Break Out: An Interview with Kaveh Akbar
This interview is part of Works of Justice, an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program. Works of Justice reflects on the relationship between writing and incarceration and presents challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.
Our work at PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as incarcerated people remain one of the most at-risk populations in the nation. Amidst this anxiety, uncertainty, and loss, we have sought to foreground the spirit and resilience of incarcerated writers—linking their literary dispatches to interviews with experts in criminal justice and opportunities for advocacy—through the launch of Temperature Check, our rapid-response content series focused on COVID-19 in prisons.
On the evening of November 17, in our annual “Break Out” event, we are thrilled to honor the PEN America Prison Writing Contest winners by bringing their work to life, inviting celebrated authors, actors, and activists to perform selected pieces from the collection.
In this process of pen to performance, from inside to out, we are celebrating the power of literary exchange and collaboration. At the same time, we acknowledge the profound absence of the writers themselves and honor the reality of the innumerable barriers—both tangible and intangible—separating those behind bars from us outside.
Leading up to the event, we wanted to challenge this implicit power dynamic by flipping the invitation: welcoming one of our featured incarcerated authors to read a poem by the writer who will be performing his work at our “Break Out” Event. Unfortunately, due to the tightening of COVID-19 regulations and the ensuing difficulties of contacting those behind bars, we were unable to facilitate this exchange of craft in time for the show.
Instead, we moved ahead with Kaveh Akbar, who will be performing Terry Hedin’s “El Reno,” which won third place in the 2020 PEN America Prison Writing Contest. Akbar is a highly celebrated poet on this side of the wall: Among other literary accomplishments, he is the author of two volumes of poetry, the recipient of numerous awards and honors, and the founder of Divedapper, which brings together leading voices in American poetry in the same vein of literary exchange that our “Break Out” event taps into.
In this mini Works of Justice Podcast episode, Akbar spoke honestly and poetically about the privilege and responsibility of performing another person’s work. He also shared his own poem, “I Wouldn’t Even Know What to Do with a Third Chance,” a piece that seems to collapse the distance between inside and out.
After listening, we hope you’ll consider joining us for “Break Out” on November 17 at 8pm ET. Admission is free with RSVP.
FRANCES KEOHANE: I just want to, first, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. You, yourself, are an incredibly accomplished poet, and you’ve not only written and published volumes of poetry, but have also performed your own work.
But, as you know, in our “Break Out” event on November 17th, you’ll be reading and performing the work of Terry Hedin, an incarcerated poet. First, I was just wondering: How does it feel to hold someone else’s poetry in your mouth, as opposed to your own writings? And then, also, this experience of performing someone else’s poetry is further complicated by the fact that you’re reading the work of an incarcerated writer.
KAVEH AKBAR: Yeah. Thank you for having me. It’s a profound honor to be trusted to hold anyone’s poetry in my lungs, in my breath, in my mouth, on my tongue. It’s a privilege; it’s a gift. And poetry, as resonant and stirring and searching and fearless as Terry’s, demands a certain amount of reverence. It demands that we treat our materials seriously. And I hope to do it justice.
KEOHANE: Yeah, it’s a really beautiful piece. And so, along those lines, do you think that there are any responsibilities that come with performing another’s work—and again, in this particular context, the work of an incarcerated writer, who not only faces additional tangible and intangible barriers, but who is often invisible or overlooked in the overall literary community?
AKBAR: Yeah, I mean the best thing would be having Terry read his own work, you know? That would be my preference. That’s what I wish we could have. I wish that we weren’t talking about, you know, the violences of the carceral state at all. Right. I wish that there was no violent carceral state to talk about, that is to say.
So, the best reading of this poem would be the one that Terry could give us. Being as how the violences of the carceral state have rendered that impossible for the time being, my hope is that what I do can illuminate something about the poem—in what is a sort of doomed effort—because there’s nothing that I can do that will be as illuminating or as complicated as Terry’s reading of his own work. Right. But I hope to honor it. I take it very seriously—the responsibility and privilege of reading someone else’s work, especially in this situation. So yeah, I just hope to honor it.
“It’s a profound honor to be trusted to hold anyone’s poetry in my lungs, in my breath, in my mouth, on my tongue. It’s a privilege; it’s a gift.”
KEOHANE: Thanks for that. And, I mean, I’ve seen the performance—I got a sneak peek; it’s really, really well done. In general, and with Terry’s, how does reading and performing another’s poetry—if at all—influence your own writing?
AKBAR: At most readings that I do—almost all readings that I do—I read other people’s work in addition to my own. Frankly, I just get bored of myself. I think that there are—and have been in the history of the written word—lots of people who are much smarter and wiser than me and whose thoughts I would much rather pay attention to and amplify.
I see myself as, like, a whisper in a long conversation that has preceded me by millennia and will continue long after the last person has forgotten my name. And it’s a great privilege to get to be a little whisper in that conversation.
KEOHANE: Yeah. Given our time right now and just the overwhelming isolation and disconnect with everything, how do you personally and broadly think that writing—which is, you know, generally seen as solitary—and also performing, which requires a live audience oftentimes; how do you think they have taken on a new meaning or importance?
AKBAR: Hmm. Yeah, I mean, I think that the great weapon used to stifle critical thinking in 2020 is a raw overwhelm of meaningless language. We’re just cudgeled all the time with argle-bargle. And, you know, we see right now 45 is trying to spread some narrative about a rigged election or something.
And he’s just talking, and he just talks and talks and talks and hopes that something sticks. What poetry asks us to do is to slow down our metabolization of language. It asks us to become aware of the materiality of language and of the textures of language, and it asks us to become aware of language entering us.
