Literal Magic: An Interview with Poet Kaveh Akbar
April 19, 2017
by Christopher Locke
Poet Kaveh Akbar understands what’s at stake: as a recovering alcoholic/addict, he knows his current reality as one of today’s most exciting voices in contemporary American poetry could just as easily not have been. Life is about choices. Simple as that. And Kaveh decided, no, he knew, in order to start living he had to choose to abandon those things which subtracted from life. And he knew moving forward he could only live one way: honestly. This truth is evident in the astounding poems which make up his first chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic. Searing and painful, hypnotic and surreal, his poems also find room for the sensual and the abundant; Kaveh praises living both as a spiritual being and a physical one. But the wolf is always present, and he knows that too. I spoke to Kaveh by phone on a dreary day in February from my office in upstate New York. But Kaveh’s genuine kindness, his thoughtful intelligence, and his love of language and of living—really, of magic—made everything a bit brighter that day.
Reading your chapbook, particularly in one sitting, I really got the sense of a timeline in your poems; a before and after permeates so much of your work. This might be due to the fact that you were first born in Iran, but grew up in the States, or you first spoke Farsi but then English as your second language, but I’d love if you could speak to this idea of before and after.
Yeah, well, I think the dominating organizing principle of the chapbook is a chronological progression from the throes of addiction into early recovery to middle recovery, and I think the poems in the chapbook move that way primarily. But you also spoke about my origins, can you elaborate on that a bit?
Sure. I wondered as I read your book how important that was to you as an artist. If poetry is a way for you to reclaim language or identity—the book really felt like an attempt to reconcile with the past as seen through the present. Even though there are multiple themes, including origin and addiction, the concept of before and after was the one, for me, which dominated the book.
That’s interesting. I think that I am someone for whom poetry is a site for meaning making and a place to go to understand my position in the world around me, as well as my position in my own cosmological station. And in order to make useful discoveries in that process I have to bring the entirety of me into the writing and I can’t withhold any elements of my selfhood: genealogical, ethnographic, social, sexual, experiential. And all of these matrices converge in the space of the poem.
Yeah, otherwise you don’t have something that’s true in the capital T sense.
There’s also a sense of survival in your poems, to live and not just exist. Nietzsche said “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” I wonder if your poetry is that “why”?
Right, well, these poems in the chapbook were all drafted in early sobriety, during a time when the “why” was as urgent a question as the “how”. And, again, with the poems as a site for meaning making for me, and a site for exploration and discovery, it’s where I went to figure out how to live in this new world without the fundamental scaffolding that had girded my adult life up to that point. Does that make sense?
Yeah, like it kind of acted like a Rosetta Stone to translate how to live.
Absolutely. And it provided both the why and the how. I think the experience of my sobriety has been one addiction sublimating into another, whereas the first was chemical and was killing me, and the second is creative and generative. I approach poetry now with the same obsessiveness and compulsiveness that I used to approach substances to which I was addicted, but poetry isn’t killing me.
(laughs) I find it really interesting how you talk about replacing one addiction with another. What similarities do you find in both? Stuff like, when you’re writing: “I’ve been spending way too much time alone in this room and I need to, I don’t know, go outside and see some people.”
Oh yeah. Absolutely. So much of my addiction had me isolating myself from all the people around me, literally insulated in a place I never left, or isolated spiritually or socially, psychologically, from the people all around me. And if left to my own devices I’d trend towards that in terms of my poetry as well. I’m never so happy as I am when I’m writing at 6:30 in the morning with a stack of books by my side. I do often write with my partner, the poet Paige Lewis. But I could go long, long stretches of time not interacting with anyone off the page. I’ve worked hard to achieve a life where I’m able to wake up early and very literally spend 12, 14, 16 hours a day doing poetry in one form or another, whether that be writing in the morning, reading poetry, teaching poetry, corresponding with poets, or working on Divedapper [the interview site Kaveh founded]. In one form or another, everything I do in my day to day life is poetry, orbiting the nucleus of poetry in the very same way that, in my past life, everything I did orbited around my addiction.
You’ve said in a few different interviews I’ve read that for a chunk of many years you weren’t submitting your poems until very recently. What changed?
