Poetry International Poetry International

Interview with Ali Alizadeh

February 04, 2011
Michael Brennan: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Ali Alizadeh: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, to amuse and entertain myself as a kid, and to impress the adults, teachers etc. I’ve also been a big reader, so I guess that’s also why I’ve been writing since I started reading as a child, to copy and simulate, monkey see monkey do. And this was pretty much the case when I decided to “become a writer” in my early teens before immigrating to Australia, when my dad thought my being an anti-social book worm had to amount to more than wasting a lot of (his) money on books, so he took me to meet a couple of authors and publishers in Tehran, to see if I would take a professional interest, which I did. 

But then we moved to Australia and suddenly it was decided that I should become an architect or an engineer. I guess this sort of change of direction is fairly common among immigrants – to make the most of the new life and opportunities in an affluent western country etc. – and I suppose I was also resigned to abandoning my writerly ambitions due to having lost my language (I didn’t read/write/speak English before coming to Australia, but knew a little bit of French) so I ended up enrolling at a civil engineering course at QUT (Brisbane) at the end of high school, but then, at around the same time – to my parents’ great disappointment – the whole Grunge music thing happened, and I suddenly realised that, yes, I wanted to become a hirsute tortured artist à la Eddie Vedder.

I found it impossible to focus on my subjects at uni and dropped out after the first year and enrolled at the creative arts course at Griffith Uni Gold Coast. I was very impressionable, and dying to find a way to make an impression on the members of the opposite sex. To my horror I realised that I could not play the guitar at all, but after having Komninos Zervos for first year creative writing tutor and befriending classmates like Kris Terbutt, I decided to give performance poetry a go, and I was hooked.

Who are the writers that first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What’s changed?

Ali Alizadeh: Well, when I was a kid I was as inspired by Tintin and Asterix comics and Jules Verne books as any other kid, and was also exposed to a lot of classical Persian poetry at home and in school. Then I became a voracious reader and read absolutely anything I could get my hands on, specially anything to do with history and politics. When I started to write as an adult, after enrolling at the creative arts course at Griffith, I took an immediate liking to the Beats, specially Ginsberg, and an immediate dislike to mainstream literary fiction (of the kind we were being asked to write essays about). I guess I was and continue to be influenced by what inspires me as well as what irritates me.

I started writing my own poetry under the influence of modern/avant-garde American poets like the Beats, Confessional poets and Black Mountain poets, and the Australian poets that interested me were innovators like Dorothy Porter, Gig Ryan and П. O. So it was inevitable that I’d end up in Melbourne. Later, when I started doing my PhD at Deakin, I read a lot of epic poetry and also developed a taste for classical poetry, specially medieval European epics like ‘The Song of Roland’, Dante and Christine de Pisan. My interest in the epic was a continuation of reading Olson and modernist/post-modernist American epics e.g. Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, H.D.’s Trilogy and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. My own current style – the semi-measured, unrhyming two-line stanzas that I think of as anti-couplets – is a basic adaptation of H.D.’s stanzas in Trilogy. 

These days I’m still interested in the epic (I have been reading a fair bit of medieval epics like Attar’s The Conference of the Birds as well as John Kinsella’s new revision of Dante, among others) and the avant garde. I’m also curious to see what effects the current crises (in global capitalism, the environment, etc.) are likely to have on poetry, and if we’ll see a revival of the sort of revolutionary poetics that existed in the early to mid twentieth century. I suppose I’m increasingly bored with much of today’s accessible, image-centric poetry (e.g. poems about day-to-day life written in the author’s natural voice) but I’m not keen on excessive grammatical playfulness and verbal sophistry either. So I’m more and more attracted to genuinely radical writers and thinkers like Benjamin, Foucault, Badiou, Ahmad, Mouffe, Debord, Jameson, Derrida, Adorno etc. I guess I'm trying to understand a genuinely radical poetics that is not only formally but also discursively and philosophically progressive and challenging. 

How important is ‘everyday life’ to your work?

