“Heaven,” Kaveh Akbar writes in Pilgrim Bell, “is all preposition—above, among, around, within—and if you must, / you can live any place that’s a place.” It’s a fitting line to capture Akbar’s poetic sense: that life—however dizzying, steeped in suffering, and fragmentary—is a tremendous gift.
Akbar’s life as a poet has been guided by a generous sense. For several years, he interviewed poets for his Divedapper site, guided by a simple philosophy: “I want to be able to have meaningful conversations with the poets whose words have shaped the way I experience the world, and I want to share the artifacts of those conversations with as many people as possible.” That sense appears to guide his editing and curatorial work—the feeling that the world of poetry sustains him, and that he can play a part in bringing that good work to the wider world.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the poetry wditor of The Nation and a recipient of honors including multiple Pushcart Prizes, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, and the Levis Reading Prize. Akbar was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson. Pilgrim Bell follows Calling a Wolf a Wolf, his debut collection.
We spoke about prayer, his literary influences, and how poems arrive.
The Millions: I read much of your book aloud; I think Pilgrim Bell compels me (as Gerard Manley Hopkins hoped for his work) to live in the ear and mouth more than the eye. “The Value of Fear” feels especially aural, the living sound of the opening lines, following the title: “is in its sound, sewing song / to throat. The pale thrush // trills the snow.” Do you find yourself speaking your way through your poems? Where does voice—the mouth open, the words out and heard—exist in your process of composition
Kaveh Akbar: I’m always reading the poems out loud, from the very earliest stages of doodling language through revision and fine-tuning, laying the poem out on the page. The breath hooks into the spirit. In Arabic “ruh” means both breath and spirit. Ditto the Latin “spiritus.” Without some physiological sublimation of the inert font into a living poem—whether via breath or even just the movement of ocular muscles along a line, fingers across Braille—the poem remains ink on a page. If a poem augurs any holiness, it begins in the body.
TM: We are mutual admirers of the late Franz Wright. Pilgrim Bell feels haunted by him. I think he is one of the great Catholic poets in recent memory, someone who arrived at that faith in his late 40s. He spoke of having a shift in September 1999 from having a longtime intellectual interest in Scripture to feeling a visceral, palpable attraction to Jesus as one who loved absolutely—drawn preternaturally to sinners. I am unable to read Wright without crying. Could you talk about Wright a bit? Do you return to his poems?
KA: He was my first favorite living poet. Everything I make is indelibly inflected by his thinking. Everything I think, really. He was so unwell, holistically, but he made such space in his life for young poets who could do him no good. He granted me the last interview he ever gave, and talked to me seriously, like I was a real poet. Not many had done that before him.
I actually wrote to him for months trying to strike up a conversation. I was a baby, and a shameless fan. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t learned that you’re not supposed to appear so desperate. Maybe I still haven’t. But I wrote him letters for months with no response, not even an away responder. It was almost like I was just keeping an epistolary journal. “Dear Franz, Last week I did such and such, read so and so,” that kind of thing.
Then finally, after maybe nine months of me emailing him, he wrote back with just a couple words and a phone number. Which I called immediately. Of course it rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. No machine, no voice mail. Same thing the next day, and the next. I worried he’d mistyped his number. But after a couple weeks of trying the number, his wife Elizabeth picked up. I said who I was and she brought the phone to Franz, who said “Kaveh! Why didn’t you call me sooner!”
TM: The epigraph to your poem “Cotton Candy” is from John Donne: “To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.” In its original context, the line appears: “All their proportion’s lame, it sinks, it swells; / For of meridians and parallels / Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown / Upon the heavens, and now they are his own. / Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus / To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us. / We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race / They’re diversely content to obey our pace.” I love your epigraphic eye here. Who is Donne to you, as both poet and legacy? Why choose these lines in particular from his poem?
KA: He’s a titan. Sexy, ferocious. Magisterial. But what I’m really interested in, as it pertains to Pilgrim Bell, is Donne’s silence. Really all the metaphysical guys were great this way, Marvell and Herbert too. And Hopkins kind of tangentially. But the way Donne could get so bombastic, so loud. And how that volume created such a contrast to the silence immediately after. Like how the silence following a gunshot is somehow deeper than the silence before. “OH my blacke Soule! now thou art summoned / By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion; / Thou art like a pilgrim.” Maybe I’m tipping my hand too much. But that pilgrim, the silence between “Soule” and “now” conjured by Donne’s exclamation. It’s such unforgettable drama.
TM: Among the glorious lines in Pilgrim Bell, I’ve been returning to these: “God’s word is a melody, and melody requires repetition. / God’s word is a melody I sang once then forgot.” You’ve returned (appropriately) to this theme of return, past and present, and the evolution of self in your work. Your narrators have lived two lives, or perhaps more. They have found and forgotten God, and understood the body and how it breaks (“Show me one beast / that loves itself as relentlessly / as even the most miserable man.”). What is it about poetry (as a form and genre, perhaps) that offers a useful vehicle for this theme?
KA: Even just putting a word in a poem places some tension upon it. Using it again and again, straining it differently each time. Like the chiming of a bell. M. NourbeSe Philip talks about “decontaminating” language and I feel like that’s at the heart of how Pilgrim Bell works. Poems are the best way I know to explore the divine. But the language of my poetry has been so endlessly compromised by its murderous histories. There is something about the iterative nature of lyric that allows me to vet my own thinking.
I once heard the critic Parul Sehgal use the phrase “a productive distrust of the self” in a talk and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think, as an English language artist, that distrust has become central to my practice. When Brian Eno describes the crack in a blues singer’s voice on record as the sound of “an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it,” that’s what I’m after. Cracking the poem along the axis of my (hopefully!) productive skepticism of the language. And of myself.
TM: You’re the poetry editor for The Nation, and you’ve selected and presented the forthcoming Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. How do the modes of editor, curator, anthologist differ from that of poet? Do you find your editorial work generative for your creative work, or do they remain distinct?
KA: I don’t know that it’s so linear as X is generative to Y. I want to be useful, and I think we’ve been able to put a bit of wind at the back of some really fine poems at The Nation. I hope, with the Penguin anthology, we’ll be able to help introduce readers to voices from antiquity, from other parts of the world, that might usefully illuminate something about living. Steadily (re-)orienting myself toward humble grateful service to what I love best keeps me healthy. When I’m healthy, I can write. You know Merton’s prayer? “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”
TM: I want to return to Wright to finish. I find it telling that he (a poet of craft and rawness, and a person who said of himself, “I’ve been around the block a few times, and have an idea of what men are capable of. I’ve been capable myself”) could be so sentimental and earnest about faith. I find equal parts power and humility in your engagement with the spiritual—I think of you among poets like Jericho Brown, Shane McCrae, Carl Phillips, and Mary Karr, all gifted stylists who live among faith and doubt. So let’s follow Wright for a moment. What, do you think, is the relationship between love and faith?
KA: I remember once, overzealous, I compared Franz to Rilke and he said, “You may as well compare me to Catullus.” That’s how I feel about your question situating me among those titans, moved as I am by the kindness. I am going to try to answer quickly to avoid overthinking myself into immobility. Love, faith. Yes, okay—
Poems, like prayers, orient one toward action. The trouble comes when people believe the poem, or the prayer, replaces action. I have faith in the capacity of writing, as a devotional technology, to illuminate the next right thing for me in my living. How I might learn to better pass through the world without harming it. That is a kind of love. And like every other love I have known, it is not a destination. It’s a marching. Daily, hourly.