Ammiel Alcalay: Part II by Risa Kahn

Ammiel Alcalay, author of Islanders, continues his discussion with Risa Kahn about the action of remembering, and how memories play into his work. Read part one here.

Alcalay  Photo Body

Recollection of memory and personal history suffuse Alcalay’s pursuits as a writer, as well as a teacher, scholar, critic, and activist. Alcalay’s parents emigrated from Yugoslavia, and he was heavily influenced by his cultural background as a Sephardic Jew, as well as the artists that comprised his parent’s social circle. The majority of Alcalay’s work concerns—sometimes indirectly—the Middle East and how Alcalay relates to the complexities that region brings up for him.

At an early age, Alcalay began a type of personal investigation of what identity is, or can be. His examinations have fueled one project after another; the trajectory of his career shows how each of his works conclude with further questions, not satisfying resolutions. These open ends direct Alcalay to his next exploration. Islanders is a perfect example of its author—a space where comfort is found in ambiguity and inquiry.

Risa Kahn Are you working on any writing right now?

Ammiel Alcalay I have a book coming out with Ugly Duckling Presse next year. Ugly Duckling is absolutely wonderful. A number of people at Ugly Duckling have been students at the Graduate Center, and they’ve done stunningly well. They do a lot of translation from Russia and Eastern Europe, but also independent projects. My book is called neither wit nor gold: from then. I’ve put together all these poems I wrote in the mid-’70s through the late ‘80s—but I don’t want them just to be the poems so I’m commenting around them, using visual material, photographs I’ve taken, collages, material from old journals, notebooks, datebooks, letters. Another archival project!

RK Wait, you keep all that too?

AA I keep everything. You have to keep everything. I think if you are a “minority” or perceived as a “multi-cultural person” then you are supposed to have a biography—because you grew up this way, or you are XYZ. But, if you’re “like everybody else,” if you’re the default position, say, white, or a hipster—then you don’t have a biography, or you’re not supposed to have one, you can “be anything you want to be.” You can just be a writer. But that’s absolute bullshit. I believe it’s very important to first of all historicize yourself, and then understand who you were in that history—even if it’s unpleasant to interrogate yourself. Between that andIslanders, a lot of stuff that has been sitting around for a long time will have another life. For me, the purpose of publishing is to get rid of it, to give it another life, so it’s no longer in your hands, and it propels something else into motion.

RK Did the publishing of Islanders put to rest the ruminations you described that you were having around its pieces?

AA I don’t know what happened. It’s ongoing; it’s still a process. The poet Jack Spicer said poets don’t read their own work enough. They read them in public, but they don’t read them to find out what’s scary about them. I feel like the publishing of Islanders is opening into “I need to learn how to read this.” I think that is something poets constantly grapple with: How do you let your work go places that you’re not sure of? How do you remain open to what is unknown? It’s daunting. I finished from the warring factions, which utilizes all so-called appropriated words. The work has five different “books,” and each is like a different climate. Book four has only American words for example. I generated word lists, and I composed out from those. It’s very lyrical in a lot of ways, but yet it’s putting into circulation other words. In book three, which really gets to the point of this massacre in Srebrenica, I utilize the words of Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam. I thought, what would happen if I took Shelley’s words to activate and describe the experience in Srebrenica?

RK And what was the outcome?

AA Very strange things happen—I made Shelley an active participant in this event. I’m constantly looking for other ways to express what it is you want to reveal about yourself or the world, ways that are unpredictable and might have some after-life. I think publishing Islanders will generate all kinds of other things—now I’m starting to think a lot about prose. Where’s prose? Where can I take it next? Where might it go? I’m interested in exploring that.

RK Islanders is listed as novel but it’s definitely…not.

AA I’m curious. Can you tell me how you responded to it?

RK Well, at first, I was so confused. I’m reading it, and highlighting all the pronouns and the locations to try and keep track of things, and figure out who’s who and what’s what … and after fifty pages of this I still was totally lost. I thought maybe I just wasn’t paying attention or hadn’t had enough coffee or something, and so I read it all over again and still didn’t get it. So I started the book a third time. Then, this kind of slow, lulling rhythm took over. I realized that if I stopped trying to fight the confusion and just go with it, I’d start to get it.

AA I think what you said about rhythm is crucial. That’s that relationship poets have with prose. Your ‘content’ is going to be transmitted emotionally and literally by being moved into a rhythm. In the book, there are so many points in the sentence where I’m trying to go in three directions at once; leaving those pronouns ambiguous, not telling you who’s involved. I’m bringing you into a world and the decisions about it are left hanging, inconclusive. There’s definitely a lot of leading information, but it’s up to you what the relative significance of things are. Are these slices of the same mind? Are they prisms refracting different perspectives?

RK Do you think it’s a reader’s job to fill in the who?

AA It all depends on the reader. It creates a space for the reader to exist in. I pick up so many novels and think, Where am I in this as a reader? In Islanders where did you find yourself, if you did? What moved you? Where did you find your space?

RK In a number of places. Sam, or whoever—the main character—does this rumination, going back and forth through not so much his memories, but of trying to remember the things he’s done. The continuous circling back—I found myself there. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in some sense. The characters in that book are described as constantly “pursuing”—there’s no direct object to that. There’s just the rhythm of going around and around. I think for me, memory is more of a hindrance. Do you think it’s a hindrance for the people in this book? And or do you think it’s a good trait to have?

AA Going back over things?

RK Yes. Because you do it in your work, and the character does it with his memories.

