In advance of the Forward Prizes for Poetry 2018, Danez Smith and Kaveh Akbar share sublime food experiences, discuss their latest collections and ask one another how best to bring community into poetry.
Danez, I want to open by asking you to describe, in exhaustive detail, your experience eating at Reza’s tonight . . .
. . . but, in the interest of making this conversation interesting to any non-me person: This weekend we were together in a space where the idea of community-as-medium was being discussed. Can you say a little here about your relationship to that idea?
Well, first off, I would like to say that Reza’s was a gift from my favorite god and when we entered they said my favorite two syllables: ‘buf’ + ‘fet’. Who knew that the best mashed potatoes in the world could be found in a Persian restaurant in Chicago? The falafel wasn’t really my jam, but it gave us a chance to think about whose people make the best falafel. The lamb kabob tho? I would slap box my grandma over a plate of that and I’m sure she would too. The seasoning on those beautiful globs of meat are portal to a heaven I believe in. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of that meaty salvation. Can we just talk about good for this thing? Tell me about your favorite tacos.
Okay, but for real. I was introduced to the idea of community-as-medium by Fatimah Asghar, who we were both in town to celebrate on the release of her brilliant collection If They Come for Us. Fatimah, along with Aaron Samuels, founded the collective I’m a part of, Dark Noise. At the heart of our mission is community: how to build it, how to protect it, how to feed it, how to make love an intentional practice. I think i see that thread thru all of Fatimah’s work, even in how big and intimate of a word ‘us’ feels like in her book’s title. Everything Fatimah makes has a beloved audience at its center and that pulse draws to her a network of collaborators that are also interested in using art-making to make love bigger, realer, better for audiences often left unconsidered by mainstream creators. I had never heard of community-as-medium until I met Fatimah, but it felt familiar. I think coming up in spoken word and poetry slam circles have been able to help me dismiss, or maybe never even consider, the notion that what we do is a lonely art. Our reading, our writing, our reading aloud, our editing, our living and our livelihood is all an act of community. I think that notion of solitude feels dangerous close to some formulations of meritocracy, or possibly seek to exotify the loneliness of writers, but it never had & never has to be that. I am who I am because of the effort of a lot of people. I write what I write for me, sure, but because there is someone I must imagine on the receiving end of all this urgency and language. I think that’s it for me. Knowing that art creates a community out of the audience and nurturing the myriad of ways collaborations manifest in our practice and survival.
What about you, my friend? What do you find ‘community’ doing in your life? In your work? I also wanted to ask you about Calling a Wolf a Wolf as we near the year anniversary of its release in the US. What new have you learned about the book now that you’ve been stomping around the world reading from it? Is it still the book you thought it was?
Reza’s lamb koobideh is like looking into the eye of God. Or the mouth of God? It is like looking at God. With your tongue.
My favorite tacos in recent memory were actually also in Chicago. A few months ago I was walking around with the poet José Olivarez, and he took me to this truly transcendent place called Tortillería y Taquerías Atotonilco. We went to grab a couple quick tacos, but I think we each ended up waddling out after eating five or six each. We couldn’t stop getting more. You know those food moments where you think, ‘This is hurting me and as a result I’m going to be useless for the rest of the day, but who knows when the next time might be that I’ll be privy to this blessing?’ Tortillería y Taquerías Atotonilco was that.
I love what you say about writing for you, but also necessarily needing to imagine someone receiving it too. My students are exhausted with me repeating Horace’s pronouncement that a poem should ‘delight and instruct,’ but I really do think it’s the simplest, most profound thing. It’s not enough to say, ‘this is what happened’. We have to say it in a way that will delight the ear or the tongue or the mind of a reader who will never know us. It’s the only way in. And to do that, we have to be capable of imagining that reader, imagining them wholly, gassy and distracted by their phone and worried about the news and late to pick up their son from ballet. If we don’t imagine our readers possible, how can we expect them to imagine us?
