It’s been several years since Calling a Wolf a Wolf shot into the literary consciousness, and since its tremendous success, the award-winning poet Kaveh Akbar has also made a measurable impact as an educator, the current Poetry Editor of The Nation, and a remarkably generous poetry supporter. His sophomore collection, Pilgrim Bell, enters into deeper conversations about the essence of humanity, as well as the power and limitations of language and faith, all of which reflect a poet in the fullness of his artistry.
The opportunity to speak with Akbar about Pilgrim Bell turned into a wide-ranging conversation that encompasses philosophy, belief, identity, and always, the art of writing. That parallels the experience of reading this eagerly-anticipated collection from Graywolf Press, which is in turns playful, introspective, outrospective, political, personal and exhilarating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy.”
“Then it is a holy text.”
Prior to the first poem, the collection offers a theological statement, followed by a thrilling poetic response on the next page, which maps the geography of the collection. It’s a bold statement that sets the intention for what is to come.
What do you consider a holy text?
I’m really interested in apophatic theology and logic: understanding the thing by what it isn’t. There’s that opening in the book, “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy,” so by that definition, if it’s not an apostasy… It arrives upon the definition of a holy text in reverse: if I know that it’s not an apostasy, I can say with confidence that it’s definitely holy.
To state the obvious: prophets play a large role in this collection, both as contrast and reflection.
From “My Empire:”
“That the prophets arrived not to ease our suffering
but to experience it seems—can I say this?—
“The prophets came to participate in suffering
as if to an amusement park, which makes
our suffering the main attraction.”
The prophets came to Earth to experience our flawedness; they didn’t come to Earth to try the wines and eat the mutton, you know. They came here to experience our brokenness, to experience suffering and cruelty. In many faiths—Abrahamic or otherwise—the stories of the prophets or the gods are filled with this. Hanging out with mortals and deigning to sample the local suffering.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about the intersection of pilgrims and prophets.
The pilgrim seeks what the prophet’s found.
There’s also the great imagery of these bells—and I foresee many people searching the Internet in vain for pilgrim bells in order to gain close-reading insights—and how they reflect sound and sensation, often in relation to prayer.
I like imagining the big clappers of the large bells, how they require the heft of the human body in order to ring them. In order to make a sound, you become the vessel. With the really big bells, pulling the rope actually literally lifts you into the air.
From “Seven Years Sober:”
“Trust God but tie your camel. Trust
God. The bottle by the bed the first
few weeks. Just in case. Trust.”
This is certainly a collection deeply engaged with faith, prayer, and seeking, yet it is equally pragmatic about human life, human inconsistencies, in doing the best we can do in a given moment in time.
I look upon prayer not as a way to court divine intervention as much as a way to orient myself. I don’t waste a lot of time worrying about whether or not there is someone or something on the other end of the prayer. Either way, it’s a means of orienting myself toward the right action; and ultimately, taking responsibility for what I can do. “Trust God. // But carry water.”
We often consider poetry as an element of the divine, yet in this collection, it is firmly in the in-between, which is, coincidentally, where we are as human beings, neither in heaven nor hell (if one believes in those constructs). This collection wanders into and around such paradigms, and especially about what it is to be gorgeously human, gorgeously flawed.
You know what Rumi says about mirrors, about how to be a good person? ”Polish it, polish it, polish it.” The secret to goodness to Rumi was ensuring that you rigorously examine your own life and actions.
There’s also the ancient Sufi poet Rabi’a [Al-Basri], who’s possibly the first and most important female Sufi poet from millennia past [circa 10th century, Afghanistan]. She has a poem that goes, in its entirety: “Where are you from? There. Where are you headed? There. What are you doing? Grieving.” The implication is that the in-between space—our lives—is spent feeling painfully separated from the divine.
There are a variety of structures in this collection, both visual and poetic, that enhance or subvert what the poems express. How were you thinking about space and momentum with this particular collection?
I find myself getting overwhelmed in perpetually noisy, sonically inundating spaces right now, so I am especially interested in silence, in its many forms. My first book was very sonically supersaturated and syntactically supersaturated. It had a number of unpunctuated poems that worked through momentum, rush, and centripetal force. And this book, I think, is much more interested in silence, in letting the field of the page hold the poem.
The first poem—one of several “Pilgrim Bell”s—makes particular use of periods, often fragmented sentences.
The period indicates a temporal pause and traditionally, in grammatical English, it indicates the end of a complete thought unit. But in these poems it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Each line is punctuated whether or not it is the end of the grammatical thought, so the period becomes an imposition of certainty on language that resists it. It’s about trying to sit in uncertainty without desperately groping to resolve it. Such groping tends to make me unhappy, and also generally doesn’t work.
You explore identity and language in a variety of ways. I was taken with the first couplet in “Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic:”
“The title is a lie;
I can’t read Farsi.”
It effectively sows a fascinating narratorial unreliability, while also underscoring a recurrent theme in your work about, for lack of a better phrase, identity and cultural insufficiency.
So often I’m described as Iranian-American or the reverse. That construction of a hyphenate just feels inaccurate to me because I don’t have one lobe of my brain for being Iranian and one lobe of my brain for being American. In a room full of Iranians I often feel like the least Iranian person, and in a roomful of Americans, I feel like the least American person. And the construction as is literally makes “Iranian” grammatically subordinate to “American,” it’s modifying the American noun. That doesn’t feel right.
There’s also the impotence of naming, right? Especially with the goal of categorizing or taxonomizing. This was literally the title of my first collection. What is the import in giving something a name or a classification, and what does it accomplish? How is it impotent? What language can’t do is so much the obsession of this book, so much the obsession of my days.
From “There Are 7,000 Living Languages:”
“When a boy starts speaking
his trouble begins.
There is something terrible
beneath all I am able to say.”
Do you think that writers, and perhaps poets most of all, have a deeper understanding of both the power and the powerlessness of language?
The poem is not the experience, right? The psycho-spiritual experience, the social experience, the domestic experiences that catalyzed the poems’ entrance into the world can never be represented in plain language. Which is where the lyric comes in.
For example, if we want to reflect the world, we can take a photograph, we can make a movie, right? That visual depiction can be more effective than language at pure showing. But what poems are better at is juxtaposing elements to offer the experience of living. That’s what metaphor does, what the lyric does. You shoot language across a synapse, and somehow in that relay: illumination.
Pilgrim Bell: Poems
By Kaveh Akbar
Published August 3, 2021
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.