The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kaveh Akbar about his new collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf, finding community in poetry, books on craft, and mining the supernatural for poems.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears,
Brian S: Are you doing a lot of readings for the book? You always seem to be on the road according to your Twitter feed.
Kaveh Akbar: Hah! I’m certainly doing a lot of readings by my standards—which is to say, I wasn’t doing any readings at all like, eighteen months ago. My weeks tend to be teaching Monday through Thursday, then hopping about to read on the weekends. My genius manager, Tabia, keeps me busy.
That is to say, she is a genius and a manager. She is not a manager of genius. I mean, she is. But not mine. I AM NOT CALLING MYSELF A GENIUS. Goodness. Can I start over? Hi, I’m Kaveh Akbar.
Brian S: Genius Manager does sound like someone who Oscar Wilde would hire.
failkid: Kaveh, your tweets & interviews frequently invoke/address the state of being a big-P Poet. Aside from the obvious (a poet is someone who writes poetry), what would you say does distinguish poets from other writers? From another angle, what does poetry do that no other medium does (well)?
Kaveh Akbar: Re: what distinguishes poets from other writers, one thing I’d mention (and this isn’t THE thing, but it is a thing, an attractive ((to me)) thing) is a sense of community. I never hear novelists talking about their community, or memoirists talking about their community, but poets are constantly discussing citizenship, community-building, always finding ways to up each other. I find that infinitely fascinating, and also maybe a recent phenomenon, generationally speaking.
Donna Vorreyer: Hi, Kaveh! Would love to hear your recommendations for books on craft—I am a non-MFA poet and always want to learn something new.
Kaveh Akbar: Ooo, Donna! The greatest book on craft ever written (and I’m 100% confident in saying this) is Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. The secret is that it’s not really a book on craft. But it is. But not really. I recommend it to everyone, not just poets. But especially to poets.
Donna Vorreyer: Madness, Rack, and Honey is well dog-eared! I reread it at least three times a year. Any that I may not be familiar with?
Kaveh Akbar: William Packard was (and in many ways still is) my editorial hero growing up. His collection of old NYQ interviews, and his craft book (The Art of Poetry Writing) were huge for me. I’ve been reading Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town of late. Louise Glück’s new book of essays is extraordinary. All of Roethke’s prose. Steph Burt’s criticism. Claudia Rankine’s The Racial Imaginary.
Brian S: The Racial Imaginary is such an important book, and not one I’ve heard many people talk about.
Donna Vorreyer: Thank you! I’ve only read one of those—so now I have a list to find. Hope you are well and able to balance your new job with promoting your book. Be well!
Kaveh Akbar: Thank you Donna! I’ve kept the plates spinning so far, wobbly as they may be.
Sarah Katz: I think you’re so right, regarding poets and community.
On a totally different note—can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Many of your poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf seem dreamlike, placeless, while others are more grounded in reality, or at least in a reality. It’s kind of an intangible thing, the “writing process”—but just wonder if you have any thoughts on it.
Kaveh Akbar: Sarah! Hi! Yeah, writing process. It’s a funny thing, even the least romantic, most skeptical, grounded poets mine the language of the supernatural to talk about that magic writing fugue—hours “flying by” or words “just coming to them.” And I’m not the least romantic, most skeptical anything. For me, it really is just a process of courting that magic, priming myself for it, making myself permeable to it (this through reading, note-taking, riffing on what I’m reading and on my notes), and then trusting my instincts/unconscious/lizard brain to take over. It really gets to a Here Be Dragons zone where I have no idea how to talk about it usefully or honestly. I do think it’s trancelike, hallucinatory.
Sarah Katz: Ha! Thanks, Kaveh. May we all trust that magic when we feel it.
Joe N: Hi Kaveh, I’m Joe. Thanks for your great book! I think what you said about poets and community is really true, and find it interesting as well. When/how did you first encounter a community like that, and what was that experience like?
Kaveh Akbar: Joe! Hi! I don’t know where my first experience of that was, but I can tell you that I gave a reading at Emerson College in Boston Sunday night and before I read, I watched this open mic put on by some Emerson undergrads. After each performer, the entire audience shouted, in unison, “You are talented! You are attractive! You have employable skills!” to each poet. I wanted to cry; it was the most extraordinary thing ever. I couldn’t help but fantasize about when those poets begin to enter the workforce, enter into academia, and become in charge of hiring, reading series, curricula. Can you imagine how joyously and intensely better that sort of rapturous community of poets can make things? I’m getting goosebumps just typing about it.
Joe N: Oh wow, yes that is exciting! Thanks, Kaveh.
Brian S: I wonder how much of that comes out of the spoken word world as opposed to more academic poetry, where the audience is kind of supposed to sit there quiet and solemn and somber?