I have many communities in my life – poets, Muslims, Persians, drunks – and each nourishes me differently. What they all have in common, I think, is that they offer amongness. That’s a profound, lizard-brain human need – to feel among. I grew up without it, an ugly Muslim kid in the Midwest. The sort of amongness I feel now talking to other Muslim poets, or other people in recovery, or other folks from the Iranian diaspora – I didn’t have anything like that for the first two-plus decades of my life. I never felt anything like that. I was desperately lonely and sad all the time. But today, just knowing Solmaz Sharif exists in the world makes me feel among. Knowing Fatimah and Angel Nafis and Kazim Ali and Hanif Abdurraqib and Safia Elhillo are out here publishing very Muslim, very haram poems. Knowing Leslie Jamison just wrote a wildly successful book about alcoholism. I wish I could show little eight-year-old Kaveh what this future would be like. I still get lonely, get sad often, but the difference is now I can point to all these luminaries in the world who are saying, ‘I was there too, and I made this art because of it.’
Is Calling a Wolf a Wolf still the book I thought it was? That’s a fascinating question. There’s a way in which its poems have become almost ideogrammatic to me – I can ‘read’ the entire poem in a single glance. I look at them and can immediately summon all the connotative, emotional and cosmic data embedded in their lines without actually reading each word. Sometimes it’s hard for me to actually hear the language – I just know the mood, the aura, the general shape and sound and bite of the thing. They often feel like artifacts pulled from a different person’s life. Today, I am maybe superficially healthier and also probably holistically sicker than that person. Sometimes, especially when I’m reading them out loud, I can sort of ride the poems back into that other person’s head for a few moments. It’s disorienting, and it often takes me a minute after readings before I’m fully inhabiting myself again.
Your new new book seems very much in keeping with our conversation about communities and amongness – the poems are all orbiting friendship (beautifully: ‘i got a crush on each one of your dumb faces / smashing into my heart like idiot cardinals into glass’). Can you talk about that? Specifically, I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing joy, which is so much harder to get right and tight than writing grief or despair. That new suite in Poetry is among my very favorite things of yours, and I have lots of favorite things of yours – ’How silly to miss what you will become.’ How do these new poems from Homie feel different to your mouth and brain than something older from, say, [insert] boy? Also: what’s the last great home-cooked meal you ate?
Oh, Kaveh, this book is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Let me sing you the ways Homie has beat me down. It was so happy that I didn’t trust it. Or maybe I was too happy to write it in a way that felt familiar to my two previous joints. Don’t Call Us Dead happened on the heels of my diagnosis with HIV and the book very much became a talisman for my mortality. The urgency in that book, the duendeness of it was almost tangible while writing it, it helped me feel some degree of control over my life. I couldn’t change what happened, but I could write about it, I could disassemble it, I could take its teeth, I could make it beautiful, I could fail, I could die somewhere safe, I could imagine living. Homie has been different. With the exception of a few poems centered around the passing of a dear friend, the urgency in this collection was love. I didn’t and still really don’t know how to trust it or hone it. When I think about writing my first two books, there is a lot of probing-of-the-wound going on, I think that is how many of us learn to hone our blade. I think I’ve been able to find a level between joy & its antonyms in my work before, but writing about friendship, a truly unbridled joy to me, and other kinds of kin left me often woundless and shook about where to pull the poem from.
