Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali headshot

In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?

It will be useful first to try to define "American." This country resists itself; what it claims to be chafes always against its reality. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that in its founding it delineated a set of defining values for itself that were false; those of different colored skin and different genders were excluded from the polity. More than two centuries in and we are still defined by gender based inequality enforced by executive, legislative and judicial law. This disconnect between thought and deed is part of what must be thought of as "American."

"American" must also mean multiplicities as we are a nation of countless ethnicities, countless languages, and countless experiences, none of which have a greater or lesser claim to life in the "nation" than any other. And truth be told, in a place where any place has two names or more, we are not "one nation" after all, but many. When we think of a unified or singular American identity, we lose the chance to truly understand our selves and one another. As Bryan Bearheart writes:

Biitan-akiing-enabijig is Ojibwe.
I can't tell you what it means.
We sit on cuspis.
A horizon. A margin.
What makes us "not them."
I only wish I could speak in tongue.

Our chance is to become a pluralistic society, diminishing old class, gender, race, national, and sexual lines that configured most historically hierarchical world societies, and then reconfigure a new "American" society that functions on collective enterprise, cultural and artistic growth, and individual human development and betterment. The "American Dream" has always been not communitarian but individual, based on not only a desire but a need to "get ahead," despite any shortcomings. So, to cite only one example, Malcolm X once criticized our Civil Rights Movement for orienting itself around the individual right to vote or participate in unsegregated arenas of commerce (buses, businesses, restaurants), rather than building class-based solidarity within the United States with labor unions and movements and international solidarity with African nations who were at the same time struggling for independence against European and American powers who controlled mineral interests and thus the political and economic institutions of power on the continent. These were bridges that Martin Luther King, Jr. was beginning to build when he was killed.

Is another part of being "American" this self-orientation toward our own concerns and what happens within our own borders, while still requiring the labor, water, land and mineral resources of every other place in the world? In other words, our material comfort, cultural production, and individual human development and betterment does not rely on any reconfigurement of gender-, race-, class-, or nation-based hierarchies, but actually on an institution of them backed up by American military power (easy when more than 50 cents of every tax dollar goes to support that power), and global political and financial institutions.

We are a long way from the hoped for definition of "American" we aspire to and still aspire to somewhere in our minds, I believe. So as "American" poets, we do have both versions of America within us, since as citizens of the polity we still do (mostly) benefit from our luck and our willingness to go along, by continuing to elect and support leaders who subscribe to the "American Exceptionalism" doctrine and use U.S. financial and military power to support it.

But we have a chance also, with our language, with the form and focus of our art to begin delineating the truth of our lives as it is and to start imagining on paper and in space the differences we hope to enact.

In Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song, he writes of a lost connection between language, place and lived experience. In speaking of his grandfather, he writes:

Years before, he would have named this season
By flattening a field where grasshoppers jumped into black smoke.

The season, in this case, like the American landscape itself, is not named for the explorer's imperialist ambitions—as Paul Virilio once claimed, the American imperial object is ever outward: once the Pacific was reached, the incursions continued into the ocean itself; once the hands of empire reached out and around the planet and met each other coming, the direction changed into outer space—or for a romantic idea of the self defined from or manipulated by "nature" but instead for the psychic and kinetic qualities of the land itself.

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about American poetry?

If the strength of American poetry is its hybrid qualities and leanings, its weakness is also particularly American: its amnesia of history and language, but not a passive amnesia of forgetting, but a brutal and intentional act of erasure: towns and neighborhoods named after plants, animals, and people who no longer exist there. There is a city in Florida called Miami and more than a thousand miles away in Ohio, there is a river called Miami. You have to draw a line between those two places to spell out the word "America."

In M. L. Smoker's poem "From the River's Edge," she writes about the fragmentation inherent in being separated from ones sources by a larger external narrative and the ability of poetry to bridge that divide: "Can a poet speak of a/second version of her mother?" She goes on to write:

…The one who lives in a
silent cave where she allows no visitors, gives no interviews.
Her memoir is being written there by a shadow seven feet
tall that can hold no pen or pencil, both hands missing.
My living mother dreams of new waters that have no
adequate translation.

So in this historical moment, the possibilities of the various American languages seem two-fold: to either homogenize and smooth out all difference (one American urge) or to continue to splinter, refract one another, create dozens of new and glorious forms of creative expression.

And about nations and languages that have disappeared or been suppressed: history isn't just something that happened. As Utah Phillips said, "The past didn't go anywhere." Native, indigenous and aboriginal populations on the American continent and around the world struggle every day for political self-determination and ownership of their own local land and mineral resources; in other words liberation from imperialism, whether political, economic or cultural.

