Kaveh Akbar: “Bewilderment is at the Core of Every Great Poem”
The Calling a Wolf a Wolf Poet on Wonder, Addiction, and Pronoia
“I was not a good person,” Kaveh Akbar tells me. Though it’s the province of his work––in his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and his debut collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, both released this year––it’s hard to imagine the charming voice at the other end of the line belonging to someone in the throes of the “deeply miserable” life he speaks to in his poems. Among their myriad themes are the inherently paradoxical nature of being a grateful, recovering, sober alcoholic. Writing these poems, which Akbar calls his “fundamental bedrock,” has earned him a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.
Akbar and I first met earlier this summer at a poetry reading of his in New York City, where he shared the bill with several poets including Kazim Ali. “That’s big brother for me,” Akbar says over the phone in October. He continues, “Kazim was, I think, the first American poet I knew who was writing about Islam; who was writing about being interested, and in love with, Islam in ways that were complicated by his identity and experience. That’s very much a lodestar for me. Zeina Hashem Beck is another poet who I love for a lot of those same reasons.”
These references to fellow poets, and specifically these expressions of taking care with their work, come up often in conversation with Akbar. Fittingly, part of his new life is built on communing with other major voices in contemporary poetry, as the founding editor of his interview project Divedapper. He tells me that for the site’s interviews, which he aims to publish approximately every other Monday, he doesn’t often prepare formal questions. He explains his belief that, “It’s just conversation, and that’s all I ever really want. You and I are just having a conversation right now. You have these really intensely insightful questions prepared, but they’re based on your having spent time a lot of time with my words, both in my book and other interviews I’ve done. That is very much spending a lot of time with a person.”
The results of our conversation include reflections on humility, discomfort, memory, and having a sense of humor in your work.
Thora Siemsen: Your chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and your debut collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, both came out in 2017, which has been a really big year for you. In your poem, “Being In This World Makes Me Feel Like a Time Traveler,” you write, “It’s exhausting, remaining humble amidst the vicissitudes of fortune.” What are some ways that you practice humility?
Kaveh Akbar: The chapbook and the full length book both explore a time in my life in which I was living alone in an empty house with broken windows that was freezing cold, with no one in the world who really knew anything about what I was doing on a day-to-day basis, and that’s how I liked it. The only thing in the house was a disgusting mattress. The books both chronicle the movement from that life into a life in which people look me in the eyes when they talk to me. I have jobs, friends, and family who rely on me. All of this is just four years and some change removed from that other life. It’s difficult to get too big of a head about anything, when it seems in many ways like very, very recent history that I was this completely different person.
TS: When we first met, you introduced me to this neologism called pronoia, which is the opposite state of mind to paranoia, where one believes there exists a conspiracy in place to help them. It seems to be a driving force in your mindset. When did you discover this term, and how has it affected you?
KA: I read it somewhere, and I should know to be able to reference it, but I internalized it so deeply since then that it just sort of feels like any other word. It’s one of those things that once you know about it, once you are thinking about it, just appears everywhere. Once it had a name, I started seeing pronoia in action all over the place. I started seeing the universe as a benevolent actor in my life and in the lives of people around me. I’ve found pronoia to be much more representative of my experience of life on Earth than paranoia. I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of cosmic benevolence. There were a lot of places where my life could’ve taken a very different turn that had nothing to do with me making the right decision. Very often, I made the worst decision, and still somehow got away with it. My being here, talking to you about poems, in my apartment on a Wednesday morning, is pronoia in action.
I was actually talking with my graduate workshop yesterday about how an orientation towards wonder, as a poet, is absolutely necessary. I really do sincerely feel that bewilderment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder. You absolutely have to be permeable to wonder. Maintaining an orientation towards wonder in a time where the government is conspiring against it, in a time where black people are being murdered at the hands of the state, in a time when the Earth is very much trying to warn us about what we’re doing to it, maintaining an orientation towards wonder becomes really difficult. It’s the work that I have to do every day, the work of trying to find sources of wonder, even in our sadness and loneliness, or even in our anger. There are ways to be both angry and full of wonder at the same time. I think Solmaz Sharif’s Look is a great example of a book both bewildered and angry. I think that orientation towards wonder is really vital to our fellowship of writers, and I also think it’s a lot of work. It’s not passive, especially not now.
TS: In an interview with The Adroit Journal, you mentioned your MFA thesis advisor joked that you write “sex poems, god poems, and addiction poems,” and you conceded that, “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.” If you had to name the topics that you think row upstream in your poetry, what would they be?
KA: I try to allow myself to be as unpartitioned as possible when I sit down to write, which is to say I try not to wall off some section of my psychic life, or some section of my identity from the poems, because poems are a site of meaning-making for me, and a site where I very much go to learn to love and forgive myself. It would be less effective to me, in those ways, if I was walling off part of myself. I think that whatever is native to me is native to the poems, too. One thing that is not necessarily organic to my experience of the world anymore is anger. I see things that I think should make me angry in the world, and I think that they tend to just make me deeply sad instead. A lot of the times anger, both in my life and in my poems, immediately transforms into sadness and loneliness.
I write a lot, and I write a lot that I don’t publish, and that I never even send out. I’m pretty forgiving of things that come out in my poems. I give discomfort a pretty long leash, because I know I don’t have to show anyone.