So I turned to my favorite writers of joy: Ross Gay, Lucille Clifton, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angel Nafis, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison. I turned to Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle and all the folks I dance and sing too. I learned two things I think. One was to allow some more grief into the poems, not to sully the joy, but for the grief to be comforted. I think in my two previous collections grief led while joy attempted to triumph. I think that is surely a fine way to write joy. We all love an anthem and anthems require a little blood. With this collection, I think joy is the center and grief seeks out joy as a place of respite. Some of the drafts at some point felt a little cheesy, so I had to dig a little deeper into that brightness I distrusted and find what was being confessed. I think poems confess something. The second thing I learned was to surrender to ecstasy. I think I’ve been interested in ecstasy before, if not what lurked behind it. Angel Nafis talks brilliantly in an interview on VS (my podcast with Franny Choi for those at home) about some of the moods and methods of the ecstatic tradition in poetry, namely in the work of Frank O’Hara, that offered a lot of space for me to trust the feeling this book filled me with. I had to trust the ecstasy I experienced talking about love and the self in love, similar but oh so different from the battered, triumphant moods of what I’ve written before. Only once I trusted the feeling have I been able to get down into the boogie with my craft-brain with the book. It’s been fun to lean into humor & camp, to think about voice speaking to an intimate audience. I think another thing has been tripping me up is that question of audience. For a sec I was writing to write a book about friendship when what I needed to be doing was writing a book for my friends. That’s maybe the best I can offer about writing joy: write to joy, write to the people and places where your joy lives and that love language (lol) will hopefully invite language rich with intimacy instead of something cheap and for anyone.
But also Kaveh, the book is probably cheesy and I don’t care. In this moment, it makes me smile.
The last truly fantastic home meal I had was with my uncle LeBron. He is one of the best cooks I know. He invited my friend Tish and me over for a meal, mostly because we love good southern food and his wife and daughter’s family doesn’t really eat a lot of them things he would if he could. He made these cheesy collard green grits with shrimp and bacon, some grilled garlic wings, and I wanna say there was a vegetable there for formality. But Kaveh. Kaveh. For some reason, I decided earlier that day that it would be a good idea to eat Taco Bell for the first time in like six months. It was one of the best meals of my life and I had to excuse myself from the table like eight times as the Taco Bell did what Taco Bell does. I was so full and so empty.
Now I just wanna talk about community and food. Who is your favorite person to eat/cook with? What is on the menu and what’s the mood? Also, I’m wondering how you are bringing community into the spaces where you teach? Frankly, I’m looking for advice. The more I teach and participate during these little poetry retreats around the country, and also what I know about the MFA experiences of others and myself, it really is wild how some cats are so off the community tip in these poetry programs. It makes me even more grateful for the real ones out here paying mind to pedagogy and space, but it makes me wonder if folks . . . just don’t know? Haven’t experienced it done right? You talked amongness before, how do you see yourself or others making space out here for folks to be & grow among others? Who is doing it right? (I also hesitate that because I think the notion of community in poetry often escapes us and goes towards some ideal that doesn’t actually exist. Like, is there a poetry community or just a bunch of poets and editors and readers? What do you/we want for this community if it does exist?)
Oh man, next time I come through Minneapolis can we swing by LeBron’s place? I am never not down for grilled wings, even in the throes of T-BIRD (Taco Bell Induced Regret and Distress).
At the risk of sounding cheesy (which is a noble, worthwhile risk, as you beautifully laid out), my favorite person to eat/cook with/for is my partner, transcendent American poet Paige Lewis. For the first several years of our relationship I lived in this tiny studio in Florida, only barely big enough to fit my bed, so we weren’t really able to cook, which was a bummer because we both love cooking. I have worked a billion kitchen jobs in my life – at a fifties nostalgia diner, at a Chinese takeout spot, as a sushi chef – so the menus can vary a lot. Our favorite thing to cook, though, is an adaptation of fesenjan, this classic Persian pomegranate walnut stew. It was one of the entrees at our wedding, at the very end of the table, you probably tried some? We make ours with tofu instead of chicken, but served with rice, it’s our go-to home-cooked meal. Paige also makes truly divine vegetarian sushi and spring rolls.
