The Wide Question: A Q&A With Kaveh Akbar

Claire Schwartz
From the September/October 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

There are two kinds of doubt. There is doubt that swells the ego—self-deprecation as a mode of enlargement, every coordinate in the infinite field of not-knowing fixing a route back to the self. And there is doubt that dissolves the ego—spinning the self into inquiry at the limits of one’s knowing until the boundaries become permeable. Here, it is not the ego but the wide question that is the centrifugal force. In Pilgrim Bell, out from Graywolf Press in August, Kaveh Akbar moves inside this second kind of doubt to interrogate common sense so that the we who enters these poems might be other than the we who exits them. 

Akbar has long been engaged with work that disassembles the pretense of a self’s fixed form and with it the binding of dominant social arrangements so that family, nation, and empire are set out for questioning. In his debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017), Akbar constellated concerns about recovery from alcoholism, the possibilities and limits of language, and the meanings of the divine. Caesuras abound in that book, and when I read those poems I often feel I’m leaping from language to language, changed by my brief suspension in the space between. If I were to thematically describe Pilgrim Bell, I might use the same words: recovery, language, the divine. Empire, I would add, becomes a differently frontal concern in the new work, engaged more explicitly across the collection. 

But to think only in words, Akbar’s poems teach me, misses the mark. In Pilgrim Bell the space outside language becomes fundamental, language only the brief landing. If the caesura was a primary gesture in Akbar’s debut, in his second book, the period comes to the fore—but not as an enclosure of meaning. Instead the period’s pretense and swift rupture of certainty makes perceptible that space outside language, the proliferation of possibility. In the book’s opening title poem, Akbar writes: “Dark on both sides. / Makes a window. / Into a mirror. A man. / Holds his palms out. / To gather dew.” It is one of a series of poems by that title; in each, every line ends with a period. What ordinary speech reduces to singular meaning is here passed through the prism of doubt toward infinite becomings. 

Of course there aren’t only two kinds of doubt (or, probably, of anything), but, as Akbar’s poems insist, language isn’t the keeper of meaning; rather, language is a scaffold or springboard that might, if treated carefully, bring one toward truth or love or freedom or any of the divine’s other names. What masquerades as a border—between self and other, known and unknown, earthly and divine—might in fact be a mirage, a shimmering horizon. If these lines might be read anew, Pilgrim Bell reminds me, so might we be together otherwise.

In addition to Pilgrim Bell and Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Akbar is the author of the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016). Born in Tehran and living in Indiana, where he teaches at Purdue University, Akbar is the poetry editor of the Nation; the founder of Divedapper, an archive of interviews with contemporary poets; and the editor of The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse (Penguin Classics, 2022). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. 

I spoke with Akbar during Ramazan. After he finished an evening poetry event and a quick iftar, we met on Zoom. “Take a second: Picture a bladeless knife with no handle. Where’d it go? Now with that same clumsy brain, imagine God,” Akbar instructs in his essay “On Fasting,” written in 2019, on the occasion of the poet’s first year fasting during the holy month. To read Akbar’s poems, to be alongside him in conversation, is to feel my clumsy brain scrambling toward what it can’t know, to be remade in the trying. As his day was revving up and mine was ending, we spoke about the violence of empire, the limits of empathy, and the political possibilities of bewilderment.

Where are you at with talking about Pilgrim Bell?
I always feel like if there were anything more to be said, I would have said it in the book.

That seems like a great place to end.
[Laughter.] This was a great interview! I’m leery of flattening poems by talking about their meanings in terms of my particular life. That feels especially true for this book. It’s oracular. The poems go so far ahead of me. Sitting here like “This is what I was trying to do” is a farce because the poems are the things that were doing the trying.

Pilgrim Bell does feel oracular, right from those opening pages: “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy. // Then it is a holy text.” That gesture toward disavowal and then turning the page onto the refusal of that disavowal made me think of something Solmaz Sharif said: “[Critique] is actually an easy public position to take. . . . Harder yet would be to create, to put positively what we want of literature, of the public, of the political, thereby offering ourselves as the things to be destroyed.” That crystallized something for me about the vulnerability of making. What does it mean to you to make work in this moment?
I think a lot about the physics definition of work, which is measured by the distance an applied force has moved an object. If I said “Fuck Trump” in a tweet, that might make people feel good—and sometimes people need to feel that amongness—but it’s not really moving the needle. It’s not work by the physics definition. One of the siren songs of the moment is the idea that inhabiting the carapace of revolutionary rhetoric can replace the actual humbling work of organizing, acting directly, corporeally, in quiet and unsexy ways. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote: “First fight. Then fiddle.” We struggle to make space for our and other people’s work to exist. Then we make our art. And we don’t confuse one for the other. 

