Kim Jensen: You return in your work, over and over again, to the notion of “a public literary activism.” This phrase describes what you hope you are doing as you try to create space for certain types of marginalized writings. At the same time you have mentioned how “artists who matter” often have “a very small but highly involved audience.” Do these two concepts conflict with each other? And if so, how do you reconcile them?
Ammiel Alcalay: This gets to the heart of the contradictory kind of work I’m involved in. Our best American poets seldom sell more than a 1000 copies of a book--there is an understanding that such work reaches a small audience, mostly of other artists. “Keys to the Garden” has just gone into a second printing, after selling 3,000 copies. By American standards, these marginalized Mizrahi writers are doing pretty well. On the political level, I am one of a handful of American Jews who holds the kind of political positions I hold but also deals authoritatively with classical Jewish and contemporary Israeli culture. This makes it hard to debate me, so the mainstream just ignores me because they’re afraid to actually engage in discussion. At the same time, my influence is completely disproportionate because people who read me don’t read me casually, they read me as if it really matters and put my work to use. This is what counts, because it is very difficult to consume and, in the long run, it changes attitudes, disciplines and the parameters of knowledge.
See more at the full interview.