The Big Hollow

January 25, 2022


Poetry Off the Shelf: The Big Hollow





Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, The Big Hollow. For a good while, it seemed like Kaveh Akbar was everywhere. Interviewing the greatest living poets for Divedapper, writing or talking about his first book, which was titled, Calling A Wolf A Wolf, a fast-paced howl of a book about the alcohol addiction he’d only just left behind then, and sending out daily, sometimes even hourly bursts of poetry love on Twitter. I think he singlehandedly led a whole new generation of readers to the art form.


But then, Kaveh Akbar quit social media.


Instead, he focused on teaching, reading, and writing. He buried himself in books from all over the world to select the 110 poems that would go into an upcoming anthology of spiritual verse. And he started composing more silence into his poems, just like one of his all-time heroes always did, Jean Valentine. She had a way of saying more in the space between the lines than in the lines themselves. And you hear this silence and his spiritual seeking in his latest collection, Pilgrim Bell. I recently sat down to talk to him about it—or at least, I tried.   


Helena de Groot: Congratulations, really, on having written the most impossible to talk about book.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) That’s sweet! That’s actually, that’s a nice thing to say. Thank you.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, absolutely. So I thought, maybe we can start with a side door.


Kaveh Akbar: Great.


Helena de Groot: You curated a collection of poems for Penguin, The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine. And you go back to four millennia ago. You go to all continents, excluding Antarctica. And it seems like a crushing responsibility. How do you even begin to read for such a project?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Yeah, I’m still waiting on that great Antarctican epic, you know? Although I think there was a book of—anyways, I’m sorry, this is—


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, I never claim any sort of objectivity in the curation of this project, right? Which, if I was to create an anthology that was truly representative of the human project of spiritual writing, it would be measured in libraries, not pages.


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


Kaveh Akbar: And so, this anthology is very much just a tiny synecdoche of a larger picture. 110 poems that really move me, that really struck me. Now that said, there have been other anthologies of spiritual verse, and with the exception of Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred and Hirshfield’s Women in Praise of the Sacred, I do feel like the standard model is to include, you know, 25 white guys, you know, like Marvell and Herbert and Donne, who I love all of these, you know, Milton and Shakespeare. And then like maybe Rumi and Sappho, you know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And, and that’s the anthology, right? Which is inaccurate. You know, it’s inaccurate to flatten the corpus of human wondering to one tiny little province of the world, right? And it seems that. It seems provincial when you read those anthologies, it seems provincial when you consider, you know, the Mesoamerican epics that are missing or the Antipodean poetry or the Sub-Saharan African poetry, you know, that have been part of the Earth’s spiritual history for, relatively speaking, far longer than Shakespeare or Milton. Again, who I love.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, sure.


Kaveh Akbar: But, you know, there’s no such thing as an English-speaking ancient.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: You know what I mean, like, Chaucer was a 14th-century writer. There’s no such thing as an English-speaking ancient, right. To get into the ancient poetry, the ancient doubts, and the ancient wanderings that really undergird all of contemporary thinking, right, you have to go beyond those people. Does that make sense?


Helena de Groot: Yeah, totally. Yeah. And so, are you saying that all of the poems that are included in this collection are poems that you had already encountered on your own path of reading?


Kaveh Akbar: No, no. I mean, many of them are, of course, but also, when I decided to make this anthology, you know, there were these vast cavities in my knowledge of these traditions, right? And so I didn’t know a lot about Chinese poets of antiquity or Korean poets of antiquity. I didn’t know a lot about Yoruba poetry, or certain veins of Mesomerican poetry, right? And then also accounting for the fact that lots of these traditions were oral. You know, there’s a there’s a Náhuatl poem in the anthology that I really love about a midwife addressing a woman who has passed in childbirth, and it really anticipates the Kübler-Ross model of like, the five stages of grief. You know, like the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance in some order, I got the order wrong. But like, this poem, which precedes Kubler-Ross’s clinical studies by 500 years, you know, it was the Náhuatl people teaching, through this poem, through this oral tradition, right, how one moves through grief.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And it’s this it’s this incredible poem that I absolutely didn’t know about, again, until I started diving more deeply into these traditions and trying to, again, fill in the gaps in my content knowledge. Because I, you know, I went through the American education system and got my graduate degrees in English, in America. So, even though, you know, my minor area of concentration or whatever in my PhD was international poetries or global poetries, you know, it’s still very much like, Anglocentric, Eurocentric. And so, filling in my own content knowledge was half of the reason that I wanted to do this right. Like, I wanted to have a reason to have to learn this stuff. Because I didn’t want to make another anthology that was just, again, you know, the same 30 people that you read in every other anthology, right?


Helena de Groot: Totally. And then also, you know, like, as you read your anthology, you come across so many names that I had never heard of, and then you Google them, and then it turns out that they are … they are pillars in whatever culture they’re from.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Like, you’re not digging up some obscure, little, you know, artsy find, you know what I mean? You are really exhuming for the English-speaking reader people that don’t really need exhuming. There are like, right there, if only we care to look.


