Courtesy of the Center for the Humanities, The Graduate Center, CUNY
For the last three decades, Ammiel Alcalay has been a signal force of cultural recovery, recuperating critical figures and events that have been buried or removed from the historical record in the United States, the Middle East, and Europe. Extending the poet Charles Olson’s project to “write a Republic” from the facts of lived experience, he has resisted entrenched forms of disciplinary power and categories of thinking in order to wake us up to the political weight of our own voices and actions. In all of his many forms of cultural work—as poet, novelist, translator, critic, editor, teacher, and political activist—Alcalay stands out today as a fiercely independent model of imaginatively and socially engaged responsibility.
The scope of Alcalay’s writing is staggering. His most recent book, a little history (re:public/UpSet Press, 2013), places the life and work of Charles Olson against the backdrop of the Cold War and Alcalay’s personal reflections on the institutionalized production of knowledge, at once investigating the historical relationship between poetry and resistance and enacting the politics of memory and imagination. What sets Alcalay apart from so many artists, intellectuals, and activists working today is his insistence on the necessary interrelatedness of scholarly, political, and creative endeavors and the individual and collective human experiences from which they grow. This stance flies in the face of post-NAFTA America’s regime of isolation and deracination, in which consumer goods are stripped of the labor that produced them and voices from other cultures—when they are heard here at all—often arrive under the aegis of a sanitized, superficial internationalism that obscures their social and historical context.
Problems of fragmentation and distortion beset Americans’ access to their own cultural past, and this is the connection Alcalay insists that we recognize. As he writes in a little history: “Letters of prominent literary and cultural figures, while preserved, are often housed in disparate institutions, remaining unedited, unlinked, and out of touch with each other. . . . The record of work, as well as of the coming together of people in common endeavor and friendship, is atomized, pulled apart, stored in separate containers, making it much harder for us to inhabit coherent stories, to make sense of ourselves, our history, and the times we live in.” Toward the recuperation of such complex coherence, Alcalay recently initiated Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative, a cooperative project he directs that publishes little-known texts by central figures of the New American Poetry. Now going into its fifth year, Lost & Found has emerged as a vital source of resistance to such atomization and occlusion, recovering rare poetic texts and reuniting them with extra-poetic materials including correspondence, journals, lecture transcripts, and critical prose from figures such as Amiri Baraka, Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Ed Dorn, Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan, Michael Rumaker, Joanne Kyger, John Wieners, and Vincent Ferrini.
These great poets, many of them understudied, open up new models for experiencing the reciprocal link between poetry and the world and help us to imagine ethical, creative alternatives to the increasingly fractured national security state. Think, for example, of the astonishing implications of John Wieners’ response to the question, “For whom do you write?” “For the poetical, the people,” Wieners answered, “for the better, warm, human loving, kind person. The guy on the street who might hold open a door for you . . . stops to give you instructions, spares some change, lets you in his bookshop. Friends I take for granted, like the future.” Or think of Robert Duncan’s anti-hierarchical project of “identification with the universe,” his “symposium of the whole” in which “all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and unknown; the criminal and failure—all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.” Or think of the enormous possibilities suggested by Charles Olson’s Fulbright application to conduct research in Iraq for a book comparing ancient Sumerian and Maya civilizations in order to “make clear . . . the nature of the force of ORIGINS” and “throw a usable light on the present, the premise of such a study of origins being, that the present is such a time.”
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At the core of Alcalay’s refusal to accept the terms of administered knowledge is a commitment to knowing and speaking his own experience as an act of conscious resistance. Alcalay came of age as a writer in the late 1960s and ‘70s amid the radical activism surrounding the Vietnam War, in a Boston riven by racial segregation, an environment in which resistance and repression were matters of everyday life. As the son of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia who had lived for many years in Italy and with extended family from Europe and the Middle East, Alcalay grew up surrounded by languages and ways of living that set him apart from mainstream American society. After high school, Alcalay lived between Boston, Gloucester, Cape Cod, and New York, writing, working various jobs in trucking, auto repair, and construction, and managing a bookstore and a laundromat. In the 1980s, Alcalay’s complex, expansive sense of language, people, and place led him to Jerusalem, where he lived before and during the first Intifada, experiencing firsthand what it means to build a grassroots revolutionary movement, and developing the unique grasp of cultural intersections that has come to characterize his work.
