Kaveh Akbar: an Interview with a Transcendent American Poet

Kaveh Akbar by Hieu Minh Nguyen

photo credit: Hieu Minh Nguyen

An interview by Nishat Ahmed – Barely South Review Poetry Editor

As per usual, another day of rain presents itself upon the campus of Old Dominion University. Despite the waterlogged sidewalks and sideways torrents, I can see Kaveh Akbar making his way towards Borjo Coffeehouse, the unofficial haven for most of the writers at ODU. He waves and smiles at me as he enters, then points to the register to indicate he will be grabbing some food before we sit down to chat. As one of the esteemed reader’s at Old Dominion University’s 41st Annual Literary Festival, and as the Edith and Forrest P. White Writer in Residence for the creative writing Master of Fine Arts program, Kaveh has his foot in many doors during his short visit to the Hampton Roads Area. He makes his way over to a table I’ve grabbed in the corner, and before even sitting, graciously offers me a bite of his food and sip from his smoothie.


Nishat Ahmed for Barely South Review: Thank you very much, but I’ve already eaten and I know you’re busy, so why don’t we just jump into it?

Kaveh Akbar: Yes, sure, let’s do it!

BSR: So I have some leading questions but feel free to take this wherever you’d like to go. The first place I like to start anywhere with anyone when talking about poems is to ask, what defines a poem for you?

KA: Yeah, so Mary Leader, the poet Mary Leader, says that ‘a poem is a thing’ and  I think any definition that gets narrower starts to exclude people. If you call it a poem it gets to be a poem. You know, if you give me a bag of dogshit and call it a poem, it gets to be a poem. It might not be the most interesting poem, or the best poem, but it gets to be a poem. Any narrower definition than ‘a poem is a thing’ just doesn’t work.

BSR: I love that, but to pursue this bag of dogshit idea, you just said that it might be the best poem or the most interesting poem. It makes me wonder about what some folks might call ‘insta poetry’ or ‘pop poetry,’ and there’s been a lot of debate on if these are good poems or bad poems. I think that debate maybe doesn’t serve much, but maybe, what is the function of that in the larger scheme of poetry for the masses?

KA: What is the function of ‘insta poetry’?

BSR: Yeah, what does it do for us?

KA: Yeah, I mean, you know, I’m not offended by the existence of poetry that wouldn’t get published by The New Yorker. I think a healthy poetry ecosystem requires all kinds of poetry: it requires Wallace Stevens and Gwendolyn Brooks and it also requires Rupi Kaur, you know what I mean? It wouldn’t be my desert island book of poems, Milk and Honey, but I’m not offended by it.

BSR: What would be your desert island book of poems? Loaded question, I know.

KA: That is such a huge question, but I’d say Spacestruck by transcendent American poet, Paige Lewis.

BSR: Wonderful answer! So, people know you as the poetry curator whether it’s Divedapper or just on twitter. I, myself, have found so many poems through you and it’s been a way to access the poetic world. Before coming here, I had never really engaged with written poetry, only the spoken word, but I was at least invested in the written word—

KA: You’re a wonderful reader of your work, and it’s evident you’ve had practice with that.

BSR: Thank you, it’s something I always enjoyed, but how do you engage with folks that think poetry is too scary or large for them, for those that think poetry is too hard to read or write; how do you make it accessible to them? Because it is a genre that is so vast and large.

KA: Yeah, I think a lot of that is rooted in the fact that poetry is often taught to people backwards, which is to say you give someone Chaucer or Shakespeare, or you give then, you know, Yeats, first—

BSR: That’s exactly how it was for me!

KA: And I love all these poets! I love them very much, but I think it might work better for people to begin with poets speaking in their own idiom, speaking in a way that doesn’t require changing their understanding of the basic language they’re working. Like if you gave someone a Hanif Abdurraqib poem or an Angel Nafis poem or a Javier Zamora poem, or play them a reading, they’re gonna be affected by it. We respond to rhythm, we respond to music and cadence as a species. It’s gonna affect people. I think that is a good way to do it. To just come into it and meet people where they are instead of where they’re sort of supposed to be according to this weird antiquated notion of… you know what I mean?