Kaveh Akbar: A thousand percent. A thousand percent. I mean, like, to think about the legacies of poets like Mirabai or Mahadeviyakkha, right, which are poets that, I, you know, again, I have four degrees in English and in poetry, specifically, and I never heard one of those names once in any of those, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: But in, you know, another part of the world, those are the bedrock.


Helena de Groot: Totally, totally. Yeah. I was just wondering if you wanted to read a poem. I was thinking about the poem on page 26 by an Indian poet, Patacara.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: She was a disciple of the Buddha from the 6th century BCE.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Great. Great. Yep. And this version of this poem was translated by Susan Murcott.


(READS “Poem” by Patacara)


When they plow their fields

and sow seeds in the earth,

when they care for their wives and children,

young brahmans find riches.


But I’ve done everything right

and followed the rule of my teacher.

I’m not lazy or proud.

Why haven’t I found peace?


Bathing my feet

I watched the bathwater

spill down the slope.

I concentrated my mind

the way you train a good horse.


Then I took a lamp

and went into my cell,

checked the bed,

and sat down on it.

I took a needle

and pushed the wick down.


When the lamp went out

my mind was freed.



Helena de Groot: Thank you. I love how immediate it is, you know, the way she just despairs like, but I’ve done everything right!


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah!


Helena de Groot: You know, “I’m not lazy or proud. / Why haven’t I found peace?” And she’s a disciple of the Buddha! (LAUGHS) You know?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. But that frustration is so human. And again, like, in my own sort of personal psychospiritual excavations, I get to that frustration so often. And it is so uncanny to find it precedented, right, by, you know, 27 centuries or whatever.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And then the privileging of silence and stillness amidst that sort of psychic tumult, right, the way the poem ends in that, in that stillness is so moving to me. And again, it’s exactly what some of my favorite poets are doing today, right, is like, expressing their frustrations with the limitations of corporeality. And trying to find those moments of relative stillness or silence.


Helena de Groot: Right. Yeah. And the way that she puts it, too, it’s so specific, you know, “When the lamp went out / my mind was freed.” She doesn’t talk about, yeah, like what you just said, corporeality. She doesn’t do any of that.


Kaveh Akbar: Right. Right.


Helena de Groot: Like, Oh, now I don’t have to think about my body anymore. No, she’s just, the lamp went out. You know? The end.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, this is the language of the critic and the philosopher, right, to talk about corporeality and, you know, what she says is, “Bathing my feet / I watched the bathwater / spill down the slope,” right? She’s enacting it, right? I mean, it’s, you could teach, what’s the first rule in a creative writing class, it’s show, don’t tell, right?


Helena de Groot: Totally.


Kaveh Akbar: And, you know, that’s what, again, precedenting all sort of creative writing pedagogy by millennia, right. But yeah, she’s showing us, right, the candle being snuffed out, the bathwater spilling down the slope.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. So, to jump forward two millennia to something that is so of this time, I just wanted to ask you, and I know I’m not the first, I apologize. I know that in between your last two books, you got off social media, which is another version of snuffing out the lamp.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And I’m just wondering, like was there one moment that prompted it? Was there one tweet too many where you were like, “Ugh, this place”?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, it wasn’t, it wasn’t so neat and tidy as that. And in fact, you know, I was on Twitter for, you know, six months and then I was off Twitter for nine months, and then I was on Twitter for three months, and I was off for a year, and then I got back on, you know, and I just, you know, I just finally, you know, shut it all down. Yeah, I—my first book was a book about recovery, it was about my recovery. And in the same way that alcohol or drugs aren’t safe for me to use, but other people seem to do fine with them, I think that there’s something especially corrosive about social media to my particular neuropathologies, you know? And, you know, I don’t want to, I don’t want to be like, old man shouts at the young whippersnappers using social media. But for me specifically, what good there was in it just was dwarfed by the damage it was doing to my psychic wellbeing.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. I mean, you know, the thing that makes me the angriest about the ways that social media is set up is that it hijacks us in the place where we are most helpless, you know, in our desire for connection.


Kaveh Akbar: 100 percent.


Helena de Groot: Right?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah.


Helena de Groot: I just want to ask you about that, because I feel—and maybe I’m reading too much into it, right? But, you know, to me, alcoholism always seems, initially, at least, probably about connection. Because, you know, you do it with other people. You know?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And so social media is also, initially at least, about connection.


Kaveh Akbar: Of course. Of course, yeah.


Helena de Groot: And so, can I ask you, like when you cut that off, when you go cold turkey or you go whatever, you know, you don’t do it anymore, what comes up?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Yeah. I, I, in a vein of Islam, there’s a hadith where it talks about the devil inspecting Adam for the first time. And he sort of circles Adam, and he’s taking a gander at this new creation. And then he enters Adam’s mouth. And he passes all the way through Adam’s body and emerges out his anus. And he says, “Oh, you know, my job is going to be so easy. You know, man is just one big emptiness. You know, all I have to do is show him stuff that he’s going to want to fill himself with.” And I feel like I am that Adam incarnate. Like, I’ve never related to a theological parable or, you know, one of these stories so much as I relate to this iteration of Adam or this conception of Adam. And, you know, I have lurched through my living trying to fill that hole with alcohol and narcotics. But then also, you know, praise and communion, and success, and all of these things that are completely extrinsic to my actual person, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: That nothing to do really with like, the deep need that is like rooted within me for that hole to be filled with something less tactile and less sort of consumable, you know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And so, yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question at all.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, I mean, I was just curious about like, you know, those moments when, because I think overcoming addiction is also about becoming like creating that tiny little wedge between the urge coming up and then your reaction to it, right?


