In Conversation: Kaveh Akbar and Tyehimba Jess

Kaveh Akbar: I think about how there are moments in Olio where you literally have to pull the book apart. You have to engage the body in the reading of those poems. There’s no way to even access the content of those poems without kind of physically pulling them apart, which I think is a really cool way to force the reader’s body into their reading of the work and their engagement with the work.

Tyehimba Jess: I’m thinking of your work, Kaveh, and how you’re dealing with issues of addiction in Calling a Wolf a Wolf. And I think that it’s not just the mental struggle. It’s a physical struggle and you can feel the physicality of that struggle in your poems.

KA: I appreciate that.

TJ: They’re very, very lucid in that depiction. I can only imagine that has a very physical impact on folks who are dealing with all kinds of addictions.

KA: I think that’s super generous. We should do this whole interview answering questions about each other’s poems.

TJ: [laughs]

KA: I’ll be Tyehimba Jess, you be Kaveh Akbar.

TJ: I’ve heard you read before and I know that you put energy into your reading. I think that you want to bring life to your poems when you’re doing your reading. I come from the same perspective. I come directly through slam, and that’s another kind of movement, an American poetry movement that has made poetry more physical in many ways in American social life, made it much more immediate and more physical.

KA: I’m coming from, sort of genealogically, the ancient Persian tradition. Those were a lot of my favorite poets coming up, reading Hafez and Rumi and these poets for whom the body was inextricably linked with the recitation of poetry. A poem wasn’t a thing on a page. A poem was a thing you danced and chanted. Or a poem was a way to thin the membrane between you and the divine, and you could whirl yourself into this ecstatic state. That’s the tradition that really informs my thinking about what a poem could do. So when I am reading a poem, when I’m trying to bring a poem to life in front of other people, it really becomes important for me to try to access whatever that original catalyzing agent was that brought the poem to me, to get back in there and try to catch some of that spark. It really does kind of become overwhelming.

I’ve seen you read, too, and I think we’re maybe simpatico in the way we do try to give our bodies and our breath and the energy within us over to the poem. And, maybe—I don’t want to put words in your mouth—but I know that for me it kind of feels like when I am in the process of reading a poem, there’s not a lot of higher brain activity for me. It’s almost like my intelligence has left the building and my body becomes a vessel for this poem. Maybe that sounds a little hoity toity, but it does feel that way, in the best of times when I’m reading.

TJ: Right, yeah. Other people come to mind. When I think of Robin Coste Lewis’s Venus book, when she talks about all of these physical manifestations in art, all of these art books, art pieces, and taking the titles from these pieces of art that have been found in museums around the world that are embodiments of a vision, kind of an exploded vision of blackness or black women, and the way that she takes that body of names and then transformed them into this really three dimensional rearrangement and reconceptualization of black womanhood—that to me is also kind of a physical work. It’s ekphrastic. It’s something that is in call and response to the legacy of theft and appropriation that occurs in American museums and throughout world museums and is taking that physical presence that has been intoned in these places and liberating them onto the page.

KA: And I think, too, the title poem for that book. The big long poem that is made from all the titles of those pieces...

TJ: “Voyage of the Sable Venus.”

KA: Yeah, that poem takes up 40 something, 50 pages in the middle of that book and I think part of the physicality of that poem is just the willingness to take up space. There’s something really profound when women writers or writers from marginalized communities write really long poems. That in itself is pretty politically potent, because it’s saying I’m going to take up the space that I need, to a culture that asks women to be smaller, that asks black women to be smaller physically, to be smaller politically, socially, that asks any group of marginalized people to be smaller in those ways. The fact that that poem is so tight all the way through and just takes up this huge chunk of space in the middle of that book, that always struck me as really fascinating and powerful. And it ties into this conversation of the body and endurance.

How do you think that will interact at this reading with having actual dancers there?

TJ: I’ll be interested to see what the conversation is like, what the call and response is like between the dancing and poetry, et cetera. So I’m looking forward to that.

KA: Yeah, the poet Kazim Ali talks about how he sees poetry and dance as being really close sisters and then poetry and music as being more distant cousins. I’m not necessarily advocating the particular position, but I think it’s interesting. His rational is that music—the fundamental quality of music is melody. And you can’t get melody in a poem. You can get cadence, you can get rhythm, you can get beat, but you can’t put melody in a poem. Whereas dancing you can get cadence and rhythm and beat, and it’s also operating within this set of fairly rigid strictures. Choreography and dance, strictures defined by the body’s capacity to do this or that. Just as poetry is defined by the breath’s capacity or the line’s capacity. So it’s an interesting thought.

