A Conversation with Kaveh Akbar
BY BRAD TRUMPFHELLER
Kaveh Akbar is the founding editor of Divedapper. His poems are forthcoming from the New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. A debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming with Alice James Books in September 2017. The recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and is currently a Visiting Professor at Purdue University.
To begin, I’m going to steal your first questions from Divedapper and ask you how old the oldest poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic are?
KA: It’s a good way to get things rolling! I started writing the poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic probably three or so months after I got sober. Prior to that I was just trying not to accidentally spontaneously combust, which is sort of what early sobriety is like. But I started writing seriously again about three months into sobriety, and then the rest of the poems in the chapbook are probably written from that point into maybe two years into sobriety or so, and I’m three and a half years sober now so if you do the math on that, it’ll give how old the oldest poems in the book are. Probably about three years old, and the youngest are about a year old.
So it’s all fairly recent (if we want to say three years ago is recent)?
KA: Yeah, yeah. I basically just threw away everything I had written prior to getting sober—not threw it away, but chopped it up for compost, to cannibalize for better poems. A lot of it just rang false to me, it was very gimmicky. I think that something that happened for me once I got sober was that I stopped making myself the hero of my poems. I was talking to Adrian Matejka about this for Divedapper in an interview that is not out yet, but I stopped making myself the hero and it made my poems ten thousand times better. In all the poems I had written prior to getting sober, I had cast myself as this gloriously misunderstood scumbag, who the universe had conspired against. I was just this beautiful misunderstood thing, reveling in the beauty of my debauchery. It was just insufferable.
You’ve spoken before—I think it was in the interview you did with Drunken Boat—about how you’re not really interested in seeking clemency in your poetry. It sounds like by not lionizing yourself, you moved away from a poetics that sought forgiveness or likeability in that way.
KA: I’m not interested in making the reader fall in love with me, and I’m especially not interested in making the reader forgive me: I think that that’s a huge imposition to put on the reader, you know? The reader doesn’t owe me anything. They’re already giving me their attention, and in exchange I owe them delight. There are so many places to deposit your attention in 2017, even if we’re just talking about poetry to read. There’re so many extraordinary poems that you could be reading, and if you choose to read mine, I owe you something for it. The way I can pay back that debt of gratitude is by offering a bit of delight. Even if it’s a poem about a very dark thing, there’s still delight in language to be offered.
Absolutely, I think that’s a really beautiful idea. Can you talk about the process of constructing the chapbook? There are poems in this titular Portrait of the Alcoholic series that were not included in the collection, and I assume you’re still writing poems within this series. How do you decide what goes in the chapbook and what does not?
KA: My thesis advisor during my MFA told me that I only write three kinds of poems: sex poems, god poems, and addiction poems. Sometimes I mix them up, so that two or three of those things will be present in an individual poem, but at the end of the day those are my three major obsessions. He was being funny, but he was also being very true—what he said was very true. I think about that a lot, and he was right: those are my obsessions. You don’t choose your obsessions. If you try to write against your obsessions and try to force your poetry in some way that isn’t of sincere interest to your deeper psychic life, it’s like trying to row against the current—you’re going to have a bad time, and just exhaust yourself before you get anywhere productive.
So given that these are my obsessions, the chapbook was a group of poems that I felt were all pretty centrally focused on addiction specifically. And while I have other Portrait of the Alcoholic poems, sometimes they aren’t really about addiction. Alcoholics also have sex, and eat hamburgers, you know? That was the selection criteria I had. I was trying to just pick those poems that definitely seemed to be orbiting that central nucleus of addiction. I will say, too, that for now I’m done writing that series. The last one I wrote, called “Portrait of the Alcoholic Frozen in a Block of Ice,” was for / about / through the poet Max Ritvo, to whom I was talking a lot at the time. I sent it to him, and he really loved it. He makes a quick appearance in the poem. And it just felt like a natural last poem in the series. Which isn’t to say that if I wrote a poem today and it seemed to be a Portrait of the Alcoholic poem I would kick it out of the bed. But it’s been about six months since I wrote that one, and I’ve written a lot of other poems since then.
Writing a lot is good!
