Losing Language to Find It: An Interview with Kaveh Akbar

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Kaveh Akbar is an Iranian-American poet and scholar. He is the author of Pilgrim Bell, (forthcoming, Graywolf Press, 2021), Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books in the US and Penguin Books in the UK), and the chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press). In 2014, Akbar founded the poetry interview website Divedapper. He received his MFA from Butler University and his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. He is a faculty member at Purdue University and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson College.

Nathan Kweku John (NKJ): Throughout much of your work, there exists this existential tension of losing language.  So, I wonder, when we lose language, what do we find? Or better yet, when we lose our first language, what are we forced to find?

Kaveh Akbar (KA): I think losing my first language rooted, for me, the materiality of language and foregrounded the fact that language is something that can be assembled and put together. That language can be a site for fun, because when I was learning English, or I should say when my household was learning English, we would make games of it, especially with my mom. She would go to the library and get these big SAT prep books, and in the backs, they had these sections that were like, “Here are a thousand words that can appear on the SAT and if you just memorize them all, then you’ll just know all the words.” She would memorize them and then incorporate them into her vernacular when she spoke with us.

This meant that I was like a five-year-old in kindergarten, who said things like, “I’m ambivalent about whether I want the cheese crackers or the peanut butter crackers.” So, language was kind of always the place for fun for me. This appreciation of language as a site of play was, I think, a direct result of having to sort of switch between languages at an early age. There are some people for whom language just comes as a given. They just received the English language, and they just like that this is, “This is how people communicate.” For me, I understood that there were different modes of communication and even different valences of meaning within communication for any given language.

For example, certain words were said only to family. I would call sandals dampi around my family and call them sandals when I was around like friends. Ultimately, I think that this heightened sense of language as material, language as textured was a gift of a process that was otherwise quite difficult.

NKJ: In addition to rituals, like retaining aspects of Persian in everyday speech with family, how else do you try to keep language? Are you able to travel to Iran and engage with Persian in that way? 

KA: No, no, for a variety of uninteresting political reasons, I’ll probably never be able to go back in this lifetime. First of all, they have compulsory military service for male citizens.

If I were to go back, I would have to serve for two years in the Iranian army before I could leave, and it doesn’t exactly seem like an opportune time to join the Iranian army.

I’ve translated work by Iranian women poets, who’ve criticized the government.  I’ve also been critical of the Iranian government in public ways and public spaces. So yeah, probably not in this lifetime unless there’s some like major sea change. 

NKJ: You just touched how poetry can be a dangerous entity. I wonder how you engage with elements of danger—political, existential, etcetera— in your work? 

KA: Countless countries in the world incarcerate poets. I mean, you look at what Akhmatova did under Stalin and what happened to her family, or you look at Nâzım Hikmet in Turkey, and what happened to him. He wrote his entire life while incarcerated.  These stories also affirm for us the kind of sanctuary of the imagination. Akhmatova would write poems, memorize them, and then burn the papers so that the Stalinist guards wouldn’t find the drafts in her home. Phillis Wheatley wrote some of the most precipitating verse of our nation while in the bondage of slavery. These are people who show us that language is dangerous and that language has potency. Just because America isn’t incarcerating poets, per se, doesn’t mean that the thing that we’re doing is inert. 

But the names that I just mentioned also affirm something kind of intensely powerful about poetry, which is that to become a great poet, you just need your mind, you just need language, and you can create practically anywhere. 

There are so many more, like Etheridge Knight, who also wrote while incarcerated. So much of American poetry is indebted to him. 

NKJ: In that vein of acknowledging poetic debts, how do you sort of trace your poetry ancestry? And in what ways do you carry the legacies and histories of those who have influenced you? 

KA: I think about this story that Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges told. He was obsessed with infinity and wrote so many stories and poems and essays around the idea of infinity and approximating infinity. And one of his favorite ways of conceptualizing infinity was the Sahara. He eventually gets to visit the Sahara, later in his life, and he’s already going blind or maybe is blind at this point. But he gets to the Sahara, and the first thing he does is he reaches down and scoops up a hand full of sand and lets it trickle through his fingers, and he’s like, I am modifying the Sahara.

And that’s the whole trip. The whole trip was for him was just to be able to say I’m modifying the Sahara.

I think that every text that I’ve ever read, every movie that I’ve ever seen, every conversation that I’ve ever had has been modifying my onboard psychics, my relationship to language. 

Some of it, like the first time that I read Sula or the first time that I read the Wild Iris, that was like, dump trucks coming in and archipelagos being formed and like just something entirely new being made. Whereas the cereal box that I read in the morning right might just be moving one grain of sand from here to there. I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by everything you experience, and it’s just as impossible to sort of track those influences for me. 

