THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS: A CONVERSATION WITH KAVEH AKBAR
By Allison Field Bell
Before moving to New Mexico, I did a stint in Indiana, at an MFA program at Butler University, where I was fortunate enough to experience both the polar vortex and the editing team of BOOTH. Somewhere during my time there I encountered, peripherally, the poet Kaveh Akbar. Kaveh the poet, my friends called him. The next time I heard of him was two years later, when I drew up a contract for his poem, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble” in Puerto’s Spring 2016 issue.
When considering who to interview for this, The Publication Issue, I immediately thought of Kaveh, whose successes have been on my Facebook feed for the last year. I am not technically a poet, or at least, I’m not formally studying poetry. I am a prose writer but I am also a reader and lover of poems and, after Googling Kaveh’s poems and reading his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, I can say that I am a reader and lover of his poems in particular
That, however, was not the purpose of our conversation. This issue is about publication after all, and on Wednesday November 16, Kaveh and I spoke on the phone, and he answered some of my mostly prepared and somewhat self-conscious questions about contemporary publication and his involvement as both editor and writer.
Kaveh Akbar founded and edits Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in contemporary poetry. His poems appear recently or soon in Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, APR, Best New Poets, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, will be out in January 2017 with Sibling Rivalry Press, and his debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming with Alice James Books in Fall 2017. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Tallahassee.
AFB: You’ve served in different editorial roles for a variety of journals. Can you talk about these experiences—the how and why of your involvement in this aspect of the writing world?
KA: Well, I guess I got started in high school. I ran what was then just a little local general interest journal that was just photocopied and stapled, called The Quirk. I would write little music reviews and goofy articles and comics. I would get my friends to write stuff, too. Then I’d just make a hundred copies, sell it for a quarter a copy at my school, and then give all those profits to various charities.
That ran for thirteen issues, I think, and then, as I started getting more and more interested in poetry, I sort of rebranded it as a poetry journal. And I started soliciting poems from my then-favorite poets, still calling it The Quirk. You know, I just cold-called Robert Bly and he sent me poems. And I cold-called W.D. Snodgrass and he sent me poems. I interviewed Yusef Komunyakaa through just cold-calling him—really ridiculous stuff like that. And I wouldn’t let on that I was so young. I feel like they probably wouldn’t have been as eager to be flattered by a seventeen-year-old.
So that ran for three issues, and then I took a long break to just be a burgeoning proto-adult, go through my going-throughs. And then it wasn’t until Butler, not even at the start of Butler, but halfway through, that I got involved with BOOTH. And then, a little after that, I started thinking about the early stages of Divedapper.
AFB: I’m really interested in The Quirk, and this idea of a “for-charity” journal, because, you know, historically, literary journals have been primarily associated with academic institutions (Puerto for instance) and I wonder about other possibilities for the literary journal. It seems like, really young, you were already thinking about that, and even with Divedapper, it’s very different from the typical journal. Can you talk a little bit about why?
KA: Well, a lot of it just has to do with the fact that there is such a saturation of great literary journals out there already, that I think I was in a position where, if I was just starting a traditional literary journal—not saying this is true for everyone—but for me to have done that, I don’t know that I had anything unique to offer, save serving my own vanity. Being this gatekeeper to a new journal and then being able to call that space mine.
Whereas, with Divedapper, I was actually able to offer something that didn’t exist in the literary world. There wasn’t the space for those long-form interviews with poets. You would see one occasionally in a journal, but there wasn’t the dedicated space for that sort of thing, certainly not with the same person doing them all. And so, it just seemed that, for me, starting a traditional literary journal wouldn’t have necessarily been serving the poetry community at large, while starting something like Divedapper, was a way to really meaningfully contribute to the community.
AFB: The idea of literary journals serving literary communities is definitely something that I’m interested in as a writer and editor. It sounds like you filled a gap that was there, and I’m curious if there are other gaps that you see? A space that a literary journal could fill?
KA: Sure, I think there are lots. I think that people are coming up with new ones every day. Deaf Poets Society is this amazing new journal that just started—I think they have two issues out—and it’s this space that exists exclusively for disabled poets. That’s a community that, in all of our conversations about accessibility and diversity in publishing, is often overlooked, left out.
