On perspectives about poetry
So often when general interest venues write about poetry, it’s for the least interesting reasons—the annual “is poetry dead?” check-in, or this or that horrible bit of racism by a poet nobody’s heard of. Meanwhile, so many amazing poets are doing such beautiful things. Christopher Soto is touring the country using poems to fight queer youth homelessness. Danez Smith is reading poems about Black joy on the Late Show with Colbert. Gabrielle Calvocoressi is using her poems to raise money for human rights and women’s shelters. Heather McHugh auctions manuscript consults to raise money to buy vacations for caregivers of disabled children. Warsan Shire is behind Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” the year’s most important aesthetic anything. I could go on and on and on.
Everywhere you look, a brilliant poet is doing extraordinary work. It’s such a golden moment to marvel at the forces of good in poetry making their light; it makes it very easy to tune out those few voices that would distract us from our joy. My favorite example: shortly after running the umpteenth thinkpiece proclaiming poetry dead in 2012, Newsweek announced they were folding their print magazine. Meanwhile, poetry thrived and still thrives, healthier and more vital than ever.
About a year ago I turned down a generous offer to write a why poetry still matters essay for a fancy anthology. I find myself having less and less patience for indulging that kind of anxiety. I’m anxious enough about plenty else (the likelihood of my outliving my cat! how much pizza I eat! drones!) but I’m totally at peace with the role of poetry in my life, with the joy it brings me. I feel no compulsion to explain that or defend it to anyone. It’s like my version of that Marcus Aurelius quote—“Don’t waste your time worrying how to be a good [poet]. Be one.”
I always come back to Frost’s saying “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I think both readers and poets sometimes get caught up in the search for wisdom and lose track of the ways in which poetry, both in its generation and in its consumption, is first about joy, is about delight. I tend to lose interest quickly in poetry that seems joyless in its construction. That’s not to say that every poem has to be about eating cotton candy or petting a happy dog (though I never mind happy dog poems), but I tend to privilege delight, surprise in the ear and in the mind and on the tongue, above most anything else.
It’s hard for me to say what people think about Divedapper. I hope those who’re familiar with it trust that it’s all an act of deep sincerity. That’s really the only currency I have to offer—there are plenty of other spaces that offer poetry interviews, but at Divedapper you can be assured that I really truly love and have spent hours and hours (often years and years) thinking about the poets’ work. It’s meaningless otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun for me. The site started with the idea that it’d be a good way to lure my heroes into talking to me, and that hasn’t changed at all. I protect the integrity of that sincerity at all costs—I won’t interview anyone I’ve ever taken a class with, for instance, even though I’ve had the good fortune of taking classes with some of my favorite poets.
I hope people also realize how many people work to make Divedapper what it is. I do the interviews and some of the site stuff and I’m proud of how hard I work on it, but I hope people are also aware how much the rest of the team does too. Sarah Miller-Freehauf, Paige Lewis, Boyma-njor Fahnbulleh, and Alex Sperellis each do so much for the site every week (from transcription to design to site maintenance to copy editing), and each is an indispensable part of the team. Divedapper wouldn’t be what it is without each of them.
As far as my own work, I published a lot of really awful poetry in my late teens and very early twenties. A lot of it is still Google-able. I kind of realized, at some point in there, that it was false, I didn’t believe what I was saying, that it was bad stand-up and wouldn’t age well, and I stopped sending poems out for six, seven years. It really wasn’t until the past year or eighteen months that I started sending poems out in earnest again. The gap gave me time to let my abilities catch up with my ambitions a little (though the latter still dwarfs the former), but there’s still a good amount of really awful poetry with my name attached to it out there.
In terms of publishing stuff on Divedapper, no way. I mean, I’ve certainly learned a lot about interviewing as I’ve gone on, so the early interviews are a little goofy to read, just in terms of how starchy and self-conscious I was. But every interview I’ve done has been a miniature apprenticeship with a titan of my personal canon. They’ve been essential to my growth as a poet and as a human being and I can’t (or at least don’t want to) imagine where I’d be without them.
Kaveh Akbar founded and edits Divedapper. His work is forthcoming in Tin House, FIELD, Poetry, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. His debut full-length, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, will be published by Alice James Books in November 2017. Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Tallahassee.
In Two Weeks: John Taylor of Redivider