FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
KAVEH AKBAR: Moving at an early age to America from Iran, to English from Farsi, centered me in the materiality of language. An ocean, or darya, was filled with ob, or water. There were choices; no sound was fixed absolutely to any object or idea. That’s the birth of it, I think, the center of the atom.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
KA: My high school English teacher, Mr. Steve Henn, sent me home one day with a stack of poetry books and journals. It was an immediate and frankly miraculous shock of clarity, the kind one only gets a couple of in a life (and that’s if one is very lucky). I remember opening Yusef Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular and watching the clouds part, the angels sounding their trumpets. I knew immediately if being a poet was something one could be in the world, then that was what I would be.
FP: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
KA: In Pilgrim Bell, I became very interested in silence, silence as an architectonic element in a poem. I wanted the language to feel like the negative space poured around silence, which is really what I was after. What’s the opposite of corrosive obstinate certainty? Shutting my mouth. Letting silence sound.
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
KA: I think of Sappho, Rabia, Mahadeviyakaa, and Donne as lodestars in what silence, open breath, can do in a poem. And even Hopkins, whose staccato bombast made his silences feel so much more silent in contrast. Like the deep stillness cracking through the woods after gunshot.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
KA: If I am very very lucky, the next line.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
KA: Be deeply skeptical of anyone living, including me, who gives prescriptive advice, including this! Wislawa Szymborska, from a late interview: ‘I’ve reached the age of self-knowledge, so I don’t know anything. People who claim that they know something are responsible for most of the fuss in the world.’