Kaveh Akbar: We’re seeing the best of both worlds braid together. It’s thrilling!
ErinMN: Hi, Kaveh—my name is Erin and I live in a small Northern MN. It is hard to find out what is going on in the bigger poetry world. Any advice?
Brian S: Erin, if you aren’t already, following Kaveh on Twitter is a good place to start
Kristin Chang: I was wondering if you had any advice for poets of color who are currently learning/writing in very white academic environments? I’ve been struggling a lot lately with my own internalized insecurities (being seen as cliché/”too political”/etc.) as well as feeling like the people who should be reading my work aren’t in the room.
Kaveh Akbar: Here’s a secret—I’ve never, once in my life, through my undergrad degrees, my MFA, and my PhD, had a poetry professor who was a person of color. Not once. Not one class. I’ve had amazing professors, and I’ve gotten to learn from amazing poets of color outside of my classrooms, but I’ve never had a poetry workshop where the instructor looked anything like me (and this has been pretty empirically true of the students in my workshops as well, for whatever that’s worth). Ultimately, I found myself using workshops more to practice critically engaging poems, to work on my critical vocabulary and my ability to figure out how poems work on their own terms, more than as places to get feedback on my own work. That happened, too, of course, but it was never the main thing for me. I found my own people for that, mostly. My workshops made me a better reader, and then I took those new skills at reading into my writing, which made me a better writer. Does that make sense?
Brian S: Can you talk some more about mining the language of the supernatural? What draws you to it and the effect it has on you when you look back on drafts later?
Kaveh Akbar: Brian, you ask about mining the language of the supernatural. For me, writing is the foundational meditative and spiritual practice of my life. It’s where I go to figure everything out, to orient myself psychologically and cosmologically. It’s inevitable that some of that comes out explicitly in the poems. The working title for my next book, which I don’t want to say yet because I don’t want it to calcify in your mind or mine, deals with this directly.
Nkosi N.: In terms of editing, especially for your poems that have no punctuation, what is your process on editing the visual shape of a poem so that the rhythm is maintained when people speak your poems out loud. I never get caught up when reading your poems without punctuation, even on the first read. How do you select the words that guides the reader? And do you use this same selective process even with poems that have punctuation?
Kaveh Akbar: Nkosi! Hey! Regarding my unpunctuated poems, the not-so-secret is that of course they’re punctuated, just not using the traditional visual demarcators of punctuation. Middle- and late-Merwin is the original genius of this, and Ellen Bryant Voigt‘s Headwaters is the master class. The poems look like chaos on the page, like unpunctuated blobs, but when you read them you never for a moment lose track of where one sentence (or even one clause) begins and the next ends. The punctuation is organic to the language itself—there are certain words that, when placed next to other words, always denote the beginning of a new thought. And there are certain constructions that gunk that up. If you end an unpunctuated sentence on a modifier, it can almost always be read to modify the language that preceded it or the language that follows, and this is rarely a productive confusion. But it takes writing those sentences to discover this; it’s not intuitive. Discovering Headwaters was the formal breakthrough that opened up the content of all these poems. It really was. Chris Forhan, the poet, writes about how finding “syntactical pickaxes” can open up content that had theretofore been inaccessible to you. Discovering and studying deeply the unpunctuated line, how you can manipulate it to direct inertia and momentum and breath, allowed me to write about addiction, elements of my addiction and recovery that had resisted all other approaches. “Syntax is identity,” says Li-Young Lee.
Melissa Smith: Hi Kaveh! Yes to the community of poets—the support and love you show one another is inspiring. #TeachLivingPoets. Has anyone asked you yet if you have a couple favorite poems to teach and reasons why you love teaching them?
Kaveh Akbar: Melissa! Hi! My favorite poem to teach is, I think, Russell Edson’s “The Neighborhood Dog.” Something about it vibrates at the exact frequency of my brain. It’s just the perfect poem. It does everything I love in poems, and though I’ve taught it dozens of times to dozens of different groups of poets, I still don’t really have any idea how to talk about why it works in any sort of critically useful way. It’s actual magic.
Also, it’s important to note that the version of “The Neighborhood Dog” originally published in AGNI is a full 15% better than the weaker version Edson eventually published in the book, and in The Tunnel.
Lida: Hi Kaveh! You said recently that translation informs and engages your process of thinking and writing. Could you talk a bit about that?
Kaveh Akbar: Lida! Hi! Yes yes, I’m a baby translator; I’ve been working with the contemporary Iranian poet Negar Emrani to bring her poems into English for a little over a year now. It’s immensely humbling, really. It’s a doomed pursuit, of course, but so is writing a poem in your own language. You’re trying to translate an experience using the clumsy, mechanical process of language. It’s doomed, and you do it anyway. I think that’s fascinating, that kind of idiot bravery.
