blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 16 No. 2
 print preview
 download audio

A Conversation with Kaveh Akbar
captured October 8, 2018

Gregory Donovan: Welcome everyone. I am very happy to welcome here Kaveh Akbar, the winner of this year’s Levis Reading Prize. His book was selected from among a stellar group of books, but his was beyond stellar, and I mean it was so good I spent part of my vacation time on the beach where I had people bringing me drinks not drinking but reading his book. He is the winner of so many prizes I don’t know if I can list them all, and I don’t want to spend all of our time doing that. I will note that he founded the website Divedapper, an interview site that I’ve gone to many times to read the fascinating interviews with young poets and developing poets and established poets. And you’ve stepped away from that now.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, just handed over the reins.

GD: But it’s still something highly worth visiting, of course, and he is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and that is the book for which he won the prize, and many of you probably already have been reading that book, and now we will ask him questions about that and life and the universe.

Kaveh, one of the more interesting things—well, there are so many interesting things in your book that I really find fascinating, but one of them is your approach to spirituality and matters of, you know, your really interesting talk and perspective on God. I recall your poem “Prayer” where you talk about not being so interested in God but the flower that stands behind God, and I loved that. I found that interesting and kind of thought, “Gee, I didn’t except to, but I kind of agree with that,” you know. I wondered if you’d just talk a little bit about what you’re drawing on in that and what you’re struggling with or how that’s working into your poetry.

KA: First of all, I want to say thank you all for being here and for allowing me to be among and for selecting this book, which is just madness to see my name listed alongside all the other names in the history of this prize; it’s ridiculous. And thank you all for being here. It still is a strangeness to me to see people who aren’t blood-related to me holding copies of my book, so that’s a real trip, and I thank you for it.

That’s a beautiful question. For me, if you did a Venn diagram of my poetry life and my spiritual life, it wouldn’t even be a Venn diagram; it would be just two circles overlapping. So much of the project of recovery for me has been about rehabilitating those relationships that I had neglected or actively been corrosive to in my active addiction. And those relationships are corporeal and social and physical and psychological and also cosmological, and I think that this book aimed to account for all of those rehabilitations. I’ll say to the line that you specifically mentioned—I think is very indebted to a particular vein of apophatic theology. Apophatic theology being theology that is based around talking about what the divine isn’t so as to better define or think about the divine, so when we are thinking about, like, Simone Weil is a famous instance of an apophatic theologian. This can be a craft tool, too, for I imagine most of the people in the room, if not all the people in the room, are creative writers. Imagine in your heads if I said, “imagine the bladeless knife with no handle.” You see how that disappears the more I describe it. The more the description comes, the further the actual image recedes from view. This is like apophasis as a craft element, but I think that that approach toward understanding the divine is really oftentimes to me the only one that makes sense since we are surrounded by what we perceive to be absence. So I think that that line and a lot of the book’s approach to thinking about it is invested in that strategy.

Kathleen Graber: I am wondering if that connects to the form of the poems because there’s a lot of white space, and I am wondering if you are using that white space for that same sort of generation of an emptiness that’s very rich and full.

KA: That’s such a generous question, I think. When I was writing this book it was during a time in my life in which I was surrounded by silence. I didn’t publish poems until I was twenty-six or twenty-seven; I’m twenty-nine now. So I’ve been publishing relatively not very long, but—that’s actually not true. I published when I was nineteen or twenty, and then I began to realize that my poems were just sort of bad stand-up or false or wouldn’t age well, and so I stopped publishing for six or seven years. I can never remember. But consequentially it gave my abilities and my approach a bit of time to catch up with my ambitions. Forever may the ambition dwarf the ability, but it did sort of close that gap a little bit. And so consequentially when I started sending things out sort of in this big—I had a billion things to send out, so it seemed like it happened all at once. But this is to say when I was actively writing the poems it was a time of intense quiet for me. I was living a very sort of monastic life. I was a hopelessly uninteresting person. I just woke up early every day. I drank coffee for ten hours. I wrote and read. I taught class twice a week, and I just wrote and read; that’s all I did for years. And so I think that there is a way in which the poems in the book sought to create some of the noise and some of the conversation that I didn’t really have in my life, so lots of the poems work through these breathless rushes of language through this sort of super saturation of imagery.

