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Poet Kazim Ali Explores What A Voice Can Do

Poet Kazim Ali's latest book, "The Voice of Sheila Chandra" was published Oct. 6, 2020.
Tanya Rosen-Jones
Poet Kazim Ali's latest book, "The Voice of Sheila Chandra" was published Oct. 6, 2020.
"The Voice of Sheila Chandra" is a new collection by San Diego poet Kazim Ali that studies sound, time, history and fate.

Kazim Ali's new book of poetry, "The Voice of Sheila Chandra," is in some ways a historical account, part lyrical and evocative contemporary poetry, part mystical and metaphysical invocation, and part interwoven puzzle of language. And it started with a broken voice.

The book cover for Kazim Ali's "The Voice of Sheila Chandra," published Oct. 2020.
Alice James Books
The book cover for Kazim Ali's "The Voice of Sheila Chandra," published Oct. 2020.

Chandra is a popular Indian singer who lost her ability to sing or speak.

"A lot of her body of work is drones and a certain type of Indian vocalization called 'konnakol,' where the singer imitates a drum or imitates percussive sounds. And I just became really interested in all of the different qualities of a voice and all of the different sounds a human voice can make," Ali, who teaches creative writing at UC San Diego, said


Chandra developed a rare neurological disorder known as burning mouth syndrome in 2008, which rendered her unable to sing or even speak without feeling physical pain.

"And so I also became interested in the concept of silence, and the qualities of silence and sound and what of sound lives in silence and what of silence lives in sound," Ali said. "And so the poems themselves try to explore that from many directions."

The book, Ali's seventh poetry collection and 20th published book, consists of three longer poems stitched together with several fragments or interstitial works. Ali said he wanted the longer works to build a "glacial architecture," into the structure to support and slow down, and set a stage for the smaller works to add drama.

Carried cacophony world wheel

Into the human one small voice

Box pool swum midnight we went

Into the sea expecting our prayers

Might carry themselves across

The silver-slammed surface would

Be answered or do they answer

Pale cut of prayers do not answer

Like back into the dark water what

Are those stripes of light across

The room a shape that evaporates

Upon waking what language cannot

Hold onto what you cannot

Hold onto

— from the poem "The Voice of Sheila Chandra" by Kazim Ali
Language and ideas peek through different poems, too, with lines in one piece that feel familiar to or echoes of other works. It's one way Ali calls attention to the physics of the page and the geometry behind which letter goes where.

"Phosphorous" is a longer, lyrical piece that becomes a kind of puzzle of language, grids of capital letters that break apart the poem and make us slow down to track each letter, like math. But those grids end up being almost like tiny choruses or meditations — striking and lovely, offset from the longer, song-like lines.

"It's important to me to really try to explore all different dimensions of a speaking voice in a poem as well, just like the singing voice can be explored in so many different directions," Ali said. "When you have a singer like Sheila Chandra, or Tanya Tagaq, the Canadian throat singer or Lila Downs or Bjork or Yoko Ono, singers who really explore the range of what a voice can do, who move through ranges, it's quite unusual."











— from the poem "Phosphorous" by Kazim Ali
Another of the longer poems, "Hesperine for David Berger" weaves together historical narratives of several people, including Corey Menafee, a dishwasher at Yale who smashed a stained glass pane that depicted racist imagery, Palestinian track and field star Mohammed Al-Khatib and David Berger, one of the victims in the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics.

The timelines and physical spaces of these woven narratives are scattered and broad, and Ali uses these characters to show the interconnectedness — and, in contrast, the metaphysicality — of human bodies and their stories.

In either case we are inventing the past which means it changes the future which means the machine of time is real made of gears and parts

Register each body like tickets for the train.

— from the poem "Hesperine for David Berger" by Kazim Ali
"All of these different strands started weaving themselves together, and I became very interested in the Islamic concept of kismet which is often translated as fate. But unlike the notion of a cause and effect, a simple, linear cause and effect — for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction, which is also from physics — the Islamic concept of kismet is the multiplicity of factors that exist in the universe that all impact each other," Ali said. "And then the concept of entanglement from quantum physics tells us that the past affects the future and the future affects the past."

Ali said that as he wrote this poem, he wanted to see how to face a violent past.

"The poem itself became this active gesture towards trying to create some magic. I thought, there has to be a way to not erase history, but recreate it in some way that will allow us to live," he said.

The collection is as mechanically complex and intentional as it is propulsive, driven by fascinating figures, snippets of scenes and enchanting ideas of the sheer immeasurability of time. And the book's release in 2020 is, well ... timely.

"We're in a freefall, but we're also riveted in place," Ali said. "It's a very tense time, yet it's also a time of stillness."

He notes that a flashpoint, a turning point for the chaos was George Floyd's death, and points to how people want to understand any big historical events.

"We often think about history turning on a weird dime, of some kind of breaking point that has nothing to do with what came before, what came after it — the idea of the historical event," Ali said. "But really, it isn't like that. It is more like the concept of kismet where there's a never-ending chain of happenings that grow and develop and change and then at some point, yeah, the seed breaks ground and comes out into the world."

"The Voice of Sheila Chandra" is out now, and Kazim Ali will appear in several virtual readings in the coming weeks.