In Kaveh Akbar’s poem, “Exciting the Canvas,” the speaker of the poem proclaims, “It doesn’t take much / to love a saint like me. / On a gravel road, the soft tissues / of my eye detect a snake curling / around a tree branch. Because I am here / each of these things has a name.”
This speaker, throughout Akbar’s full length collection, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is saint and seer, but is also struggling: wild with thirst and yearning, fallen from grace. Yet they never forget their divine nature, here by invoking the biblical naming of the animals and tree of knowledge with its attendant snake.
In real life, Kaveh Akbar the person is something of a patron saint to The Indianapolis Review. As I explain in our interview below, there might not even be an Indianapolis Review right now without Kaveh coming into my life. Patron saints are advocates for certain places, causes or things, and Kaveh has certainly been a huge advocate for poetry in the Indianapolis community.
I completed my MFA in poetry at Butler University in Indianapolis in 2012. A couple years after that, I kept hearing whispers about a new student at Butler who was not only extremely talented but was predicted to make an impact on the poetry community in a holistic way: not just adding his own work to the conversation but changing the way we converse about poets and poetry.
Seeing Kaveh’s unabashed passion and enthusiasm for poetry in action, receiving his generous encouragement, and reading his electrifying work has changed the way I think about poetry. His poems surprise and delight at every line break, and though they make great leaps, they never leave you behind.
“That the moon causes tides / seems too witchy to be science. / The sea purging sheet iron, / jeans, a jewel-eyed / alabaster goat. Is that / why I’m here? Everyone / needs kudos, from newborns / to saviors.” This juxtaposition of arresting imagery and philosophical questions answered by kooky aphorisms is a combination that reoccurs throughout Kaveh’s poetry. The reader feels a little disoriented, but is always put back on track, piece by piece.
We all know poets with talent, and Akbar certainly has lots to spare. When I finally met him, I was struck not only by this, but by the very rare qualities he possesses: an orientation of immense generosity toward poets and poetry, as well as his ability to look at the art with a particular perspective. He has vision. This vision is born out of his innate obsession and dedication to poetry.
When I began the MFA at Butler, the program was only in its second year and was unfunded. Most all of us (including Kaveh) worked full time while attending and weren’t necessarily in the loop about all the goings on in the poetry world. I spent my three years in the program either pregnant or nursing the entire time. I had my two sons over that time, and I also continued my work as a grocery store florist.
When I met Kaveh, he was launching Divedapper, a site that consists solely of his candid and thoughtful interviews with some of our greatest living poets. Reading his interviews surreptitiously on my phone while working in the grocery store became a huge part of my continuing poetry education. I was beginning to think of myself as a poet, but I hadn’t yet understood that part of being a poet is joining your voice to something that is ongoing, and much larger than you. You’re growing your own little branch off poetry’s giant root system. Kaveh’s Divedapper site is a free resource for anyone interested in understanding these roots. Contemporary and vital poets are engaged, and the conversations often veer into the work and groundbreaking concepts that have come before.
The intrepidness of his creating this site while still a virtually unknown MFA student is one reason I say Akbar has vision, but there are others. He has collaborated with poets on various projects, ranging from podcasts to poetry advice columns to the annual Divedapper Carnival in Indianapolis: a day of free readings, workshops and yes, even carnival food and games! I also must mention that he has used his social media platform to provide a steady stream of poetry by tweeting, posting and sharing poems by an extremely wide variety of poets.
“write / by the light of your wounds.” Akbar continues in “Exciting the Canvas” with a quote from a “famous poet” and quickly switches up the pace to an image of a drunk flying over handlebars. “Performed pain is still pain.” His exploration of the themes of addiction and recovery are central to this poem and to his collections. The speaker in this poem then goes into a memory of shouting, at parties, “I’m frantic, and you?” Like a fire, / hungry and resisting containment, / I’d pound at the windows, my / mouth full of hors d’oeuvres. / Outside—sweeping plains / of green flora and service stations. / Odd, for an apocalypse / to announce itself with such bounty.” Here the poem enacts the speaker’s mania and we feel intimate with it, as well as the landscape it introduces: as perfect a description of rural Indiana or other Midwestern location I’ve ever read.
Kaveh published two books in 2017: the chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press) and Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. He was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently teaches in the Purdue University MFA Program and in the low-residency MFA program at Randolph College.
NS: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.
KA: Of course! Of course! Thank you for thinking of me.