Ali Alizadeh:
Not quite sure where everyday life ends and where one’s artistic work begins. I guess for me my writing and reading is very much a part of my everyday life, and things like eating and sleeping don’t really interfere with my writing, and vice versa. There’s at times some tension between my day job (teaching writing and literature) and my own writing – e.g. when in the first week of classes first year students tell me, rather predictably, that they don’t like poetry, not to mention the rather monstrous but mundane perversion of writing and literature into an educational fetish commodity – but I somehow manage to continue my own writing in spite of all that. I guess I’m lucky to have a partner who is very understanding and supportive of my need to write, so my writing has been very much incorporated.

MB: What is the function or place of subjectivity in your poetry?

Ali Alizadeh: I don’t think subjectivity is something that can be taken for granted. Just because one has a body, a mind, a biography, it doesn’t mean one is a subject. In fact, one of the main systemic, cultural movements of our time – in connivance with the ethos of late capitalism – has been the erasure of the subject and the production of humans as units, as objects, e.g. in various statistics, say, as ‘individual consumers’, which is a rather bizarre oxymoron – can one be an ‘individual’ and a ‘consumer’ at the same time? Not very likely.

Either way, historically, subjectivity has, of course, been a privilege. As Foucault would have it, for example, in the nineteenth century, to have sexuality one needed to be middle class. But, as the myth of our current classless society continues to go (more or less) unchallenged, it would be tempting to think that we’re now all born with discernable subjective characteristics, e.g. a rational mind, an ability to feel, write poetry, and so on. I’m inclined to agree with philosopher Alain Badiou, however, that true subjectivity (as opposed to the myth of individualism) is the product of, as Badiou would have it, fidelity to the truth produced by an event.

To give an example of this sort of subjectivity, in my poems I often make references to my personal history. I understand that to some this might indicate some sort of ‘confessional’ citation of my ‘cultural heritage’, especially when the references are to my memories of life in Iran prior to immigration to Australia. The way I see such references, instead, is that they signal a fidelity to the truths produced by the events that I’ve been subjected to. When I write about my macabre discovery of the Real of the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, for example, I’m not being autobiographical, but remaining loyal to the terrible realisations that I made as a result of witnessing or hearing about the missile attacks, aerial bombings, use of children in the Iranian army’s ‘human waves’, chemical bombs and so on. So my subjectivity is only possible for as long as I remain true to the (often, but not always, horrible) truths procured as a result of unsettling events. These things make me the subject/writer that I am.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions or broader cultural or political movements? 

Ali Alizadeh: I used to. I guess, especially after ‘9/11’, I came to see my work as participating in some sort of a discourse of Otherness. I even thought of myself as a post-colonial writer, or a multicultural poet, or something like that. But I’m not so sure anymore. I suppose I’ve always been a politically conscious writer, but after 9/11 I felt compelled to write more specifically about the fallacy of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations, the idiocy of Fukyama’s The End of History and so on. And, to be fair, it wasn’t just me taking my so-called identity too seriously; others encouraged me to address the themes of Otherness – immigration, religious intolerance, xenophobia etc. – as well. I suppose there was a genuine interest in someone like me ‘saying it like it is’ vis-à-vis the post-9/11 milieu.

But I’m not sure how I feel about all of that anymore. For one thing, I’ve come to see ‘identity politics’ as a rather misleading and counterproductive concept. I guess, without wanting to be disputatious, I have developed misgivings about multiculturalism, and have come to see it as a capitalist ruse to distract the people from the real sources of injustice and inequality in the world. Cultural diversity is a very poor substitute for justice and political and economic equality. What’s more, the supposedly positive fetishisation of the Other (e.g. me being encouraged to write poems about my ‘Persian heritage’ for Australian readers, ‘celebrating minority ethnic identity’ and all that) is really only marginally different from out-and-out racism. As with racists, the ‘tolerant’ people who respect ‘cultural differences’ also believe that the Other is a differentiation of the Same which is, as Derrida might have it, only a delayed, retarded or inferior form of the Same – hence all the attempts at understanding, communication, dialogue, etc. See, for example, Baudrillard’s superb analysis in The Transparency of Evil. Or Badiou’s Ethics.

