Kazim Ali, a nationally-recognized poet from San Diego, will read poetry from his new book, “The Voice of Sheila Chandra,” livestreamed at 5 p.m. Nov. 14 on CanalConvergence.com.
Before the virtual reading, read about what led him on his path of creativity below.
• What I create:
I write poetry, fiction, essays, and cross-genre work. I am also a translator (from French and Farsi primarily, but some from Urdu and Spanish). I do a lot of movement-based work as well, including some years in a modern dance company about 20 years ago. I still do dance and make movement sketches, but I haven’t danced in front of audience since 2006.
• What inspired me to become an artist:
I don’t think I knew anything other than artistic expression. There was no moment at which I consciously decided. There was a moment when I knew I would make my living from it no matter what; that happened when I was about 27, I suppose. I’d had an earlier career in public policy work, both legislative work in the New York State Legislature and field organizing, as well as running a national organization.
After my elected term as president of the United States Student Association ended, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself. I spent two years working office jobs and it became clearer and clearer to me that the only thing that gave me true pleasure and joy was writing poems, creating things. I didn’t even care — I still to this day don’t — whether or not I would actually make a living wage doing it (that seemed unlikely then), I only cared about whether or not I would be able to keep making poems.
• My involvement in this year’s Canal Convergence:
I will be reading poetry from my new book “The Voice of Sheila Chandra,” a book that considers what avenues are available to a person to act in difficult historical circumstances, or after great tragedy has occurred. It was written a long time before this pandemic came to haunt us and a long time before the flames of political violence began threatening our civil society, but it seems more relevant than ever. The reading will be livestreamed on CanalConvergence.com at 5 p.m. Nov. 14.
• What I’m most looking forward to regarding this year’s Canal Convergence:
The notion of art along the canal is a beautiful one, of course, but it is somehow made more beautiful by both diffusing across the city and then diffusing across the country (and maybe the world?) by broadcast events. I am looking forward to watching the dance performances and the poetry as well, including Raquel Gutiérrez, who is an old friend from many years ago, when we both lived in New York City for a time.
• Challenges of living/creating artwork:
I think there is a lot around us in the air right now, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of difficulty. It’s not just the pandemic nor the extraordinarily tense political situation in our country, but in general deep challenges facing us as a society and planet — political, environmental, economic. It is hard to know the times you are living in while you are living in them.
The artist has always had to tune to a rarer frequency. Are you telling people how they are living in the precise moment — defining a reality — or are you a visionary, depicting what could be? Great art does one or the other or sometimes both. So I think as a writer, artist, performer, you must be very present, very aware, very focused. You must live an engaged — and examined — life.
• Other activities I enjoy:
I love yoga, running, hiking in the mountains, going to the beach and swimming in the ocean, dancing, seeing friends, reading and writing poetry, boxing, listening to music (Indian classical music, qawali, and viola or cello are my favorite), looking at paintings, arguing about politics and reading philosophy. (Arguing about philosophy is no fun. But, reading it - fun!).
My tastes in film and television are decidedly lowbrow: I love “Star Trek,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” superhero movies and TV shows, and do not make me miss “General Hospital.” I know that film and television are ART FORMS now but just give me some Carly and Sonny and I’m good. I think of my favorite professor from university, Helen Elam, who would lecture on deconstruction for three hours and then — as she told us — would go home and watch “The People’s Court.” “Sometimes you just want to know what the answer is, who is right and who is wrong!” she would exclaim.
• If I had four hours with absolutely nothing to do on a Saturday, here’s how I would spend it:
I’d go for a run, then drive down to Balboa Park and walk in the Prado Village, a complex of buildings built for the World Fair in Madrid/Hapsburg-style architecture. I’d sit in the open-air restaurant next to the sculpture garden and read and write for a while, then I’d go to the San Diego Museum of Art, which is right next door, and look at some paintings.
When I go to the museum, rather than look at too much, I usually choose two or three paintings to spend most of my time with. Then on the way home I would stop at the yoga studio or the boxing gym, depending on my mood. The pandemic has shut down the fitness places, but the museum is still open, so I may actually go there today.
• My No. 1 suggestion to new artists:
Trust your instinct to create and commit yourself to the practice. Make the sacrifices necessary to create space (physical, mental, spiritual, psychic) in which to create. Make all the mistakes you need to. The best book I ever read about being an artist is called “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I really recommend this book.