So, I think that it’s immeasurably potent. Just having someone engage with a singular, unprecedented experience—such as Terry’s—rendered in language, reminds us that language is not inert, and that there are unprecedented experiences into which we might step and gain a measure of empathy or gain a measure of ability to imagine the interiority of the harmed.
When I read Terry’s poem, I feel connected to the interiority of the harmed with such clarity. The man harmed by, like I said, the violences of capitalism and the carceral state—which go hand in hand. And yeah, I think that that’s endlessly potent.
“What poetry asks us to do is to slow down our metabolization of language. It asks us to become aware of the materiality of language and of the textures of language, and it asks us to become aware of language entering us.”
KEOHANE: Yeah. What you said, given the current context of our time and the manipulation of language—that’s very, very powerful. I’m sort of curious about how you go about reading the work of someone else. Or, like, with Terry’s, for example—when you get the poem, do you read it through, try it out in your mouth a couple of times? What is your process with that?
AKBAR: Yeah, definitely. I read it through a number of times just to sort of taste it and feel its textures in my mouth. And it’s very intuitive, you know? I mean, I could go on about such and such sort of intellectual reasons for this or that, but I think it’s very much about instinct and feel and intuition. And I think that when you connect with a poem at a level that’s kind of deeper than intelligence.
My intelligence only takes me so far, and then there’s something more primal, or something more metaphysical underneath that. And I think that when I’m able to connect with a poem at that level, it’s much more interesting to me than the poems that I can connect with only merely intellectually.
And, you know, there’s not a lot I can say about how that gets encoded in language. It’s a very sort of “here be dragons” sort of thing—it’s just off the edge of the map a little bit, you know?
KEOHANE: Yeah. Thank you for that. Just to give the listeners some context about the initial idea behind this interview—we had initially intended to facilitate a poem swap to celebrate the spirit of literary exchange and sharing, especially given the circumstances.
And as you will be reading Terry’s poem, “El Reno,” in our “Break Out” event, we were going to invite Terry to read one of your own poems and engage you in a conversation about—like you were talking about earlier—the responsibility of holding someone else’s work in your mouth, etc.
But, as we know, COVID has erected countless and really frustrating barriers to communication with incarcerated people across the country, and so, conditions ultimately prevented us from speaking with Terry. But, we would still love for you to share the poem that you selected for him to read, “I Wouldn’t Even Know What to Do with A Third Chance.” And then, after you read it, if you could share a little bit about how you selected it for this poem swap.
AKBAR: Yeah, you know, it’s a little bit of a ridiculous thing to try to pick a poem to match something as, again, searching and fearless as Terry’s. But, I don’t think I was exactly trying to match it. I just think I was sort of picking a poem that was maybe vibrating at some similar frequencies.
This is called, “I Wouldn’t Even Know What to Do with a Third Chance.”
I wouldn’t even know what to do with a third chance,
another halo to shake loose galloping into the crossfire.
Should I be apologizing? Supposedly, what’s inside my
body is more or less the same as what’s inside yours—
here, the river girl clutching her toy whistle. There,
the black snake covered in scabs. Follow my neckline,
the beginning will start beginning again. I swear on my
head and eyes, there are moments in every day when
if you ask me to leave, I would. Heaven is mostly
preposition—up, above, around—and if you must,
you can live any place that’s a place. A failure of courage is still
a victory of safety. Bravery pitches its refugee tent
at the base of my brain and slowly starves, chipping into
darkness like a clay bird bouncing down a well. All night
I eat yogurt and eggplant and garlic, water my dead
orchids. In what world would any of me seem credible?
God’s word is a melody, and melody requires repetition.
God’s word is a melody I sang once then forgotten.
I sense in Perry’s poem a kind of drained, thin dignity that I have only clumsily groped towards in my life. This is a poem that, among other things, seems to be orbiting my chickenshitishness—my chickenshitishness? I don’t know if that’s a word. Um, you know, my desire to be brave in moments when I haven’t been able to muster it.
Yeah, I think that the speaker of my poem—who I’m comfortable enough calling me—wants to be able to inhabit some of the strength of the speaker in Terry’s poem, if that makes sense.
“The violences that we do to each other, in a state that deploys the kind of mass incarceration that ours does, is one of the great indictments against our species.”
KEOHANE: Yeah. And I mean, I love that whole poem. I really love the line, “a failure of courage is still a victory of safety.” I think that’s just so, so true. And it’s a bit uncomfortable to sit with because you’re like, “Where in my life have I consciously been satisfied with safety?” I just think that’s a really lovely line.
Just one final question. Thank you again so much for doing this, and for sharing so honestly and rawly about this work. I’m so excited for the 17th to see it all come together. So, for that, when you first got the call or email or whatever from TheaterLab, what drew you and inspired you to say yes to this event?
AKBAR: I think that the violences that we do to each other, in a state that deploys the kind of mass incarceration that ours does, is one of the great indictments against our species. It’s one of the great indictments of our capacity for tenderness and our capacity for grace as a species, that we do this to each other. Certainly, one of the great indictments of our nation’s capacity for those things.
I have been a part of action in a million different directions against those systems. And all of it is not enough. But, this is a thing that is really important to me, and that I want to lend my voice and time to what sort of paltry power those things have. I would like to lend to this.
KEOHANE: Thank you. That was a great answer—and just a great conversation. Yeah, just thank you for doing this.
AKBAR: Yeah. Thank you so much. I appreciate your taking the time. Yeah, I’m really excited about the 17th, too.