THIS SUMMER Orion’s poetry editor Camille Dungy called up poet Kaveh Akbar to discuss his new collection Pilgrim Bell. What follows are highlights from their exhilarating conversation about journeys, action, ugliness, kin, salad spinners, and the devotional act of attention.
Listen to the full, unedited exchange (1 hour, 54 minutes):
Camille Dungy: Hello!
Kaveh Akbar: How are you? Where are you?
Camille: I’m at home in Colorado, which is nice. You’ve been flitting about places?
Kaveh: Yeah, I am still flitting about. I am in Italy now and then I will be in France and New York before eventually coming home at the very end of July. It’s incredible. I was a total rube for most my life. Growing up my dad worked on a duck farm and so we were pretty well yoked to the place that we were. Once we came to America, I never left the country save for going to Canada a couple of times. And then my first book came out and it was the most incredible thing that I should be able to write enough sentences to be able to get out and see the world. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to that fact.
Camille: What do you think causes the hunger for poetry, that allows that translation from you writing sentences to you going to see people in the world, to share your poems?
Kaveh: Do you mean the intrinsic hunger for poetry within myself? Or the hunger for poetry that catalyzes people to ask me to come bang my pots and pans?
Camille: I think I was going for the latter, but I’m interested in the former also.
Kaveh: Hmm. I mean, the writing is in and of itself. I was doing it long before anyone cared that I was doing it. I spent many years writing poems that nobody read unless I really forced it upon people. So you know, that has been more or less a constant in my life since . . . I mean my mom has pictures of poems that I wrote when I was like four and five years old. Some of my earliest writing in the English language is poetry. In terms of the hunger for poems, just as a human enterprise, or the hunger for encountering illumination that is not of yourself —that’s just art. That’s just our species’ desire for narratives. Our brains got too big for our heads. Our heads couldn’t get any bigger or we wouldn’t be able to get born, so we invented this technology of language and writing and it’s the third lobe of our brain, right, that we just keep in libraries? That’s as old as language.
Camille: I feel like it would be impossible to talk about Pilgrim Bell without talking about language and the ways that language allows us these really incredible intimacies, and connections and communications and revelations, but also the barriers that language sets up and the opacity of it sometimes, and the untranslatable realities from language to language and heart to heart. Can you talk a little bit about why that became a central concern of this book for you?
Kaveh: That’s such a beautiful question, thank you. You know what a great fan I am of your work, and just your person, and so the idea that you spent so much good time with this book tickles me so much. I’ve spent so much time sitting at your feet and sitting at the foot of your language, just sort of learning what I can in slack-jawed wonder, it’s really cool to be able to talk about this book with you.
To return to your question . . . the idea that we are making art with this technology of language, specifically the English language, is interesting. I mean, humans invented this language, and it bears all the flaws of its makers. A strong case could be made for it being the most violent technology mankind has ever invented. I mean it’s been used and deployed to perpetuate and insulate the building and deployment of nuclear weapons and chattel slavery, and carrying us to the brink of irreversible ecological collapse and genocide and colonization. All of humanity’s greatest hits, right? The English language specifically has enabled, or bolstered, all of this terror, right? And, so, it seems particularly ghoulish that I am this person who has sort of deputized myself warden of my species’ most dangerous technology. And I’ve said, I am going to use this to make beauty and search for meaning using this extremely corrosive and irreparably violent technology. And there’s so much that, because of its history, can’t be done with it.
You know the poet M. NourbeSe Philip, who’s a major presiding spirit over so much of the thinking in this book, talks about the need to “decontaminate” the English language. And that word has been really useful for me, in my wondering and wandering around some of this stuff. What does that work of decontamination look like, right? If you’re using the language as intended, that’s not particularly decontaminatory, and in fact, it’s likely re-inscribing some of the violence intended by its makers, right? And so there has to be some subversion of the willful intent of its makers. I think of poets like M. NourbeSe Philip and Solmaz Sharif and Natalie Diaz and Ross Gay and Ilya Kaminsky and so many others who have been thinking about these things long before me, as I’m just sort of following along and trying to add my little whisper into this conversation that has preceded me and will continue to go on long after the last person has forgotten my name, you know?
Camille: I want to return to Philip and her book Zong! I’m thinking a lot in my role as Orion’s poetry editor about how to make sure to keep exciting and perhaps slightly unexpected books on our readers’ radars, and I feel like Zong! would be a great book to talk about, so could you speak briefly about why you feel like that book was important to your education?
Kaveh: Sure, but first, you just mentioned how in your work as the Orion poetry editor you try to include unexpected texts. And I think this is something that I’ve learned from you. I also work as an editor at The Nation, and I have worked variously in a million different editorial capacities over the years, and one of the things that I’ve definitely learned from you and specifically your Black Nature anthology, is that, curatorially, you’re not just having poems where someone looks out on a landscape, or writes odes to a flower or whatever. Your conception of what it means to write an ecological poem is much more expansive than that right? That’s something that I think about a lot.