Kaveh Akbar: Sure, of course, of course, yeah.


Helena de Groot: And if you can just sort of like a sliver of space that maybe you can choose instead of just go with the thing, you know?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: And so, when today, the urge comes up, whatever shape, right, like the urge to share something that you see that’s miraculous on social media or the urge to get a drink with a good friend and just bask in that glow, and, you know, whatever you want to do, like when that urge comes up, what do you do with it then, today?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Well, yeah, the view that you have of me as the sort of alcoholic who would just like happily glow getting a drink with a good friend is a very sweet view, but is, you know, my, the form that it took with me was more like, you know, at 9AM, I’m going to CVS to buy a $15 handle of whiskey and then, you know, drinking it in my car and whatever, you know, like it wasn’t so glowing as what you describe.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: But yeah, I mean, again, like, these things sublimate, you know, like, there hasn’t been a period of my life where I wasn’t wholly consumed with some kind of obsession. You know, I’ve been a tournament backgammon player that was like, you know, highly ranked and traveled, you know. Because, for a while, I was like, “I’m going to be the best backgammon player in the world.”


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: You know, I programmed for, you know, like there have been a billion, you know, and when it can be something generative and constructive like poetry as opposed to something harmful or corrosive, that’s when it’s the best.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Right now, I’m in the midst of a prose project, and it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up. Everything that enters my consciousness enters first through the prism of its utility to this prose project, right?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: But you know, I mean, like anyone else, you know, getting off social media and just sort of like, I don’t want to say shot putting, because it sounds so violent, like dandelioning, you know, like blowing the dandelion of these thoughts sort of randomly into the ether has changed to me having a more directed approach. So, you know, like if I read a poem that I really love, maybe I’ll send it to Ilya or to, you know, to my pal Angel, or whatever, you know. And then it’ll be like a little bit more like a vector between like one me and one person as opposed to just like this dandelion spray, you know? And that feels good. Yeah, it’s just, this feels healthier for me.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. I mean, I’m also curious, because you talk about, you know, you’ve done a billion things, like programing, professional backgammon, you know, now prose, poetry—


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: So, okay, so there’s clearly an intensity there. I mean, I didn’t have to, like, talk to you to know that, you know? (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) Yeah, I mean, I, yeah, it’s—I think it can be really oppressive sometimes, even in like, social relationships, because like, I get so single-mindedly obsessed with the thing. And then like, you know, I don’t know that you know my spouse, the poet Paige Lewis, who’s incredible. But like, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are also like, among the most like, patient and like open, good-hearted people that I’ve ever met. You know what I mean?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Because in order to just tolerate being in my general vicinity, one has to be, right. Let alone to, like, elect to spend, you know, 24 hours a day with me, you know?


Helena de Groot: Yes. But there’s also a way sometimes I think that being around a kind, expansive person, like they are, that after a while, after a few years, that there are certain words or certain phrases or, you know, that you can almost steal from them, you know, when you’re talking to yourself.


Kaveh Akbar: Oh 1000 percent.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: 1000 percent, yeah. Well, and it’s about widening that gulf, like you talked about, right? Like, you don’t control the first thought that comes into your head, but you control the second, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And so, driving the wedge into that gulf between the first thought and the second thought, right, and trying to widen that synapse by a few, you know, fractions of a millimeter a year, right? Like, that’s what recovery is to me, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And Paige has been immeasurably useful with that right? I mean, like, you know, I don’t, I don’t know how deep you want to get into this, but like, my—or, among my favorite things about them is that like, I run the same circuit around my neighborhood, you know, every day, you know, and I’ve seen the same hundred or whatever trees every single day, right? And yet, like sitting here talking to you, if you gave me like a pencil and a piece of paper, there’s not one of those trees that I could draw that would look like—you know, I could tell you that there’s like a sycamore on this intersection and maybe, you know, but I wouldn’t be able to like, actually draw, you know. And Paige is like, the most supernaturally aware person that I’ve ever met, right? In other words, like, when they see the tree, they see that tree, right? Like, when they see the squirrel, they see that specific squirrel, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And so like, this thing of spending years with a person and sort of like osmotically absorbing their superpower, that has that has been so profoundly, like, life-changing to me to just like, get to absorb a little bit of that.


Helena de Groot: I really—I mean, if you don’t mind, and you just stop me when you’re like, “Okay, this is too private. Let’s talk about poems again.”


Kaveh Akbar: No, this is great! Listen, I wish every poetry conversation I got to do was about how much I love my spouse.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)

Kaveh Akbar: I’m way more interested in talking about that than this—you know, I’ve talked about this book a lot.


Helena de Groot: I know, I know, I get it, but I just really connect with what you you’re saying because, similarly to you, I mean, I’m very intense, and I’m also married to a person who is … an ocean, you know?


