Literature : Interview

Ammiel Alcalay: Part I

by Risa Kahn

Ammiel Alcalay remembers lost time in his poetic novel Islanders. Risa Kahn spoke with Alcalay about what it means to remember in the first of a two-part interview.

Islanders, Ammiel Alcalay’s latest book out now from City Lights Books, depicts the action of remembering, with Alcalay using words not so much to dictate a story, but to create a syntax that describes this experience. Certain phrases are repeated throughout the text; sentences veer and wind, then halt and interrupt; commonplace statements encompass multiple meanings and complex ideas. Islanders is that unique hybrid of poetry and prose, where pronouns and plot lines are secondary to rhythm and pacing. We become engrossed in Islanders's bleak, clouded atmosphere, allowing Alcalay to guide us through his characters’ memories. The pathway from the first page to the last—similar to how the past reappears in the present—is non-linear, illogical, and yet ultimately comforting.

I first spoke to Ammiel in June and only then learned that the bulk of his prior work concerns, in some way, the Middle East. Coincidentally, I spent two months in the region later in the summer, and came back eager to speak with him about where Islanders sits in the context of his other work. We met at his Manhattan office at the CUNY Graduate Program, and our discussion of prose and structure quickly turned into a conversation about how a book with only 132 pages can speak for decades of writing and experience.

Risa Kahn You had mentioned that a lot of material from Islanders was written in the mid-’70s, and so you thought it was funny that I found the style so innovative and fresh. You said a lot of poets from that era had influenced your style. Which poets were you referring to?

Ammiel Alcalay There were a lot of poets at that time that also wrote prose. I’m thinking foremost of somebody like Robert Creeley, whose book of short stories, The Gold Diggers, just permeated the way I thought about prose. Also Edward Dorn’s novel, By the Sound; another great poet who wrote amazing prose. Douglas Woolf, a great but very neglected novelist who was out of print for many years until the Dalkey Archive Press started reprinting his stuff. Toby Olson, a teacher of mine, was a big influence. It all comes out of a milieu where poetry and prose are not some generic ghettos.

RK Why did you wait thirty-five years to publish Islanders?

AA The answer is highly personal, also maybe also social and political. There are sections of work in Islanders that appear in [Alcalay’s other titles] cairo notebooks and from the warring factions. Both of those books are very much related to political subjects outside the US. cairo notebooks emerges from my experiences in the Middle East, and from the warring factions is a book-length poem dedicated to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where there was a huge massacre of Muslim men and boys in 1995. Yet, I was still clinging to these certain pieces of my older prose, only realizing now, as I’ve been doing readings of Islanders, that those older pieces of prose were my history, tucked away in these more “historical” books.

RK What were you doing in the mid-’70s, outside of this writing?

AA [I was] a student at City College in New York. I had been taking classes with Gilbert Sorrentino, another poet and prose writer, who advised me to stop studying writing and “Go study something real.” So at City I studied Latin, Ancient Greek, and other things that once used to be thought of as important for poets to know! In 1978, I left the country for a couple years and was living in Jerusalem. I went back to the Middle East in 1984 and stayed until 1989. Then, in the mid-’90s, I started getting invited to come to California to do readings, give talks and such. I began reconstructing myself in some way.

RK What brought that about?

AA I was finding affiliation with older poets because I grew up in that milieu. My parents were Second World War refugees from Yugoslavia, and my father was an abstract painter. I grew up with all these people around—Charles Olson was a family friend, for example—so my education included pilfering my parents’ library, stuff they were reading in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the ‘90s, as I was coming back to all that material, I started to look at this work I had done in the ‘70s which I had always liked. I took it all out of boxes and put it on the floor and started putting it together.

RK Which became Islanders.

AA Yes. The deeper issue here is, because I do so many kinds of things, there is very little critical resonance that runs across all the things I do. Some people know me as a poet, others as a translator or someone involved in the Middle East or Bosnia. I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out what I’m doing. Auto-critiquing. Trying to understand what I’ve done. I put more work into circulation than I can deal with. I have to step back and say, What is this? So, publishing this ‘old work’ has now set in motion all these other things . . . . a whole bunch of other ways of thinking.

RK When I look you up on the Internet, most articles say you are a poet, scholar, critic, translator, prose stylist, teacher, activist—it makes you look a little thinly spread. The more I sit with Islanders, and look into what else you do, I think there’s just a lack of a word that describes the kind of work you make. It seems everything you do incorporates, well, everything you do, and have done.

AA I feel that my work is extremely organic—one thing just comes out of another thing. I’m doing this project I started with my graduate students called Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, in which students are doing archival work on contemporary writers. That is, they’re going into libraries or, in some cases into personal archives of still living writers, and finding journals, correspondence, unpublished material of all kinds, and editing that work, introducing it, annotating it, and bringing it into circulation. We are publishing the work ourselves, it’s very exciting, and is, in a way, creating a new sense of history. I tell students to forget about ‘schools’—the Beat school, the New York school, Black Mountain—just take one writer. Follow the person. See who they are excited about. See who they ignore. See who they don’t like or argue with. The project has done remarkable work.

RK What have been some of the highlights?