And so yes, I think that Zong! is a really interesting book in this conversation. You’re thinking about water. You’re thinking about people who built the land on which we live. You’re thinking about the people who colonized the land on which we live—built a country on which we live, not built the land. The musician Brian Eno wrote a book called A Year Swollen with Appendices, where he talks about the crack in a blues singer’s voice, if you’re listening to a Billie Holiday record or a Sarah Vaughan record, and their voice cracks on the vinyl, he calls that, “The sound of an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it. Too momentous for the medium assigned to record it.” And I think that the story of Zong!, the ship and the people who were murdered on it for insurance money, is an emotional event too momentous for the English language. There’s nothing that can be said about that that will equal the ghoulish horror of the events, right?
And so what NourbeSe Philip does is take the legal transcripts of the case, and create this kind of like divinatory oracular experience that pulls the actual language from the case and doesn’t necessarily break the language—it’s not the language itself that’s being fractured. . . I mean it is, it’s being rearranged, but it’s still the same language as the source. What she’s displacing is the sort of temporal context in which the language happens. NourbeSe Philip has a background as a lawyer—and so this is the language of a court case, which presumably, to all parties involved, must have been reasonable at the time, a reasonable way to be talking about these human lives.
But, of course, now to the contemporary American poetry reader, that ghoulishness is foregrounded because of that temporal displacement, right? And so it’s that fracturing that amplifies the insufficiency of the language, that shows that there’s an emotional event too momentous for the language assigned to record it.
Camille: There is another aspect of Pilgrim Bell that I really want to talk about, which is how playful it can be sometimes, even as it’s being very serious. The kind of wit that carries through. Not belly laugh wit, but I would very frequently smile and shake my head in approval of the way that you game my expectations and you force me to look at something more carefully—or to look, and look again. Those kinds of moments in the book are really wonderful and also I wondered if they are a mode of action or protection or a desire toward reaching into a new kind of telling, or maybe all of the above?
Kaveh: I think you just said it as well as I could, really. Thank you. I think that I am a very self-conscious person, broadly, and in certain ways as it pertains to presuming to say anything about ethics or morality when I am so compromised by all of the systems that compromise everything else around me, right? And so, I’m not immune to the corrosive impact of empire; in fact, I’m part of it. I’m not interested in writing a book that says, look at all these bad people around me, and aren’t you glad that I’m here to tell you about them? I think a more honest book is like, isn’t it wild that we’re all so compromised? And I think that a lot of the wit that you’re describing is just sort of me calling myself out throughout the book. You know, the parts of the book that feel interesting to me in the way that you’re describing are when I get into talking about something, and then I’m like—wait a minute, I do that too.
Or, there’s a moment, for instance, in a poem called “The Miracle,” where I’m talking about the angel Gabriel. And then halfway through the poem I’m like, wait a minute, why are we calling him Gabriel when in the Muslim tradition we could call him Jibril. His name in Arabic and in the Quran is Jibril. Gabriel is the anglicization of that. It’s what Christians called him. It’s the same angel but I’m using this Western name. I don’t even like the word Western, because Earth is a sphere, and everything is west of everything else, and if you say Western, then you’re putting the center of the world in Europe, but anyway, in the middle of the poem, I sort of ask myself, if the angel Gabriel showed up, would you call him Jibril or Gabriel? Like, who is this poem even for? It’s like you said, it’s not funny ha ha, but it is this moment of, wait a minute, what are we doing? I think that a younger version of me, the poet, would have just changed Gabriel to a Jibril. Or left it a Gabriel, or whatever. I think that the honest thing to do is to leave in that ugly moment. That kind of ugliness can be disarming, and it can be sort of funny in the way that you kind of laugh when you’re uncomfortable.
Camille: I think it’s also really important how the book forms connection, between you the poet and the work, but also me the reader and the work. There are these moments of certainty or lack of certainty, of the poet deliberating about word choice or the mistranslation of things, and then there are those moments of real life that show up in the poems too, that then walk with me in my own real life as I move outside of the poem. So thinking about this idea of your mind’s journey walking with me through the day, can you talk a little bit about the title, Pilgrim Bell, and what you hope to signal with that title? I see this idea of pilgrim, and pilgrimage, and this desire not just to show up and be at the place of spiritual reckoning and awakening and awareness, but to journey to it.
I’m not interested in writing a book that says, look at all these bad people around me, and aren’t you glad that I’m here to tell you about them? I think a more honest book is like, isn’t it wild that we’re all so compromised?
Camille: The path of coming to this moment of reckoning and awakening is as important as the showing up there, and the bell telling me to come and to walk. That’s what I saw in the title as I moved through the poems.
Kaveh: Yeah, I mean, you said it! Everything you said, absolutely. They are just two words that honestly fascinate me. Which is maybe a goofy thing to say but they are two words that really, really fascinate me—pilgrim and bell. There’s that Anne Carson quote that says, “A pilgrim is a person who’s up to something.” Obviously, I’m interested in this pilgrim’s journey, and the unselfconscious seriousness implied by it. I think that one of the things that this book really wants to be is sincere, and one of the things that this book really wants to avoid is vogueish irony.
