interview: Kaveh Akbar
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared in a variety of publications including The New Yorker, Tin House, and Ploughshares, and his work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Lucille Medwick Memorial Award. His debut chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, has captivated readers with its searing yet dreamlike portrayal of addiction and recovery. We spoke with the Florida-based poet about using Farsi to defamiliarize his poetry, the distinction between self-pity and self-love, and his struggle to reconcile the lasting effects of former addiction with his burgeoning spirituality.
Let’s start with a timeline. I know you were born in Tehran. How long did you live in Iran? When did you come to the United States?
KA: I came to the United States when I was two-and-a-half years old. My dad had actually worked in the U.S. before, and he went back to Iran to take a job teaching at the University of Tehran, and I was born while he was teaching there. He was born in Iran and grew up there, but I came to America when I was two-and-a-half and we kind of lived all over—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
What did your father teach, out of curiosity?
KA: He’s a poultry geneticist, so agricultural genetics.
So not the arts.
KA: No, no, both of my parents are hard science people.
KA: I mean my mom, especially, is a big reader and is the person who instilled in me the love of language and the love of the game of language. She instilled in me the notion that language was a site for fun, but both of my parents’ day jobs are in the hard sciences.
Did your love of poetry begin as a child?
KA: Yeah, maybe not so consciously, but my mom has poems that I wrote in preschool and kindergarten, and she has poems that I basically wrote every year after that, too, so there’s a long archive of my growth as a poet starting from about age four, and it’s pretty steady. I’ve always been interested in writing and interested in words. I remember my mom, ever since I was a tiny child, would get these SAT prep books from the library, and she would go through and teach herself the vocabulary words and deliberately pepper those words into her conversation with me, and so those words became part of my natural vernacular. I viewed those words the same as any other words, so, you know, I was wandering around the house saying that I was ambiguous about whether or not I wanted to go somewhere, just goofy things like that.
You must have been a very precocious child.
KA: Yeah, and I didn’t even realize that it was happening until about middle school and high school, when I think people kind of thought it was an affect, like I was trying to sound smart or something, but really I just didn’t know what was going on. And so I got really self-conscious about it, and I would deliberately try to dumb down my speaking voice, and I would try to avoid using polysyllabic Latinate words.
Four is really young to start writing poetry. Was is it in Farsi or in English?
KA: It was in English. When we first moved to the United States both of my parents sort of aggressively stopped speaking any Farsi at all, in what might have been a misguided attempt to Americanize me. I mean I guess it worked—I fell in love with English. And there was some English in the house as well when we were in Iran.
I find it interesting how learning English as a second or third language affects the way people write in English, how it influences the lyricism. Do you feel your writing was influenced by this, or were you too removed from Farsi?
KA: I think that the algorithms that my brain has for language are rooted in Farsi, so there’s a way in which that affects my relationship to English, certainly. I think that people who are native speakers of one language who then try to write in another are granted access to a kind of defamiliarity of that language that a native speaker of it, who speaks no other language, might not have, because if you only know one language then you might not understand what might be quirky or strange about it. You don’t have any sort of relativity about it—language just is what it is, whereas if you’re coming from another place, you have some sort of relativity, and that grants access to an incredible amount of defamiliarist potential, which is what we’re all about as poets, right? Defamiliarizing experience, especially defamiliarizing the experience of language.
Let’s talk about your chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic. The chapbook goes through the process of becoming an addict and an alcoholic, recovery, withdrawal, and coming to terms with a new sense of self. You begin it with a poem titled “Some boys aren’t born they bubble.” Are you saying that you were born different, with this heat that you couldn’t contain, with this tendency toward addiction?
KA: Yeah, I think that’s a really good read of the poem. I don’t want to get too into what any given poem means or doesn’t mean. I don’t want to be prescriptive in that way because I think that your reading is as valid as mine at this point; once the poem is published in a book and is out in the world it’s as much yours as it is mine, so I don’t want to try to act like I have some sort of authority over your reading. But I think that that’s a really valid way to read it. There are a myriad of studies that show a genetic component of addiction, and there’s reason to believe, given that I am an addict, that this is the case with me.
In a later poem you mention that—and I’m a mother of a four-year-old little girl, so to me it was very tender and beautiful to read—you say in the poem that your mother, when she tucked you in at night as a small child, would say something to the extent of “you are so small and sweet that a mouse could eat you.”
KA: That’s actually a Persian idiom. You know, like the way we would say “Oh, I could just eat you up” or whatever. In Farsi you say moosh bokhoradet, “a mouse should eat you”—literally that’s what it means.
That is a really cute phrase. That’s a common saying in Iran?