AA One of the students, Stefania Heim, was pursuing work by the great poet and writer Muriel Rukeyser. She found a piece in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library that had been rejected by the Nation in 1959, and had just been sitting in the archive. Another student, Josh Schneiderman, began looking at the letters between Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch when they first got to know each other in the 1950s. And he transcribed them, wrote an extensive introduction with notes, and we published them. Things like this reopen a whole new perspective on individual writers and the worlds they inhabited. Now people have tremendous access to readings, programs, et cetera, but it’s very difficult to get this—God, I hate this word but it’s true—authenticity. Where the experience is emotional and bewildering at the same time. The student who did the O’Hara thing—he starts talking to Karen Koch, Kenneth’s widow, who says, “This is so great, I didn’t know Kenneth then, and now it’s like I’m getting to know him again.” Maureen O’Hara, Frank’s sister, started to tell stories about being his kid sister and how great it was to come to the city and be introduced to all of Frank’s friends. It’s this amazingly personal kind of relationship, where the students realize they’ve got a responsibility to these people—they realize these works aren’t just something in a library.

RK Can you briefly describe some of your other works?

AA Well, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into translating and merging with materials related to the Middle East, in particular the Israeli-Palestine issue and the whole question of what that means. My parents were originally from Yugoslavia and came to Boston as refugees in 1951. We are Sephardic and our background is Spain, so in terms of any Jewish identity we never really fit anywhere. When I would go to museums and look at Renaissance art, I was kind of horrified by all this iconography and imagery. Then I started seeing Islamic art and thought, “Oh, this looks familiar. This makes sense.” I got very interested in ancient things—medieval stuff, philosophers, poets, learning ancient Greek and Latin. I remember reading Virgil and loving Queen Dido. I thought, well Dido is Phoenician, and so essentially she’s Lebanese, and what does that mean? I just kept going in that direction. I encountered stuff that was really useful in terms of what it would mean to really know the history of the world. To make a long story short, a lot of that came into my book After Jews and Arabs.

RK And that was one of your first books, right?

AA Yes. The book takes the whole Mediterranean—from North Africa to Iraq, and then east to India—as a single space. It then explores the relationship between Jews and Arabs in that space from around the beginnings of Islam to the present. What I did differently from previous works is that in mine, there is no cut-off point. If you are talking about this space and you’re talking about Jews and Arabs, you are also talking about Palestinians and Israelis. The book was very controversial; I couldn’t get it published for four years.

RK Who took it?

AA University of Minnesota. It needed to come out with a university press otherwise it wouldn’t have been taken seriously. There was a huge resistance to it. I thought it was important to expose the process of why the book couldn’t get published for so long so that in my book, Memories of Our Future, I did the thing you are absolutely not supposed to do: I published my reader’s reports and my responses to them. I wasn’t interested in proving anything; I just wanted to put this stuff on the table.

Then while living in Jerusalem, I was very involved in what you might call “social justice movements.” I began to meet people, like the Israeli Black Panthers, who were a group of Arab-Jewish activists. I began doing a lot of work with Palestinian human rights groups. Out of that emerged Keys to the Garden, which is an anthology of writing by Jews of non-western origin: from the Arab world, India, Iran, Turkey; these writers had been so thoroughly marginalized that many of them didn’t even know about each other, much less outside of Israeli culture. But it wasn’t like I was doing something altruistic for the people there; it was more like an intervention over here [in the US].

RK And who published that title?

AA City Lights. That the book was published by City Lights was huge since major US publishers had always assumed a very mainstream mindset for the audience to whom works translated from Hebrew was directed. After Keys to the Garden, a whole alternative wave began to open up, where other small publishers also realized, “Oh, maybe Israeli literature isn’t just these national big shots that we are getting from the major publishers—maybe there’s something else going on . . . ” and so that also was very political. The stuff that’s in this anthology is still very difficult for some people to swallow; it’s a really different perspective than they are used to getting. After moving back to the US right before the Gulf War started, the war in ex-Yugoslavia broke out. Because of my background, I got heavily involved. For most of the war I was really the only translator working in the US translating stuff from Bosnia.

RK That’s a big responsibility.

AA Yeah. I translated five or six books, hundreds of articles, documentary material that was even used in The Hague. I was translating stuff of urgency, but also asking friends, theater people, filmmakers, writers, “If I was going to translate something, what would you suggest? What are you reading? What’s telling you what’s going on?” People would give me something, saying, “This is our oxygen, this is what’s keeping us alive,” and then I would translate it. Translating [in that context] really took some thinking: when someone comes in and translates X, all of the sudden X becomes the big name [in the translator’s country]. But in the country it was written in, it isn’t. That creates really bad blood. I developed a real sensitivity to what the space of cultures and languages are.

RK How do you know language well enough to translate it? Especially with style, how can you really translate style?

AA I think there’s a lot of mystification of translation. Translations are interpretations. I believe in both very literal and very free translations. In terms of style there are so many ways to approach something. I have a friend from Beirut, the great novelist Elias Khoury, who said, “If a great work of literature can’t lose 20% of its meaning, then maybe it’s not so great.” I think also not translating is important—understanding that there may be limits to understanding. Understanding that if you really want to get further, you need to spend some years in the country and really dwell in the language. I think so much of translation is context. I’ve created spaces [with my translations] that are I hope are a direct challenge to American writers.

RK In what ways?

AA When other writers, for example, read Sarajevo Blues by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, for example, it forces them to take some accounting of themselves: what was I writing or thinking during the years the things he’s writing about were happening? I’m pushing them with this work, saying, “Maybe you ought to think about this. Maybe it’ll make you think about your own practices, your own perspectives, the power you might actually have as a writer if you confront things going on in the world.”

The second part of Risa Kahn’s conversation with Ammiel Alcalay will appear next week on BOMBlog.

Islanders is available now from City Lights.

Risa Kahn is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She previously worked in the art book publishing industry, and now spends her time rediscovering the joys of public libraries.

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