A Poetry Reading by Kazim Ali

June 29, 2008

In the summer months the Kenyon Review sponsors a series of readings connected to the Writers Workshops and the Young Writers Workshops. I benefited a few evenings ago from a reading by poet and prose writer Kazim Ali. After a series of phenomenal readings by other writers, Kazim Ali held captive an audience of Gambier and surrounding-area citizens and about 80 high school students. Ali received a standing ovation from the students as well–the first in the Young Writers Program history, I’m told–and it was well-deserved.

Kazim Ali’s work–and his performance of his work–was absolutely stunning. He began with poems from his first collection, The Far Mosque, published by Alice James Books in 2005, then continued with poems from his second collection, The Fortieth Day, from Boa Editions published just this year. The reading concluded with a series of poems from a forthcoming book–one of which will be published in an upcoming issue of The Kenyon Review.

In constructing poems for Far Mosque, Kazim shared that he had been interested in “poems that fell apart” and in “invisible forms, invisible structures.” The idea that the energy of a poem could move in varying and disparate directions intrigued him, and this sort of energy is immediately visible in his poetry. One of the young writers asked him about spirituality and silences in his poetry–and Kazim’s answer seemed to reference the poem as prayer. He shared his excitement about working with the line as a mechanism for carrying the weight of an entire poem, and he quoted several one-lined poems as proof that a line of poetry can be “truly beautiful unto itself;” an idea he echoed in his approach to life and to writing in general, as he gave advice to the eager highschoolers.

Their questions ranged from what his favorite words were (no real favorite ‘words,’ but reoccurring images–boats, the color blue, caves) to how he orders his poems for a book (like a music CD–no themed areas or obvious arcs, just a desire to move the reader through a range of emotional peaks). He had his notebook with him and opened it up to the audience for a quick glimpse. Inside, he shared, were the results of an unordered writing practice–one that encouraged constant observation and notetaking, with plenty of room for scribbles, questions, prose phrases, and images. This, it seemed, was much more preferable to a structured appointment with himself each day, and eased the tensions of writers in the audience who had a similar approach.

Kazim had always been a “private” poet before he studied poetry seriously, but began to see a possibility for identifying himself as a poet after reading Lisel Mueller’s poem Monet Refuses the Operation. He encouraged the audience to identify their influences–whether these be poets like Lucille Clifton; musicians like Alice Coltrane; political activism (to which Kazim devoted himself prior to his study of poetry–and he is not someone to sit quietly and say nothing when a wrong has been committed); or yoga–a spiritual practice for Kazim, who feels it deepens his connection to his practice as a poet. For Kazim Ali, everything is grist for his poetry–all secrets, all experiences, all observations. He believes in putting it all out there and seeing what he can make of it through words. Nothing wrong with that.

Additionally, he implored young writers to seek out experiences for themselves. Arguing that his poems are “all based on experiences,” he maintained that keeping ourselves open to experiences, and moving out to engage in the actual world, are vital for our work as writers and artists. This wasn’t a plea for the autobiographical or narrative poem, but instead an argument for the poet as a living body and spirit who engages in the people, places, and ideas of his or her time and region. One of the best pieces of advice I heard from him: You don’t know what you have–you just sort of have to mess around with the process.