David Naimon: This episode of Between The Covers is brought to you in part by Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, a literary mentoring program that pairs emerging and established authors with mentors in their genre. Directed by award-winning writers Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Rachel Rose in Vancouver, BC, the program is open to writers around the world who seek sustained mentorship for their works and progress. Writers can join the six month program that includes interaction with other mentors and students, and participation in a public reading, or they can pursue solo guidance for more directed and short-term support all year long. This year, a fellowship for a writer of exceptional promise who has faced significant barriers to fulfilling that promise is offered for the second time. The application deadline for the six-month program beginning January 2022 is November 9th. Please visit vancouvermanuscriptintensive.com for more information about pairing with a mentor to hone your project. Today’s episode is also brought to you by BBC National Short Story Award winner Jo Lloyd’s Something Wonderful, a debut collection of nine stories that delight in language and shine with wit, wisdom, and deep humanity. In Lloyd’s pages, a vainglorious mine owner dreams of harnessing all of nature to the machinery of commerce. Two women hunt rare butterflies in a pre-First World War landscape and a rural Welsh community is fascinated, and angered by glimpses of its invisible wealthy neighbors and more. Says Hilary Mantel, “Jo Lloyd has drawn out all the intensity and latent power of short fiction, a major talent.” Adds Karen Russell, “Her sentences could rouse the dead (and do, in this excellent book).” Something Wonderful is out on August 24th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Before we had today’s conversation, Kaveh Akbar knew what he wanted to contribute to the bonus audio archive. But then when we talked, through the process of talking about his work, we both knew by the end that there was something else calling to be read. Whereas I’d normally mention what that is now, I’m going to wait and mention it during the outro music at the end of the program. In the meantime, see if you can guess what it is that Kaveh ultimately contributes to what has become an immense supplementary collection of readings. In poetry alone, the bonus audio includes Alice Oswald responding to my impossible questions by reading from the Book of Job, then responding to the question Anne Carson posed to her in the interview by reading a new ballad she had written. There’s Jorie Graham reading rain poems by Robert Creeley and Edward Thomas, and discussing the different types of rain. There’s Richard Powers reading a heartbreakingly beautiful poem by W. S. Merwin. There’s Arthur Sze and Philip Metres reading their translations from Chinese and Russian respectively. There’s Douglas Kearney and Layli Long Soldier reading their, as of yet, uncollected new work and much more. As long time listeners know, about 3% of listeners are listener-supporters of the show. I aim to get this up to 5% by the end of the year. Perhaps the bonus audio is particularly intriguing or perhaps becoming a Tin House early reader receiving books months before the general public, or the rare collectibles donated by past guests from Rikki Ducornet to Forrest Gander to Nikky Finney. You can find out about all of this and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. But regardless of these various benefits and gifts, if the show itself feels like a resource, either for your writing and art making life, or for your life and sanity more generally, consider helping the show forward into the future. Again, you can do so at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Enjoy today’s conversation with Kaveh Akbar.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Poet Kaveh Akbar, earned his MFA at Butler University and his PhD in creative writing from Florida State. He’s a faculty member at Purdue University and the Low-Residency MFA programs at Randolph College, and Warren Wilson College. He’s also the founder of the remarkable poetry interview website Divedapper where he’s been in conversation with everyone from Mary Ruefle to Solmaz Sharif to Sharon Olds. Akbar also wrote a weekly column for The Paris Review along with Sarah Kay and Claire Schwartz called Poetry Rx. With Poet Ocean Vuong, he wrote poems for the 2018 film, The Kindergarten Teacher starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, about a precocious child poet. This last year, Kaveh Akbar was named Poetry Editor at The Nation magazine, a position previously held by Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, and William Butler Yeats and is the author of the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic of which poet Patricia Smith said, “Kaveh Akbar has written one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read.” Thus, the arrival of Kaveh Akbar’s debut poetry collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf was a significant literary event that year, heralded by everyone from Frank Bidart to Fanny Howe and prompting poet and poetry critic Stephanie Burt to declare, “Akbar has what every poet needs: the power to make, from emotions others have felt, memorable language nobody has assembled before.” Akbar’s poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and many other places. He’s the recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. He’s editor of the upcoming anthology The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine. Kaveh Akbar is here today with us on Between The Covers to talk about his second full-length poetry collection, just out now from Graywolf entitled Pilgrim Bell. Mary Karr says of Pilgrim Bell, “Akbar is an unlikely prophet—hilarious and irreverent and self-deprecating. Yet even nonbelievers will travel the circles of faith and hellscape, love and rebuke, through his captivating voice. He is incapable of setting down a line that’s less than luminous. Pilgrim Bell is destined to become a classic, another blazing torch added to the eternal flames.” Library Journal in its starred reviews says, “The poems in Akbar’s highly anticipated second collection span and invert boundaries, addressing addiction, faith, language, history, self, family, and power. Instead of purporting to provide answers, the poems exist in between—’Somewhere between wonder. / And shame’—like the messy experience of being. Embedded in each poem is the question of how to live and what responsibility comes with knowledge: how to live as an addict after addiction; how to believe while reserving ‘the right. / To refuse. Enchantment’; how to exist in a nation that questions your existence. Lyrical, profound, and honest, Pilgrim Bell is a collection to which the reader will return.” Finally, M. NourbeSe Philip says, “Working at and along the outer edges of language, Pilgrim Bell calls us to attention and to attend to that which poetry and prayer share, while simultaneously demanding that we tend to the political, the social, the erotic—all that is quotidian and human. Persimmons and empire; saffron and refugee camps; exile, oleander, and the Rolling Stones—all the stuff of poetry. And of prayer. In Pilgrim Bell, the poet Kaveh Akbar, ‘God’s incarnate spit in the mud,’ takes us down to the ground, to the prosaic, the dismissed and overlooked, the better to talk to the great Silence, bearer of many names including that of God.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Kaveh Akbar.
Kaveh Akbar: Thank you so much, David. That was such a robust intro. [laughter] Thank you.
DN: In many different contexts, you’ve talked about Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poetry collection Headwaters and most particularly, her poem Groundhog, and how it was crucial for your development, not only as a poet but as a person. When you were on Commonplace with Rachel Zucker many years ago now, you talked about how syntax is identity and how when you were becoming sober, you were piecing together a new identity. You said that you discovered the power of the unpunctuated line in Groundhog. How a poem without punctuation can still have a punctuation inherent to it. We see many examples of this poem in your debut collection. But when we open Pilgrim Bell, we first encounter a poem called Pilgrim Bell that is hyper punctuated. Every line is end-stopped. Many of the lines are short sentences, even one word sentence, each ending in a period. But more often than that, we don’t even get full sentences. We encounter periods in the middle of sentences. Fragments that we have to push through or we have to push through the punctuation to complete the phrase or the sentence. Given that we get this title poem at the beginning, then we get five more instances of poems called Pilgrim Bell that ring through the collection that are similarly punctuated, and given that you’ve talked about syntax’s identity and unpunctuated poems seemed to suggest a previous iteration of your identity, I’m curious about what this says about you, about you as a person and both you, and your trajectory as a poet. Tell us a little bit about Pilgrim Bell, the series of poems in the light of identity with regards to the fingerprint of the line in the sentence.