That said, I think often about silence as an architectural element in poetry. I think often that silence—and I am not the first or most interesting person to talk about this—but I think often about silence being the true subject of poetry and language as sort of being the negative space around it even when the language is sort of super saturated. I mean, you look at the metaphysical poets, you look at Donne or Marvell or Herbert, and they’re talking in these loud plosives, these staccato bursts, these exclamation points all over the place. But I think often about how the quietest silence is often the silence that follows an exclamation. If I say, “Oh no!” Right? The quiet immediately following that loudness is often the quietest quiet, the quiet following a gun shot. And so when I think about the medial caesuras and their relationship to silence in this book, or when I think about the blank space on the page and its relationship to silence in this book, it’s often acting as a foil against the relative loudness of the actual language so that the silence can sort of form a kind of architecture. Other disciplines think about this all the time. In architecture—actual architecture; I keep using architecture as a metaphor. But in actual architecture the utility of this room that we are all in right now isn’t the walls or the floor or the ceiling, it’s the empty space in which we’ve all put our bodies and we are all moving through. Your chair is useful not because of the textile or the plastic or whatever but because of the empty space where your body is. And so I am very, very interested in thinking about how poems might work the same way.

David Wojahn: We were talking about your book in one of my classes the other day.

KA: Thank you for that.

DW: And one of the subjects that came up is—I wanted to ask you about your influences because, you know, people saw a lot of connections to, one, deep image poets like Wright and Merwin and to the confessional poets: Berryman, Sexton, Lowell, and though they’re all poets who to some degree come out of surrealism, and also they all have a profoundly sort of sense of spiritual yearning and quest in their work. And they’re also poets who aren’t really fashionable anymore. I just wondered who you were thinking about when you were reading or when you were writing.

KA: No, that’s a fascinating question and one that I can talk about for years and years and still not answer completely. I mean, everyone that you mentioned is in there for sure. You started with the deep image poets and the sort of stone-and-bone era of—and that is obviously a huge influence for me. I think that with Merwin especially—I came into middle and late Merwin and the unpunctuated line through Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. Ellen Bryant Voigt, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a transcendent American poet, one of our greatest living poets, and she built this whole career around being this very, very sort of brilliant wielder of syntax. She literally wrote a book called The Art of Syntax, so it’s a little easy to put your thumb on. But her whole career, if you read her book Kyrie, which won all the things that a book can win, she just has—sort of the way that Carl Phillips you think about as being this sort of master of the sentence, I think of Ellen Bryant Voigt as being the master of syntax but very traditional syntax: commas, periods, colons, this sort of thing. And then her book Headwaters came out, and there’s not a punctuation mark in the whole book, and I remember the first poem I read from it was a poem called “Groundhog,” which is on the New Yorker website which you can find if you look. It was one of those—you get a half dozen of them maybe a lifetime—those moments where a piece of art just completely rewires your brain into thinking about what is possible to do with an aesthetic piece. It was like, “Oh, well if I can do this, I can do anything.”

The poet Chris Forhan talks about syntactical pickaxes. You land upon a certain rhetorical gesture or a certain syntax or a certain form and that will chip away at whatever partition exists between you and the content that you’re trying to access but can’t necessary get to in your current approach. Discovering Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters allowed me to explore the unpunctuated line, which then allowed me access to the kind of play with urgency and momentum and inertia and centripetal force that I think really, really allows most of this book to function the way that it does. And then, like I said, that led me backward into middle and late Merwin, and that led me all over the place. I could talk about just this forever, but it’s all over the place.

My Berryman inheritance is profound and something that has deeply vexed me because Berryman is a very sort of fraught poet, a very sort of problematic poet to look at, but to deny my inheritance from him would be just patently false. I’ve written this lengthy, lengthy essay that I’ll probably never publish about trying to grapple with Berryman’s legacy as someone who is profoundly inflected by it but also deeply troubled by it. I don’t think that any poet has ever gotten so close to the sonic texture of spoken American English as Berryman, but I think that the methods that he used to do it were problematic, and reading him talk about it sort of amplifies its problematicness. That said, my favorite Berryman poem is “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” which is not a dream song, and which you can enjoy without the cringing that happens when you read those first seventy-seven dream songs.