Kaveh Akbar: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: Like if I’m just kind of like, you know, a hummingbird or whatever, they are, the ocean underneath the hummingbird, you know, just so expansive.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, and like you talk about Paige, like, because we don’t live in the same place, he’s on the West Coast, every day we talk on the phone, and every day he talks to me about the ocean that day. And he talks to me about the waves and the light that day. He’s not a poet, he’s a programmer, you know. But of the two of us—anyway, I don’t want to talk about him, I just want to—


Kaveh Akbar: No, please talk about him. What’s his name?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) David.


Kaveh Akbar: David. Shout-out David the programmer who loves the ocean.


Helena de Groot: Yes.


Kaveh Akbar: And really sees the ocean it sounds like, it sounds like he really sees it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah! And so, I’m just really curious about what happens when your intensity meets Paige’s ... God, what word would I use? (PAUSE) Low hum, let’s just put it that way.


Kaveh Akbar: Hmm. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think it’s, yeah, I mean, we’re still calibrating, you know, I mean, we’ve been together for … I don’t even know how long we’ve been together, probably coming up on a decade or something like that.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: But I think that over time, we’ve gotten really good at matching each other with it. And we do pretty good at like, only one of us being allowed to be sort of off our rhythm at once, you know, like, we take turns being sort of out of it. You know, like when I’m not a hummingbird for a second and I’m like, “Oh my God, like, I just I need some nectar or I’m going to just pass out,” you know, then Paige will like, bring me the nectar. Then, you know, and in the same way, you know, like when Paige, when Paige is like, “God, everyone keeps throwing their plastic into my ocean, you know,”


Helena de Groot: That’s beautiful.


Kaveh Akbar: I’m trying to keep this metaphor going—(LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: I love this.


Kaveh Akbar: You know, then I go like, pick up the plastic, you know what I’m saying? But I think that we do a pretty good job of like, taking turns being out of our kind of spirit in that way.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, God, that is, that is really beautiful.


Kaveh Akbar: It’s really lucky. Yeah, I recommend marrying Paige Lewis to all your listeners.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: You know, it’s really, it’s really worked out amazingly for me. I heartily recommend.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) Five plus stars.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Yeah, my Yelp review would be all exclamation points and stars, yeah.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. I was wondering if you wanted to read a poem. I’d like to still talk about what we were talking about, but maybe through a poem, you know?


Kaveh Akbar: Sure. Sure.


Helena de Groot: It’s a poem from Pilgrim Bell on page seven, “The Miracle.”


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, this poem orbits the sort of precipitating miracle of Islam, which was literacy being given to the Prophet who was an illiterate man. He, like many people in his time and place in the world, he was illiterate. And he was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who gave him literacy. And with that literacy, he was then able to transcribe what would become the Koran. So this begins there. This is called “The Miracle.”





Gabriel, seizing the illiterate man alone and fasting in a cave and commanding, read, the man saying, I can’t. Gabriel squeezing him tighter, commanding read, the man gasping. I don’t know how Gabriel squeezing him so tight he couldn’t breathe. Squeezing out the air of protest. The air of doubt, crushing it out of his crushable human body, saying Reid and the name of your lord who created you from a cloth and thus literacy revelation. It wasn’t until Gabriel squeezed away what was empty in him that the profit could be filled with miracle. Imagine the emptiness in you. The vast cavity is you’ve spent your life trying to fill with fathers, mothers, lovers, language, drugs, money, art, praise. And imagine them gone. What’s left? Whatever you aren’t. Which is what makes you a house useful. Not because its floorboards or ceilings or walls, but because the empty space between them. Gabriel isn’t coming for you. If he did. Would you call him Djibril or Gabriel like you are here? Who is this even for one crisis at a time? Gabriel isn’t coming for you. Cheese on a cracker. A bit of salty fish. Somewhere a man is steering a robotic plane into murder robot from the Czech robot to meaning forced labor murder, labor forced. He never sees the bodies, which are implied by their absence, like feathers on a paper bird. Gabriel isn’t coming for you. In the absence of cloud parting, trumpet blaring clarity. What more living. More money. Lazy sex mother. Brother, lover. You travel and bring back silk scarves. A bag of chocolates for you don’t know who yet. Someone will want them. Delivered them to an empty field. You fall asleep facing the freckle on your wrist. Somewhere, a woman presses a button that locks metal doors with people behind them. The locks are useful to her because there is an emptiness on the other side that holds the people’s lives in place. She doesn’t know the names of the people. Anonymity is an ancillary feature of the locks ancillary from the Latin and killer meaning servant. An emptiness to hold all their living you created from a clot. Gabriel isn’t coming for you. You too full to eat. You two locked to door to cruel to wonder. Gabriel isn’t coming. You too loved to love to speak to here. Too wet to drink. No. Gabriel, you two pride to weep. You too play to still you too high to come. No. Gabriel won’t be coming for you to fear. To move you to pebble, to stone, to saddle, to horse, to crime. To pay Gabriel. No, not anymore. You too. Gone to save to bloodless. To martyr, to diamond. To charcoal, to nation to earth. You brute cruel pebble. Gabriel God of man. No cheese on a cracker. Mercy. Mercy.


