The Ecstatic Exchange: Words on my Life and Poetry
Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim To begin to present my life-time’s body of poetic work …
(Page 56, Q-News, Issue 367, July 2006)
Daniel Abdal Hayy Moore is American Islam’s poet laureate. Spiritual and subversive, his work is a dazzling, potent exploration of the human condition. A renaissance man, Moore is at once poet, playwright, artist and musician, a sublime wordsmith whose work spans over four decades. He talks to Fareena Alam about the alchemy of words, why poetry matters more than ever and how some Muslims have turned their religion into idolatry.
It’s a curious thing that the anima of our souls, or the deepest core of our nafs (self identity), seems so uncannily and consistently the same as it was in our younger bodies. I don’t really remember any time that I wasn’t somehow in an attentive word or image realm, where words had a kind of supreme animation about them, as if little arrows were going off from inside them and heading towards very specific targets. Partly in play, partly in that domain of the sacred which all children seem to inhabit, somehow markers of language or drawn (okay, scribbled) images were magnetic for me. But I don’t want to sound disingenuous. I didn’t begin writing poems in early childhood, though I was a prolific sketcher and thought I’d be an artist someday, but in cartoon illustration or painting.
However in early grade school I put on plays, adapted from books, such as Many Moons by James Thurber, or the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland – I played the mad hatter of course – working out the script and directing as well as acting. But my deepest commitment to words took place in High School, from playing the Major General in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, where the patter song, a tour de force tongue-twister, showed me the dazzle of words; and from meeting what I consider my first real shaykh of spiritual instruction, a boy a little older than me who expanded my consciousness (naturally) the first time by his passionate playing of jazz piano and reading and explaining philosophy to me – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – and who introduced me to Charlie Parker records, the poetry of Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Patchen, and the world of the outcast artist. This led to me writing a free-verse adaptation of Dickens’s The Christmas Carol which I read onstage sitting on a stool backed by his jazz quartet with the student body officers doing a kind of Kabuki style mime for our annual Oakland High School Christmas Assembly. The Drama teacher loved it in rehearsal, but said the audience wouldn’t “get it,” and it would bomb horribly. Instead it was followed by a minutes-long standing ovation. The time was really ripe for it, just on the cusp of the early 60s – 1958 – and the oncoming cultural sea-change was already upon us. But this to-me momentous success was the canon that shot me out over the years, convincing me that holding to a deep-hearted inspiration against all odds could overcome obstacles. That and William Blake’s adage: “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” which I pray to be true almost every day.
At Berkeley the usual uncanny encounters took place, and I plunged wholeheartedly into the 60s ferment of California spirituality and intellectual expression, and through a few personal relationships more viscerally entered the more serious sanctum of poetry, through French and Spanish Surrealists, early Deep-Image poetry, the Beats – so vividly present and alive in the San Francisco Bay Area – foreign films (La Strada of Fellini, The Seventh Seal of Bergman, Pather Panchali of Satyajit Ray), and the intensely kaleidoscopic musical and mentally adventurous atmosphere.
Language was obviously an essential key to personal and social liberation, from the Free Speech Movement (for me “free speech” meant mystical poetry), which could free us from the dark caverns of our closed-in selves into spiritual landscapes beyond the strict confines of matter, experienced first hand. I had also begun reading holy texts, taking them as straightforward life-changing treatises: Buddhist sutras, the ecstatic words of Ramakrishna, and later the Nicholson translation of Rumi’s entire six black-bound Gibb Foundation books of The Mathnawi.
The atmosphere in which I first heard about Islam was highly charged with revolutionary ideas and radical actions, where those ideas were put into practice. I had a company that presented choreographed ritual theatre in a North Berkeley amphitheatre weekend nights by torchlight, with chanted poetry and a little folk orchestra with such things as gongs and toy pianos, where figures in face paint and fiery costumes were energetically attempting to exorcise the Vietnam War from our souls, and all war-mongering for all time thenceforward from humankind’s soul. A modest ambition, to be sure, but we were earnest seekers, meditating in Zazen fashion before each performance, and chanting “OM” often during it into the night sky. After the theatre disbanded I was living in an attic room in an old, rambling Victorian house in Berkeley, and Ian Dallas (later Abdal-Qadir as-Sufi) arrived to tell those of us who would listen about Islam and Sufism, Allah, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, peace of Allah be upon him, and the line of enlightened Sufi masters from the Prophet onward to today. All of this segued perfectly into our consciousness at the time, although only a handful of us really were attentive to the nuances of the message he was bringing us. At the moment of decision, however, when it felt really that I had no decision to make, but that it was made for me by Allah, I felt that Islam was really the next visionary and revolutionary step forward, for myself and for every true “revolutionary” generally. Everything that I had done and experienced before, and all my own minor revelatory writings, read and written, led to this point, and at this sudden and unexpected crossroads I chose Islam. The sweetness and true Gnostic wisdom of the Sufi Master, the sweet life of the disciples, going all the way back to the Companions of the Prophet, and of course the figure of the Prophet Muhammad himself, all impressed me with their everlasting radiance and miraculous presence. I had more or less contrived a hero figure of spiritual prophecy that was a combination of Jesus and the Buddha, infused with a Blake-like sublimity and I saw that the Prophet both encapsulated and superseded this figurative being of my imagination with his superior reality. Later the living example of the Sufi Shaykh, with his obvious humility and Muhammadan light, only confirmed this vision.