TJ: Generally, when I think of poetry, one of the first things I think of is music. I’m curious as to what they will be dancing to. You know, we’re back talking about the physicality of poetry. I think that we’re talking about the imaginary line between genres or the idea that all of these things are completely separate and distinct. They really merge into each other and create a total human expression when they’re really fully realized and when we take time to think about them in really whole and revolutionary ways. Or maybe not even revolutionary—traditional ways.

Going back to physicality, when I think about poetry and I think about the music, I think about the African American lineage that goes from the work song to gospel to blues to jazz, through ragtime, through spirituals, and is always in constant conversation with the literature. One is informing the other. Really, music informs the literature. The music was the literature for black folks in this country before there was a significant body of African American literature. That was the literature. It was found in the spirituals and also in the dances that accompanied that music.

KA: Yeah.

TJ: Even the line between poetry and fiction and playwriting and all those things—they’re more about how we are trying to package and sell a piece of writing than they are about the actual function, in my mind, of the actual writing. In the end, it comes back to the physical. In the end, the question is, does it move the reader? We want to be mentally, spiritually moved from one place to another... That’s a ramble.

KA: No, that’s a good ramble. Can I ask a question? This is an earnest question. I don’t have an answer and I’m curious because you’re someone who knows so much about the history of music. But so many of the work songs of which you speak have these kind of hidden codes in them and shibboleths. Like directions to get north. And there’s this history of that transferring through the music. I think that hip-hop had a lot of that, too, these encoded things that you could only understand from certain backgrounds. I’m interested in the way that hip-hop has eclipsed rock and pop as the predominant popular music genre in our country. What does it mean for a form that was filled with all of these shibboleths and codes to now be the predominant genre, being consumed by mostly white audiences? You go to a Tyler, the Creator or Drake show and it’s a very, very heavily white audience.

TJ: That’s the pattern that’s happened since forever in this country. A lot of it’s been about black innovation and white appropriation. Look, if I were to go to a blues club today, there’d be a lot of white folks in there and I might be one of the few black people in the club. It is about the root of the music. The sound of this country comes from the black sound. And then what’s amazing is we are so incredibly innovative in that sphere, and we’re so fiercely competitive in that sphere, that we end up leaving the old behind in search of new expressions once they have been mainstreamed.

KA: Yeah, yeah, totally.

TJ: So when that happens to hip-hop, I’m not surprised. Because that’s the same thing that happened to ragtime, that happened to blues, that happened to most genres of music. Maybe R&B has endured more. Bringing it back to poetry and bringing it back to the literature—I don’t want to use the word unassailable, or completely sacrosanct, but I see it as a field of endeavor that is more resistant to that kind of appropriation. Maybe I’m wrong.

KA: That makes total sense. I was reading recently about how Henry Ford hated jazz music and talked about it with all these horrible epithets and he started pouring money into all of these country-music record companies. There’s this white resistance to it, but then when they realize the resistance isn’t doing anything, they try to co-opt it.

Weekly Gramma

This interview was originally published by the Seattle Met.

Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, The Nation, Tin House, Best American Poetry, The New Republic, The Guardian, Ploughshares, PBS NewsHour, Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, The Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. His debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is just out with Alice James in the US and Penguin in the UK, and his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, was published by Sibling Rivalry Press. The recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently teaches at Purdue University and in the low residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.

Kaveh founded and edits Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in American poetry. With Sarah Kay and Claire Schwartz, he writes a weekly column for the Paris Review called "Poetry RX." Previously, he ran The Quirk, a for-charity print literary journal. He has also served as Poetry Editor for BOOTH and Book Reviews Editor for the Southeast Review. Along with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, francine j. harris, and Jonathan Farmer, he starred on All Up in Your Ears, a monthly poetry podcast.

Tyehimba Jess is the author of two books of poetry, Leadbelly and Olio. Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry, and received an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Jean Stein Book Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Leadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.”

Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU Alumni, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004–2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000–2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He presented his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference and won a 2016 Lannan Literary Award in Poetry. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2018. Jess is a Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

Jess' fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals, as well as anthologies such as Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago's Guild Complex, and Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry.

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