What sets Alcalay apart from so many artists is his insistence on the interrelatedness of the scholarly, political, and creative and the human experiences from which they grow.
For Alcalay, to wake up to our historical crisis, to recognize the content of what has been forgotten and concealed, people must confront how they define themselves and acknowledge their own stories as charged with historical and political weight. There is a section early on in his essay collection Memories of Our Future (1999), aptly titled “weighing the losses, like stones in your hand,” that particularly stands out for me in this regard. Alcalay recalls a college Latin class he took with “a girl whose name I don’t remember but who turned out to be Croatian and spoke a language as familiar and broken as my Serbian . . . we both bore a burden, and it seemed we were on the verge of becoming other people.” On this precarious threshold between memory and transformation, Alcalay first encountered “the unyielding logic” of grammar. The Latin exercises begin simply (“The man said that he himself would praise the girl”), but quickly verge on semantic absurdity (“The man praising the woman praised by the girls about to praise the boys about to be praised will come to the city”), and Alcalay finds himself in a grammatical minefield of multiple and potentially conflicting identities and actions. But the message is clear: the more complex the organizing structure of a language (or a culture) becomes, the harder it is to figure out who is doing what, and to whom.
At this point, the narrative shifts to intimate address: “You came back to the city, but just as you did I was about to leave and I’d be gone for years. . . . You wrote about your choices, and I was happy for you … but what choices could I speak of?” The tone is far removed from that of a Latin textbook, but the questions are the same ones that undergird grammatical structures: What does it mean to be personally accountable? What choices do people have? Or more precisely, what choices can they speak of? Here the section breaks off and, with Alcalay’s characteristic agility in juxtaposition, the next begins: “Not much of a transcript, really.” This “transcript” refers to his “‘C’ average in high school,” what his teachers referred to as “a great deal of ability that his record does not really show.” But the story points to the insufficiency of a different record. Something larger and much heavier remains unrelieved and unaccounted for in the narrative—the immense weight of attempting to speak one’s private experience as an embodied historical act.
Alcalay’s work expands the established parameters of what it means to be an individual and to be in relation with others, with time, and with the world. His method is to reassemble the threads of the historical tapestry that have been torn apart so that we can see the constellations formed by global political and economic conditions. Take the year 1944, a central moment in Alcalay’s view of history, when Robert Duncan publishes his landmark essay “The Homosexual in Society,” indicting “the Zionists of homosexuality [who] have laid claim to a Palestine of their own.” What might shift in our sense of political and literary possibility if we considered young gay poets in America as sharing common ground with Palestinians fighting for land rights? Or take 1969, another seminal year in Alcalay’s work, when the Jewish political prisoner Abraham Serfaty hosted a delegation of the Black Panther Party in Morocco and Algeria while “COINTELPRO was running campaigns and planting infiltrators at home to paint the Black Panther Party with the brush of anti-Semitism (a little history). What might change in our capacity to imagine new political alliances if we remembered that before the rise of identity politics in the United States, radical blacks and Jews discovered a mutual vocabulary for liberation in the struggle for African decolonization? What would it look like—on a picket line, at an academic conference, in the military, on the bus, at a poetry reading, in your local grocery store—if people’s understanding of who they are were expanded to include others whose identities they have been told are alien or unacceptable? What would it mean to act, be it in a small community or in the larger world, according to a more capacious, broadly connected sense of being? How does one go about overturning the dominant narratives that prevent such assertions of autonomy?
As Alcalay notes, living in Jerusalem taught him a great deal about race segregation and the destruction of indigenous rights in America, that the genocidal charter of this nation is presently being repeated in Gaza and the West Bank, or that the Gulf War and the killings in Bosnia and Rwanda have much to tell us about the increasing militarization of the U.S. police. “The key,” Alcalay writes, “is not to make the separations that society wants us to make." Alcalay is one of the rare public literary activists working today—on the page and on the ground—who reminds his readers to honestly reexamine our presuppositions about who we are, to find out where those ideas came from, and to open ourselves to creative, unexpected, oppositional models of identification and alliance. The stakes are enormous. The resistance is ubiquitous. But the possibility for human freedom that such radical solidarity offers is even greater, more expansive, and ever to be imagined. And while conventional wisdom holds that poetry lies outside the spheres of political power, too marginalized to affect material change in the world, Alcalay reminds us that the opposite is and has always been true.