Well, I got sober. I began to take my writing more seriously. I was sort of coasting through my undergrad, scraped by enough to get into an unfunded MFA program and worked various and sundry jobs to put myself through that program and got sober halfway through that program. It was really the perfect confluence of factors. I got sober with enough time left in my MFA program to take advantage of the sort of genius writers who were there and were very willing to mentor me like the fiction writer Dan Barden and the poets Chris Forhan and Alessandra Lynch. I was able to reap what they were very willing to offer and that reoriented me back towards poetry. Because since I was a teenager, poetry was all I ever wanted to do but I became bogged down in my addictions. So as the fog cleared away I was able to listen to those voices that were there to help me.
I began to write more seriously, read more rapidly, and it became the only thing that I did. Which is still more or less where I am. It’s like that Malcolm Gladwell thing, you do something for 10,000 hours and you begin to figure it out. And as I figured it out, I became confident that if I sent some poems out I wouldn’t regret I sent them out in two years, you know? But it had been probably 6 or 7 years since I last sent anything out.
When you say that you didn’t want to send something out that you’d regret in two years. What does that mean? Regret subject matter? Regret where you were during that time in your life?
Oh, I just mean, when I was in late high school, early undergrad, I was writing a lot of poetry and I was sending it out and I had a handful of pieces get picked up in places that are obnoxiously Googleable. I quickly realized that the work was false, and that it was rank with insincerity and read like a bad stand-up routine. And the shock of that awareness stopped me from sending anything out for those 6 or 7 years until I was confident that what I was sending out was something I wouldn’t be embarrassed by to see years afterward, as compared to that stuff I wrote when I was 19.
But I think we’re talking about a couple of different things here. I thought you had a collection early on picked up and were going to have published and then said ‘no thank you’ to the publisher? Is that right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Right? So of course every poet has that moment of hands-covering-the-eyes-and-grimacing, not wanting to look back at earlier stuff he’s published because hopefully he’s always evolving as a writer and getting better. So you’re always going to have those poems published that, at the time, you thought were good but as you get older you look back and consider that maybe they weren’t your best work. And I get that. But what’s interesting is that when I first asked you about what changed you said you “got sober”, so I’m trying to differentiate between the stand-up comedy poetry you were embarrassed by versus what you wrote when you weren’t sober, and I’m trying the find that fine line between the growth of a poet’s imagination and just being drunk.
Yeah, well there were these massive stretches of time during those 6 and 7 years when I just wasn’t writing anything. It’s not like I was stockpiling poems. But yeah, you’re referencing this time when I had a book taken by this press—and I’d forgotten I talked about this publicly—but it’s a press I love very much actually, and they took it when I was halfway through my undergrad. And I just kept putting them off, and after a long while of my doing that, I told the editor at the press, who’d been very patient with me, that I had been putting it off because I didn’t believe in what I had written. There was some brainstem-level awareness that it would be some writing that would embarrass me in a number of years. I don’t think I started writing good poems until I got sober. And in some lizard brain way I was aware of that.
I want to get back to your chapbook. I love this collection.
Thank you. Thanks for reading it.
Oh, you’re welcome. It’s a beautiful collection. The first poem, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble” contains the idea, I think, that sensuality and loss are irrevocably twined. Can you speak to that?
Yeah, I had a professor in my MFA who told me once that my poems only had three subjects: God, addiction, and sex. And that often times all three would intersect in the same poem. And he said it in a kind of joking way, but it’s also not untrue. It’s difficult to speak about one’s obsessions with any perspective. But I think those are certainly mine. And I think this poem, like many in the collection, are interested in braiding those things, like an overlapping Venn diagram in my head, know what I mean?
That there’s so much overlap, that experiencing one brings you so close to the other.
You said once, that when you were younger, you contacted Yusef Komunyakaa and tried to get him to submit a poem to your literary journal. You were in high school, right?
Yeah, I was in high school.
I think that’s cool. Clearly, ambition, even then, was driving you, even though you don’t believe you were the poet yet you were to become, you had ambition in spades. Have it. But you also have ability. Is ability without ambition a wasted thing?
That’s a fantastic question. I think that, in my case, I definitely had ambition. But you speak to me reaching out to Yusef Komunyakaa in high school, and there were a number of poets I just cold-called, and I think that a lot of that had to do with a natural onboard curiosity native to my experience of the world. I think more than anything else curiosity has been my guiding emotional cue in this world, for better or for worse. So to whatever extent I have a natural ability or affinity to poetry, I think it’s because I’ve been deeply curious about poetry for a long time, and that has honed and my poetic sensibilities to whatever they may be today. Curiosity more than ambition. It has been a deep, deep curiosity to know all that I can about this thing that has always kind of seemed a literal magic to me has made me the poet I am today.