I think that the world is a fundamentally flawed and unjust place, but talking about race, culture and ethnicity only obfuscates the real issues. These days I’m much more excited about the possibilities of a radical poetics that could disrupt and even subvert the oppressive, hegemonic structures of language. In the past I’ve dabbled in actual political activism (regarding free speech – the nefarious ‘Sedition’ law – and the sadistic treatment of asylum seekers by Howard’s henchmen) but now I want to look at the very violent, tyrannical mechanism of language itself, and try to challenge that through writing. So perhaps in terms of literary tradition/s, this desire could place me alongside the other poets who have contested the Master-Signifiers. I would describe it as a non-evangelical activist-poetic tradition.

MB: What aspect of writing poetry and working as a poet is the most challenging?

Ali Alizadeh: All of the above, with the exception of content, because I always have something – or perhaps too much – to say. It’s interesting that, as your question indicates, community can be, and often is, problematic. When there’s too much community, one finds oneself in one of those obnoxiously claustrophobic cliques, euphemistically referred to as a ‘scene’, as though the mere, and rather banal, act of socialising with other poets is in and of itself an artistic event. In situations like this, melodrama, status anxiety and paranoia reign supreme. On the other hand, when there’s a lack of camaraderie and support – due to rivalry, envy, the micropolitics of the abovementioned ‘scenes’ etc. – one ends up feeling abandoned and alienated, especially if one has done one’s best to be supportive of others. It’s not a pleasant situation at all.

Getting published is another nasty nuisance. There’s a belief that one needs to be published in certain journals or by certain presses in order to feel like a ‘real poet’. This is absolute rubbish, of course, since history’s most ‘real’ poets – from the advent of the printing press to mid-late nineteenth century – published their own work. With the ascendancy of capitalist democracy, however, the (very bourgeois and rather illusory) possibility to climb up the rungs of the cultural hierarchy came to determine the definitions of quality or success in poetry. Getting published in prestigious journals became a quantifiable and even scientific discourse for establishing the worth or value of an individual poet’s work. In Benjaminian terms, publication bore the aura of poetic authenticity in the age of prosaic reproduction.

Among other things, this ideology turns publishers/editors into Nietzschean creditors, or perhaps Hegelian masters. I once received a very, very vicious rejection letter from a (well-known, at least in Australia) poetry publisher who obviously felt entitled to be cruel. The sagacious elder observed, among other things, that I had no right to call myself a poet. Thanks to the bad conscience – and frankly bad manners – of people like him, poets will feel like debtors and inferiors for as long as poetry is seen as a fetish commodity (albeit a very, very insignificant one), that is, for as long as we live in capitalist democracies where we constantly have to prove our worth, compete, and show that we have access to what Marx called ‘mental capital’. If Rimbaud lived in a capitalist democracy like Australia today he’d probably be trying to get a writing grant, in between submitting work to poetry journals, rather than revolutionising poetry.

MB: What reading, other than poetry, is important to your work as a poet and why?

Ali Alizadeh: I think that would be philosophy. I read a lot of other things – history, politics, fiction, newspapers – but I don’t know how much influence any of them has on my poetry. It’s philosophers, mostly modern/recent/contemporary Continental philosophers, who are most important to my work. I often write poems to test my understanding of obtuse and interesting points that I read in, say, Foucault or Žižek or Badiou. I’m sure some would find this sort of thing pretentious, but this is my way of processing/remembering some of the more challenging things that I read. (I’ve written a whole novel to make sense of one of Walter Benjamin’s essays.)

