombs.
There, the ancient etchings have been defaced by hieroglyphic graffiti. "First dynasty ruffians," the guard explains, in pieces.
The roof is missing from the temple at the gate. Only the pillars attest to it.
There is a consonant in the middle of my Arabic name that my tongue cannot manage.
I mispronounce myself.
In a room full of shards at the museum, realizing the Egyptian artists practiced. Over and over again: a human figure from the side. Two feet evenly placed.
No attempt at approaching or retreating figures.
I love this painting of the cathedral by Van Gogh, says Catherine. There is no door, no way to get in.
. . .
next interview: Rachel Loden
. . .