Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora
Led by poet Claudia F. Savage, a quarterly interview series
The second of the series, a conversation with Kaveh Akbar.
Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar’s work admits everything — emotional difficulty, bodily awkwardness, and historical hesitancy. “Being alive/ is so confusing, most people have to/ whisper around it…” he says in “Feet First.” But, although his poetry tackles difficult subject matter — murdered Iranian women, addiction, and exile — every poem is a method of prayer. Language, for Akbar, is a net for wonder. In his poem, “I Was Already An American Last Week When A Leaf Fell” he says:
Once, drunk and amphetamined, I stayed up
all night licking a friend’s knives. In the morning
my tongue was shredded to ribbons, delicate as wet
newsprint. Almost anything can become kindling
if the fire’s big enough…
Kaveh Akbar wrestles with the fear of being consumed and the reward of approaching the fire anyway.
Claudia F. Savage: Reading your work, I kept thinking about Paul Celan, a favorite of mine. Your work has the same kind of persistence. Celan’s line (as translated by Michael Hamburger): “I hear that they call life/ our only refuge” and yours (from “Besides, Little Goat, You Can’t Just Go Asking for Mercy”):
I like it fine, this daily struggle
to not die…
There is earned hope here. Can you speak to that?
Kaveh Akbar: Yes! I think about Celan all the time. The idea of a German Jewish poet whose parents were executed in Nazi camps, who survived a labor camp himself, still writing his poems in German, still translating Shakespeare in a Nazi ghetto, is endlessly powerful to me. He wrote: “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” My first language was Farsi and I no longer speak or even understand it functionally. There’s a tension at the level of syntax that appears when a person is forced to use the language of their oppressor to articulate their trauma. There’s no escaping that tension, so you find a way to work with it, to weaponize it. Celan was the king of this.
CFS: That’s a gorgeous statement. This also brings me to: “Mostly my days are mine/ to do with as I please: speak in English, speak/ in code, or not speak at all. Whatever I decide, I’ll go/ to sleep with a headache” (from the poem, “I Was Already an American Last Week When a Leaf Fell”). These days there is no way to avoid scrutiny as an Arab-American. Your title is almost enough, but can you speak about this poem and its relation to our current landscape?
KA: I mean, almost half the country is voting for a presidential candidate who explicitly denies my right to citizenship, right? Thirty-whatever-percent of those voters support the bombing of Agrabah, the fictional city from Disney’s Aladdin. You can imagine how they feel about Iran, about Iranians walking around on US soil, eating their cheeseburgers and watching their Netflix, you know? I feel like Schrödinger’s American, both here and not here at any given moment. I think this poem is interested in that. “Whatever I decide, I’ll go / to sleep with a headache.”
CFS: The Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail has said, “Poetry is my homeland and my religion.” Reading through your work I started making a list of the times you invoked God, such as:
Oh God. I am heartily sorry for offending thee. (from “Johnny Hodges and Kalamata Olives”)
Oh, lord spare this body set fire to another (from “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble”)
Every poem feels like an incantation for forgiveness. What is it about forgiveness?
KA: I love Dunya Mikhail so much and that’s a terrific question. I’m very interested in the idea of forgiveness, but I’m also very very leery of poetry that seeks clemency. Poetry that looks to exonerate the poet. I think the performance of contrition is endlessly fascinating, especially in a spiritual context, and mining the vernacular of that has been useful for me in my work. But I would never want to place the actual burden of forgiveness on a reader, to turn them into some kind of judge to lay my sins before and expect them to render a Not Guilty verdict. That kind of writing inevitably falls flat to me because the author already has a preconceived idea of what the reader’s response should be. I’m skeptical of shoulds in poetry.
CFS: Yes, your work never feels intentionally didactic. This brings me to one of my favorite poems, “Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives,” where you say:
the prophets are alive but unrecognizable to us…
…my hungry is different than their hungry
I envy their discipline but not enough to do anything about it
I blame my culture I blame everyone but myself
intent arrives like a call to prayer and is as easy to dismiss
Rumi said the two most important things in life were beauty
and bewilderment this is likely a mistranslation
What I love about this poem is the mixture of reverence and irreverence, a tough line to straddle and one you seem to do often.
KA: I’m glad you like that poem, it’s a favorite of mine, too. The force you bring into a poem with a word like “prophet,” with a word like “prayer” or “beauty,” is powerful because these are ideas that have obsessed every human culture since forever. We’re hard-wired to respond to “beauty,” to “God.” So there’s this potency in those words, this charge. They’re almost radioactive — immensely powerful if harnessed correctly, but if wielded carelessly they can decimate the entire landscape of a poem. I think of the irreverence you point to in my poems as a sort of cold water bath for that reactor, a safety mechanism to keep the radioactivity in check.
CFS: Yes! To further this idea, you’ve mentioned in some of your Divedapper interviews that John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are a touchstone. Can you speak about his influence, and others, on your work?