But, I suppose, my most secondary poetry – as in poetry inspired by primary documents – is my Joan of Arc epic (as yet unpublished, which I’ve called, unimaginatively enough, La Pucelle) which is more or less a narrativisation of a great number of sources, most significantly the minutes of Joan’s trials. I also did quite a lot of non-textual reading for this epic, e.g. studying relevant effigies, artifacts and weapons in museums, travelling to Joan’s battlefields, following in her footsteps across France. I’m not sure if any of these activities could be seen as research in the conventional sense of the word – since I was not interested in representing the facts of her story in my epic – but these experiences certainly played a significant part in forming my approach.

Also, reading is crucial to my work as a translator. I read the original poems that I translate not as an objective reader (whatever that might mean) but as someone who is subjectively engaged, and critical. I don’t try to understand the meaning of the (usually Persian) poems in order to later transmit this meaning via English to an Anglophone reader – I’m not interested in representation – but I read the poems as quite an opinionated, and in many ways biased, assessor. I’m biased in favour of translating complex, and philosophically challenging, poems – hence my interest in medieval Sufi poetry. I think the whole notion of the translator as some sort of neutral bridge between languages is rather silly.

MB: What is ‘Australian poetry’? Do you see yourself as an ‘Australian’ poet?

Ali Alizadeh: Well, I could go all post-modernist here and convincingly deny that there’s such a thing as Australian poetry; and say that ‘Australian poetry’ (as your placing the phrase inside quotation marks indicates) is a simulacrum, a fake ‘reality’, etc. But I actually happen to think there is such a thing as Australian poetry, although I see it as a discourse and not, say, as a milieu of literary-cultural production. I think, for example, that some of the most vivid formations of Australian poetry are not to be found in poetry journals, but in conversations, billboards, political speeches and the like. This is not to say these types of text are at all literary – in fact, they most certainly are not – but that the poetic is not limited to the literary.

At any rate, I think Australian poetry has to do with the lyrical affirmations/violations of the English language under the rubric of a certain socio-cultural (Anglo-Celtic) hegemony. And what’s more interesting (and here’s where a mere focus on an aesthetic, no matter how innovative, does not satisfy me) is the whole gamut of political, philosophical, ideological and spiritual assumptions and arguments that are embedded (and at times contested) in any versification of Australian English. So, for example, what makes Les Murray an Australian poet is not his rather unconvincing attempts at mimicking ‘real’ Australian idioms and slang, but his powerful (and, as far as I’m concerned, utterly disagreeable) theses on the philosophy of Australian history demonstrated in Fredy Neptune or The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. What interests me the most is the discourse of what I call – after Tocqueville’s ‘American exceptionalism’ – Australian survivorism. And what really excites me is the work of the few radical poets who actually rupture and transform this discourse.

As for seeing myself as an Australian poet, my work, for better or for worse, perhaps seems to adhere to the conventions of what I see as the country’s dominant cultural discourse, e.g., my use of English can be seen as a non-Anglophone immigrant’s praxis of a poetics of displacement/settlement, that is, a sign of my hard-won Australian Self surviving the trauma of my obscene Persian-speaking Other. I should hope there’s more to my poetry than that, but this isn’t for me to say. Identity is formed in (the mirror of) the eyes of the beholder. (On a personal level, the question of nationality qua nationality is of absolutely no interest whatsoever.)

MB: Don Anderson once described Australian poetry as Australia’s only “blood sport”. More recently critics have seen Australian poetry in terms of a “new lyricism” (David McCooey) and “networked language” (Philip Mead). What is the current state of play in Australian poetry? How do you think Australian poetry and discussions about Australian poetry might best develop in the next ten years?

