Exploring the distance between now and then

Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Ali Alizadeh interviewed by Michelle McLaren

Photo of Ali Alizadeh
Ali Alizadeh

Whether it’s the story of your life or a historical tale, take a journey into the past with poet and academic, Ali Alizadeh as your guide. Writers Victoria volunteer, Michelle McLaren asked Ali about his poetry, truth and his obsession with history.

What were your first poems about?

They were probably about what most juvenile poetry is about - loneliness, confusion, being heart-broken. I think a lot of one's early poetry is also about exploring the possibilities of language and finding one's voice. So, for me, I was definitely trying to work out if free verse was my medium, or if a more structured style suited me more. I think I came to find a compromise between modernism and lyricism sometime towards the end of my 20s, but I feel that's quite common among a lot of the poets of my generation. Aside from their form and content, my first poems were preliminary attempts at what I see as my current - hopefully “mature”! - poetics, which I'd describe as philosophical investigations in poetry. Pompous as it might sound, I see myself as a bit of a philosopher-poet, and an interest in ideas, in truths and falsehoods, and in selfhood or subjectivity is definitely there in my first poems. My first published poem was a sort of a treatise (probably not a very coherent one) on the philosophy of revolution, published in a chapbook/zine put out by a couple of old-school bohemians who ran a weekly poetry reading at a joint called Cafe Bohemia in Brisbane's West End, a really great venue which is sadly no longer there, no doubt washed away by the tsunami of gentrification.

Your 2016 Poetry and the Past workshop encouraged emerging poets to write about their past, historical events and memories. How has the past informed your poetry?

I was a history buff when I was a child - when most kids were reading fantasy books or not reading at all and were playing sports or video games and things like that, I was obsessively reading about the French revolution, Napoleon, knights, etc. I guess I was a tad precocious and pretentious. But when I started writing poetry (in English) in my late teens, I felt encouraged to write about the immediate, about direct experience, the sort of thing poets of that time (mid-late 1990s) were really into. The usual semi-Romantic stuff, Michael Dransfield, the Beats, and the more innovative, experimental approaches, like the Black Mountain poets. These influences discouraged any kind of distance between the author and language. But it soon occurred to me that the past - or a distance between “now” and “then” - is actually really crucial in so much great poetry. One of the key Black Mountain poets, Charles Olson, actually has an amazing poem called 'The Distances'. So I came to see that so much emphasis on the here-and-now (what philosophers call “immanance”) in contemporary poetry is kind of overdone. I then started to write poems that drew on my own memories of growing up in Iran, of the Iran-Iraq War, of migrating to Australia, etc. And then I decided to move from private to public history, and wrote a very, very long epic poem about a figure of medieval French history, the extraordinary Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc). So I guess I remain quite obsessed with history.

How important are facts when writing about the past?

That's a great, and greatly difficult question. Obviously, if one purports to be writing a poem about a particular historical figure, then one should have the common decency to read up something about that historical figure and aim to retain a level of fidelity to that figure's truth. But “fact” and “truth” aren't the same thing - for philosophers like Hegel and Badiou, these might actually be total opposites - and things can get particularly murky when we're dealing with personal history. How much does, say, a poem about my memory of a past experience - e.g. my going to a rather dysfunctional Brisbane high school in the early 1990s - have to do with the facts (of me going to the before-mentioned school, the kids who bullied me, the teachers who ignored me, etc.) or with truth, by which I mean the effect of my experiences or encounters as seen in who I've become, e.g. in the realisations or personal discoveries that I've made about life, the nature of education, Australian culture, etc, as a result of my going to that school? Here I'm certainly using a very special definition of truth, but I'd argue that poetry is more about the effects that certain facts have had on the poet, and the ways in which that poet or his/her language have been transformed by the past, than with simply documenting the past and listing facts.

You’re a multitalented writer who’s also written novels, short story collections and more. How do you choose which ideas to approach through poetry and which ideas are better expressed as novels or stories?

Well, it's very kind of you to see me as multitalented. I'd be quite happy with mono-talented too! I think having written works in different genres, I've come to understand their different aesthetics and dynamics in a practical, experiential way. I used to think that there were things only a poem could do - e.g. engage with the language of a particular moment, say, articulate an encounter with the beloved - but with, experience as a prose writer, I've come to see that the same things can also be done in prose. The most obvious and perhaps banal thing to say is that a (short) poem takes less time to write than a novel, but there's more to a statement like that than meets the eye. Note, for example, that the great Audre Lorde saw poetry writing much more amenable to the conditions of the working class writer - who doesn't get a lot of spare time, and who may not have a “room of one's own” - than writing a novel, or a sustained work of prose. I myself am currently finding it difficult to find the time to work on a long prose piece - which is part fiction, part creative non-fiction, I suppose - while holding down a job.

Which poem should every aspiring poet read?

Something written by me, of course! But, seriously, since you're asking me to name just one poem, then it'll have to be something quite substantial. 'The Divine Comedy', perhaps?

About Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh’s second collection of poetry, ‘Ashes in the Air’, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Ali is a lecturer in Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Monash University. His books include the controversial short-story cycle, ‘Transactions’ and the forthcoming historical novel ‘The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc’.

Update: Ali will be running a one-day Summer School workshop on Poetry: The Foundations at Writers Victoria in January 2017.

About Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren is a Writers Victoria volunteer, a Melbourne Writers Festival intern and an emerging literary critic. She blogs at Book to the Future and procrastinates on Twitter.