Not long after becoming Muslim, my first teacher in Islam directed me to stop writing poetry, or read any books except the Qur’an and the Diwan, the collected poem-songs, of Shaykh ibn al-Habib.
When my family and I finally separated ourselves from this community ten years later, I began writing again. It was as if the backed-up floodgates of words burst open in full Technicolor, and a kind of otherworldly ecstatic whoosh took over. The result from the early 80s to now has been one book of poems after another, until by some strange occurrence of inspirational grease, I now have fifty-nine manuscripts of poetry, which I am slowly publishing in my ongoing Ecstatic Exchange Series.
In the 60s when I wrote Dawn Visions and Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, and developed The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company, writing the scenarios, and directing and acting in the productions with the non-professional company of actors and musicians, my poetry was exclamatory, surreal, psychedelic and definitely of its time, goofily spiritual in its aspirations in a kind of intuitive, California-ish way, if that defines anything. The endless wellsprings of imagination, from Whitman and Blake and the very fluid and spontaneous poets such as Michael McClure of the San Francisco Renaissance, were the guiding forces, opening out connections between ourselves and the universe through heightened language. This is still more or less my modus operandi, but now honed and very much torqued and tempered by Islamic Sufism, with faint echoes from the great shaykhs in their language of love and specificity of meaning. I have great faith in the imaginal world, as defined by Ibn ‘Arabi, though not in a scholarly way, but rather by direct participation in a universally shared consciousness of humankind, spanning a huge geographical radius through time and space, in which we might experience the hadith qudsi of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in which Allah says: “The whole universe cannot contain Me, but the heart of the believer contains Me.” Another adage, from William Blake, that I very much admire is: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” I don’t take this as a refutation of Islam, or any other revealed Way, but rather that we must directly engage the world in our own creativity, and not merely parrot the time-worn traditional metaphors and imagery of past poets and artists, but forge our own “system” out of our own soul-making, within, in our case, the wide parameters of being Muslim.
The Sufis say, “The self is a little cosmos, the Cosmos is a big Self.” All knowledge is already embedded within us, within the divine genes of our human consciousness given us by Allah directly, that sacred breath of His breathed into every human being. It only takes the tuning fork of the words of a true teacher to “mine them,” as it were, as ore is mined from the earth. And if we listen and act with sincerity, this inspires our lives, our innermost workings, and as a kind of warbling residue to all this: our own words, our effective modes of expression – be they words of comfort to someone in pain, an unpopular truth told against the prevailing onrushing current, or the linguistic exclamations of poetry.
When I embraced Islam, I also entered the Shadhiliyyia-Habibiyya sufi order of Morocco, and when we went to Morocco to sit with our shaykh and his disciples, I found that they were singing his poetry as part of their essential instruction. The poems which were given to him in states of inspiration told of the path to Allah, visionary glimpses of his own experiences of nearness to Allah and intimate visits with the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. This was the kind of poetry I’d been longing for all along – direct vision! His fuqara sang these songs after breakfast, after lunch, after supper, well into the night, during the day, reciting Qur’an and singing both these songs and traditional songs of instruction from shaykhs of instruction from every era of Islam. So here I found poetry as a vehicle for divine knowledge and an actively repeatable repository of experiential tastings, beyond the dry words of lectures or academic treatises. I found Poetry that was immediately meaningful, not that unlike the work of the Beats in San Francisco, who also were looking for “direct experience,” except that here the goal was spiritual illumination in Allah.