BSR: Yeah like that we’re here near the ground and poetry is kinda above us all?

KA: Yes, yeah exactly.

BSR: So a question I had earlier this week that I didn’t get to ask after your wonderful craft talk on ‘bewilderment,’ which was probably the most exciting and intelligent, and also most whimsical talk I have ever had the pleasure of sitting through, was, to you, are there levels of bewilderment? Does the rain falling have the same level of wonder as, say, a meteor shower? Or are you always in wonder of things small and grand that you don’t care to measure?

KA: It’s hard to quantify something like that, you know? If you look at anything for long enough, it becomes pretty astonishing whether it’s big or small. I have a friend who is really into meditation and something he does is just go into his car and sit there for a few minutes and just imagines the person putting on the dial in his radio or the person that put the carpet under his feet and there’s someone who checked the upholstery of the seat, and just moving through each of these things and feeling gratitude for these people. And I think you can do that with just about anything in this world. I don’t know that big or small is how I think about it, I just think that everything is an occasion for wonder if you look closely enough and sustain your focus.

BSR: Wow, that is just beautiful. No grander way to have said it. But how does one distance themselves from events or trauma in the world, whether to them or around them, that aim to maybe take away this sense of wonder and beauty that is around us but we just fail to make the time for it, or notice it, because so much else is happening. Especially in this digital age where our phone is always buzzing? Cause there’s no end to it. How does one make room for that?

KA: Hmm. You’re using the terms wonder and beauty interchangeably, and I’m not sure I would make that equivalency. In my talk I showed that poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” and that’s not a poem about beauty, necessarily, but it is a poem that is sincerely invested in wonder. Poet Russel Edson says ‘poems in praise of the current situation are written by prayer writers who think themselves a spot in heaven,’ and I don’t necessarily agree with that because you can write a beautiful love poem praising your current situation, but I think that you look at a book like Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and I think that’s a book that incredibly political and angry and pointed, but it’s also full of wonder and bewilderment. She’s saying that it’s very, very strange that people can know about this and not be up in arms about it. So I think that it comes in that way, you know what I mean?

BSR: I get you. So I know you do a bunch of work in the poetic court, but I also know you’re an avid fan of the basketball court. So I have to know, who is the greatest basketball player of all time?

KA: Giannis Antetokounmpo! No no no, I mean, it’s Jordan.

BSR: You think so? In the Jordan-Lebron debate, you’re a Jordan fan? I mean there’s many factors to consider, I’m sure.

KA: It depends on how you define ‘greatness.’ Jordan at his peak was a better player than Lebron, but Lebron has a longer… well, do you want someone playing at an 11 for ten years? Or someone playing a 10 for fifteen years? This is the fundamental debate. I’m making these numbers up of course, but if someone can play at a 10 for fifteen years, does that make them a greater player than someone who plays at an 11 for ten? You know what I mean? The way that Lebron can win the debate is through his longevity.

BSR: I can respect that.

KA: Oscar Robertson, I think, is the most underrated player. Dude, he was averaging triple-doubles before there was a three-point line. He had a season where he averaged a triple-double, and this was before three-pointers were bouncing back to the guards. The only reason Westbrook did it because his team was built for him to do that. You need to go watch some Westbrook highlight reels.

BSR: You ever see that Jordan one of his top fifty plays on Youtube? I watch that religiously almost every month. I was three in the ’96-’97 season, and my parents took me and I can’t remember anything of it, but once we get to the tools to go back into our memories from childhood, I’m just gonna watch that forever and ever.

KA: Do you watch Black Mirror? It reminded me of that episode, “The Entire History of You.”

