Why I Chose Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


When I read one of Kaveh Akbar’s poems, I often find myself entranced by the beauty of his lines and marveling at how both the lines and the poems contain incredible strength in seeming delicacy. They’re like spider webs in that way. But unlike an insect struggling to break free of certain doom, I find myself wanting to wrap myself in further and drink in these poems.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Calling a Wolf a Wolf, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Kaveh Akbar, you’ll need to to subscribe by August 20!

I use the word “drink” there cautiously, since one of the themes of this book is Akbar’s struggle with alcoholism. Many of the poems in this collection were included in the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic released earlier this year and they engage directly with Akbar’s movement through recovery. In the poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober” he writes:

So trust me now: when I say thirst, I mean defeated,
abandoned-in-faith, lonely-as-the-slow-charge-into-a-bayonet
thirst. Imagine being the sand forced to watch silt dance
in the Nile. Imagine being the oil boiling away an entire person.
Today, I’m finding problems in areas where I didn’t have areas before.

It’s the way Akbar bares himself without asking for condolence or commiseration that appeals most to me. He’s not asking you to be defeated with him—he’s just living this moment in your line of sight—but that’s still intimate.

Take a look at this excerpt from an interview with Christian Arthur at The Fix:

Because the American recovery movement, that originated in the late-1800s, began in missions that incorporated Christianity, the Christian god frequents the addiction literature, which there isn’t a lot of, anyway. But Allah is in your poetry, and reading it was new for me, because I haven’t encountered this facet of addiction literature. Was creating this chapbook a sort of creating of new space?

Well, the Muslim Allah is the same God as the one in Judaism and Christianity. So it’s not that different an experience. But it’s true, I’d not encountered many recovery narratives from this particular vantage point either. I talked to the poet Vijay Seshadri for Divedapper, and I remember him saying poetry was this place where you can chronicle your unprecedented experience. There have been plenty of Muslim alcoholic-addicts throughout history. In Islam there is a long tradition of drunkenness as metaphor, which Kazim alludes to on the back of my book. And among the great Sufi poets there is a lot of drunkenness as metaphor. But I agree with you. In reading a lot of the literature on addiction, I’ve found there isn’t a lot of writing from contemporary Muslim writers on this topic. I think there is a way in which you write the book you need to read, and this is the book I needed to read.

Maybe I’m cheating a little here, but this? This is a huge reason why I chose this book for the Poetry Book Club. Because it integrates so many aspects of a human life. Because I want to read the “unprecedented experience.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is the kind of book that wouldn’t have been published fifteen years ago, much less fifty. We’re lucky to have it now.

Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by August 20, get your copy of Calling a Wolf a Wolf before anyone else, and participate in our exclusive chat with Kaveh about the collection!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →