Ilya Kaminsky: Let’s begin in the present: we are in the second year of pandemic. The themes of this issue of Magma – solitude and mental health – are very much on people’s minds. How to survive and stay sane (whatever sanity might mean to an individual) in such a moment. Do literatures (yes, there are many) help? Not so much? What did we learn from this time, as a community? What did you, as a solitary maker, learn?

Kaveh Akbar: I’m leery of speaking of any ‘we’ larger than myself and my cats (and even they are full of secret motivations well-hidden from me!). Some things I have learned: how to read and add in Farsi. How deeply good people can be. How deeply rotten institutions are. How to run in an N95. How to hide in narrative. In books and movies. How to make vegan meatballs. How to hide in the past. How to hide in the future. How to swim a little better. How to fix our car, sometimes. How to admit when I can’t. How to accept the things I cannot change.

IK: What, in your world, is the opposite of Solitude?

KA: Noise: entries into my consciousness that I did not invite. For me, the best definition of solitude is the absence of such noise. Real solitude is sort of apophatic in that way; I know it best by what it isn’t.

IK: And Mental Health – what is that? Where does construct end and health begin, and what does it have to do with lyricism, if anything, for you?

KA: I can only speak for myself, with any of this. For me, my poems point toward the next right thing. They right my compass; holding the reigns loosely enough that my unconscious (or whatever one wants to call it – “soul” also works) can penetrate through the fog of my ego, my self-will, my psychopathologies. That’s the ongoing calibration that separates a real poem from “mere confection”.

IK: Let’s come back to solitude for a bit, and chat about your syntax. They are solitary, these one-sentence lines in many of your poems in Pilgrim Bell. And, yet their solitudes make up a chorus. What does syntax do for you. What is its purpose?

KA: In English, the two kinds of sentences that take a period are called “declarative” and “imperative”. Imagine, our most common sentences exclusively being for declaring and demanding. It explains so much! Linguistics teaches us that language indelibly shapes the thought. If there is a central project in Pilgrim Bell, it has to do with teaching myself to sit in uncertainty without groping desperately to resolve it. Flaying certainty from my grammatical periods, warping my syntax – these have everything to do with trying to induce a kind of maturation of my own spirit (or perhaps to embed one within it).

IK: Your book is also full of family. There is the solitude of an immigrant family in the States, and an ill health of mind that this family (and certainly the book’s speaker) seems to observe as they/he observe the empire. And yet, family, however terrifying at times, is always, in the end, tender – a place of salvation. Is that right?

KA: That’s a beautiful read, thank you. I’ll add only what our friend Rilke said: “Every angel is terrifying.” That includes the angels with whom we share a name.

IK: But in poetry there is also the question of language, of what brings all these emotions to the reader’s ear, what renders them with vividness to the eye.

KA: Horace says that a poem should delight and instruct, and Frost later cribs that and says that a poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom. But it was really Horace who said that, and this is so central to my understanding of what it is to be a poet. I think that a lot of us sort of gallop toward wisdom – delight be damned – and so much of the fun of it for me, so much of the way a poem works, is to nail that delight.

There’s that moment in Franz Wright’s ‘Anti-Psychotic’ where he has a whole stanza set off by itself to say, “Risperdal whisperdoll.” The name of a potent anti-psychotic, and a strange, constructed word that it sounds like to him. It’s delightful because it surprises, it’s delightful because it’s mellifluous, unaccountably beautiful. And his lyric is sophisticated enough to know that the poem needs that moment – not a moment of levity, exactly, but of acknowledgement that even in the throes of psychic tumult, one’s ear still demands to be fed.

My friend, a brilliant poet, did a project where she interviewed survivors of an unspeakable atrocity abroad. In one of the poems stemming from those interviews, she describes female survivors putting on makeup. Someone criticized the poem for being frivolous, for not focusing enough on their previous suffering. And my friend said, “Don’t those women deserve to feel beautiful?” I thought that was such an incredible response. I am infinitely dubious of certain readers’ appetite for ethical and aesthetic infantilization. The flattening of all actors, words, experiences, people, into good or bad, beautiful or ugly, victim or tyrant, feels antithetical to lyric’s capacity (desire!) to render complexity.

IK: I want to ask about the last poem in the book, the longest poem, which is made of many fragments. Seemingly solitary fragments, but the poem sends them echoing. What is language – a living thing in a poet’s hands – for you? What are its solitudes?

KA: Language and its solitudes – again, it’s so much the project of the book, the project of art broadly. The pure inescapable untranslatability of any emotional or psychospiritual experience. Ceci n’est pas une Grecian urn, right? It’s a facsimile in language. Borges never heard a nightingale; they don’t live in Argentina. But he said Keats had heard it “for everyone, forever.” It’s a metaphorically beautiful sentiment but ultimately not literally true; one cannot imitate the bird’s warble from reading Keats’ poem alone. But THAT’S what I want! It is so lonely to feel deeply about the world and be met with the complete failure of language to communicate it. Poetry gets us marginally (but importantly!) closer than rhetorical language, like how standing on a roof gets one a few feet closer to grabbing a star than standing in the dirt. It makes the loneliness of being here a little easier to bear.

Silence: I want to think about silence as the substance of the poem, with language being merely the negative space poured around it. Dickinson and Celan are the maestros of this – their language deepens, complicates, illuminates silence in ways I’ve only ever otherwise experienced in music. I think Jean Valentine is part of that conversation for me as well. I am so enamoured with silence. In my life, in this world, it feels like noise is much easier to find. The noise of language, flayed from meaning, shot at us by an empire hoping it will cudgel us into inaction. One can trust silence, made by the world, much more than one can trust language made by men.


From Magma 83




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