What does that look like? 
I think of Forugh Farrokhzad, the most important Iranian poet of the twentieth century. She wrote incredible poems—and then she started working in a new medium, made است خانه سیاه (The House Is Black), a documentary about a leprosarium in northern Iran. It’s twenty-two minutes long, but it’s indelible in a civic and an aesthetic sense. After the film was released, funds flowed into the leprosarium. It got renovated. Doctors came from all over to offer their services. At the same time, the film catalyzed Iranian new wave cinema, which in turn inflected French new wave cinema, which in turn inflected global art to come. Farrokhzad’s film did exactly what one might hope for their art to do: It improved the material conditions of her subjects and expanded the aesthetic possibilities of the field. And then what did Farrokhzad do? She went back to the colony and adopted one of the orphans and raised him as her own. He still works as a translator. First fight, then fiddle. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s so humbling to me and so instructive. That’s the juice. 

Is there a relationship for you between what happens on the page and those other forms of movement? 
You can’t write poems that discuss ethics or morality or the soul in any rigorous way without also engaging those complexities in your own living. Empathy is a function of the imagination. In order to perceive the interiority of another person, you have to be able to imagine that interiority fully and rigorously. A lot of what manifests in my life today as rage comes from a surfeit of compassion, a surfeit of imagination, my ability to fully—or at least fully enough—apprehend the interiority of the harmed. There are really angry poems in Pilgrim Bell. That anger is not the idiot invective that storms through a room and starts shouting over everyone. It feels instructive—born of willful attempts to make myself permeable to the energies that surround me, whether they’re civic or social or metaphysical.

It strikes me that there’s a more nefarious side to that impulse to envision someone else’s interiority. That seamless slippage into the first person of another is also the promise of the liberal I, with its economies of tourism and surveillance. I’m curious to hear more about what the first-person singular does for you—where you see its possibilities and its limits.
When I said empathy, that’s not exactly what I meant. I meant something more like compassion that opens outward but that can also be concentrated into a single point. But like so much else in this language, we don’t have a word for that. When I say “I love you” to my spouse, I use the same word I use to talk about my favorite chicken wing spot, which is the same word I use to describe how I feel about my cat. These are very different things. At every moment, the impotence of this language. 

It is important for me to say: I do not want these poems to offer a means for venting liberal guilt. I could have written a book of poems about TSA discrimination or about the ninth-grade math teacher who called me a “sand N-word.” These are true things that happened—happen—to me. But there’s a way in which these are preprocessed algorithms of empathy that empire has already manufactured for itself. If I wrote those poems, someone could read the book and say, “Oh, how monstrous of those people,” then sit in a space of relative ethical comfort for not having been the one who literally said that thing to me in ninth grade, for not having been that literal TSA agent. I want my I to do exactly the opposite of this. I want my I to invite readers to see themselves as compromised and fucked, just like the I that is me is compromised and fucked. Then we can start taking the necessary steps to move against it. Which is a lifelong journey. It’s horizonal. Like the horizon, we march toward it forever and we never get there. Hopefully it’s the marching that keeps us good. 

The terms of us, of we, are such critical preoccupations throughout Pilgrim Bell. Will you say more about how you think about that we? 
One of the projects of empire is to use a fire hose of language to stun us into inaction. Think about Nancy Pelosi talking about George Floyd: “We thank you for sacrificing your life for justice.” Who the fuck is her we superimposing that intention onto an unarmed man murdered by the state? Pelosi’s utterance requires people to say, “You don’t speak for me. I’m not part of that we.” The labor of renouncing Pelosi’s we is cast upon people who are already grieving, already organizing. I am, and my poems are, I hope, aware of the corrosive power—and here I mean power in the hegemonic sense—of someone being able to semantically and without consent designate an amongness by weaponizing that pronoun, the first-person plural. Anyone can be passively cast into a we, but one has to actively expend energy to opt out. 

Conversations about poets contesting state violence often center poets not writing in the United States—Nâzim Hikmet, Anna Akhmatova, and Dareen Tatour, among others—where the state’s violent reactions to their work makes plainly visible their challenge to power. In the United States poets and imperial violence don’t always abut each other in such clear ways. There are certainly poets who have done vital anti-imperial work, but we need only think, for example, of the CIA’s role in the formation of the MFA workshop to see that poetry in the United States has also been an instrument of the state. Can you speak to how writing against empire from the United States inflected Pilgrim Bell
When I write a poem about a kid wearing a T-shirt that says “We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!” the action implied by that statement would harm family members of mine. It would harm people who look like me and pray like me. But it wouldn’t immediately materially harm me. In fact that poem was published in the New Yorker, and the New Yorker paid me. I sold a book to Graywolf, and that’s the longest poem in the book. I have a job that is directly linked to my ability to publish poems. I say, “Look at this terrible shit,” and I’m literally profiting. I am trying to be really rigorous in my accounting. 