AA Yeah…you’re right. Again, there’s an element of rhythm in there. You mentioned Virginia Woolf, the idea of leitmotif, something that occurs and comes back. As a writer you are constantly selecting, and you are also working in relationship to imagery. I’m often striving towards a constructive ambiguity that isn’t ambiguous for its own sake but is…dwelling. Dwelling on certain things that aren’t arbitrary, and neither are they symbolic. They are real. [From Islanders That green rug, the triple-decker, the woman banging—these aren’t symbolic of anything. It just is. It’s in the narrator’s mind. Then the question is, there’s this image that remains from this life. What does that mean? That becomes a riddle for the reader. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but it feels. It evokes.

RK In most passages in the book, you use all five senses to describe the memory a character is having, but the memory itself is so unspecific. I thought that was an interesting and very effective juxtaposition.

AA Charles Olson talks about how you make fact fable. How you have this information—and when that transforms into something, that almost serves the function of mythology. The book deals with four or five places, physical settings I had in mind. I very consciously didn’t want to specify those places. The overarching perspective of the character is shaped by all these places, and they are very fluid. The same thing with some of the other people: I wanted them to be suggestive of each other, to meld together.

RK And that does happen with memories: you remember this one thing, and then these other things come up. There’s a section in the book:

“The music and the laughter hadn’t given him the glow he’d expected in that clear air. Just the dull, actual thud of movement—brown tables, the man’s wife his wife, the waitress’s black apron faded nylon. The wars his elders had fought were inconceivable, the urgency, the misery, and terror of that movement, forests burned, people lined up against the walls and shot at random, a defeat so decisive he could only hear the muffled sound of his elbow on the padded vinyl rim of the bar and the words of songs that made him sentimental. Words of songs on jukeboxes whose owners had neglected to keep up to date, words of songs no one could explain the exquisite melancholy of, words he could only hope to mimic the true meaning of…”

RK The character just went around, and through. And then a few lines later:

“Words with pictures clinging to them like barnacles to the numbers corresponding to the days of his life.”

RK That’s what memory is. That’s a perfect description of what memory does.

AA The passage is not descriptive—it’s enacting. It’s pulling you through it.

RK It’s not a book about memory—it’s a book about the act of remembering. Do you agree?

AA Absolutely.

RK Is memory a hindrance, or something else?

AA Well, what are you left with in the end? Some relationships, some memories? Toby Olson said [about Islanders, “The subject is recovery of the past—not a nostalgic recollection but through the careful articulation of detail, the redemption of it.” You live through this thing, and how do you posit it as having happened? That you were a participant in it? To me, it’s just very important and empowering for people to understand that you have to own your own experience. You have to possess it. It’s important for me that things not be representative and instead that they are active.

RK I thought you did that really successfully, particularly with the extreme focus on light in the book … . and the sea, and the land.

AA In these two lectures we published by Diane di Prima, she has an extraordinary way of circling back to things that may appear as a single image, but are really more like a mystical vision—something that you remember so clearly. The passage in Islanders where Josie is getting ready to go out, and they are looking at this white clapboard house. That image is just there. It’s a part of me. It’s like my left hand. I’m sure that will come up again in things that I write. I can’t just say, “Here’s the image of this thing.” It’s something that’s in me that transforms itself as my experience changes. It sits there, and I come back to it. How does one convey that kind of thing as an irreducible fact? It’s very tricky to write in that way, to create a condition for the things that are in the sentences to have an existence.

RK It’s very ambitious to attempt to convey that experience.

AA Ed Dorn said something that’s really how I think about writing: “The lyrical I is not going to cut it.” Go where your own predilections and abilities take you. For me, the places I go to are these tips of bifurcated meaning, where something can mean eight things at once. That’s how I see the world. On one hand things are very clear to me, but the expression of that is complicated. Having studied Latin, I know there’s this whole range of English tenses that we don’t use anymore. In this new book I’m writing, I’m trying to wrench the language in places it hasn’t gone in a while. The philosopher William James said there’s no way to describe the states of being that are connoted by prepositions. That’s what I’m trying to do. What is the state of being of to? Or from? Or by? Or with? The tenses are going all over the place, and that’s how memory works. It’s this large range of things that our language can’t always capture.

RK Yet, as a writer, you’ve given syntax the duty to impart those things.

AA Prose and poetry are gymnastic. You are starting somewhere and going somewhere else. How do you get there? You can be led in segmented, rhythmic pieces to something. You’re being paced. Many sequences inIslanders are very much a pacing thing. I go from these longer sentences to these shorter ones.

RK You do move the reader very quickly but in a zigzag.

AA Yes, and that forces the reader into a certain kind of tension to reach some other place.

RK There’s a number of ways you could have crafted this.

AA Yes. The logic that I chose dictated a certain journey through it. There could have been another way. This is the one that finally made sense to me.

RK Do you think that these people in the book are after something? A sense of closure, or intimacy? It’s clear they are pursuing. But are they pursuing something?

AA That will take some consideration; it’s a really good question. The general atmosphere of the book is pretty bleak. I was finding intimacies that were maybe not completely present to the people themselves. What keeps coming up are these moments of a fleeting intimacy. I think what the writing has done is fixating, putting those moments into context. Giving them some space. Showing that in the cruelty of a world where a kid can get left out at sea as a form of punishment, maybe fleeting intimacy is the most you can find. Which is not very encouraging. Yet it’s redemptive.

Read part one of this interview here.

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.