I love your site Divedapper. Interviews are a different medium than writing poetry, but how can conducting an interview make you a better poet?
Oh, well, I’m interviewing my heroes, and there’s a deeply selfish element in Divedapper in that I am a practicing poet and I want to go under the hoods of the people who do it best to get them to spill their secrets. You can read textbooks about assembling a carburetor all day long but until you actually go under the hood and get your hands on a carburetor…I’m stretching this metaphor really far; I don’t know anything about cars.
I don’t either! (both laugh)
But Divedapper is very much a process of building miniature apprenticeships with my heroes. I started it when I was in an MFA program and it seemed very much to me a supplement to the education I was getting in the classroom, a way to build my own primary sources to go back to on my own in addition to everything I was taking in on my classroom experience.
I know that John Berryman was one of your heroes.
(chuckles) Yeah, yeah.
So I know he would have been be right on your list of people you would have wanted to interview.
Oh, for sure. And there are some poets, like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who never did an interview, and she is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite poets ever. There are these very few cases where it’d be bordering on sacrilegious to ask them about their writing. I mean, there’s no way to know how I’d feel if Berryman were alive, but I wonder if I’d be afraid to interview him if he were alive.
You mean because the mythology becomes so great?
Yeah, and if there would be any way for me to speak about the work with any kind of objectivity. Not that I come into these interviews with any pretense of me being anyone but someone waving his pom-poms for the poet. But I think that, in the case of someone like Berryman, it might be too obnoxious for anyone but me to read. Me just drooling, clapping my, um, my…
…flippers like a seal.
Right, right. As a writer, or for any artist, some people have an impulse to issue labels, further labelize who you are as an artist. But I think every writer or artist just wants to be an artist, not a white artist, or black writer, or Chinese artist. That said, if someone refers to you as an Iranian/American artist, does that cause you to grimace a bit?
You can look at people like Robert Hayden, who didn’t want to accept any narrower definition of being a poet than being called an American poet. And much has been written about that, on both sides. I’m very proud to be an Iranian American poet. The history of Persian poetry laps the history of American poetry a couple times over; it goes as far back as the history of poetry itself. So I am part of that conversation. But I also understand that in mercenary marketing, there is a way that, if a poet becomes ghettoized, it becomes all: “Oh, this is a Muslim writer, and all he writes about is Islam, and I’m not Muslim, so there’s nothing for me here.” I understand that as well, but this goes back to the very beginning of our conversation where I said if I’m not bringing every part of me into these poems, then the discoveries aren’t of use to me. The poems become incomplete and they become a waste of my time and a sort of violation of the contract that I make with the readers in terms of owing them a sincerity for their attention; an exploration of lived experience for their attention. A kind of delight for their attention. All of which would be absent if I came into the poem in any consciously restricted way.
Right. So I imagine if you were at some gathering, and someone said, “Oh, I want you to meet Kaveh, he’s this great Iranian American poet!” And you’d be thinking, Wait, I’m just a poet. I mean, there’s a difference, right?
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I question the need for such taxonomies in general. It’s like the way a white novelist might introduce a new character as saying he’s in his 30s, black, and has long dreads, as opposed to a white character who’s introduced as in his 30s with curly hair. You know what I mean? It only becomes necessary to specify racial or ethnic markers when they are outside the perceived default settings for humanness, which for many seems to be a white and male and straight. When I think about Solmaz Sharif, I don’t think of her as being an Iranian American writer, I think of her as one of the most important writers we have today, period. I think of her book as being something that knocked thousands, if not millions, of Americans on their asses last year. Because I don’t see the white male writer as the default, those taxonomies stop having the utility for me that they do for people who trade in them.
I’m excited about your full length coming out this fall, Calling a Wolf a Wolf. But how is it not going to just be the ‘super size me’ version of your chapbook?
(laughs) I think that’s a great question. But I think of the chapbook as, and I’ve said this elsewhere, as the E.P., and the full length the L.P. A lot of times the shorter format allows you to focus in on a central theme. All of the poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic pertain to addiction, and while that is hugely important, there are poems in the full length that are not tethered to that single, central theme. I think in the full length that there is a tonal cohesion between the addiction poems and the poems about how-now-shall-I-live, and recovery.
