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Silence and Breath: Kaveh Akbar and Kazim Ali

The two poets talk about their literary family trees, poetry as a protective force, and the changing landscape for Muslim American writers.

By Kaveh Akbar and Kazim Ali

“The reason we Muslims do not pray for things is that it is similarly dangerous for one to call God’s attention onto oneself,” wrote Kazim Ali of Kaveh Akbar’s new chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic. “But for [Akbar]… it is a risk every poem takes with gusto.”

Poetry is a risky business. And now, as ever, that risk is magnified for writers of color, including Muslim writers. That risk is evident in Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic, a collection whose vulnerability bears an astonishing beauty, and in Kazim Ali’s inventive and lyric new novel, The Secret Room, written in the form of a musical score, where the instruments in a string quartet are the voices of four people over the course of a single day. Akbar and Ali’s work speak to each other in revelatory and, to steal a phrase from their conversation, incantatory ways.

Akbar’s first collection of poetry, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, will be published this fall by Alice James Books, the press that also published Ali’s debut poetry collection, The Far Mosque. Ali is the author of several poetry collections and novels, and has translated works by Sohrab Sepehri and Marguerite Duras.

This spring, Akbar and Ali spoke to each other over the phone about the relationship between poetry and prayer, their poetic lineages (from Jean Valentine to Agha Shahid Ali), and carving out a space in literature that is all their own.


Kazim: I taught yoga at AWP this year. On the one hand, it was really amazing to mix two of my loves, writing and yoga, but it was also just a lot of time. When I’m at AWP, I feel like I need to focus on what it’s for. Someday, someone will invite us to read together and we can hang out in the hotel and do yoga.

Kaveh: I would love that—that would be amazing. But, you were talking about AWP and something that I think might be of interest to people is the Muslim Caucus.

Kazim: It was kind of amazing.

Kaveh: It was incredible. The density of Muslim writers who inhabited both of these worlds with us was a greater density than I ever, ever, ever in my wildest dreams imagined I would encounter in this world.

Kazim: I want to know what it’s like for you, because I came up alone, and I knew no other Muslim writers. Agha Shahid Ali was there, but he was inaccessible to me. It wasn’t like I could just sit in a room with him and chat with him about this stuff, and when I did chat with him we came at it from extremely different angles. And so the sense of community, of being in a room of plurality and multiplicity of other Muslims, never existed for me. In a way, that was how I approached the poetry because I could do whatever I wanted with it, you knowthere weren’t other Muslim poets writing about Ramadan, for example, or namaz.

Now, I’m gonna be really frank with you, if I can, might as well be—[joking] it’s not like we’re on the record or anything—but now it’s weird for me. I think I may have been one of the very very few younger Muslim poets writing and publishing and now there are many, so many—young Muslim writers out there all writing the poems from the cultural perspectives we all share. And for me in the beginning, there wasn’t anybody else doing that kind of work. And now, you’re out there, Tarfia [Faizullah] is out there, many many other people are out there who are kind of wrestling with and engaging with this stuff in the poetry, and to an extent where I kind of feel like now I don’t have this pressure to constantly write about things from Islamic perspectives. But at least a small part of it is like, Oh, this is what it feels like when you are unique and then suddenly you aren’t anymore. You know what I mean? It is a little bit of a new feeling for me. Now I exist in a “context” and I didn’t before.

Kaveh: No, no, totally, I think that that’s fascinating. I think that you are someone who definitely opened that window so that people like me and people like Fatimah Asghar and people like Tarfia and Hanif [Willis-Abdurraqib] and all of us could climb through.

