Kazim Ali’s most recent book of poetry is Sky Ward (Wesleyan, 2013). His other recent books include a book of essays, Resident Alien (Michigan, 2015) and a collection of short fiction, Uncle Sharif’s Life in Music (Sibling Rivalry, 2016). His poem “Checkpoint” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Checkpoint”?
The narrative at the heart of the poem “Checkpoint” is my interrogation at passport control in the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Of course the poem travels far from that time and place. And the term “checkpoint” would probably call up visually a road checkpoint. There’s an irony in the title because these places are never “points”—specific moments in time or place—but are part of a vast network—architectural, social, economic, political—of control, whether at national borders or whether internal checkpoints as one sees in Israel and now, with the new administrations crackdown on documented as well as undocumented immigrants, here in the United States.
The physical and natural world seems in protest throughout your poem. How do you think this works to frame the checkpoint itself and how it “intends” to function as a place of security and order?
The places (“the Hill of God,” “the Hill of Spring”) as well as some of the details in the poem (the wildfires, the disconnection of water from the people who live on it) are also drawn from my experiences traveling in the Israeli and Palestinian territories.
History is vexed in that part of the world (as in this one) but one of the great tragedies has been the absolute ruin of the landscape. The desert has been terraformed to produce food crops; pine trees (which do not belong in Mediterranean climates) have been planted over conflicted borders; a huge concrete wall has been erected through valleys and fields; cell phone towers, guard towers, and road barriers have been placed all through the ancient lands in the West Bank.
The speaker in the poem struggles to remain human in the mediated landscape. He is subsumed by this desire, perhaps.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Sometimes I feel like a journalist. I travel and research and read and learn and that feeds my writing. Also physical practices like yoga and running and dance, that move blood and breath through my body.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
“Write every day” is the both the best and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten and that I’ve ever given. At moments in my life it has served me to try to scratch something out each day but other times it’s just junk—you have to know when it’s time to read and think and hit the pause button on writing. No one can tell you when though, you have to figure out the balance and flow yourself—
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have a volume of prose coming out from Tupelo Press later this year called Silver Road. These essays, diary entries and prose fragments imagine the self through various lenses, including performance art, translation theory, glaciology, and quantum gravity. My new book of poems, Inquisition, will be published by Wesleyan University Press in early 2018.