KA: That’s such a beautiful and perceptive question. I want to thank you for it and for just spending a good time with the book too. It’s obvious that you’ve spent real substantive time with both books. Also, the paratexts around both books if you’re listening to the Commonplace Podcast and things like that. I’m grateful for that time that we’ve gotten to spend together separately. [laughter] Now, I’m grateful for the time that we get to spend together. With regards to the question that you’re asking, the Pilgrim Bell poems are excessively punctuated, which isn’t to say that the poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf weren’t punctuated but just that I tried, like Ellen Bryant Voigt, Lucille Clifton, and middle and late Merwin to create a punctuation inherent to the syntax itself. Not a visibly demarcated punctuation but a punctuation that lived inside the word choices and the enjambment. Whereas, in these six poems, the titular poems from this new book Pilgrim Bell, the punctuation appears excessively, as you say. It breaks up sentences. In the middle of sentences, it breaks up clauses, even non-clauses. Every enjambment has a period. To me, it feels like the period is a signifier of semantic certainty. You put a period at the end of a thought to declare it complete. I think the project of this book, in very many ways, parallels the project of my own psycho-spiritual growth, which, over the course of writing this book, has been to learn how to sit in uncertainty without trying to resolve it, without groping desperately to resolve it. The questions that seem to govern my living most acutely are all fundamentally unanswerable. In my lurching towards the illusions of resolution for them, I’ve only created suffering for myself and for others. This to say, I think that these poems in their rejection of the semantic demarcation of certainty, in the way that the language just ignores the imposition of visually demarcated certainty, it just rolls right past it, I think that the poems were in many ways mirroring my own journey, or not even mirroring because I feel like they went out a little bit ahead of me in this way, I think that they were portending, auguring a bit of my own journey. I think they were teaching me something.
DN: Yeah. Could we hear the first Pilgrim Bell, just so people can get a sense of it? I’m also just curious how you’re going to read it also.
[Kaveh Akbar reads the first version of the title poem Pilgrim Bell]
DN: We’ve been listening to Kaveh Akbar read the first version of the title poem Pilgrim Bell. Later in the book, we get Islamic Hadeeth where the Prophet Muhammad is asked, “How is the divine inspiration revealed to you?” He says, “Sometimes it is (revealed) like the ringing of a bell. ” But the opening to the book is more elusive. Prior to the first poem, we get a page that says, “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy.” The next page has a line, “Then it is a holy text,” which seems to suggest paradoxically that perhaps by being an apostasy, it becomes a holy text or alternately, that this book isn’t an apostasy, so it must be a holy text. I’m thinking of M. NourbeSe Philip who suggests that the collection calls us to attend to that, which poetry and prayer share. I wondered if you could speak to or into your relationship as a poet to divine inspiration to holy texts or texts that are holy in their unholiness, or more generally, to the role of God or faith as subject or as prime mover in your work because I know you were going to name this collection at one point God.
KA: Yeah, I forgot that I said that publicly, that I was going to name it God. Everyone hated that title. [laughter]
DN: Even God?
KA: Yeah. I don’t know if you write a book about flowers and call it flowers, nobody bats an eyelash. I think about poetry, in my own life, operating as a spiritual technology. I think that M. NourbeSe Philip and some of the other people whose names you’ve invoked likely feel similarly about their work certainly. M. NourbeSe Philip’s work has functioned as a spiritual technology for me, even just reading it. The classical formulation is that prayer is what you send up or send out and that meditation is what you receive. Poetry operates both of those channels for me or sits squarely in both of those channels. But I think that what is more is that when I pray or when I write a poem, I’m not exactly appealing to an interventionist divine. That’s not my sense of what either of these technologies are doing. What I am doing is orienting myself towards action with both. You pray for the poor, then you go out and feed them. You don’t pray for the poor and be like, “All right, my job here is done.” In the same way, writing a poem about justice doesn’t replace the actions that one has to take within one’s own community towards creating the justice that one aspires to see within their civic station. I think that the poems and the prayers orient one towards action but I think there’s a lot of danger in believing that poems or prayer replace the action. I think that’s where a lot of poetry people and people who fancy themselves quite pious get themselves into trouble is when they’re practicing either of those in lieu of the less sexy and humbling work that nobody stands on a signing line to tell you how brilliant you are for doing. Do you know what I’m saying?
DN: Yeah. I collected some other poets’ thoughts on the connections between prayer and poetry.
KA: Amazing, amazing.
DN: I just want to read them to see if it sparks further discussion. This is true, I think people notice that the devotional connection, even non-believers and atheist poets such as Poet Nick Laird, also known as Zadie Smith’s husband who nevertheless says that he has a religious sensibility and he likens the ritualized language, and heightens states in poetry with that of religion. But I wanted to read what some other poets in addition have said. So Mary Szybist says—here, she’s speaking of the dramatic figure of speech, not the punctuation—“I’ve always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level – it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered.” Jorie Graham writes, “Poems are, after all, dialogues between the song of man and the silences of God, aren’t they?” Pádraig Ó Tuama says, “This is how strange prayer and poetry are: by naming what is not there, we can be wrapped in some sacramental absence that does seem to have some sort of presence at the heart of it, one that doesn’t give final answer that is not interested in certitudes but is interested in some connection point.” Finally, back to M. NourbeSe Philip who says, “In Pilgrim Bell, the poet Kaveh Akbar–” as I read earlier, “‘–God’s incarnate spit in the mud,’ takes us down to the ground, to the prosaic, the dismissed and overlooked, the better to talk to the great Silence, bearer of many names including that of God.” I’m thinking of God here. I like this formulation. God is the great silence or poetry as a dialogue between a human song and a mute God, or silence as a presence as Ó Tuama said. I guess I wanted to hear a little bit more about language, prayer, and poetry from you, maybe having heard these because it’s not just that they share a devotional orientation but you also explicitly engage with prayer as subject also in your poems, so as gesture, and you’ve written the essay How I Found Poetry in Childhood Prayer. Does this spark any further thoughts for you about the unsalable and even the power of the body, and the gesture of prayer as gesture?
KA: I like all of those. They’re all alluding to something that was present in the book’s invocation or opening that you referenced before, the “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy. Then it’s a holy text.” The epiphanic understanding of defining the divine by what it isn’t, Simone Weil says, “If God is not evil, then where evil is present, that can’t be God.” This way of arriving at something like a definition of the divine, I’m obviously grossly oversimplifying and mangling, but this apathetic theology is really, really interesting to me, especially as I think the poems have gotten a little bit quieter. In the first book, I was in the urgent rush of early recovery and just very much out at sea with my disease, and just clinging to the poems. The language in those feels very super saturated, loud, and bombastic. In this collection, I just think that I’ve grown a little bit more. My life has gotten quite a bit noisier. I think that the poems have gotten quite a bit less noisy to the point that I actually really became interested in lyric art but also visual art and sculpture that worked with void, that worked with the negative space, defining the shape of the thing and thinking about language as the negative space poured around the shape of the silence, which was the real poem. Poets like Jean Valentine are of course the masters of this to my mind where you can see the vast landscape that she’s painting in between the words. Or when you listen to Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, you can just see the giant stained glass. How it’s the silence that gives shape to the thing. It seems like in Ó Tuama’s definition and in NourbeSe Philip’s formulation, and in everything that you said, everyone is orbiting this idea of sounding divine using the absence, using the gulf between you and it as the medium by which you might sound. I have lost a number of beloveds as any mortal human being of any age has and I think sometimes about communicating with them like two prisoners on opposite sides of a wall. You can’t see each other, you can’t speak directly to each other but by tapping on the wall, the other person can hear you. The thing separating you two becomes the medium by which you’re communicating. I think that because I am using a technology that’s so endlessly fraught by its political, colonial, and genocidal histories and it was never designed to accommodate the things that I want to be able to use it to speak to, so I think that the closest I can get is warping it around these silences, warping it across these chasms. Does that make sense?
