Poetry is my presence in this world: An Interview with Ali Znaidi

Ali Znaidi is a Tunisian poet whose work has appeared in magazines and journals worldwide. His poems use experimental forms to explore issues of the human condition. The African Book Review had a conversation with Ali about his experience as a Tunisian poet of English expression and his recent poetry collection, Experimental Ruminations.

Ali Znaidi

ABR: What influences your poetry?

ZNAIDI: I was born in a mining town in the south of Tunisia where I spent all my childhood… I had no solution to escape the confines and routine of living in a town with scarce outlets and cultural activities but to delve into reading whatever came across my hands…Consequently, I started practicing my own stories, initially scribbling notes and thoughts in Arabic on copybooks and scraps of papers…Writing is in a way, always expressing a certain presence. And I was always driven by a need to tell something, especially in an implicit and symbolic way from my own perspective, and that’s what poetry is.

Poetry is my presence in this world.

ABR: What influenced your decision to write many of your poems in English instead of Arabic?

ZNAIDI: I had been writing or scribbling notes since an early age in Arabic which is my mother tongue. When I joined university, I switched into English as a medium for my creative writing. Being a Tunisian poet who writes in English and who lives in a little town in the south of Tunisia is really a big challenge because of the scarcity of readership, but I also like to transgress the borderlines. I like to demolish boundaries. So another language (In this case, English) becomes a bridge through which experiences can be experimented with and expressed. In this sense, English opens the possibilities to see another version of the world and to go through other territories of existence because at the end, language creates worlds and our perceptions to them.  Whether we like it or not, English is a global language and I really want my voice to be heard globally.

I love my mother tongue and I am fluent in it. But I always like to swim in other seas. Writing in English is synonymous with being able to voice out ‘the repressed water’ inside oneself. It is also letting go and freeing oneself because freedom manifests itself through speech.

Writing in English has also helped me see poetry as something filled with fathomless possibilities of experimentation. I love to experiment and to take risks, regardless of the outcome. And writing in another language is really synonymous with taking risks because you never know the results.

 ABR: As a Tunisian poet, how has Tunisia influenced your works?

ZNAIDI: Tunisia is a beautiful Meditreanean country which is anchored in a rich history and civilization. The problem is that contemporary Tunisia is characterized by centralization and dictatorship which means marginalization of the inner towns. Hence the senses of frustration and the continuous hope for liberation [found in my poems]. Besides, the place where I live is characterized by its raw nature, the omnipresence of the colour grey, and the scarcity of trees. It is a town surrounded by mountains that opens onto the desert. That’s why my poetry is oftentimes written in a raw language…and in some of my poems I express that want for an outlet, perhaps a fresh Tunisia where the marginalized can have their share of the beauty and wealth of the country.

ABR: Sonnet 2 and Sonnet 4 in Experimental Ruminations talk about escape and reality. I liked the lines “this content is obliterated/ as the sun’s lights void/ the murk of the night” in Sonnet 2 and “The colour grey harmed the eyes./ The eyes wanted to see other colours diluted w/ desire” in Sonnet 4. There seems to be a longing to escape reality in both poems…

ZNAIDI: I always try to express dichotomies in my work. Dichotomies keep us confused and make us oscillate between two extremes. They vex us and trigger us to question the status quo. Each one of us is searching for light in each other, in religion, in the arts, in nature, etc. The search for light and for noble values like justice, freedom, and peace is something I have attempted to express in my work through the themes of liberation and escape.  In both poems I intended to communicate the stagnant harsh reality and how to avoid its monotonous colours; something akin to Tunisia where we are raised under one colour, one party, one thought, one routine. And I would even say my choice to be a poet, is to express an anxiety against standardized linguistic constructs and ‘prefabricated’ stereotypic narratives.

ABR: The spacing in your poems is very interesting and unusual. In “Against Suffocation Theory” for example, were you trying to communicate something in terms of the structure?

ZNAIDI: With the proliferation of digital media, poetry becomes more visual. In “Against Suffocation Theory” I chose to arrange the poem the way I did to experiment with the lines and to try to communicate something in terms of the structure at the same time. Besides, I wanted the poem to have a special shape on paper and on the computer screen.

ABR: What do you think the role of poetry is in African society? And what would you like it to be?

ZNAIDI: I think poetry in African societies should be more important than its current role. It has to draw the attention of African readers to big issues in the continent and also has to come up with a vision for Africa, short and long term, through asking thorny questions that vex the people and leaders alike. Yes, it is difficult to change the world with a word. But, as writers and poets, we have always believed in the power of the word and in its reverberations. I would like African poetry to thrive and to contribute more to the human experience. A contribution that would bring great writers and introduce new voices to the international scene. I hope I can play my part in doing that.

ABR: Who are your favorite poets, and do you have any favorite African writers?

ZNAIDI: I read lots of poetry in Arabic and French. As for poetry written in English, I do not have special names to mention because I love to read as much as I can and to explore many experiences. However, I must admit that I have penchant for the works of  Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, just to name a few. As for contemporary poets, I love the works of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, John Agard, and Benjamin Zephaniah. As for African writers, I love the works of Abou el Kacem Chebbi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and many more.

ABR: What projects are you currently working on?

ZNAIDI: There are always things simmering in my mind. Right now, I am working on some poems about Sappho.I am translating some more poems by American poet Catfish McDaris into Arabic. I am also trying to better my techniques in visual poetry.

Ali Znaidi (b. 1977) lives in Redeyef, Tunisia where he teaches English. He graduated with a BA in Anglo-American Studies from the University of Sfax for the South. He has authored four poetry chapbooks including Experimental Ruminations (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Moon’s Cloth Embroidered with Poems (Origami Poems Project, 2012), Bye, Donna Summer! (Fowlpox Press, 2014), and Taste of the Edge (Kind of A Hurricane Press, 2014). Links to his published and forthcoming works can be found at aliznaidi.blogspot.com.