When did you set your foot on the path of poetry? Did you feel a sudden bolt? Or did you grow gradually more passionate about poetry?
I first thought I could speak in oppositional language when I, the only brown boy I knew at my school (there were others around somewhere), stumbled upon Mari Evans poems in an anthology. Engluage bent in the service of authentic voice. Finally. I continued in college reading poets like Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton who brought jargon, accents and dialect into English-not-English. By the time I read Salman Rushdie and Agha Shahid Ali, to name two poets who bring cadences, grammar, and accents of Urdu into English, I was ready for it. Though I wrote fiction first and only turned to poetry when I came to think that my fractured sense of narrative, erotic lust for the truncated and unfinished and inclination to the sketchiness of both plot and character were all incompatible with book-length prose. I think differently now and am happily trans-genred though still also work solidly in the form of the poem.
Is there a collaborative element to your writing process and what do you think it is?
I seek to see my self at any rate in all forms of language and poetry. When one is an other to oneself, every attempt at putting experience into words is collaboration. But lest we forget the other meaning of collaborator. Currently having my mind blown by Expeditions of a Chimaera, a collab by Oana Avasilichioaei and Erin Moure. And have always been made halfway to delirium by Sappho's Gymnasium, a collab by T Begley and Olga Broumas.
Do think that poetry can have an effect on everyday speech? How?
It has an effect on my own everyday speech in that it asks me to see deeper, to see language as other than a denotating mode in service of the surface, of commerce, of the transfer of meaning to money, which is most of what everyday speech is for.
Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry? How did they do that?
Nearly too many to talk about here, but to talk about one single poet, Jean Valentine. I find her poems to be formally beautiful, spiritually weighty, though materially light, formidable in their commitment to the human and local, though ambitious and grand in their intentions. I don't just want to write poems like Jean Valentine, I want to be like her as well: kind, soft-spoken, passionate, generous, intense, and yes, beautiful.
Also to list a not quite exhaustive litany of poets who have influenced me both by their writing and their example: Fanny Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Meena Alexander, Donald Revell, Mahmoud Darwish, Lisel Mueller, the list could go on and on. Younger poets who rock me constantly: Matthew Klame, Jessica Smith, Sarah Gambito, to name only three of many.
Are there aspects of painting or photography or dance or video art or music or architecture or theater or film or any other art inform your own poems or that your poems are in conversation with? If so, how?
At one moment I was very influenced by the photographs of Manuel Alvaro Bravo. I liked how there were two seemingly oppositional things happening in the same photograph, like the spiny tumbleweed in front of the nude reclining on the roof. I thought a poem too could have two energy poles within it, oppositional impulses that pulled it in different directions. I wrote this in my poem "Lostness" from The Fortieth Day, and also in "Interrupted Letter" from that same book.
Agnes Martin is one of my totem saints, mainly because of her relationship to silence, both visually depicted and actual silence, her way of being in the world.
Dance and architecture (sort of the same thing, aren't they?) were definitely strong influences in The Far Mosque, particularly related to the way breath moved across a line and then reversed itself, often, in the subsequent or answering line. I write a little more about architecture, particularly the vexed architecture of Muslim Spain in a book of essays called Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence that is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2010.
Did you start off with an idea that your book grew around? Did you move away from that idea as the book progressed?