Interview with Joey De Jesus


Joey De Jesus: Your latest book, Sky Ward, was published earlier this year. It is organized loosely around a revision of the Icarus myth. I am very curious as to why, in your rewriting of that myth, you chose for Icarus to survive his fall.

Kazim Ali: I never planned for him to survive the fall. The book was to end with the poem "Follower" which ends in mid-sentence; the idea was that Icarus was in the moment of falling at the end of the book—sort of a reverse homage to Paradise Lost.

I gave a reading where I confessed to the audience that I didn't know how to end the sequence perhaps because I myself, the disobedient son, was still trying to reconcile, still trying to stop from falling. One of the people at the reader said to me, "You should write a poem where he is falling and looking up at the feathers floating away."

But after I completed "The Promise of Blue," which ends with the Greg/Icarus figure walking along the beach, having survived his fall from the sky, I realized that if I could survive then perhaps Icarus may have a life after his plunge in the water after all. The trick was how could he have survived since we know his wings melted from his back? And what must he have thought falling, watching them flutter away? So I wrote the poem "Confession."

JDJ: When I heard you read for the Poetry Project a few months ago, you read "The Wrestler" and "The Promise of Blue" from Sky Ward, and shared with us the story behind how these poems came to be and how they've been received. Would you mind repeating those stories for the KIN audience?

KA: I was asked in the summer of 2012 by NPR to participate in what they were calling the "Poetry Games." They were asking one poet from each continent to write a poem inspired by an Olympic sport. At the time I was deep in the end motions of revising my book Sky Ward which takes as its central recurring metaphor the myth of Icarus, the boy who fell from the sky, the disobedient sun who flew too close to Glory for his father's comfort.

I leapt at the chance of doing the assignment because the myth of Icarus is very personal to me and I needed some relief from it. When I thought of writing about a sport or athlete I was immediately attracted to Greg Louganis, who I find very inspiration as someone who surmounted deep odds, a person of color, someone who cares for animals and who practices astanga yoga. Little did I know that my muse let me to Greg's iconic moment, when he hit his head on the diving board and fell into the water.

So Icarus again.

As it turned out, another poet, one from Europe, mentions Greg's name in his poem and so the producer told me I couldn't use mine. If I still wanted to participate, they told me, I would have to do another poem in three days. There's nothing like a little pressure to get you going. I fell heavily back onto the architecture of form. Of course everyone knows how much easier it is to write a poem in form and meter and I was able to do it in three days. That poem was "The Wrestler."

It's had quite a life—it's been reprinted several times in sports—related anthologies, it was printed on baseball cards and handed out at games by a poetry organization in Florida, it was even featured on the website of a Mixed Martial Arts training academy along with a commentary by the director of the school saying how fully I had captured the spirit of sports-combat and martial arts. Of course what I was thinking of when I wrote was sort of the young gay man's answer to Marie Howe's poem "Practicing." If you know what I mean.

JDJ: Would you elaborate on the point you've made, that "everyone knows how much easier it is to write a poem in form and meter"?

KA: When you begin writing a poem into space, formal verse gives you a structure and architecture for that poem; to me it seems the real work of a writer is discovering within a poem its rules and regulations, the channels for its energy. Some forms—the sonnet, the ghazal, haiku—seem to transcend linguistic and cultural origins and become of global significance and usefulness in many languages. Others, for example sapphic stanzas, seem valuable precisely because they don't translate as well so they force a poet writing in English, for example, to work three times as hard to match the rhythms of English into this dactylic-trochaic structure that would be much easier to achieve in Sappho's Greek. But the reason I think writing formal verse is easier in general to write than free verse is that it's harder: it makes the poet work harder. It is easier to be lazy in free verse, easier not to pay attention to either music or meaning, easier to throw an improperly balanced pot, as it were.

JDJ: Why did you choose to lead the collection with "Journey to Providence"? Also, can you speak about its formation—tercets separated by large blocks of white space. I wonder how the poem found itself in this form and if the sound play (anastrophe, repetition, internal rhyme etc...) played into that. Can you speak to how the white space functions in this piece?

Kazim Ali: This was a difficult poem. I had two homes that I was shuttling between in the 2005-2006 academic year. That summer I traveled a lot, including to my sister's wedding. All along I had been writing poems long hand on loose leaf paper that I kept in a folder. At some point I lost the folder. I was devastated of course but as a writer you just turn the page and write more. At some point, back at home in the Bronx I decided to try to write from memory as much as I could remember of that lost book. Those scraps became the heart of "Journey to Providence."

"Providence" was both the abstract concept but also the actual city.

My idea was to write short lyrics that a person could memorize. That each of them together would form the poem's sensibility. That the poem wouldn't be "about" something, but be the journey itself. So it led me along. I hadn't intended for it to open the book at all but it insisted on that place.

JDJ: Tell me about "Lake House," the first poem of yours to be published at KIN. It reads to me like an incantation: each image listed is an image conjured and seemingly offered to something unnameable, the "utterly unceasing." I don't quite think I'd ever read a poem of yours like this one before. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking how writing prayer has changed for you, and how is your approach different in this book from your previous ones.

Kazim Ali: "Lake House" came from complete music, a reading of Sappho's Gymnasium, a collaborative book by T Begley and Olga Broumas, one of my ur-texts in the art of poetry. I was working in sound and rhythm as well, reading a lot of Emily Dickinson (as always) and Susan Howe (who borrows heavily from Dickinsonian prosody, at least in Europe of Trusts). Too, I was thinking about Orthodox communities in New York where there is rumor that they have strung thread around certain lamp posts to make a "house," so they can wander freely during the Sabbath. I wasn't so interested in the "bending" of rules as a I was in the notion that "home" is an empty space and uncontainable. In that sense it must be the opposite of, not a synonym for, "house."