The most critical image for me in the book is the salad spinner in “The Palace.” I have a salad spinner in my kitchen, and we use it. Every time I see it, I’m like, “What a ghoulish thing to have—this thing that spins lettuce.” I can’t think of anything more useless, a more damning indictment of our relative comfort. But we use it, and it’s good. That salad spinner is there because I don’t want that poem to say, “God, all these ghoulish Americans, and aren’t you glad I’m here to tell you about them?” I want that poem to be like, “God, all of us ghoulish Americans. Look at me just living among them.” I want it to be possible to look at these things and to begin by looking at myself.

What’s the difference between that and a “Fuck Trump” tweet? 
Without rigorous accounting it becomes very easy to convince myself I am moving through the world without harming it. But the hope is that, unlike that tweet, the poems defamiliarize the ways I move through the world, so I’m faced with the ways my life is very much not harmless. Our lives are very much not harmless. Marilyn Nelson’s sonnets for Emmett Till defamiliarize a particular atrocity, force the reader to face it. When one faces atrocity, one becomes activated. One can no longer remain inert or feign ignorance. Again, the next and vital step is the action itself. The poems are meant to point toward the action, not supplant it. 

One of the ways I see that question about language’s relation to action playing out in your work is through an interrogation of certainty. How does certainty function in the collection for you?
One of the “Pilgrim Bell” poems ends: “I am so vulnerable. / To visionaries. / And absolute. / Certainty. // Tell me how to live. / And I will live that way.” Which is, like everything else in the book, a voice in my head. How does that Yeats line go? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” I find myself skeptical of anyone who tells me anything with absolute certainty. It seems like today the only people who speak in monolithic certainties are dictators and zealots. There’s the Sufi prayer that goes, “Lord, increase my bewilderment.” That is the entirety of the prayer. That’s what I’m after.

Sometimes I talk about bewilderment and people are like, “He’s off on rainbows and puppies.” And I do mean that stuff. I do mean the fact that every tree that we see comes from a star that lives ninety-three million miles away, and this weightless light traveled to earth and becomes glucose that you can weigh, you can put on a scale. But I also mean what Gwendolyn Brooks meant in “Beverly Hills, Chicago,” where she’s driving around that rich neighborhood, thinking, “It’s strange that they should have so much while we have so little.” It is so strange that we enact impossible, ghoulish cruelties upon each other. Those are profound occasions for bewilderment too. 

Could you say a bit more about your relationship with certainty on the level of language? 
So often it’s the language that’s certain of itself. When I say banana I mean this long, yellow fruit. The word unit banana is so certain of itself because it means exactly and only this thing. The English language is the most violent technology mankind has ever invented, so whatever it’s certain of, I reflexively distrust. M. NourbeSe Philip talks about the need to decontaminate this language in order to use it. I believe in that. 

In his book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, the musician Brian Eno talks about the crack in a blues singer’s voice—like when you’re listening to Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan on a record, and her voice cracks on the wax—as “the sound of an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it.” That’s what I want my poems to do. 

I love that. While I was reading Pilgrim Bell, I was also thinking, “Is that just what language is to God? Is God the thing cracking the possibilities of language?” 
That’s the book! The only technology that I have to imagine God—whether God is my grandmother, or the love that my spouse and I share, or justice, or an old, bearded man in heaven who gets mad when I masturbate—is this endlessly violent political technology. I don’t have anything else. I have my body, which is fucked by my own past and by the state. And I have the English language, which was not designed to accommodate our conversations about God or justice or anything else we might call the divine—so we have to crack it. In order to do that decontaminatory work that Philip talks about, I have to highlight the inability of the language to actually speak to the things that I am trying to say. There has to be a perceivable gulf between what the language is able to do and what I am gesturing toward.

There were moments in Pilgrim Bell when I had the distinct sense of language getting away from itself. In “The Miracle,” you write: “Gabriel isn’t coming for you. If he did, would you call him Jibril? Or Gabriel like you / are here?” I keep coming back to these lines. When I first read it, I read “like you are here” as a description of what the poem is doing—the you as a kind of I that also enrolls the reader. But when I reread that poem, I saw that “like you are here” might also mean “as if you—the one who called him Jibril—were here.” I’m interested in this contranymic tension—how the language simultaneously reiterates the you’s presence and records the you’s absence.
One of the technologies that has been most useful for me in my own psycho-spiritual excavations is apophatic theology. What you’re calling “contranymic tension” is almost apophatic—the here-ness and the not-hereness. The bladeless knife with no handle, an image that recedes from view as you read it. That’s so much of how I imagine a lot of the book working, how a lot of the book worked on me. Here again I mean the physics definition of work—how these poems move me from a place that I was to a place that I am. 

