Ancient Voices, Language, Cats: Talking with Kaveh Akbar about Pilgrim Bell

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Depending on the lens one uses to view Kaveh Akbar’s poetry, it can be seen as a weapon or a blessing, spiritual or political, experimental or deeply traditional. Akbar’s latest book, Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021) resonates with his readers, equally ready to comfort the masses as to stimulate discussion among academics. The collection reverberates with connection and hope during a time of cold separation. Akbar, with razor-sharp language, skillfully employs universal themes of devotion, justice, and healing—for everything that plagues us.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Kaveh Akbar emigrated with his family to the United States when he was very young. His poetry has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and other stunning journals. He is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017), Portrait of the Alcoholic, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016) and editor of the anthology, The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine (Penguin Classics, 2022). Akbar now lives in Indiana, where he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson. He is the poetry editor for The Nation magazine, and founder of Divedapper, the home of archived dialogues between important American poets.

I spoke with Kaveh, via Zoom, on a rainy Monday morning in December. We spoke about Pilgrim Bell, a book I return to, again and again; the echoing language of the ancients; and how to tell if you’re an Ox poet or a Cat poet.

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The Rumpus: You’ve said you don’t like to “flatten your poems” by talking about their meanings, compared to your life.  What do you mean by this?

Kaveh Akbar: To reduce a poem to a purely autobiographical, experiential reading feels limiting to me. To reduce a poem to an “aboutness” seems limiting to me. The poet Allen Grossman said, “A poem is about a thing the way a cat is about a house.” I always appreciated that. When people ask me things like, “Did that really happen?” everything in my poems has happened to me, even if it occurred in language. But no, I’ve never literally had my nose torn from my face and set in a bowl. That just doesn’t seem like an interesting way to talk about poetry. In fact, it seems antithetical to the spirit of what my favorite poems do.

Rumpus: Pilgrim Bell is a collection that feels deeply spiritual to me, in the sense that its language nourishes me and resonates with me. It also calls me out, spiritually. The first time I read that introduction: “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy.” On the next page: “Then it is a holy text.” Even talking about this now … I almost cry.

Akbar: There’s something in the breath that animates the spirit. If I am pushing language out of my mouth, I’m also pushing that which enables me to commune with the language of my ancestors, out of memory. If I am praying in Arabic, I’m literally saying the exact same prayers that the Prophet prayed, or my grandfather, or his grandfather’s grandfather, prayed. I’ve never been the beneficiary of a talking burning bush. I’ve never had a literal encounter with an angel who was embodied and in front of me. This language is the magic I have known. To the extent that I should be allowed to call anything holy, this is holy.

Language is holy, but it’s also fucked. It’s been corrupted by its histories, right? It’s both of those things. That’s pretty incredible to me, as a language artist.

Rumpus: English, the language you choose to write in, borrows so much from so many other languages, which is one of the ways it becomes beautiful. You mention how ancestral breath is in us, and can speak through us.

Akbar: Yeah, like the Arabic word ruH (روح) means breath and spirit, and the Latin, spirare. This is not a new insight, but this is one of my great areas of fascination right now. I always think about how the ancients anticipated all this, the languages we use. They got there first, and they could anticipate that evolution. I edited an anthology of spiritual writing, The Penguin Anthology of Spiritual Verse, and in so doing, I found the same questions we are asking today precedented by all of these ancient writers, across the world, across time.

Rumpus: Your poem, “Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic” begins with: “The title is a lie; / I can’t read Farsi…” Then, you give us a Farsi line. Then: “I can make out // ‘we lose, / we lose.’” The poem goes on to build the tension of yearning to connect with the Farsi language. There’s a gorgeous reach, and as readers, we’re stretching our ears to almost understand.

Akbar: That’s the youngest poem in the book, but it felt really important to me. It does the thing where it resists beautifying. I’m trying to leave those moments of correction in. “Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic” was literally what I was trying to do, but if I titled it like that, it makes it seem like … “reading Shakespeare in the Metro.” The title makes it seem like I was just flipping through the book, breezily reading it. It wasn’t like that. I was trying to read, or practicing my continuing journey to learn how to read and write in the Farsi language. So, I wanted to flag that.

