Throwing Weight Into Sound: Kaveh Akbar on Poetry and Power
Our latest poetry feature is “The Palace,” a long poem by Kaveh Akbar. Akbar, who was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson, is the author of “Calling a Wolf a Wolf” and “Portrait of the Alcoholic,” both published in 2017. I spoke with him about the genesis of “The Palace,” how it fits into his next collection, and the poem’s depiction of America.
I understand that your poem “The Palace” holds a central place in your forthcoming collection, “Pilgrim Bell.” Can you describe the book and this poem’s role in it?
“Pilgrim Bell,” as it exists right now, builds to “The Palace.” Many of the poem’s images and thematic concerns are first introduced elsewhere in the book. For instance, in an early poem, you learn that when my father came to America the only bits of English he knew were Rolling Stones lyrics. So, when Mick Jagger appears later in “The Palace,” there is a little spark of recognition, an extra valence of meaning. “Pilgrim Bell” as a whole is a kind of pilgrim’s journey, a pilgrim trying to move from a desperate desire to believe into belief itself, while all the usual suspects—nation, language, memory, self-will—conspire against him. I’ve been thinking a lot about bells, how it’s the heft of a body that makes a bell ring. The book is another way to throw weight into sound.
“The Palace” recalls the epic mode, but also the ars poetica—the poem about making poetry. How do you understand the art of poetry to intersect with ambitious themes like power, violence, history, and mythology?
Poems are rarely on the side of power. What would a poem in praise of the political status quo look like? A brochure? White text on a red baseball cap? The Kurdish poet Abdulla Pashew writes: “If a word / can’t become . . . winged bread / to fly from trench to trench, / then it might as well / become a brush to polish the invader’s boots.” This isn’t an ideological stance; it’s a craft issue. The status quo is so certain of its righteousness, so convinced of its own goodness—like the old king early in the poem—its speech becomes a closed loop. There’s no exploration, the language has no synapse to fire across, so it never illuminates. Such certainty is death to interesting art.
I love how your work defamiliarizes language, which is also one of your key subjects. How does error, or the errant, influence your poetic practice?
I’m fascinated by Viktor Shklovsky’s call for artists to “make the stone stony,” to use our work to undo the damage of habituation. My medium is the English language, maybe the most violent colonial weapon ever invented. What are the writer’s responsibilities when working in such a brutal medium? How to not become habituated to, or complicit with, the language’s histories? Jos Charles, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Solmaz Sharif are some contemporary poets I look to who are doing brilliant work around this idea.
With regards to error, the errant: I wrote this poem over a very long stretch of time, years, often spending a whole night adding one line and then deleting two, like Penelope at her loom. Some middle drafts were actually smoother, but my friend, the poet Ilya Kaminsky, helped me pull the poem back apart a bit. I began to see the poem’s hesitations, retreats, reprises, as crucial to its motion. Stammering is the essential quality of the barbarian’s speech.
When the palace speaks, it paraphrases Walter Benjamin: “Any document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.” What led you to include this idea, and how does it change here?
It’s that word, “barbarism.” We get the term “barbarian” from the Greeks—they used it to mock the Persians, whose speech they described as unintelligible “bar-bar-bar”-ing. I am Persian, so by definition I am a barbarian. My father brings in a bucket of tomatoes from his garden and is a barbarian. My six-year-old niece reads a book to her little sister, smiles proudly because she successfully sounds out every difficult word, and is a barbarian. The English language believes we are barbaric, and so in turn do its speakers: “We Did It To Hiroshima, We Can Do It To Tehran.”
“America could be a metaphor, but it isn’t,” you write. How would you characterize your approach to figurative language in general? And how does “The Palace” configure America as a fact?
So much of metaphor, of poem-making in general, feels too here-be-dragons-y for me to speak about with any real credibility. I think of the Sufi mystic Rabi’a: “I seek forgiveness from God for the lack of my sincerity when I say I seek the forgiveness of God.” I think of the ending of Robert Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Trees”: “There are limits to saying, / In language, what the tree did. / It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us. / Dance with me dancer. Oh, I will. / Aspens doing something in the wind.” Some things feel too overwhelming—in their beauty or their malice—for figurative language. They resist metaphor: that feather my sleeping father coughs up, the T-shirt slogan, my lettuce spinner. It’s a real lettuce spinner that sits in my actual kitchen, smirking—my survivor’s guilt made manifest. Wislawa Szymborska writes: “Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.” “The Palace” is attempting to configure America perhaps not as a predestined fact but as a procession of unembellishable convergent realities—lenses over lenses over lenses.