GD: Your book Calling a Wolf a Wolf incorporates poems from your earlier chapbook, which was solely focused on recovery and that kind of thing, and when you took those poems into the book, you restructured things. But even so, there is a kind of development that has a little bit of a narrative suggestion in the course of the book. One of the early poems in the book is “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and House Fly,” which, among other elements that are fascinating about it, the content of it is fascinating because it involves this attack that is impossible to forget once you read about it. And also what’s very difficult to forget is the response of the speaker in the poem who seems like, “Oh well, a home invasion, what the hell. I got stabbed. We’ll see if I wake up in the morning.” I was interested in how that worked on you? Were you conscious of trying to develop a certain kind of developmental sense in the course of the book?

KA: Well, the experiential referent toward which it points had no consciousness at all. There was no self-reflection during that time of my life. That time of my life was a time when I was getting burgled and robbed with shocking regularity and was also a time defined by my just sort of lurching from crisis to crisis. There was no reflection. There was no “because this, then this.” It was just this happened, and we’ll see what the next thing is.

GD: Well, later you write a poem called “Wild Pear Tree,” and, I mean, I love that poem for a number of different things but also because the relation of the speaker to his cat.

KA: Yeah, let’s talk about cats.

GD: Yeah, I’m fine with that. Cat lover. And, in addition, I also like pears.

KA: Me too.

GD: And in that poem you really like some pears because you take a bath with them.

KA: Yeah.

GD: Or the speaker of the poem does anyway. I was interested in how that poem arrives at a real marvelous sweetness that is shared with the animal world, that—it reminds me a little bit of what James Dickey tried to do in his poems where he’s always trying to break through that barrier and to live among the animals. We could probably say he might have been animal in a bad sense, too, but he certainly—that’s an achievement of his that I really enjoy. In that poem I really liked that aspect of things, too, which seemed part of the growing spiritual development.

KA: So that’s the first poem in the book after the frontispiece poem, and it really is sort of a poem for my cat, which is a silly thing to say, but it isn’t. My cat was my only companion for a long time, and he is in my current life the person who has really sort of known all of the “me”s that I’ve been. I got him when he was—his name is Filfy, f-i-l-f-y—and I got him when he was four weeks old. His mother had rejected him. He was the runt of his litter. He was flea bitten, and, you know, you could literally, like, if you pinched his fur you would come up with a pinch of fleas. And he had ringworm and roundworm and a respiratory infection and ear mites, and his eyes were swollen shut. I thought he was blind, but it was just he had so many fleas. And we just sort of nursed each other to health; we were kittens together. There were—I mean, not to get too “war story-y,” but there were lots of mornings or nights when he would be the one who came and sort of pawed at my face, and I would sort of wake up and realize that I hadn’t been breathing. This is, like, a real thing that happened, and he was the only one in the house. There was also another instance where I left the front door open one night—I mean, it was cold, because I couldn’t be responsible for anything—and lots of cats if you leave the front door open will sort of dart off never to be seen again. When I woke up the next morning, Filfy was in the doorway, and all these neighborhood cats were on the sort of, like, front area trying to come in, and Filfy was just there guarding the doorway, so we were really in it. I’m getting goosebumps talking about that. We were really in it together, and yeah, I mean, that poem I think is for him.

GD: Yeah, I love the humor in the line where you say it was “January in both directions.”

KA: Yeah, yeah, it was “January for months in both directions.” Yeah, yeah, and “all the days / in the year lined up at the door, we deflected each saying / no you will not be needed” [sic] or whatever. I wasn’t interested in anything, you know.

Student: Thank you. I very much enjoyed this collection. This is sort of related to David’s question. So in that workshop we were talking a lot about the surreal images and the deep images, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your process for settling on the images that you settle on and how—we were talking about how they kind of resist logical or intellectual interpretation in favor of more guttural or visceral feelings and if you could talk a little bit about that.

