Blas Falconer talks to Kazim Ali on stillness as punctuation, the pause before moving forward, a parent’s death, aftershocks, and what’s next.
AFTER A READING from Sukun: New and Selected Poetry (Wesleyan Press) at San Diego’s Book Catapult, Kazim Ali sat down with Blas Falconer to discuss and celebrate the book’s release. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, followed by a few poems from the collection.
Kazim Ali’s books include poetry, fiction, essay, and cross-genre work. He has translated books by Marguerite Duras, Ananda Devi, and Sohrab Sepehri. He founded the small press Nightboat Books in 2004 and is professor and chair of the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego.
Blas Falconer: It’s such a milestone to publish a volume of New and Selected Poems; how does it feel to earn such an achievement?
Kazim Ali: Kind of weird because I’m not dead yet! But cool because there’s this trajectory from the beginning where I felt like now I can put it all together in a way. Now it’s really fun.
Recently, I was in Chicago listening to Adonis, the Great Syrian poet, and someone asked him what he thinks of his previous works, and he said, “I do not exist in what I have written in the past; I exist in what I have yet to write.”
The name of the book is Sukun, which means stillness, calmness, and serenity, but it’s also a form of punctuation in Arabic with no English equivalent. It’s a mark over a consonant that ends the sentence with no other sound but also has a deeper meaning. This book has allowed me to say here’s my Sukun; I’m gonna pause for a moment here, and move forward into whatever’s next.
BF: Looking over your body of work, we see that there are many recurring themes, images, and figures like Icarus. But also we can note a number of aesthetic changes. For example, you gravitate towards shorter lines in the first book, but later you seem to privilege the sentence. At some point, you abandon punctuation. Can you speak more on the evolution of your art?
KA: I always wanted to try something new. With whatever book was next, I always wanted to move in a different direction. So, there are drastic formal shifts that happened from book to book except the book Inquisition (2018), which includes works spanning around ten to twelve years. That book is a little varied because the poems were written over a long period. Other than that, I was always questing for something new.
I always knew I had little obsessions. I was always going to write about God. I was always going to write about the very complicated relationship with my family and my parents. However, it wasn’t until I started to compile the poems for this collection that I realized how obsessed I was with certain images. Sometimes, I even reused images, phrases, or constructions with similar themes in selecting poems, and I leaned into that. You’ll find two poems seventy pages apart with the same line used. We played certain tricks throughout the book, like on pages forty-seven and 147 both use the same line, kind of like an Easter egg.
BF: How did you determine which poems you would select for the book?
KA: That was really hard. I moved back and forth a lot. And even now, there are times when I think I have chosen a selection but ended up not. I love the fact that it is imperfect and it quivers, and that at a later point in my life, I might choose differently.
But this did become its own book. It starts with new poems, then it goes collection by collection, and then it ends with new poems. It’s kind of circular in that way, like a Sukun. Within the collections, the poems don’t appear exactly how they were in the original book. I allowed myself that freedom to kind of move them around. I did revise these poems. So there are different versions. Sometimes significantly. There’s one poem from my most recent book, The Voice of Sheila Chandra, that I radically rewrote. There are essays in the book as well, including an Afterword called “Faith and Silence” about the distance between me and God and the distance between me and my mother. It’s now taken on new residence due to the passing of my mother during the production of his book. It’s about her absence in my life and the silence that lay between us. The text hasn’t changed but the meaning of the essay has due to her passing.
BF: In the “Afterword” you address spirituality. Can you talk about how spirituality appears thematically and how it shapes the poems themselves in terms of style? Spirituality as a subject but also how it shapes the way you write.
KA: In the beginning, I really wanted to understand the tradition I was raised in and I wanted to make space for myself as a queer person. As I became more interested in Yoga philosophy, it became a way for me to explore my relationship with that tradition, and I’ve reached a point in my spirituality where I don’t need to explain myself anymore to anyone. There are battles I am not interested in fighting anymore. This book draws from poems written over a span of twenty-five years, I was a different human at the time. In a way, I cared more about spirituality. Or I was more afraid. All of that has changed for me. And yet I don’t know where I’m going to go next because the seismic event of my mother’s passing has aftershocks that are not done yet. I’ve written very little since that happened. I’ve written ten pages since that’s happened. That’s actually a lot. I take it back.
BF: One thing I noticed is that in the sonically driven readings, all that wordplay feels related to prayer. Is there a connection between themes of spirituality and the devices used?
KA: The first poetry that I listened to was in Urdu and Arabic. They were religious songs and recitations from the Quran. Urdu was one of the languages I spoke as a child. I can understand but not speak it. But I know its rhythms and music–different from that of English prosody or song. The Shi’as (we are Shi’a) sing mourning songs, and I always heard Arabic poetry because the Quran is written in poetry. But for me, not understanding either literary Urdu or Arabic, when I heard the songs and verses recited, the syllables were pure sound. Not having ‘meaning’ just turned me on to poetry in a different way.
BF: Can you talk about the new poems at the end of the book?
KA: They’re all poems I wrote when I moved to California. It was a seismic move for me. I lived in the Northeast, I lived in cold places my whole life. My move to California was an existential and spiritual crisis, but crossing that mountain range, I realized I would never go back. I might go back to visit but not to live. I feel really shifted. My body is responding to the new elements in the air and water and ground. That might be what you see in the new works.