How Shall I Live Now: Interview with Kaveh Akbar

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Kaveh Akbar is the founding editor of Divedapper. His poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, APR, Tin House, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. He is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017) and the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry). The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille MEdwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Kaveh Akbar about his debut collection of poems, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” focusing on the life and daily work of a writer in recovery, and the different gratitudes of inhabiting that particular life.

Tim Lynch: Ok, so the way I come into this book—well, I myself am in recovery.

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, thank you for your sobriety!

T: Thank you so much for that! And in terms of that recovery aspect, the book helped to clarify my own experiences. I mean, as I was walking around reading it, I found myself writing my own little fragments at the bottom of the pages. And you’ve talked before about bringing all of yourself to a poem, so I’m wondering what the process of writing these was like? In what ways did they show you to yourself?

K: Oh, that’s fantastic! I love that, the idea of poems generating more poems!

So much of writing these poems was a kind of self-love, or even a gesture towards the possibility of self-love, learning to love and live with my new self, who I didn’t really know at all when I started writing these poems. You know, I started writing the earliest poems in the book just in the very, very early stages of recovery, and the book kind of moves chronologically from the late stages of addiction into early recovery into sort of middle recovery. So the poem was really a place where I could go and try to make sense of anything, you know—make sense of the fact that I was given this second shot at life. There’s that line in the poem “Against Dying,” “how shall I live now / in the unexpected present,” and I think that’s the fundamental question of the book. You know, my disease was such that at the late stages, it’s not hyperbolic to say that I was dying. My body was giving up. And so for that to have been halted in its tracks, when for millions of people, it doesn’t get halted, it just keeps going and leads to the one inevitable end that it can lead to—trying to make sense of that. It’s almost a kind of survivor’s guilt.

T: You mention that passage from “Against Dying,” and it reminds me of that point at which we become aware of how entirely different we are from who we were. We become driven; we begin to love what we do. In what ways have you experienced this specific notion of happy strangeness, either in writing this book or with any successes you’ve had with poetry, with Divedapper or otherwise?

K: Yeah I don’t have to tell you, the process of going from addiction to even relatively mundane recovery is total whiplash, total astonishing bewilderment. Like people are looking you in the eye and not clutching their purses when we cross them on the street. Even that alone is a total shock. So to go from a bottom as is described in the early parts of the book into a life now, four and half years later, where I’m teaching at a university and have many people who depend on me every day in various ways, and people ask me questions as though I’m a real human being who’s capable of answering things—there are no words to describe how strange it is. Because the person I was still lives in my brain, and the fundamental condition that had me that way still lives in my brain. You know, my self-will directed life, if I let it, would take me right back to that place.

T: Right. And to sort of bridge that notion into writing, most writers, I think, struggle with trusting their own judgement, whether understanding when a poem is done or just understanding oneself as a writer in general. Was there a point in your writing life where you understood that this was worthwhile, that you could make a life of this as you have?

K: I live a fairly monastic life that doesn’t require a lot of upkeep. I have a cat to support, but in terms of what I require on a daily basis, if I have money for books and simple food, I’m more or less taken care of. That is to say, the prospect of making a life in poetry never seemed that daunting to me because it doesn’t take a lot to maintain the life that I have now. I guess I was never all that anxious about the practical side of things. I’ve had, since I was a teenager, a real clarity about poetry being the thing that I want to do, and I’ve never really doubted that. I’ve certainly gotten distracted, but I never really doubted that one way or another I would end up writing poems as the meat of my days. There was a time I was driving forklifts at a Subaru factory, and I’ve worked in a million kitchens, but even through all those times, if you asked me what I did I’d tell you I was a poet.

T: So that’s pretty much been your defining backbone throughout everything?

K: Yeah, even when I was in the throes of addiction, people would ask me what I was into and I’d say that I was a poet. Even when I wasn’t really writing I would tell people, with an absolutely chilling lack of irony, that I was living the poems I wasn’t writing, and I would really believe that.

T: Even so, I think it’s something to admire, from anyone struggling with something daily, to have that foundational strength, and that you’re making that strength out of the poems.

K: Right.

T: Ok, so—someone asked you before what your favorite poem was, and you said it was your acknowledgements.

K: (laughs)

T: I thought that was beautiful! And in some ways, you’re at the forefront of this poetry community: People go to your Twitter page as sort of an anthology, and you’re always so gracious to everyone, always boosting work. So how does it feel to be so largely a part of this community that is so large?

K: Yeah, I’m still kind of learning. I would say that anyone who writes poetry is part of something enormous and large, and anyone who writes poetry is a hero to me for that. We’re participating in a conversation that precedes us by millennia, and assuming that the men who run the world are able to keep their thumbs off the nuclear button, it’s also something that will outlive the last person who forgets our name by millennia. So, to participate in that conversation is the highest honor in the world to me, and it’s the hugest thing in the world too; it’s an enormous conversation that is infinitely larger than any one of us or any one poem. So it is my great foundational gratitude that I get to be some tiny little blip in that story.

T: Right. And there’s something I’ve found with gratitude for myself too—sometimes I have to allow it, and sometimes I have to really cultivate and pursue it. Is that something that you find yourself?

K: Oh absolutely, I think that’s a really beautifully phrased question. I think, especially right now, where we find ourselves as citizens of a country that is regressing at such a rapid rate, it’s very easy to feel downtrodden or low when you look at the news or even the weather report and you see how the earth is trying to defend itself against us. It’s really easy to lose hope. It is more work now than it was two years ago for me to stay oriented toward gratitude, and it is work; it’s always been work. But that is the orientation upon which my continued existence is contingent. There is no meaningful, substantive life for me that is unmoored from gratitude.