I think that the default posture of the public intellectual is irony and that’s not particularly interesting to me right now. Or it’s not interesting to this book. And to say something and mean something else—I’m interested in how to make poems where I’m just saying the thing that I mean. I think the most popular kind of earnestness being traded around right now is this kind of like, this tactical exchange of nonsecret secrets, where we sort of say, I don’t know about anyone else but I think that Iranians are decent people. And it’s the sort of statement that is framed in this rhetorical structure, as if someone would disagree with it. But no one to whom you’re speaking is actually going to disagree with that statement, you know what I’m saying? But it’s framed as if it’s this kind of rhetorical statement, as if it’s this kind of reveal, but actually nothing is being risked. It doesn’t advance intimacy in any way.
I was just in Assisi, in Italy, watching actual pilgrims and monks, you know in the Franciscan robes, at the Basilica in the town from which St. Francis hails. None of those Franciscan monks in the robes cared what I was doing or that I was writing a book or whatever. None of them cared what I was up to; they were absolutely serious and absolutely unironic about the way that they were practicing devotion. I think that there’s something really, really beautiful about that. There’s something so humbling about that. That sort of absolutely disarming lack of irony is so humbling and beautiful and something I mean when I say things like God and love and fear, and those are the things that this book is about.
Oh, and then a bell. A bell is a devotional technology that requires the heft of a body to make it move. You have to pull on the rope of the bell to make a sound. In that way it just reminds me a lot of a poem. There has to be some physical process, whether it’s the pen moving on the page, whether it’s ocular muscles moving the eye across the page for a sighted reader, or the hand moving across the braille for a nonsighted reader. There has to be some physical process that animates the poem, that makes the poem more than just a font or ink on a page. The muscles of the throat and the diaphragm passing the air through the lungs, through the throat out the mouth, and the tongue as a muscle of articulation. That is one of the ways in which the bell is really interesting to me.
Camille: That’s beautiful. A couple days ago my daughter, who just turned eleven, was playing with this bell that happened to have been a gift from bell hooks.
Kaveh: Wow! Wowwwwww. What a flex. A bell hooks bell!
Camille: I know, right? Well, she figured out how to silence the clapper by putting a magnet on the wall so the clapper pulled to the magnet, not to the wall of the bell. And I thought, where did that come from? This desire to figure out how a bell works. And how to get on top of how the bell works to create your own power and force in it.
Kaveh: That’s wild.
Camille: It was kind of interesting to watch. Anyway, I want to talk to you about craft. I feel like what frequently happens to poets like you and me is that we talk about the ideas of the work. And ideas are so important, but there is something happening here in your poems, with the landscape, the line, with how you’re using punctuation, with how you’re using syntax, and how you’re saying what you’re saying is part of what you’re saying. In light of how to stop the clapper from moving, all those Pilgrim Bell poems are syntactically ruptured over and over again, but they’re not grammatically ruptured. And I just want to talk about why that is.
Kaveh: Why, why are you doing this?! I love this story about the stopped clapper and the magnet, it’s beautiful. I wish I had landed upon this as a metaphor or a practice a year ago when I was still working on this book. I’ll say that I didn’t just want to write part two to my first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf. So much of that book worked with this kind of supersaturation of language and these rushes of unpunctuated language. I wrote those poems very urgently, with a feeling of clinging to a two-by-four out in the middle of the ocean. I found that, after that book came out and I started writing poems again, I was kind of just writing poems that sounded like that still. But they just didn’t feel right this time. What felt new and exciting to me, formally, in that book, just felt old hat and rote to me after publication. So, in an effort to push myself toward the opposite of the long unpunctuated line, I started writing these poems with aggressively, even excessively punctuated lines. Which is sort of where some of those experiments, where some of the first lines that became this new book emerged.
And then it became really interesting. So much of this book is about me trying to teach myself, to actively learn and grow along psychospiritual lines. Trying to learn how to sit in mystery without trying to resolve it. To sit in uncertainty without trying to resolve it. To me, it felt a little bit like the period is a grammatical demarcation of certainty, like this is the end of the thought, subject, verb, object, this is the end of the unit. When I put a period at the end of the line, but then the grammatical sentence continues after the period, it’s like the urgency of the language is superseding the impositions of certainty in a way. My attempts to denote visually this sort of grammatical demarcator of certainty is being subverted by the language itself, which again, as a spiritual practice, felt useful for me. Felt maybe sort of emblematic of some of the work that the book was doing as a whole. A little miniature synecdoche of the work that the book was doing on a whole.
I always feel when I talk like this it’s a little bit bullshit. Because, it’s not like I was sitting there saying, Wow! What a great subversion of visually demarcated grammatical certainty I just came up with. As I began to work with it and as I began to play with that form more and more, I realized that that’s what I was doing. Once I landed upon this formally and began playing with it and working with it, I realized that that’s what it was.
My savior has powers and he needs.
To be convinced to use them.
Up until now he has been.
A no-call no-show. Curious menace.
Like a hornet’s nest buzzing.
On a plane wing. Savior. Younger than.
I pretend to be. Almost everyone is.
Younger than I pretend to be. I am a threat.
Even in my joy. Like a cat who. Playing kills.
A mouse and tongues.
It back to life. The cat lives.
Somewhere between wonder.
