Kazim Ali is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction, essays and translation, including most recently Bright Felon (mixed genre poetry/prose), which was a finalist for both the Ohioana Book Award for Poetry and the Lantern Award for Memoir, as well as the essay collections Orange Alert and Fasting for Ramadan.
Kazim co-founded the small press Nightboat Books and continues to serve as its founding editor. He is co-editor of the volume This-World Company: On the Poetry of Jean Valentine, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. In addition to teaching in the Stonecoast MFA program, he is associate professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. In 2009 he received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.
Quinn's Passage (novel), BlazeVox Books, 2005 The Far Mosque (poetry), Alice James, 2005 The Fortieth Day (poetry), BOA Editions, 2008 The Disappearance of Seth (novel), Etruscan Press, 2009 Bright Felon: Autiobiography and Cities (prose/poetry), Wesleyan, 2009 Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence, University of Michigan Press, 2010 Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice, Tupelo Press, 2011 Water's Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (translation), Omnidawn, 2011 This-World Company: On the Poetry of Jean Valentine (editor), University of Michigan Press, 2012
I am a lover of all poetry and I believe, as Donald Revell has written in his book Invisible Green, that poetry is not necessarily found in poems. In fact, Revell says, (I’ll paraphrase his pretty lengthy discussion), a “poem” is what’s left after “poetry” has passed through a place. The poem is the record for the true “poetry”—the experience in the poet’s own self/body/soul during the writing of the poem. It’s possible as a reader of such poem to approximate that experience of “poetry,” and that’s what we are all looking for—that chill in the heart when Mrs. Ramsay decides not to go down to the beach with the young people after dinner, to use an example from fiction.
By writing stronger and stranger and more powerful and risky poems, by going deeper into the spiritual and psychic spaces of our experiences, we can come closer and closer to sources of poetry.
While my interest is always in the spiritual, the ineffable, the strange and unspeakable in the poems we write, my approach to teaching is very brass tacks. I am as interested in received forms and traditional metrics as I am in very experimental and innovative approaches to form, say Susan Howe’s book-length Europe of Trusts, or Jena Osman’s lovely poem “The Periodic Table as Compiled by Dr. Zhivago, Occultist.” As a poet and a teacher I am really interested in the question of “form,” both in terms of the over-all shape of the poem, how its mechanical structure furthers its rhetorical aim or intellectual/spiritual originary focus, and also very basically and musically down to the poem’s primary element: the poetic line, or in the case of prose poems, the prose sentence.
I love to work with students opening up new doors or approaches to their subject matter. I believe in magic, accident, chance operations, and radical revision. In a workshop taught by Olga Broumas, I once chanted a poems in vowels only, spent half an hour in ritual silence, spoke my name the way my mother spoke it, sang a poem to Olga spontaneously. The exercises have haunted my poetic practice ever since. The exercises I develop for my own students range from the strictly metric and formal—I myself learned how to write poetry by imitating forms and metrical schemes from the wonderful anthology Strong Measures edited by Phillip Dacey and David Jauss—to the extremely inventive and postmodern approaches of various contemporary experimental poets. I look forward to working closely with students who are willing to explore the subject material and the forms of their poems equally, who have a serious but playful, daring but respectful attitude towards their work.
In terms of comments on student work, this usually means I like to take a little bit of time to let the work sink in, and then offer as many suggestions in terms of subject or theme as I do in terms of the form or rhetorical strategy of a poem. Being widely read in contemporary poetry, I also like to suggest authors for students to read and try to take something from into their own work.
I believe that engagement with tradition in poetry and poetics is radically important to the making of art. Since I also have a background in dance and in visual art, I am really interested in how other artists (filmmakers, composers, dancers, sculptors, architects, etc.) conceptualize and carry out their own art-making. I pay very careful attention to student annotations and critical writings, with an eye towards helping the student to develop new approaches in her own work. Critical annotations are an essential part of students graduate education and so I place great emphasis on a rigorous engagement with the work, though I am open to other creative approaches to critical work besides the strictly academic (see Dan Beachy-Quick’s book Spell or Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark for very fresh creative approaches to serious literary criticism).
The key is the willingness to play and experiment. We have to in order to break past the quotidian, dominant use of language as a tool of moneyed interests to induce us to consumption. It seems that for language to be in service of poetry it has to break free from old rhetorical and syntactic patterns and become new, a creature of itself. In this way we can work through our moments of “poetry” to construct “poems,” legible records of this journey. The poet needs to be equally an oracle of unheard sounds, but also an able craftsman and artisan. I aim to help students develop both sides of themselves as writers.