Ask Me Anything: Kaveh Akbar
The Pushcart Prize–winning poet takes a break from teaching at Purdue University to speak at UIndy on February 28. Here, the spectacularly coiffed Akbar opens up about scourges ranging from his alcoholism to Donald Trump.
Confession: Like a lot of people, I don’t particularly like poetry, which seems navel-gazing and indecipherable. What am I missing?
That’s like saying I tried a dish or two at a particular restaurant and didn’t like them, so what am I missing about food? In the history of mankind, there has never been a wider array of poetry being written. Nor has there been greater accessibility to that poetry. So there’s almost infinite opportunity to find yourself in poetry—someone who is speaking directly to you.
What initially attracted you to it?
I had a high school English teacher who sent me home with a stack of poetry journals one day. I started reading them, and it was just one of those moments. The sky parted and the angels started blaring their trumpets. Not everyone has one of those moments, but I knew then with bone-deep clarity that poetry was the thing for me.
You were born in Iran. How much do you identify with that culture, which isn’t exactly a paradise of free expression right now?
I identify deeply with that culture. Persia has a rich poetry tradition that goes back centuries—Hafez, Shirazi, Rumi. And in a lot of ways, America isn’t exactly a paradise of free expression right now. We have a reality star who took over the country by disseminating hateful rhetoric, inciting violence, and attacking the press. The two realities aren’t as disparate as some would have you believe.
You published your first poem—about the Green Bay Packers—when you were in the second grade. What were some of the memorable lines?
I wish I knew. Maybe my mom still has it. I remember the poem closed with “… because the fans and the players are brothers.” Which seemed sweet at the time.
What’s the worst poem you’ve ever written?
When I was an undergrad, I wrote a poem called “I Would Have Made Nostradamus Look Like a Chump.” It was about me traveling back in time and teaching people about fabric softener and Beatles songs.
Yes, that sounds pretty bad.
And that’s just the one that leaps to mind. Sadly, there are more.
You’re a Muslim, and yet you write frequently about your struggle with alcoholism. Given that Muslims typically avoid booze at all costs, how did that happen?
Well, Christians aren’t supposed to be alcoholics either. These things happen. And when some people hear you’re a Muslim, they assume you came out of the womb with a long beard and holding the Koran. There’s a spectrum of Muslims, and I obviously wasn’t Orthodox. I’m an impulsive human being who went through my goings-through in my teens and early 20s. I’ve been working diligently ever since to recover.
Some authors romanticize alcohol and consider it fuel for what they do. How did drying out affect your writing?
That was never the case for me. When I was around alcohol, I drank about my writing, not the other way around. Drying out allowed me to start putting words on paper again.
You mentioned our president earlier. What is it like to be a Muslim immigrant in Donald Trump’s America?
I don’t want to answer for all Muslim immigrants, but I can speak to my own experience. I have relatives who now aren’t allowed to come to the U.S. to visit. And that’s just one of the many realities he has ushered in. I get hateful comments on Twitter—people have called me a sand n-word. But that’s the obvious, idiot-on-its-face stuff. There are more subtle effects, too. I appreciate the empathy and generosity of this conversation, but I wrote a book of poems, and we’re talking about Trump. I have to constantly be thinking about this ugliness.
Good point. Getting back to poetry, the Divedapper poetry Carnival, which you founded at your alma mater, Butler University, attempts to bring the art form down to Earth. What do dunk tanks have to do with verse?
Dan Barden and I started it two years ago hoping to make the wildest, goofiest celebration of poetry we could conceive. So we have dunk tanks, fair food, balloon animals, and face painting alongside poetry workshops.
On your website, Divedapper, you interview some of the world’s greatest poets. What questions would you ask Kaveh Akbar?
[Laughs] I don’t know. You seem to be doing a pretty good job. I guess I would ask me what I love. The Indiana poet Ross Gay has this radical practice of asking people that question.
What would be the answer?
I love poetry. I love my partner. I love our cat. I love Diet Mountain Dew. I love teaching. I love my students. I love aisle seats on planes and watching movies on my laptop at Chinese buffets.
Which of the world’s poets would be most intimidating to call for an interview?
Anne Carson. First of all, she’s pretty contemptuous of the institution of interviews. And then there’s the fact that she’s a genius.
Speaking of smart people, your Purdue colleague Roxane Gay recently gave your new book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, a five-star review. How can you ever repay her for that kind of publicity?
What can you give Roxane, who has already conquered the world? Everyone should be reading her. Walking the same halls as Roxane, I feel like I’m getting smarter by osmosis.
With more than 19,000 followers, you’re becoming a celebrity on Twitter. What do you enjoy about the constraints of communicating through that platform?
Both poetry and Twitter are about compression. It’s fun to try to reduce your message to its elemental truths. And it allows me to share poems I’m enjoying with thousands of people—multiplying my delight by orders of magnitude. All I want is to be a good ambassador of poetry, and Twitter allows me to do that.
On a totally different—but equally frivolous—subject …
My favorite kind!
You have a pretty distinctive hairstyle. What inspired you to grow it out like that?
In my late teens, it was wild and long and untamed. Sometimes, I would use Elmer’s spray adhesive to spike it up. One day, I just decided to shave the sides and back, leaving it long on top. It performs its function—giving me something to play with while I write. What can I say? I fidget.