I want to tattoo ‘write to joy, write to the people and places where your joy lives’ across my forehead. How has it never been said? That ecstasy you speak of, that Angel spoke of on the podcast, is so central to my understanding of poetry. It’s almost mitochondrial – my poetic ancestry tracks back to the great Persian-language Sufi mystics, for whom ecstatic epiphanic experience wasn’t a subject for the poems, it was the poems, was the very material of the poem. So many of the fundamental techniques of the poet are really just modulations of this ecstasy. Repetition and anaphora, for instance – when you put a person under an MRI machine and say a phrase, you can track the brain receiving sound and passing that along to the language center, where it translates the sonic data into semantic data. But if you repeat the same phrase again, the pleasure center of our brain begins to light up! The brain is delighted to have already done the job of decoding the sonic data, so it gives you a tiny bit of pleasure as prize.
Repetition takes us into this ecstasy – it elevates us into an incantatory, near-narcotic state where we become more permeable to language’s emotive and cosmic potential. There are a million theological manifestations of this phenomenon – Sufis who say Allahu Akbar 5,000 times before getting out of bed every morning, the chanting of Tibetan Buddhist monks. They’re all different expressions of this same thing. What neuroscientists are learning today, Patacara and Virgil and the Psalms figured out thousands of years ago.
I think we both understand this, but I should clarify quickly since this is on the record: when I’m saying ‘ecstasy,’ I don’t mean ‘very intense happiness,’ but rather the sort’f mystical elevating-beyond-the-self that good poetry (or good art, or good drugs, or good sex, or good dance, or good prayer, or good grieving, or or or) affords us. Sometimes when I talk about things like this I feel people sharpening their knives, thinking, ‘This asshole! This is no time for joy!’ I hear that. I see it, feel it, taste it. Hanif Abdurraqib’s new ‘How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This?’ series does extraordinary work around a similar idea.
Your comments about community are so interesting. We were both hopping around a lot last year, and I know we spent time in many of the same spaces. I bet we had some similar experiences with communities that seemed to get it very right, and communities that felt very cold. It was all an education. To the extent that it’s possible to generalize, I think maybe those spaces that got it right seemed to be unified under a broad ambition, under a desire to rigorously and compassionately serve poetry and serve each other’s poems. Those spaces (and individuals) that got it wrong seemed to want only to serve themselves. Alan Shapiro: people arguing over poetry fame are like bald men fighting over a comb. I’ve encountered so many that have such small ideas of success – being the top dog in their department, being the best poet in their program, whatever. Real success is so much bigger than that – real success means leaving poetry better than you found it. That’s the only thing. The poets I surround myself with, the poets I love best (including you, including everyone mentioned in this conversation) are exemplars of this orientation – grinding to better poetry with their work on and off the page.
I think maybe we’re supposed to be wrapping this up, but I feel like we could keep going back and forth like this for months, years, lifetimes. Maybe to close, you could end with a few occasions for gratitude that seem most urgent to you today? They could be food (anything except Taco Bell) or anything else (the Manafort/Cohen verdicts! good bedsheets! birds!).
Kaveh, let them come with their sad ass knives! There is no living, no grief, no revolution, no nothing without joy, ecstasy, delight, Lorde’s erotic, whatever you want to call it & I’ll join you on that train any day. Why are you the smartest poet alive? I ran myself through an MRI machine while reading this last message and broke the damn thing. Some other time we should talk about the ‘good drug’ of poetry, which maybe stands out to me now because I’m trying to change my relationship to drugs and I’m worried that I’ve sent so much time being a poet while high that I won’t know how to poem on the other side of it. But that’s another convo, another day. I’m not ready to talk about that in public before me and the therapist hash that out some more.