Helena de Groot: Thank you. Really, this poem, I just feel like I should ask you to read it two more times and then that’s the interview.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) That would be great. Yeah, yeah, I, yeah, I, it’s a big poem.


Helena de Groot: It’s a big poem, and everything I want to ask you about it is already answered in the poem, you know?


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) Yeah. Well—


Helena de Groot: But maybe you know what, I can—I want to tie it back to Paige if that’s okay with you.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) Great.


Helena de Groot: You know, because “Gabriel’s squeezed away what was empty in him that the prophet could be filled with miracle. Imagine the emptiness in you, the vast cavities you’ve spent your life trying to fill with fathers. Mothers love riches, language, drugs, money, art, praise and imagine them gone. What’s left? Whatever you aren’t, which is what makes you a house useful. Not because its floorboards or ceilings or walls, but because the empty space between them.” So, I’m so curious about that most difficult thing to attain for an intense person like yourself, empty space.


Kaveh Akbar: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: You know, here you write, you know, “whatever you aren’t is what makes you.” And I’m wondering in what way living day in, day out, with a person who isn’t like you has allowed you to create empty space for yourself.


Kaveh Akbar: Hm. That’s such a gorgeous question. Yeah, I mean, the sort of traditional construction would say that, you know, I am good at these five things and they are good at those five things, so by forming a union, we can be good at 10 things, right? You know, and the thing that they’re good at is stillness, right? I mean, they can—we have three cats. One of them is climbing on right near my foot right now. But like, they read the way that everyone imagines the poets read. Like, in other words, they will just lie and read an epic, you know, like they were just reading this Vietnamese epic from the 16th century with which I wasn’t familiar. And they will just read for 10 hours, right, without getting up or getting water, you know?


Helena de Groot: Whoa.


Kaveh Akbar: And so the cats love them, because they will, just like, all three of the cats will just pile up on them and they never move.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: So, you know, whereas, you know, I read for 15 minutes and then I, you know, go walk around and I make an espresso or I get some water, and then I, you know, and I write down like a line on my notepad and, you know, I sketch for a minute and then I go back and read for 20 minutes. You know, I’m just constant, you know, that stillness is just not native to my person at all, right.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And (LAUGHS) similarly, right, like I will often remind Paige to eat, or, you know, like bring them water to make sure that they’re staying hydrated, you know what I mean?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And so, yeah, I think that … I think that we … we’re good at learning from each other how to take care of ourselves in the ways that are not native to our caretaking. Does this make sense?


Helena de Groot: Oh, I love that sentence. It’s beautiful.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. And not even like, we take care of each other in those ways, but we learn from each other how to take care of ourselves in the ways that aren’t necessarily native to our sort of loadout of caretaking methods.


Helena de Groot: Totally. And so, are there ways in which, now, when you go for a walk around the neighborhood, even alone, can you tell me how that’s different because you’ve been with Paige for a close to a decade?


Kaveh Akbar: Sure, yeah, well, I mean, the biggest thing is that, you know, if I see a bird, if I see a robin, right, it’s not just like a standard robin. You know, I’m like, “Oh, that robin is like, missing a toe,” right? Or “That squirrel is particularly fat,” or, you know, “That tree has like a black lump growing out”—You know what I mean? Like, I’m, I’ve just become more attuned to actually seeing the things around me, right? You know, this goes to like Victor Shklovsky and the idea of defamiliarization and making the stone stone-y, right. But like, I feel like Paige has made my world worldie, right. (LAUGHS) You know what I mean?


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Kaveh Akbar: You know, I walk and I see things instead of the idea of things.


Helena de Groot: Yes! Oh my God. Okay, just to get real here, how rare is that still? Because—


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, it’s certainly not—yeah, of course, of course. I mean, you know, it’s horizonal, right.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: I mean, like, what you want is to be able to actually see everything. Right? And it’s the horizon you march towards forever and never actually get there, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Paige has been marching for a lot longer than I have been, right, towards that horizon. But I, it’s, it happens often enough that I notice it happening, right? But it doesn’t happen often enough that I have stopped noticing it happening. (LAUGHS) You know what I mean?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHING) Totally.


Kaveh Akbar: Does that make sense?


Helena de Groot: It does.


Kaveh Akbar: Like, it happens infrequently enough that I still sort of notice and appreciate it happening.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. I mean, okay, I’m going to ask you an even more uncomfortable question—


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Because it’s one thing to kind of change who you are. Like, I think when you’re with someone who’s so different, it gives you more ways to be, right? Like, all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, that was an option. I didn’t know that. That actually feels much better.”


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. 100 percent.


