Poet, novelist, translator, critic, and scholar Ammiel Alcalay teaches at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. His books include After Jews and Arabs, Memories of Our Future, Islanders, and neither wit nor gold: from then, from the warring factions, and a little history. Translations include Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias by Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović. He was given a 2017 American Book Award from The Before Columbus Foundation for his work as founder and General Editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. 

This conversation took place in Brooklyn, NY in August 2018 with Judah Rubin for A Perfect Vacuum.

A Perfect Vacuum: I’d like to start our conversation in the 13th century, which I’m interested in as a point in time when European hegemony does not exist yet and, with respect to intellectual exchange, this is a point of real synthesis and syncretic interaction. Not to be anachronistic, but in terms of networks of exchange, is there a way to rethink or remap the world system of language to move toward something of that nature?

Ammiel Alcalay: I would go back a few centuries to the translation movement, which is in Baghdad, the Abbasid period, 8th 9th century in which there’s this massive effort to translate whatever is extant from Greek sometimes into Syriac or into Hebrew or into Arabic, because that is the circuitous way a lot of Greek thought gets to the Renaissance.

Arabic was becoming hegemonic at the time. It’s the lingua franca. And it’s the language that has the scientific vocabulary and the philosophic vocabulary that carried the weight that may not be in the other languages because it cuts through that translation moment that things pass through. I’m really not even sure how to respond to your question at this stage of things. I don’t know how to bring any of that into the present, real or imagined – the nature of the domination of English is probably, like many other things, a bit unprecedented in terms of volume, scope, space it takes up, so I guess what I’ve been mainly thinking about is from within how to start grappling with that. And in many ways that was part of the project of from the warring factions. To get in there and see what it’s conveying.

APV: Something tangential might be the way words migrate into English and French from Arabic during the period we’re discussing often concerning commerce, trade. Do you feel that within these linguistic exchanges during this period, which presage the rise of capitalism, there is a way to untangle that ugly nexus of forces?

If you ever reached that end, there wouldn’t be any traces left to prove anything.

AA: It depends what you’re trying to untangle. I don’t believe in an origin really, that there is some end. If you ever reached that end, there wouldn’t be any traces left to prove anything. Jalal Toufic has this thing about people going through a surpassing disaster, and then their materials of expression are withheld, they have become heretical in relation to what those materials might have once conveyed.  But I think it’s even beyond that. If there is heresy there has to be something against which it is aimed. And I think we’re even beyond that, though within the language there is a history of all of this somewhere, up to a point. What happens when you hit the Ice Age, for instance? Now how do you go about finding, delineating, exploring? My own direction that I’ve gone in in the last number of years has been toward absolutely plain language and clarity. I’ve been writing these very short poems that are like history books in eight lines and they’re looking at a specific moment with a particular take on it and trying to convey something that would need a discourse around it: a kind of way of coming back to the idea of attention rather than complication. There is a simpleminded straightforwardness and there is straightforwardness that has the scientific form of law where it’s irreducible.

I think there’s too much stock put in (weird for me to be saying this) translation and languages, because they really are instances of larger phenomena. And it is less the particularity of a culture or a thing than where is this person in this situation and what is this thing they have done, where is it in that world? I’m aggravated with a lot of translation that feels uninformed, that feels as though it is reinvesting various emphases on generic purity and on the poem, the novel, the thing, without any broader context. A former student just finished a translation of the letters between Albert Camus and Jean Sénac; we know Camus but Sénac is much less well-known. He was also a pied noire who grew up poor in Algeria but he joined the revolution, and Camus didn’t. And there is a book length essay by Hamid Nacer-Khodja who was an acolyte of Sénac and it’s a crucial text because here you have an instance of people who were very close to each other and had a real ideological conflict, and it comes out in this document, whereas if you were reading it through the lens of poems, fiction, whatever, you might not quite get it. Altogether, though, I don’t think we pay enough attention—or any attention, to the bludgeoning, obliterating qualities of any culture, not just a form of expression that seems more just than another.

APV: A question of narrativity, then – and are there other ways of producing narratives of history, narratives of translation, too, that may be that are more truthful rather than the thing we believe is Correct.

AA: There are pasts that become more important to the present: the past is always a choice in a strange way. What needs to be brought forth, pronounced, found that obstructs or complicates or obliterates this other thing? What past does one go to? What is being drawn into the present and how is that happening?  A lot of the translation work I’ve done has been the presentation of challenges to what I saw in front of me here not necessarily exposing something there.

