The Necessity of Community: An Interview with Alise Alousi

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community.

Alise Alousi’s poetry has appeared in We are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War, Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry, The Alternative Press and I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You and others, and is forthcoming in an anthology of Arab love poemsedited by Zeina Hashem Beck and Hala Alyan. Aliseis a 2019 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow. In 2013 she received a Knight Arts Challenge Award for From Detroit to Baghdad: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: an exhibition, workshop, film, and poetry series commemorating the bombing of Baghdad’s street of booksellers. 

She has received fellowships to Soul Mountain, Fine Arts Work Center, and Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. A former board member for RAWI, an organization dedicated to creative and scholarly writing by Arab Americans, Alousi is the School and Community Partnership Director at InsideOut Literary Arts in Detroit.

Lillian Pearce (LP): How has your work at InsideOut Literary Arts affected your personal motivations for writing?

Alise Alousi (AA): When I started here as a Writer-in-Residence many years ago now, I felt like I discovered a secret gem in Detroit. Working at InsideOut and being able to talk about and think about poetry, and the teaching of poetry, with people who are passionate about it on a daily basis is a rare thing. I love the feeling of reading a new poem and thinking about how it might work as part of a lesson in a K-12 classroom setting. What will students respond to? What connections will they make? And hearing and reading our students’ writing is always an incredible experience. Over the years, we’ve employed many, many talented writers and brought in guest authors who are extraordinary poets. Seeing writers mentor students and witnessing the transformation and just being a part of this community is extraordinary. I will say that because I am immersed in poetry in this other way, it can happen, especially during busy or stressful times, that your own work becomes an after (work) thought. Like most all jobs, you have to carefully carve out a schedule to tend to your own writing, but working with the talented writers I have as my peers, helps keep me focused. We all look out for and celebrate each other’s wins.

LP: Can you speak on the significance of providing a space for young people to explore writing outside of school?

AA: One thing many of the older (!) Writers at InsideOut, including me, have wondered about over the years is how our lives would have been different if we would’ve had these incredible writing mentors when we were in high school. In short, everyone should have this experience! Now that we’ve been around for 25 years, we’ve had many former students come back and work for us, including some that I taught. For me, there’s no greater testament to our work than that. The thing I’ve seen over the course of many years here is that our students form amazing bonds with each other. Whether they continue on the path as writers or artists or not, they stay connected to each other, to their voices, and to this experience. Just this week, I met someone working in youth development who had the program as a teen, and she was able to tell me about the experience of being in the program 14 years ago and seeing her poem published. Because we have been around for 25 years, we also recently had a parent of a student in one of our elementary schools who had us in high school. It is often after the fact that we hear about the impact of the program. This mother expressed how InsideOut helped her figure out what “made her tick” during a very challenging time. She found a sense of belonging and a talent that she hadn’t recognized she had. For many students, InsideOut is a memorable highlight, if not a pivotal moment, during their school experiences. I think this speaks to the quality of our work and also the fact that students don’t get many opportunities to write for pleasure, to know that joy.

LP: In his 1947 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing?

AA: Perhaps because I am a poet, I feel the most kinship with aesthetic enthusiasm, and most particularly the idea of “words and their right arrangement.” That’s the pleasure (and the pain!) of poetry for me. There are so many metaphors for the process of making a poem. For me, it is a sculptural act of adding and carving away. Of chipping and arranging. There’s a physicality that exists in poetry, a way of paying attention to breath and sound and movement, that I love.

I also connect to the idea of political purpose and pushing the world in a certain direction. That’s part of the poetic tradition that I first responded to in high school and college, which is still a big part of why I write. Reading Amiri Baraka in high school was pivotal for me. I felt like a window opened, and my understanding of what poetry is and what it can be was transformed. I also was really fortunate to be a part of Sekou Sundiata’s 51st Dream State workshop and performance series with many Detroit writers. The way he approached that project and pushed us to examine a future we could imagine and make possible was very different from anything I’d experienced prior to it. There was a sense of accountability combined with imagination that I’ve tried to carry with me. The ability to dream, to hold true to a vision, in the midst of challenging times is a radical act. That exists in the work of many of the Arab writers who I love as well, writers like Dunya Mikhail, Mahmoud Darwish, Nazik Al-Malaika.