And shame. I live in a great mosque.
Built on top of a flagpole.
Whatever happens happens.
Loudly. All day I hammer the distance.
Between earth and me.
Into faith. Blue light pulls in through.
The long crack in my wall. Braids.
Into a net. The difference between.
A real voice and the other kind.
The way its air vibrates.
Through you. The way air.
Vibrates. The violence.
In your middle ear.
“Pilgrim Bell” from Pilgrim Bell. Copyright © 2021 by Kaveh Akbar. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Camille: Yeah. I think that’s a wonderful explanation for what it’s doing, and it aligns with how it felt. So, this conversation is for Orion, and there’s this expectation that Orion is about and for environmental-minded people. “Nature, Culture, Place” is one of the taglines that frequently comes up. So, where do you think Pilgrim Bell specifically falls in with those concerns? Why do you think this book is a book that would be important for the typical Orion reader to come upon?
Kaveh: Well, I would never presume to say anything I’ve written is important for someone to come upon. I have no idea who, if anyone, needs it, besides me. I needed it.
Camille: I think that’s such a beautiful and important thing to say and to hear and to repeat. Sometimes when we write, it’s not for some polemical reason; it’s that we need it—we write the work that we need in the moment of need, and sometimes that need can become communal. Your need could speak to my need, could speak to my daughter’s need, could speak to a lot of others, and that’s the beauty of art, but that is not necessarily the action of art. You don’t sit down and say like, “I’m going to write this . . .”
Kaveh: Yeah. Can you imagine how immobilizing that would be? If you sat down, and you were like, “I’m going to write the poem that people need right now.” What would that even look like? Who would presume to be able to write that poem?
Camille: A very presumptuous person, I think. But also, because we are in a moment of such urgency, facing this kind of ecological crisis, and global political crisis, and the violence of declared and undeclared war, and this pandemic—all these things that we are living in—it does feel like if I’m going to take the time to write, I need to take some time to do something that’s of value to others; it’s not just about me and what I need.
Kaveh: Yeah. The way I think about it is just that language, being the technology that it is, and having the history that it has, this language, in particular, the English language we’re using to talk to each other right now, being what it is, I think makes incumbent upon me the need to take it seriously, to take my material seriously. Again, I just don’t think it’s for me to say that my work is, or will be, or could ever be, or has ever been useful to anyone else. I can talk to you for days about the writers whose work has been useful to me, but it’s just not for me to say that about my own work.
I once met the great Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun. I think it was in my first year of my MFA. This is a man who has seen all manner of war and atrocity, and just . . . he’s really been through all of the darkness that life has had to offer, and he was still this sort of indomitably gregarious spirit. He would just sit and talk to you. He said, “A poem can be playful, and it can be silly, and it can be fun and funny, but a poem must never be frivolous.” And I remember just hearing that, and thinking, Whoa. I don’t think, at the time, I really quite understood what he meant by it. But over the years, I’ve thought about that so much.
I think that the difference between a fun poem, and a silly poem, and a poem that makes you laugh, and a frivolous poem, is that a frivolous poem is one that doesn’t take its material seriously. Right? We have all these poems that have caused all this trouble, and that have used language violently, and that people have rightly pointed to and condemned over the past few years. I think that the thing that they all have in common is that they didn’t take their material seriously. They didn’t consider the long histories of certain words and certain pieces of language.
So yes, to the extent that I have something in my head, you have to write something useful. Again, I begin the writing because it’s just the best sort of psychospiritual technology that I have for navigating my living. But when I think about what I put into the world, I’m not asking myself, Is this going to be useful or will people weep when they read this, or will they line up to tell me how brilliant I am? I’m asking if I have taken my material seriously.
Camille: I love that. And I love—to partially connect back to something we talked about earlier—how you use wit and the way that I would sometimes just smile when I had to hold the book up to the mirror to see the poem, or when I’d hear something translated and retranslated and I would find new things, and the kind of playfulness, even, of your syntax sometimes. I keep using the word playful, but it’s not like a belly laugh kind of thing, and it’s not frivolous. It’s that kind of serious humor of intense meaning, the kind of humor that makes you look and look again. And that seems like a thing that we need, right? The audience, a community, but also you, the speaker, too.
Kaveh: Yeah. That’s beautiful. I love that.
Camille : So, there’s this a duck farm in your book. There are some other kinds of markers that we might consider kind of capital N Nature sort of things, but it’s definitely not a pristine book. It’s definitely not a kind of American wilderness collection, or anything like that. What are your thoughts about environment? What are your thoughts on greater than human nature, and the way that those play into your own work, or not?
Kaveh: One thing that I can say is that I have the great fortune of having conned the universe into letting me be married to a transcendent American poet, Paige Lewis, who is just so good at seeing the world. That sounds corny, but literally, like when they see a tree, they really, really see the tree. They could go on a walk, and then come back home and draw a tree that they saw from memory. They actually see the tree, and not just the idea of the tree.
