Author photo by B. A. Van Sise

Kaveh Akbar is the founding editor of Divedapper. His poems appear recently or soon in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, will be published by Alice James Books in Fall 2017. He is also the author of the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.

Kaveh Akbar's website.


January 18, 2017

Interview with Kaveh Akbar, author of Portrait of the Alcoholic

Anthony Frame: You have two new collections coming out: a chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, that just came out from Sibling Rivalry Press, and a full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, coming in Fall 2017 from Alice James Books. Did you approach these two books in the same way? Or did the different format/length of book vs. chapbook cause you to think differently about collecting the poems? Kaveh Akbar: Honestly, it's this funny thing where when I was putting together the chapbook I wasn't really thinking about the full-length quite yet. I wanted to put together a chapbook of poems that all centered around the central theme of addiction and recovery. And while a lot of the full-length deals with those issues, too, I think the full-length is a bit broader in its concerns whereas the Portrait chapbook is specific to those poems. The chapbook was taken probably about six months before the full-length. And I actually had it spaced out in my head where there would be a little bit more distance between the two books. But, as it happens, it's sort of this neat thing where now the chapbook will serve sort of like this EP to the full-length LP. AF: Oh, yeah. I love that. KA: Yeah, I think it's kind of this neat thing where people will get a taste of it in the one and then they can immerse themselves fully in the other. And if people only read one or the other, I'm still grateful that they're reading anything that I've written. I think any poet is grateful for an audience. AF: That's wonderful. And I'm not at all surprised. It's an incredible chapbook. KA: Oh, thank you for saying that. I really appreciate it. AF: In an interview with Katie Schmid Henson in Prairie Schooner, you said, "I'm very interested in tonal cohesion. I want every poem in the book to be tethered to the back of the same beast." I'm very interested in this idea of tonal cohesion, which points to the unity of a book but also allows for the freedom of variety so long as there is that unifying tonality. Are there specific things you're looking for when deciding if a poem belongs with other poems that help you find that tonal cohesion? KA: That's something that I'm still kind of learning and figuring out as I go through putting the finishing touches on the full-length manuscript. I think there's a wide gulf between saying you're looking for tonal cohesion and saying that you're looking for formal cohesion or a cohesivity in content. When I say tonal cohesion, I'm talking about poems that seem to vibrate at the same frequency. It's this funny thing where it's difficult to talk about without mining the language of the supernatural. It has to do with poems that seem to be resonating — circling the same pinhole in the ocean floor. They're all just kind of in the same orbit, even if they might superficially look very different or sound very different or be talking about very different things. Does that make sense? AF: Oh, yeah. Definitely. My mentor, Rane Arroyo, used almost the exact same language when he was walking me through putting together my book. He said to put the poems together and see how they vibrate. See how they dance together. And he often said that the best dancing partners are the ones you least expect and to be open to that idea. KA: Yeah. You know, you're a great editor and you're a great reader of poets and I'm sure that you have encountered books where you see that a poet is just sort of writing the same poem over and over and over again. And it might be a poem that they write very well and it might be something that works great in a magazine. But to read a whole collection of them, there begins to be this fatigue because your brain is moving through the same algorithms over and over again. And I'm hyper aware of that in my work. I'm very aware of the moves that I like to make and the algorithms that my brain works through in poems. And so that's something that I'm definitely trying to be vigilant about when I'm thinking about poem selection for both the chapbook and the full-length. AF: You're a daily writer. I think we all strive to be a daily writer, or at least I know I do. How do you balance your different responsibilities — to your writing, to Divedapper, to your studies, to your personal life, etc? KA: That's another one that I'm still trying to figure out. It's a delicate thing trying to maintain that equilibrium. The honest start to that answer is that I just don't sleep that much. I am a terrible sleeper. I do have the luxury of being in a PhD program, where my primary responsibilities in a week kind of top out at a pretty low ceiling with respect to my academic responsibilities. So, I have the great privilege of being in this program where I have a lot of time to throw myself into writing and reading. And I make the most of it. I am also blessed with a general lack of interest in most normal-people hobbies. So, you know, the thing I love most to do in the world is also the thing that I have built a career around. I mean, I get to do the thing that I love doing the most and it also happens to be the work that I do. It’s easy to create the illusion of productivity but what it really is is like a deep selfishness. I just get to do the thing that I love the most and to the outside world it looks like I'm being productive. AF: And that's, like, the best scenario anyone can have. KA: I know, right? These blessings keep falling into my lap, as Chance the Rapper says. It's an incredibly, incredibly lucky life. AF: How did you come to poetry? Was there something that happened that you can point to where you realized this was where you wanted to dedicate your energy? Or was it a slower, more organic process that happened over time? KA: I've been writing poems since I learned the alphabet. My mom has poems that I wrote in kindergarten. My first published poem I published in second grade. It was called "A Packer Poem." It was published in the Oak Creek, Wisconsin newspaper and it was about the Green Bay Packers. So I've been really really into writing and into poetry essentially forever. I did have a seminal high school English teacher who was publishing poetry. His name is Steve Henn and he's a fine poet himself. And he sent me home one day with a stack of small press poetry magazines after realizing that I really liked to read. And I remember opening up the first one and reading the first two poems and it was a total epiphany. Like, practically an angel playing its trumpet in my face. Just a miracle moment of clarity and perfect vision that — if this thing was possible in the world, then I want to know everything about it. If this is a thing that you can do with language, then I want to be the best person who ever did this thing with language. And I guess I would have been seventeen when that happened. And I'm twenty seven now so — that clarity hasn't faltered in the intervening decade. I have faltered, personally. I've certainly strayed and gotten distracted. But