KA: Which is very much indebted to the deep images and to the surrealists and to Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto and, you know, all these things, but it’s so hard to talk about this stuff in any sort of credible way because any writer who’s actually being honest about it, they admit that it’s very sort of “here be dragons-y,” at least any writer I’ve ever met. I think that so much of the satisfaction in image for me comes in getting the tenor and the vehicle as far apart as possible without compromising clarity. Which is to say, I want what I am literally saying to not have any sort of denotative or connotative relationship with what I mean except for the sort of, like, amorphous sense that it absolutely coheres. Which is a ridiculous thing to say, and there’s no actual way to sort of chart that or quantify that or anything. But widening that gulf—again without compromising clarity because you can just get into frivolity if you do—is the whole game to me. That’s what I’m really, really interested in.

Horace says that a poem should delight and instruct, and Frost later cribs that and says that a poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom. But it was really Horace who said that, and this is so central to my understanding of what it is to be a poet. I think that a lot of us sort of gallop toward wisdom—delight be damned—and so much of the fun of it for me, so much of the way the poem works is to get to nail that delight.

Student: I’m interested in your day books that you keep. I was reading in an interview where you talked about them and how you stockpile away these things that you love, things you overhear on the sidewalk or in the grocery store, which I do as well. And I was wondering how they just literally make their way into your writing. Do you go back and review your books often, or do you stash it away, and then leave it in the book but not really flip through it anymore?

KA: Yeah, I have, I mean, thousands and thousands of pages of just notes and stray things that people have said—both in physical and digital forms—and just things that I’ve thought and things that I’ve read, and there’s no sort of organization to it. I don’t even date anything, so it’s just this mess of language. But I guess there are some writers who just stare at a blank page till a poem appears, but I have no idea how one works under such miserable conditions. I need some sort of mote of language around which the pearl of the poem can aggravate. That’s a metaphor that tracks right? Yeah, I need something there. It always begins with language or with a phrase for me, and I have full faith that the language will always lead me to my content, not the other way around.

Student: I interact with a lot of undergraduates and also high school students. What advice might you have for beginning younger writers who are just trying to get into it every day, writing and making something?

KA: One of my first degrees was in English education, and I taught high school and middle school, and, honestly, I think just having texts be available without the sort of compulsion or without any sort of obligation or without making it seem a responsibility. Growing up, my mom would always go to the library once a week and get twenty books, and they would be just completely different things. Anthology of MAD magazine and a biography of Hakeem Olajuwon and a book about photosynthesis and, you know, just completely unrelated things and just put them in my room. There was no oversight; there was no anything. We weren’t a big TV household, so that was my fun: just, like, learn about Hakeem Olajuwon, or I would learn about race car driving. Just, like, whatever the books were that were in my room is what I would learn about. And I think that that made reading seem like a site for discovery and a site for satisfying an unquenchable curiosity in not this sort of thing that you do to be able to figure something out. It wasn’t a solution to a problem, right? Or a puzzle to be put together or a riddle, you know? It wasn’t any of these things, and I think that sort of relationship to reading and writing is the bedrock upon which all of my other pedagogy is built—is just reminding oneself or one’s students that it is a literal miracle that we can sort of arrange these runes—these ink runes—in such a way as to provoke lacrimation or laughter, right?

Evolutionary biologists talk about laughter as this sort of, like, herd amongness signifier, right? It’s the reason why when we watch a movie alone we don’t really laugh much, or maybe we chuckle to ourselves a little. But if we watch a movie with people, right, we laugh a lot more, and it’s because laughter is this sort of, like, signifier of amongness or signifier that you’re among your herd or whatever. And it’s always struck me as the most endlessly profound thing that if I read a book of Dorothy Parker poems in 2018 and it makes me laugh in the solitude of my own bedroom, that means in my lizard brain there’s something that sees me as being among, in my herd in that moment. There’s, like, an evolutionary response to seeing Dorothy as part of my tribe even though she’s long dead. This is necromancy; this is whatever you want to call it. This is—if you can’t touch the magic of that, if you can’t experience that as magic in your life—naming something doesn’t make it not magic. We can say it’s, like, communion or a response to whatever, whatever, but that is as close to literal magic as I think that I know.

