Friday, January 15, 2016

Brief Interview with Abdul Ali

A portfolio of work by Abdul Ali introduced by poet Grace Cavalieri appears in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Poet Lore, the poetry publication of The Writer’s Center. Abdul Ali is the author of Trouble Sleeping, winner of 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize. His poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in GargoyleGathering of TribesNational Public RadioNew Contrast (South Africa), Academy of American Poets (,  and the anthology, Full Moon on K Street. He teaches English at The Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. Editorial assistant Taylor Johnson emailed Ali with questions about his work and influences.

Taylor Johnson: Who is in the room with you (metaphorically) when you write—what teachers, literary giants?
Abdul Ali: I think you're asking about my influences. I often think of the older black men in the barbershop who always told stories when I was a kid. I don't think anyone could match the improvisation and humor of their stories. I hope I'm bringing the jazz musicians, the MCs, the BAM poets, Dark Room Collective, etc. But I'm also thinking of my professors and mentors. Always trying to surprise myself.

TJ: What drew you to the life of Charlie Parker? How does his music and sense of time play into your work?
AA: I'm drawn to the artist as a tragic figure. It's a complicated thing. How the thing that you tell young people to stay away from (e.g. drugs) can also be the thing to help the artist access the sublime. I also really like how jazz music says so much without words. This is very similar to poetry: how to take sight and sound and feeling and make a poem of consequence.

TJ: There’s a strong tradition within modern American poetry to detail the pastorale, and how there seems to be a turn toward the wild and wilderness, and the urban pastorale within contemporary American poetry. How does your environment (past, present, real, imagined) find its way into your work?
AA: Living in cities for most of my life have definitely framed so much of the content of my poems. Being on the edge of life and death always somehow raises the stakes in your work. I must admit that I miss that intensity now that I live in the suburbs and no longer take public transportation.

TJ: Throughout your poems in this issue of Poet Lore there is a common thread of grief wending its way through the pieces; whether it’s mourning unencumbered sleep, or lamenting the tragic lives of artists and musicians, or detailing the palpable sadness and disgust after the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; grief figures prominently in your work. What is your process of writing through grief? Does writing grief transfigure it?
AA: I hadn't realized that I return to grief so much. I suppose poetry is that place I turn to when I'm at a loss for words. And in these cases--nationally--we're at a loss for human life. So, yes, I grieve their deaths in hopes that it can be regenerative. That their losses can somehow tumble into some epiphany about human life. That we can learn something and honor their lives. That someone will say their name and they won't be dead. This gives me peace.

TJ: How has teaching influenced your writing process?
AA: It's certainly has made me more aware of time. The scarcity of it. In many ways, I feel as though my engagement with writing is more intense, more intimate.

TJ: Who are you reading?
AA: I'm just coming out of a dry spell so I'm revisiting folks like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden but also reading my contemporaries. It's important for me to see how these conversations change or remain the same. And, of course, I always delight in being surprised by language. Of course as an English teacher I'm constantly reading and re-reading. So this allows me to access the meat of words in a direct way. 

For more information on the current issue of Poet Lore, visit:

Taylor Johnson is a poet from Washington, DC. They are a Callaloo Fellow and their work is forthcoming from the minnesota review. When they are not reading or writing poems, they serve as a docent at the National Museum of African Art.

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