Becoming Poet: Kazim Ali


We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the amazing Kazim Ali, author of six books of poetry, and over a dozen of prose and beautiful translations—here’s what he has to say about his journey of becoming poet.


What’s your relationship to rejection?

Kazim Ali: It isn’t easy, it’s always terribly difficult. Sometimes the work is returned because it isn’t ready or you’ve sent it to the wrong place. It takes time to remember the creation of art is alchemical, by which I mean you can’t measure it or know it. Rejection can be a blessing. Success can be rotten. Some of the most widely distributed poetry on the planet is some of the most terrible. So I suppose it depends what you are doing it for and why. If it’s to be famous or make a living, I can think of a lot of better ways to do either. So rejection is a teacher, both about the work and about your own practice, as a writer and a human.


When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?

KA: I can’t really remember. Probably early, around 16. It’s awfully pretentious when you haven’t really even written anything. But I think it is OK to call yourself a poet because it is an aspiration. Mostly it means that you see the world through music and through the beauty of language. And that a sense of beauty or music may be more important to you than just explaining things or describing things. Magic and mysticism is so much a part of my cultural background that I always wanted to be a wizard when we played Dungeons and Dragons as kids. So that too is a poet’s work.


What was the journey of getting your first book published?

KA: It was a meandering journey. I didn’t have a project in mind, I was just writing individual poems. I had done an MFA but I was very unfocused and worked mostly independently. My MFA was more of an apprenticeship for me, I was trying to figure things out, write really experimentally. Often I would spend months and months reading one book. I spent a semester just reading Swarm by Jorie Graham; I spend much of the year after graduation reading If In Time, Ann Lauterbach’s Selected Poems. I spent a good two and a half months in my last semester of grad school reading Joan Retallack’s book Afterrimages. So these writers were very much my teachers too as much as anyone I sat in a room with. Plus I was all over the map with my writing practice. I had more than one teacher and more than one fellow student tell me they had no idea what I was doing. It was OK because I didn’t either. The poems eventually sparkled together, they made a constellation of meaning. I suppose that, like a constellation, one sees a different shape in the sky depending on how you fill in the blanks. Or you can just enjoy the stars.


How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?

KA: Well at least partly you move to write in your journal or write a letter or read deeply. But mostly I do not stress out too much about times when I am not writing because when I *am* writing, I write intensely. I have written a book in a month (Fasting for Ramadan), I wrote a book in four months (Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities), once I wrote a book in sixteen days (Anais Nin: An Unprofessional Study). On the other hand, certain books takes years and years and years to come together. It probably took me eight years to write the material that became Silver Road: Essays, Maps and Calligraphies, but of that eight years, one set of pieces took me a week and a half, another set of pieces took me a month, another set of pieces took me around six months and the final set of pieces took me two days. So there’s a lot of “dry spells” in my writing process, but can you really call them purposeless? Things cross-fertilize. Richness arises without harbinger.


What’s part of your job as a poet that would surprise most people?

KA: I suppose the above. I publish a lot. A fair amount. In the last not-quite-fifteen years I’ve published more than twenty books. So I suppose I am what is called “prolific” but there are long spells when I am not working at all. It feels like necessary silence. Silence is a part of my life as a poet. And it is frightening and divine.