GD: In your poem “Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood,” which, for if you don’t know what I’m saying, it is translated in many different ways, which I think is part of the magic of the phrase, but it’s the Farsi equivalent of “Once upon a time,” which is an equally senseless phrase. It doesn’t mean anything. But actually, that phrase does mean a number of things that are quite interesting: “There was someone; there was no one.”

KA: “Once there was and how much there was.”

GD: This kind of a statement and counterstatement right from the start to put the listener into the right frame of mind to accept a fairytale or a fanciful tale or a fantasy. And thank you for teaching me that by having me read your poem. But also in the poem what one might expect to find then would be some sort of fantastic thing—and there is that there—but the fantasy is based ultimately in the end of the poem on a son’s relationship with his mother, who he dances with in the bedroom, and the transformations they go through that are kind of magical while that’s happening. I not only wanted to praise the poem, but I also wanted to just offer you a chance to chat about that.

KA: First of all, thank you very much. I think that’s a very, very generous assessment, and I am grateful that you actually looked it up and did the sort of legwork. It’s this funny thing where we see a Latin phrase in a poem, we don’t hesitate to be, like, “What does ‘dulce et decorum est’ mean?” But the second we see, like, Farsi, right, it’s, like, “I guess they just want me to look at it.” But yeah, so thank you for that. It’s another one of those things that just sort of arrives. You know the feeling of an arrival or a gift by the sense that you don’t have any pride in it. Even the least romantic, most skeptical writers among us talk about hours flying by or, you know, such and such a phrase just came to me. It’s hard to speak of what happens when we’re writing without mining the language of the supernatural, and I’m not the most skeptical anything. And so I think that it’s so hard to speak credibly about this. It’s so hard to try to wrap language around what I sort of only loosely understand to have happened. It’s not even something I can put in the active tense, but I’m grateful for the gift of it. It felt very, very true to me.

GD: Of the person after whom the prize you’ve won is named, Larry Levis, he had an experience like that early on in his life. When he was very young, he decided that he was going to either continue in his fascination with writing, and with poetry specifically, or give it up depending on whether or not he could produce at least one poem that was worth something. And he took a risky move because the person he allowed to help him make this judgment was Philip Levine. That was a risk. And I recall, too, that one day when I was in college I started working on a poem, and when I looked up it was night time, and I had blown a really good date I had set up, and I realized, “Oh well, I’m screwed. Now I guess I’m going to have to be a poet. Clearly my priorities are not normal.”

KA: Yeah, no, that’s beautiful. And, I mean, I am someone who is wired at a sort of neurological level to seek narcotic high. And having written is the best narcotic high that I have available to me, and so I chase that high with the same fervor and obsessiveness and compulsivity that I chased other highs in my old life. The relationship to the high is absolutely no different than it once was. It’s just this one doesn’t make the people who love me sad as often.

Student: One of my favorite things in Calling a Wolf a Wolf is the ending with, in “Portrait of an Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island,” is “The boat I am building / will never be done.” That resonated really hard with me because I suffer from chronic illness and to even go to college is very difficult for me. I have epilepsy, have seizures quite often, and there is just nothing I can do about it. So my question is what advice do you have for people going through extreme thoughts of depression and struggling?

KA: That’s a big question, and I thank you for the spirit of it and the candor of it. And I’m glad that that last line in that poem clicked with you. It is very much deliberate to situate that at the end, “The boat I’m building / will never be done,” because I think that the kinds of recovery that we’re talking about, while very different in nature, are both fundamentally horizonal. It’s a place that we march toward and never actually arrive at. I will say that the Russian defamiliarist Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote this famous manifesto called “Art is Technique”—if you’ve never read it, you should read it. It’s freely available online. His big phrase, the big sort of Russian defamiliarist credo was “make the stone stony.” Which is to say undo the damage of habituation in your art. Walking to campus today, every person in this room walked past dozens, if not hundreds, of trees. Just in the short walk from the car, I know that we did. But how many of those trees could you describe with any sort of fidelity. Probably none, right? This is what he means. He is saying the tree has become not a tree but a signifier for trees, for our sort of psychic idea of trees, and the damage of habituation has made it so that we can no longer really perceive trees at all, and so what the artist does is return to the tree its tree-y-ness in their art, return to the stone its stoniness, return to the table its table-y-ness, return to political unrest its political unrest-y-ness, to grief its grief-y-ness, so on and so forth. This is the project of the artist: to undo the damage of habituation.