KA: Oh man, you’re hitting all my heroes. Yes yes yes, of course, Berryman is a lodestar for me. Nobody sounds like Berryman because Berryman sounded like everyone at once. He sounded like American speech. The Dream Songs, read aloud, sound exactly like spoken American speech. Henry says, “I am a monoglot of English / (American version).” I’m not talking about his words or phrases or themes, I’m talking purely about their sonic effect. If you had a recording of the Dream Songs and played it at a low volume, you’d think you were listening to the ambient chatter of a New York subway station. It’s the most miraculous, staggering thing, from a craft standpoint, that he captured that effect so precisely, that he sustained that precision across as many poems as he did.
I struggled to get around the contemporary grating of his minstrelsy for a long time (I wrote an obnoxiously long essay about this last year that I doubt I’ll ever publish). Kevin Young’s writing on the subject helped a lot: “For Berryman, as for many white rock and roll artists, black dialect (however imaginary), provides a gateway to a wider sense of American language, not a sign of cultural decay but of cultural vitality. The fearlessness through which Berryman breaks through the polite diction of academic poetry into a liberating variety of idioms is a major part of his legacy.” Berryman was after that holistic sonic Americanness, you know? And he was more effective than anyone ever at this. I’d argue he did this more purely than Whitman even, whose vision of Americanness vehemently excluded native people and immigrants and African-Americans.
On an episode of the Poetry Magazine Podcast on which I read my poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus,” Don Share says, “What I started to feel about Kaveh’s work here is that it resembles a little bit what we would have hoped for from John Berryman if his much to be hoped for recovery had happened.” I think it may be the kindest, most generous sentence ever uttered about my poetry. I am so in awe of Berryman’s craft, so in his debt. I could talk about him for days and days.
CFS: I appreciate that you brought up the notion of fearlessness in craft (and that amazing quote by Share). That also brings me to empathy. I’ve been re-reading Grace Paley recently and was struck by her empathy. Your work is a sea of it. I’m thinking of the breathtaking poem, “Palmyra” for Khaled al-Asaad, the murdered Syrian antiquities scholar who refused to reveal to militants where artifacts had been moved for safekeeping. You say, “I am all tangled/ in the smoke you left…horror leans in and brings/ its own light.” Can you talk about the writing of this poem?
KA: There is so much horror in the world today. There is so much hate and xenophobia and racism, domestically and abroad. It’s easy to become paralyzed with fear or hopelessness or rage or some toxic mixture of all three. I need to be able to control the rate at which I confront and metabolize the horror. My psychic and spiritual conditions are contingent upon a constant orientation toward gratitude, toward wonder, and it becomes impossible to access those things through the constant calculated overwhelm of atrocity and fear levied upon the average American on a day-to-day basis. I don’t watch cable news. I read papers I trust, websites I trust. One day I read about Khaled al-Asaad, his sacrifice, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was obsessed, I thought about him for months. One day, he came into a poem, totally on his own accord, and then the whole poem became his. It was an instance of me lifting up the curtain on the horror for as long as I was able to bear it. I still don’t particularly enjoy reading that poem, but I’m glad to have written it.
CFS: It was brave to write it. Your “Portrait of the Alcoholic…” series is harrowing as well. Will this as a series go on and on like Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu” poems (favorites of mine)? Is there an end or is this your epic?
KA: I’ve actually been revisiting Mackey’s Splay Anthem recently after Max Ritvo and I talked about it in our Divedapper conversation. I admire (and envy!) so much Mackey’s sustained attention and steady genius. I don’t know if I’m done writing “Portrait of the Alcoholic…” poems. I’ll say that I’ve been writing like mad of late. I’m enjoying an extremely productive, prolific period relative to my norm. And of those many poems, I haven’t written a new “Portrait of the Alcoholic…” poem in a number of months. So, I wouldn’t necessarily sweep it under the rug if one (or many) came along, but it’s not something I’m consciously seeking to continue either, no.
CFS: Finally, in your poem, “Neither Now Nor Never” you say:
None of my friends want to talk
Praise still feels taboo in some American poetry and, yet, it feels so necessary to present it as a human concern, especially in response to the domestic and international strife we touched on earlier.
KA: To my mind, questions of faith, of resolving god-hunger with modernity, are actually fairly common today in poetry. More so in poetry, I think, than in my actual daily interactions with the people around me, which is maybe what the line you quote is speaking to. I think of Fanny Howe, Kazim Ali, Jericho Brown, Eduardo Corral, Mary Szybist, Jean Valentine, Franz Wright, Li-Young Lee, and Jane Hirshfield as being some of the exemplars of this. In their work I find the conversations that I’m not having as often in my real life. These are the conversations to which I’m offering my voice, my poems.
Kaveh Akbar is the founder and editor of Divedapper. His poems appear recently in Poetry, New England Review, American Poetry Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. A debut full-length collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017), and a chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry, 2017) are forthcoming. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.
Arab-American poet Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising sound-poetry duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been, most recently, in Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, Columbia, clade song, FRiGG, Cordella, Late Night Library, Bookslut, and Forklift, Ohio. A 2015 Pushcart and Best Poets 2016 nominee, her first book Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017) is forthcoming. Her collaboration reductions, with Detroit-visual artist-Jacklyn Brickman, is forthcoming in 2018. She’s garnered awards from Jentel, Ucross, The Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council. Find her at Claudia F. Savage.