The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kaveh Akbar about his new collection, Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf, August 2021), punctuation as a poetic device, and uncertainty.
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. Upcoming poets include Carly Ingram, Derrick Austin, Amanda Moore, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthew Olzmann, Jennifer Huang, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian Spears: Hi, and welcome to our Poetry Book Club chat with Kaveh Akbar about his new collection Pilgrim Bell!
Kaveh Akbar: Hello, all!
Emily Francis: Hi, Kaveh—can you talk about this idea of the pilgrim bell, and how it started in the poems?
Shelly Stewart Cato: And also how it came to you to repeat the title in several poems—
Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! The whole book is really interested in recursion, recursive forms. I read the line in a Hadith about the prophet receiving revelation “like the ringing of a bell” and it blew my mind.
And, the idea of the bell as a spiritual technology powered by the human form (someone has to pull the rope, which often literally lifts that person in the air, maybe almost too on the nose, that) is so akin to poetry, to me. A spiritual technology powered by the human body (lungs/breath/voice/tongue/ocular muscles across the page/fingers across the Braille, etc).
Repeating titles: it’s iterative, recursive. Also, nerdily: Islamic architecture and tile work is so often built around hexagons, which can tesselate a plane. Many polygons can’t. There are six pilgrim bell poems in the collection.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Kaveh, I love this collection so much. Your use of repetition in form, wordplay, and individual lines mesmerized me throughout.
Brian S: And then the choice to punctuate them the way you did, can you talk some about that decision?
Shelly Stewart Cato: He broke all the rules 🙂
Kaveh Akbar: I appreciate that attention and engagement, Julie. And everyone. It’s your most finite and unreplenishable resource, your attention and time, and it’s not lost on me what a gift it is.
Emily Francis: It is so beautiful in so many ways, but one of my favorite poems is “How Prayer Works” and I will forever think of the “brooong” of the door stop as prayer now. Also thank you for using brooong in a poem.
Kaveh Akbar: Brian, the excessive punctuation, specifically the excessive presence of the period, fascinated me. It’s a visual demarcator grammatical certainty, the period, right? This is a sentence. A declaration, literally, the two types of sentences in English that take periods are called “declarative” and “imperative.” Wow! So intense, so certain. The whole project of the book seems to me to orbit my learning to sit in uncertainty without struggling to resolve it. By working in a form that corroded the certainty intrinsic to that grammatical unit, the period, it felt like I was enacting (read: practicing) formally what I was clumsily groping toward in my own psycho-spiritual practice. If that makes sense.
Emily, I am proud of that brooong, hah. I had the hardest time trying to remember what the coiled brass thing that prevents the door from hitting the wall was called, I remember. It’s hard to google. “Doorstop.” I was sure it was “door jamb” but it was not.
Julie Brooks Barbour: Kaveh, I love what you say about “sitting with uncertainty.” So many of the poems bring up the vulnerability of the speaker, and while doing so, reveal the beauty in everyday life. Could you talk a little about how recognizing uncertainty might help us pay more attention to what’s around us?
Kaveh Akbar: I think I have brought a lot of frustration and suffering on myself (and others) in my life by deciding I feel a certain way about something, and then because I’ve asserted that stance, feeling the need to defend it or double down when presented with new evidence or experience. It is much more painless for me and the people around me when I am able to walk with a posture of unknowing, of openness to the possibility of having been/being wrong. Today I am skeptical of anyone who speaks in absolutes or certainties. Such rhetoric seems to primarily either come from or parrot the rhetoric of zealots and tyrants. Poems are really good at being uncertain. Tweets, not so much. 🙂
Brian S: Reminds me that when Seamus Heaney first started publishing poems as a student, he did so under the name Incertus, Latin for uncertain.
Kaveh Akbar: Hah! I didn’t know that. I love that.
Emily Francis: Certainty always seems to equal harm.
Kaveh Akbar: There’s a Sufi prayer that goes, in its entirety: “Lord, increase my bewilderment.” That’s pretty good, I think.