And I think that there is a reason why people with some sort of alterity have often been the great artists of their time—people who perceive themselves to be on the outside looking in. There’s a craft reason for that. It’s not just some, like, something is taken away from you here, make up for it creatively. There’s an actual craft reason, and it’s—if there is a sort of king sitting in his throne eating a turkey leg, drinking from a golden goblet, it seems altogether fitting and proper that the king should have his turkey leg and the goblet, to the king. But to the person being rained on, looking in face pressed up to the glass starving, it seems very, very strange that the king should have that turkey leg and that goblet. There is a kind of perspective afforded to people writing from alterity that grants them easier access to that sort of defamiliarist perspective, and I think that it can be wielded and bridled and harnessed powerfully in your art. Billions of different artists have found billions of different ways to harness and bridle that, but ultimately it is something that I hope you will be able to figure out a way to harness, and I think you will.

GD: I like your interest in the essential nature of being a poet as being a magician. And it took me awhile to discover that, and I think that was maybe the crucial moment of discovery of my development as a person and a writer. And in your poem “River of Milk”—that’s one of the ones that really takes me away and completely immersed me in that idea because it has an uncle who’s a dervish, and not a whirling one. Maybe his pupils whirl but not a whirling dervish from Turkey, but the other kind that comes from where you come from, well, your heritage: Iran. In that poem, and this is something that I really like about your work, is that in the midst of some of the most inventive and adventurous [moments], writing about what might seem to many readers as kind of foreign cultural aspects of what they’re reading about, then it will swing suddenly back to something that seems more personal. Like, in it you mention a box of birth records, and because I was adopted a phrase like that is going to really resonate with me, as well, and I know that the struggle to find your way into any culture—I recall you saying in an interview that in a room of Americans you don’t feel American, and in a room of Iranians you don’t feel Iranian—and that’s that outsider status that you were just talking about. In that poem, it ends with “it’s true I suppose you grow to love the creatures you create / some of them come out with pupils swirling others with teeth.” And I understood that to be not only a warning to the reader but also to the creating self: the creator of that poem.

KA: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s a beautiful read. I think that writing is—I’m not someone who thinks that nothing happens in poems. I don’t think that there’s ever been an inert poem, even bad poems: even a poem about a happy snowman forces someone to become conscious of the way that they’re metabolizing language, which I think especially—well, I hate the phrase “now more than ever,” but I think that being cognizant of the way that we’re metabolizing language is incredibly politically potent. There’s no such thing as a politically inert poem. There’s no such thing as a spiritually inert poem. And so I think that we have responsibilities. I think we can write whatever we want, and you can do whatever. I’ll write a billion poems that I’ll never publish, but I think that in thinking about what we put into the world, we really have to be conscious about the bend of it or what work will this do? Is it being rigorously compassionate? Does it have both delight and instruction? I think that all of these are questions that I’m constantly asking myself and sounding my poems against. I lose no sleep over not publishing this or that. The imagination is a well I can draw from again and again. Experience might dry up. I’m not a particularly interesting person, but imagination will never go away. So long as I actively, consciously build toward a life that keeps me permeable to wonder and bewilderment, the poems will keep coming.

GD: Well, that was an aspect of that poem, too, that I thought was another aspect of the cautionary tale that it tells is that this dervish, who is a powerful person who can control a river of milk that flows under the village, ultimately pays the price for that and is torn to pieces by the villagers when they think he’s not using his powers to save them from a drought. And that’s also, I think, it can happen to creative people who are successful in their creation. Others want to know how they got there. I think they’re going to find out, like, what pen you use.