APV: But then there’s that fine line between reactive and reactionary…

AA: Yes, but history takes place in a physical universe, so physical laws might have some bearing on events that have taken place. In terms of grand narratives, there may be more fundamental grand narratives that are being thought about in terms of, say, soil depletion.

APV: That seems to point to the rendering of timescapes. It seems obvious that we need to think about atmospheric conditions or the geological record or soil conditions as part of these histories – how do you see people doing that now?

AA: Well, it’s not going very well. Put it that way. Again, I’ve always found it helpful to read things that have a long arc. For instance, just in the political moment we are in, there’s an extraordinary amount of attention being put on things that, to my mind, are really tangential, obfuscating the very basic historical shift that is happening, and you won’t see a headline saying “since the time of Columbus the speed of getting overland in Asia has diminished to such a point that the Atlantic ocean is now irrelevant,” but that’s like a central fact. Or ought to be a central fact that’s on people’s eyes minds. Because that’s taking binoculars upside down and looking at them through your ear… so having that central fact in mind can be very helpful in sorting out hierarchies of importance or of effort, or where one might put one’s energies in terms of how this is being processed, where are more things being impacted.

APV: In terms of entanglement, then, is there too much present – too much present and not enough future or not enough past?

AA: Probably way too much present and not enough past. In a conversation between Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley, Dorn says some stuff that really resonates more and more for me. Someone asks, “what can the function of poetry be” and he says it’s really assigning attention to aspects of the language where attention isn’t. But he also says that if he sees someone working in an area and it is being handled, he won’t go there. And then he says something about the past being usable and… I wish I had the quote on hand—it’s a whole list of adjectives with the future being the last thing you want to get into. He says that the future is the most societally and culturally, maybe the most theologically constrained: “it’s going to be worse, it’s going to be great” – all the future scenarios, disaster or deliverance I guess. I think there’s way too much present.

That’s what Lost & Found’s mission is in many ways. I had found that increasingly I was encountering students whose experiences were more and more mediated, and who had terms with which to accommodate that experience. Of course, the further back in time you go the stranger things get. I was looking at genizah fragments from the tenth century, you don’t even know what the fuck they are, let alone how to decode them. Early medieval Arabic written in Hebrew…it’s a nightmare to even begin to decode and so it’s much less mediated: you have to confront this thing and first describe it. What is this object?

So putting people into being confronted with all of this stuff, which has no vocabulary to accompany it, I found very salutary because it immediately creates a distance between the person looking at it and the thing, which creates an emotional reaction. Why am I drawn to this thing? Am I drawn to it by my love for this person who produced it? Where am I in relation to it?

APV: Before we were talking about the question of speed, and certain things have sped up quite a bit

AA: Oh velocities are ridiculous…

APV: But at the same time other things have also become much more stationary

AA: Well in a certain way people are much more fixed – if you’ve established yourself it’s harder to move because it’s uncertain economically, job wise, you have to hang on to what you have. It’s a curious controlled mobility where people are dashing off constantly but to specific things for circumscribed reasons.

APV: And for highly specific amounts of time…

AA: Oh absolutely, and I think that’s a real detriment to the development of a culture. Because idle time, and I’m sure there’s a marked difference when you’re in Latin America, to what constitutes social life, and I’m sure it’s pressurized in all kinds of other ways but I would think there’s a kind of “Oh Judah you’re here.”

APV: Do you think that our relation to these objects has shifted because of the way that people think about their social relationships, and so artistic relationships themselves have changed?

AA: Oh absolutely, there used to be more the idea of “traveling poets,” for the sake of spending time with people far away. And now all that’s centered around a certain event or activity.  ‘So and so is invited to Naropa for a week,’ but the idea of doing nothing is not happening. And that’s the economy – who the hell can afford it?  The economics are such that it’s just very difficult, and I know that people are trying to do all kinds of things, I’m sure as we speak there are, you know I have students who are doing salons and all kinds of things but being a fixture in a place with an ongoing host option is so rare.

APV: Pedagogically speaking, how do you perhaps go about putting into practice beyond Lost & Found thinking about literature, writing language as parts of larger currents between people, contexts, etc in front of a class or group of people

AA: I’ve been teaching at Queens in the translation part of the MFA program, which I love because the people who come to that program are very quirky, not hipster types, varying backgrounds, concerns, languages, and I have particularly enjoyed teaching there because in the English program the monolingualism kind of drives me bonkers. At Queens, we read wildly, and in ways that I want to expose people to understanding that the things that can really incite your imagination may have nothing to do with things you want to do. And it may entail encountering something that is very different about something very other and somehow by the presentation of its materials it frees up a person to expand their relationship to their own experience vis a vis some more personal kind of learning, some more passionate kind of learning, how they can make that theirs. How they can take it in. It has been very important for me, the idea of permission – you can do this – it’s not personal recognition but it’s the recognition of the person as being exemplary in and of themselves, and “oh I have this” and it’s not that it’s mine but that it has come through me. That’s one thing, and the other is exposure – I just throw everything and the kitchen sink at people with the idea that this is not a reading for this semester, this is a reading for life and these are things you really ought to…and zeroing in on where I think something could be helpful, in other words getting to know a person well enough that I can say, well actually, this could be really helpful in actually getting you…

APV: And does it go the opposite way too, in terms of what you get from your students?