KA: Yes! And that comes back to one of the advantages of having a non-English language as your background. There’s this whole other world of idioms that you can mine that aren’t totally played out. Like, if I had said that my mom tucked me in and said “Oh, I could eat you up,” it sounds so cliché. But because I know the primary audience of this book is going to be English readers, they won’t have familiarity with that idiom. Access to Farsi literally grants me access to an unmined language, to borrow words and phrases for Western readers.
True. As a Western reader, that phrase is striking.
KA: It’s beautiful.
Yes, it’s beautiful and now I want to say that to my daughter when I put her to bed.
KA: You should! It’s my gift to you. Well, it’s Iran’s gift to you.
Thank you! In contrast to that poem, and what your mother said to you as a little boy, you go on in another poem to talk about how you “carried a coldness like a diamond for years.” How does one go from that sweet innocence pictured before to not wanting to feel, it seems, any sort of emotion?
KA: Well, the book is about it: It’s about how the process of addiction and recovery strips you of the compassion and the light that is native to your person, and it’s about the process of regaining those things.
At the same time, calling your coldness a diamond gives the sense that your sickness was a precious possession to you.
KA: Absolutely. What addict doesn’t want to protect their disease? I don’t know if you have direct experiences with addicts, but there are countless narratives available in the popular culture of addicts choosing their drug of choice over their family, their career, everything. An addict will protect their disease over just about anything, which is why it’s such a miracle when anyone gets any kind of recovery.
I think that’s part of the reason Portrait of the Alcoholic is fascinating to me, because I don’t have a lot of personal experience with addicts. I consider myself lucky in that way. Reading something like this provokes a lot of questions.
KA: Yeah, I mean that’s one of my great hopes for the book, that it will provide for people like you a kind of compassionate awareness of addiction. This is a disease that affects people like heart disease does, or diabetes, or whatever else, but because of the nature of the disease, it’s invisible, it doesn’t manifest in sores on the body or boils or whatever. But there’s a lot of stigma attached to the disease, as with any mental illness—this isn’t something that is unique to addiction or alcoholism. I write these poems for myself, to sort of navigate my way through my experience, but I don’t publish everything I write. I don’t publish anywhere near everything I write, and so the decision to publish these kinds of poems has everything to do with creating a compassionate awareness.
I like that you brought up the fact that it is a mental illness, because although I don’t have a lot of personal experience with alcoholism or addiction, as far as other mental illnesses go, I’m much more personally aware of them. And from the outside looking in, it’s hard for someone to understand why someone would do what they do, and why they would choose a substance over their relationships, but when you can get inside the mindset in the way that you provide, that’s where compassion comes in.
KA: Yeah, absolutely. You know, some pregnant women who are deficient in iron will find themselves eating dirt, because there is iron in the soil, even though their conscious brains have no idea. We have all these sorts of innate drives and desires that defy the rational mind’s ability to make sense of things, and I am certainly someone who has been affected by this.
I definitely feel a kind of camaraderie or fellowship with anyone who has to work hard to appear at ease just being normal, who has to put in a lot of work to appear comfortable or to appear put-together, even if they don’t necessarily feel that on the inside—whoever has to bear the weight of that gulf between your psychic self and your exterior self. I think that that’s a lot of work.
Speaking of compassion, did writing this chapbook make you more compassionate toward yourself?
KA: Hmm, that’s a really good question. I think that it did. I think that a lot of writing these poems, of writing poems in general, especially in these poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic and Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was to try to learn how to love the person that I was. My friend Danez Smith, the poet, talks about trying to learn to forgive the person they used to be, and I think a lot of writing poetry for me has to do with mapping out the process of trying to love myself. When you can see yourself in a more third-party perspective, as I present myself in these poems, it allows me to love myself like I love a character in a book, which helps because it makes me less mired in the self-criticisms and self-doubt that make self-love so difficult.
So you defamiliarize you from yourself, in a sense?
KA: Yeah! That’s a really great way to say that. That’s really smart.
I was just going off what you said about defamiliarization with language, but I suppose there is a sort of love or compassion that comes from that process.
KA: Yeah, absolutely. That’s beautiful.
Going along with that, you also address in the chapbook apologies and forgiveness, and I’m sure anyone can relate to that in the sense that whether or not they struggle with addictions or mental illness, we’ve all done things in our lives that really hurt others, hurt ourselves. And at some point, in order to heal, we have to go through that very humbling process of making apologies.
KA: Absolutely, yeah. So much of active addiction is just about screwing over the people who love you, which, if you have a burgeoning spiritual component of yourself, that includes screwing over your relationship with whatever cosmic energy you find yourself beholden to. And so the process of mending those relationships, both the corporeal ones and the spiritual ones, is kind of a load-bearing part of any recovery effort.