KA: That’s such an interesting thing because I think that oftentimes people are looking for the quick answer to get this or that or to—as if there’s some shibboleth or some secret handshake that will immediately grant you access to writing a certain kind of poem. I think it’s a very linear thing. I think it’s a great sort of terrible blessing that it seems to me to be very linear. You put in x amount of hours reading and writing, and your poems develop and become y amount more complex and interesting and true. When I was getting my PhD, I used to teach these comp courses. And I got my PhD at Florida State University, and there’s a huge, huge Greek life—like fraternities and sororities and stuff. I think it’s like eighty-something percent of the college or something like that. So when they would be, like, freely assigned to write essays about the topics of their choosing, I got a weirdly, staggeringly large number of essays about bodybuilding, which clearly I have no relationship to, but it was interesting. I’m always compelled by reading about things that I know nothing about, and one of the sort of things they would constantly say is, “A good body is the one thing you can never buy, and you can never take a shortcut to. Like, you just have to put in the hours in the gym.” I think that that’s so true of writing too. It’s like, there’s no residency that, like, spending a week with this or that sort of monolith will grant you access to writing.

I teach in three MFA programs, but there’s no MFA program that’s going to do that work for you, which is sort of, sometimes, makes me feel like everything I do is a farce, even though I don’t actually believe that. But you just have to spend the ass-in-chair time, and you have to go to the library and pull out twenty books and just post up. The famous example that people like to use of the sort of the naturally talented, just imbued-with-the-song-of-the-creator whatever poet is Rimbaud, who is this enfant terrible who’s running around Paris just drinking absinthe and writing these transcendent poems, but if you actually look at the—and shooting Verlaine in the hand recreationally, and then going back and writing a poem. But actually, if you look at the actual—at the time you had to sign in to the library every time you wanted to go into the library, and his name is in those registries every single day when he was in Paris. I mean, whatever he did at night he was still in the libraries every single day. And this is what I’m talking about. Like, there’s no—even for Rimbaud, even for prodigies there’s no shortcut. This has to just be the substance of your life.

GD: Yeah, I really agree. I always think of—that was really the lesson of that play Amadeus because Salieri thought that Mozart was getting dictation directly from God, and that was cheating. And in fact—and the play and the movie sort of suggest that a little bit—but in fact if you go examine the manuscripts of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that Norman Dubie calls the “great white shark of music,” I mean, the guy who could be hung upside down at a piano and play a song upside down and backward—he could play music that way—you know, that guy revised; he revived. I always tell my students, “Forget it. The geniuses revise.”

KA: Yeah, well, I mean, like, Beethoven as a child would have people from the court, like, just massaging his hands after he was done playing and feeding him luxuriously so that he wouldn’t have to tire himself by feeding. Even he had to spend the requisite ass-in-chair time practicing scales. There’s no—and, I mean, and granted this is not to say that there aren’t advantages and accelerants in this process—and an MFA being one—but there’s no secret handshake.

Student: When you were writing in Emily Dickinson’s room, what pen did you use?

KA: First of all, I used a MUJI 0.7 mm pen, and I was writing in a MUJI notebook. I’m not precious about very many things, but MUJI pens are—they’re super cheap. They’re, like, a dollar each, and they are just the most satisfying pen to write with, and I have, like, a billion—I’ve said somewhere in some interview somewhere online, I’ve said that I use MUJI pens, so sometimes now people will just bring MUJI pens to me. I had a student who was like, “I bought twenty MUJI pens to try out because you said you liked them, and I hate them, so here they are.” But that story is actually such a trip because I was asked to read at the Amherst Poetry Festival in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Dickinson is from, and they did the whole thing, and I said, “Yes, of course, I’ll come read in Amherst.” And then a few days later they were like, “Oh, and by the way, if you want, one of the few things that we can do is have you actually spend a morning writing in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom.” And I was, like, in the history of burying the lede this is up there. If they would have just led with that, you know, I would have ridden a donkey to Amherst. So that was definitely one of the coolest poetry anythings that’s ever happened to me.

DW: Well, thanks so much Kaveh.

KA: Yeah, thank you guys so much. I appreciate it.  

return to top