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A poet who reads poetry constantly

Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The Pushcart-winning poet’s first collection, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” was published this past September. Akbar, who was born in Tehran, teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University and will read at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which will take place May 4 to 6 in Salem.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

AKBAR: Leslie Jamison’s new book, “The Recovering.” It’s astonishing. I loved “The Empathy Exams” too. She’s an incredible sentence writer. This book is like written for me. I’m dreading it ending. I can’t read it slowly enough.

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BOOKS: What’s the last book before this one that you didn’t want to end?

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AKBAR: Jos Charles’ “Feeld.” The syntax is so inventive. If Chaucer and Paul Celan had a love child it would speak the way that book speaks.

BOOKS: What was your reading like before you became sober?

AKBAR: I read more than I wrote. I would have a book at the bar. I idealized Rimbaud, but wrongly. I read every poem he wrote, every letter. Despite all that stuff he was doing at night, he was still studying everyday in the library. That was the part I was missing. It wasn’t until I got clean and sober that I was able to start writing in a disciplined way. Then my writing led me to new opportunities in reading.

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader now?

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AKBAR: I read some fiction, but not as much as poetry and memoirs. I probably read only a half dozen novels a year. I read poetry constantly. I tend to read nonfiction at night, when I’m winding down. Fiction I can read when I’m at the gym on a bike machine.

BOOKS: When you read fiction who do you read?

AKBAR: I love Jesmyn Ward, Nicholson Baker, Junot Diaz. I read the zeitgeisty books. A couple years ago it was Alexander Chee. If I make it through a book that means I really liked it. I’m quick to abandon a novel.

BOOKS: What have you finished over the past year?

AKBAR: I really loved Alissa Nutting’s “Made for Love.” That wowed me. I’m always thinking about how Horace commanded poets to delight and instruct. “Made for Love” is a book that gets that right. With fiction I really need the sentence and syntax to sing to me. That is why Garth Greenwell’s book, “What Belongs to You,” was so invigorating to me. That’s one of the most lyric novels I’ve ever read. Paul Beatty’s book “The Sellout” was another one like that. My eyes were just spinning at the sentences.

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BOOKS: Is there a way you’d like to change yourself as a reader?

‘I read some fiction, but not as much as poetry and memoirs. I read poetry constantly.’

AKBAR: I think in poetry, sometimes, the part of my brain that is looking for the marionette strings tends to overwhelm me. But that can be gratifying in the work of the poets that I love best. It’s in their work that I can’t make out those strings, and I return to that state of being carried away by the poem.

BOOKS: Who are the poets who do that for you?

AKBAR: Ross Gay, Carl Phillips, Heather Christle, Anne Carson, Mary Karr, Kevin Young, Aimee Nezhukumatahil, and Frank Bidart. All of these are huge, huge, huge poets for me. Not only did they shape my aesthetic on the page but also who I am as a person.

BOOKS: Did growing up in an American-Iranian household influence you as a reader?

AKBAR: We prayed in Arabic everyday, a language nobody in my family spoke. We spoke Farsi and English. So from an early age, I was saying this mellifluous, charged language that was meant to thin the membrane between the divine and me. I didn’t understand what I was staying, but I understood if I spoke it earnestly enough that it would do that. This is still how I think about poetry, the capacity of mellifluous charged language delivered earnestly to thin the membrane between you and the divine.

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