Irish-Iraqi Ali Bracken Ziad has swapped music for poetry in quest for meaning says Ellie O’Byrne
IN poet Ali Bracken Ziad’s new chapbook, a pamphlet-style collection, protagonists James and Áine meet in St Luke’s Cross and make their way down into a city known for its breweries, but which are all closed and with not a drop of drink to be had, and the golden angel of St Finbarre’s Cathedral blowing her trumpet to herald the end of days.
In the opening poem in the book, titled Place And People Without, Ali writes: “I met a man that told me:/Life is treacherous/Whilst eating a spilling sandwich,/Coffee in hand, legs crossed”.
“That’s about two different occasions, speaking to a friend, and my brother,” he explains. “They were both sitting in the most comfortable, safe locations, having a coffee or eating a sandwich, and they were telling me how terrible life was. I was watching them and thinking to myself, ‘this just doesn’t look like a bad life’.”
Ali’s protagonists traverse a world both familiar and, yet, somehow, inverted and full of menace and uncertainty. It may seem fanciful, but, of course, in other cities, people wake frequently to discover that commodities they had taken for granted have disappeared, and that their safe lives have been turned upside-down and replaced with apocalyptic chaos.
If the 25-year-old’s poems reflect a heightened, post-colonial consciousness of the global context of the safe, provincial lives in Ireland’s second city, it may stem in part from his background: His mother is from Cork and his father is Iraqi.
“He was a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war,” he says of his father. “I think it had to have had an impact, growing up: He was scared to travel for a long time, even for family holidays, and he’s never been able to go back. He missed his mother’s funeral, his sister’s funeral.
“But, on the comedic side, I have this vivid memory from when the US was invading Iraq, of my dad sitting on the edge of the bed, shouting at George Bush giving a speech on the TV screen. He got so angry, he got up and turned around and pulled his pants down and bared his ass at the TV. For some reason, I had that memory really clearly in my head when I started writing these poems.”
Ali grew up in Cork City, attending primary and secondary Gaelscoils. Having completed his BA in English in UCC, he is now embarking on a law degree. While studying English, he says, it dawned on him that the poetry he had always written as an adjunct to his musical career could take centre stage. He formerly played guitar and sang with folk-rockers White Line Fever, who enjoyed modest success, but who are now, he says, “all but disbanded”.
“I started taking poetry more seriously and realising how terrible what I had been writing was,” he says. With encouragement from tutors and from regulars at the Ó Bhéal poetry group, who meet Monday nights in the iconic Long Valley bar, he entered and won the Munster Slam poetry competition, and has been selected to represent Cork in the annual Cork-Coventry Poetry Exchange.
Performing live is one of the more enjoyable aspects of poetry to Ali, who says that playing with a band served as a baptism of fire, in terms of getting used to being on stage. “I made just about every mistake it’s possible to make with the band,” he says. “At every single gig, you make an absolute fool of yourself. With poetry, you rehearse on your own and develop some ideas of what you can do with your body while you’re saying these words.”
Ali was awarded the inaugural Eoin Murray Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing, dedicated to the memory of the young poet and UCC student, who was 23 when he died of a rare heart condition, in 2015. His family established the scholarship in association with UCC’s College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences. Ali’s chapbook is the result of this scholarship.
Ali says it’s a huge honour to receive the award. “I didn’t know Eoin, but I had many friends who did,” he says. “He was such a burgeoning poet and musician, so it’s a great honour to pay homage to someone who was doing the same things that I am.”
Ali Bracken Ziad will be amongst the poets and musicians performing at the Eoin Murray Tribute Night on August 25th, at 8pm in The Long Valley bar on Winthrop Street, Cork.