Brian S: That’s excellent. I wish the religion of my youth had been willing to accept that kind of thought.
Kaveh Akbar: Hah. I’m kind of a spiritual magpie, I just take the shiny bits I like from everywhere and build a nest out of scraps that couldn’t accommodate anyone but me.
Brian S: So, I have another form question for you. Can you talk some about the decision to print In the language of Mammon so that we’d have to read it in a mirror? My experience of it was that it kind of forced me to look myself in the face as I read it, and that made it feel kind of different. Like I was having to come to grips with my own position in the poem.
Kaveh Akbar: Hah. I mean, I just thought it would be kind of snotty and petulant to make a poem talking shit about poets that the poetry reader (so often also a poet) would have to look at themselves while they read. It’s the sort of (hopefully charmingly) adolescent thing I imagine Rimbaud would be proud of me for.
Mansi Hans: Kaveh, can you please share more about how your spirituality influences your words?
Kaveh Akbar: Poems, like prayers, point me toward action. They don’t replace it. You pray for the homeless, then you go out and buy socks to distribute to them. Etc. The prayer doesn’t replace the action. The poem doesn’t replace the action. It points me toward it.
Brian S: I think it’s a great example of the form and the content working together perfectly. I don’t think you could get away with writing about too many other subjects in that form without it seeming precious.
Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, honestly I was surprised Jeff (Shotts, my brilliant and humane editor) let me get away with that one. We were ruthless in cutting the book down. There could be a whole other Pilgrim Bell, longer than this one, made out of poems that didn’t make the cut.
Shelly Stewart Cato: That makes me wonder about “pilgrim.” I’m sorry if I’ve missed it, but “pilgrim” seems like a seeker or venturer or wanderer, and I can relate that to the bell epigraph, but what does the Anne Carson epigraph: “A pilgrim is a person who is up to something” layer onto that meaning for you?
Kaveh Akbar: It’s such a delicious line, isn’t it? Carson’s? She has another one in Plainwater: “A pilgrim is a person whose recipes are simple.” I like how inclusive “a pilgrim is a person who is up to something” is. The expansiveness was the draw, for me. How many people are pilgrims, by its definition.
Julie Brooks Barbour: I love how playful that quote is, too!
Emily Francis: I am wondering how the process was of writing this new collection compared to Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
Kaveh Akbar: These are great questions; thank you guys.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf: I was so strapped to the masthead of very, very early recovery. Each poem was very literally like, here’s what it’s like to be twenty-five days clean. Here’s what it’s like to be six months clean. I was becoming a whole new person. It’s messy and lumpy and uneven and I love it so much because I look at it and I feel such tenderness for that sick little dummy I was.
This new book, there’s more air. It’s less me just desperately trying to keep my head above water. I was able to think a little bit more about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Or what I was saying, and how I was saying it.
Brian S: Do you think not being as online has made a difference in how you approached the two books as well?
Kaveh Akbar: Hah. Yeah, I mean, not being online has just been good holistically for my whole psychospiritual person. Some people can do it and they’re just fine; I’m not being prescriptive. But for me, it was so spiritually, ethically, emotionally corrosive. Being offline I’m a better husband, teacher, uncle, son, friend, etc. I’ve been painting! I read in such a more focused and engaged way.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Still. “Seven Years Sober” speaks of the desperation of addiction.
Kaveh Akbar: Totally. You know that poem was originally called “Five Years Sober”; I wrote the first draft on my five year sobriety date. And then I was still working on it on six, seven. So, I had to update. July 12 was eight. But the manuscript had already been yanked out of my hands by then. 🙂
Brian S:I reduced my social media accounts to one and it made all the difference in the world to me across the board.
Emily Francis: I miss your inquiry of poetry and language on Twitter but I hear you!
Kaveh Akbar: Hah. That still happens (as you know!) in teaching spaces, discussions with friends and students and beloveds, etc. Having them in public just stopped feeling safe/healthy for me.
Emily Francis: What are you painting?
