Thibault Raoult (TR): Such robust and odd images in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis.” Did these all originally belong to this poem? Might you have a daybook of images? Do images happen to you? Or do you seek them out?
Kaveh Akbar (KA): Oh, I totally keep daybooks. (I like that word for them.) I’ve dozens of physical notebooks scattered around, as well hundreds and hundreds of digital pages between my phone and my laptop—phrases, misheard song lyrics, lines from other people’s poems, words, thoughts, riffs, etc. I delete them when they go into a poem to avoid reusing things, so that’s hundreds of pages of pristine unused material just waiting for the right poem. And I’m constantly adding.
I think there’s this magic thing that happens for poets—when we spend enough time in poetry, in our poems and the poems of others—where everything we experience in our day-to-day life enters our consciousness through the filter of its poetic utility. Every phrase and interaction acquires the charge of poetic potential. The cruel name your partner calls you mid-fight, the mistranslated item on a restaurant menu, the bizarre instructions a girl on the sidewalk whispers into her cell phone. All of it enters, first, as poem lumber.
TR: I see your poem “Portrait” nodding to Frank O’Hara and Catullus, among others. Which poets/authors inform your rhetorical modes and discourses?
KA: I love, differently, both of the poets you mention. O’Hara for many reasons, but chief among them his notion that a poem is a conversation between two persons, not two pages. That feels immensely useful to me and true to my experience of writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat around writing a mystifyingly flat poem that ballooned to life only when I realized to whom I was writing. And this is maybe dumb or juvenile or whatever, but I think I love Catullus most for the startle of his filth. I privilege surprise (a form of delight) above pretty much any other craft element in poetry, and what’s more surprising than an ancient Roman poet whose poems are full of bestiality insults and excrement?
To the second part of your question, one of the great breakthroughs of my poet life was discovering Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, seeing how taking traditional punctuation out of her poems lent her this incredible control over momentum and inertia. That threw me into middle and late Merwin, who did the same thing a little differently, and to Robert Olen Butler’s Severance, which bills itself as a book of short stories (probably for marketing reasons) but really seems to be a collection of unpunctuated poems. I started mimicking them, composing without traditional punctuation, and I can’t tell you how revelatory that was for me. How freeing. It marked the beginning of a period of near-constant writing, of a sort of feverish prolificacy. It blew up the dam. I’m still kind of in the throes of that, and all my first drafts are still unpunctuated. Sometimes I’ll add punctuation in later, but often I find it to be more distracting than useful.
Some other major load-bearing books of my personal canon that brought me into new ways of understanding what was possible in my own writing: Heather Christle’s Difficult Farm, francine j harris’ allegiance, Franz Wright’s F, Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning, and Fanny Howe’s Lives of the Spirit. I want to talk about each of those at length (and have!) but suffice it to say that if I had a dream team of contemporary poetry books, these would some of the stars.
TR: You mentioned getting mileage out of the “friction between modes” in regards to a different poem of yours, “Against Vanity.” Nonetheless, what are the responsibilities—aesthetics-wise and ethics-wise (Wittgenstein proposes no distinction between these two)—of wielding such friction?
KA: I think what you’re talking about is the braiding of the high and low, the sacred and the profane, that sort of thing? I think a lot of that just kind of comes naturally, is an attempt to get out how I actually think in real time. There’s a tendency to advance and retreat when you talk about the spiritual world, right? To say something that sounds far out, gauge your audience, then take it a step back when their eyes start to roll? In my poem from the issue, I pivot from the prophets decomposing in the ground to the fruit going bad in the fridge. They’re both instances of decay, but it’s that high-low friction I think you’re talking about, an advance-retreat.
Bishop was the master of this sort of hesitancy—asserting something, then backing away from it, correcting herself. I have no factual data to support this, but I’d bet she probably has one of the highest “but” to “and” ratios of any poet in the western canon. Contradiction, a kind of rhetorical hesitancy, was Bishop’s great lesson to me: “How—I didn’t know any / word for it—how “unlikely”/ How had I come to be here?” I’ve heard people call it a “metaphysical modesty” and I think that’s perfect. It’s a powerful craft tool and one I’m very interested in exploring.
TR: How does it feel to occupy the crossroads of myth-making, on the one hand, and social critique, on the other?
KA: I’m in the camp that believes all poetry is inherently political. I think any act of slowing down the metabolization of language is political, especially now, in a moment where the great weapon used to stifle critical thought is the raw overwhelm of meaningless language. Solmaz Sharif’s Look does extraordinary work with this idea. I believe aligning yourself with wonder in a time that actively conspires against it is political. Affirming the sanctuary of the psychic life is political. These aren’t new ideas—think of Nazim Hikmet writing his poems in prison or Phyllis Wheatley studying Milton and Pope while still in chains. I’m literally getting goosebumps just typing their names. Poetry is deeply democratic—it can exist in the mind alone, and it’s therefore infinitely potent as a political haven. Mahmoud Darwish said, “Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility.” I can’t improve upon that.