But another influence is my voracious appetite for poetry in English and other languages, both classical and most up-to-date contemporary. My house is full of books, and I often will buy a book of poems based on my joy at one poem in the book or even one unique and uncannily perfect line or image. These are world poetries: Spanish poetry – Luis de Gongora, Cesar Vallejo; French poetry – Arthur Rimbaud and Robert Desnos; the huge body of poetry in English, from Chaucer to the present, British or American, classically formal verse with rhyme and meter, or open field poetry (known loosely as free verse). American poet Charles Olson’s idea of the quicksilver energy of projective verse has been a major inspiration to my poetic “strategies”. But it is visionary poetry, that breathes easily in other worlds, or somehow indicates them most concretely, that has always attracted and influenced me, foremost that of Blake, then Coleridge, Thomas Traherne, Christopher Smart, or the Serbian poetry of Vaslov Popa, or the crazy wisdom of Slovenian Tomas Salamun, Japanese Haiku, the Chinese masters with their porcelain perfection of imagery…the list, really, goes on and on.
For poetry is a language that is universally both the most natural and the most artificial: it is natural in that it puts into words perceptions, dreams, thoughts and feelings from the depths of our most human beings and sets them in rhythmic beats of singing words, sung or not, common to us from mankind’s first utterances to now; and artificial in that there is a domain of language that must be learned or entered into with the skill and knowledge that is entailed in writing poems, even the most seemingly “formless,” for a poem to stand on its own in today’s winds of crazed consciousness and still be true. The Arabs mention certain key lines in a poem as being the “mother of the poem,” and each poem somehow, however short, must have this nurturing centre that transmits to the reader or hearer.
As the years have progressed, I find I write almost exclusively in the middle of the night. Upon waking, a line will come, unbidden, inspired, not formed from thought or cogitation, but a first line of a poem in its very words, and then a sense that there is more to it that can be fathomed by writing the line down, and the next line comes, and then one after that if there’s to be a poem. Some lines just float away and are lost in the ether from which they presumably have sprung. Lately, I have been experiencing a deeper silence from which the lines speak themselves, and between the lines I’ll often wait for the next one, rather than race on as I used to in a kind of “automatic” trance-writing, though that is also valid and useful for short-circuiting the purely rational aspect of the mind. But I’ve been writing poems since I was 16, and this year I’m 66, so some weathering and aging in the barrel may be accountable for this sweet, more recent development in my writing practice.
We must make our poetry as interesting, if not more interesting, and deeper than what passes amongst the masses for culture. Ezra Pound said we must “make it new,” and also that poetry should be at least as interesting to read as prose. I say, more interesting! For me image and sound are poetry, for there’s a music to a true poem within and around the words. Velocity is also important for me, and a certain elasticity or “plasticity” of image. A great Mexican poet friend I met in Mexico in the early 60s, Marco Antonio Montes de Oca, taught me the “plasticity” of image, that somehow a trope, figurative image, metaphor, or action within a poem had to have some “verbicular” (my word) movement, even in more or less static imagery, some energy within a poetic line that either implies a kind of metamorphosis into something else, into something new, strange, or alive, or an actual arcing over into a new line. Breath is sound in a poem, and the way a line goes in length from first to last word, and breaks to the next line, there’s a breathy or breathed line that keeps it alive, and is a real communication of the poet’s own rhythmic, bodily pulse.
The relevance of poetry in this age as in all ages is that everyone is born and is bound to die, and we ask why we were born and how to be unafraid of dying. No matter in what environment we find ourselves, in Times Square or downtown Tokyo where flashing lights speed past and imagery clogs the clouds, these questions are still marrow to our intellectual bones. We can’t escape them. No amount of cultural trash can camouflage them. So poetry might speed up a bit or have even flashier imagery, but at its base these questions are forever churning and churning to give us both pause and a truer understanding of our life on earth as submitted slaves of Allah, knowingly or unknowingly, in all circumstances.
Many of the same factors in the 60s are present in our contemporary world – stupidly oppressive governments, an unjustly tragic and wasteful war far away from our own shores, crass materialism worshipped by the oblivious masses, a kind of neo-Eisenhower era, without the hula hoops. Actually I’m younger, and the poets you mentioned are over ten years older than me, and came out of an earlier era of the 1930s and 40s, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. These are things which inspired rebellious thinking and alternative life-paths, a kind of interiorized quietism on the one hand coupled with fiery social protest on the other. Poetry was in the air, feeding on these nutriments, among the college intellectuals who felt both inwardly inspired and socially motivated to change the world. Ginsberg took on his messianic presence little by little, when his work Howl hit the fan by reason of its obscenity trial, and resonated with so many who felt the same things as described in that poem, though perhaps not to such extremes. Poetry is usually annunciated in extremes.
I fault the numbing effects of mass media, TV and movies for the general disinterest, where, unlike the early Greek tragedies that I’m sure didn’t play monstrous murders and violent death scenes one after the other night after night, but perhaps once a month or more likely, at festivals once a year, we are surrounded by these very in-your-face but fictional events so that the real events (in Iraq for example) don’t hit most people with any serious impact. Poetry doesn’t come out of this kind of complacency.
I read somewhere that when Russian poets were no longer meeting in secret and mimeographing their poems – passionate poems of both hopelessness and resistance – in fear of the secret police, their poetry started to lose its edge, became bland, without the traction of poetic dissent. Do we prefer oppression, tyranny and mass murder so we can write incandescent poetry? Of course not. But it is an interesting aspect of a culture that becomes benumbed by ease.
Poetry doesn’t have to be simply neat and regular verses that can be memorized by school children. It is also a poignant reading experience on a page, may provide an unforgettable line or two, or a few newly coined images that stick in the heart. It is a travel route for the heart’s mind toward some new unfolding.
We actually hear poetry everywhere much of the time, not only in pop lyrics (these days more often overpowered by the sheer decibels of the music), but also in advertising and if we listen closely enough, in our loved one’s offhand comments! Rap poetry is vital and often mesmerisingly astounding in its verbal pyrotechnics, and as endorphin energizing performance it is hard to beat, but if its message is only self-empowerment, it may be running counter to the Muslim’s goal of the self’s effacement before Allah in sweet submission. Rap lyricists, though, are rediscovering the power of rhyme, multiple rhymes, off-rhymes and the entire keyboard of technical possibilities and in that are re-engendering a valid and rich source of poetic expression. We may be awaiting a Homeric genius to sum it all up in an epic totality, a rap Rumi capable of expressing some Gnostic subtleties as well as the brash brassiness so germane to the form.
Generally young people are turned off of poetry by school teachers who teach it in a clichéd and roughshod way. Even I was. I had to discover its joys and transgressions on my own. It does have a transgressive side, a kind of gypsy reality, worth noting and even appreciating! It’s daring to say what may not or should not properly be said in public, out loud, by which I don’t necessarily mean obscenity or even impropriety. Great, blazing poetry is simply dangerous.
I’ve recently written about a nostalgia for Islam, for those first years of being an apprentice Muslim, making mistakes but experiencing forbearance among the elders, excited to discover new truths and less self-conscious about what’s right and what’s wrong, but careful nonetheless. Islam is puritan in some ways and not puritan in others, but we’ve let a kind of wet blanket ‘Puritanism’ weigh us down uniformly for far too long, it seems. The early Muslims were expressive, open-hearted, self-effacing, even self-sacrificing, cautious but also extremely daring for Allah and His Prophet, and the world might be changed utterly if Muslims could suddenly see that we are a world community with every other person on earth, not just other Muslims, that everyone now alive is living in the ‘Era of Muhammad’. Sequestering ourselves in our little paranoid communities, looking out over the ramparts of our own nafs at those we deem kafir and unclean pagans or worse, is no way to be wholehearted and true.
This is true of our literary endeavours also. Too often I feel the Muslims won’t learn from non-Muslim poets as if their perceptions and techniques themselves are unclean or haram. But we can’t learn to write well or even read well without a worldwide perspective. And there are masses of modern poets and writers, in every modern culture, as uneasy about the ways of the world as we are, and adept at finding ways to surmount them through the alchemy of the word.
We may not envision sand dunes and palm trees in our poems. There are a billion ways to love Allah. And our tongues can flexibly sing those ways in a billion more modes and with a billion more methods than the usual ones.
There is an evil in turning revelation into an ideology. It brings about the horrible sin of black and white-ism, you or me-ism, my way or the highway-ism. What began as an exalted spiritual prophetic revelation has hardened into doctrinal lists of “ideas to die for,” ideologies, where subtler human realities are bulldozed over by a flag-waving and absolutist, radical view of the world. This is to me the most frightening thing that is happening everywhere, not just amongst Muslims, but where it is happening amongst Muslims it is an outright betrayal of Allah and His Prophet. Islam has become an idolatry of sorts in the minds of some Muslims, in which rather than approaching Allah through praise, gratitude, worship and by following the Prophet as scrupulously and joyously as possible, we see Muslims worshipping and endlessly talking about “Islam,” without, sadly, actually practicing it. Me included. It has too often been made into simply a sociological or economic proposition, or in the rabid case of terrorists, a swinging cudgel of all the worst things in their own selves.
We have to look only to ourselves to see all the unholy transgressions Allah talks about in His Book, where the bad kafirun (or the bad Jews and the bad Christians) are really ourselves gone bad, not historical or social realities outside ourselves. This self-reflection and self-correction is what brings about health, and cuts through ideologies like a hot knife through butter. It’s fanatical and self-righteous ideologues who drive planes into buildings, blow up restaurants and hospitals, as well as invade countries.