Kaveh Akbar recently appeared on the cover of Poets & Writers as one of “Ten Poets Who Will Change the World.” You need only read one of his poems to see why. He’s the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books) and Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press), and the founder and editor of Divedapper. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, The Nation, Tin House, and many more.
As this month’s Dear Reader author, Kaveh was selected by Tin House to spend one night at Ace Hotel in New York, where he penned a letter to an audience of strangers. What he wrote has been a secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Kaveh to talk about the dangers of certainty, the gift of time, and playing with words.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
KAVEH AKBAR: It would be amazing to talk with Rumi, right? Still our best-selling poet, this many centuries later? And his connection to my mother tongue, my genealogies, would be illuminating.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I never know where I’m going! I think certainty is death to a poem. The language always knows more than we do.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I don’t think about audience at all when I write. But when I decide if something’s worth publishing (I don’t publish or share nearly everything I write) I am always accountable to the reader’s attention. The reader is giving me the profound gift of their time, their attention. Does what I’ve written reward that attention with delight, with a fresh encounter with language or surprise or a lived experience? This is always the question I’m asking myself.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
Zeina Hashem Beck’s Louder Than Hearts is an extraordinary book of poems I think everyone should read.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I always write with a stack of books at my side. I flip through them, writing down individual words I like, then riffing on those words a little bit. When I have a few pages of this “word bank,” I begin composing in earnest. It primes my brain for a kind of associative leaping and vernacular play that I find to be essential to my writing process.