I've never doubted that that was the thing that I wanted to do and the thing that I wanted to be. AF: One of the many things I love about your work is the way you use the page. I'm thinking, recently, of the poems "Portrait of the Alcoholic with Moths and River," in Thrush, and "Supplication with Rabbit Skull and Bouquet," in Muzzle, and "The Straw is Too Long, The Shovel is Too Dull," in [PANK]. I'm mesmerized by the way you use spacing and whitespace, to create a canvas with your words, and how you use that canvas to control the pacing of the eye across the page. Is your sense of the spacing for an individual poem something you usually understand early in the drafting process or is it part of the puzzle of learning what the images want to be? KA: It's largely intuitive. Roethke said, "The serious problems in life are never fully solved, but some states can be resolved rhythmically." Because poetry is where I go to figure out what I think about things, it is a sight of meaning-making for me. I never go to a poem to confirm my belief in a subject. And, so, when he says, "some states can be solved rhythmically," I think that has everything to do with the way that I arrange my poem on the page. If I am still mystified by something that I'm trying to work out, rearranging it rhythmically, building a different kind of cadence around it can really open up the language into new insights. Now, that said, I think it is also true that when I find that I'm obsessing over the lineation and using a lot of my higher brain for it and finding that a poem that isn't working for me — when I can't get it to work and I'm finding myself frustrated and trying to relineate and relineate — nine times out of ten, the problem isn't the lineation. It's that the language itself is not working effectively yet. And so, that's usually my cue to go back and try to fix whatever is happening at that level. AF: Yeah, I know what you mean. I know when I'm working on a poem and feeling something is wrong with the lines, but I have to come to a space where I have to figure out that it's not the lines. It's the language. KA: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that the vast majority of the time if the language is strong enough and if the language is there, the lines sort of work themselves out intuitively. AF: With Divedapper, you conduct long form interviews with some of the brightest contemporary poets. For a lot of us who maybe didn't take the university path, Divedapper is an awesome resource because of the depth that you go into with your interview subjects — — KA: Can I just say, of all the nice things that you could say about Divedapper, the idea that you can use it as an actual primary source to improve yourself as a poet and as a citizen of poetry, is like my absolute favorite thing in the world. Because that's absolutely what it is for me. And that's how I conceived it, as this depository of primary sources on these poets who have absolutely shaped the way that I view and interact with the world. And where if you want to write an essay on Carl Phillips in ten years, you can go to his Divedapper interview that we did. Or if you want to learn about wonder in poetry, you can read the interview that I did with Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I love the conception of the space as this primary resource for poets. Nothing makes me happier than to hear that people are using it that way. And that you — someone I admire as much as I do — that you and the work that you're doing are using it, that's just really great to hear. Thank you. AF: Well, it absolutely is doing that. I mean I read and reread those interviews constantly and they're with my favorite poets over and over again and, like, just the depth that you' able to get to — that's really rare and I don't see that happening in other interviews. I can go out and get books about craft and read them — and I do — and I can go out and get books of poetry — and I do — and I read those and try to study them, but then Divedapper comes as this other way of digging into the work, especially with these particular poets. So, was that idea — the depository of primary sources — was that the idea that you had when you conceived of Divedapper? KA: Yeah — I mean to the extent that I conceived of it in any way besides just as a vehicle to get my favorite poets to talk to me, which was probably 98% of what I wanted out of the project when I started it. You know, to have an excuse to talk to Carl Phillips or Franz Wright. But as my ambitions for it became more egalitarian, and more oriented towards the public, that is really my only conception of it. That it be a space for poets and people who like reading poetry to get to learn about and learn from the masters of the craft. AF: Who are you reading and, especially, who are you reading that you think people aren't reading enough of, that maybe aren't getting the attention you think they should be getting? KA: I just discovered this Persian poet, Mohsen Emadi, who has a new book out. I think it's his first book in English. He's written largely in Spanish. I think that he moved to Spain to translate some Spanish poets, and these poems have just totally taken the top of my head off, to quote Dickinson. He's so fresh and full of surprising turns and surprise is what I privilege above just about anything else in poetry – to just be constantly kept on my toes and not know what is coming at any point. And these poems are just constantly surprising and fresh. And in the same way I really love Anaïs Duplan's book, out last year from Brooklyn Arts Press. It was her debut and it received a little attention but I don't think that people really gave it enough attention for how really brilliant it is. The poems are just so fresh and complete and mature and strange and fun and delightful and probing and weird. And it was just such a cool and unique, singular book and I really hope that people will pay attention to it. AF: Well, I was going to end it there but then you mentioned Dickinson. KA: Ha! AF: So, I have to ask – what was it like being in Dickinson's room? KA: Oh, yeah. It was awesome! So, I got asked to do an event at the Amherst Poetry Festival and I had agreed and I was all set to go there. And they bought me a plane ticket and I was already rip-roaring and ready to go and then, a few days before I was set to go out there, the organizer, Michael Medeiros, sent me an email that said, & #34;By the way, if you want to, the day after the festival, if you want to spend the morning writing in Dickinson's bedroom, you know, you'll be able to do that. If you want." And it was just the greatest instance in the history of burying the lede. I would have, like, ridden a mule to Amherst if someone had told me that, on the other end of it, I would get to spend the morning writing in Dickinson's bedroom. And of course, I was like, "Uh, yeah!" But, I wrote there on her little table, sitting in her little chair, staring out at the same trees that she would have been staring at. A lot of the house has been restored but that's still the same window and those are still the same trees. And it was really really nuts, you know — you close the door behind you and you could really feel her there. It really felt — I know it sounds kind of corny to say, but it really felt holy.

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