I did a Divedapper interview with John Lee Clark, this amazing, amazing poet who’s also deaf and blind. He talked to me about how his ability to even participate in reading contemporary poetry is limited because there are so few contemporary poetry books that are published in Braille. Poetry Magazine was really the only magazine that published Braille, and so, in order to be able to read contemporary poetry, he has to basically write to authors and email them to ask for Word documents of their books, which lots of authors are unwilling to do.
You know, I talk about how saturated the market is, but there are still plenty of holes that can be filled by people who have the sort of drive and motivation to do it. It’s just a question of taking that step. I think a lot of people have these conversations that are like, “Oh wouldn’t it be cool if we did this,” but I think it takes a special kind of person who has that conversation and then says, “Well, you know, we could actually do that,” and then starts putting things in motion.
AFB: I’m interested to hear you talk more about Divedapper. In a previous interview, you mentioned that your incentive for founding the project is related to your own desire to engage with the creators of the artworks that move you. I sometimes wonder if my perception of an artist is part of the work itself, and, I know from experience, the real human interaction can, for better or worse, disrupt that. Have you found this to be the case?
KA: Totally. I’ll talk about the nicer side of that, which is when you meet someone and they turn out to be an even more incredible person. You know, I think that when you spend a lot of time with a person’s writing—no matter how third-person exterior-looking the work might be—you’re still spending time inside a person’s psychic life, and you’re spending time inside a person’s language. And I think that means that, if you’re really responding to the work, there’s probably some kernel of a thing in their psychic process that is vibrating at the same frequency as some part of your psychic process.
So I think that it is often the case that, once you get past the initial fan-personing—fanboying, fangirling, whatever—once you get past that initial phase, which, for me sometimes takes quite a bit of time [laughter]—once you get past that initial bit, I think that there’s often some real simpatico to be found with someone you’ve spent a lot of time with and read deeply.
I’ve been lucky enough to talk to many of my heroes through Divedapper, and one of the real miracles of that process is that I’ve had some lasting, significant friendships with people who started out just being total heroes of mine.
AFB: It sounds like community is a big thing for you, in terms of how you exist in the world as a writer.
KA: Yeah, one of the coolest things about being a writer is that you get to hang out with writers. I think that the real perk of the job is that you get to interact with people whose psychic lives you’ve kind of vetted in the process of reading their work.
AFB: I’m curious to hear you talk more about your Divedapper interviews. Are there specific questions that you find yourself repeatedly drawn to ask? Do you see patterns, and what, if anything, has this revealed about your own writerly interests?
KA: I’m interested in these writers because they’re my favorite writers; I don’t think I’m particularly secretive about that. So I’m interested in how they got to be able to write the stuff that they did that has so moved me. I’m often interested in those processes. That said, I don’t go into the conversations anymore with any questions planned. I don’t have anything written down, save a few quotes and dates. I like to let the conversations go where they want. I think that’s one of the things that makes the interviews on Divedapper unique—for better or for worse—they have this sort of organic texture of real conversation, because I don’t have this list of questions planned out for each person. I did that at the beginning. I just kind of felt like it made me self-conscious and it made me starchier than I wanted to be. I kind of got obsessed with making sure that I didn’t sound stupid, you know what I mean?
AFB:[self-reflexive laughter] Yeah.
KA: I would be so worried about the next thing I was going to say that I wasn’t really listening to what they were telling me. So now I just don’t really prepare anything. I just have conversations and hope they turn out okay, and they usually do.
AFB: [More laughter.] Right…so, on that note, I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about your recent publications. You have two books coming out, and I’m curious about that process of going from that first poem that you published to this full-length collection that’s coming out next year.
KA: Well, the first poem that I ever got published was in second grade and it was about the Green Bay Packers, and it was published in the Oak Creek Wisconsin newspaper. But I started publishing poems with an actual mind towards literary writing in late high school. I was sending work out—quite a bit of work—and some of it got picked up. I was really excited, and then, somewhere very early as an undergraduate, I realized that the poems were a little—they were just sort of false, they were just sort of bad. I recognized them as the bad standup routines that they were. And a lot of this stuff is still out there, still Googleable.