DN: It does. It makes me think of one thing that I think religion and poetry share that comes up a lot in the podcast too is the employment of paradox or contradiction. Because if we think of these quotes and what you’re saying, like how do we engage with the great silence but using language or Ó Tuama’s thing about the sacramental absence having some uncanny presence, and I’m also thinking how you’ve said before that you believe at the heart of every great poem is bewilderment and that an orientation towards wonder is essential for a poet, it makes me think of Mary Ruefle who on one of the conversations I had with her, she said, “I’d rather wonder than know,” but I also feel like contradiction puts a stop sign. You can go no further with your knowing comprehending mind. There’s something on the other side of this but it’s not something that your mind is going to be able to reduce to meaning. I wondered, does that ring true to you?
KA: Yeah, absolutely. I think that again, that’s the whole practice is learning to sit in bewilderment without groping desperately to resolve it. I had this experience. I was in Europe this summer. When I was in Italy, I got to spend a couple days in Rome. Visiting Vatican City, I was able to see the Sistine Chapel, which I’d never seen before. I don’t know if you’ve ever been but you’re nodding.
DN: I have been but for so long ago.
KA: Yeah, sure, sure, sure.
DN: But I have.
KA: The room is divided, the room with the creation of Adam, the Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, that fresco series. I don’t even know if they’re frescoes. My art vocabulary is really, really unconscionably limited but they’re on the ceiling, then in that same room, because they actually use this room for services, so there’s a wooden gate in the back half of the room and on the other side of that gate, there are no pews, then you walk through the gate, then there are pews and you look up. The Sistine Chapel was obviously incredible, looking at all of the masterful handiwork and all that. But what really stuck out to me was there was this nun standing on the other side of the gate. She wouldn’t step foot into the room where you could actually look up and see. But she was standing on her tippy toes, looking in through this gate. She was standing up over the little ledge so that she could look in. She was just looking through this little square. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it. You can see it.
DN: I can. [laughter]
KA: But she was just looking in through this little hole in the gate. She never walked over to the other side. I just sat there probably for 15 minutes. That to me was most fascinating, and the luminous part of the Sistine Chapel for me was just seeing this woman. Of course, one invents a narrative in situations like this. To me, it seemed like she just couldn’t take it all in. She couldn’t step in that and be like in the full throes of the divine. It is a real super saturation. You’re surrounded by every wall and the ceiling is surrounded by these depictions. She could only bear, just like this little sliver at a time. She couldn’t step fully into it. I found that so incredibly moving. This was obnoxious of me, but I surreptitiously took a picture of the scene and I sent it to a friend, someone who I love dearly and owe a great deal to, and who was Catholic. She liked it but then she posted it on her social media. Quickly, someone was like, “Oh yeah, she can’t step into that room because she’s wearing a habit.” Somehow, if you’re wearing a habit, whatever, you can’t get into an activity– I don’t know, I don’t really understand but I’m not in any flavor of Catholic. But somehow, it had something to do with the fact that she was wearing a habit, so she couldn’t step into the room. My wonder was this woman is so in the throes of awe. She’s just so overwhelmed by the divine. I spent the entire day in Vatican City doing all the Vatican City stuff. The highlight for me was this woman. My wonder was so great at this. My bewilderment was so great at this. It just seemed like such a profound lesson. [laughter] Then like Noah marched and stomped over it with the most mundane bullsh*t, like Byzantine misogyny. Just this nothing of a reason that completely trampled over my wonder. This is the way that knowing crushes wonder. When I say bewilderment is at the heart of every poem, I think that I know the thing in which you said that. I think that people sometimes see that and they’re like, “Oh, he thinks that everyone should just be writing about like rainbows, babies little toes, and sh*t like that.” But I think that when I say bewilderment, it’s a value neutral thing. In other words, rainbows, photosynthesis, babies little toes are profound occasions for bewilderment but so is man’s capacity for cruelty to man despite our overwhelming sameness as a species, and so is the fact that the top one percent of the world’s hegemonic power structure controls over 50% of the wealth of the world. That’s profoundly strange. It’s profoundly bewildering. I think that words like wonder and bewilderment are used in such a way to sandpaper them to this kind of prosaic sheen that strips them of the actual critical value. Like if you read a poem like Gwendolyn Brooks’ Beverly Hills, Chicago, it’s a poem where she’s driving through this little neighborhood on the South side of Chicago. Now, it’s largely a cop neighborhood in Beverly Chicago but it’s just an affluent neighborhood in the middle of a lot of very unaffluent neighborhoods. She’s driving through it. I just looked it up and there’s this stanza that says, “Nobody is saying that these people do not ultimately cease to be. And sometimes their passings are even more painful than ours. It is just that so often they live till their hair is white. They make excellent corpses, among the expensive flowers. . . . Nobody is furious. Nobody hates these people. At least, nobody driving by in this car. It is only natural, however, that it should occur to us. How much more fortunate they are than we are.” That’s pure, distilled, straight from the bewilderment. That’s bewilderment. It is a bewilderment that is critical of certain hegemonic power structures and socio but it’s bewilderment. When I talk about bewilderment or defamiliarization is maybe a word that we’re more comfortable using in a value neutral way, defamiliarization, being at the heart of just about every interesting poem I think is a way to articulate that. Does that make sense?
DN: It does. I’m still struck with this image of even with the false narrative of this woman behind the wall looking through the hole because of how overwhelming, I’m thinking of not only bewilderment but awe perhaps. I don’t know if it’s too much of a stretch but when I think of the Pilgrim Bell poems being six poems, I think of the call to prayer, then the five instances of prayer in a day so that the five certain things that are going to happen in a day, regardless of what the rest of the day is, are going to be like the periods. The period is certainly these five moments of prayer that ring after the original bell that form the container. She’s trying to form a container behind the wall to be able to hold whatever can’t be contained, which is why I was thinking maybe we could hear one more iteration of Pilgrim Bell, then also, I was hoping maybe the poem Vines. Could we hear a Pilgrim Bell on page 37, then Vines?
KA: This was one of the very first ones of this poem that I wrote.
[Kaveh Akbar reads another version of the title poem Pilgrim Bell]
Then this is the poem called Vines, which is one of the first poems in the book, the second poem of the book.
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called Vines]
DN: We’ve been listening to Kaveh Akbar read from his latest poetry collection from Graywolf, Pilgrim Bell. I want to stay with the question of repetition a little bit because if we think about the repetition of prayer and maybe the repetition of the poem, Pilgrim Bell is providing a scaffolding for a day or for a collection or providing form. I also think of repetition having the potential for having the opposite effect. I wonder if you’re also engaging with this opposite effect of repetition. Because I think of the way the position of the body is important in prayer. For instance, prostration in Islam or kneeling, or certain hand gestures in Christianity, or rhythmic swaying in Orthodox Judaism, and when I watch you perform your poems when you do readings, you do have a certain rhythmic swaying. Even when you’re talking with me here, you’ve been pivoting in your chair in a rhythmic way. [laughter] It made me think of Kazim Ali who finds a connection, at least as much if not more, between poetry and dances, between poetry and music. He says, “The body is the consonant and the dance is the vowel. The words of the poem are consonants; the breath that moves through it is the vowel. The vowel is the spirit and spirit is breath. Poetry and dance are arts of breath.” When I think of this and the swaying of your body as you read, and the presence of an epigraph in one of the sections of the book by a Sufi Mystic poet and the ways repetition is used in mysticism, whether it’s the Dhikr and Sufism or more generally chanting or incantation or repeated body movements, it’s like doing the opposite of creating scaffolding or creating order. It’s about spilling over from a container, it seems to me, maybe a gesture towards the ecstatic in the uncontained. I just wondered if you had any thoughts about both the repetition of the body, whether in a poetry reading or in prayer and the repetition of either syntactical sequences or actual words.
