April 11, 2018
National Poetry Month 2018: 5 Questions with Kaveh Akbar

Celebrate National Poetry Month with a conversation about metaphor with Adrian Matjeka and Kaveh Akbar!


Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, The Nation, Tin House, Best American Poetry 2018, The New Republic, The Guardian, Ploughshares, PBS NewsHour, American Poetry Review, Poetry International, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was published by Alice James Books in the US and Penguin in the UK. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran. He is the editor of Divedapper and currently teaches at Purdue University.

Adrian Matejka: Kaveh, thanks so much for answering some questions about metaphor. I know you’re a busy dude between traveling for your beautiful new book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and your new appointment at Purdue University. Congratulations on all of it! Let’s start with the basics. How do you define metaphor and what do you think its main function in is a poem?

Kaveh Akbar: Adrian! It is always a privilege to get to talk with you, thanks for thinking of me for this. If “define metaphor” is the basics, the hard stuff is gonna get really tough! Really though, I think metaphors are incredibly slippery things. To my mind, the membranes between symbols, images, and metaphors are thin and endlessly permeable. I like to talk with my students about how the word “metaphor” comes from the Greek word for “to transfer.” That’s the heart of it—a metaphor always transfers some force (connotative, denotative, psychic, emotional, spiritual, ecological, cosmic, other) between two or more things. 


AM: Transference is a wonderful way to think about metaphor. One kind of language lending its muscle to another. Can you talk a little bit about how that transference might be used to make a poem more potent? I mean, what does a metaphor actually add to the poem for the reader? 

KA: It means you can call in entire worlds of association, economically add extra valences of meaning with just a few words. To open “Prufrock,” Eliot writes, “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” The metaphor gives us all the connotative grain of “a patient etherized upon a table.” It’s not just a gray sky, not a gloomy evening—the entire world is made medical, unsafe, stuck between waking and sleep, by the precision of Eliot’s comparison. That texture, that depth, is what a good metaphor can do!


AM: Does metaphor in poetry work in comparison to other art forms–metaphors in movies for example, or metaphors in dance? How do they operate the same or differently?

KA: Good metaphor always works to shake us out of our complacency, our received or unchallenged thinking about the world. I’ve been obsessed lately with Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian defamiliarist. In his manifesto, “Art as Technique,” he wrote, “Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.” This is what a metaphor (in any medium!) does for us—recovers some texture, relationship, correspondence between elements of our living that we may have otherwise forgotten or discarded. 


AM: I love the idea of metaphor recovering connections we might have forgotten or left behind. Is there a specific metaphor in one of your poems that recovers a memory you’d forgotten? Or maybe to put it slightly differently, is there metaphor in one of your poems that completely surprised you with what it evokes? 

KA: Oh man, this is such a good question. The one that immediately leapt to mind is from the poem “What Seems Like Joy,” where I say: “sometimes I feel beautiful and near dying / like a feather on an arrow shot through a neck.” For much of my life, the moments where I felt best, most self-assured, most beautiful, yes, were the moments when danger was most imminent. When I struck upon the image of the feather on an arrow shot through a neck, it came with the shock of complete recognition, the frisson of being given a portal back into a person I used to be. Certain poems and metaphors from my book still give me that kind of uncanniness, that being-again. 


AM: I know you are a capacious reader, so this might be a tough one: What is your favorite extended metaphor in contemporary poetry? What makes that specific example so resonant for you? Can you give us a couple of other examples—maybe of both local metaphor and extended metaphor? 

KA: Oh man, that’s such a huge question! I have so many favorites, but the one that immediately leapt to mind as soon as I read your question was Heather Christle’s “People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef.” The whole poem is full of defamiliarist wonder (“I love people / very much They are everywhere!”) but I think about its title every time I am in a crowd. It’s like a social anxiety pacifier, imagining the throngs as colorful bits of coral happily swaying in the ocean. “Oh people You have to love / people They are so much like ourselves”. You repeat that to yourself, and it’s hard to feel anything but delight. 

Other titans of metaphor in contemporary? Carl Phillips is a treasure trove. James Tate. Patricia Smith. Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Eduardo C. Corral. Traci Brimhall. Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Ellen Bryant Voigt. I was just rereading Tiana Clark’s manuscript for her forthcoming I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, and good lord, she’s got some haymakers in there too. 




how much history is enough history     before we can agree

to flee our daycares      to wash everything away and start over

leaving laptops to be lost in the wet along with housecats and Christ’s

own mother      even a lobster climbs away from its shell a few

times a life      but every time I open my eyes I find

I am still inside myself     each epiphany dull and familiar

oh now I am barefoot       oh now I am lighting the wrong end

of a cigarette     I just want to be shaken new like a flag whipping

away its dust     want to pull out each of my teeth

and replace them with jewels     I’m told what seems like joy

is often joy     that the soul lives in the throat plinking

like a copper bell       I’ve been so young for so long

it’s all starting to jumble together     joy jeweling copper   

its plink      a throat    sometimes I feel beautiful and near dying

like a feather on an arrow shot through a neck     other times

I feel tasked only with my own soreness      like a scab on the roof

of a mouth      my father believed in gardens      delighting

at burying each thing in its potential for growth     some years

the soil was so hard the water seeped down slower than the green

seeped up     still he’d say if you’re not happy in your own yard

you won’t be happy anywhere      I’ve never had a yard but I’ve had apartments

where water pipes burst above my head      where I’ve scrubbed

a lover’s blood from the kitchen tile       such cleaning

takes so long you expect there to be confetti at the end    

what we’ll need in the next life      toothpaste      party hats

and animal bones      every day people charge out of this world    

squealing       so long human behavior!      goodbye acres

of germless chrome!      it seems gaudy for them to be so cavalier

with their bliss      while I’m still here lurching into my labor

hanging by my hair from the roof of a chapel      churchlight thickening

around me     or wandering into the woods to pull apart eggshells     emptying

them in the dirt      then sewing them back together to dry in the sun


What Seems Like Joy first appeared in Field.

Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month in collaboration with Indiana Poet Laureate Adrian Matejka.  We’ll be sharing interviews with Indiana poets, discussion on poetic form and other poetry. See the full span on National Poetry Month posts here

Adrian Matejka is the Indiana Poet Laureate and is the author of The Big Smoke, Map to the Stars and many other works.

Posted In: Poetry, National Poetry Month

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