Pulling the camera in a bit more, too, to that moment you cited—in my first book I would have arduously deliberated about whether to use the word Gabriel or to use the word Jibril, and then I would have decided on one or the other. Probably in the first book I would have decided on Gabriel. Or I would have said, “This isn’t actually what my tradition calls him, so I’m going to change all of these to Jibril.” It would have been a facile gesture: “See? This is how I really say it.” But the truth is, I am caught between the two. I’m compromised. I’m doing the same thing that Coleman Barks does when he translates Rumi. I’m translating Yusef to Joseph. That’s not translation; that’s erasure. It is so ugly to find my own brain so insidiously colonized. I wanted to leave those moments of ugliness in.

These traces of enduring alternative routes are also enacted formally. In the collection there are six poems titled “Pilgrim Bell.” In each, every line ends with a period, even as what happens after the line break often radically revises the meaning of what came before. Where a period is a mark of closure, a containment of meaning, the enjambments past the period thwart that expectation of containment, certainty. 
If you read the period as the end of a self-contained thought unit, the poems will be completely inaccessible. To enter those poems you have to disabuse yourself of the idea that that particular grammatical demarcation connotes a kind of certainty. 

I’m also thinking about the chiming of a bell. What fascinates me about those giant bells is that you have to throw your body into making the bell move, in the same way the breath animates the poem. Kazim Ali writes about how in order to consecrate a holy space, you have to say a prayer out loud. That means there must be something in the breath, in the voice, that animates. Even to read something silently isn’t as physiologically passive as we act like it is. It’s the ocular muscles moving on a page or, for a nonsighted reader, the hand moving across the Braille. If I just have this book sitting on a table, the poems are completely inert. It’s not until some physiological process animates the book that the poems become more than just ink. 

I’m thinking, too, about how the beginning of the tolling of a bell is clear, but the ending is not. Similarly, origins proliferate throughout Pilgrim Bell. There’s a sense of being in the aftermath of so many things that have begun—that those beginnings persist and we live in the unruliness of their persistences.
I know we’ve talked about the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges going to the Sahara for the first time. After writing about it in stories, in journals, he finally gets to go to the Sahara, to Egypt. He reaches down and scoops up a handful of sand, lets it sift through his fingers, and says, “I am modifying the Sahara.” I think about that all the time. I feel like I am this Sahara that is constantly being inflected by all of these hands. The first time I read Song of Solomon, Hagar made a whole new archipelago of land in my psychic Sahara—whereas any given tweet, any cereal box, might just move a single grain of sand from here to there. My Sahara has been shaped by every text I’ve encountered, every conversation I’ve ever had, all of my geographies and genealogies. We carry those resonances—those ringing bells—within us, even when they become imperceptible.

Throughout the collection I felt compelled to consider how so many things we’re taught to consider as mutually exclusive—fullness and emptiness, language and silence, clarity and doubt—are in fact mutually enhancing. That one articulates the other. How do you write about what is tender without hitching that to violence? 
It’s really hard. I do think that one amplifies the other. An elder in recovery with whom I am very close often says: “If people knew how hard it was to be in recovery, no one would expect me to do anything else.” I think about that all the time too. It really is such a big part of my life—the work that I do with people in recovery spaces, the work I do every day just to not accidentally kill myself. It’s another full-time job. There’s a part of my brain that, when I’m being extra good on top of that, on top of staying sober, expects the universe to fall over itself, the clouds to part, Gabriel to come through with his trumpet to congratulate me. But the universe never gives me that. 

For years my life was governed by gross overconsumption or gross underconsumption. I’m calibrated to only be able to perceive the most extreme ends of experience. I need dread and doom to bring me to my knees. Or I need to be totally bathed in the ecstatic divine. This is one of the spiritual lines along which I still have the most growing to do. 

I did feel like these images—the salad spinner in “The Palace” or the “bit of salty fish” in “The Miracle”—made the scale of the body, the experience of embodied sensation, present even as those poems engaged these enormous frameworks, like God and empire. That feels related to a recalibration of perception.
Poems can be aspirational. The other day the son of the poet R. A. Villanueva FaceTimed me to ask what Ramazan is. I was like, “How do I explain this to a five-year-old?” I said, “It’s a month where I don’t eat very much. It helps me to remember how lucky I am to be able to eat whenever I want to and how a lot of people aren’t that lucky and how much I should try to help them.” For three years, I’ve been scrupulously fasting for Ramazan and waiting for God to smack me with a two-by-four of clarity. Then this five-year-old talked to me, and I was like, “Oh, that’s why I’m doing this.” My friend’s five-year-old was the sign. As opposed to feeling like, “I need to get off the phone with this five-year-old to keep the line free in case God wants to call.” I think being able to apprehend that tells me these poems have done a little bit of work on my soul. 


Claire Schwartz is the author of Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022). She is the poetry editor of Jewish Currents.