KA: The one face of that is that I’m just super hyperactive, and have been my whole life. [laughter] I’ve always had a really strong manual fixation and an oral fixation. I used to smoke a pack and a half a day. Since I quit that, I’m just constantly fidgeting and moving. I never really stop. In terms of the way that lays into the poetry, I think that the reason that you go to see John Ashbery read or the reason that you go to see Gwendolyn Brooks read is because you know that there will be some connection to whatever the catalytic energy was that created the poem in the first place within that reader, that wouldn’t be present if you or I were just reading one of their poems aloud off a piece of paper, because anyone, any literate person can read a poem off a sheet of paper. You don’t need to pay John Ashbery to come do that, to literally just read the poem. But what you were paying for is the presence of the mind that once sparked whatever catalytic agent birthed that poem. The hope is that there is something in the reading that will animate that beyond the mere recitation of a font on a page. I think that when I am truly, truly feeling unself-conscious and when I’m actually connecting with the poems that I’ve written, there is something of that initial catalytic spark present that animates, not just the reading of the poem but the entire vessel of my reading of the poem, which I know sounds [0:49:25]. But I’ve talked about this elsewhere but in Arabic, the word rūḥ is both spirit and breath. They’re used synonymously in Latin. It’s the same thing with spiritus. The spirit left the body. The breath left the body. This isn’t a new thought, the idea that what we push out of our mouths in some way can consecrate, sanctify or that there is something holy or something greater than just a mixture of CO2 and nitrogen that we’re expelling. This isn’t their theological principles. You mentioned Jewish prayer shuckling or the movements of the body in Muslim prayer or there are a billion, trillion theological manifestations of this idea, just as there are iterative practices. You were talking about repetition, like there are Sufis who say Allahu Akbar five thousand times before they get out of bed in the morning. The idea being that when you repeat something many times, that will thin the partition. Any seven-year-old can tell you that repeating the same word over and over again begins to strip it of its identitative meaning and allows it to exist more and more like a sonic, they might not use that language but it allows it to just exist as a sonic expression. Imagine saying Allahu Akbar for the 3197th time, clearly, you’re in the realm of pure sonic experience. We know from weeping during Ave Maria or getting hyped for a run listening to the future or whatever that thing is for us, we know that sonic experience carries emotional narrative data. I don’t think that it’s a stretch for any of us to believe that it also carries the psychospiritual data that religion has told us that it carries for, again, millennia. In the beginning was a word. I find myself trying to narrate these thoughts in this way or trying to explain these things in a rational way because I’m so aware that there will be people listening to this who are like, “I’m an agnostic,” or whatever. “This isn’t for me.” I’m as confused as anybody about this stuff but I’m not talking about magic potions and Harry Potter wands and sh*t. Do you know what I mean?
DN: Yes, for sure.
KA: I’m talking about measurable, quantifiable things that happen neurologically. We respond to repetition in a certain way as a species.
DN: Yeah. I connected and I don’t think you explicitly connect these things but I’d love to hear about it anyways. I was thinking of Sufism when you talk about how, for you, poetry moves orbitally rather than linearly. For thinking about the movement of the poem rather than the movement of the body, what does it mean for a poem to move orbitally?
KA: I think that this tends to be the way that art moves in general, at least in the past 100 years since modernism. I think that the days of just rendering with complete accuracy with a painting, a person with no stylized gestures, I don’t know that people have a lot of interest in that since a photograph can do better than what any human being could do. I think that if the aim is pure representation, is pure, pure, pure, this is exactly what it was, photography can do that better than poetry. Film can do that better than poetry. I think what poetry is really good at doing is saying “This is what it was like.” “This is what it was” versus “This is what it was like.” “This is what it was like” tends to move around the “about” a little bit more. It’s the difference between looking at Goya and looking at J. M. W. Turner. One says, “This is what it is.” One says, “This is what it is like.” I think that lyric poetry tends to be more associative. It tends to move more orbitally. If I’m saying I am sad because I broke up, I could write a poem that says, “I am sad because I broke up. I loved her so much and now, she’s gone. It’s so dreary that I’m broken up. It’s so dreary, her being gone. Bear witness to my gloom.” That’s a very narrative and representational way to pass through it. That’s a very linear way to pass through it. Or I can say like, “Today, I woke up and things were going fine. I brushed my teeth. I was looking at my phone, then I went to put on a clean shirt and I saw one of her old hats in the back of the closet. I just started weeping uncontrollably for three hours.” That’s much more orbital. It’s now the hat that we’re not saying like, “Here is what happened, bear witness to my gloom.” It’s now this hat that is acting as the foil for this. Do you see what I’m saying?
KA: That’s like “Forgive my eighth-grade chemistry understanding of the Bohr model of the atom, but if the language is the valences of electrons on the outside, [laughter] then the protons, the neutrons, and the inside are the aboutness of the poem, this is what the poem is “about”. I think that it is often the case in contemporary lyric poetry, that the language is like the electrons moving orbitally around that nucleus without ever passing directly through it. It is from the behavior of the language that you can ascertain the density, the mass, etc. of the nucleus.
DN: I love that. I also love that it’s equally applicable to the solar system.
KA: Yeah, yeah.
DN: As the atom. We get the micro and the macro.
KA: Yeah, exactly. Maybe we’ve just figured out the unified field theory for language or something.
DN: I hope so. Could we hear another poem? Is it too soon?
DN: How about I Wouldn’t Even Know What to Do with A Third Chance?
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called I Wouldn’t Even Know What to Do with A Third Chance]
DN: We’ve been listening to Kaveh Akbar read from Pilgrim Bell. I wanted to take this question around prayer more into the realm of language because some of your exploration of prayer is also not just about potentially communication with silence and with God, but also the different ways you’re engaging with different languages. In your first collection, you have a poem “Do You Speak Persian?” that has the line, “Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify and not diminish wonder?” And the line, “For so long every step I’ve taken has been from one tongue to another.” We know from this collection that only two people in your life could pronounce your name correctly, your parents, because you didn’t grow up in an Iranian-American community. But not only that your first language was Farsi, even though you spoke it only for the first few years of your life. English became your primary language at the expense of Farsi’s initial survival. Finally, the language of prayer, Arabic. You have a relationship to it, which I think a lot of American-Jews, like myself, can relate to with regards to Hebrew, a language you learn to pronounce and sing without necessarily knowing what you’re saying. I have several questions about all of these languages with regards to you as a writer. One of them being, while I imagine there must be or might be pain being dislocated between languages like this, that perhaps none of them are home, I guess I’ve also wondered if you feel like it is an asset, as an art maker, to find oneself at the margins of many languages, and by extension, at the margins of many cultures or nations.
