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A Two-Decade Journey of the Heart is Mapped in Poetry

UC San Diego Professor and Chair of Literature Kazim Ali presents a retrospective book of poetry traversing ideas of home, spirituality, love and loss

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Kazim Ali is a poet on the move, untethered. Crisscrossing the globe, he invites readers on his journey, navigating the tangled streets of Egypt, trekking the sharp edges of a glacier, gazing at the sunset on a stopped train headed to Marseille. As he changes locations, so does his state of mind—contemplating the ideas of home, familial roles, romantic love, the nature of time and the universe—at once seeking direction and savoring the unknown. Even the words on his pages travel, shifting in unpredicted ways, challenging the reader’s conditioned expectations of structure.

Ali is professor and chair of UC San Diego’s Department of Literature. In his most recent book, “Sukun: New and Selected Poems,” he presents 133 works of poetry that represent the past 20 years of his poetic writing. While each composition makes an impression individually, his assemblage reveals recurring themes and contemplations. “I perhaps have been writing the same poems all along, the way waves are at once noticed—and have an impact—on their own, but are merely expressions of the ocean and forces deep within,” explained Ali.

While this book represents the outcome, it’s the process that fascinates Ali. Poetry is much more than a collection of words on a page.

Portrait of Kazim Ali

Poetry as discovery

When he puts pen to paper, Ali doesn’t always know what’s going to happen. Maybe the words will flow; maybe it will take years to finish the work. But that’s what he enjoys—the freedom to explore and discover while writing instead of having to recount or explain. “With poetry I'm always on my own; it's just me and the page and it can go anywhere,” he said.

In the poem “The Failure of Navigation in the Valley,” the notion of being lost and finding the right path is conveyed in both the subject of the poem as well as the conversation the author has with himself.

“Turn left there but so I do not see the reflection that is pure dark
I am not afraid of anything (oh is that so)
Citizen bear do this place not belong to you
Unseen I wander through the thorny place of what I (no that ain’t it)”

Poetry as music

Ali is inspired by the musicality of words, and the way poetry sounds when spoken out loud. Often his works are more than narrative, they experiment with how sounds meld together in an ode to the art of language itself. “There's something very embodied about poetry; when I read my poetry, I always want to stand,” said Ali. “The way breath moves up the spinal column from the diaphragm up through the lungs and the throat and out of the mouth, the resonance from the voice comes from the throat but also the skull. Sense and sound are both at work, it's not one thing or the other.”

One example of how he does this can be seen in an excerpt of his poem, “Text Cloud Anthology.”

“Afternoon alive angel Ali
Belted by birds
Blue boat of your body
Breaks in breath
Broken brother come in
Dark disappear down
Don’t exist
The empty editor echoes
Eternal fast find me forgotten
The garden glass hasn’t heard yet
To hollow its horizon higher”

Poetry as structure

Perusing the pages of “Sukun,” the reader might notice that each poem forms a unique shape on the page. Some lines are jagged, shifting left to right. Others form a narrow, tightly wound column. Still others look code-like, presented in all caps, almost daring the reader to try to unlock their message.

“What makes poetry different from any other kind of writing is the line,” said Ali. “In the beginning they may be orderly, all the same length, all units of thought like a Shakespeare sonnet. But once you start breaking a line in the middle of a line, suddenly there's different ways of making meaning. Space becomes a different breath if the line is long or short. Poetry is all about using, breaking and inventing structure. That's what's really exciting about it for me.”

Two images of the pages of Ali's book, demonstrating the different formats of his poems
Ali explores how different line breaks in the poems can form dynamic shapes, contributing to their meanings. Photos by Erika Johnson/University Communications

Poetry as home

When asked the question, “Where are you from?” Ali has answered, “I am from nowhere.” Born in the United Kingdom, he has lived transnationally in the United States, Canada, India, France and the Middle East. Many of his poems allude to a desire for home and roots, yet also suggest a comfort and familiarity with wandering. In “Orca Oracle” he explains “Throughout my life I moved from place to place…Home is a wandering for me, or at least it always had been, until I crossed the Continental Divide and arrived on the western shore.”

Other works are not so plainspoken, such as the poem “Baggage Claim.”

“Maybe I am a suitcase unspoken for a seed / inside the sealed seem stitched between breath and body / me and my dreaming mind reaching for the blue canvas case conveyed out of grasp”

After decades of wandering, Ali is stopping to reflect. The title of his new book, “Sukun,” refers to a circular mark used in Arabic language that indicates a pause between a consonant and a vowel. It can also mean tranquility. “I am looking back and forward at the same time.”

Beyond poetry, Ali also writes fiction and nonfiction as well as translations. His most recent include a memoir, “Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water,” and a choose-your-own-adventure young adult book, “The Citadel of Whispers.”

Sharing the joy of world literatures

In UC San Diego’s Department of Literature, Ali teaches courses on poetry, cross-genre and hybrid writing as well as literary translation. He enriches his instruction with knowledge of dance and performance studies, border studies, Indigenous studies, yoga and spiritual practice and social movements.

One of the things he likes most about the program is the holistic curriculum that has no scholarly boundaries. “It’s unique, it's a global department that includes literary and cultural study from around the world and across time,” said Ali. “We study everything from ancient literature to contemporary works, with focus areas ranging from creative writing to film and media studies and cultural studies.”

Rather than being diffuse, Ali sees the range of faculty specialties as a strength. “A student can come into our department and take a class in poetry writing or African oral literature or Asian American new media. We have a mosaic of approaches you wouldn't get in a typical English department.”

Explore Ali’s new book, “Sukun” and learn more about UC San Diego’s Department of Literature.

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