Abdul Ali is an poet and writer whose work has appeared in The Root, the anthology “It’s All Love,” and The Washington Post. Peep our interview below for his thoughts on writing, the power of storytelling, and why literary communities are better than ‘scenes’.
DopeReads: Tell me about how you got involved in the Folio Literary Journal.
Abdul Ali: I was assigned to the literary journal as a part of my fellowship for my graduate program at American University. But I’ve been interested in literary publications for some time now. I attended Howard University as an undergrad where we had a storied history of faculty and student-led literary journals that dated back to the 1920s. I believe Zora Neale Hurston was an editor at one point.
DR: What types of writing to do you prefer, non-fiction or fiction?
Abdul Ali: I’m not sure if you’re asking about my preference as a reader or a writer. Nonetheless, as a poet, I feel somewhat biased: I try to read poetry as often as possible to stay current and to keep the muscles sharp. That said, I try to be as rounded as possible in terms of reading–I wish there were more hours in a day–but I struggle to read the Times, lots of magazines, literary journals, lots of short fiction, poems, and creative nonfiction. And occasionally, I’ll read a play before going to see it on stage. Of course, being in school makes elective reading a bit more challenging.
DR: What do you want to accomplish through your work?
Abdul Ali: That’s a good question. As I grow as a writer the answer changes. Earlier, it was important to be around writers and literary activity. I found great energy from that. And I thought it was the hip thing to do. To go to readings, get your book signed, and all that. To hear my voice out loud was very important as well–being invited to read my work felt very validating. I wanted to unearth my voice, make it mine, and make it do what I want it to do. I think that was my early project.
Nowadays, I’m interested in refining my technique, using my voice as an instrument to hit various notes as does a singer or a dramatist, and being as polished as possible with the output. I hope that my work affects people when they encounter it. Although I have many influences, I’d like for my work to stand out in some way. I really enjoy when people come up to me after a reading and they begin talking to me because my work made them feel as if a wall has been broken down. Even though we may be different for any number of reasons, the human emotion that I conveyed in my work is universal and it makes us familiar to one another. I believe it was James Baldwin who said “I want to be a good writer, and an honest man.” This is what I want my work to do also. As far as accomplishments go, I’d like to build a robust body of work across literary genres and artistic mediums that readers and non-readers will remember and read to their children. Something my daughter can be proud of when people mention that they’ve read her father’s work.
DR: Why do you think storytelling is important?
Abdul Ali: Storytelling is one of the oldest art forms practiced today. Whether it’s at the barbershop, a religious service, the theater, or even through a series of text messages, we as humans are hungry for connection and stories. I think it’s interesting how the hierarchy that once existed in terms of what’s concerned high and low forms of storytelling is all being changed by technology—i.e. Youtube, and all of the multiple ways that people are telling stories. But in short, I think storytelling is important because it’s the singular activity where we get to create myth and stretch ourselves. It’s where we can become grander than we actually are in real life. Through storytelling we get to give a shout out to the globe saying, “hey I exist, this is where I’m from, what I’ve lived through and this is my story so don’t you dare ignore or marginalize me!”
DR: What was the most interesting story that you’ve ever worked on?
Abdul Ali: Well, I think as a writer we all have our set of obsessions and preoccupations so it’s been an interesting journey seeing them manifest themselves in the poetry collection that I’m working on. I also have an experimental play I need to dust off about Nina Simone that I think is interesting. Not because I’ve written it but because the life and times of Nina Simone is quite fascinating.
DR: What’s your process like?
Abdul Ali: Another great question. I don’t have a set process. I’m like an empty glass. Whenever it rains I go running outside with that glass trying to fill it with as many droplets as possible. This is also true about how I move through my days and weeks. I journal. I observe. I listen. I read. And when that balloon swells large enough, I sit down and write for as long as I can. This is usually how new work is developed. But I want to be clear that most of my writing time is spent rewriting because writing is a long process of rewriting, trying to make a thing fully realized. This takes a great deal of patience and perseverance.
DR: Who is the most interesting person you have met through storytelling?
Abdul Ali: Being a writer has afforded me numerous opportunities to hear some of our brightest literary stars read their works and share a part of themselves through their words. And on occasion some of those literary figures have become my mentors, teachers, and distant friends. A standout moment happened when I was as undergraduate at Howard University and I was invited to read something at a mentor’s birthday party in New York City at the Brecht Forum. To my surprise Amiri and Amina Baraka were there in the audience. After I read my poem, Amiri Baraka reached out his hand for me to shake and he said he liked my poem. I will always carry that moment with me as Amiri Baraka is an American treasure and his work is so important to me and many others around the world.
DR: Which piece has garnered you the most attention, and why?
Abdul Ali: I’m a literary new kid on the block so this question is a challenge. In our digital age, attention can mean an e-mail, a comment on your blog, a retweet, or stalking on Facebook. I’ve had all of the above. But the attention that I suppose an ambitious young writer such as myself may aspire towards would be having his first collection of poems published by a respected press. Building an audience for my work would be a dream. I’d like for readers and non-readers to engage my work. I’m very much interested in film and theater so I hope (and pray) to have a long career across mediums. It’s all about building a body of work.
DR: What are your thoughts on the DC lit scene?
Abdul Ali: I don’t have many thoughts about DC’s literary scene. Partly because I feel as though I’ve retired from the scene and have embraced literary community which resists boundaries. The hours of reading that you commit to craft and literature thrusts you in conversations with writers who many not live in DC or who many no longer be living. I always tell new writers that you want to belong to a literary community because scenes fade.