Helena de Groot: But I feel like there’s also a point at which one has to learn to love who you are anyway. You know what I mean? Like, it’s so easy to love the person you love. It’s so easy to love—


Kaveh Akbar: Way easier. Way easier. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: So, are there things about yourself and that are so different from how Paige operates that you are learning, sometimes, maybe, to love?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Yeah, you know, one of my, one of my best friends in the world is the poet Angel Nafis. And when she first read my book Pilgrim Bell, she said what was probably the kindest thing that anyone has ever said about my poetry to me, which was that she said, “If you hadn’t written this book, you would love this book. And you would love the person who wrote this book.” Right. Because so many of the poems in the book are so skeptical of myself, and that is like, the native, that is my native loadout, right, is like, skepticism of my self-will, because I know where my self-will got me.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: It wasn’t that long ago that my self-will had taken me to a pretty bad place, right? I mean, unhyperbolically, it was killing me, right? Like, in a very literal and, you know, physiological way. It was killing me, right. And so, I have what I think is a pretty understandable skepticism of my own sort of unguarded self-will. And when Angel said that to me, it helped me to look at the poems and therefore, look at myself in the manner that I’d look at someone like me, you know, which helped me to love me a lot. You know what I mean?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Like, I think that that was a real moment where the communion with the language that happens in the poems, and of course, the communion with all of the ancestors and the ancients that inflects the relationship to language that appears in the poems, and then the communion of friendship becomes a prism by which I might see a version of myself that I can love.


Helena de Groot: Do you mean vicariously? Like you love them, they love you, so there must be something lovable in you?


Kaveh Akbar: Well, I think that. No. Well, I mean, yes, but also, what I mean more acutely in this instance is that, through that recognition that they had, that this was a book that I would love if I hadn’t written it and that this is an author that I would love if I hadn’t been that author, right, then it allowed me to, like, sort of see it from that, you know, it allowed, you know, if I met this person walking on the street, I’d be like, “Holy shit, you’re such a sad weirdo. And I love that.” You know, and, and I think that that’s pretty extraordinary. I think that that’s a pretty extraordinary gift to have given me is the ability to look at the poems as a, again as like, a lens through which I can see myself.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Because again, like again, like, my, the time of my active addiction was a time when being near me was not a pleasant experience, right? I mean, anyone who loved me was harmed by that love. And, you know, I’ve been through recovery and amends making and all of that, but, you know, it’s still not a time that I look on particularly fondly or thinking great thoughts about myself. I remember one time I was talking to another friend, Mary, who told me—I said something about, you know, like, “back when I was a scumbag” or something like that. And she was like, “I don’t like it when you talk about my friend that way.”


Helena de Groot: Beautiful.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Right?


Helena de Groot: That is so beautiful.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, I’m mean, this is what I’m saying. I’m surrounded by such cool people. I’m surrounded by really, really, really good, really good people.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: This conversation is kind of like, illuminating—I mean, I’m aware, I’m aware. It’s not lost on me, but.


Helena de Groot: Sure. But it’s good to be reminded, you know?


Kaveh Akbar: 100 percent, 100 percent. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, I mean, it’s, you know, I’m so pleased with the consistency of your trajectory, in a way, because I read in a in a sort of old interview, you know, you said to the interviewer, “The process of learning to love myself was a process of learning to forgive the myriad crimes I committed against myself and against the world and cosmos around me when I was in active addiction. Part of that process of repair is repairing my spiritual and cosmological relationships.” What does it mean to you every day, you know, in the most kind of, you know, throwing water down the hill, snuffing out the lamp, you know, way that you repair your spirit.


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, this thing that you beautifully articulated about, you know, you can’t help the first thought, right? It’s just about like, getting a little bit of time in between that and the action, and then like, trying to redirect that second thought, right? And I think that for me, that second thought is almost always, what is the next right thing, you know? And trying to move from right thing to right thing. Like, I’ve never in my life said that I’ll never drink again. I’ve never in my life said that I’ll never use again. But I think that if I am in a constant process of asking myself, like, “What is the next right thing to do?” You know, like after this, the next right thing will be to answer some emails and to do the dishes and to check the mail. And then I’ll probably cook dinner for us tonight. And then maybe we’ll watch a movie. And then Paige goes to sleep a lot earlier than I do. So maybe I’ll read for a while after they go to sleep. And, you know, I’ll probably call a person with whom I’ve been working in recovery. And those will be my load out of next right things.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And you know, if I follow that roadmap, I’ll probably make it to the time that I get to go to sleep tonight without drinking. You know what I’m saying?


Helena de Groot: Yes.


Kaveh Akbar: And that’s as far as I have to look.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: I think that this book was really useful for me in thinking about my psychospiritual station, but also about my sort of social and political station. And one of the ways in which those braid together is that this process of next right thinging, right, I think that there is a part of me that wants to wait until like the tanks come barreling down my street so that I can, like, throw myself in front of them and do something like really grandiose and heroic, right? But if I’m waiting for that to happen, A) I’ll probably be waiting for a little bit, and B) I’ll waste a lot of time not doing any good. I’ll waste a lot of time that I could have, you know, been doing the dishes or calling a sponsee or, you know, doing these small and unsexy actions that make life like just a fraction of a percent more bearable for some not-me person, you know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And so like, it’s just that sort of omnipresent process of asking myself, “What is the next right thing?” And just doing that. And accepting that it’s not often going to be something that people will line up to tell me how great I am for doing, you know?


Helena de Groot: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. There’s a poem that I feel like we’ve been circling around during this conversation. It’s the one titled, “In The Language of Mammon.”


