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Kaveh Akbar on the "illicit luck" of a daily poetry practice


The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open! In honor of the 2016 Book Prize season, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview authors about the process of constructing a manuscript and bringing it to publication. This week, Katie interviews poet and editor Kaveh Akbar about the ecstatic joy of poetry, the art of the interview, and constructing a first manuscript with intention.

I’m really interested in the work you do at Divedapper—it’s publishing some of the most exciting, thoughtful interviews I’ve read recently. Can you talk about what made you want to start the site, and how, if at all, the interview process has changed your conception of yourself as a writer and artist?

Well, thank you for the kind words. They mean a great deal. I always loved literary interviews; they were my favorite part of the old New York Quarterly and the Paris Review. I started doing them in high school (when I fell in love with poetry)—I interviewed Yusef Komunyakaa when I was seventeen for the little lit-mag I ran back then. It was a long, sprawling phone interview, too!

I spent most of my undergrad being a stupid undergrad, doing stupid undergrad stuff, but I came back to poems in earnest during my MFA. As I became more and more singularly obsessed with poetry, I started to think of ways I might make myself useful to the community, and I kept coming back to interviews. I toyed with the idea of just having a bunch of these conversations and sending them out to lots of different magazines, but in the end I decided it’d be neat to house everything in a single place, under a single roof.

Read a certain way, Divedapper almost becomes a diary about my conception of myself as a writer. I started out being super self-conscious, very starchy. I was anxious that the people I was interviewing (my heroes!) wouldn’t think I was qualified to be interviewing them, so I prepared a lot of complicated, near-unanswerable questions quoting 19th-century poetic theory and that sort of thing. It was very cringe-y. Now, I don’t even prepare questions in advance. I take a few notes, list some poem names and publication dates, but by and large the conversations just happen organically. I don’t know what that is, exactly—patience, confidence, comfort in my own skin—but whatever it is, Divedapper’s given it to me.

Holy cow, that gives me the shivers just thinking about it—no questions beforehand! You must conduct the interviews via phone or Skype, then? The interviews themselves feel very confident…I’m not sure if that’s the right word. But it feels like, even if you haven’t prepared questions in advance, that you are intimate with the writer’s work. I read once that The Paris Review strives for that kind of organic feel that you’re talking about, which really requires a kind of active listening that is a skill in and of itself—it seems to me that the ability to respond in that way requires its own kind of preparation, perhaps?

Yep, all the interviews are done over the phone now. Some early ones were done via email, but I quickly moved away from that, favoring the flexibility of live conversations. The tangents and unruly digressions aren’t bugs, they’re features!

With regards to your point about active listening, I think it happens pretty organically. I always come back to this James Dickey quote: “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest goddamn thing that ever was in the whole universe.” I think any two people who subscribe to that belief will have a pretty easy time talking to one another.

Why interviews, and not a lit mag?

I ran a little print lit mag called The Quirk for a while, and I’m really proud of what I was able to do with it. I started it in high school and put out the last issue midway through my undergrad. I would just look up poets’ phone numbers and beg them for poems—I was that young and that shameless. I called Robert Bly when I was still in high school and asked him for poems; he mailed me a sheaf of unpublished work within a week. It’s incredible how willing people are to help if they’re just asked nicely.

Anyway, the last issue of The Quirk came out three or four years before I started thinking about Divedapper. By that point, my life had changed so much, my aesthetics had changed so much, I just wanted to throw myself into a completely new thing. I like the pace of Divedapper—a new interview every two weeks means there’s always fresh content on the site. It’s a little blistering to get everything done at that rate, but I like being busy, and I have a lot of help now with the transcriptions and the copy-editing.

ROBERT BLY? I’m noticing a theme. You’ve got moxie, kid. Chutzpah. How much of literary citizenship requires that kind of “don’t know how to back down” attitude?

Hah! I don’t want to be prescriptive or anything. For me, since discovering poetry, I’ve felt blessed with a total clarity of purpose. This is it for me. Sometimes I hear people saying things like, “oh, I really should be reading more poetry,” as if they were talking about eating more leafy green vegetables or going to the gym. I feel very grateful to have been spared this particular anxiety. Daily engagement with poems is the greatest source of delight in my life, and my life is chock-full of occasions for delight. That I now get to spend every day reading and working with other poets still feels like an almost illicit luck, like I’m getting away with something.

You've not yet published a first book. What part of the first book process are you in? 

I do have a manuscript called Calling a Wolf a Wolf that I’m mostly done with. I worry maybe I’m being a little too precious about it. When I was 20 or 21 (I’m 27 now), a manuscript that bears no resemblance to this one, not a single common poem (though there are a few words, phrases, echoes), was taken by a press I admire a great deal. I quickly realized that the poems were all false, algorithmic, wouldn’t age well, and was graciously allowed to step back from that deal. Since then, I’ve been much more protective of my poems, much more patient with their gestation and publication.

Whoa—that sounds like a very difficult decision to make.  I don’t know that I can imagine anyone, myself included, who’d be able to back out of a publishing deal like that. What led you to that decision? How did you get there? Or, I guess, what kind of knowledge did you gain about yourself as a writer that led to that decision, and did that change your writing process going forward?

I mean, I was still a child. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t yet treating my poems, or poetry in general, with any seriousness. I was just parroting, still dizzied by the existence of poetry at all. Those poems were bad stand-up routines. They were frivolous, the stakes were non-existent. I just kept putting off substantive discussion with the press about the manuscript, delaying it and delaying it, and I finally realized that it was because I didn’t really believe in the poems, didn’t actually want them out in the world. I scrapped the manuscript and stopped sending poems out completely for five years. I had to go through my going-throughs, move fully through addiction and loss and all these things, before I could come out on the other side with anything useful to say.