I’ve written a lot poems about addiction, poems that go back many years, and someone recently said to me, someone I care about, well, don’t you want to write about something different now? And I thought, well, I write about things that move me, or I care about, or is important in some way. Do you see yourself as a poet who views addiction as something you will always touch on, that will always be a quiver you reach for? Is there a point where you’ve learned everything you can about this subject and it no longer provides a service?
Yeah, good question. I was very literally a beneficiary of a miracle. I became a different person. I still inhabit the same body, but besides that have no commonality with the other. And what’s better to write about than miracles, and life after death? I don’t anticipate a time where these things don’t fascinate me. But I’m also very aware of the kinds of algorithms of my own work. The kinds of rhetorical moves, the kinds of conceptual moves that are native to my poetic vocabulary, and I’m very much now trying to work against those and build new footpaths to follow in the way I work through poems. And a lot of that has to do with coming at that with incorporating different material with the old obsessions. I guess I’m only kind of answering your question, but yeah, it’s always there in the quiver. But I’m also not interested in just making anagrams out of my old poems. I’m not interested in rearranging them or performing the same sleight of hand. And in order to keep making new discoveries I have to keep every element of it fresh. Does that make sense?
Yeah, totally. Because you don’t want, at least I don’t want, to become viewed as a caricature of yourself, pulling out all the hits and just adding a different melody. And maybe with that subject, it can be years, but you’re just not done with it, for whatever reason, and that’s not to say that poetry is ‘poetry as therapy’, because I don’t think I believe in that, but clearly what’s going on is that there is something unresolved, and you, me, keep trying to find that answer.
Yeah, right. Because I’m an addict, and I’m never going to be rid of the fact that I’m an addict. And that means that the membrane between me and early preventable death is extremely thin in every moment. There’s a translucency to that membrane, I guess, and an ability to press my eye up to it and look through. The way you can stick your tongue into the hole of a missing tooth.
That’s a nice way to put it. Because it’s there even though it’s not there, because there’s a memory of it, which is sometimes more palpable than the physical entity itself. The idea of the loss behind it.
So, here’s more of a looking-out question than looking-in: what’s happening in poetry today that’s disappointing?
That’s disappointing? Well, I could talk for weeks about what’s happening in poetry today that’s exciting.
Well, of course, because that question is easy and I could just lob it in there like a softball.
KA: (laughs) Well, yeah, true. I think that, there is a among some a perception that the poetry world is this kind of old, 15th century, mercantile economy where there is only a certain amount of gold and we all have to race to acquire that gold before anyone else does. Like England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, all racing to discovery the colonies for their gold. It’s the same way, I feel, in the poetry world—this kind of competitiveness amongst some, a politics of scarcity. It seems to me to be antithetical to what it means to be in a community of artists, building together. And it is also not true to me in how the poetry world works. I feel like there is a proliferation of journals out there, and there is enough room for everybody to be published, and there are enough readers to go around, the proliferation of MFA programs, there are a billion poetry prizes. It just seems to me that the ears pinned backed hyper competiveness seems necessary to a portion of the poetry community, and to me that’s always felt a little beside the point. And that’s what I’ll say about that.
No, I get it. It’s a hard question, but, I think, an important one. Because I think what you bring up is prescient, and I’m in agreement. But at the same time, it’s weird, because you’re also a part of that machine, right?
So you’re part of it, but it can also be infuriating. So how do you find that balance? I think that’s what hard. Because as poets we all want to find an audience, we all want success, whatever that means. So how do you find that audience without becoming part of that thing you just spoke against?
I can only speak to my own experience, and in my own experience what has always worked for me is centering my delight in poetry I have written. I have complete control over what I have written. I have no control over prizes or awards, or publications, or readership or any of that stuff. But I have complete control in over having written. It is a sustainable way for me to write, when my joy is found in accessing the very narcotic high of having written. There’s no better feeling in the world than spending six hours in front of a blank screen and walking away with a draft of poem that you’re proud of, having wrought that from the air. You know, it’s a miracle, and it’s delightful in that it’s full of delight. And that is where I ground my joy in poetry. I’ve had long stretches of rejections to submissions and I’ve had long stretches of acceptances, but I work very hard to orient myself in such a way as to not be bumped off course by any of that. Any sort of external impetus to write is unsustainable. But what is infinitely sustainable for me is the joy of having written, and I will protect that. I always want to protect that.