I wanted to be honest, so I could say the thing I needed to say: “Because we need mail, people die. // Because we need groceries, people die.” I write “we need” knowing how “we” dilutes my responsibility. I was very aware that, as I wrote those lines. I was later looking at them, and thinking, “How would it change if I write in the first-person singular, instead of the first-person plural?” I made a decision to use we, instead of just go back and write “I.” There’s a version of me, in the past, that would have gone back and edited it, and edited it, and written: “Because I need groceries, people die. // Because I need mail, people die.” The more honest thing, I felt, was for me to leave my original thought there, and then call myself out for it, immediately, in the same poem. I write like that, with a sort of rigor that feels useful, because it’s a record of my having been wrong, which feels more useful to me.

Rumpus: The longest poem in the book, “The Palace,” quotes a dialogue between Al-Harith bin Hisham and the Prophet Mohammed: “‘O God’s Messenger! How is the Divine Inspiration revealed to you?’ The Prophet replied, ‘Sometimes it is revealed like the ringing of a bell.’” You have six poems named “Pilgrim Bell” in the book. Did you know there were going to be six? What was the design behind this?

Akbar: I’m a classic over-writer, so I wrote a lot of them. Then, I synthesized them, or I just pared away. Some of them were many pages long. The shortest one in the book actually started off as the longest, before I sort of excised it down to those four critical couplets. Instead of leaving the whole galaxy that it once was, I pared it down to that little nucleus.

Rumpus: Is there a reason there are six of them?

Akbar: Numerologically speaking, six is interesting to me. There are five prayers in a Muslim’s day, the five daily prayers. One bonus was an interesting conceit to me. You can also tessellate a plane with a hexagon. But I don’t want to sound too overdetermined about the reasoning behind the idea of putting six in there, other than it seemed really interesting to me.

Rumpus: I wondered if it was because the call to prayer begins at 6 a.m. or ends at 6 p.m.

Akbar: Well, the call varies, depending on the time of the year and the place in the world. All of these reasons I was thinking about, and probably a billion that I’ll never actually be able to name.

Rumpus: I like how it turned out, though. In “The Palace” you talk about an interesting prescriptive for being American. I kept underlining the parts that said, “To be an American…” because it was so much of a mirror. “To be an American is to be a scholar / of opportunity. // Opportunity costs. // Every orange I eat disappears the million / peaches, plums, pears I could have eaten // but didn’t.” There’s something so beautiful and moving about those verses. They seem holy.

Akbar: Thank you. That poem is such a stew. I wrote it over the course of years. Like Penelope at her loom, I would add a line one day, and delete it the next. It was a real process of accretion. There are long swatches of the poem that reference other swatches that are no longer even in the poem. It’s speaking to its ghost-selves, or speaking to some private idiom that was created, but is closed off from the reader—but not non sequitur. It still means, it still speaks, but you just can’t hear the voice on the other end of the phone.

That idea of “opportunity costs” might be speaking to how I came to America as a little kid. What did that opportunity cost me? There’s a sisterverse, “the Iranian iteration of myself is speaking to you now, or probably not speaking to you.” There’s also the opportunity it cost my dad coming here, or my mom. That idea of “opportunity costs” is really interesting to me. If I call myself American, what does the opportunity cost?

Rumpus: This makes me remember another poem in the collection, “Mothers I Once Was.” What you said about the former self, or the mother self, is here: “Mother hiding in the curtains, humming too loud. / Maggot mother at the shroud. Mother thought it possible. / Mother was wrong. Mothersong. Our Lady Mother of Wet Beds // and Aggressive Disgrace. Mother persimmon, name sounds / the way she tastes. Mother with all of creation fattening. / Mother who held on while it was happening.” There’s something so deep and ancient about this poem.

Akbar: This one poem came from something that wasn’t my intelligence, and that’s how I knew to trust it. It wasn’t ego or higher-brain. It came from the language reaching out to language.