Kazim: You are kind to say that but I don’t think it is true. I feel like for the past twelve years I’ve been publishing and I never once heard, “We need more Muslim voices out there” from a publisher or a festival organizer. That’s new—that’s since Trump. You and Fati and others came up through the very same barriers that I faced. I do not think my presence made it any easier for you. Khalid Mattawa and Fady Joudah are two other Muslim writers out there, it’s true they have been very successful, but on account of their writing more than their identity, I believe. There are other Muslim writers out there, but they have not gotten a broad exposure. Abdal-Hayy Moore, who passed away recently, was comrades with the original Beats; [Moore] had been working that whole time, but did not achieve a wide recognition, so I don’t necessarily think there has been a big opening from the literary mainstream to Muslim writers. There’s been a political response to Trump, but is that a genuine opening of doors, or is just a politically based reaction? I’m not sure. I definitely don’t think you owe me anything. I think you guys have been doing it independently. I think we all came up on our own. I don’t think I opened any windows for anybody. I think I could have done a lot better, actually. I should have done more.

Kaveh: I think you kind of primed the poetry world for the vernacular we’re using now. I’m not trying to argue that there’s any sort of mainstream attention to be had in any direction.

Kazim: Well, there definitely wasn’t for me. And you are very kind to see my work with generosity. I met a queer nonfiction writer recently, she read an essay about all the different ways there are to be a Muslim. She is queer and she covers. (I almost said “but she covers”that’s what I’ve earned with my life, the “and” instead of the “but”). And after her readingI was weepingI put my arms around her and whispered into her ear “I have been waiting a long time for you.” I finally feel not alone. At any rate, I don’t feel good about receiving mainstream attention because Donald Trump is in power.

Kaveh: Right! But that’s so real now. I feel like the demand for our voices has become so much higher in this way that has everything to do with our proximity to danger. Hanif was speaking about this in our caucus meeting. We are now suddenly this group that is very visibly proximal to an imminent political and bodily danger at the hands of a state and at the hands of the people who are drinking the state’s Kool Aid. Suddenly there’s a lot more editorial interest in what Muslim writers are up to.

Kazim: I think it’s important. I think we should step up and take advantage of whatever platform is given to us. But it doesn’t feel good.

I think that the literary community is very fickle. I think they’re really interested in whatever the big thing is now and I do feel on the outside of all that, honestly. I’m saying that as somebody who is published in some of these bigger venues, by very respected journals and presses. But I don’t necessarily feel that that has ever translated into a truly inclusive interest in a broader aesthetic.

Sometimes I think it is because I did not fall into writing more of a mainstream narrative lyric. I view myself as very influenced by experimental and innovative writers, they are my touchstone when it comes to formal structures in poetry, whether classical or contemporary. But I think I have been writing a kind of poetry that does not easily track. This may be why, though I have published widely, I feel like I have not yet had a breakthrough.

It’s certainly not because I am a Queer Muslim writer, that ought to be really interesting at the current moment! [laughs]

But let’s change the subject. I want to know who you’re reading. What’s exciting to you? Who’s hot?

Kaveh: I love Zeina Hashem Beck. Every poem I read from her totally does that top of my head off thing. I didn’t know anything about her until her Rattle chapbook just sort of arrived in my mailbox one day. It was incredible, and I remember opening it up and just being like, Who is this? And then her new book is just unbelievable.

Kazim: I’m so excited to see that.

Kaveh: You would think they were written by a poet twice her age—but then maybe not because they’re very dynamic and lively—but the formal mastery in those poems is just staggering. Who are you loving?

Kazim: I’m reading Ruth Madievsky.

Kaveh: Yeah, I know Ruth! Emergency Brake.

Kazim: Oh, it’s so beautiful. Every once in awhile I come across a book of poetry that is nothing like what I normally prefer and nothing like what I write, but just so genuine and so much in the heart and so much in the lived world of experience. It’s a very short book and it’s stunning and she’s 25 years old, you know? Like, where does all this come from?

Kaveh: And we named two poets, too, who are both not career poets, aren’t in academia. Ruth is in pharmacy, I think, and I think that that’s interesting.