So what we really need, every American poet, are forms and approaches and languages like Sherwin Bitsui's, M. L. Smoker's, Bryan Bearheart's—and Dawn Lundy Martin's, Gillian Conoley's, Mark Nowak's, Myung Mi Kim's, C.D. Wright's—forms that hold within them the voices of alterity, the parallels of experience, are lyric and narrative forms that embrace and present new possibilities of understanding America and American experiences.

At the end of his poem, "Ars Poetica," Orlando White writes beautifully of the real physical and erotic possibilities when language and experience twist around each other, when the form of the lyric is allowed to fracture and grow anew under the pressure of contemporary realities of alienation, distance and technology:

I opened an envelope addressed to me. I pulled out a blank sheet of paper, unfolded it.
In the letter: no message, no sender's name, just a white space.
"I like that you exist," she said. Like the lowercase i, my body felt present on a
page: fitted in a dark suit, white necktie, and inside the black dot, a smile.
But it was the way her skin felt as she dressed into a black outfit. The way her
body slipped into a long dark dress shaped like a shadow.
He picked up a stone; held it to his ear. Shook it like a broken watch. He opened
it, and inside were small gears, shaped like a clock.
I am a skeleton, a sentence, too. Although like you, I am neither a meaning nor
a structure, just silence in a complete thought.

Here language itself lives, changes through our actions. The stone has little gears inside and why would it: it is telling time. "In the Lakota language," Layli Long Soldier told me, "the word for God or Creator, which is "Tunkasila" which also means grandfather.) But the root of Tunkasila is "Tunkan" – which means stone, a sacred stone or a stone of great power. What is the connection between a stone and God/grandfather?" In White's case, who is Diné rather than Lakota, not only the stones speak but every component of conceptual and physical meaning-making.

Besides supporting art like this, art that confronts all dimensions of the "American" experience, we have to also acknowledge the real military, political, and economic empire as well as the cultural apparatus— what Nowak calls the "Neo-Liberal Language Industry" in his excellent book Workers of the Word, Unite and Fight!—that supports that matrix of reality—a reality in which notions of "plurality" and "hybridity" and "alterity" are just three more convenient ways of organizing a population into compliant behavior and tokenizing a couple of voices of in order to avoid seeing or seeking out the rest of them.

What role do historical and geographical factors play in American poetry and your work in particular? What other aspects of your life (gender, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, religious beliefs) relate to your sense of being a poet in America?

Our multilingualism and cultural openness have made many spaces in poetry. Kimiko Hahn's writing between poetry and prose, Meena Alexander's innovations in the lyric between sense and sound (especially in her latest book Quickly Changing River), Agha Shahid Ali's transportation (literally) of the ghazal into English (or was it that he transported English-language poetry to the form of the ghazal?) are all examples that seem particularly American to me, as much the benefit of English as a meeting place.

Indian English, I can tell you, is a separate language, both spoken and written, from American English. It has different words, different intonations and pronunciations, different accepted sentence order, different syntax. In my book Bright Felon I tried as hard as I could to tell the story of my life the only way I knew how. I did not have the intention of writing "poetry" or "poems" or "memoir" while I was doing it, only sentences. The genre-queerness of that book, called both poetry and prose and prose-poetry, is specifically related to the idea that life-writing should follow the patterns of a "by-the-book" formula of both chapter, structure, sentence and paragraph, that a life can't fundamentally be "queer," impossible to tell in any other way. And besides, I'm not the first one to try it: Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Darwish, Alistair McCartney, Sarah Manguso, and so many others I am sure have written prose memoirs that dispense with all the usual expectations of what the form ought to do.

Writers like Myung Mi Kim or Sherwin Bitsui or Tracie Morris are actually making new spaces in American poetry, both in terms of what poetry is supposed to look and sound like and also in terms of what its social function as literature actually is. Lucille Clifton wrote, "i was born in babylon/ both nonwhite and woman./ i had no models." At least in terms of poetry, for myself, I no longer feel this way: I feel there are so many models for me now.

We have a timeless tradition to draw from. I remember at the original "What's American About American Poetry" symposium in 1999 when Thylias Moss caused controversy at a panel on literary ancestors. "Some of us don't have people as literary forebears," she declared to the horror of some of the other more conservative panelists. "For some of us the land is our forebear. For some of us whose ancestors lay in slaveships a crack of blue seen between the plans was our literary forebear."

In dg nanouk okpik's poem cycle "For-the-spirits-who-have-rounded-the-bend," she confronts the tradition of the "identity" and "coming-of-age" poems in surprising and inventive ways that marry a concern with sound to the more traditional folk images. Rather than being a marrying of opposites, in okpik's work, it feels absolutely contemporary and unified:

…Then as the ligature of Inuit light flux and flows
like herds of walrus, passing along the coast, Yes then, but maybe
this is a seal hook of bear claws clipping me to the northern tilt,
pinning me to the cycle of night when the day slows, the wind
shifts to cloud, and the moon shadow grows to sun loops.