Kaveh Akbar: Oh what a sweet question. I got asked to do a little thing about “share some pictures of your book’s influences” or whatever, which is sweet but I’ve also talked about that already a billion times in a billion places. So I sent them this:
Usually, after I’ve spent a good deal of time with a poem, it begins to become impenetrable to me—less a “small machine made of words” and more a symbol that enters my eye all at once like an ideogram or hieroglyph. A glance at a poem will visually summon all its experiential or psychospiritual data without requiring any actual engagement with its syntax (which also makes the poems obnoxious to revise, and often requires either another set of eyes or a great deal of time to turn the poem back into words).Here, I’ve tried to intuitively—read: without overthinking myself into preciousness—paint visual representations of some poems from Pilgrim Bell reflecting not their narrative or lexical data (Klee described his work being “not to reproduce the visible but to make visible”), but rather charting the ideogrammatic content that’s hardened into place for me over time with each piece. These painted haloes feel truer to me, or at least more interesting, than anything I might try to clumsily articulate about the poems.
Brian S: Where are they coming out and when?
Kaveh Akbar: Great question that I should totally know the answer to but don’t. Hold on!
Brian S: Lol.
Kaveh Akbar: I think the venue is called Pioneer Works. The guy who does it is Rob Spillman, who did such great work at Tin House for years. [You can see Kaveh’s paintings here. – Ed.]
Brian S: So, the poems that didn’t make Pilgrim Bell, what are you thinking of doing with them? Will some of them appear in a future book? I guess I’m also asking if you’ve started a new project yet.
Kaveh Akbar: Poems that didn’t make Pilgrim Bell: just useful compost. I like to write. I think inshallah my imagination, unlike my experience, is an infinite resource, a well I can draw from again and again. I don’t have anxiety about not publishing everything I write. Or putting everything I publish into to a book.
Emily Francis: Were you painting before France, or did this start overseas?
Kaveh Akbar: I’ve dabbled in visual art forever. Paige is the real genius there, though. I just play.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Is the artwork India ink and watercolor?
Kaveh Akbar: Just watercolor and cheap markers. 🙂
Cheap marker, I guess. A black one.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Any new books we should keep our eyes out for?
Kaveh Akbar: Oh and Brian, re: starting a new project. Not poetry. I don’t think I’ve done anything but sketches, poemwise, since finishing Pilgrim Bell. I’ve been commissioned to do a libretto for an opera, so I’m learning… everything about opera. I knew literally nothing. I have an anthology of spiritual poetry coming out soonish inshallah. I’m writing some text for this Algerian French visual artist I love, Massinissa Selmani. I’m painting a lot! I feel full creatively, even though I’m recoiling a bit from poems.
Kaveh Akbar: Reading right now: obsessed with the Spanish novelist Andrés Barba. Recommend starting with Luminous Republic, then Such Small Hands. Patricia Lockwood’s new novel was a masterpiece. Mai Der Vang’s forthcoming book of poems and Donika Kelly’s newest collection are both ones people will be reading for a long long time. Phillip B. Williams has one coming out later this year called Mutiny that I really loved. This new-to-me poet Radna Fabias, born in Curacaos and raised in the Netherlands, just out in new translation, really bowled me over. Like I sent poems from it to everyone I knew. I am gonna publish a longer piece from it in The Nation soon.
Brian S: That’s excellent. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Kaveh Akbar: I can’t stress enough how much I don’t know what I’m doing. Truly, teaching myself opera, how it works, learning about the classics and contemporary work, has been so much of my summer.
Emily Francis: That is amazing, Kaveh!
Brian S: The work I had to do just to get a small sense of what Simmonds was doing in that book, let me tell you, because I know nothing about opera either. But I started listening to it as a result, and it was so worth it.
Emily Francis: I am still reeling from the Simmonds book!
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight, Kaveh and for this wonderful book.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Thank you so very much for such thoughtful answers.
Kaveh Akbar: Thank you, so much!
Photograph of Kaveh Akbar by Paige Lewis.