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Ethelbert Interviews Abdul Ali

Abdul Ali is a young talented poet who just might be another Langston learning why DC can be so blue. What happens when a black man walks these streets? What happens when he misses the bus to the subway?  Abdul Ali is writing poems that map the space he finds himself in. This is the type of genius Columbus never had. Can one imagine the great discoverer having a Romare Bearden print in his cabin? Abdul Ali surrounds himself with black traditions. If he has trouble sleeping its only because he is the new dreamkeeper who realizes there is much work to do. Ali seems to be everywhere these days—The Writer’s Center, WPFW, Busboys and other places where we gather and try to name the earth beneath our feet. I nicknamed him A2 because it has that futuristic sound—like maybe he knows where we’re going and the rest of us need to buy our tickets.

What places (and individuals) shape and define your literary community?

 Howard University for sure, this is where I took my first steps as a writer and later an editor. I resuscitated The Amistad will a couple of friends.

And right around the corner is Bus Boys and Poets where so many different kinds of conversations happen. It’s how I like to view poetry that lyric hidden inside noise. It’s almost like going to Church, you stay away for a minute then go to hear someone you know read and you see the whole gang and it’s as if time never stopped.

But those are just structures that facilitate community. You cannot have community without people. There are so many poets who make wonderful contributions to this fraternity that we call poetry. There’s yourself of course: always availing yourself to me and so many others. There’s Kim Roberts who edits the Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Teri Cross Davis who does a stellar job bringing different kinds of voices to share their work at the Folgers, not too far from my apartment and my good friend Carolyn Joyner who shares books with me and we read each other’s work on a regular basis. And, there’s Thomas Sayers Ellis whose annual summer visits always add something to the atmosphere.

Is there a black literary establishment?  What do they do?  Do you share their politics and aesthetics?

 Yes, I do believe there’s a black literary establishment just as I believe there’s a white literary establishment. I want to say, though, at the outset that my view of these establishments is informed by the fact that I am a child of the 80s. If I were of your generation, I would answer this question differently.

I believe the black literary establishment—that would included folks like Third World Press, Black Classic Press, literary institutions such as Cave Canem, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Callaloo to name a few—functions as mitosis does in microbiology—that is to multiply the number of black writers who are doing meaningful work, mixing up the canon, putting a different spin on those universals. But also giving a voice and legitimacy to the beauty of the black condition lived here in the states or throughout the world, which sometimes gets forgotten that this is also part of the human condition.

 I’m not sure if I share the aesthetic of any particular black (or white) literary establishment as I don’t feel that closely tied to any one in particular to share politics per se. However, I do believe in creating work that secures a place in the American narrative which the black experience is intrinsically part of.

Is there an “art” to fatherhood?  How does being a parent influence your approach to reading and writing?

Hmm…To say that there’s an art to fatherhood implies that everything is premeditated and considered. Fatherhood for me is a lot like jazz, very improvisational. Though, I do look at models and traditions of fatherhood inside and outside of my family.

As for my reading and writing, I pay more attention to relationships. I look to for the story off-book, the tensions in the voice, the layers. I feel my life is much more layered than it was before I became a father.

Becoming a father has also illuminated a lot of rough patches that I didn’t realized existed between me and my father. And, I’m also very curious about genealogy, who was my father’s father. And what kind of men were they? My mother has done an awesome job of finding so many members on her side. So there’s an imbalance between knowing who you are and not knowing.

 How difficult was it to write “When Sundays are Unseasoned” which appears to be very autobiographical?

The hard part came in the re-writing. I took a one-day workshop with poet Terrance Hayes and he had us read Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and we had to write a poem that was thematically similar. The images, memories flowed easily. The thing about writing about your family is that you don’t want the sappiness to swallow the poem. Above all, you want to write a poem that happens to be about one’s family history. I hope that’s what I achieved in “When Sundays are Unseasoned.”

 How does color, space and texture shape the poems you construct on the page?

I believe that language should be interesting so I tend towards color. White space is something that I study when I read poems. It always fascinates me how poets make different choices with white space. I’m still experimenting with this. Shape is something that happens organically. Rarely, do I tell myself, I want this to be a prose poem and it will look like a brick…lol

 Does the urban landscape ever prevent you from writing about nature?

 I don’t think so. I believe the urban landscape is just the filter through which I view nature at this point. But, I try to challenge myself to see other things. Add to that, the writer’s voice is always changing so I could very well get accepted to one of those New England writing colonies and write about the different shades of green, and write Walden-esque essays.

 How does cultural memory shape your individual voice? 

 Memory is one my preoccupations. In several of my poems, I engage history and try to unveil assumptions we have about what we are told is true.

 What risks are you taking as an artist?

I’m beginning to open up to more painful and personal themes. For instance, I’m beginning to pepper some of my poems with Arabic words. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write a poem about what it was like growing up Muslim pre-9/11 and to find myself totally lost from that changing narrative. Another theme is fatherhood at-large: how I view myself as a father and a son who didn’t grew up with my father. I have reunited with my father in the past few years. So there are all these layers I’m dealing with.

 Explain your use of white space in the poem “Burying the N-Word.”

I believe this to be my attempt at a language poem. I was interested in the gamut of negative implications of N-Words (e.g. Napalm, New Orleans, Nappy, etc.) and for me the white space represents that place where we process, engage, examine the spoken and unspoken. It was very satisfying, and probably one of my riskier poems.

 Do you believe there is such a thing as visionary art?

 Sure, if the artist is visionary and his/her art communicates a vision.

 What is your favorite place in Washington DC?  Have you written about it?

 Right now, I love going for walks in the Capitol Hill area where I live. I love Lincoln Park where Ab Lincoln rests on one extreme and Mary McCloud Bethune the other. There’s a poem somewhere in there. I adore the brownstones of Capitol Hill. They remind me of New York City, the home of my imagination. And I especially like how it feels like a suburb tucked away in a city.  I also like how WDC is relatively small. It can take a lifetime to get to know a place like New York City. But with DC so small you have to pay attention to the unique characters and shades of each block. One turn can put you into another quadrant or country.

About Abdul Ali

I'm a fellow at American University studying creative nonfiction and poetry. I write across a few genres but it's all brought together by larger questions about culture.


2 thoughts on “Ethelbert Interviews Abdul Ali

  1. Abdul, as always, when I read you (or listen to you) your language makes me fall in love with words. Knowing you I know that though this is an interview your thoughts actually flow in this pattern – you actually express in prose and Damn, you’re so mature! OK, I’m going to stop smudging up your pretty page now 🙂

    Posted by Tinesha | October 25, 2009, 1:40 PM
  2. I am so proud to be part of the Howard University community that watched – and listened – to your “first steps.” Well done Ali …

    Posted by t a hardy | October 26, 2009, 1:24 PM

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