KA: That’s an interesting question. I think that it’s true that the vast majority of art makers throughout history have, in one way or another, perceived themselves to be on the outside looking in somehow, whether through literal social marginalization, through a psychic remove, or any number of reasons. But there’s something that vantage point affords one in the way of a defamiliarist perspective where you can look at the behaviors of a certain population or a certain community with a more objective lens and say, “Oh, that’s really strange that we do that, isn’t it?” That’s really strange that we live after being able to reproduce and we’re alone among all animalia being able to do that. There’s so much that’s really, really strange about us. I’m sure to Jeff Bezos, it seems altogether fitting and proper that Jeff Bezos should have $200 billion, but for those of us who don’t have $200 billion, it seems awfully weird, it seems awfully strange. That’s an extreme example but it’s the principle that I’m describing where if you are, in some way on the outside, looking at what society has deemed inside, you’re able to identify what is strange, what is aberrant, what is idiosyncratic about it a little bit more deftly. I have never felt like I was particularly Iranian. Among Iranians, I can’t really speak the language with these, I’ve never lived there in my adult life and so it feels appropriative to take up space in those spaces. But then I’ve certainly never felt particularly American. I don’t know, that liminality is interesting as an artist. I have other communities to which I belong that I derive a lot of value, identity, and meaning from poets, people in recovery. I have lots of fellows who people my life in both of those communities that are really, really significant to me. I have lots of Iranian friends but again, I’m always a little bit self-conscious about how I’m taking up space in those environments. Then certainly again, in American space, I don’t even know, I guess everything here is an American space and I certainly never feel fully settled there.
DN: I’m also wondering about your non-semantic relationship to Arabic. Obviously, it’s intimately connected to prayer. Do you feel a connection to it with your poetry? The reason I think about it is I think about when you were talking about knocking on the wall to communicate and I’m thinking of Robert Frost and the sense of sound when he talks about hearing two people having a conversation on the other side of the wall and you can’t hear any of the words but you get all of the meaning, and it’s all happening through the music. I don’t know what your semantic relationship to Arabic is, I’m imagining you know Arabic words and their meaning, some of them, but do you see a connection between learning the words in your mouth of this language that bypasses the knowingness of the language?
KA: You touched on it already. The fundamental thing for me was the same thing as I learned Arabic enough to pray when I was very, very young, not unlike a Jewish kid, learning it for his bar mitzvah. I learned it when I was even younger than that. But nobody in my family had identitative understanding of it or a semantic understanding of it. But we could all make the sounds and pray together. We always prayed every night as a family. We compressed all five prayers into one prayer at the end of the day which was like it’s not really a thing but we let it be a thing. Just gathering with my family to speak this secret language that was reserved for God, like you only spoke to God in this language and everything else, of course, that’s going to feel special, sacred, holy, and strange and it was this language that thin the partition between me and the divine, then that wall that we’re talking about. It made the voice on the other side louder. When I was really present for it, because like anything, it could be really rote and it could be really absent. It could be like I’d run out during the commercial and do it as quickly as possible so I could get back to my episode. Like anything, if you’re doing it rotely, it won’t feel like much. But when I was really present and if I spoke it earnestly and mellifluously, then you could feel that something was happening, again, whether that something is like, “Oh, wow, I’m having this communal experience with my family,” or whether there’s a literal bearded man in heaven who’s putting a tally mark.
DN: Or maybe both or neither. [laughs]
KA: Yeah. Either way, you feel something happening, and both of those things are divines. The communal sense that one feels with their family is a divine and then the bearded guy in sandals in heaven is divine. When I say God, both of those things. It’s one of the clumsy catch-all mono syllables that we have in this language.
DN: I wanted to ask you about autobiography with relationship to your work. Your poems seem to draw a lot from lived experience autobiography, or at least, I feel seduced to thinking so. I was thinking about one of the times, again, when I was talking with Mary Ruefle, she was talking about some of her feelings about something and she said, “I feel this is true and I feel that is true,” and then in the middle she stops herself and she says—which I thought was amazing—she’s like, “But I just need to say that when I say ‘I’, I’m not talking about me,” but she doesn’t say who she’s talking about. [laughter] But I’m thinking about when you were writing poems for the movie with Ocean Vuong, The Kindergarten Teacher, obviously that’s a constraint, you’re writing persona poems, trying to imagine yourself into the life of a precocious five-year-old poet, which sounds like so much fun to try to do.
KA: Yeah, and also, sorry I didn’t mean to cut you off, but also just like the constraint of working with only the vocabulary that a five-year-old would know. This five-year-old isn’t going to be like “My identitative understanding of the Bohr model of the atom or whatever I’ve been on about.” To try to craft what sounds like a good, interesting literary poem using only the vernacular native to a five-year-old was a really interesting constraint.
DN: I love it. But it made me wonder about how much or little do you feel persona playing a role in your relationship to the “I” on the page of your poems more generally speaking.
KA: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think that the delta between me and the “I” of my poems is as wide as I’m supposed to say it is. [laughter]
DN: Is there a supposed to? Is it okay if there isn’t any instance?
KA: Yeah. You’re quoting Mary Ruefle. I think she hung the moon. Every smart poet is like “Oh, yeah, no, I’m totally different. I don’t even know that guy.” [laughter] I don’t know, I think I’m just not that imaginative or maybe I’m just too self-obsessed or self-absorbed. I don’t know that I’ve ever written a persona poem. I’m sure that this will come out and someone will be like, “Ah, here’s one,” but I can’t remember a persona poem that I’ve written. “Oh, that’s not true, there’s a… Oh but it’s not in the first person.” There’s a poem that got cut from this book that was about a happy worm that it can’t stop laughing. I really love it actually. I think it might be published somewhere but it’s not in the first person so I guess it’s not a persona poem but it was just my happy worm poem about a worm who couldn’t stop laughing.
DN: We need more happy worm poems I think.
KA: Yeah. That’s what I said, but the wiser people than me who talked to me about such things said that it didn’t fit in the book.
DN: So no God for the title and no happy worm.
KA: Yeah, no God for the title, no happy worm poem.
DN: Wow, who are these editors?
KA: Also, imagine, from the perspective of the people who have to sell a book in order to, whatever.
DN: Totally. I was just joking.
KA: No. I know but I mean, they put in my head the idea of people Googling Kaveh Akbar God. I feel like every time that happens, I’m going to get struck by an olympian thunderbolt or something, so probably best to avoid that.
DN: Let’s hear My Father’s Accent as a lead into some more questions.
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called My Father’s Accent]
DN: We’ve been listening to Kaveh Akbar read from Pilgrim Bell. When you say, “I can’t write this without trying to make it beautiful,” it makes me think a little bit of your discussing the final poem The Palace where you said some of the middle iterations of that poem were much smoother and that Ilya Kaminsky helped you pull it back and make it more hesitant with more of a stammering quality. I guess I wanted to hear a little bit about both the impulse to make something beautiful and maybe symmetrical, maybe smooth and then what does the process look like to pull something back from that and to allow it to stammer and to recognize that it needs to stammer.