Ali Alizadeh: I think, if I’m not mistaken, Anderson’s description refers to the 1970s Australian poetry scene. If so, I find it somewhat romantic and prescriptive, which is also the case with McCooey’s and Mead’s rubrics. Australian poetry is simply not that eventful or active to be seen as a blood sport. (Although, with the memories of the Ern Malley mêlée still fresh in poets’ minds, the 1970s did perhaps witness a genuine confrontation between the avant garde and the traditionalists.) I don’t want to simplify Mead’s thesis; and his examples of Australian poets engaging with societal and technological trends (Kenneth Slessor with cinema, John Tranter with computers etc.) are very convincing. But I’m not sure if all or even most Australian poets are as media/technology savvy as that. As for McCooey’s view, I think it’s also very persuasive when discussing, say, the ‘intense aestheticism’ (his term) of Alison Croggon, MTC Cronin, or Bronwyn Lea, but I don’t think this sort of post-modernist lyricism is all that pervasive. It perhaps represents the sort of poetry most likely to win awards and receive hyperbolically ecstatic reviews, but it doesn’t signify the current state of play in Australian poetry. Most Australian poetry is naturalistic, humorous and, all in all, anti-modernist, or, more accurately, amodernist.

I believe Australian poetry by and large legitimates/challenges what I term ‘Australian survivorism’. I won’t dwell on this idea here too much – as it’s a rather bizarre, perhaps new concept – but, briefly, my understanding is that since the early twentieth century, Australian literature has been at the service of the hegemonic expression of the will to be seen as a survivor, this ‘survivor’ being some sort of Lacanian imago – a coherent image one wants to identify one’s messy ego with – produced by certain historical, political and economical factors, and maintained by cultural and, in this case, literary forces. I think this Australian survivorism discourse fundamentally differs from its very close relative, the myth of the Aussie battler (but then I think you do this in the next sentence?).Australian survivorism is not a popular, proto-religious, public signifier (i.e. a myth) but a systemic and inconspicuous mechanism of representation according to which arguments are made, statements are sequenced, language is used etc. And Australian poets more often than not participate in this discourse, although a few do resist it.

To cite an example, Kevin Hart’s mysticism ‘lite’ is formed not so much by a belief in the Judeo-Christian creator – his is only marginally a properly mystical poetry – but by a belief in the desirability of surviving the predations of the much-maligned dogma of ‘organised religion’. Hart’s poetry is – not in spite of, but precisely as seen in, his down-to-earth, accessible voice – very tightly organised along the ethos of a discourse of a self-conscious, if not self-congratulatory, spiritual survival. At his most convincing, Hart indicates that it is possible to be religious in the post-religious world. As such, by participating in the post-apocalyptic discourse of being after the End (of religion, in his case), he represents the mainstream of contemporary Australian poetry. The same can be said about Dorothy Porter’s surviving sexual politics, Les Murray’s surviving history, Adam Aitken’s surviving culture, Ouyang Yu’s surviving multiculturalism.

As for what might happen in the future, the chances are that the Australian survivorism discourse that I’ve briefly discussed will continue to dominate, as it works in concert with the capitalist democratic hegemony. It is, in fact, late-capitalist poetics par excellence. But, should we witness a serious disruption of the capitalist order – similar to but less manageable than the recent ‘global financial crisis’ – then perhaps some sort of a poetic Real might emerge to crack and transform Australian poetry. In that sense, poetry, like history, is economy in action.

MB: How is poetry relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in Australia or at an international level?

Ali Alizadeh: Thankfully, it’s not at all relevant or valuable. When one looks at what happens when arts and/or particular artists are deemed socially relevant or important – either as propaganda in revolutionary societies or as fetish commodities in conservative societies – it becomes obvious, at least to me, that the very last thing Australian poets should wish for is more cultural/social relevance and prestige. I’m inclined to think that when Plato recommended that poets be exiled from his perfectly dull, proto-utilitarian republic, he was actually doing the poets a favour. I for one would not want to be either the mouthpiece for politicians or an entertainer for middle class philistines.

Poets can make the world a better place by, say, instilling a new idea or a new perspective in their (very few) readers via their poems; but it really is a shame that so much energy gets put into the mere ambition to assert one’s work publicly. I’ve seen some of the best minds of my generation destroyed by the madness of trying to attract attention and funding from the powers that be. ‘Getting recognition’, ‘getting published’ and ‘getting funding’ seem to be among the chief concerns of Australian poets today. I’d personally rather be something of a hermit, write, and keep my day job.
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