NKJ: Shifting gears to the divine, there’s the famous Baldwin quote, from The Fire Next Time, “If the concept of God has any use for us, it can only be to make us larger freer and more loving, if God cannot do this then it’s time we got rid of him.” How has the function of God, or the divine in your work, developed over time?

KA:  When I say God, I mean, this gesture which I know that you’re gonna have to transcribe, and you’re gonna have to figure out a way to transcribe that but like a gif in the text (gestures with arms in wide circles). No one word captures it. That feels to me like a concession to the futility of trying to name things, which is something that I think about a lot—how the ways that this language is insufficient for so many of the things that I want to use it for.

One of the chief ways that language feels just vastly not up to the job is when I try to think about the divine, when I try to think about the power is greater than myself that governs my living and makes me want to live in a way that is counter to my nature. I wrote about this in my first book, you know? My whole first book is an addiction recovery there, so it’s no secret that my self-will directed life almost killed me. 

Then, when I became able to live for something else—for poetry, for family, for whatever that thing that’s bigger than my own ego—my life started to get back, better. 

I am most interested in those language moments where it’s completely not up to the task of naming, where the language just feels completely insufficient. There is a quote by the musician Brian Eno where he’s talking about the crack in a Blues singer’s voice. Like when you’re listening to a Billie Holiday record, and you hear her voice sort of crack. He talks about that as being an “emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it.” And so, when I think about God, I’m so invested in those moments in poetry that accomplish that idea, or that are that idea—too momentous a moment to record.

NKJ: I was really moved by poems like “Everything That Moves is Alive and a Threat.” One line that stuck out to me was, “I spent my whole adult life in a country, only my parents can pronounce my name.” Naming functions in so many different ways throughout the collection, and one of its most moving functions, for me, was naming as intimacy. There’s a certain way that my name at home is different from my name to the public, and it’s almost like a coded language. So, I’m wondering what influences your conception of naming.

KA:  Yeah, that’s such a beautiful question and such a generous question. My spouse is a white American, and white Americans usually can’t say my name. I mean, I guess they say it many kinds of ways. My first name is Kaveh, with the eh sound being the eh sound like in the word red. But there’s no word in the English language that ends in that sound.  So, anytime I introduced myself to a native English speaker, they might say my name right like once or twice. but as soon as they stop consciously thinking about it, they’ll forget. My spouse, in the first year of our sort of courtship, really took it upon themselves. I never would ask them to do that, but they took it upon themselves to get it right.

Every time they say my name now, they say it like an Iranian, they say it like my parents—I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.

It seems like such a tiny insignificant thing, but to be called my name by my best friend and by my partner in this life makes such a difference.

In poems, I’m interested in the power of naming and also what naming something can and can’t do. The title of the first book is Calling a Wolf a Wolf, which comes from a line that says something to the effect of, “as if calling a wolf a wolf would dull its fangs.”

Which is to say that, just because I can say that I have a problem, where I can name what the problem is, it doesn’t make the problem any better. 

We know how to name many things, but we’re still teetering on the precipice of ecological collapse, and we have the specter of fascism rising up all across the world. It’s not just in America, the specter of fascism is rising all over the world. And here in America, we have the state murder of civilians happening every day in the streets with no punishment.

But still, naming doesn’t diminish the evil of them; it doesn’t diminish the heart, the atrocity. Nonetheless, I’m both interested in, you know, things like my spouse saying my name right and how unaccountably moved, and that’s the power of naming.

All of the other things that I just pointed out are instances of just the vast capabilities of naming too. This is something that I’m endlessly fascinated by, which comes back to just being sort of endlessly fascinated by language—what we can and can’t do with language.

NKJ: Lastly, during the monotony of quarantine. What have you turned to retain the freshness in your work, what, recently, has been sparking your curiosity?

KA: I’ve sort of been hiding out in sports and movies. I’ve been watching a lot of basketball, and I’ve been watching a lot of old horror movies. These are worlds that have their own vernacular and their own idioms and their own sort of logic. And it’s nice to enter such worlds after a day of sort of putting in the work in this world and in many ways feeling like I’m kind of just like ramming my head against a wall. It’s nice to spend a couple of hours at the end of the night in a different world with a different idiom with a clear-cut set of rules. 

I also find myself enjoying things that have actual internal logic because it just seems like so much of what is happening in the world right now is completely counter to any sort of logic. At the end of the day I guess it’s also a kind of a form of escapism. 

I’m also throwing myself into my students’ work. I teach a Purdue University, the Randolph low-residency MFA, and the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA. I can spend all day just sort of like endlessly reprocessing my own thinking and going back over and over my own experiences. Especially because, in some ways, I feel like I’m spending all my time at home. I feel like I’m not writing new memories, I’m not writing new experiences in the hard drive of my brain, and so my brain is just extra loud when bringing up old memories and old experiences. But being able to throw myself into the lives, minds, and work of my brilliant students, who can challenge me, and provoke new thinking outside my own work, is such a mercy.