Kazim: I relate to that, honestly. We were talking about that last night. She too is from an immigrant family. Her parents came here. She was like five when she moved here. Her parents are Russian Jews from Moldova, and I relate to that. I was a little older when we came here but my family is an immigrant family. We’re all first generation immigrants. So she has that going for her, so I’m sure it was like, Well, you have to major in something that is practical.

Kaveh: When I was going to college, I started out as a psychology major because that was the softest science that I could get my parents to sign off on. Then I went through my going-throughs and it didn’t matter as much to me what my parents thought. There was a long time where I didn’t have a super close relationship with them because I was such a mess, and I switched over to creative writing. Now my relationship with them is better, obviously, as I am better.

Kazim: I have a question to ask you about that. What’s our obligation to our family in terms of the types of things that we write about? Because, in the white poetry world, people are like, Your responsibility is to your art. But in the brown culture world, we know it’s a little more complicated than that. How do you handle it? What you’re putting out there, how they’re going to feel about it, what do you think? What do you do?

Kaveh: So, first of all, I’ll start with a story which hopefully you won’t find too obnoxious. My dad, he’s a hard science guy, he’s a poultry geneticist. He had a duck farm for most of my childhood, up until like a year ago. All that to say he’s not a big reader of poetry. He doesn’t have a huge interest in my poetry life, but there was one instance where he made a reference to Hazrat Ali in an email and I said, Oh, I just had a poem taken by this magazine, Tin House, that starts out being about Hazrat Ali. And he was like, Can I read it? And it was the first time that he’d ever asked to read one of my poems in my life.

Kazim: Why?

Kaveh: His interest in my poetry career is more like, making sure that I’ll be in a place where I’ll be able to get health insurance.

Kazim: Oh, okay. So let me backtrack a little bit. Do you feel drawn to subjects of your cultural or religious heritage because that is what your community or family relates to? Do you feel any responsibility—not just as a Muslim poet, but as a poet in general—to try to direct work from that cultural heritage?

Kaveh: I think that because the language of Islam is the bedrock upon which my psychic life is built—

Kazim: I think it’s how I became a poet at all, just listening to those marsiyas and nohas during Muharram and listening to people scream with grief when they’re listening. It showed me what language could do, and what poetry could do, and that poetry enacted something. I never had an understanding of poetry as something private, because it never was. Every expression I saw of poetry was very public.

Kaveh: I grew up saying namaz in Arabic, which was a language I didn’t understand. I knew enough to pray in it, and so every day I was saying this beautiful, mellifluous language that effectively worked to me like an incantation, a kind of protection spell. Those were the first poems I knew.

Kazim: We knew it as music first, before we knew what it meant. We knew it as sound, and it was foreign sound, because of the Arabic—the guttural, the vowels and consonants that were not English… It has taken me a very, very long time, until the most recent poems that I’ve been writing, to write poems that are in a voice that’s conversational and not oracular or removed or very clear in diction.

Kaveh: I love those conversational writings. It’s so cool to see you writing that way.

Kazim: It took me so long to get there, though. It took me really, really long. What is this, thirteen years after my first book? It took me that long to get to that language.

Kaveh: Our first relationship to these kinds of charged language were these incantations, and so we both tend towards poems that work in this sort of incantatory way, which is not super colloquial and not super chatty.

Kazim: “It is the long, faultless tongue of God.” [laughs] I’ve been carrying that line around in my gut for a couple of weeks, actually.

Kaveh: Look at you quoting me. You’re a fantastic reader, and I’m glad that it made an impression.

To finish the poem story, I sent my father this poem that begins being about Hazrat Ali, but it has everything to do with my addiction issues and my struggles with faith. It’s not the poem I would have chosen to send him as the first poem of mine that he’s reading. He actually read it and responded immediately, like, This is amazing, this is beautiful. He was asking me craft questions about it and it was one of the three best moments of my poetry career.

I want to ask you, what sort of relationship do you have to feeling that sense of responsibility to your parents or the way that you were raised in your work? Does that dictate your writing at all?

Kazim: In the very beginning, I really drew a lot from that cultural heritage, because that’s what I knew and that’s what governed me. But also, I don’t want to underestimate the fact that I was terrified about writing very directly about my own life, especially in terms of sexuality. I was out to everybody, but not to my parents, not until after my first two books came out. It was Bright Felon that I wrote while coming out to them, and then having come out to them, was able to publish it.

Coming out was the seismic shift for me, and I feel like since then my work has been obsessed with that moment. Before that, my work was obsessed with that moment in that I had to be silent or secretive about it, and I had to sublimate everything, and then after, I had to process and work through it. So you have this book, Bright Felon, and then you have my book Sky Ward, which is like ostensibly about Icarus and Daedalus, but it’s really about sons who don’t listen to their fathers, and it is about being a gay son and all of that. And I couldn’t get away from it.

Ilya Kaminsky interviewed me for this book that Tupelo did on poets talking about God. That was my shtick, that was what I was called on for all the time. It was great, because I was getting out there, but when I was talking to Ilya, and talking about God one more time, I realized the more you talk about something, the more your ideas start to organize themselves around it, and I suddenly panicked because I thought, God, I have to stop talking about God. I have to stop writing about it. Some things need to be secret. I realized before I came out publicly, in writing the eros of silence was really intense.

I secretly think that my earlier work, when I was closeted, is actually more powerful as poetry, because I had this secret that I was keeping in the writing, and it put everything else under a certain kind of pressure, and that the telling of the secret stunts that silence, and dissipated it. I feel that I have to take something back and put something back into my heart.

Kaveh: There’s a line in Bright Felon where you say, “God’s true language is only silence and breath.”

Kazim: Yeah. Because everyone thinks they know what God’s real language is: it’s Latin, it’s Sanskrit, it’s Arabic, it’s whatever they say it is. And I realize that God’s only language is silence.

Kaveh: That makes total sense.

Kazim: My parents are not readers, like you said your dad isn’t a reader. My parents are poetry readers, but they’re readers of religious poetry, the nohas and the marsiyas and that kind of thing, and they have my books. I don’t know if they’ve read them or not, but they do have them. It’s complicated. My relationship with my parents is still tricky and I don’t talk about it publicly in a way. Because it’s our life, it’s still unfolding, and I am probably foolishly, stupidly optimistic. I haven’t given up on this problem solving itself, basically, so I kind of have to hold onto that. But the pressure is off, in a way. I have an agreement with myself to just write whatever I want to write and consequences be damned. I’ll handle it later. I don’t know what else to say. I just felt that if I thought too hard about it that I would censor myself.

Kaveh: That’s how I’ve always done it, and that’s what I tell my students too. You just write the poems. You don’t have to publish everything you write. I have dozens of poems that I have never published, for various reasons, but some of them are not published because there’s stuff I don’t want aired out publicly. And that’s fine, I’m not going to burst into flames for having unpublished poems sitting in my computer hard drive.

Kazim: Yeah. Me too. I mean, I want to realize that the writing of the poem is for the poet first and foremost, including me, and that is something that I tell my students, as well. Write the poem for yourself, and don’t worry about the audience.

Kazim: I’m gonna ask you another question. What’s your lineage? Choose your four poetic grandparents.

Kaveh: I think that I definitely owe a great debt to [John] Berryman. I think the way that he sort of chopped and screwed language is endlessly interesting to me, and his obsessions with God, you know, like “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” and addiction are both very interesting to me. I know how vexed he is, and that’s something I’ve struggled with mightily, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that inheritance. Nobody’s family tree is perfect. I think that Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters taught me a totally new way to write. I remember I read her poem “Groundhog” that was in the New Yorker, and it completely changed the way I would read poems forever. That’s the book where she takes out all punctuation.

Kazim: Okay, so listen. I think, I really believe that that weird line that she uses…

Kaveh: Is inherited from [W.S.] Merwin?

Kazim: …is from Reetika Vazirani.

