Kaveh Akbar Maps Unprecedented Experience in "Portrait of the Alcoholic"

By Christian Arthur 04/06/17

"I am a Muslim Iranian-American poet who is also an alcoholic-addict. So to not acknowledge every facet of that experience in the writing would be to willfully partition myself off from the work."

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Kaveh Akbar
B. A. Van Sise

To people not following news in the poetry world, Kaveh Akbar’s rise will have been as quick and quiet as booze vapor. This Iranian-American has proven himself to be a brilliant voice alongside other Millennial contemporaries, and one of the most exciting poets writing about addiction. Akbar, who is in recovery from substance use disorder, received a 2016 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a top award in the scene for the up-and-coming. Born in Tehran, and now residing in Florida where he teaches, Akbar also edits the interview-journal Divedapper.

After racking up publications in places like The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Tin House, and PBS Newshour, in late January Akbar released his debut chapbook “Portrait of the Alcoholic,” which chronicles the nervous process of recovery, seeping into themes of faith and multiculturalism. The Fix gave Akbar a ring, to unpack this chapbook, and confirmed that the poet’s debut collection “Calling A Wolf A Wolf,” due for release in September, will map further ground of what the poet refers to as his “unprecedented experience,” meaning, the uniqueness of an individual.

The Fix: Because it might provide some context for discussing your book, my first question is, what is your background with addiction and recovery?

Kaveh Akbar: The book is called “Portrait of the Alcoholic” and it is a recovery narrative to be sure. I am an alcoholic, addict, and have been in recovery and sober for three and a half years --

Congrats.

Thank you, I appreciate that -- most of the poems in the chapbook were written in the first two and a half years of that time, and then the last year has been putting the chap together and getting it out. The book is the narrative of the first two and a half years of sobriety.

I get the sense that poems were written at different times [in the recovery process]. Can you point out two poems, one early on [in recovery], and one later on, and compare them?

Yeah, the ordering of the poems in the book moved from early sobriety into recovery. The first poem in the proper book is “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and House Fly,” about a time in my life when I was living in this totally empty house on a mattress, with basically nothing else in the house, and broken windows and it was freezing cold -- and that’s sort of where you find the speaker, the protagonist, the titular alcoholic of the book.

The book progresses, and you have “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),” about being in a facility, and then “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Withdrawal,” about going through the withdrawals, and then you move into recovery and poems that are orbiting the idea, “What do I do with this life I didn’t expect to be living?” You have to relearn how to be a human being in sobriety. It’s not just abstaining from your drug of choice.

You just mentioned something, and this is the case with all poetry, that the speaker isn’t necessarily the author. I’m happy you said that, because for some readers it might have been implicit [that you two are the same]. Is the distinction between the speaker and you significant?

Obviously, these poems are informed by a real life experience. I wouldn’t be able to write about these things in good conscience if I didn’t know these experiences firsthand. It would be a much more voyeuristic thing, in a way I wouldn’t be comfortable with. Every poem is 100% emotionally true to my experience of this disease. In service of the poems, I’ve embellished where necessary in order to create a narrative and a character. So much of sobriety is just sitting around and waiting until you are allowed to go to sleep, and start over again, especially early on. But everything in this book is 100% emotionally true to my experience.

Where did the process of writing the book fit in with your actual recovery? Was it something that helped?

So when I started to undergo the most substantial event that has occurred in my adult life, getting sober, I had a lot to figure out, and poetry is where I go to make sense of things. I started writing a lot. The further I moved into sobriety, and got past the ugly and messy first couple months, I became more obsessed with turning to the page to process how I felt, and this ushered in an era of extreme prolificacy, relative to my norm.

Also, in early sobriety, you have to replace your fundamental leisure activity of your day, so I had this void to fill, and had all this time to be reading and writing. It was this phenomenon of one obsession sublimating into another one, the former obsession being destructive to myself and those around me, and this new obsession being generative.

As far as influences, were you drawing on anyone in particular from the addiction literary canon?

One of my great poetic forebearers, and a titan of my own personal canon, is John Berryman. He suffered from intense alcoholism, and ended up taking his own life. His poetry grapples with a lot of the same self-doubt and sort of god-hunger that I’m totally obsessed with. Also, Berryman wrote a fair amount about his struggles with addiction. He has this unfinished novel called Recovery. He starts off in a psychiatric ward, and has this detached anthropological view. I recommend reading it, as a sort of manual for how not to handle recovery. But his prose is brilliant and gorgeous, as are his poems. He has a poem, “11 Addresses to the Lord,” and you really get a sense of spiritual yearning. Nick Flynn, whose quote is on the back of my book says, “Jung speculated that alcoholism might be an attempt at a material solution for a spiritual problem,” and there is spiritual yearning in Berryman. He wants to believe that he believes it.