Whereas left to my own devices, I could run past the same trees every day here, and there’s not one of them that I could draw like that with acuity and with precision. Intellectually I know that a tree is pulling light from a star that lives 93 million miles away, and turning that light that weighs nothing into glucose that weighs something. That’s literal magic! But despite the fact that I intellectually know this, when I look at the tree, I don’t see the tree. When I look at the pigeon, I don’t see the pigeon, or when I look at the spider, I don’t see the spider, I see the idea of the spider, I see other spiders that I’ve seen before.
But being around Paige makes me really, really see things. We go on a lot of walks, and we spend a lot of time in nature. I just spend a lot of time looking at the world, or more accurately, looking at them look at the world, and I think that that practice of awareness has inflected everything. It has inflected the way that I see. It reminds me to actually look at the thing that I’m looking at, and not the idea of the thing. I think that that is everywhere apparent in the book.
The practice of walking with Paige, and learning to see birds the way that they see them, or to see flowers the way that they see them. . . . Even if I’m not literally writing about that flower, the way that I have learned to look at that flower has shaped the way that I have learned to look at myself, or my country, or my language.
Camille: I’m always interested when two poets cohabitate and share their work and things, the ways in which each person’s work will inform the other poet’s mode of being, and then also the ways that the poets stay very much in their own universe.
Kaveh: Totally, totally.
Camille: So, how much do you think Paige’s way of being in the world has influenced the shift in the ways that you’re writing in Pilgrim Bell, compared to how you were writing in your first book?
Kaveh: Wow, that’s such a good question. Well, the oldest poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf began before I even met Paige. We met like a year or so, I think, into my sobriety. And with that book, it was hard to see very far out past my own all-encompassing psychopathologies, which were just so loud, and sort of just drowned out everything else at the time. In the intervening years, since I wrote those poems, I think I’ve gotten a little bit better at listening to the subtler gradations of experience. I’ve also fallen in love with my best friend and married them, actually, in between these two books. So, yeah. There’s no way to really quantify. But I do think that probably the single biggest influence on the way that I write and how that has shifted over the past five years has been just that quality of attention, and that is almost exclusively a function of just watching Paige move through and love the world and practice the devotional act of attention.
Camille: Oh, what a great way of describing it, the devotional act of attention. Which is another aspect of a pilgrimage, right? One thing a pilgrim does is pay attention to each step on the road, pay attention to the journey, and also the point of arrival.
Kaveh: I spent so much of my life just like lurching from crisis to crisis, that my brain just sort of defaults into like, okay, what’s next? One thing happens, and then the next thing happens. Paige is so, so good. I don’t mean to just turn this into a podcast about how much I love my spouse, but they’re so good at reminding me, hey, this is really nice. What is happening right now is good. Not in an effort to make it stay longer, but just to make sure that we’re not just appreciating good moments in hindsight. Because we have both experienced a lot of moments that have been less lucky than this one, and we both will, inevitably, experience a lot of less lucky moments than this one, we are really able to appreciate the texture of just how good this is.
Camille: That’s beautiful. I want to think again about this idea of the devotional aspect of attention. I’m still thinking about your poem “The Palace” and that salad spinner in it that I love. It’s so fascinating, because there’s very little delight in that poem. It’s about a great deal of difficult realities in the world and the horrid way that we treat others and the insufficiency of compassion and the rate of violence, right?
And yet, there’s this kind of moment of mundanity in the poem that, for me, brings it so that we’re not just talking conceptually about these faraway terrors that don’t connect to me; it’s the ways in which our lives are all wrapped up in those faraway terrors, that we are living our lives and other people are living their lives, and that is both the wonder and the horror of the world. Is there an object in this book, or a place in this book, or a landscape in this book to which you were able, through these poems, to pay a bright devotional attention that still has a gravitational pull to you, that still means something to you as you consider the book at this point in its process?
Kaveh: You mentioned the salad spinner, which haunts me—truly, truly haunts me. Every time I see it in my kitchen, I’m just like, we use it, but I can’t think of a more useless indictment of my relative comfort. But that’s the opposite of what you’re asking. You know what? There’s a poem in this book called “Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997,” which is about a Persian restaurant that I used to go to with my family.
I’ve been to that restaurant a number of times since writing that poem, and since then that place has really become sort of holy to me. You know what I mean? My family never ever, ever, went out to eat. It was just such extravagance for us. But once a year or so, we would take these family trips to Reza’s Restaurant in Chicago to get Persian food. It was the biggest deal, to the point that, literally, I’m not exaggerating, it’s Pavlovian. To this day, the sight of the Chicago skyline still makes me hungry, still makes my mouth water. I’m not even joking about that.
A number of my friends live in and around Chicago, and they’ve seen the poem or they’ve heard me read it, and we’ll go Reza’s now. So it’s become this place that I used to go to with my family, and now I go to with my new family, my chosen family of poets. I’ve been there with Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall and José Olivarez and Hanif Abdurraqib. A lot of the people who I talked to most regularly today have eaten there with me, and that’s a really lucky thing.
Camille: That sounds delightful. Also, it’s so interesting, because there’s much in that poem about difference and distance, and how we can tell each other apart, but also how we recognize our own kind, how we recognize kin. Right?