KA: Actually, I’m forcing myself to take a bit of a break now. I haven’t actually written a new poem in a couple of weeks, which for me is a really long time. I’m a daily writer. But I’m forcing myself to take a bit of a break. I began working on the next book, after Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and I have what might be the skeletal core of that book ready—I have like twenty pages of that. And after those poems came, a lot of the poems still seem to live in the same tonal environment as Calling a Wolf, even though the poems aren’t really about the same things. I was recognizing some of the same algorithms and ways of moving through the poems in that new stuff. So I’m taking a break to just read, and just listen, and just be quiet for a moment.
You’ve spoken before about some of your early encounters with poetry, such as the Green Bay Packers poem, which I just love. I was curious if you could speak, broadly, to some of the phases of your poetic life between that moment and three years ago when you began writing the poems that are now everywhere in the world.
KA: I became “serious” about poetry in high school, when I decided that I would be a poet, or felt called upon to be a poet. I felt like this immense, total, overwhelming clarity that I was a poet then, that this was the thing I was meant to do. I’ve never really doubted that clarity, but everything in the book is based on my real life. I had to go through being a scumbag addict for a while and that didn’t really facilitate the writing of poems in any sort of serious way. My growth as a poet sort of stagnated, even though I was still reading and calling myself a poet. I wasn’t serious about it in any sort of meaningful way until I got sober.
And then I think what honestly happened was that one addiction sublimated into another addiction, where my chemical dependency rerouted into this addiction to poetry, to reading, to writing about what I was reading, and being engaged in this poetry world. I really feel—this is something I’ve been thinking about very recently—that my relationship to poetry now is not that different than what my relationship to drugs and alcohol were in my past life, in terms of the raw obsession. I wake up and the first thing I want to do is get into writing a poem, and reading all the books that I haven’t finished, and work on a Divedapper interview, and and and. It’s really all I do from the start of my day to the end of my day. I teach poetry, I’m constantly engaged in it. And in my past life, I was constantly engaging my addiction in some capacity. This is just an addiction that isn’t killing me or harming the people who love me, which seems like a pretty good trade.
I think that comes through in the chapbook, consciously or unconsciously—I’m looking at the final poem, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island.” I think it’s the only poem in the chapbook that says the word “poetry” or mentions poetry directly.
KA: I think it is, too, yeah.
“It might sound ungrateful to say / I expected poetry, but I did.” Then, on what you were just speaking to, the final lines of the poem speak to this continuity of addiction, “The boat I am building / will never be done.” Even when addiction is “cured,” it’s still there, just being suppressed or brought into another form. And for you, that form was poetry.
KA: Absolutely. I think that’s a really beautiful observation you just made, Brad—I don’t think it was something I did consciously, but that poem is also the last poem in Calling a Wolf a Wolf. That book moves differently, the opening poems are different, but it’s the final poem of the collection. I think that it’s very telling and appropriate that the chapbook moves from the throes of addiction to finally uttering the word “poetry” because that’s very much what happened to me. Poetry was the life raft, poetry was the star I followed. It’s given me literally everything I have in my life right now, besides my cat. I was living in an empty house on a mattress, and my cat is the only thing I have from that time anymore. Everything else I got through or from poetry. Including my partner, transcendent American poet Paige Lewis.
Paige is one of my very favorite poets right now!
KA: They’re one of mine, too.
To transition to talking more about Portrait of the Alcoholic, I’m curious about your obsession with naming. The poem you published in Adroit’s seventeenth issue, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” deals very directly with that act of naming, and of course went on to be the title of your full-length collection. How do you see names and naming functioning for your poetry?
KA: You can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge there is a problem. I think that naming has a lot of power—the line from the poem is “Thinking if it had a name it would have a solution / thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs.” You both have to figure out what to call a thing in order to come at it in any sort of useful way, but you also have to acknowledge the impotence that comes with that. Just giving it a name, even the right one, won’t fix the problem. Solmaz Sharif’s book Look does beautiful work with this idea that “It matters what you call a thing.” And it really does. Whether that thing be God, addiction, or whether you call addiction itself a crisis of faith, physiology, or psychology. I think these are all the great concerns of the books, especially in Calling a Wolf a Wolf. It seemed appropriate to allude to that in the title of the book.
That’s so interesting—the importance of that to you totally comes through, even outside the bodies of the poems themselves. Like the poem “Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila),” which has an epigraph from Carolus Linnaeus, who developed binomial nomenclature.