Since she is clipped to the "northern tilt" and pinned to movements of night and day, she is able to discover through the process of transformation she undergoes throughout the poem that nothing is lost, that she can live wholly and fully, connected to all her various human and animal sources. There is a danger in it, to be sure, but in the end it is the winged heart that speaks of hope and strength:

…After the border of flesh and church, after the old book is read,
and ivory with scrimshaw is used with rib tools to create Okvik
not Christianity, when the bell tones across the sound, until then,
I will wash ashore in a dazed white-out, hide flesh to beach
with my fore-claws hanging limply, my hooded golden
eyes with concentric circles, lines on my chin,
with a large backbone for my lungs, and a heart of spotted wings.

I think of something Naomi Shihab Nye wrote, in 1999, in her response to the question "What's American About American Poetry?" Nye said, "When I was working overseas on various occasions, poets in other countries would remark that we American poets have a luxury they do not have: we are free to write about tiny "insignificances" any time we want to…We write about personal lives, minor idiosyncrasies, familial details, tomatoes—not feeling burdened to explore larger collective issues all the time, which is something writers elsewhere often consider part of their endless responsibility."

There is a way in which all American life, American writing and poetry included, participates in the historical (and geographical!) amnesia inherent in the concept of "America." What is the responsibility of the writer? When you look one place, there is another place you are not looking. We will have to think for a long time to figure out where we are and who are and what we are doing in this place, thought to be ours from "sea to shining sea," ours by some form of "manifest destiny," some form of "American exceptionalism."

In her essay "Poetics of Generosity," Judith E. Johnson writes, "I am not Alterity: I will not play that role in your mind or in my own. I am not Shakespeare's sister Judith, whose existence Virginia Woolf divined in her prophetic sanity. I am Judith, and Shakespeare is this Judith's brother." She refuses to be defined by her "absence from the center of discourse." She goes on to suggest a new way of thinking about the American poetic landscape:

Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot define the 19th Century English novel; if that definition does not hold Dickens, Thackeray, and Meredith, they are the deviation from the norm, and their Alterity makes them contingent. Ethel Schwabacher defines Abstract Expressionism; Jackson Pollack is the deviation. Muriel Rukeyser defines the poetics of energy- transfer; Charles Olson is the deviation…you, our illustrious male colleagues and brothers, are the deviation. It will be healthy for you to see yourselves in the full brilliance of your own Alterity for a while, to study our practice as the human norm, and to wonder when and why you strayed from us.

American poets have so much to learn from each other; it has always been precisely those underseen or underheard texts that have provided the greatest influence on the literary landscape at large when they are revealed. Need we any more proof than Dickinson's poems, Nin's uncensored diaries, Melville's late stories? In the case of all three, gender and sexuality were at play in the suppression.

Natalie Diaz is one of the most exciting poets I have read recently. In her poem "Soiree Fantastique," she takes ancient European myth and weaves it together with contemporary American situations and idiom:

Houdini arrived first, with Antigone on his arm.
Someone should have told her it was rude
to chase my brother in circles with such a shiny shovel.
She only said, I'm building the man a funeral.
But last I measured, my brother was still a boy.

As with most wild parties featuring the dead, things can only get crazier when Jesus shows up:

There are violins playing. The violins are on fire—
they are passed around until we're all smoking. Jesus coughs,
climbs down from the cross of railroad ties above the table.
He's a regular at these carrion revelries, and it's annoying
how he turns the bread to fish, especially when we have sandwiches.

Neither the escape artist, nor the son of god, two men who specialized in fulfilling destinies are able to console Antigone and explain to her why she will not be permitted to bury the young brother. Only the speaker of the poem is left to explain it to her, taking away her spade, saying:

We aren't here to eat, we are being eaten.
Come, pretty girl. Let us devour our lives.

Part of our answer is to now start experience poetry not solely in the mind, nor solely visually, nor solely aurally but through all the senses at once. When I commented to Layli Long Soldier that I felt something of the influence of Gertrude Stein in her poems, she told me of her appreciation of Stein by both sight and sound, and of her various other infuences including Cubist painters and Canadian writer bp Nichol. Referencing Stein, she told me of the traditional "jingle-dress" in many Native American cultures, a dress which would literally create a sonic experience as the wearer moved around in space. Here is the beginning of Layli's prose poem "Edge":

This drive along the road the bend the banks behind the wheel
I am called Mommy. My name is Mommy on these drives the
sand and brush the end of winter we pass. You in the rearview
double buckled back center my love. Your mother's mouth has
a roof your mother's mouth is a church. A hut in a field lone
standing. The thatched roof has caught spark what flew from
walls the spark apart from rock from stable meaning.