Gratitude . . . ummm . . . can I be really real? I feel far from it in the moment. Summer was weird on my brain and spirit. I think my Saturn’s Return and my good friend Depression are having a little private fight club in me right now and it’s making it hard to name what I am grateful for. There are the usual suspects – my mom, my family, all the homies here and gone, tacos, poetry – all the things that make me bright and steady when I’m near them, but I feel far from gratitude at my current center. I know it’s temporary, but damn. I think maybe what I feel more is a sense of what I owe. Is gratitude a kind of happy debt? When we say we are grateful for a thing or someone, are we just a small gesture towards what has deposited joy or comfort into us? Sorry, I’m just trying to work my way back towards gratitude. I feel indebted to the writers in the generations directly above us right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about poets like Rachel McKibbens, Airea D. Matthews, William Evans, Mahogany L. Browne, and Amaud Jamaul Johnson, all folks who I’ve looked up to for some time. As I find myself trying to calibrate where I have been and prepare for where I might head, I’m thinking back on these folks to order my steps. I’m indebted right now to prayer, which I’ve not known what to do with for some time. I feel further and further from the Baptist God I was raised on, but I feel myself rediscovering prayer. I’m glad my mother was the one who taught me how to pray. So much I hope to know about need, patience and drive seems to be hiding inside prayer. I’m trying to be more mindful of what I desire out loud and what I desire when quiet and kneeling, trying to bring those two prayers closer together. I’m indebted to therapy. I’m indebted to people who notice when you’ve been too quiet. I owe a lot to them. I hope that’s not too sad lol. I actually feel a lot better and closer to joy after having typed all that out. I owe you for that.
How about you, fam? Where is your joy living these days? What are we gonna eat when we get to London?
Oooo friend, there is so much I want to say and ask. The idea of bringing together your public desires with your private, between-me-and-God desires, that’s the realest thing. Like you, I’m continuously learning and revising what I mean when I say ‘God’. So much of my thinking about prayer today is tied up in my thinking about poetry – one always seems a space to speak to God and the other a space to listen for God, but which one is which? They’re always switching themselves around.
Today so much of my joy lives in my labor, which is a funny thing to say. For years the work of recovery in my life has revolved around my desire to make myself useful in the lives of people around me. That manifests in a lot of ways – I teach at three different universities, and I’m grateful every minute of every day for the opportunity to work with so many different serious, ambitious, curious emerging poets. I find a lot of joy in working with others in recovery, which is a huge part of my life that I never talk about in spaces like these. I am trying to be a better friend, colleague, teacher, son, brother, husband every day. That last one is especially wild – I’ve had a lot of experience in the other roles, but the husband thing is such a strange new trip.
On that note, Paige has a(n incredible) book coming out next year with Sarabande, and at any given moment at least 25 per cent of my consciousness is devoted to feeling joy about that. When we moved to Indiana we had to pack up all our books and in the process, came to realize we had Too Many Books. We’ve given a lot away, but for years I kept everything. Now we’ve been trying to sublimate our desire to hoard books into a desire to collect vinyl. Last night we found a King Tubby record and one full of psychedelic cumbia in an incredible little shop (shoutout Honest Jon’s). I find a lot of joy in food. I find joy in acts of resistance, big and small, loud and quiet. I find joy in my friends, in their joy and their making. At my healthiest, I find profound joy in my station, that I have somehow tricked the world into letting me just be a poet and nothing else. I find joy in playing basketball with my students. The sound of a tea bag dropping into hot water. Our cat Filfy chasing nothing around the house. Libraries full of books I’ll never be able to read. Sushi burritos. Sleep. Good headphones. Adelia Prado. Fried clams.
Re: the final bit of your question, we’re eating dinner tomorrow night with our editors (shouts to Maria and Parisa), but I have no idea what’s on the menu. I’m excited to discover together! Paige and I blearily got here yesterday morning and ate: a full English breakfast, arepas, pineapple upside-down cake, and a Persian dinner at a place called ‘Doost’. Honestly, the arepas stole the show.
There is so much more to say, Danez, and I’m excited to pick this up in person tomorrow. Love you very much. Thank you for all of this! And travel well –
The Forward Prizes for Poetry, for which both Danez Smith and Kaveh Akbar are shortlisted, will be announced at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, on Tuesday, 18 September, with readings from Smith, Akbar and the other shortlisted poets. For tickets please visit: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/126414-forward-prizes-poetry-ceremony-2018.