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Poet Kazim Ali Explores What A Voice Can Do

 October 6, 2020 at 10:19 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Poet and UC San Diego literature, professor Cassa, Molly is out with a new book of poetry. The voice of Sheila Chandra is Ali's seventh collection of poetry and 20th book it's named after a popular Indian singer who lost her voice. [inaudible] spoke with KPBS arts editor and producer Julia Dixon Evans about the work, the title poem of this book, the voice of Sheila Chandra is inspired by a musician who lost her ability to sing. Can you tell us a little bit about Sheila and why her story and the way she expresses herself means? Speaker 2: 00:38 Um, Sheila Chandra is an amazing singer. Um, she sang a range in the earlier part of her career. It was more, you know, pop songs and ballads and things like that. She sang on the Lord of the rings soundtrack, for example, but she really transitioned into singing influenced by Indian classical music, including drones. A lot of her body of work is drones and a certain type of Indian vocalization called conical 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 the human voice can make. So in 2008, when Sheila Chandra developed a very rare neurological condition called burning mouth syndrome, she was no longer able to sing. She is functionally mute from that syndrome, although she's still able to speak and very, very limited quality. 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. And so the poems themselves try to explore that from many directions. Speaker 1: 02:23 Can you read a few stances from that poem, the voice of Sheila Chandra? Speaker 2: 02:29 Um, yes, I sure. Well, um, and so the sonnets all use, um, various different, um, unlike the classical sonnet, which has a single turn in the middle of the poem, these poems, these sonnets actually turn multiple times within the single poem. And I also explore using rhyme and repetition, et cetera. Some of the qualities of the drone 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. Speaker 1: 03:42 Thank you. Each of these pieces plays with language in a way that feels really interwoven and familiar to the rest of the book. Can you tell us a little bit about how these individual works feed into each other? Speaker 2: 03:57 So the book itself is three long poems, and then there's little fragmented poems that kind of intersperse or act as pauses in between. And the notion was that the big long poems were kind of set up at this glacial pace and glacial architecture, the and along reality. And then the little poems that happened in between the interstitial poems would be very dramatic and shake things up in a thunderous way. And the sonnets of Sheila Chandra, all it's the constant echoing throughout the three long poems are all extremely different in physical form. They look very different. If you were to flip through the book, you would see some have extremely long lines, some have very short lines. Um, the final Palm has all these textured components where the letters are scattered across the page. Um, and so 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. When you, when you have a singer like Sheila Chandra or, uh, Tanya Tagaq, uh, the Canadian throat singer or Lila downs or Bjork or Yoko Ono, um, singers who really explore the range of what a voice can do, um, who move all, you know, through ranges. Um, it's quite unusual. Speaker 1: 05:16 Can we talk a little bit about whispering for a David Berger? You weave together these narrative threads about several people, including burger, a victim from the 1972 Olympics massacre and more including the narrator. Can you tell me a little bit about what this work tells us about time and space and bodies together? Speaker 2: 05:42 It just, all of these different strands started weaving themselves together. And I became very interested in the Islamic concept of kismat, which is often translated as fate, but, uh, unlike the notion of a cause and effect a simple, a linear cause and effect for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, which is also from physics, the Islamic concept of kismet. That's the multiplicity of factors. They exist in a universe that all impact each other. And then the concept of entanglement from quantum physics tells us that the past affects the future and the future effects the past. And then, so I was myself thinking about how do you contend with a violent past, you can't erase it or unmake it. And then I thought, or can you, you know, so the poem itself became this active gesture towards trying to, I don't know, create some magic. I thought way there has to be a way to not erase history, but recreate it in some way that will allow us to live Speaker 1: 06:43 These pieces that are entrenched in these specific times. And also the more timeless way that they're all linked. What does it mean to release this book into the mess of 2020? Speaker 2: 06:58 I mean, it's like, I did not plan it, first of all, who knew this was going to happen, but we are really in a freefall and what's the, what the strangest part of it is. We're in a free fall, but we're all, we're also all riveted in place. We are all removed from each other. We are, we are shielded. Ideally if we're being responsible, we're shielding ourselves. And, uh, we're living in really close quarters at our families. And then the chaos that sort of rains, it's a very tense time yet. It's also a time of stillness in a way. It feels like a calm before a storm type of situation. Um, although the storm exists, you know, like when, when, um, you know, when George Floyd was killed and it was just sort of this flashpoint of turning point, sometimes these events are part of, um, they're part of an ongoing pattern, but for some reason, a single event crystallizes, we often think about history, turning on a weird dime of, uh, some kind of breaking point that has nothing to do with what came before, what, what came after it, the idea of the historical event, but really it isn't like that. Speaker 2: 08:04 It is more like the concept of kiss Smith, where there's a never ending chain of happenings that grow and develop and change. And then at some point, yes, the seed breaks ground and comes out into the world Speaker 1: 08:19 That was poet chasm, Ali speaking with KPBS arts editor, Julia Dixon Evans, his new collection, the voice of Sheila Chandra is out now. And for a list of forthcoming readings, visit [inaudible] dot com.

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"The Voice of Sheila Chandra" is a new collection by San Diego poet Kazim Ali that studies sound, time, history and fate.
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