How did you conceive of ordering the collection? How did you decide which poems to include in the collection?

That’s a good question! Broadly, the poems tell a sort of recovery narrative, an addiction recovery narrative, so there’s a natural progression from the throes of addiction into recovery. The poems themselves don’t feel particularly narrative to me though, so a lot of it is linking things associatively, connotatively, linking things based on energy, tempo.

In C.D. Wright’s newest, she writes, “I am still attached to the illusion that I can lay a hand on a book and feel its heat.” I very much ascribe to this way of spatially, physiologically orienting oneself with their poems. I print mine out, walk around for a few days with them in my back pocket, pulling them out and rereading them while I wait in line for coffee. This is actually a big part of my revision process too, sneaking up on the poems or letting them sneak up on me. Maybe it sounds crazy, but it’s helped me a great deal in figuring out what the poems are up to, who they want to be speaking with. I’m a daily writer, so the vast, vast majority of what I write, what I’ve written, doesn’t appear in the manuscript. I’m very interested in tonal cohesion. I want every poem in the book to be tethered to the back of the same beast. 

This is so interesting—I love the idea of thinking of a daily writing practice as a luxury that gives you a giant pool of poems to draw from. It’s almost as if you’re in conversation with yourself—that through the process of ordering and winnowing and reading to yourself—you understand what you want to say. This is the first time I’ve ever heard someone say it that way.

I like that very much, “you understand what you want to say.” I think it goes back to active listening, attentiveness, attentiveness to yourself and to whatever keeps burbling up in your poems.

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

Hah! I love those words, “bloom” in particular. It’s got such a good mouthfeel. Bloooom. The first time I ordered all my poems and put them in a Word document, I really freaked myself out by CNTRL+F-ing too much. There were so many teeth! So many tongues! I like the way you phrase your question, thinking about what accrues interestingly. For my collection, there’s a way hunger and thirst become major themes, almost characters even, the way New York City becomes a character in a Woody Allen film, and so the anatomical features of the mouth sort of became avatars for those characters. There were places I had to temper that kind of repetition, where it seemed less useful, less interesting, but it’s definitely something I’m always thinking about.

How are you handling the submissions process? How do you make the decision about where/when to submit?

I’m a little superstitious, have always been very pessimist-is-never-disappointed about this kind of thing. I’ll say that, because I’m in the first year of a four/five-year Ph.D. program, I have the luxury of patience. Nobody is sitting around tapping their foot waiting on a book from me. I can take my time with the whole process. I’m very interested in finding an experienced editor who will be willing to work with me on shaping the book, not just someone who is going to forward a PDF to their printer, you know?

Did your conception of yourself as a writer change in the transition from your master’s to your PhD program?

My getting into the Ph.D. program at Florida State was the luckiest thing in the world. It’s a patronage, really. The associate responsibilities (teaching gifted undergrads, taking classes I’d happily audit) rarely feel like work, and the gift of a half-decade of funding to write poems seriously is an unbelievable benevolence. I’m still pinching myself. Every morning I wake up and within fifteen minutes, I’m working on my poems with coffee and a tall stack of poetry at my side. And I get to do that for hours and hours and hours! I can’t imagine a luckier lifestyle. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, having poetry be the sincere labor of most every minute of my day.

Has publication (of individual pieces in the collection) changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

I don’t think it’s changed the manuscript a lot. A few of my poems that have been published in sexy places didn’t make it into the manuscript, and that stings a little, but I really am trying to think of tonal cohesion for the book, trying to create a text that moves smoothly, intuitively.

There’s nothing so narcotic as having written well, and it’s a feeling I chase daily, whether or not anyone cares to read or publish what I’ve written. I will say, though, that it’s tremendously gratifying when a journal editor gets excited about what I’m doing. I’ve had some really kind acceptances where an editor nabs my work from out of Submittable and sends along an enthusiastic note, and that kind of encouragement really really helps affirm that I’m on the right track. It’s nice to hear that what I’m writing can be read well and can be useful to others. I can live off such affirmation for weeks.

Yeah, but—easier to resist the lure of putting the sexily placed poem in the manuscript if you have a whole bunch of work you’ve produced, right? It’s just…not part of the conversation you’re trying to put together, then. This way, it’s an evolutionary process, or something—you’re working towards a kind of knowledge of your own book. One of the best things a writing professor told me was to cut something from my manuscript, because I’d said it better in a different poem. It made me think about how I was in conversation with myself in the construction of the manuscript.

Yeah! I have that same conversation with myself often. Nobody wants to read the same poem fifty times in a row. You’re bound to repeat yourself if you’re writing a lot, but that doesn’t mean you have to force it all on your readers. They’re giving you their time. I think they deserve surprise, new ways to be delighted by language, in return.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

Oooh! Good question. There are lines and poems and movements between poems I’m really proud of, of course, but it seems a little vain to pick one of those! I think maybe it’s the thank-yous at the beginning of the book, the gratitudes to all the people who’ve shaped my work. Looking over the list of names of those individuals who’ve lent temporal and psychic resources to my development as a poet and as human being is immensely gratifying and infinitely humbling. I wouldn’t have written the book without them. It fills me with pure dumb glee to imagine any of them reading it. 

Kaveh Akbar founded and edits Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in contemporary poetry. His poems are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Narrative, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Previously, he ran The Quirk, a for-charity print literary journal. He has also served as Poetry Editor for BOOTH. Kaveh is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University, where he teaches and works as works as Book Reviews Editor for the Southeast Review.