AA: Absolutely. I get from my students life sustainability. It’s just an absolute pleasure to have these people around, just fabulous, and it has become pretty evident for whom this method fits, and seeing where people go with that is really very fulfilling. I didn’t get into academia as a poet, and I think that makes a big difference. I was brought up in that more traditional scholarly tradition where you’re here and you’re handing something over and it continues and that really is very cool…

APV: Here I am thinking about the anthology of Soufflés / Anfas, which has elements of all of that…

AA: I’d been a reader for that project because I’d always supported it and always wanted to see that in English and thrilled it was happening, yeah it’s amazing that’s happening, it’s a really important thing and to kind of, at a certain point I’d also started to think about US 50s, 60s in a global perspective and looking at these so called new American poets as part of a decolonization process and most people are like wtf are you talking about, but the parallels, the dates of what people are doing – Jean Senac started his first magazine in the same month Vincent Ferrini, to whom Olson began the Maximus Poems as letters, started his little magazine Four Winds. This was a moment when people were in the same boat in different parts of the world. It’s very helpful to think about that.

APV: Yeah, or Blackburn and Cortázar where that also seems to be the case in terms of their commitments…

AA: Margaret Randall sent us a response to that which we have on our website, it’s so great because the whole series are people she was close to and she describes driving around Mexico City with Paul and talking about Julio and seeing Audre Lorde and all of a sudden you see “we’re in a milieu here.”

A great example of that: The Hatch-Billops collection – started by James Hatch was a professor of art history at City University and his wife Camille Billops. The archive is now at Emory, but they worked for decades on documenting African Americans in the arts and I mean I’m talking scenographers, photographers, musicians, poets, everybody who was involved, lighting people, techies, thousands of hours of tape, and that’s the kind of attempt to define the ground on which things operated. What this culture will do is choose a representative, shine a light on them for fourteen seconds and then snuff them out so that kind of thinking is a way of shifting perspective.

What this culture will do is choose a representative, shine a light on them for fourteen seconds and then snuff them out so that kind of thinking is a way of shifting perspective.

APV:  It also seems there also are the reluctances in linking certain people and ideas together. It can be traumatizing in some ways to recognize that people had these sorts of relationships to one another or with each other’s work.

AA: It seems anathema. Here was this pure thing as I imagined it and now suddenly it’s not. The point of consumer culture is to atomize everything and get to the most minute detail and milk it for all it’s worth and not to think…it’s not like anyone knows— I mean, I’d been working on the Ferrini archive, and began discovering all these things even though he knew me since I was born!  It was mind blowing to read some of those letters to him – A guy named Mike Hecht writing from Chicago, working for the Chicago Star under editor Frank Marshall Davis, the black communist poet, and he writes that he’s going to hear Gwendolyn Brooks read and then Paul Robeson shows up at this community …my god. There’s this very direct nexus of this person in Gloucester getting this news from Chicago. That kind of thing is very empowering to me because you see how relationships between people create things.

APV: And so, to do a history that involves these broader narratives you actually find the way people determine these relations between themselves, which stretches across times that are not easily encapsulated in a sound bite or blurb and which conceal a kind of chain of interaction.

AA: I also find it hard to bear that there’s a kind of subjugation of the past, where people say ‘oh we’re past that…we’ve made these advances.’ With that progressive idea of history, you’ve eliminated things. It’s very arrogant and very unproductive because it shuts things off from confronting what might be problematic still and what actually was at stake in those moments that are being put into a straightjacket, presenting one’s present predilections and privileges. It took me a long time to understand something that is very basic, and I now see it getting repeated in many places: why is the most vibrant thought that takes place in this country in the 50s and 60s in letters? Why is that? They’re generally not being opened, the people writing them generally couldn’t afford to travel or make long distance phone calls, it’s pretty simple in the end, but it wasn’t that easy to get to; it was like “Oh, people wrote letters then, cool, how quaint.”