NS: I don’t even know if you know this, but The Indianapolis Review might not exist right now if it weren’t for you, or at least it would taken me a lot longer to make the leap and do this.
KA: Why do you say that?
NS: Well, you know how it is–you have your people that you look up to in the poetry world, and you might not realize it, but I look up to you. It’s actually been like a ripple effect the way you’ve inspired me because now this project I’m doing is inspiring other people in the local poetry community to do things.
I don’t know if you remember back when I first met you, and I saw what you were doing, but I was just SO excited to know that you were there–in Indianapolis at Butler. It was just a breath of fresh air, the way you were so passionate and just doing what you wanted to do, just going for it, and talking to your poetry heroes.
KA: Thank you for saying that.
KA: Yeah, I love that! You know, back in the day, before I was even publishing in earnest yet, Prairie Schooner did a profile on me and they wrote, “Kaveh Akbar: poet with chutzpah.” And that was like the headline of the thing.
NS: Really? Was that the first time anyone had described you that way?
KA: It was like my first big article. I only had maybe a half dozen publications or something like that.
NS: But even in life, like growing up, were you that way? Were you known for that?
KA: I was certainly adventurous. Well, I started a sort-of alternative magazine in high school that I was just photocopying and stuff, I enlisted all my friends to help me with.
NS: The Quirk?
KA: Yeah, yeah, The Quirk! And it ran for 14 issues and morphed into a poetry journal, and for that I was just cold calling poets that I loved. I think it’s honestly just a kind of shamelessness. I don’t think it’s anything particularly noble or anything like that.
NS: So when you had your first interview, were you nervous? What about when you were doing The Quirk? You said you were seventeen and interviewing Yusef Komunyakaa?!
KA: Yeah, yeah. So I think my first interview was the poet A.D.Winans. He is a small press poet who was friends with a lot of the Beat poets, and then my next interview was with Yusef Komunyakaa, who again, I just sort of cold called, and we talked for like an hour. It’s still an incredible interview. There’s this moment where he’s talking about meeting with Gwendolyn Brooks and he asked her, “Ms. Brooks, what is art?” And she, without missing a beat, said, “Art is that which endures.”
KA: Yeah, just imagine little shithead Kaveh Akbar, seventeen years old, talking to Yusef Komunyakaa, talking about Gwendolyn Brooks. You know what I mean?
KA: You almost need a fish eye lens to be able to capture the vast gulf and scope of that frame.
NS: I think it’s wonderful, though that you had the ability to do that. I’m a person who grew up extremely shy and insecure. I still feel really nervous doing this whole literary journal thing. I met Yusef once, when he came to Butler as a Visiting Writer, and I was just sitting and listening to him talk with other students, and then he turned to me and asked me what my work was about. I was too terrified to answer, so I asked Doug Manuel to answer for me, and luckily Doug went into a very eloquent description of my work!
KA: Yeah, it’s a thing that I find with people at that level: Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, they’re constantly being asked about their own work, and they don’t want to keep repeating and saying the same things, and so a way to deflect that is to ask people about their work.
NS: I can totally see that. If it were me, I would get bored with always repeating the same things, too. . . So, you talked about this in your Commonplace episode, but you know both of us became really close to our professors at Butler. You know, I have become really close to Alessandra (Lynch) and she is very important to me in my life as a friend and mentor. But you have also been a huge inspiration to me and so many other poets in Indianapolis.
KA: Yeah, we’re in this little community and everyone is influencing each other.
NS: And the thing is that you taught me that being a poet isn’t just about being alone in your room and writing by yourself, but that it really is about engaging other people’s work and being involved in a community.
KA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s sort of the fun part about being a poet: that you get to interact and be among the most fascinating human beings who are all obsessed with the same thing that you are obsessed with. So many people perceive poetry to be this niche thing that exists at the margins of human interest, right?
KA: So why would you not want to totally immerse yourself in a community who also really, really values that?
NS: Mmm-hmm . . . So, I was just listening to Nick Flynn’s interview on Commonplace again. I am so obsessed with that podcast! And he was saying that he reads poems so he can get a glimpse of other people’s inner lives, so that he doesn’t feel like he’s just walking around among ghosts. He can’t stand surface-y interaction, and he always is wanting to get down to what is underneath and what is really going on inside of people. I think that that’s just how we are as poets. I think we obsessively think about stuff like that, whereas most other people never think about it.
KA: Yeah, totally, totally.
NS: So, you’ve been teaching in Purdue’s MFA program, and I know there’s a lot of talk about the potential problems and downfalls of MFA programs, and I was just wondering how you approach teaching and workshopping? What are some things that you keep in mind when you’re running your workshops?