Kaveh Akbar: Oh yeah. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Do you want to read that?


Kaveh Akbar: I would need to get a mirror, right?


Helena de Groot: A mirror, I know! Yeah. I was thinking, “How will he do that?”


Kaveh Akbar: I mean, I can try it, but it’ll, I’ve never read this poem out loud before.


Helena de Groot: Oh, seriously?


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, well, I mean, I mean, I’ve read it when I composed it, right? But then—so, for people who aren’t looking at this poem, it’s backwards in the book. I mean, like literally, it’s like the mirror image of itself, right? And so, I’m actually going to try to read it without a mirror. I think that that’s maybe truer to the spirit of how the poem works on the page. Okay, so this poem is called “In the Language of Mammon.”




Behold the poet, God’s

incarnate spit in the mud,

chirping like lice in a fire.

Songs to stir the arousable horn.

Songs to make money

which he treats like food:

fit as much as you can

in your mouth, never shit.


His most intoxicating delusion—

that evil might be soluble in art.


History, butcher.

Da mihi castitatem et continentiam,

sed noli modo.


Don’t judge him

by the first thought to enter his head.

Judge him by the second.



Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS) Yeah, it’s also hard to read Latin backwards.


Helena de Groot: I was wanting to just give you that line!


Kaveh Akbar: No! (LAUGHS) It was a little bit of a test, yeah.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Anyways, that’s a quote from Augustin. Augustin said, “Grant me continence and chastity, but not yet.” Which is incredible.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: You know, like. my entire corpus of work I would trade for, for that line, you know?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: It’s such a perfect condensation, you know? It’s such a perfect condensation.


Helena de Groot: It is. It truly is. And, I mean, this poem, it’s so funny, obviously, with the St. Augustine line. But also, it has this kind of certainty that is almost lacerating, and which, in the rest of the book, I didn’t see any of, you know?


Kaveh Akbar: Hm. Oh, I love that, yeah.


Helena de Groot: Like, the rest of the book is like, searching and open to the ambiguity of it all. And this one is like, yeah, “Behold the poet, God’s / incarnate spit in the mud,” you know, “chirping like lice in a fire.”


Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: “His most intoxicating delusion— / that evil might be soluble in art.” You know, like, that silly poet. (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Well, yeah. And I think that a lot of the rest of the book is sort of looking up and out and around, and this one is maybe looking more … inward or looking at, like, what the poet does in general, you know, with skepticism. You know, I think that a lot of the book is skeptical of language, right? And I think that choosing to be an artist in the medium that is arguably, you know, mankind’s most dangerous technology ever invented. You know, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more deadly than that which has aided and insulated and protected and generated things like ecological decimation or colonization or indigenous genocide or chattel slavery, or the building and deployment of nuclear weapons, right? I mean, like all of these were hastened or catalyzed or protected by the English language specifically. And that is the medium of my art, right?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And so, I think that it’s right to look at a poet and be like, “Why the hell are you doing that?” You know what I mean? Like, why are you just like, doing this macaroni art with pieces of uranium?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: You know what I mean? Like, if you’ll forgive that terribly strained metaphor. But you know, the idea that the evil inherent to the medium might be soluble in the application of that medium, I think that that’s delusional, right?


Helena de Groot: But okay. But, you know, to just take a very extreme example, right, like a poet like Paul Celan, who survived the Holocaust, whose parents were killed by the Holocaust, who—I mean, “by the Holocaust,” by the Germans, might I add—


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: But who wrote poetry in German, you know, and, I can’t remember who said that, but someone said about him that he translates—


Kaveh Akbar: He translated German into German.


Helena de Groot: Yes.


Kaveh Akbar: Anne Carson.


Helena de Groot: Oh was it Anne Carson?


Kaveh Akbar: Anne Carson said that he translated German—yeah, I was literally just teaching with Jenny Xie in Virginia, and I was just texting her about that today.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Kaveh Akbar: That that is like, the highest praise that I think that any poet can give to another poet is that they translated their language using their language.


Helena de Groot: Yes. Yeah. So, how do you take poetry or language back from the damage it’s done?


Kaveh Akbar: Well, I mean, that’s the, that’s the question. You know, I mean, that’s the question that has been the nucleus of so many of my favorite poets’ careers, right? I mean, like, M. NourbeSe Philip talks about the need to decontaminate the English language before you can use it ethically, right? And I love that word, decontamination. I think about it a lot. And for me, that decontamination often involves showing the seams of the language. Showing that the language can’t accommodate what I’m trying to say. And so, showing the medium strain at its limitations, right? And this isn’t a new thought, right? I mean, think about like, Coltrane’s high C or the way that these silences in Sappho make Sappho so much more trenchant, right?


Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.


Kaveh Akbar: When we read her today, right? Because the language fractures and breaks and disrupts itself. I mean, like, you can study any interesting poem as a function of how it is signaling the limitations of its medium, right? Think about like, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden is like, I don’t know, one of the five most anthologized poems of the second half of the 20th century, right?


Robert Hayden:


(RECORDING OF Robert Hayden reading “Those Winter Sundays” PLAYS)


Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?