KA: Yeah. That’s such a good question and that’s so at the heart of a lot of the work of this book, which is why when I had a finalish version of The Palace, I realized the book was ready. The book really came together once The Palace came together because it showed me the way that the book wanted to sound. There’s this Brian Eno quote that I think about all the time and I talk about it a lot with my students who are probably sick of me talking about it, but he wrote it in his book A Year with Swollen Appendices and he talks about the crack in a blues singer’s voice, if you’re listening to a Sarah Vaughan or whatever record and the voice cracks on the vinyl, he calls that the sound of an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it. I think when I read that the first time, it was like the clouds parted and Gabriel had come through and named this thing that I had been after. I think that a lot of my early, early work had been trying to name experience or trying to create a shrine to experience or psycho spiritual phenomena that was equal in grandeur, scope, magnitude, and weight to the phenomena, which is damned, it’s doomed, you’re never going to do that. It’s like the great Treachery of Images “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” thing. You’re never going to make a poem that equals God, you’re never going to make a poem that equals justice, land, grief, loneliness, or desire. To my mind, there has to be some acknowledgement of the gulf between what is said and what is meant. There has to be some fracture that indicates that the poem is gesturing towards something that it can’t actually reach. The stuttering, staggering effect, The Palace is a poem that came together over the process of years and years. It’s had a billion, trillion forms. It was a PechaKucha at one point, one of those slides. It’s had a million different lives. There was one fateful plane ride that Ilya Kaminsky went on where I had sent a draft to him before he took off and then he landed and sent me what he’d worked on over the plane. It was just so herky-jerky and I was like, “Oh,” he saw the thing that I couldn’t see. The poem is dedicated to him in the book because he saw with clarity the thing that I had been clumsily groping towards but couldn’t actually name or bring into the fore and then I worked on it for another amount of time.
DN: But the paradox seems to be you say you were clumsy before then but in a weird way. I’m not suggesting he’s making the poem more clumsy, but in a way it’s like the answer was to make the language fail more so that the poem works better.
KA: Yeah. I say it in the poem, I want to be Keats. I want to be able to write Ode to a Nightingale. The Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, is one of my favorite writers and in writing about Ode to a Nightingale he said that they didn’t have nightingales in Argentina. He said he’d never heard a nightingale but Keats had heard it for everyone forever. I want to be able to do that. Keats could write an Ode to a Nightingale. Dickinson could write about a bee in a way that felt like you were looking at it. There are these figures throughout history who have just clearly evolved a little bit further along down the line than the rest of us but for us mortals. I don’t mean to cast you into the–
DN: You think I have one of those poems in me? [laughs]
KA: I don’t know.
DN: You never know. [laughs]
KA: For mortals like me, I have to indicate that there’s something that I’m not able to touch with my faculties. As much as I want to be Keats and I want to be able to write the poem that just names the thing and says the thing, I have to come at it in a way that reflects my inability to do so.
DN: I didn’t read the blurb from Hanif Abdurraqib but he said, “Pilgrim Bell is a book that chooses honesty over beauty, which makes it a breathtaking text.” I relate it to this anecdote about The Palace a little bit but also to other things. I want to slowly move us towards revolutionary poetics because I think also of June Jordan in “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth” but do you recognize something about the collection in Hanif’s words that you’ve chosen honesty over beauty?
KA: There are a lot of moments throughout the collection where I leave the ugly thing in. There’s a poem early on that talks about the angel Gabriel whose name has been invoked here. It’s talking about him and then there’s this break where I say, “If he did come back, would I call him Gabriel–” like I am here, “–or Jibril?” But in my in my tradition, in Islam, we don’t call him Gabriel, we call him Jibril. But with a publisher based in Minneapolis for a book written in English to an American audience, I’m writing this word Gabriel. So I say who is this even for? I think that there’s a way in which previous iterations of my poet brain would have just corrected it, maybe I’ll go back and change it all to Jibril and then people can deal with it, or I’d just change it to Gabriel and hope that people didn’t think about it. But the truth is that I’m caught between those things, that I live between those. There’s another poem, one of the last poems that I wrote for this collection called Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic in which I say, “People die because we need mail. People die because we need groceries.” I say “we” because “we” dilutes my responsibility. If I had said “people die because I need mail, people die because I need groceries,” that’s a little bit more damning, but the “we”, again, instead of going back and changing it and editing it to make myself more accountable, I just name it, it’s in the poem where I say “we” because “we” dilutes my responsibility, that’s a line in the poem, which is not a pretty line, it’s not mellifluous, it doesn’t sound nice on the ear, on the tongue. Hanif is such a brilliant reader and a brilliant writer but I think that to the extent that I can name the thing to which he’s pointing, I think it’s that which is instead of going back and editing it one way or the other and correcting myself, more and more, I’m trying to leave those moments in because those moments feel like the actual negotiation that a lot of us spend in capitalism is we’re like marching towards goodness and never actually reaching there and trying to move through the world without harming it under a system that makes that quite literally impossible. I feel like these are the negotiations that are omnipresent. Instead of portraying myself like I live decidedly on one side or the other of it, neither is true. Like anyone else, I’m struggling and marching and struggling and f*cking up and trying to do better.
DN: Maybe as a prelude to us doing a deeper dive into revolutionary poetics, which I want to do, let’s hear the Gabriel “Jibril” poem, The Miracle, which does, as you’ve already evoked, deal with both the unsayable and also with etymology in naming.
KA: Yeah, this is The Miracle.
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called The Miracle]
DN: We’ve been listening to Kaveh Akbar read from Pilgrim Bell. D*mn, I have goosebumps from you reading that poem. Thinking about The Miracle and thinking about what you said earlier, we spent a lot of time talking about God, prayer, and devotion and you had a worry how you are going to be perceived. But I feel like this poem is like a lot of your poems, maybe most of your poems that we get, on the one hand, this person who can only learn to read through having everything that they know of themselves squeezed out of them by an angel by a divine intervention twinned with the aerial bombardment of drones which themselves kill unidentified people. We get this twinning of something about the unknowable and unsayable with something to do with the horrible circumstance we find ourselves in, in some regard. I guess I wanted to use that as an entryway, I know you’ve thought deeply about and taught revolutionary poetics. Maybe just orient us to the notion of it and what makes a poetics revolutionary for you.
KA: Yeah. The title revolutionary poetics is a bit of a misnomer because a lot of my investigations, thinkings, and conversations with my students are around “Does it exist?” “What is revolutionary politics?” It’s not me saying this is revolutionary poetics and let me teach you all. It’s “Let’s try to figure out if this is a thing and what does it mean.” One thing that I think about a lot is that a revolution comes in two parts; there’s the overthrow and the rebuild. Without either of those parts, it’s not a revolution. There has to be something being turned over and then there has to be something being set up in its place. It’s very easy to inhabit the carapace of revolutionary rhetoric without advancing something new. That, in and of itself by definition, isn’t revolutionary because there’s no rebuild. There’s no gesture towards a rebuild. I’ve talked to my students and my friends and the people with whom I’ve had this conversation in these discussions. I think a lot about the physics definition of work which is the force applied to an object in order to move it. If there’s force applied to an object and nothing moves, that’s not work. Similarly, if an object moves but you haven’t applied force to it, then you haven’t done work. If I say to a room full of people who agree with me, “F*ck Trump,” and I say that in a room full of poetry people, probably the majority of them will be like, “Yeah, f*ck Trump.” I haven’t really caused anything to move. I’ve inhabited the form of revolutionary rhetoric but I haven’t actually moved anything. By the physics definition of work, probably that’s not doing much or any work. Similarly, if I’m merely commenting on a movement that I wasn’t a part of, if I’m offering my take or my two cents on a movement that I had no involvement in, that’s not, by the physics definition, an example of work. If revolutionary writing is writing that does work, then it’s really interesting to me to consider the ways that people historically have done that, have attempted to do that. You mentioned June Jordan who very much wrote her poems and then she would go organize. The poems pointed towards and supplemented and scaffolded the organization but they didn’t replace it. Gwendolyn Brooks has, in Annie Allen, a sequence of poems called The Children of the Poor. The second or third poem in that sequence is called First Fight. Then Fiddle, which is four words that so cleanly synopsizes what I’m talking about. You do the work. You do work and then you can fiddle that, then you can write your poetry about it or whatever, but you don’t confuse one for the other. That feels critical to me in my nascent and burgeoning understanding of this idea.