BSR: Yes! I love that show so much, and it definitely has shown me some of the dangers of tech. If I could dive into your history a little bit actually, in Calling A Wolf A Wolf, you talk about many aspects of faith and Islam, and I was just curious 1. What did faith meant to you then? 2. How since the writing of the book how has it evolved, or has it? And also I’m just curious, if it’s not too personal, how it was in your younger days?

KA: No, not at all. You get this, but there’s a way in which you tell people you were raised Muslim, um, that they kinda just assume you came out of the womb holding a Q’uran with a full beard. And like, yeah, we were Muslim, but we weren’t Muslim in the way that people have in their heads. We were Muslim the way that a Christian family who goes to church on Easter were Christian, you know what I mean?

BSR: Yeah like, it’s on the tongue but it’s not part of the body yet.

KA: Yeah like my mom read the Q’uran every night but my dad didn’t. They ate pork but mostly avoided, but sometimes they really wanted, [laughs] you know how it is? We prayed everyday, but we would consolidate and do all five at the end of the day, so it was this weird sort of secular-American take on Islam.

BSR: Yeah I definitely get that because it was weird for me since my parents weren’t religious—

KA: Where’d you grow up?

BSR: I grew up in Chicago and the suburbs of Chicago, and my mom’s mom lived with us, and she;s very devout and kind of bummed I’m not marrying someone of the faith.

KA: Have you seen The Big Sick?

BSR: Oh my god, yes, Kumail nailed it with that one. I love that movie so much. But yeah it was so weird because I had to go to Arabic school and learn this language I couldn’t understand, but was reading to gain penance to get to this place I didn’t know existed.

KA: Yeah! I was praying in Arabic and had no idea what any of it meant.

BSR: To this day I couldn’t tell you most of it. But yeah it was frustrating having to pray and my friends out playing basketball. At this point my view on faith is different, and really what it comes down to, for me, is the line “God is love.” It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

KA: It’s interesting trying to decide what is literal and what is metaphor when it comes to religion, but I have a hard time believing that hell is a place where anyone can go for some sort of clerical error in their living.

BSR: Yeah, why make a thing and give it the ability to do anything it wants, and then punish it? It seems paradoxical. Which brings me, actually, to the paradoxes in your book, maybe not paradoxes, but infinite cycles. I’m thinking specifically about how you end the whole book by saying “I am building a boat that will never be finished,” and I wonder how that has evolved for you. Cause my friend saw that line as recovery, and how it’s a constant processes. And I love how that line feels like overcoming and yet still finding struggle within that. And so, how does one find peace in rooting themselves in a process that is forever almost? Like how do you keep finding the will to keep doing that?

KA: Yeah, I mean, it’s the work that makes it holy. It’s the striving that makes you. That’s the whole prodigal son narrative, it’s about that idea. It’s not that you’ve been empirically good your whole life and that makes you good, or that you were born good that makes you good, it’s that you work really, really hard and that work is what makes you good. Which is, I guess is a very, sort of, late capitalist way of thinking about it [laughs] um, but I am not by nature a person that I would respect. And so, I constantly have to intervene against my self-will. And that work gets better, I get better tricks for figuring out how to do it and managing it, but broadly speaking, but that will by work because my body wants to kill me, my brain wants to kill me. My brain is the organ that controls my thinking and speech and my breathing and the contractions of intestinal muscles: it’s a powerful motherfucker. And who the fuck am I to…I’m not powerful enough to fix it forever but I’m powerful enough to do a little bit minute to minute, hour to hour, day by day.

BSR: I think that so many people need to hear that, to know that the work is hard, but possible. Kaveh, thank you so much for your time, your grace, your presence, your words.

KA: Thank you, Nish, this conversation has been a true honor.

Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, Paris Review, The Nation, Best American Poetry, The New Republic, The Guardian, American Poetry Review, The Poetry Review, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. His debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is out with Alice James in the US and Penguin in the UK, and his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press. The recipient of honors including a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, the Levis Reading Prize, and a Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University and in the low residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.

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