The lyrically narrative poems in Kaveh Akbar’s recent debut poetry collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, reflect on addiction and substance use, his identity as an Iranian-American poet, and his relationship to God or spirituality.
For example, I’m in love with the lines from “Being in This World Makes Me Feel Like a Time Traveler,” where Akbar makes another reference to his father and prayer: “As a boy, I spit a peach on to my father’s prayer rug and immediately / it turned into a locust.” The surrealism and vulnerability of his work are not forgettable.
Akbar, born in Tehran, teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA program at Randolph College. He’s been published in thee New Yorker, Poetry, and The Nation. He is the founder of Divedapper.
When people mention Akbar, they usually note how kind he is. This is true. He and I met recently in Tampa, and had a wide-ranging discussion about the poetic landscape, bad early poems, and the devil’s horns.
The Rumpus: I’ve heard you describe the current poetic landscape as the golden age of American poetry. What do you mean by that?
Kaveh Akbar: I’ve said it’s a golden age of poetry, largely because of the absence of forefronts. That is, there are no monoliths, no need to define ourselves in relation or opposition to an Emerson or an Eliot or a Lowell. We’ve never been freer to experiment, to play, to yawp our own unprecedented yawps. It seems to me there are exciting strides being made every day toward a more compassionate, more democratic poetry.
But of course, that goal is horizonal, a place toward which we will always march and never truly arrive. There are still many—often intersectional—accessibility issues in American poetry, especially for disabled poets, parent-poets outside and inside the academy, poets living below the poverty line, trans poets, undocumented poets. There’s so much work still to be done, but also much hope to be found in organizations like Deaf Poets Society and Undocupoets that are taking up the difficult and often thankless work of advocating and organizing on behalf of poets. This is what I mean by a golden age—unprecedented access to community, unprecedented ease of finding a voice or voices speaking directly to our experience.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you say there are no monoliths. I think there are poetry professors, and editors, and institutions that have become our monoliths, and that dictate how we experiment and who gets awarded for certain poetic experimentations.
Akbar: I’m not saying there aren’t gatekeepers, prize-givers, kingmakers, whatever, but I do think there are more paths than ever before for poets to find and speak directly to their audiences.
Rumpus: With Divedapper you have supported many of the most prominent American poets in the United States. Yet, poets who don’t have a first book are not featured on the site. Why did you make this choice and how would you like to see poets without a first book supported?
Akbar: I like to think Divedapper has a pretty diverse array of poet backgrounds—titans of the contemporary canon like Sharon Olds and Carl Phillips, yes, but I bet (hope!) most people will find a healthy number of new-to-them poets as well. And there are lots of first-book poets, poets who publish with small presses, etc.
Regarding the choice not to feature poets without a first book on the site, it’s easy—the whole organizational conceit of the site is that I’m interviewing people whose books I’ve loved. I have no plans to shut down Divedapper any time soon, though the frequency of interviews has slowed down a bit as my life has sped up, and I don’t mind patiently waiting for poets I love to put out books before chatting with them for the site. That’s my answer to the last part of your question, too—more than anything, I think emerging poets need time, time and the patience to let their work mature fully before firing it in the kiln of public reception.
Rumpus: I sometimes find myself in misunderstanding or temporary disagreement, wanting to know more. I agree with interviewing poets who we love, but I don’t think a poet needs to fully mature before having public reception. What does maturing mean? You were doing interviews before your first book and on a national literary radar.
Akbar: I published a bunch of poems when I was in my late teens and early twenties and they’re absolute garbage. I was an actively scummy, bad person, and my poems were devoid of any meaningful reflection or soul. They were algorithmic, bad stand-up. I had to pass through my going-throughs as a poet and as a human being before I stopped writing myself as the misunderstood champion in every poem I wrote.
I just don’t understand what the rush is. I started Divedapper because I wanted to go under the hoods of my heroes and figure out how they worked, so I could incorporate their practices into my own. Reading an author’s entire bibliography every two weeks, talking to them intensely about poetry and life and whatever else came up—that was my true poetic education. That’s my bedrock. I took a six or seven year break from sending out my own poems, just waiting for my abilities to catch up a bit with my ambitions. The rigorous preparation Divedapper demanded had everything to do with accelerating my development and maturity as a poet.
