Five Questions with Ammiel Alcalay

Five Questions with __________ is an experiment with flash interviews. The series on poets begins with the multi-hyphenated poet, translator, scholar, editor, and essayist Ammiel Alcalay. His incredible translation of Semezdin Mehmedinovi?’s Nine Alexandrias first introduced me to his work.

Image: ‘Jet Fuel Formula,’ the first Rocky and Bullwinkle story arc. ABC broadcast, 1959-60. (Source: Wiki Commons screen grab)

What kind of cartoons did you watch in childhood?

Keep in mind, born in 1956—’childhood’ (watching age?) maybe from around 1960 (not sure if we even had a TV then, remember early ballgames (think I saw Stan Musial & he retired in 1963 so i somehow remember TV coming in around then, previously my brother & i had snuck in to watch TV, at a place during the summer adjacent to where we were staying in Gloucester, & saw a very dramatic show with Rip Torn playing a guy in a phone booth who had been stabbed, seemed to be raining). So, cartoons: classics—Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Chuck Jones: Road Runner, Popeye, Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales. I remain deeply involved in cartoons, all the old classics, & new ones too: Hunger Force, Squidbillies, Boondocks.

How did your view of growing up in your 20s, 30s, and 40s change as you grew up?

This is a very confusing question! I think I understand – I probably didn’t think too much about it until my later 40s, to early now mid 50s: quite intensely in the past few years as I have revisited time & time again, trying to get a grip on my own history & its relationship to events, things I gravitated towards, ways of making sense of the present. I became aware of it very clearly through teaching, seeing myself in relation to students who remained more or less the same age as I, for some reason, kept getting older. So I would try & explain, for example, before the war in Iraq, what it meant to wear an army jacket in 1968 or 1969.

What is your least favorite Americanism or American culturism? 

The Ivy League?

Is there a dead poet you’re supposed to like, but don’t? 

I like all dead poets. Well, maybe not all, but I find it actually hard to think of one. I mean, I’m not supposed to like T.S. Eliot, but how can you not, in the end? There are probably a bunch of poets I’m supposed to like but they’re dead, so why name them?

To paraphrase Hugo of St. Victor, is there any soil to which you feel native, or is the entire world a foreign land?

Many soils & mainly sands I feel native to, have come around to accepting myself as a New Englander living in Brooklyn who feels less and less at home where he/I live.