JDJ: "Bright Felon Alternate Ending" might be my favorite poem in the collection; I absolutely love the imagery and the ending. I am curious if you can articulate what the imperative was for you to write this poem and what it accomplishes that you feel Bright Felon, your book of essays, didn't, or couldn't.

KA: Well, long after Bright Felon was completed and even published I kept writing it. I wanted to imagine a different ending, one where the "convicted son" won, meaning was welcomed back into his family home despite what the social structure around the parents was saying.

The father in Sky Ward is twice described as being "furious," first in the poem "The Escape," and secondly in this poem. But in each, even though he is "furious" he is still trying to find and harbor his lost son. It's the closest thing to the truth that I could bear at the moment to tell.

Bright Felon (and Sky Ward, too, for that matter) are both very earnest and serious books. I borrowed the language of DVD production— "alternate ending," "deleted scenes," the "notes on the screenplay," etc— partially as a way of leavening that, allowing myself to see the humor in all the high drama. Of course "Alternate Ending" does not come off as funny at all, but very bittersweet; the "alternate ending" of course is the one that doesn't make the final cut, it's the ending that doesn't happen.

JDJ: Have you continued writing Sky Ward in the same way you've continued to write Bright Felon after its publication? If so, has it manifested in revised poems or new pieces? Your poem "Hymn" answers the last line in the poem "Confession" which reads "I swear I'll find some place on this earth that knows me" and, I think in many ways, finishes the book, but I found it so peculiar that you ended the collection with a dash, insinuating that this story of Icarus/the speaker continues in the world.

KA: Yes, I continued writing poems about Icarus, Icarus after his fall, after his self-declaration of identity and strength that comes in "Confession." But I chose only two to include in the book— there's "Promise of Blue," which revisits him many years after the crisis, important I think because our lives are not lived in crisis, but in those long boring moments in between. "Hymn" was important for me to include because no matter how much strength it took for Icarus to own his own life, to claim himself, he is still, inside, a boy who misses his father, a boy who wonders why couldn't he have had a different kind of life where everyone would have stayed close and nothing would have broken? He realizes the suffering, the agony, all of it, belongs to him, and as such as precious.

It's not a fun realization. Ending the book on "Confession" would have been more empowering, more powerful itself, and of course, completely false.

There is at least one Icarus piece, a brief prose essay called "Sitting at Slow Train After Submitting the Final Manuscript of Sky Ward," which is more of a meta-meditation on writing the whole book. One can feel bereft after you have poured everything into a book. Sometimes you are asked "How do you know when you have finished a book of poetry?" One answer is: when you think you are never going to be able to write anything ever again.

Other poems, including "The Museum of Flight," and one called "Falcon," I am currently including in my next poetry manuscript. "The Museum of Flight" has been published on-line, so it is out there in the world already.

JDJ: Why do you think you are so drawn to the couplet? And how do you think your employment of it has changed over your past three collections of poetry? As a technique, what possibilities do you believe it has it presented you with? Your poem "Lake Animal You" just reads so differently to me than, say, "Gallery" or "Renunciation" from The Far Mosque.

KA: The couplet has stayed with me from the very beginning when a friend, Kythe Heller, told me about the Delphic oracles speaking in disjunctive couplets where the second line would answer back or comment in some way on the first line. That mechanism of poetry seemed so appropriate and pure for my own method of questioning. I think it is has become a little more musical than philosophical for me over the years, but sound and sense are not unrelated.

JDJ: We've talked a lot about games and poetry. What sort of poetry games do you play to generate your own writing, and what is a fun writing assignment you give to your students at Oberlin?

KA: Poetry games and exercises are a little bit the bane of my existence. Conceptually/theoretically I am interested in them—I love reading Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary, and often use it in my classes. And there have been isolated incidences over the years when I have used an exercise (usually in a group) to create something that eventually led to a poem.

But mostly, writing an excercise in a group or classroom situation turns writing "social" and I've too much an idea of it as a personal and individual practice. I understand its role in education or in learning the ropes of poetry but you can't use them to sail the ship, I don't think. Recently I was asked to contribute an exercise to an anthology of such exercises and I wrote a six-week syllabus for a semester on silence which focused on physical silences on the page, things we are silent about, how silence/pauses can be used for musical effect in a poetic line and finally, how certain vowels and consonant sounds create silences and resonances in the physical human body itself.

A writing exercise should do what physical exercise does: in the case of endurance it helps to increase your capacity (come into class next week with 50 lines of trochaic tetrameter) or else in the case of strength exercise, it should work you to failure (Bhanu Kapil's question: "Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?" etc.).

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.

His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books' New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). He has also published a translation of Water's Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011), and (with Libby Murphy) L'amour by Marguerite Duras (Open Letter Books, 2013). His novels include Quinn's Passage (blazeVox books), named one of "The Best Books of 2005" by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010), Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011).

In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books.

He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

[The real work is discovering a poem's] rules and regulations, the channels for its energy. Some forms—[sonnet, ghazal, haiku]—seem to transcend linguistic and cultural origins…. Others [such as] sapphic stanzas [are valuable because] they don't translate as well so they force a poet writing in [English] to work three times as hard to match those [rhythms] into this dactylic-trochaic structure that would be much easier to achieve in Sappho's Greek. [I think] writing formal verse is easier in general than free verse [because it's harder]: it makes the poet work harder. It is easier to be lazy in free verse, easier not to pay attention to either music or meaning, easier to throw an improperly balanced pot….