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by Julie Swarstad
Kazim Ali is a poet, novelist, essayist, and founding editor of Nightboat Books. He is the author of three volumes of poetry and two novels, including The Far Mosque (2005), The Disappearance of Seth (2009), and Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (2009). Ali is an assistant creative writing professor at Oberlin College in addition to teaching for the Stonecoast MFA program.
Ana Božičević was born in Zagreb, Croatia in 1977. She emigrated to NYC in 1997. Her first book of poems is Stars of the Night Commute (2009), a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her fifth chapbook, Depth Hoar, will be published by Cinematheque Press in 2010. With Amy King, Ana co-curates The Stain of Poetry reading series in Brooklyn. She works at the Center for the Humanities of The Graduate Center, CUNY.
The Next Word in Poetry program was initiated in 2003 to present emerging poets whose work heralds a dynamic new era in contemporary poetry. In February 2011 the Poetry Center presents two pairs of New Word poets to read and engage in conversation with one another concerning their literary interests and influences. Kazim Ali and Ana Božičević will read at the UA Poetry Center on Thursday, February 24 at 8 p.m.
In Kazim Ali's Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities and Ana Božičević's Stars of the Night Commute, a long journey is necessary to arrive at the issues central to the poems. Ali and Božičević in very different styles and for very different reasons, speak indirectly about their subjects, circling around through language, time, and space. Both collections are full of wandering, searching and experiencing, and both writers carefully reveal speakers who are fully fleshed and rich in experience.
Bright Felon is an autobiographical account of a period of Ali's adult life spent in six different cities over five years. The narrative progresses backwards from the present into the past, and as Ali moves farther back in time, we begin to understand why things in the present are what they are. "I use the present to understand the past is not finished," Ali writes. Not only the past in unfinished, but also the self, he finds. Ali's long, prose-y lines capture his struggle with his sexuality and Muslim heritage, the tension of being always "on the verge of saying" the truth to his family.
Ali's poetry is additionally remarkable for its attention to poem as construct. Bright Felon isn't a secret confession; it's an object that was intended for the world to see and interact with. Ali writes, "picture this writing if you like as a sculpture," and indeed this is an apt description for a work that is undeniably multi-dimensional. For Ali, poetry is the "body's urge," and language is a necessity. Beautifully lyrical--"Struck the sun sinking, the trees amber, ember of flowers, the membrane of skin"--his language at the same time seems somehow conversational. Even as Ali circles around his subject matter, he speaks directly to the reader, prompting self reflection and a self-discovery that is perhaps impossible: "I have to tell you the most amazing thing. / You really don't know yourself so well."
In contrast to Ali's long lines and prose-y style, Božičević's writing is harsh edged and full of strong emotions and beliefs confronted head on. While Ali's writing flows smoothly, slipping around ideas and images, Božičević's writing strikes vehemently, packing together images and experiences into a brief space with forceful language. Stars of the Night Commute is a collection of short sequences, several of which Božičević has published previously as chapbooks. Like Bright Felon, travel through both space and time is a major theme. Throughout the short sequences, the speaker explores relationships with several major characters and in the process indirectly reveals the speaker's character to the reader.
While Božičević writes forcefully and uses words in surprising ways-- "nautilus motions / sketch an inside future all over the something-something"--she rarely presents a clear and direct picture of any one experience, instead giving the reader a sense of what is happening without allowing us to know exactly what it is she describes. Although this can be somewhat disconcerting and even confounding at times, Božičević's writing sweeps the reader along in its energy and emotion. For Božičević, words are not something to be worried over, but rather something that explodes artlessly outwards from the self, and this is the greatest strength of her collection.
For both Ali and Božičević, indirection plays an important role in allowing their writing to convey emotion and struggle. In Bright Felon, Ali's recollection of his journey to come to terms with himself skirts around the central issue of how sexuality constitutes a major part of the self. In Stars of the Night Commute, Božičević uses strong, direct language that skirts sense, leaving us to try to understand her meaning by pulling apart her rapid, vigorous images. Through both collections, Ali and Božičević demonstrate the power of indirection to speak to the difficulties of experience, self, intellect, and emotion.