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UCSD professor Kazim Ali wants to put some poetry into your life with his new book

UC San Diego literature professor and poet Kazim Ali is the author of "The Voice of Sheila Chandra."
UC San Diego literature professor and poet Kazim Ali has written a new book, “The Voice of Sheila Chandra.”
(Tanya Rosen-Jones)

Poetry has been in Kazim Ali’s life for as long as he can remember, but he needs it more than ever now. And he suspects you might need it, too.

“For me, poetry is absolutely a comfort. It is a way of contending with everything,” the UC San Diego professor said. “We are expressive creatures, no matter who we are. We should all do something. Write in a journal or do something expressive. You have to find something that will let you make something beautiful.”

Poetry didn’t help Ali much during his ill-fated appearance on “Jeopardy” 14 years ago (“It was really fun, but I did terribly,” Ali said of his last-place finish). But otherwise, it has been a good partner.

As a child growing up in a Muslim household, Ali — who was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Canada and the United States — found poetry in the recitation of the Quran and other religious texts. At 27, he discovered that poetry could be the source of a life reboot when he left his job as a political organizer to get his master of fine arts degree in poetry at New York University.

When Ali’s first collection of poems was published in 2005, poetry set him on a writing spree that resulted in six more books of poetry, along with five novels, six nonfiction books and four translations. It also gave him a teaching career, which led to his current job as a professor of literature at UCSD.

And now, as our individual and collective worlds continue to spin in unpredictable and unsettling ways, Ali has written a book that captures this strange moment while also providing words that may help us cope with it.

The book is “The Voice of Sheila Chandra,” whose title poem was inspired by the true story of the Indian singer and her struggle with burning mouth syndrome, an incurable neurological disorder that left Chandra unable to sing or speak without pain.

Burning mouth syndrome is very rare, but the silencing of a voice struck a chord in Ali’s creative consciousness. What if the tool you needed to break your own emergency glass was taken away? Then what?

“It is a specific tragedy as it relates to Sheila, but it is a universal menace that applies to any creative person,” said Ali, who lives in Normal Heights.

“What are the things that prevent us from accessing our own creativity? We are living in a moment of political uncertainty, planetary imbalance and economical uncertainty, and we also have the biomedical crisis in the pandemic. These are perilous times, and it is a moment where people need their creative resources more than ever.”

Like the broken-puzzle images on the book’s cover, the world of “The Voice of Sheila Chandra” is a world in pieces.

In “Phosphorus,” the narrator is at loose ends in Berlin. He is thinking about an ex-lover who is married now. He is remembering the days when you could prove your love by leaving long testimonials on answering machines. He remembers the way friends scatter, even as you try to hold them close.

“Always afraid to say/You were not loved/You have no family/This is how you disappear.”

In the title poem, the narrator loses himself in paintings. He is mistaken for a dancer named Sanjay. He wonders what it means when a friend doesn’t acknowledge him in the neighborhood cafe. Is he being ignored, or is he invisible somehow?

And he wonders about Chandra and the language that can’t speak for her anymore.

“Can she still feel the music in her body can she/Vocalize even without technology of the/Mouth tongue palate glottis vocal cords.”

And in “Wrong Star,” the short poem that ends the book, Ali is still grappling with the gaps in life’s puzzle: “Do you remember/Which question/Needs answer.”

“Poetry is such a vital art. It is so important for the function of society,” Ali said. “I think that speaks to that desire for human connection. People still want to be in touch with the dilemmas of what it means to be human. ‘What happens when I fall in love?’ ‘I’m getting older and my body is dying. What do I do?’

“These are the things that haunt us. Go back and read ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ or ‘The Iliad.’ We are still contending with those same issues. We still have to reinvent the answer to those giant questions over and over again.” ◆