KA: The father of modern taxonomy!
Right! I like to think of the titles of poems as being the poems’ names: how do you go about titling poems, in the process of your writing?
KA: Well, some of them are very on the nose. “Learning to Pray,” for example, is about me learning to pray. But I don’t think that’s my dominant mode of naming the poems. I think that most often—this is a useful trick that I use a lot—as I’m editing, and am taking a line out of a poem—especially if it’s later in the composition process—that line will become the title of the poem. I know that it’s in the same tonal register as the rest of the poem, vibrating at the same frequency as the rest of the poem. There’s a way in which that line can prime the reader for the kind of logic or language to expect of the poem. More often than not, when it’s not obvious, or a Portrait of the Alcoholic title, that’s my go-to motion.
I love that. Is that where the title of “Unburnable the Cold Is Flooding Our Lives” came from?
KA: It is!
That’s one of my favorites in the chapbook. It’s a great example of a way that you control rhythm in your poems, leaping from line to line and idea to idea so wonderfully. Stanley Kunitz once said, “You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm,” which is something that I’ve definitely found true for myself.
KA: That’s totally something I can see in your poetry, too, the importance of cadence and rhythm.
Absolutely. I guess the question is, how do you go about finding and navigating that rhythm both formally in terms of your punctuation and spacing, and psychologically, just entering into that rhythmic space?
KA: That’s a hard question for me to answer with any sort of integrity. The honest answer is that I don’t know. It’s one of those things that happens in the Here There Be Dragons part of composition for me. I have my notes set up, my stack of books by my side, a pot of tea pulsing through my veins, and I start putting words on a page. Then, a few hours later, I’ll have a draft. It’s very difficult to speak about what happens in the intervening hours, other than to say it feels like a kind of trance. You train your instincts, just like you train your ear like a musician. Like a jazz musician who’s ready to improvise. You train those instincts by reading and studying craft, and the more you read and write and study, the better trained those instincts are. But I think that when it comes down to sitting in front of the page, it’s so much just left to the instincts.
I do agree with Kunitz in how it starts, just figuring out the sound of the lines. I compose without punctuation always, and sometimes just add it in later. But that helps me to feel the natural impulses and urges of the language, and those become my signposts for how I’m going to from the flow of the poem. Sometimes I have to add in punctuation later because it just serves the poem to do so. But I think that it’s something that helps me hear the language, as opposed to hearing my internal editor. I’m just giving you fairly flimsy little tips instead of really answering, though. The real answer is that I have no idea, but I have faith in the process and more often that not, that faith is rewarded.
I was just talking to Kazim Ali about how the first poems I ever really knew were in Arabic, which is a language that I don’t speak and have never spoken, but I knew how to say these long prayers, just to make the sounds. That instilled in me a sense of charged poetic language being a sort of incantation, more than a site for precise “meaning” (in the way we typically say the word meaning). I think that my first impulse as a poet is to reach that kind of incantatory state, both in my composition and what I’m composing.
I can very much see that in your poems—they’re not necessarily all about faith, directly, but they all take the form of prayer, if that makes sense? Whether the prayer is to a deity, or the self, or a personified version of addiction. Like an incantation against something. Frank Stanford has that line in his long poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, “all of this / is magic against death,” and I feel like your poetry enacts that, in some way. Not so much being against death maybe, but being for joy or for living.
KA: Haha. Literally yesterday I got my contributor’s copy of Tin House in which one of the poems I published was called “Against Dying,” so that’s very on the nose.
I look forward to reading it! I don’t want to keep you for too long, so do you have any other projects coming down the road you might want to speak about?
KA: Right now I’m working on organizing a second Divedapper Carnival, which is a day of whimsy and obnoxious celebration of poetry love, poem love, and cotton candy, face painting, readings, workshops. It’s just a beautiful, positive thing—last year Danez Smith, Heather Christle, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil came. It was just the best day. This year it’s going to be Adrian Matejka, francine j. harris, and Wendy Xu, and we’re all just going to hang out in Indianapolis for a day, just sincerely celebrating poetry as a site for delight, joy, and discovery.
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Brad Trumpfheller is an undergraduate student at Emerson College. Their work is forthcoming from Gigantic Sequins, Puerto del Sol, Muzzle Magazine, Indiana Review, and elsewhere.
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