Yes, and I do see in the poems that you express a struggle you have with God. In the final poem, you say something along the lines of “Our Father who art in Heaven… He always just stepped out…” whereas “Earth, the mother” is always around.
KA: Well, I think that struggle goes back and forth. I don’t think that my experience of my faith has in any way been uniformly lain over my days. I think there are moments in which I feel very, very connected to my faith, and there are moments that I feel very, very detached from it. I think that for most of my active addiction it had no real part in my life. It was not something I was interested in. And then, in the process of recovery, I became interested in that part of myself again, but just like anything else, it ebbs and flows. I’m spiritually lazy often, and I’m lazy in plenty of other ways, too, but I think that it’s always work.
So your sense of spirituality didn’t begin before you decided to get better, but shortly after you had made that decision?
KA: Well, I was raised Muslim but fairly secularly. I think that there’s this thing in America where when you talk about being raised Muslim people assume that you’re super religious, practically Amish or something. But I was raised about as Muslim as a Christian family that only goes to church on Easter, you know what I mean? And so I called myself a Muslim, and everyone in our family called themselves Muslims, but it didn’t really permeate our everyday experience all that much. I could talk about this all day, but my interest in spirituality definitely blossomed in recovery.
I did a little research on laws regarding alcohol in Iran, and I know you moved here as a small child, but I was wondering if culturally that attitude affected you in your own addiction. If I’m not mistaken there are very strict laws regarding Islam and the consumption of alcohol.
KA: Yeah, in Iran alcohol is forbidden in the same way that weed is forbidden here, which is to say that, if you want it, it’s still there for you. But I think more generally speaking, whatever the current political and legislative focus is in Iran right now is less germane to my personal experience of drinking here than maybe the fact that Islam itself says that alcohol is haram, or forbidden. And so from there are born a lot of complicated feelings. But also—and Kazim Ali, whose blurb is on the back of the book, kind of speaks to this—there’s a rich history in Islam of writing about drinking. Rumi and Hafiz wrote about getting drunk, and it was sort of this metaphor for detachment from the terrestrial, corporeal experience and elevating to a more enlightened state. There’s a rich tradition in some poetry of drunkenness as a metaphor, so, I don’t know, it kind of goes both ways.
There are a lot of things in the Bible as well that are supposedly forbidden, and most Christians don’t really pay them much mind. There are certain things that are taken very seriously, but then other things we take with a serious grain of salt.
KA: Yes, that’s true.
To return to the subject of apology, there’s a line in the poem titled “An Apology” that really struck a chord with me: “Duset daram, mano tanha bezar—I love you, leave me alone,” which a girl said to you after sex. It would be nice if I didn’t feel I could relate personally to that line, but I do. To me, it expresses this toxic tendency of a lot of people, including myself, to want to escape what or who we love.
KA: Absolutely. The book is kind of about that. What does an addict love more than his addiction? He has no choice. So I think that moment in the poem is very in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the collection.
And it relates that fear.
KA: Yeah, the fear of loss. And also the kind of self-pity that is native to the alcoholic, the kind of external locus of control.
Yes, and how you express throughout the chapbook that your addiction is killing you.
KA: Yes, quite literally. I’m still feeling the effects of it. Without getting too nitty gritty about it, I’m still dealing with adverse health effects from my active addiction.
This is going to be an ongoing battle for a long time.
KA: This is going to be an ongoing battle forever. I’m never going to be cured of this. I’m never going to wake up and suddenly not want the thing that every cell in my body wants more than they want to be alive.
That’s a really powerful way to describe addiction.
KA: Yeah, my brain is the muscle that controls my breathing and controls the contractions of my digestive muscles and controls my sleeping and it’s also the organ that wants me to drink. It wants me to drink and it wants me to use as badly as it wants me to continue breathing. It’s the same organ, it’s the same wiring, so it’s not going away.
Wow. It wants you to use as badly as it wants you to keep breathing.
KA: Yeah. And given my experience, if given the option between the two, it will often choose the former.
That struggle really makes me think of the last line in the chapbook: “the boat I’m building will never be done.”
KA: Yes, absolutely. That poem is actually also the last poem in the full-length, too. The full-length is very different, and even the poems in common are in a very different order, but that poem I really wanted to be last because I think that’s exactly the right final note.
Yes. And this chapbook, it obviously literally comes to an end, but you get the sense that it’s never-ending.
KA: Yeah, and it is never-ending.