It just heebies my jeebies to hear young poets talk about trying to “get on the literary radar” or branding themselves or whatever, instead of talking about the poems or poets that thrill or baffle or sustain them. It seems a very simple linear thing to me—you put in x number of honest earnest hours studying, practicing, working, writing, and you get y better. Matthew Zapruder told me early on, “Do good work, do your due diligence in getting the word out, and the audience you need will find you.” I can’t improve on that.
Rumpus: Many people talk about your kindness. One of the examples of kindness that people note when speaking about you is how often you retweet other people’s poetry.
Akbar: I think any time you talk about your own kindness, the devil’s horns get a little sharper. Something as slight as retweeting a poem probably doesn’t register one way or the other on the cosmic scales.
Rumpus: I’ve heard a few friends who struggle with addiction be scared by your work because they say that the struggles with addiction are put in the past tense, as if addiction is something that happened and is now over. This creates a “heroic narrator.” In the poems, I feel a shame and self-loathing about the struggles with addiction, which to me leaves the narrator always vulnerable and imperfect, and always struggling with addiction. How do you relate to the narrator of the poems? Do you perceive the narrator as a hero, having overcome addiction?
Akbar: The final words of Calling a Wolf a Wolf are: “The boat I am building / will never be done.” The book repeatedly, probably obsessively, discusses the ongoingness of the battle, the infinity of it. There are dozens of poems in CAWAW in which addiction is addressed in the present and/or future tenses. I bop around through time. With regards to the shame and the self-loathing—well, sometimes I write a poem to try to help learn to love myself. Working through doubts about my own nature is a part of that process.
Do I perceive the narrator to be a hero? In Greek mythology, Hero was a priestess who threw herself into the sea, grief-stricken after her lover Leander drowned swimming to see her. That is a valence of the word I feel comfortable echoing through the speaker of my book.
Rumpus: I like that mythology of Hero, especially when speaking to you, because of the myths’ relationship to water, swimming, drowning. This is a recurring theme in your book as various waters become the stand-in for alcohol and substance use. For example, in “The Straw Is Too Long, The Axe Is Too Dull,” you write “it hurts to even think about the leak in my brain / where brackish water trickles in and memory trickles out / with what do I mend a hole like that answer me with what.” Your command in this poem, “answer me,” was one of my favorite parts in the book because it was one of the most evident places where the narrator showed frustration and anger and assertion. I think it was such a tonal shift from many of the other poems.
Akbar: I’m always interested in these moments of poetic “breaking,” moments where the poet gets fed up with or overwhelmed by the artifice of their craft and insists on speaking directly, baldly, to the reader. It’s a profound rhetorical gesture if you use it sparingly. One of my favorite instances of such a “break” is at the end of James L. White’s “Making Love to Myself.”
Rumpus: You spoke about tonal cohesion in your interview with Prairie Schooner, stating “I want every poem in the book to be tethered to the back of the same beast.” What does that mean in relation to your new book? What is the dominant and more subtle tones that you believe were vital in tying this book together?
Akbar: After living with the manuscript for so long, my poems became practically ideogrammatic to me. I would look at the shape of one on the page and feel a wash of emotional, psychological, and spiritual data that almost entirely bypassed grammatical language. Most of the arrangement of the book came through an attentive, curious exploration of that data.
Rumpus: We seldom see such love for father figures in poetry. I’m haunted by your lines, “I knew only that I wanted / to be like him, / that twilit stripe of father / mesmerizing as the blue white Iznik tile / hanging in our kitchen, worshipped / as the long faultless tongue of God.” This excerpt is from your poem “Learning to Pray.” Can you tell us about your relationship to a father figure and prayer?
Akbar: In Kazim Ali’s “Thicket,” he writes, “It’s the father who believes in God. / The son believes in the father.” I got lightheaded the first time I read that. I had to put the book down.
Rumpus: In an interview with Lit Hub, you said, “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.” Can you say more about where this hunger comes from and where you want it to go?
Akbar: I think I’m wired to be deeply compulsive, fervent in my pursuit of pleasure. For a long time, that meant my pursuit of narcotic experience. Now it’s my pursuit of poems and the love, joy, and grateful service that poems have brought into my life.
Author photograph © Hieu Minh Nguyen.