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Three Poems by Kaveh Akbar
UNBURNABLE THE COLD IS FLOODING OUR LIVES
the prophets are alive but unrecognizable to us
as calligraphy to a mouse for a time they dragged
long oar strokes across the sky now they sit
in graveyards drinking coffee forking soapy cottage cheese
into their mouths my hungry is different than their hungry
I envy their discipline but not enough to do anything about it
I blame my culture I blame everyone but myself
intent arrives like a call to prayer and is as easy to dismiss
Rumi said the two most important things in life were beauty
and bewilderment this is likely a mistranslation
after thirty years in America my father now dreams in English
says he misses the dead relatives he used to be able to visit in sleep
how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds
before you stop believing they’re gone
some migrant birds build their nests over rivers
to push them into the water when they leave this seems
almost warm a good harm the addictions
that were killing me fastest were the ones I loved best
turning the chisel toward myself I found my body
was still the size of my body still unarmored as wet bread
one way to live a life is to spend each moment asking
forgiveness for the last it seems to me the significance
of remorse would deflate with each performance better
to sink a little into the earth and quietly watch life unfold
violent as a bullring the carpenter’s house will always be
the last to be built sometimes a mind is ready to leave
the world before its body sometimes paradise happens
too early and leaves us shuddering in its wake
I am glad I still exist glad for cats and moss
and Turkish indigo and yet to be light upon the earth
to be steel bent around an endless black to once again
be God’s own tuning fork and yet and yet
(first published in TriQuarterly)
SOME BOYS AREN’T BORN THEY BUBBLE
some boys aren’t born they bubble
up from the earth’s crust land safely around
kitchen tables green globes of fruit already
in their mouths when they find themselves crying
they stop crying these boys moan
more than other boys they do as desire
demands when they dance their bodies plunge
into space and recover the music stays
in their breastbones they sing songs about
storms then dry their shoes on porches
these boys are so cold their pilot lights never light
they buy the best heat money can buy blue flames
swamp smoke they are desperate
to lick and be licked sometimes one will eat
all the food in a house or break every bone
in his jaw sometimes one will disappear into himself
like a ram charging a mirror when this happens
they all feel it afterwards the others dream
of rain their pupils boil they light black candles
and pray the only prayer they know oh lord
spare this body set fire to another
(first published in Puerto del Sol)
Lord, I meant to be helpless, sex-
less as a comma, quiet as
cotton floating on a pond. Instead,
I charged into desire like a
tiger sprinting off the edge of
the world. My ancestors shot bones
out of cannons and built homes where
they landed. This is to say, I
was born the king of nothing, pulled
out from nothing like a carrot
slipped from soil. I am still learning
the local law: don’t hurt something
that can smile, don’t hold any grief
except your own. My first time—brown
arms, purple lips, lush as a gun—
we slumped into each others’ thighs.
She said duset daram, mano
tanha bezar—I love you, leave
me alone. See? There I go scab-
picking again. You should just hang
me in a museum. I’ll pose
as a nasty historical
fact, wave at cameras, lecture
only in the rhetoric of
a victim. As a boy I tore out
the one hundred and nine pages
about Hell in my first Qur’an.
Bountiful bloomscattering Lord,
I could feel you behind my eyes
and under my tongue, shocking me
nightly like an old battery.
What did I need with Hell? Now that
I’ve sucked you wrinkly like a thumb,
I can barely be bothered to
check in. Will I ever even know
when my work is done? I’m almost
ready to show you the mess I’ve made.
(first published in West Branch)
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- Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear recently or soon in Slice, The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, PBS NewsHour, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. His debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming with Alice James Books in Fall 2017, and his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, is out with Sibling Rivalry Press. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.
Christopher Locke is the Nonfiction Editor at Slice magazine. He has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Award, state grants in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and a residency from Fundacion Valparaiso, (Spain). His poems & essays have appeared in such magazines as The North American Review, The Rumpus, Parents, Poetry East, Islands, Verse Daily, Southwest Review, Ascent, The Literary Review, The Sun, West Branch, Rattle, Gargoyle, The Nervous Breakdown, Mudlark, and NPR’s Morning Edition and Ireland’s Radio One. His collection of travel essays and poetry, Ordinary Gods, (Salmon) was recently released.