Ali Alizadeh on catalysts and inspiration

iranBorn in Teheran, Ali Alizadeh won a young adult’s literary award at thirteen and became the subject of a documentary film for the [then] Kingdom of Iran’s national television. In 1989, his family emigrated to the ‘mostly hostile environment’ of Queensland, Australia.

Since completing his PhD in Professional Writing at Victoria’s Deakin University, Ali has published Eyes in Times of War; with Kenneth Avery, translations of mystical poems of a Sufi master, Fifty Poems of Attar; the novel The New Angel; Iran: My Grandfather; and his new collection of poetry Ashes in the Air.

Ali has also published poetry, poetry translations and poetry criticism in many literary journals including Cordite Poetry Review, Meanjin, HEAT and Voiceworks as well as The Best Australian Poems 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Here, Ali gives us an insight into his poem, ‘Merri Creek’, published in the latest edition of Overland.

The catalyst for ‘Merri Creek’

Displacement and disorientation. I’ve been living abroad and travelling around the world for a number of years now and last year, after having spent a couple of years in Dubai (and after a rather busy week in Sydney) I returned to Melbourne for a short visit. I was overwhelmed by how strongly I felt about the suburb of Northcote. I’d lived there for about six years before leaving for China in 2005 – the longest I’ve lived in one place/area in my adult life.

So, for an itinerant immigrant like me, Northcote and its features, such as the Merri Creek walk – and the breathtaking Northcote Plaza – are the closest thing I have to a spiritual home. Walking along Merri Creek gave me the inspiration for writing what may look like a properly lyrical poem. People often see my work as (too) political, or polemical; so I seized on the opportunity to show that I can also write ‘normal’ poems about nature motifs like rivers, in the tradition of Bob Adamson. (Hence my dedicating the poem to him and citing his Hawkesbury poems).

Impulse of the poem

The complexity and inherent contradictions of our relationship with nature. The sentiment of belonging was just a starting point when it came to writing the poem – or a ‘vanishing point’, as philosopher Alain Badiou might say – because instead of indulging in pastoral and imagistic representations of natural scenery, I’ve tried to use the occasion of writing a nature poem as an opportunity for writing a dialectical piece about how ‘nature’ is actually the product of human culture or, more specifically, a product of history.

I hope the poem makes it clear that what makes Merri Creek important and meaningful to the poem’s speaker is not the body of water itself – an ecological void that, from an ecopoetic point of view, is always already beyond any kind of artistic representation – but that the river’s significance is the product of the speaker’s history and struggles. So I’d say it’s some kind of historical materialist, anti-nature poem, even if it occasionally looks like a nature poem.

What inspires you?

Tension, disturbance, contradictions, negation; conflict. And other writers, particularly Continental philosophers, who’ve written on these themes, such as Badiou, Žižek, Marx, Lacan, Rancière, Benjamin, Hegel, Foucault, etc. Reading philosophy is a great inspiration for me, and usually after reading a very difficult and obtuse philosophical text I get inspired to write poetry as a ‘creative response’, to see if I’ve at all understood what I’ve been reading.

History is also a great inspiration – I’d like to think of myself as something of an amateur historian – although I find most public debates regarding history (eg: the Howard era History Wars) very silly and facile. I’m interested in how a history (such as my own personal history) can be subverted through the act of writing itself. I hope I’m not a particularly self-absorbed person, but I nevertheless often write about my own past and memories to complicate and experiment with my subjectivity.

I also find politics inspiring in a perverse, antagonist sort of way. I find so much of contemporary politics basically barbaric (eg: all the apologetic nonsense spoken by capitalist politicians apropos of the Global Financial Crisis) and I can’t help wanting to record the idiocy and vulgarity of our so-called democratic politics (which Badiou would contend is not deserving of being called a politics) in suitably bitter, cynical poems.

Where now with writing?

In an interesting place. I’m at a point now where I’d like to renounce a fair bit of my earlier writings, especially poems that I wrote when I was younger, celebrating identity politics, criticising racism, etc. I feel some of my past works attempted rather banal, conventional things (eg: exposing the evils of war), things that are, ultimately, moralistic, and not properly ethical. I feel a properly ethical act needs to break with all existing modes of morality (including those of nice Left-leaning people such as myself) because, as great philosophers have been arguing since Plato, Truth is precisely that which is precluded by Reality. And, to use Badiou’s parlance, the right thing to do (or the right thing to write) issues from fidelity to a truth, and not from paying lip service to socially acceptable, ‘politically correct’, ‘progressive’ ideals.

I’m very pleased with my current collection of poems Ashes in the Air – just published by University of Queensland Press, masterfully edited by Felicity Plunkett – precisely because it has poems that are, even if I say so myself, morally complex and multifaceted, devoid of simplistic, pointless sloganeering. I’m very proud of this book. I’m also very pleased with a limited edition chapbook, released by Sydney’s Vagabond Press , called Evental, in which I’ve tried to turn the tenets of Badiou’s philosophy into a long poem. I’m also itching to begin rewriting my next novel, which I think will raise a few eyebrows.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

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