KA: Yeah, well the biggest thing for me is just orienting the workshop toward a holistic gratitude in our getting to be among each other and talk about poems at all, which is sort of this historically unprecedented luxury to just be in a room full of people who are getting paid to sit around and talk and think and read and write poems, you know?
NS: Yeah, yeah.
KA: It seems like it’s a very miraculous and unique thing to our historical moment in the grand scale of things. The fact that we just get to be people who love something and our job is to sit around and talk about loving that thing, it’s great. So everything that we do in the workshop is in service of maintaining that orientation.
NS: A deputy of gratitude! A distributor of gratitude!
KA: Yeah, yeah.
NS: So, when would you say that you knew you wanted to be a poet?
KA: Well, my mom has poems that I had written as far back as Kindergarten. But when I was in high school, I had a seminal English teacher, Steve Henn—
NS: Yes. Shout out to Steve Henn.
KA: –and he sent me home one day with a stack of poetry books and it was the first time that I had ever really read contemporary literary poetry. It was one of those great moments of clarity in one’s life: the clouds parted, and angels came blaring their trumpets. I just knew. It was the total overwhelming shock of clarity that I was to be a poet.
NS: That’s awesome. That’s wonderful. I think I also read in an interview that your mother would bring you stacks of books from the library every week?
KA: Yeah, she would always bring 20 books home from the library and they would be completely different kinds of books. It would be a book of photosynthesis, and a biography of Albert Schweitzer, and a biography of Bo Jackson, and a book of limericks and a book of Garfield comics or something. They were just completely different things, but enough of a range that I would never want for something to read, depending on what sort of mood I was in. And at the end of every week she would go to the library and take back whatever I had read and replace them with new books.
NS: Wow. That’s so cool. Was there ever a time that there were poetry books in there?
KA: Hmm. My mom really loved Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein and that sort of thing. So, those were certainly among them. I don’t recall there being Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman or anything like that, but there were certainly goofy folks in there in which language was a site for fun.
NS: I love the library so much! My mom also would take us every week to get books. . . So, is there a history in your family of artists or writers or anything like that?
KA: No, everyone in my family is basically in some sort of science. My brother is a computer science person; both of my parents are different kinds of biology people. Uh, but I do think that poetry and science are deeply related in what they’re fundamentally about. I think that they are both at their core about a state of deep attentiveness. Both scientists and poets watch. I think that whatever sort of genetic disposition I have to being deeply curious and deeply attentive could have been redirected. Actually my whole childhood I planned to become a doctor, and then Steve Henn sent me home with a stack of poetry books and that plan fell apart.
NS: Yeah, that’s so interesting. My father is a software engineer, and he’s also a photographer, and when you were talking about that intense watching and observing, I was thinking of him. And I hadn’t really thought about that connection between science and poetry.
KA: It’s very real.
NS: So, can we talk about bewilderment? You have that line in your poem, “Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives,” where you write, “Rumi said the two most important things in life were beauty / and bewilderment this is likely a mistranslation”
KA: I think that a permeability to wonder is the root of every great artist, and I think that it’s where they draw their power. I think bewilderment and wonder are at the core of every great piece of poetry, whether it is bewilderment at mortality, bewilderment at love or bewilderment at our own process of cognition. Or bewilderment at our own rage. Or bewilderment at our own grief. You know, all of these things are articulations of the same sort of bewilderment.
NS: Mmm-hmm. You’ve talked about your own writing process in a lot of interviews and when you sit down to write, you aren’t sitting down with an agenda, you’re writing more from that place of bewilderment and surrender, right?
KA: Yeah, I mean, I definitely have a belief in the intelligence of language and the notion that the language will always know more than I do, and I allow it to lead me to whatever discovery it wants me to make.
NS: Do you feel like it is coming through you from somewhere or something else, like the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious? Or your higher self? Or something mystical or divine?
KA: Well, the process of writing a good poem is the process of creating something that is not you. Right?
NS: Mmm. Yes.
KA: The first time we realize that we’ve struck upon real poetry is the first time we write something and sense it to be a product of something other than our own intelligence. And that is the sensation that I am constantly after in my own writing and in my reading. I want to see that in my own writing, and I want to see that in other’s writing. I want to see the prism of lived experience refract the light of this kind of universal consciousness.
NS: Yes. I know you’ve talked about this too, about getting a sort of narcotic feeling or high when writing and reaching that universal consciousness, and you’ve also mentioned how you’ve sort of replaced your addiction to alcohol with a healthy addiction to poetry.
KA: Yeah, mostly healthy!
NS: I have heard it said that when people are using or drinking and drugging it’s sort of little glimpse of the divine, but the concept that we can have a sober or healthy way of reaching the divine through poetry is really interesting to me.
KA: Oh, absolutely.
NS: An escaping of the body, or of the heaviness and humiliation of having a body.
KA: “the humiliation of having a body,” I like that.
NS: Yeah, I just read about this! It was in a sort of spiritual book I’m reading about the life of this Yogi.
I noticed that one of your section titles comes from a Gibran quote. I grew up reading Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet because my mom had it on the bookshelf. And as a young depressed teen, I found a lot of hope in the line, “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
KA: Sure. Totally.
NS: So, when you were ordering your book into sections and deciding on what would go where, how did that process go for you?
KA: Well, the book moves from the throes of late active addiction into early recovery, into middle recovery. And that’s the loose framework around which the sections work, as I understand it. The book is out in the world now, and it is as much yours to interpret as it is mine at this point. But as I understand it, and as I was conceiving it, that’s sort of how it made sense to me.
NS: Mmm-hmm. Somewhat chronological, in a way.
KA: Yeah, yeah.
NS: The book is so rich and all the poems are so good! You know in so many books there are poems that are sort of filler or aren’t as good, but that’s not at all the case here. One of my favorite poems of yours didn’t even make it into this book. I don’t think. The “Portrait of The Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis” poem.
KA: Yeah, that one’s not in there.
NS: The imagery just stays with me: the monster shattering into topsoil and the tadpoles that turn to paper in your hand. When you’re writing, do you still do the bibliomancy technique that you’ve talked about?
KA: Absolutely. That’s a big part of my writing process. It’s going through books by not-me people, and seeking out words that I love.
[Note-Kaveh’s technique is to use a stack of books and open to random pages and write down words that catch his eye. He also creates interesting phrases by combining two or more separate, found words and creating a word bank or list of these to then use afterwards when writing his poems]
NS: Yeah, that’s super helpful. I remember I took a class at the Writers Center where you taught that, and then the next time I taught there, I taught a prose poetry class and I incorporated that exercise! I had the students write really straight narrative prose poems and then I had them do the bibliomancy and then go back and ‘mess up’ and add in interesting language to their prose poems.
KA: It’s a really beautiful, useful exercise. I’m always amazed by it when I do it with students.
NS: Yeah, that’s awesome. I’m so happy you shared that with us. So what has it been like having Calling a Wolf a Wolf in the world? You’ve talked about how it’s been 28 years in the making and that it has come out of every bit of your life experience thus far. I was just wondering what has been surprising to you about this exciting time in your life?
KA: One of the really, really miraculous things that this incredible, impossible reception for the book has granted me is access to a lot of poets that I would have never discovered otherwise. I’ve traveled around and got to read poems from this book and that’s beautiful and wonderful and the total dream, but I’ve also gotten to meet new poets in every city that I go to and get to talk to them about their poetry and talk to them about poetry in general, and that’s the most thrilling thing in the world. You know, what hope I have for the future all comes from poets and poems and poetry. Everything that I take faith in moving forward is a result of what I see in poems and poets.
NS: Yeah, that’s a really beautiful and wonderful thing! So, anything you want to talk about that you are working on now? I know you have been writing lately in a different style using shorter, end stopped lines and not as much of the sort of sprawling lines broken up by caesuras.
KA: There are poems that I’ve been working on that are much quieter and much more interested in using silence as a structural element of the poem, and then there are poems that are a little more chattier and a little more saturated with language.
NS: People always talk about how poets have their obsessions that they return to again and again, and I certainly notice in your work very often there is a tongue or mouth in your poems; there is that theme of hunger and thirst and desire. So, I was wondering if you are finding in your new work that you are being led to any different themes or returning to the same themes? Or maybe this is too soon to ask you this.
KA: Well, again, I just let the language guide me. It always knows more than I do. I trust where it takes me and certainly that has been to both new formal and technical discoveries, as well as technical and aesthetic sensibilities. But also new areas of content. And the same areas of content. I mean, I’m never not going to be obsessed with the fact that I was dying and then didn’t die. I’m never not going to be obsessed with the fact that I’m a different person then I was five years ago. Or that love exists. Or that grief exists. Or that we exist at all. Again, it’s just an act of faith in the language.