So I just stopped sending stuff out for six, maybe seven years. I just didn’t send anything out until the summer after I graduated my MFA, so a year and a half ago, really. Basically what I’m saying is everything that I’ve had published that you, or anyone reading this, would know about, has been published in the past year and a half. And when I started sending stuff out then, I had all this work to send out, so I sort of flooded the market, flooded every editor’s Submittable queue, because I just had all this work that had been marinating. So it was this thing where I went from having nothing out in the world that anybody knew about, to just having a ton of stuff out.
AFB: I can’t believe it’s only been a year and a half.
KA: Yeah, the poem that I had in Puerto was maybe my third or fourth acceptance that I got in this new cycle of publishing. So everything that has happened has happened in the last eighteen months. It’s nuts, you can imagine the sort of whiplash of it.
AFB: I wonder if there’s something to that marinating process—producing work and not worrying about publishing it for a while.
KA: Yeah, and I mean I had the luxury of being able to start early and then do that while I was still insulated in school. My livelihood didn’t depend on my publishing my poems or not. It wasn’t like I was finishing my MFA, and then I had to get a job somewhere so I had to have a CV with all these publications on it. I was sort of insulated from that reality a bit, and I had the luxury of being able to hold onto my poems which, you know, I think that’s a luxury that’s not necessarily available to many people who are writing for whatever reason.
AFB: So in terms of the medium of publication, do you have a preference—print or online—for your own work?
KA: I think that there are pros and cons to both, and I tend towards a nice mix. Sometimes, if I have something come out that’s just in print, I’ll still take a picture and share it with my friends. I mean, there’s nothing cooler than having your poem look all sexy in a magazine where your favorite poets are also on the spine and your name next to them. Nothing can beat that feeling. But then there’s also something cool about having a poem that people can just find in Google.
AFB: Divedapper is just online, right?
Right. I like the idea of it being free and available to anyone.
AFB: Now I want to talk about, or rather hear you talk about, what it means to be an artist / poet / editor / teacher in the current political climate.
KA: Yeah, it’s interesting, we just had this election a week ago, and I’m still sort of reeling from that. You’re asking this question at a time where I think that’s still very much in flux for me. You know, there’s this great shadow that’s been cast over the world of art, the world in general. There are moments when I feel like all there is to do is make art and exist through art. And, insisting upon an art especially that demands a slow attentive metabolization of language is inherently political and potent. There are moments when I really believe this, and then there are moments when the idea of sitting down and writing poems just seems so impotent in the long shadow of fascism, and bigotry, and hate.
It’s something that’s going to take me awhile to figure out, I think. The words that I’m saying now, to you, in this conversation, it will be interesting to read them in a year, if we’re still around—to see where I’ve landed with that, if I’m a freedom fighter living in a hovel just trying to escape the Trump zeppelins that are shooting lasers down at me and my people—[laughter]—or if I’m sort of living a similar life to what I’ve been living for the past year, just writing poems happily with the people I love. Either way, it will be interesting to read this conversation, because I feel like right now, it’s still very much up in the air.
AFB: On Facebook, you recently offered a custom broadside to encourage donations to the ACLU. Can you talk about the results?
KA: Yeah, I think that it shows my struggling to figure out how to weaponize my very limited skillset: I really love poems—have spent my life, and will continue to spend my life, serving poems and poetry—but that makes for a fairly limited, not particularly marketable skillset. In an effort to try to figure out how to utilize that skillset to do some good, I had this idea—I posted this thing on Facebook that said if people set up a monthly recurring donation to the ACLU and sent me their postal address, then I would make them a custom broadside of one of my poems and mail it to them. And the response has been extraordinary. Across Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and my email and text messages, and I think right now it’s over $10,000 donated to the ACLU just for this project.
AFB: That’s amazing.
KA: Yeah, I figured it was going to be like eight of my friends and my old high school English teacher would chip in a few dollars, and I’d be able to mail out a dozen. And now, it’s going to be this whole huge project of making these broadsides and mailing them out, which is wonderful. It gives me something to do with myself, which I’m very very grateful for in this moment of this confusion and paralysis.
It made me feel a lot of power and strength—both in our community, and in our art, in poems themselves—which is something that I really needed, I think. I needed that reminder that it is potent and it is strong and it does have power. There’s Woody Guthrie’s guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” It’s nice to be able to build these little poem machines that can contribute to that.