Brian S: Speaking of translation, you hint in a number of your poems that your knowledge of your family’s language is limited. How does that complicate your translation work? I imagine working with a living poet has to help a lot.
Kaveh Akbar: Brian—oh, I absolutely wouldn’t be able to do the translation work if I wasn’t working with a living poet who could speak a little bit of English to help me out. Negar is brilliant and also brilliantly kind and patient with me billion questions about every poem.
Lida: Humbling for sure. I have been doing that for years (also from Farsi) and learning how every act of translation is an attempt in failing only slightly better. Can’t wait to read your translations of Negar Emrani’s work.
Kaveh Akbar: Lida—attempts at failing slightly better—yes yes, that’s exactly it. Some of the Negar translations are online now; here’s a batch of them, and I can send you more after the reading if you hit me on Twitter or email.
Lida: Oh, thank you, Kaveh!
Jasleen: Hi! This may be a silly question but when did you know this is what you wanted to do, and how did you dive into writing? To me the scariest part of poetry is the starting it in the first place—for some reason I feel like there is so much more pressure there than there is when you are sitting down to write prose and I think that a lot of that is in my head but I wanted to know if that is a common feeling or if I’m insane?
Tl;dr: how did you get to the starting?
Kaveh Akbar: Hi Jasleen! My trick is to never get into a confrontation with a blank page. If I just sit down in front of an empty notebook or an empty Word document, it will seem impossible to me that anyone’s ever written anything in such conditions. I have to begin with a germ of language. I keep journals, and every time I sit down to write, I’ll begin by leafing through a bunch of randomly selected books, just randomly picking out words to write down. I always begin with a couple pages of “word bank” generated that way, and then go from there. It takes away the confrontation with the empty page and gets me out of my boring on-board native vernacular.
Natalie Solmer: Hi Kaveh! Just listening in… this is so much more fun than grading comp essays (what I’m supposed to be doing) 🙂 😉 Do you have any Divedapper interviews coming out soon? Anyone we should be anticipating?
Kaveh Akbar: Natalie! Hah, I have a big stack of “to grade on the plane” essays by my side right now. Not comp though, mercifully. Yes yes, more Divedapper interviews coming soon—Layli Long Soldier, Natalie Shapero, Airea D. Matthews, to name a few. I’ve been moving slower with Divedapper of late, but people have been great about understanding why. Layli’s will be next, though, and it’s such a good one…
Natalie Solmer: Oooh, all three of those women are amazing! Whereas is so incredible. How exciting! I almost felt bad asking the question because I know you have been super busy with the book coming out, but I was wondering if something awesome was coming soon! Glad to hear it!
Kaveh Akbar: Natalie—yes yes—I’m still a full-time PhD candidate, too, in addition to teaching full-time, in addition to touring the book, in addition to Divedapper, in addition to planning a wedding, in addition to, you know, working on my own writing and reading, in addition to being a human person who sometimes likes to eat or sleep. It’s a juggling act, but it’s this incredible thing where most of the time (and I mean this absolutely honestly, truly truly) none of it actually feels like work. I’m busy all the time, but the exhaustion is only ever physical—all of it is very much nourishing and enervating psychologically, spiritually.
Brian S: How would you describe your relationship with faith? In the book, I’d say it comes across as complicated (which understates the reality for most people I guess).
Kaveh Akbar: Brian—my relationship with faith. You know, in active addiction, you destroy or neglect or sabotage every relationship in your life, and most of the time, you’re totally oblivious to the damage you’re doing, just sort’f idly lurching from crisis to crisis. At least, that was certainly how it worked for me. So in recovery, a ton of the work you do is centered in repairing those relationships. For me, one of the main relationships that needed to be repaired was my relationship to my cosmological/spiritual self. The book is very much an account of that process of repair, which, four and halfish years into sobriety, is still very much ongoing.
Brian S: That’s what the title is getting at essentially, right? Naming the thing properly is an important step in confronting it.
Kaveh Akbar: Brian, totally. So much of the book is about naming, taxonomy, the power a name does and doesn’t give a thing. The only poem with an epigraph in the whole book, “PERSONAL INVENTORY: FEARLESS,” takes its epigraph from Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. It is very much a book about names.
Brian S: Thanks so much for taking an hour out of your incredibly busy schedule to join us tonight, and thanks to everyone who showed up, too. We haven’t had a chat this lively in a really long time, and I appreciate it greatly.
Kaveh Akbar: Oh man, that went by so fast! Thank you so much for having me, Brian. You’re a gift. You give so much of yourself, quietly, to poets in big and small ways. I see it and you, and I’m grateful for it. Here’s hoping our paths bend to cross again at some point in the not too distant future. And thanks to everyone for hanging out tonight, and for all your smart and generous questions!
Brian S: Goodnight everyone!