T: That’s sort of echoed for me in the last line of “Despite their size children are easy to remember they watch you”: “just say yes and step into the consequence.” The simplicity of that yes. Understanding gratitude and then understanding the work that comes from it, I think, is essential to this book.

K: Absolutely, absolutely, I think that’s a really insightful connection.

T: So to take it down to the poems, you’ve talked about “tonal cohesion” before, this idea that the poems are all orbiting around the same thing, and having read the book, that makes total sense. There are images that echo, and poems that foil and clarify growth—I’m thinking specifically right now of “No is a complete sentence” and “God.” Could you talk about your construction of the book, how you saw it as these varied perspectives?

K: Well, hopefully, there is a kind of narrative arc to the book that goes from, like we talked about, late addiction into early recovery into middle recovery. That was my ambition for the arrangement of the poems, but I also do think that there are certain obsessions of the poems that reverberate productively. You try to think about how you can create harmonious reverberations as opposed to dissonant reverberations, which is to say, you’re trying to sing an octave above the song or an octave below the song, not a third of an octave—you want to hit that exact right frequency. And I’m thinking a lot about the various and sundry forms that are in the book, the ways that they return and don’t return, and the kinds of cadences that that builds.

A really perceptive review that I read of the book said something like, reading the poems in order isn’t even necessarily the best way to read them, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I do hope that if you sit down and read the poems in order that there’s something fruitful there that elevates them above the experience of just reading them hodgepodge.

T: There is definitely that narrative, and one of the things that goes through the poems too is this idea of naming. What does the naming mean to you in the poems or otherwise?

K: Obviously naming is really, really important to the book; it’s evoked in the title of the book. I’m very, very interested in the ways that naming something does and does not give it power. The kinds of force that naming something accrues, and the kinds of potential it unlocks. But then also the impetus of naming: language is a big concern of the book. I more or less lost my first language, and so the countless poems in the book that orbit around naming, and calling things things, and taxonomy, they’re interested in those ideas.

T: Right, and then what do you do with the names once you have them? And related to that in my mind, I really want to go back to that notion of “how shall I live now,” and this sense of gratitude. So—what do you do with gratitude besides feel grateful?

K: Oh, that’s interesting. I love the succinctness of that. I would say that ideally, if you are able to orient yourself toward gratitude, the logical next step is to push it outward, to share the gratitude with other people. That can mean bringing gratitude into other people’s lives which typically happens through some kind of service. If you hoard all your gratitude to yourself, it’s like holding a candy bar in your mouth for a week—you’re gonna get cavities. Or maybe a better metaphor is, if you keep a candle burning in your house, it’ll eventually just melt itself, but you can light a million other candles from that single candle.

T: That’s beautiful. Perfect. Ok, last thing — I have a Philly workshop group and they all say hello, so I have to shoutout Shevaun Brannigan, Alan Beyersdorf, Dave Muir, Nomi Stone, Daniel Brian Jones, Irène Mathieu, and Raena Shirali!

K: Oh, yeah, beautiful, beautiful, hello to all of them! Give them all my e-hugs! I love so many of the people you just mentioned so much.

T: Beautiful. This one actually comes from Irène, and also because we all want to know: What was baby Kaveh like? Like on a particular Saturday in 1999, what would baby Kaveh be doing?

K: Hahaha! A particular Saturday in 1999. That’s a good question. Well, Simpsons reruns only came on during the weekdays, so it wouldn’t have been on a Saturday night. I would likely have a plate of cookies in my room and a stack of library books. My mom used to do this thing where she would go to the library every week and just get a random stack of books. It would be like, a biography of Louis Pasteur, and a novel about dog sledding, and a book on the velociraptor. Just this completely disparate array of books, and she would just bring home a stack of fifteen or twenty every week and just leave it in my room, and I would just read whichever ones I wanted and put those on the stack and she would take those ones back the next week, leave the ones that I still wanted, and come home with a new stack. She did this every single week, and so for the longest time growing up, what I did for the meat of my time was just lie in bed in my room with a plate of snacks and some soda and just read all day. I had a Super Nintendo I was pretty into, but my parents were pretty strict about only letting me play for an hour a day on the weekends and not at all during the week, so the thing that I could consistently do to entertain myself was to just read through these giant-ass stacks of books that she would always have around the house.

If you wanna know what baby baby Kaveh was like, apparently I was a complete terror. My brother was this perfect child who slept eight hours a night and never cried, and apparently I just would dart out of the house any time the door opened and head straight for oncoming traffic. There’s this famous anecdote in my family of me trying to jump off this huge rickety bridge in Iran, and my dad catching me at the last second.

T: Yup. That one’s a poet.

K: Hahahaha. Yeah, I should’ve known.

T: And that actually kind of connects back, these stacks of disparate books. I mean, there’s so much of the world in your book. It makes perfect sense that you spent so much time consuming the world in that way.

K: Yeah, yeah, it’s a very hungry book that just wants to put everything in its mouth, from language to people to food to narcotics to places. I think it just wants every part of the world in its mouth.

T: And I think it does it beautifully. I think it really shows—particularly for anyone in some kind of recovery—it shows that the world is still there.

K: Yeah! Yeah, that’s beautiful. And this was really, really wonderful. I’m always grateful to talk about poems and I’m always grateful to talk about recovery, and this was the nice middle of that venn diagram, so my gratitude is orders of magnitude greater than what I had even anticipated.

T: Grateful to be a part of that.

 

Tim Lynch has poems published or forthcoming with tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, Mead, and more. He was awarded a 2015 Piper Global Writing Residency in Southeast Asia and has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where he is an MFA candidate. He conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry.