THE CALLING A WOLF A WOLF POET ON WONDER, ADDICTION, AND PRONOIA
“I was not a good person,” Kaveh Akbar tells me. Though it’s the province of his work––in his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and his debut collection of poems, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, both released this year––it’s hard to imagine the charming voice at the other end of the line belonging to someone in the throes of the “deeply miserable” life he speaks to in his poems. Among their myriad themes are the inherently paradoxical nature of being a grateful, recovering, sober alcoholic. Writing these poems, which Akbar calls his “fundamental bedrock,” has earned him a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.
Akbar and I first met earlier this summer at a poetry reading of his in New York City, where he shared the bill with several poets including Kazim Ali. “That’s big brother for me,” Akbar says over the phone in October. He continues, “Kazim was, I think, the first American poet I knew who was writing about Islam; who was writing about being interested, and in love with, Islam in ways that were complicated by his identity and experience. That’s very much a lodestar for me. Zeina Hashem Beck is another poet who I love for a lot of those same reasons.”
These references to fellow poets, and specifically these expressions of taking care with their work, come up often in conversation with Akbar. Fittingly, part of his new life is built on communing with other major voices in contemporary poetry, as the founding editor of his interview project Divedapper. He tells me that for the site’s interviews, which he aims to publish approximately every other Monday, he doesn’t often prepare formal questions. He explains his belief that, “It’s just conversation, and that’s all I ever really want. You and I are just having a conversation right now. You have these really intensely insightful questions prepared, but they’re based on your having spent time a lot of time with my words, both in my book and other interviews I’ve done. That is very much spending a lot of time with a person.”
The results of our conversation include reflections on humility, discomfort, memory, and having a sense of humor in your work.