Rumpus: That’s how I read it—not with my higher brain, not with my language—with my spirit.

Akbar: Thank you. Sometimes people buckle when I say stuff like that, but I don’t know how else to say it. It wasn’t me. I know it wasn’t me, because I didn’t just sit down and think those words. For me, words come out like this, like how we’re talking now. I don’t sound the way that poem sounds when I speak rhetorically. So, if it wasn’t me, it was something else. Whether that something else was my unconscious, or whatever else you want to call it—it wasn’t me.

Rumpus: The way you bring the persimmon into the discussion. A fruit from Iran. Going back to “The Palace,” you talk about how every orange that I eat is not… this. There’s a push and pull of the ancient and the now, the ancestral and the modern.

Akbar: My hope is that the book speaks to itself in these ways.

Rumpus: It really does. It continues to echo, or resonate. This is why Pilgrim Bell is a great title. I can’t imagine this being named something else.

Akbar: Yeah, that resonance, the idea of the bell, being a technology that reverberates and resonates, that has no discernible end. When the bell rings, there’s not like a moment where it isn’t ringing, right? We just lose the ability to hear it. It’s also a technology that’s moved by the heft of the body. When someone was charged with ringing those old, big bells, they would have to pull the rope, and sometimes it even lifted them off the ground. That devotional technology requires you to engage with your kinesiology.

Rumpus: As we talk about the beautiful service of language, can I ask you why it’s important for us to think outside of the English language?

Akbar: This is a vital question. Only four percent of the world’s literature was originally composed in English. And yet, what percentage of the literature do we talk about here in America? It reveals how provincial the American literary appetite is, both historically and geographically. We read other American authors, and maybe some dead British guys [laughs]. You know what I mean, right?

We read so little work in translation. Maybe eighty percent of the books that we talk about have been published in the last year, and then, maybe fifteen percent were published the year before.  Most books that have been written in human history weren’t written in this place, or in this time. This provinciality is something that I really, really work hard, in my own life, to move against. The ancients have so much to teach us, and there is no such thing as an English-speaking ancient.

Rumpus: How does a poet, really find their voice? How do they get good?

Akbar: The French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, said, “My first 10,000 photographs were my worst.” I think about that all the time, because if you stage and shoot and develop 10,000 photographs, you’re probably going to learn something about photography. I don’t think that there’s any substitute for that. It’s beautifully maddeningly linear. You put in x hours and you get y better.

Rumpus: One of the hardest things is when young poets try to be like someone else, and fail to discover the depth of themselves.

Akbar: Yeah, I think that imitation is useful, because you can inhabit someone’s mind while reading them deeply. I remember the poet Heather Christle talked about one of her students at UMass Amherst, who was so obsessed with Dickinson, she actually took photocopies of Emily Dickinson’s original handwritten manuscripts, and traced Dickinson’s handwriting, just to feel what it felt like to make those words. Imitation is normal and fine and good and right, but one does it in order to calibrate one’s own lyric instincts. It’s a terminal, not a destination.

Rumpus: How about you? How is writing going these days? What is your most inspirational place right now?

Akbar: Inspiration is a funny word. The poet Zbigniew Herbert, the Polish post-war poet, talked about two kinds of poets: “Ox poets” and “Cat poets.” The Ox poets are the ones who are dutifully pulling the plow every day, no matter how hard the soil, no matter how rusty the plow. Then there are the Cat poets, who patrol the house, take important naps in sunbeams. Then, in a moment, when a fly shoots through the air, they leap upon it. They pounce. I am naturally, constitutionally, an ox poet. Left to my own devices, in a vacuum of context, I work best like an ox. But my living has sort of forced me to try to learn how to be a cat. I teach a lot now and I travel, so I don’t have the wide-open fields of time anymore to be the ox my heart wants to be. You’re reaching me in the process of trying to learn how to be a good cat.

 

 

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Author photo by Paige Lewis


Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. In the United States, her work has appeared in Pangyrus, Eclectica, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, Salon.com, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also co-authored two memoirs, published in South Africa. Her work usually deals with themes of morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →