Kaveh Akbar is disarmingly handsome. When he appears onstage at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival to read his poetry, the cheers drown out the cacophony of the birds in the trees surrounding Charbagh. When he sits, he has a languid, sinuous attitude and a dream-wrapped gaze which seem at odds with the staccato beat of his poetry.
For a long-time reader, the beauty of his words and the power with which he pronounces them feel familiar. Less so are the openness with which he speaks and the warmth and empathy that emanates from his demeanour.
I sat down with him on one cold evening at Hotel Diggi Palace, the home of the festival, both of us exhausted after a long day of work. Here are some excerpts from our meandering conversation. I wish I could also capture the breadth of his frequent smiles and the sound of his laughter, for you:
How did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. My mom has poems that I wrote when I was three or four years old. It’s just a big part of who I am. I used to write short stories, I wrote novels. I just- I’ve always written.
Did your heritage start playing a part from a young age? Or did you at first write about angst and, you know, teenage drama, and so on? And then it slowly started coming in?
The second thing! I definitely started writing more about dinosaurs and basketball and those sort of things. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I really started to think about who I was.
Well, I’m in my mid-twenties, so that’s reassuring.
There you go!
When you began, did you always know that you were going to make a career as a poet or did that happen by accident?
I knew that I was going to make a life as a poet. But I assumed that that meant that I would be, you know, living in tubercula and squalor, and being a fry-cook, and then just write poems at night for no body to read. I didn’t think that being a poet would mean getting invited to beautiful festivals and making a living being a poet. I knew that I needed to make poetry in my life, I was very clear about that, even if my career wasn’t this.
What influences you in your poetry?
Everything influences me. Science influences me, painting influences me, TV influences me, every book that I’ve ever read, every conversation I’ve ever had, my parents, the food that we eat, it all affects the way that my brain works, what I love and how I love it and what makes me wonder and grieve.
Are there any traditions or people that you were particularly attracted to or inspired by?
Yeah, yeah. I am Iranian-American, I read everything, and it all changes the way that my brain thinks about language. Borges is huge for me. Anne Carson is huge for me, Robert Hayden is huge for me. I can keep that list going for two hours and not even scratch the surface.
Tell me about writing about your journey of sobriety. Was it difficult to write from such a personal space?
No, because I was just writing to make sense of it, you know. This is where I went to figure out how I felt about anything. I had to write things down, I had to work things out on a page so that I could figure out what I thought about it.
Did you fear about exposure, with publication?
No, because when I was writing, I wasn’t worrying about publication. Writing and publication are two different things for me. I don’t publish everything I write, I don’t feel any anxiety about not publishing everything I write (smiles).
In a lot of your poems, there’s this overwhelming sense of isolation. Can you tell me what drove you to write about that?
Well, I mean, addiction is very lonely. Life is very lonely, but the life of an addict is particularly lonely, because you feel so sorry for yourself. You feel like a cosmic victim, and it’s very lonely to be in that space and to be obsessed with your own victimhood. I was very very obsessed with self-pity in those days of my life- I was defined by self-pity, and I took no accountability for my behavior. Recovery, for me, was a long process of learning how to be accountable.
To be able to get out of that- writing was a factor in that, the catharsis of it?
Oh, absolutely. Not just catharsis, but, writing helped me look at myself with objectivity and stare at my own… (long pause)… imperfections and cruelties without flinching.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with your parents. I have some specific lines here which I absolutely love… “My mother filled a tiny coffin with picture frames” from ‘Against Dying‘ and “You grow to love the creatures you create” from ‘River of Milk‘.
You do, yes. Hmm. Yes, my mother’s brilliant. She gave me my love for language. She was the person who taught me that language was a site for fun. I love her very much (smiles). I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!
Yeah! She was the first artist I ever knew.
That actually segues very neatly with my next question, which starts with the sentence, “I apologise, I never aimed at eloquence” (from ‘River of Milk’).
With relation to that statement, I want to ask about the diversity of voices in American Anglophone poetry. Could you tell me a bit about breaking into this hallowed canon of voices while feeling like eloquence is out of reach for people of colour?
Yes, well, I think that there are a lot of writers from historically marginalized backgrounds who are writing undeniable work. The whole traditional powers that worked to keep those voices out are becoming more and more obsolete and their stronghold is becoming weaker and weaker as these voices take what is theirs.
Do you have an imagined reader, when you write?
(Takes a moment to think, then a smile slowly appears on his face) Yeah!
Who is it? You?
There’s always someone. Sometimes it’s me, me from the past, me from the future, sometimes it’s my beloved, sometimes it’s God… yeah, it’s different.
Tell us about your future projects. Who are you writing to, or writing about, next?
I don’t know! I’m just writing. I just sort of write some poems and eventually I’ll sort of hold a magnet over that and they’ll just pull themselves together.
And finally, tell us about some wonderful poets of colour that we should be reading.
Mmmm. (smiles) The poet Tiana Clark, whose collection that came out last year is called I Can’t Talk About The Trees Without The Blood. There’s a Vietnamese poet called Hieu Minh Nguyen whose collection, Not Here, came out last year, that’s another really great book to check out. Javier Zamora wrote a book called Unaccompanied. I could name so, so many more.
A shorter version of this interview will be published on the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival blog.
This post is a part of the A Year in Interviews project, during which I hope to put up 52 interviews throughout 2019, one for every week in the year. Spoiler alert: I’m already late.
Featured picture by a lovely helpful volunteer at the festival.