TS: Fanny Howe’s quote, “The evidence of a successful miracle is the return of hunger,” appears in both books. How has your relationship to hunger changed as you’ve sublimated certain addictive drives into writing?
KA: The further I move into my recovery from addiction, the less it has to do with abstinence; the less it has to do with white-knuckle avoiding narcotics, or alcohol, and the more it has to do with repairing the kind of psychological and cosmological rot underneath. There is a huge chunk of my brain that will always pass a liquor store and be like, you know what you could do? That’s a kind of hunger, the hunger of my disease just doing push-ups and getting stronger while my higher brain tries to distract itself. I have other hungers today that I didn’t have before. I have hunger for poetry. I have hunger to talk to people as often as I can about poems and to engage people deeply about poem. To get to be of service to poetry as much as I can in this life.
TS: You’re currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in English at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. Are there particular tropes of the Midwest that interest you?
KA: I largely grew up in the Midwest. I was born in Iran, and then I moved to Pennsylvania and then to Jersey. But from age 5 to 24, I was in the Midwest, around Milwaukee, around Indiana. It’s a comfortable place for me. I love Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee. To the extent that anywhere feels like home to me, the Midwest feels like home.
TS: Are there literature touchstones or a poetics that you could ascribe to the region that particularly resonate?
I think there is a kind of disposition native to the Midwest that has to do with humility. To the extent that you could pass the tarp over the entirety of Midwestern literature, which is of course a fool’s errand and impossible, I think that one would have to talk about modesty, a kind of quietness, a willingness to listen.
TS: You’ve written previously for Lit Hub––in a September craft essay called, “How I Found Poetry in Childhood Prayer”––about how prayer was your first experience with “mellifluous charged language.” How often are you able to contextualize your practice like that?
KA: There’s very little partition for me between my spiritual life and my writing life. The two seem inextricably linked to me. For that essay, I really sat down and thought about it and tried to wrap language around this amorphous phenomenon that I felt for a long time but have never really articulated. A lot of it is sort of implicit to my experience of the thing more than a conscious deliberate practice. The process of learning to love myself was a process of learning to forgive the myriad crimes I committed against myself—and against the world and cosmos around me—when I was in active addiction. Part of that process of repair is repairing my spiritual and cosmological relationships, and that’s very much ongoing. That’s not something that’s been resolved.
“The process of learning to love myself was a process of learning to forgive the myriad crimes I committed against myself when I was in active addiction.”
TS: The title of your poem, “Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood,” is based on a Persian storytelling phrase, which roughly translates to “there was one, and there was no-one.” How does that device function in your memory, and in how you write?
So much of the book is about the unreliability of memory, and the unreliability of my specific memory, given that my entire adult life up until writing the book was spent in this narcotic fugue. There are weeks, and months of my life, semesters of school, that I don’t remember at all. There are entire relationships that I’ve had with poets that I don’t recall at all. I did this thing a couple years ago where I went through my email. I’ve had the same Gmail account since I was 17 or something like that. I went through all of it and archived. I was one of those people that never archived emails, I just had 20,000 emails in my inbox or whatever. That process was so revelatory to me. There were whole episodes, whole adventures that I went on, that I had no recollection of.
What does it mean that a person inhabited this body, and had lived experience in it, and I don’t have any data from those experiences? I don’t have any record of those experiences in my neural network. They’re just gone. The body just moved through them, without the person that I am now, who is renting this body from that person. It’s a deeply strange thing. I could write every poem that I write for the rest of my life about that one thing, and not exhaust my curiosity about it.
TS: There’s a self-awareness to the title of your poem, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before.” How do you think your sense of humor finds its way into your work?
KA: My friend Max Ritvo used to talk a lot about how humor isn’t a deflection; it’s a kind of wisdom. Humor is a way to defamiliarize experience, just like a poem. What a poem does is makes what is familiar to us feel new again, and that’s what a stand-up comedian does too, right? A stand-up comedian says, you know, this thing that you do every day that feels very normal and mundane to you is, in fact, actually absurd. That’s what a poem is doing. I think humor is native to poetry and probably a closer cousin to poetry than even prose or non-fiction, because of that core impulse.
With respect to that specific poem, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before,” it goes back into that idea of the unreliable narrator, and the skepticism of memory that I have as my default now. I never know what anecdotes I’ve told someone before, and what anecdotes I haven’t. I never know what a given person knows about me, and doesn’t know about me. That poem is very much about the aftermath of sobriety.
TS: The last poem in your collection is “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island.” What are some things you’d be relieved to not have with you on a desert island?
KA: I would be deeply relieved to not have cable news on a desert island. I don’t have it at my house, but I’m in airports all the time, and even just sort of passively having it in the air really fucks with me. I hear it and I instantaneously get so sad and closed off. They could be saying stuff that I agree with, but as an institution it only exists to incite anger, which seems like such a dark, sith lord reason for something to exist. There are news sources that I trust and rely upon, but the sort of rhetoric and tonality of cable news absolutely wrecks me in the most deep, cellular way. That would be one thing I’d be very grateful not to have. I guess not being around drugs and alcohol and the possibility of relapse all the time would also be a bit of a relief.