Kaveh: Yeah. The poem begins with my dad. He would point around the restaurant and be like, “That person is actually Iranian, but that person is Arab, and that person is just White, but they have a tan and that person . . .” He really would do that. It’s like parlor trick or something, being like, “I can tell.” It’s a funny thing now, because I was born in Tehran. I am Iranian, but I also lost my Farsi when I came here, even though it was my first language. So, in a roomful of Iranians, I often feel like the least Iranian person. In a roomful of Americans, I feel like the least American person. Sometimes I imagine if I was in that restaurant, what would my dad say about me? Would he recognize me as Iranian?
Camille: This is going to feel like a little bit of a hop, but I’d love to talk about just the shape of your lines, and what kind of decisions went into that. They feel very buried throughout the book. We talked a little bit about that disruptive syntax that runs against the grammar of the Pilgrim Bell poems, so that we’d look at those poems, and they look like just your average left-aligned, columellar poem, and then they’re doing this other disruptive thing, as you’re reading them, that makes you question what you thought you knew. What were you thinking about as you were shaping the poems on the page, and how might that affect responses to the poems?
Kaveh: It’s true, writers writing from a position of alterity tend to be asked first about the social and political content of their work, and then about the actual craft or the line.
Camille: And that is why I always ask about craft, because I feel like as you just said, there’s so many ways in which my poetry gets examined for subject and content, but technicality is still important to me. I’m also a craftswoman.
Kaveh: In a poem like “The Value of Fear,” or “My Father’s Accent,” I feel like I’m picking up speed and picking up steam, and beginning to try to say a thing, and then the hard reset of the section break of the square comes in and disrupts that in a way that is not really organic. It’s not like the clause has come to a sort of tidy end, and now we’re shifting our attention to another thought unit, the way that section breaks are often or usually traditionally used in lyric poetry.
When I’m thinking about, like, the pilgrims’ journey, and the unselfconsciousness of it—I mean, a pilgrim isn’t showing up to the tomb of Assisi, wearing Prada, you know? The pilgrim is unselfconscious in that way, and not afraid of being ugly in order to get the thing right. I think that allowing some of that to remain in the book, allowing some of that to remain in the line, instead of polishing away those stutter steps in that rhetorical hesitancy, allowing that to stay in the book and allowing the reader to experience the process of my trying to get it right, as opposed to just leaving the artifact of having gotten what I am calling right, is really integral to how the book works.
Camille: And it’s part of how to reveal, again, the process of the pilgrimage, as opposed to just, now I’m at the Basilica! It’s like, no, I had to walk there.
Kaveh: Yeah, yeah. It’s a long walk.
Camille: And my shoes have holes in them now.
Kaveh: The journeys that I’m on, the journeys that I’m interested in, the process of learning to move through this world without harming it, is horizonal. It’s like the horizon. You march toward it forever, and you never actually get there. It’s the marching. It’s the motion that keeps you good. It’s the motion that keeps you better than you were the day before. That’s what this book is interested in. Ultimately, I’m writing poems because it’s a spiritual technology for me.
I feel like every time I say something like that, people are like, “Oh, okay, he’s not for me. I’m not a spiritual person.” But I’m as confused about God as anyone. I don’t know what I mean when I say that word, but I do know that I’m interested in learning to move through the world without harming it, and I think the poems help me with that.
Camille: That brings up about three questions at once for me. There’s a beautiful moment where you’re watching your older brother, and you’re trying to do your duty and pray, and then your brother does something that makes a funny sound, and then you’re both just hysterical. And that moment of a deep connection coming to you disarms you both and throws you out of the ritual into something even more tender and devoted to loving the happenstance of life. Right? That moment feels so important because it’s unexpected. This unexpected thing comes into this ritualized, dead-to-you process, and it brings this connection between you and your brother and higher powers, really.
Kaveh: Absolutely. Well, in the moment where we are trying to hold our shit together but just can’t, and we start laughing, and well, that moment is only as funny and poignant to us as it is because of how rote the process of prayer had become. Had prayer been a novelty, we would have been much more interested in that. At the time, it was impossibly funny.
A really good question to ask someone at a party is like, When did you laugh the hardest in your life? And that’s always my answer. It was that moment, and it was because of the rote nature of the prayer. So again, when I say the word God, I mean my brother, I mean my family, I mean my students, I mean Paige, I mean justice, I mean the Earth, I mean the cosmos, and then I also mean an old bearded guy in the sky who gets mad when I lie. I mean all of that, and all I have.
It’s the same way when I say “I love you” to Paige, I mean something. I got a watermelon from the market earlier today, and it was really, really good. I texted Paige, and I was like, “I love this watermelon.” That’s the same word that I use to tell them that I love them, and the same word that I use to tell my cats that I love them. The word God is like that. It’s just this sort of catchall, tidy, little monosyllable, and it contains all of those things. It’s expansive enough to contain that. I think that that’s one of the things that this book is gesturing toward.
The journeys that I’m interested in, the process of learning to move through this world without harming it . . . It’s like the horizon. You march toward it forever, and you never actually get there. It’s the marching. It’s the motion that keeps you good. It’s the motion that keeps you better than you were the day before.