The book sometimes seeps into talking about faith or language. What is the intersectionality of your experiences with addiction, and does this intersectionality feature in the poetry?

I am a Muslim Iranian-American poet who is also an alcoholic-addict. So to not acknowledge every facet of that experience in the writing would be to willfully partition myself off from the work. Going back to talking about poetry as a site of meaning-making and self-discovery, if I have sections of myself that are walled off, then the self-discoveries will be incomplete, and if they are incomplete, then they are of no use to me.

Because the American recovery movement, that originated in the late-1800s, began in missions that incorporated Christianity, the Christian god frequents the addiction literature, which there isn’t a lot of, anyway. But Allah is in your poetry, and reading it was new for me, because I haven’t encountered this facet of addiction literature. Was creating this chapbook a sort of creating of new space?

Well, the Muslim Allah is the same God as the one in Judaism and Christianity. So it’s not that different an experience. But it’s true, I’d not encountered many recovery narratives from this particular vantage point either. I talked to the poet Vijay Seshadri for Divedapper, and I remember him saying poetry was this place where you can chronicle your unprecedented experience. There have been plenty of Muslim alcoholic-addicts throughout history. In Islam there is a long tradition of drunkenness as metaphor, which Kazim alludes to on the back of my book. And among the great Sufi poets there is a lot of drunkenness as metaphor. But I agree with you. In reading a lot of the literature on addiction, I've found there isn’t a lot of writing from contemporary Muslim writers on this topic. I think there is a way in which you write the book you need to read, and this is the book I needed to read.

Your full length, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf” is set to release this September. Will it feature the subject of addiction?

Yeah, totally. Most of the poems in “Portrait of the Alcoholic” will appear in “Calling a Wolf a Wolf.” I think of the former as the EP to the latter’s LP. I explore themes in greater detail, and explore tangents more. I had a MFA thesis advisor tell me that I basically just write about addiction, God, or love, and usually write all three or some combination of two in the same poem. All of the poems in “Portrait of the Alcoholic” center around addiction, but sometimes those other two obsessions will come in. In the bigger book all three obsessions are more fleshed out.

Addiction is receiving a lot of media coverage these days, and there are all these new non-profits and cultural workers, people who produce art and music -- you could even call it a renaissance. Poetry has some natural strengths. Do you think some of those strengths have application within this social movement?

Poetry is a great body in which empathy can thrive. If you are writing about your unprecedented experience in a way that is sincere and compelling, it will grant someone else a portal into that experience, which can do a lot of good towards creating a sort of compassionate awareness.

There’s also been a shift in recovery politics; people stepping out of the shadows of anonymity to build a community in the public around the issue of addiction. Were you conscious of these recovery politics, or were you more motivated out of personal recovery, and just trying to wash away your own cognitive dissonance?

When I was writing these poems, I had no sort of political agenda or conception of their publishability or marketability. But I do see a public value in publishing them, to create a compassionate awareness of this condition, not in a way that is representative of all addicts, but in a way that is like, “This is my unprecedented experience, and it is something that I struggle with and learn from every hour of my life, and will until I die.” I think there is value in creating space for that conversation.

One of the greatest responses I’ve gotten was an email from someone who said their brother got arrested again and he fell off the wagon, who wrote me to say, “I spent the night reading your book, and it allowed me to understand him in a way that I never had before.” And that's the kind of thing -- I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it now -- that’s the kind of empathetic connection that poetry is uniquely able to provide. That my chapbook was a portal for this person, that was the most staggering thing in the world to me.

Poems from “Portrait of the Alcoholic”:

Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient), The Adroit Journal

Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober, Nashville Review

Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving, Boston Review

Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus, Poetry Foundation

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Christian Arthur is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he remains involved with the collegiate recovery community. Christian currently freelances, and volunteers as an organizer for this year's Louder Than A Bomb Massachusetts, the largest youth poetry competition in the state. He's on Twitter: @ChrisDanaArt.

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Christian Arthur is a poet and macro social worker currently pursuing his MSW at Boston University. This past spring he taught spoken word at Ostiguy Recovery High School in Boston, supported by a Poetry Foundation grant. Christian has been in recovery from substances since June 2016. He also likes talking to you on Twitter: @lobstersketches.

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