The fact that in the last poem you’re on a metaphorical island also gives the sense that you feel trapped or isolated, or both.
KA: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day I certainly have people who support my recovery—and I’m four years sober as of a week ago—but at the end of the day nobody has the ability to help keep me sober besides me, you know what I mean? There is nothing that my fiancée can do that will cause me to, or prevent me from, drinking. There is nothing that my best friend or my parents can do that will cause me to, or prevent me from, drinking if I decide I want to. At the end of the day it’s all on me because, once again, the organ lives inside my skull, not theirs, and I’m beholden only to it. And so it is very lonely. It’s an incredibly lonely thing, and on the other hand, you know, I found an incredible community. Most of my closest friends are also people in recovery, and there’s a sort of commiseration and level of knowing that can exist between us that cannot exist without having that shared experience.
At the end of the day, is your recovery mostly a matter of sheer willpower?
KA: I take it day by day. I can’t think any bigger than that. If you tell me I’m not allowed to do any sort of drug any time for the rest of my life I’ll probably start foaming at the mouth or something. That’s a really, really daunting way to think about it. But you know, if we just talk today—I’m talking to you, and I’m about to go teach a class, so I probably won’t do anything for the next couple hours, and then tonight I’m going to a reading for one of my friends, so I probably won’t do anything then—so if I’m just talking about it in terms of stringing together a few hours, and then after the reading I guess I go to sleep. I can’t drink in my sleep. It’s a lot easier to think about it that way. So I don’t think that it’s about willpower. I think any drunk will tell you that willpower is useless, because anyone who is in recovery has at some point tried to quit drinking on their own, and I think that pretty uniformly we find that it doesn’t work. But there are ways to support your self-will, you know? Whether you find it through a cosmological orientation or you find it through some fellowship or family or whatever it is, there are ways to support it.
Have you had any instances of addicts or former addicts reaching out to you about this chapbook?
KA: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t want to talk specifically about any of that, but the great dream of mine in releasing the chapbook was that it would reach other people who have had similar experiences and be useful in some way. So yeah, a lot of people who are in recovery have reached out to me about it, a lot of people who love people who are in recovery or even in active addiction have reached out to me about it, and so, you know, that’s the dream of dreams. That’s everything.
Yeah. Although I don’t have any personal experience with it, it’s still deeply thought-provoking.
KA: Yeah, and that’s the other end of it, right, creating that compassionate awareness. And I appreciate you reading it so generously and being so permeable to that compassion.
It does remind me of what it’s like to love someone struggling with other types of debilitating illness, or my own personal struggles with that. There’s a familiar feeling.
KA: I definitely feel a kind of camaraderie or fellowship with anyone who has to work hard to appear at ease just being normal, who has to put in a lot of work to appear comfortable or to appear put-together, even if they don’t necessarily feel that on the inside—whoever has to bear the weight of that gulf between your psychic self and your exterior self. I think that that’s a lot of work.
I think it can be excruciating. And I know in the beginning of the chapbook you have some lines about how it seems so easy for some people.
KA: Sure, and I know that in my early recovery I was kind of obsessed with the unfairness of it, you know, like, Why do these jerks who don’t even like drinking as much as I do or who don’t even enjoy opiates as much as I do, why do they get to use these recreationally and be fine with it? Why can’t I be like them?
And that sense of inferiority only worsens the problem.
KA: Oh absolutely. It’s another manifestation of the self-pity of the addict. I think that in a lot of ways for a long-time self-pity was kind of my drug of choice, and everything else was just sort of a delivery mechanism for it.
Self-pity as a drug. That’s really thought-provoking, too, because self-pity is an excuse to not get better.
KA: I think that if you believe yourself to be a victim of the world, or a victim of circumstances, and you don’t believe yourself to be an active actor in your life, then it’s very easy to just sort of cede the reins, to give the reins over to a drug. It’s like, if I’m not in charge anyways, I might as well. In addition to that, it’s also very easy to say, Well, because I’ve been screwed over in this-and-this way, I’ve earned the right to self-medicate in this way.
Yeah, you’re resonating with me now because, like most people, I make excuses for my own behavior based on past events. It’s a very universal theme. But to shift gears now, I want to talk about your full-length book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
KA: I think of Portrait of the Alcoholic as the EP and Calling a Wolf a Wolf as the LP, which is to say that I think thatPortrait of the Alcoholic introduces the themes and obsessions and then the latter really sinks its teeth into those. They’re both sort of orbiting the nucleus of addiction and recovery, but Calling a Wolf a Wolf is able to sustain some deeper thinking about those things.
Interview by Mariel Lindsay.
Photography by Eleanor Eichenbaum.