For me, there’s also the nature of being “in conversation” that happens in poetry that is vital. My poems are often speaking to, or alongside other poems or texts, a piece of visual art or the world in some way. So that is another thread I’m often pulling on.

LP: MQR’s special-theme issue “Why We Write” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers specifically in relation to how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How do these concepts influence you?

AA: As an Iraqi-American, the Gulf Wars and the brutal economic sanctions on Iraq that went on for ten years represented a shift in my focus in many ways and a deepening of my connection to anti-war and other social justice movements. I think something that has shifted and that’s important to pay attention to is the balance between being an ally and trying to own a story that isn’t fully yours. I think there’s a much deeper sense now of the danger of minimizing the voices of the people who should be front and center in our quest to “push the world in the right direction.” In one of the Room Project workshops I was in recently, we talked about being first-generation and how that shapes how we connect to, reflect on, and write about our identities and connections to place. That’s something I’m still thinking about.

LP: About the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community? 

AA: As a writer who doesn’t have an MFA, having a community has been crucial. When I was in college and just finding my way as a writer, ACCESS (Arab Center for Economic and Social Services) did a lot to foster a community among Arab American writers through their arts program (a precursor to the Arab American National Museum.) They provided a space to workshop and share work with acclaimed writers like Naomi Shihab Nye and Mona Simpson. We also had opportunities to read at the DIA and other venues. This deepened my connection to writers locally and nationally, like Kevin Rashid, Khaled Mattawa, and Hayan Charara. That work has continued and grown through the museum and initiatives like the Arab American Book Award and their film and artist residency series. I have curated readings and an exhibit and performance series there, and it still very much feels like a home base.

I’ve also loved being a part of Room Project in Detroit. They’ve always done amazing work, but I’m particularly grateful for the virtual workshops they’ve continued to offer that are affordable and offer an amazing community of women and non-binary writers to learn from and work alongside.

Two summers ago, I attended the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. They do a tremendous job of providing scholarships to parents, educators, and BIPOC writers. I met a group of women writers from across the country who I continue to meet with monthly and share work with regularly, and they have become a vital part of my writing community as well. 

LP: What would your council be for young people looking to find their voice and narrate their experiences in times of uncertainty, injustice, and the unknown? 

AA: I look at the work that young writers from our program and in the larger community are doing, and I don’t think they need my advice. They are dedicated and aware. They are doing the work and forging their paths. I have seen how the Detroit community of writers and activists looks out for and supports young artists. It is something I experienced as a young writer as well. I don’t know if that exists in other parts of the country quite like it does here. I hope it does. I think my biggest piece of advice is to take advantage of that, seek out that community. And call yourself a writer, poet, however you choose to name that thing you are. Even when you aren’t sure you’ve done enough to be called it, you are. Hold that name with a measure of seriousness and make the time and space to live toward it, but don’t beat yourself up when life, the world, grief, responsibility, gets in the way. Just get back in the chair or in front of the mic when you are able to. Find a writer or two whose voice you trust for feedback. These people may change over time. There are many ways to build your community and grow in your craft. Don’t be afraid to take/make your own path in your own way and within your own timeframe. Read poetry! And don’t be afraid to reach out to poets whose work you admire.

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic?

AA: Like most people, I was swallowed up completely in the news. Early on, poetry, literature of any kind, did not offer me much in the way of consolation or connection. I felt impatient and anxious. I was grateful to move beyond that period and really credit Kresge Arts in Detroit with making that happen. They connected a number of literary arts fellows with the work of Free Press photographer, Brian Kaufman, in a series that ran in the Detroit Free Press last year. His photos of the first days of spring in Michigan helped me access language about and during that period. I had just found out that two former colleagues in the peace and justice community were among the many Detroiters who lost their lives to COVID-19. I hope that the impact of the pandemic on the working poor, on mothers, on teachers and young people, on prisoners, will be a call to action, that in our quest to move beyond this period, we don’t forget the tremendous price, so many people have paid.

You can read Alise’s work here