Camille : This book also speaks to what it means to be Muslim in America and what it means to be Muslim in this world. That, too, is a thing that can . . . if not turn people off, supercharge their ire. But you have this way in which you’re like, Hello, I am a Muslim in America, but also, here are all these other ways that we’re connected, and have kinship and similarities and possibilities for conversations.
Kaveh: Yeah, I am a Muslim. I was raised Muslim. Even saying that is sort of like a misnomer. I think that, especially in America, if you say that you were raised Muslim, people assume that you just kind of popped out of the womb with a hijab, or a full beard or whatever, holding a copy of the Quran. We were Muslim, but we were as Muslim as like a Christian family that only goes to church on Easter. There are spectrums of all these things. It wasn’t until I got sober that my relationship with this actually became a little bit deeper, and I became a little bit more interested in this, and started doing things, fasting for Ramadan and this sort of stuff. I say this almost as if to situate myself within Muslimness because I’m writing from a very specific vantage point of American Muslimness. It hasn’t always been as legible, in my behavior, as it has been for other American Muslims.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m co-opting any experiences that are not actually my own. But that said, I’ve had the sort of standard load-out of being called all the things that we know that Muslims get called out on, and living through post-9/11 reflexive jingoism and Islamophobia. There’s a 1,000 percent chance that when I fly back into the U.S., I will be detained for some amount of time by Customs. I’ve never not been detained flying into the U.S. Plenty of people have stories worse than us—but just to say I have had a full spectrum of experiences of being legibly Muslim in America, as well.
Maybe the thing that is useful to say is that I’m very aware of how the appetite for certain narratives in a neoliberal literary readership is shaped, and how if I write a narrative that’s like, poor little Muslim Kaveh, and everyone is being so mean to him because he’s Muslim in America . . . people will like it. People won’t call me out on that shit, and people will like it. And they’ll say, “Oh, it’s so fucked up that your ninth grade math teacher called you a sand N word.” Which is true, he did. But I’ve never put that in a book, in part because it’s like a sort of preprocessed algorithm that allows the reader to say like, “I was not the one that did that to Kaveh, so I’m good for feeling bad about that other guy, and I’m also good for not having been him, for not having been the person who literally did that exact thing.” Right?
Camille: Mm hmm.
Kaveh: That’s not interesting to me. I’m not interested in writing a book that allows the reader to vent their neoliberal guilt in that way, to feel good about having stepped into a book and felt a little bit bad. It’s almost like, an inoculation. You feel a little bit bad reading the book, and then you leave feeling good for having felt bad, and then nothing changes in your life.
Nothing changes in your behavior; nothing changes in the way that you think about yourself or your complicitnesses or what to do about that. You just feel a little bit good for having felt that little bit of bad. I just don’t want to do that. Which doesn’t mean that I’m not doing that. I’m sure that I’ve come up short in moments, but that is what I have been trying to move against, is that easy narrative of me, the victim, America, the big bad guy. That’s why the salad spinner is in “The Palace.” I’ve talked about this before, but “The Palace” is a poem in which I talk about a kid who’s wearing a shirt that says “We did it to Hiroshima, we can do it to Tehran.” If they did literally do the action implied by that sentence, I would have family members that died, I would have beloveds that died. But my house is in Indiana. You know what I mean? In fact, I sold that poem to The New Yorker, who paid me money for it. And then I wrote a book with that poem in it, and then Graywolf paid me money for that book. I just want to be rigorous, because it is in that rigor that the easy narrative of America has been mean to me, and so you should feel bad for me and feel good about yourself for having felt bad. It is in that rigor that that venting of neoliberal guilt is resisted. Does that make sense?
Camille: It makes all kinds of sense. It’s so crucial to trying to work toward a real understanding that may become action.
Kaveh: That’s such a perfect way to say it: a real understanding that will become action. Because the other thing, the thing where I just tell you the horror stories of ninth grade or TSA or whatever, that thing doesn’t turn into action. What I want my poems to do is to point toward the action, not to convince you that they are the action. Gwendolyn Brooks says, in Annie Allen— “First fight. Then fiddle.” Everything that I’ve said in this conversation can be summed up in those four words.
Camille: So what does action look like for you outside of poetry, outside of literature? What are some of the ways that you live your life that also feel important to you and to the kinds of work that you’re doing in your poems?
Kaveh: Yeah. This is such an important question, because I think that my answer is different than literally every other person’s in the world, as it should be, because we were all figuring out what this action can look like. There’s a line in this Mary Karr poem called “The Voice of God,” where she’s talking about the voice of God, and says “it is small & fond & local.” I just love that—small and fond and local. And then the end of the poem is like . . . it says the most obvious shit, “put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”
I’m always waiting for these moments like . . . surely, empire will need me to step in front of a tank sometime soon, so I’ll just hold off in my apartment until the tank comes outside my window and . . . But no—action for me today looks like the work that I do that I don’t talk about often in spaces like these, in recovery, which is the majority of my work, actually, with newcomers in recovery community, the work that I do with people in recovery and carceral institutions, the work that I do with my students, and with my nieces, and my friends, and the poets who tug on my shirtsleeves, that I’m able to help. I wish that I could do more, for more. I don’t know. I don’t mean to make this sound like I’m just cataloging my virtues. Just to say because I am a person in recovery, who is also a poet, and has some amount of institutional power, the work that I am capable of doing looks different than the work of my friends.
