Back and Forth with Kaveh Akbar
“Poetry is deeply democratic—it can exist in the mind alone, and it’s therefore infinitely potent as a political haven.” Kaveh Akbar
Thibault Raoult (TR): Such robust and odd images in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Shattered Pelvis.” Did these all originally belong to this poem? Might you have a daybook of images? Do images happen to you? Or do you seek them out?
Kaveh Akbar (KA): Oh, I totally keep daybooks. (I like that word for them.) I’ve dozens of physical notebooks scattered around, as well hundreds and hundreds of digital pages between my phone and my laptop—phrases, misheard song lyrics, lines from other people’s poems, words, thoughts, riffs, etc. I delete them when they go into a poem to avoid reusing things, so that’s hundreds of pages of pristine unused material just waiting for the right poem. And I’m constantly adding.
I think there’s this magic thing that happens for poets—when we spend enough time in poetry, in our poems and the poems of others—where everything we experience in our day-to-day life enters our consciousness through the filter of its poetic utility. Every phrase and interaction acquires the charge of poetic potential. The cruel name your partner calls you mid-fight, the mistranslated item on a restaurant menu, the bizarre instructions a girl on the sidewalk whispers into her cell phone. All of it enters, first, as poem lumber.
TR: I see your poem “Portrait” nodding to Frank O’Hara and Catullus, among others. Which poets/authors inform your rhetorical modes and discourses?
KA: I love, differently, both of the poets you mention. O’Hara for many reasons, but chief among them his notion that a poem is a conversation between two persons, not two pages. That feels immensely useful to me and true to my experience of writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat around writing a mystifyingly flat poem that ballooned to life only when I realized to whom I was writing. And this is maybe dumb or juvenile or whatever, but I think I love Catullus most for the startle of his filth. I privilege surprise (a form of delight) above pretty much any other craft element in poetry, and what’s more surprising than an ancient Roman poet whose poems are full of bestiality insults and excrement?
To the second part of your question, one of the great breakthroughs of my poet life was discovering Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters, seeing how taking traditional punctuation out of her poems lent her this incredible control over momentum and inertia. … I’m still kind of in the throes of that, and all my first drafts are still unpunctuated. Sometimes I’ll add punctuation in later, but often I find it to be more distracting than useful.