Kaveh Akbar: And that final stanza, “Speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well. / What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?” right? The reason that we remember that is because it’s like this catalog of actions, and then it’s disrupted by this sudden interrogative, right? The “What did I know? What did I know?” It’s like this catalog has become insufficient and this double question is like, “Okay, this catalog isn’t working. You know, you’re not getting it.” He’s like, reaching out from the page and grabbing you and saying like, “No, no, no, I’m not like, being cute and making some little poem for you right now. Like, I’m actually like, this is like, deeply felt,” you know what I’m saying?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: And that is, that’s what I’m after.


Helena de Groot: Yeah!


Kaveh Akbar: You know, what I’m after is like, you know, it’s like saying like, what I’m after is Dante, right?


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: But you know, I’m after that moment—


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: You know, but like, I’m after that moment of saying, like, what I have been doing is insufficient. Does that make sense?


Helena de Groot: It does. It does. I have one last question that is a question that I kind of took from one stanza, from one poem in The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse.


Kaveh Akbar: Okay.


Helena de Groot: It’s from a Jean Valentine poem.


Kaveh Akbar: Oh amazing. Is it from “The River At Wolf”, right?


Helena de Groot: Yes, exactly.


Kaveh Akbar: Wait, wait. I’m not even looking at the PDF, but I bet—Blessed are those who remember that once they, that what they once longed for they now … Fuck, fuck I almost landed it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah! The order is—


Kaveh Akbar: Wait, wait, don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. Blessed are those who remember that what they now have they once longed for. Shit, I’m so close, I’m so close.


Helena de Groot: So close!


Kaveh Akbar: Was that right?


Helena de Groot: One word different. Blessed are—you said “those.”


Kaveh Akbar: They?


Helena de Groot: Yes.


Kaveh Akbar: Blessed are they who remember that what they now have they once longed for? Amazing!


Helena de Groot: That’s it, that’s 100 percent it.


(Jean Valentine READING FADES IN)


Jean Valentine:


Blessed are they who remember

that what they now have they once longed for.




Kaveh Akbar: You know, I talked to Jean one time. I mean, she was maybe my favorite living poet. But I talked to her one time, and she told me that she found that, like, pinned to a bulletin board in, like, a hiking station.


Helena de Groot: (GASPS) No!


Kaveh Akbar: Like at the River at Wolf. Like, that’s not even her language. She found that, like, pinned to a bulletin board, and she just stuck it in the poem. You know, but it’s like, it’s like the most, you know, like if you need to remember one thing about your living, remember that, right?


Helena de Groot: That’s amazing. So, okay, so, what are some of the things you once longed for that most surprise you you now have?


Kaveh Akbar: Oh, man. A life in poetry. You know, a life where I get to wake up with my best friend every day and just like, spend our days doing our favorite thing. I mean like, to keep it real funky, like in the specific contextless vacuum of, like, our household, not considering anything outside of it, right, just our life, my life with Paige, it’s pretty indistinguishable from what I would describe as heaven. I mean, I, you know, there’s obviously just about everything about the world I’d love to change. But again, like, in our tiny, tiny, tiny contextless vacuum of our microclimate of a house with our three cats, you know, I mean, there’s not a thing in it that I ever thought would be mine or that I ever thought would get to be like a part of the, would be so daily a part of my life that I could like, ignore it.




And one of the really lucky things about being a poet, and being a poet specifically married to Paige Lewis, is that sense, right? The “What they now have they once longed for” is never far from my mind, right? Like that’s not something that I need a lot of reminding of, especially like, given that a decade ago, I was a low bottom addict, alcoholic, you know, with a pre cirrhotic liver. I mean, yeah, that’s one thing that is pretty well foregrounded to me.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. What do you do with the gratitude for that?


Kaveh Akbar: Try to push it outwards.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. Because I feel sometimes like gratitude in itself when you’re an intense person can almost be unmanageable.


Kaveh Akbar: Oh, totally. A thousand percent, but you try to push it out, I mean, like again, like I am a tenured professor at an R1 institute, you know what I mean?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Kaveh Akbar: Like, I’m a 6’4” straight-passing man in America.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Kaveh Akbar: Like, nobody has it better than me. You know what I mean? Like, I take up a ton of space, you know? And so like, I think the only thing one can do in that position is to push it outwards, right? And it’s such a joy to get to spend my life sort of, you know, repaying what has been given to me.




Helena de Groot: Kaveh Akbar is the author of two full-length collections, Pilgrim Bell and Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and a chapbook, Portrait of an Alcoholic. He’s also edited the upcoming Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine. Akbar was a 2016 Lilly Rosenberg Fellow, the winner of two Pushcart prizes, a Levis Reading Prize, and the John C. Zacharis First Book Award. He founded the poetry interview website Divedapper and currently teaches at Purdue University, and in the low-residency MFA program at Randolph College and Warren Wilson College. He is also the poetry editor for The Nation. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana with his spouse, the poet Paige Lewis, and their three cats. To find out more, check out the Poetry Foundation website. The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose. I’m Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.

Kaveh Akbar on human wondering, fat squirrels, and the best spouse in the world.

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