Kaveh: Oh, interesting.

Kazim: I don’t know Ellen well enough to ask, but Reetika Vazirani published a book in 2002, a year before she died, called World Hotel, that does that and it’s very dramatic.

Kaveh: Oh, I see. I’ve read World Hotel and I actually really loved it.

Kazim: Obviously, everyone draws from everyone else.

Kaveh: Sure, sure, sure and I always imagined it being inherited from middle and late Merwin. But you know, just learning how to write, without leaning so heavily on punctuation so that you can control momentum and inertia so that’s huge. Carl Phillips—even though he’s not that old—but the complexity of his sentences is something that, you know, you’d be a fool to try to imitate, but it’s not dissimilar from Berryman in the way that he’s just playing with the syntax of the English language and ramping up the complexity of it. I might round it out with Franz Wright, he was a hugely important poet for me, in terms of realizing what the stakes of a poem could be.

Kazim: Do you feel that there was a drunkity-drunk connection, too?

Kaveh: Totally, there’s always this second language beneath everything, just like reading a Muslim writer, I know without even reading the words—

Kazim: A lot of shame!

Kaveh: We know that there’s a sort of on-board, hard-wired connection before even reading the poem, you know what I mean?

Kazim: Yeah, for sure.

Kaveh: What about you? Who would your four be?

Kazim: Well, it’s hard to choose only four—

Kaveh: You just made me do it!

Kazim: Well, I said it was arbitrary. I was going to say Agha Shahid Ali for sure, in every way, has governed my sensibilities and connection to the cultural heritage, but also the formal innovation. He wrote experimentally, he wrote in received forms, he wrote in prose. His collected poems are as good an anthology for me when I teach. I could teach an introduction to poetry class and just use that book.

Kaveh: Yeah, because he did everything.

Kazim: I would have to say Jean Valentine, for sure; not just in her courage to cut to the emotional truth, but in her deep commitment to minimalist perception. She too is a writer who battled addiction. She is a very spiritual and I would say religious writer, you know, she’s a committed Catholic, so there’s a lot of interesting resonances between you and me and these people that I’ve mentioned. We have a lot in common, basically.

Kaveh: Right now, at this second, above my bed hangs a picture of Jean Valentine. I have this wall of poets that revolves sometimes, but I’m sitting directly under her right now.

Kazim: Yeah, she’s a huge inspiration to me.You know it’s hard, there’s so many. Meena Alexander has influenced me, Susan Howe has influenced me tremendously, Fanny Howe, Lucille Clifton, Jane Cooper… But if I had to choose my last two, one would be Mahmoud Darwish, because he is a poet who lives between the public and the private and has to negotiate this very vexed political circumstance. He was exiled, he was an immigrant, he was un-homed. I relate a lot to him. His poetic craft is just incredible.

Kaveh: He talked a lot about how every beautiful poem was an act of resistance. To write something very beautiful as a sort of inherently political act against the ugliness of fascism and against the ugliness of hopelessness—I think that’s really profound. That’s been such a directive since November 9th.

Kazim: Oh yeah, for sure. And then I think my last poet is a collective. It’s Olga Broumas and T. Begley, who collaborated on a book called Sappho’s Gymnasium. If there’s one single book that is my personal touchstone—in terms of how I approach language and what I believe about the possibilities of poetry—it’s that book. And it was written by the two of them as a collaborative voice. It’s not like epistolarily written back and forth, they created it together. So they’re the last two. I got five in [laughs].

Kaveh: I love those and I think that’s very in keeping with what I know about your work. I think that’s a beautiful family tree.

Kazim: Well, I’m sort of thrilled. I have an essay on Sappho’s Gymnasium in my book Resident Alien, and Olga and T. saw that essay and they asked me to expand and develop my essay to be an afterword to the book. So, a new edition is coming out and it’s going to have my essay in it. It’s like I’m joining the book that has been so beautiful and meaningful to me.