Q&A: Akbar Edits Poetry of the Nation

by
Devon Walker-Figueroa
12.16.20

In September the Nation, a bastion of progressive journalism since 1865, welcomed Kaveh Akbar as its newest poetry editor, succeeding Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith. To say Akbar lives poetry is an understatement: The author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017), a collection that explores addiction and recovery, and the forthcoming Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021), he serves as a poetry professor in the MFA programs at Purdue University, Randolph College, and Warren Wilson College; pens the column PoetryRx for the Paris Review Daily; and is editing The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 100 Poets on the Divine (Penguin, 2022). Akbar spoke about the intersection of his writing and editing life and about his new role at the Nation.

Kaveh Akbar (Credit: Noah Baldino)

What calls you to the art of literary editing?
I love reading poems, and I have the utmost respect for anyone who takes up the inherently doomed task of trying to set any of this—I’m gesturing right now toward this whole world and the ones beyond it—into language.

As the Nation’s new poetry editor, what role do you think poetry can play in effecting social and political change?
The Nation is the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the country. It was founded by abolitionists in 1865, and the first poem I published in my tenure was called “After Abolition” by the poet Kyle Carrero Lopez. I literally gasped when I first read it. The poem imagines the world after prison and carceral abolition, and I cannot put into language the profound honor of getting to publish it, of getting to be a tiny bit of wind at that poem’s back, the work it does to imagine better realities into being. I’ve solicited and accepted work from incarcerated poets, international poets in translation, disabled poets. I reject the notion that the poetry in a serious weekly need be ornamental, subordinate to the magazine’s “true” content. Lopez’s poem dignifies and distinguishes the work around it, not the other way around. Dunya Mikhail writes that “poetry is not medicine—it’s an X ray.” I can’t improve upon that.

What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities you think a literary editor faces in this moment? 
One of my favorite things to do when I’m in New York City is to just hole up with a pal somewhere and watch movies, sit around, and do nothing. The opportunity cost is so high in a city where you can do pretty much anything you want at any moment that choosing to pass it all up to stay in watching Netflix with a beloved feels especially intimate. Maybe poetry is like that now, when the opportunity cost of reading a poem—when you could be watching Hulu, learning a new language on Duolingo, Zooming your mother—has become so great that the relative intimacy of the experience of reading poetry has risen in measure.

Graywolf will release your second and much-anticipated poetry collection, Pilgrim Bell, in August. What was the editing process like for that collection as opposed to Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Calling a Wolf a Wolf felt like I was strapped to the masthead of my disease, my recovery, just jutting through the stormwater and straining to get down what poetry I could on scraps of torn sail, bits of driftwood—I’m also straining this metaphor. With Pilgrim Bell I have matured as a poet, and also maybe—probably more important—I’ve been able to look a bit past my own all-encompassing psycho-spiritual pathologies. The partition between me and an early preventable death is a couple fractions of a millimeter thicker now seven years sober than it was when I wrote my first book, and while I can still clearly and constantly hear the voices calling from the other side of that membrane, the voices on this side seem louder now, more urgent. I hope that makes sense. I hope that urgency is reflected in the poems.

You play so many different roles in the literary community. How do you balance the demands that attend these various roles? Or, put differently, how do these pursuits interact with and support each other? 
Poetry very literally, unhyperbolically saved my life. It was a place to put myself when just about everywhere else I knew to go was actively killing me. I think it’s an honor to get to spend my life in service to the thing I love best, paying back a bit of that gratitude debt. I’m grateful to be trusted with any of it.

 

Devon Walker-Figueroa is the author of Philomath (Milkweed Editions, 2021), which was a National Poetry Series winner. She teaches at Saint Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York.