It's not enough to say as Americans we have to understand our history. We have to also understand the here and now, the voices we have not heard, couldn't or wouldn't, voices that help to construct and reveal new rooms in the houses of our understanding.

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think of American poets, non-American poets? Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

I think the way I think about it, Mahmoud Darwish is a most "American" poet. He and his family fled his home in 1947, returning without papers, he lived in internal exile for most of his young life, and then as an expatriate in Moscow, Tripoli, Beirut and Paris, before finally returning home in 1997. His poetry constantly engaged with the question of "exile," but it wasn't long before he realized that "exile" is a spiritual and metaphysical condition as well.

He came to America only once, for an operation on his heart. Fady Joudah, the Palestinian-American poet who has been translating Darwish, writes a beautiful essay about his first and only meeting with Darwish—at a coffee shop in the local supermall. In that peculiarly American locale, poet and translator talk together first time, sharing stories, talking about poetry.

That's the key, isn't it? In this life, supported by millions of gallons of oil, this strange life of buildings dropped on top of scoured land, this weird American landscape, this odd reality in which our primary responsibility as flesh and bone entities seems to be to consume, to receive and spend money, well where do you find the poetry, by which I mean any spiritual sustenance at all?

Let me wander anywhere and hope Darwish is waiting for me. True, he is buried in Palestine, but he died here, in Texas of all places, and perhaps something of his spirit also lingers here, haunting the place, reminding us, as he wrote in his great poem "Song of the Red Indian," "Oh white man, of all the dead who are still dying, both those who live and those who return to tell the tale/ Let's give the earth enough time to tell the whole truth about you and us./ The whole truth about us./ The whole truth about you."

What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?

For one thing, I think the "American Century" is soon over. Within the next thirty or forty years, when the global food production and distribution system, utterly unsustainable, moves into crisis, when water availability and sustainability moves into a crisis point, as fossil fuels begin to evaporate and disappear, only societies who have been able to do more with less will be able to cope. Our society will necessarily be required to start making real and concrete steps in this direction, exploring free energy, free health care and free primary, secondary and higher education for everyone within the borders.

Some time in the next century, we will have to learn, probably quickly and in an atmosphere of duress (whether external or internal or some combination of the two), how to live without many of the things we take very much for granted—to cite three varied examples: fresh vegetables in the winter, regularly scheduled air travel, and round-the-clock availability of electrical power and tap-water. Are we heading back to pioneer days? We will be pioneering in our own hearts the routes of connectedness between us and the earth, us and everyone around us.

Language, modes of communication, and availability to communication media will be critically important in the new world; they will save us, and by us I mean "all" of us: one of the things I think will need to happen is end to Nationalism, not an end to nations, necessarily, but an end to the project of nation-building certainly. We will necessarily return to locally based economies and with it, naturally, we will probably return to locally based languages and forms of cultural expressions and a form of multilingualism quite common in the world and in marginal American populations but not yet in the mainstream.

As access to fresh water diminishes, silicon production must necessarily dwindle, so I wonder what the future of electronics will be. We'll find a way to stay in touch with each other, I'm sure of that, but I think a return to the most ancient sources of art, dance and poetry, seems also inevitable. I think poetry will move back to the oral, back to the musical and back to the mysterious and spiritual and difficult.

Long Soldier's poem "Edge" continues:

Large car steady at the curve palest light driest day a field
of rocks we are not poor sealed in windows. You hum in the back.
I do not know what to say how far to go the winter near dead
as we drive you do not understand word for word the word
for you is little. But you hear how it feels always. The music
plays you swing your feet. And I see it I Mommy the edge
but do not point do not say look as we pass the heads gold
and blowing these dry grasses eaten in fear by man and horses.

It draws both from her own personal experiences, landscape and physical environment, the sound textures of Stein, and a postmodern linguistic and theoretical sensibility. With visionary work like this, which looks backward and forward at once, which encompasses all of the magnificent differences and all the "Americas."

Maybe it is better for us to look at work like this—Bitsui, White, Long Soldier, Diaz, Bearheart,okpik—as the real American poetry and what we think of as the Anglo-American literary tradition as the tradition of alterity, of deviation, that this landscape, on this continent, this strange life, needs to be explained in terms of Native contemporary Native writers who have been able to fuse the Anglo-American literary tradition with Native languages, poetics and forms of expression.

And if we thus take up the position of Alterity, one which immigrants to this continent have always had, then we can wonder: When did we and why did we stray from them? It is a question worth asking.

Published 2010.

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