DN: Okay. This seems the perfect time to read the question from Solmaz Sharif for you.
KA: For me?
KA: Oh, this is actually Sol writing to me, okay.
DN: Yeah. She has a question for you directed to this conversation. “What is a poet’s personal responsibility to the world and how has Farrokhzad’s The House Is Black–” which is a film, “–expanded your ideas of intervention and art?”
KA: Oh, my God. Sol, to my mind, is one of those people who’s just evolved a little bit further along down the line than the rest of us mortals. I very, very, very much sit at her feet. She invokes Khaneh Siah Ast which is The House Is Black, this 22-minute short film by Forough Farrokhzad, which is a film that she and I have spent a lot of time talking and thinking about. But this really is the perfect time to talk about it because for those listening who haven’t seen it, Farrokhzad was arguably, to my mind—and I think Sol would probably agree—the most important Iranian poet of the 20th century. In many ways, she paralleled Plath and Sexton as the seminal female poet who was writing about femininity and womanhood in ways that were completely unprecedented in the tradition beforehand. Like them, she also died young so there’s a weird cult fascination with her private life. To my mind, her poems mean more to me personally than Plath’s and Sexton’s whose both poems mean quite a lot to me as well. She’s this major, major poet but she tries her hand in the 60s at filmmaking, she makes a short film and then she helps edit a couple little pieces. Then with her film partner/possibly romantic interest, this guy, Golestan who’s this famous producer, she heads to this leprosarium to make this documentary about the conditions of the people afflicted with leprosy within this leprosarium to raise awareness for it. It was super, super impoverished. She goes there, she doesn’t even film for the first several days that she’s there, she just lives among them. Everyone in her life is advising against her doing this because leprosy is ostensibly a contagious disease, she’s a young woman. She sits with them, she eats meals with them, she kisses the children, then she starts filming. She makes this movie Khaneh Siah Ast which catalyzes Iranian New Wave Cinema which in turn influences Truffaut and Godard in a very direct way, inflects the trajectory of French New Wave Cinema, which as we know, inflects everything else. It expands the aesthetic possibilities of the field of this medium that she’s just dabbling in. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it.
DN: [laughs] I love that you keep showing them to me. I wish people could see them like you keep putting your arm up to the camera, it’s so great.
KA: It’s a binary, it’s like I’m either getting the example but she makes this piece of art that expands the aesthetic possibilities of her field. Also, after she makes it, funds roll into the, it’s called the Baba Baghi leprecerium and funds roll into it. Doctors move there to lend their services. Conditions for the patients improve in material quantifiable ways. Wildly successful in any way that you could define success, whether aesthetic or practically. If this were in America, she would do the lecture circuit or the festival circuit or whatever, go to universities and talk about her experience but what she did was she went back to the leprosarium and she adopted one of the boys, one of the young orphans there. She adopted and raised him as her own. Just talking about it, it’s just so humbling to me. It puts so much in perspective for me when I talk about First Fight. Then Fiddle, it’s like you make the documentary that is a resounding success practically, aesthetically, whatever, that changes the trajectory of global cinema or inflects it in whatever way. Then you also go back and adopt the kid.
DN: Yeah. It’s particularly poignant too if you think that when she published her first published poem, which was against tradition in the sense that it was a woman writing in first person but also writing about an adultery without any shame or regret, so from a place of eros in this adultery, and then she’s so demonized that they end up turning her own child against her and she loses custody of her kid for publishing her poetry. Thinking about her attraction to the leper colony when she, for a while, was a pariah who had to live in another continent and then couldn’t connect to her own child, it feels like– I don’t have the words for it but–
KA: Yeah. Nothing that I’ve done approaches that. I am a tenured professor in the Midwest at a big state college and I am perfectly capable of upending that and throwing myself into the cogs of the apparatus that threatens the living of me and the people that I love and the planet that I live on. But few among us, certainly not me, possess such moral courage and the conviction of her living and the way that she was able to make the art and live the life that reflected the values espoused by her art. Obviously, she’s not the lone example of this so it’s just so endlessly humbling to me and it’s a reminder to me, I write the book about addiction and then I do the work in my recovery communities that I don’t talk about in spaces like these. There’s so much that isn’t this.
DN: Let’s keep in mind the first half of Solmaz’s question, what is a poet’s personal responsibility to the world, but also go back to aesthetics and choices within the writing itself because when you gave one of your revolutionary poetics talks, you did show parts of The House Is Black, the film that we’re talking about, and you just mentioned one way a poem doesn’t do work which is a F*ck Trump poem that does nothing else, that’s not doing work or probably not doing work. But you also said in that talk that you could write a poem about how you were called a slur in eighth grade or how your family received death threats after 9/11. But it feels to you that that poem is one that fits into a way that the state and the powers that be can easily metabolize, that ultimately is a neo-liberal way to feel bad for a moment and one that is legible to the powerful in a way that is not revolutionary. But I’m imagining that there are many poets who want to take the ways that they’ve been marginalized or traumatized and bring them into their poetry but in a way that confronts and unsettles the status quo. If we’re thinking about the responsibility to the world but also maybe the impetus to write comes from this place of being marginalized or traumatized, does this return us to the orbital again? That type of poem, your family received death threats after 9/11, talk to us a little bit about revolutionary poetics in contrast to that.
KA: I think Solmaz is one of the great teachers in this way because her work really resists the easy narratives of poor Solmaz, of poor Kaveh, people are calling me names. The racism that we experience in childhood, the xenophobia that we experience in childhood, has long, long, long repercussions and roots. I don’t mean to diminish that in any way, of course. But what I am saying is that that’s a narrative that Empire has already metabolized for itself and it is one way that Empire uses to vent a neoliberal guilt, which is to say I sit and experience this cud that’s already been chewed for me, this thought has already been chewed, I already know that it’s bad to call a little Muslim kid this name. If I read a narrative about that, all I have to do is swallow the cud. Then for having swallowed it, I get to feel a little bit good about myself or feeling a little bit bad. It’s this neoliberal inoculation against actually participating in one’s own accountability. The narrative in “I’m poor little Kaveh” who is being maligned by this big mean country has been very, very true, very literally true. I just came back into the country from out of the country and every single time I’ve ever come into the country from out of the country, I’ve always been detained by the TSA for some amount of time, every single time in my life without fail. But I’ll never put that in a poem because if I say TSA in a poem, suddenly people’s minds click into, “Oh, he had a hard time with TSA, I know how I’m supposed to feel about that, and now I get my gold liberal star for the day for feeling a little bit bad and I also get to feel good because I wasn’t the literal TSA agent who put him through that. I wasn’t literally the one who did that to him.” Whereas they actually are. And so am I, not for nothing, my mind has been colonized by the same thinking. The poems, I think that what I am aspiring towards is something more like “I’m f*cked, and so are you” versus “You’re f*cked, and aren’t you glad that I’m here to tell you about it?” Does that make sense?
DN: It does make sense. Since you mentioned Gwendolyn Brooks and her work, both in poetry and in the world, and then we talked about Farrokhzad in that regard, maybe it would be good to hear Against the Parts of Me That Think They Know Anything which has a formal nod to Gwendolyn Brooks, which maybe you can explain through a lineage of Terrance Hayes and then Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic afterwards.