I think that what I learned from that Brooks’s poem is that the work that we do is a line in that poem. You’ll forgive her, the ablest language of her time and me for quoting it here, but there’s a line in that poem where she says, “Be deaf to music and to beauty blind. Win war.” I think that the idea is just knowing which one is which, knowing when it’s time to take the call from a fellow in recovery, and not resent it because it’s pulling me away from some book that I’m reading. My work also takes the form of taking out the cat litter, and keeping those mammals that depend on me alive. I know a lot of parents and the work that they do, especially over this past year, it’s been pretty herculean.
Camille: It was an adventure. But I think that’s one of the things that also strikes me as interesting in this book. I’ll be curious, as it makes its way in the world and has more readers, how many will read it as another ledger of the journey of recovery in the way that people did with Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
But when you were talking about your marriage with Paige, and how they help you to stop and be present, and really appreciate the moments you’re in, I thought, Well, what a wonderful partner to be in recovery with. Because that’s so important to be able to stop. It’s so important for all of us to be able to stop, and it is particularly important when we’re hungering or we’re dealing with what it means to hunger for something that may do us harm, even if it will give us temporary pleasure, right? To be able to stop where we are right now and find the beauty in that. That stage of recovery seems to be really active to me, in Pilgrim Bell, that reckoning, that willingness to admit faults and to admit a lack of expertise and an inability to correct all things and fix all things. All that seems to be deeply inscribed in this text.
Yet to me, it feels like it’s also just a survival guide for all of us. It’s a way that all of us move through life with attention and awareness, which means letting in the horrors and the violence of the world that we’ve spoken to at some points along with conversation, as well as the beauty and the grace, and what it was that Hanif says about your book—I’m just reading from the back cover—“But what thrilled me most about this book was another commitment: the commitment to writing discomfort, or ugliness. Doing it well, and doing it without insisting upon beautification.”
I think what Hanif means in that “without insisting upon beautification” is what you’ve spoken about a few times now. Like, I’m going to give you the messy part, as well as what the final answer was, and I’m not just going to leap to the final answer, or I’m not going to clean up and not reveal this messy aspect or ugly aspect of the story that I’m telling you, just to get to this shining moment. It’s the pilgrimage. Making the holes in the shoes is the actual pilgrimage, not arriving at the gorgeous Basilica, right?
Kaveh: Yeah. Totally, totally.
Camille: And all of that seems to be circling back to why the act of writing a book like this may be useful to you. Necessary to you. You said earlier that in your first book, you were just writing while like grasping a raft in the ocean, but that this one felt different because you were able to be more grounded. Which brings me to my final question; What are the things in this book that you feel at this moment? Can you name one thing in this book that you feel in this moment, yes, that hope has been realized? I have done that thing.
Kaveh: Whoa. Yeah. Wow. Well, “The Palace” is the longest poem that I’ve ever written, and it is the only poem that I’ve ever written this way. I wrote it at a time in my life when I was very, very busy. I was teaching a lot and traveling a lot, and it was something that I would write a line or a couple lines one night, and then delete them the next night and write another line, and then delete that the next night. It was just something to keep me at least writing a thing a day, even if that thing was just an image or something. And then the process of deleting those other lines made it so that it was almost like this accretion, sort of like Penelope at her loom. I don’t know, loom language. She would go and weave a little bit and then undo what she had woven the previous day, or whatever. So there are all these references in the poem to other parts of the poem that aren’t even in the poem anymore. It has this weird, private idiom with itself, and there’s something about it that just does more for me than what language is supposed to do, and that poem really works for me, like the poem has taught me a lot about what I was and am trying to do with poetry. I learned a lot from that.
Camille: It’s a beautiful thing to know, in a sense, that there’s always the next work to be done.
Kaveh: I was just going to say that was a very generous way to frame that question.
Camille: I try to be generous.
Kaveh: I know you do. You’re very known for this.
Camille: One of the ways that I like to do my work in the world. This was such a delightful conversation. Let’s talk again sometime.
Kaveh: Absolutely. I would love that. I’m so grateful to you. Seriously, it really does feel, altogether, fitting and proper that you were among the very first people to spend time with this book and to talk to me about it, and it just feels very lucky to me to be the beneficiary of your attention. Thank you for that.
Kaveh Akbar is the author of Pilgrim Bell and Calling a Wolf a Wolf and has received honors such as a Levis Reading Prize and multiple Pushcart Prizes. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in low-residency programs at Warren Wilson and Randolph Colleges. He is poetry editor of The Nation.
Camille T. Dungy has authored an essay collection and four poetry collections, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has edited three anthologies, including Black Nature. Dungy is a distinguished professor at Colorado State University, and Orion’s poetry editor.
This conversation made me rethink all the reasons I write. The generosity in both speakers as well as the stripped-down discussion on language and craft made me savor every word. I will be making many return visits here.
A beautiful conversation!
It seems an odd thing waking up from a long bout without breath enough. That is what happened. I breath again. Thank you
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