FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
Kaveh Akbar: I was born in Tehran. When I was a very young child, my parents taught me how to pray in Arabic, a language neither they nor I spoke. We spoke Farsi and English with each other, but Arabic was a special secret third language reserved for devotions. I was absolutely enchanted by these mysterious, mellifluous strings of sound that, if spoken with enough earnestness, were actually capable of thinning the membrane between this world and the divine’s.
This relationship would become the bedrock for my entire conception of poetry—the understanding that language has a capacity beyond the mere relay of semantic data, that if a line could be spoken with sufficient beauty and conviction, it might thin the membrane between its speaker and whichever divine (God, desire, despair, the mind, the body) they wish to address.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
KA: The company of the past twenty-six years of shortlistees is the prize. It is an impossible, monumental occasion for gratitude.
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book.
KA: The collection is an addiction recovery narrative; it is my addiction recovery narrative (though it’s less focused on war stories and more on the psycho/physio/cosmological implications of addiction and recovery). I wrote it during a period of several years when I was trying very hard to sublimate one set of obsessions (narcotic) into another (poetic). Once I had emerged with a stack of poems, my brilliant editors Carey Salerno (of Alice James Books in the U.S.) and Maria Bedford (of Penguin in the U.K.) clarified my vision, turned it into a book, and ran it up the mountain.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
KA: I find that so much of the poetry I admire most orbits a nucleus of wonder and bewilderment. Wonder at ecology, cosmology, mortality, desire, wonder at our aptitude for cruelty, or at our capacity for grace. Rumi said: Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. I think protecting and nurturing our permeability to bewilderment might still be our most important charge as poets.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
KA: I try not to be too prescriptive, as I don’t want to infringe on the ways anybody else might be enjoying poetry. I will say, I think being generous with other poets is immensely important. They are the creators of the light that nourishes and sustains our own. Every book of poetry I’ve ever read has taught me something about my craft, my station, and/or myself. I have built my life around the gratitude I feel for those gifts.