KA: Sure. Against the Parts of Me That Think They Know Anything is in the form of The Golden Shovel, which is a form invented by Terrance Hayes paying homage to Gwendolyn Brooks, in which a line of typically a Gwendolyn Brooks poem runs down the right margin of the poem and so each line will end with a word and then when you read those words down the margin, it will form a line from a Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem. In the case of this poem, it takes a line from the Quran “They want to put out the light of God with their mouths,” and runs it up the right margin and then down the left margin with a couple little variations on the left margin like they want to become today. It’s still there, it’s just stretch putty, grammatically, there’s no way to go with put, there’s no in the English language, you can’t ever have a sentence that says “with put” and so I had to be a little bit clever with that. This line from the Quran “They want to put out the light of God with their mouths,” runs up the right margin of this poem and down the left which is a little nod to Terrance and Gwendolyn. It’s not one of these poems that’s like, “Look at me, I’m a golden shovel,” it doesn’t call itself that or anything but I’m glad that you noticed because it’s one of those things, one of those little secret Easter eggs in the book.
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called Against the Parts of Me That Think They Know Anything]
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic]
DN: We’ve been listening to Kaveh Akbar read from Pilgrim Bell. When I think of that line “I want both my countries to fear me” and also a line from The Palace that comes from Walter Benjamin: “Any document of civilization is also a document of barbarism,” I wanted to ask you about form in relationship to revolutionary poetics because I’m thinking about what you said about Brian Eno about extending beyond the capacity of what the form can hold in seeking that in one’s poetics. But also I think of Solmaz Sharif who approaches form as emblematic of power itself, this form is the establishment as something to work against an undercut. For instance, she’ll write in syllabics which is not something that people typically do in English, and it works against maybe English’s strengths. Do you see form that way or even perhaps the languages or language that you are writing within with all of its histories? Do you see yourself working against the container and against forms received?
KA: There’s always that friction and there’s always that gulf between how I’m able to say something and the platonic ideal of how to say that thing that would result in people taking the action, or me taking the action, that the language is calling or gesturing toward. I think that the interesting thing is shooting the spark across that synapse and then its moving across the synapse is what causes it to illume. We’ve talked about Borges in this conversation. He’s one of my guys, I end up talking about him a lot, but he talks about how Kafka influenced Cervantes even though Kafka lived centuries after Cervantes because if you read, I literally did, I read The Metamorphosis in my life before I ever had Don Quixote. Kafka, indelibly, influenced my reading of Cervantes. Kafka influenced Cervantes for me. I think in Empire, I heard this thing the other day that the average person sees, however many number of thousands of advertisements a day, thousands and thousands and thousands of advertisements a day. That’s inflecting us. That’s not inert. That’s a form and that influences the way that I read the Psalms in a totally unprecedented way. No one has ever read the Psalms and known about the ads that were on during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Those ads have changed the way that I read Song of Solomon or Bhagavad Gita. All of these texts that have been around for centuries or millennia, I have a unique relationship to them. When I read them and when my own unprecedented singular voice becomes inflected by them, it’s also being inflected by all of that other stuff. I don’t know that it is so conscious as I sit down. There are a couple poems in my first book in syllabics. I don’t know that it is ever so conscious as I sit down and I’m like, “You know what, I’ll really stick it to the man as if I write a villanelle.” I don’t know that it’s ever so linear as that but certainly, all of these things are being inflected by this unprecedented array of empires’ corrosive tendrils.
DN: Yeah. Of course, I’m not suggesting it’s linear for Solmaz either but I wonder about having that orientation and stance going in, like thinking, “Okay, I’m questioning the very thing that I’m using, as I’m using it seems like a really wild place to be.”
KA: Yeah. She’s just such an extraordinary writer. I think that people talk a lot about how potent the social content of her work is. But just at the level of line, at the level of image, she’s just such an extraordinary strange singular writer. The new poems that she has coming out in this book that will be out next year, I so sit at her feet.
DN: Yeah. I can’t wait for that collection too. Just to circle us back as we come into a close up to the beginning, uniting again revolutionary writing to some of the questions that we were talking about prayer and devotion and the names of the great silence, you’ve said that an essential quality of revolutionary writing is the miraculous and you’ve quoted Hannah Arendt who said, “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.” I didn’t know if you had any thoughts on the miraculous, but either way, I was curious if it’s too early to know what the horizon looks like for you, the new for you in terms of having brought this to an aesthetic resolution, this collection, and releasing it out into the world, what desire or curiosity does it leave you with having that departing the nest?
KA: Yeah. I love that Hannah Arendt moment so much. You said aesthetic resolution which is a really interesting idea. I’m thinking of the abstract expression as painter Philip Guston said, that he knew a painting was done when any additional brush stroke would be perceived by the viewer to be a diminishment of the instigating intensity. That’s, to the extent, I feel like Pilgrim Bell is done, it’s to that extent where if I keep messing with it, it’s going to ruin it, it’s going to make it worse, which isn’t to say that it’s done, it’s just that it’s as done as I’m capable of getting it, which is I’m just thinking out loud but that idea of aesthetic resolution made me, resolution is a funny word.
DN: I can take it back.
KA: No, no, no.
DN: I don’t even necessarily mean it.
KA: As you said it, I’m grateful for it. It made me think, “Do I feel aesthetically resolved about this book?” What’s new appearing in the guise with the miraculous against all, anything that you make, this podcast, had you not organized it, would have never existed. This conversation that we’re having, had you not made it happen, this would have never existed in all time, had you not rung it out of the ether. That is miraculous. I guess I’m permeable to the presence of things being miraculous. I’m painting a lot. I’m reading a novel every day or two. I just have an IV drip of them. I’m reading a lot about the lives of painters. I’m in this funny visual art moment. I’m not a particularly talented or adept visual artist. My spouse is an incredible painter and can actually both paint things that look the way that they look and also just be really creative and interesting. I like physically the feeling, it’s much more a physiological phenomenon for me than it is aesthetic. Ellen Bryant Voigt, to take us back to the very beginning of this conversation, talks about how a snake needs to recoil in order to strike, which I guess in this metaphor, I’m the striking snake which makes me a little bit uncomfortable. You know what I’m saying.
DN: Yeah, for sure.
KA: I’m not writing poems right now and it feels fine that I’m not.
DN: Let’s go out with two more short poems that have been aesthetically resolved. [laughter]
KA: Okay. I’ll be the judge of that.
DN: [laughs] Yeah, how about There is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit and then we’ll go out with An Oversight?
KA: Yeah. Interesting. You’re picking really interesting poems. The Miracle, I read sometimes, but a lot of these are not poems that I find myself reading out loud very often.
DN: You can push back too if you want to.
KA: No, I actually really like it.
DN: Okay, as long as you do.
KA: It’s really interesting to me to see which poems you’re drawn to and how you’re building this set or this playlist, it’s cool.
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called There is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit]
[Kaveh Akbar reads a poem called An Oversight]
DN: Thank you so much for today.
KA: Yeah. Thank you so much, David. Thank you for spending such good and substantive time with the work. I’m grateful for that and I’m grateful for the time that we’ll get to spend together in the future, hopefully.
DN: Yeah, me too. We’ve been talking today to Kaveh Akbar about his latest book, Pilgrim Bell from Graywolf Press. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Kaveh Akbar’s work can be found at kavehakbar.com. For the bonus audio, Kaveh Akbar adds a reading and discussion of his poem, In Praise of the Laughing Worm, the very same poem that we discussed today that he loves and which will steal your heart, but which didn’t quite fit in Pilgrim Bell. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Ted Chiang, Layli Long Soldier, Richard Powers, Joe Sacco, N. K. Jemisin, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team who help make this show run as smoothly as it does: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.