Kaveh Akbar is more of a shepherd than a wolf. The internationally acclaimed Iranian-American poet not only produces amazing thought-provoking poetry, but nurtures other poets to achieve their full potential too. So it was a perfect date for us to be hosting him at Tūranga, the flagship of the future. We are all about helping our citizens to access all they need to reach for the top.
Mr Akbar is a really nice guy. Humble and quietly spoken (though this changes when he reads) Kaveh kept thanking us for coming. When reading, Kaveh is animated, moving with the lilting rhythm of his words, his voice rising with the swell of emotion and experience.
An Iranian-American, he sees his poetry as:
“the membrane between myself and the divine…a new idiom for ancient binaries.”
Binaries such as solitude and community, decay and rebirth, literature and culture.
Kaveh has been posting interviews with poets making waves on DiveDapper; a website he created as a platform for exposure, promotion and connection. It has become a community, bringing poets and enthusiasts together worldwide. The list of poets on this website is impressive! Akbar sees this as a way to “push (his gratitude) outwards.” He further demonstrated this by reading two poems by New Zealand poet Helen Heath.
Kaveh’s book of poetry Calling a Wolf a Wolf was released to much acclaim this year. In it, Kaveh addresses difficult themes from addiction to desire; his poetry refreshing in a way that feels uplifting rather than downbeat.
Akbar’s work shares a sense of lessons learned and experience shared, as opposed to a self-indulgent train wreck. In all, there is a theme of hunger: for the physical sensation of being alive. Akbar’s poems grabbed me at first taste. Alliteration, onomatopoeia and themes of life, death and longing fill his poems. Addiction is portrayed as a kind of death; “a void to fill in wellness”. The poetry came from a need to fill the gap left after he became sober: “my entire life up to that point was predicated on the pursuit of this or that narcotic experience.” All this brings to mind a Persian poet who celebrated the wine and song of life, yet without the cautionary tale: Omar Khayyam.
In the light of current politics, Kaveh asserts that the ‘utility’ of poetry ‘forces us to slow down our metabolism of language’. A useful antidote to doublespeak, perhaps. He makes it sound like a science. And in fact it is.
Although he now only speaks a few words of Farsi these days, Akbar sees feeling as a ‘universal language,’ one that we all understand. The purpose of poetry, he says, is as Homer put it – to ‘delight and instruct.’ So often, we leave out the delight, loving to lecture others on the way of things. Pre-sobriety, Akbar the poet painted himself as the hero of his works; a ‘gloriously misunderstood scumbag.’ A way of being, he says, that’s insufferable (I’ve dated guys like that).
‘So you’re the sobriquet of the School of Delight?’ quips Eric Kennedy. Sobriquet. Oh clever. Thus begins a new Golden Age in Poetry. The interview website DiveDapper came from Kaveh’s hunger for dialogue with other poets while going through recovery. It’s a way to share experience with others – ‘a vast expanse of empathetic resources.’
The internet has meant that ‘the age of coy diminishment of one’s passions is over’…it is now an age of ‘unabashed zeal.’ Eric: Zeal Land!”
Kaveh read a number of wonderful poems from Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I love the titles – so real but imaginative. He really does have a way with words:
Kaveh has won awards, and his poems have appeared in heaps of prestigious publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Poetry 2018, and The Guardian.
Check out Kaveh reading Max Ritvo’s “Touching the Floor” and his own poem “Portrait of an Alcoholic Frozen in Block of Ice”:
He founded DiveDapper, a poetry interview site. It is pretty much the poetry equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld’s show ‘Comedians in cars getting coffee’, but in DiveDapper you get two poets on top of their games in conversation. It features a stellar lineup of poets including:
Claudia Rankine, “I’m not investigating race as much as I’m investigating intimacy.”
and slam poet Anis Mojgani (who many of you will remember from his previous visits to Christchurch, slaying us with his potent words).
It makes total sense that Jeevika Verma in NPR refers to him as “poetry’s biggest cheerleader”:
He believes that everyone should be reciting poems as they walk into a coffee shop, as they do the dishes, as they go on with their lives.
“The fact that poems exist is the load-bearing gratitude upon which I have built my life,” he explains. “And what do you do with gratitude when it piles up? You have to push it outwards.”
He says it’s sort of like eating a Snickers bar. “Not sharing your gratitude is like holding a Snickers bar in your mouth for a week. You’d just get cavities,” he laughs. “This is what I want to do with DiveDapper. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is the best thing that exists in the universe.”
The event will be followed by a book signing, with Scorpio Books will be selling copies of Kaveh’s book. There will be food and drink available for sale too.
The nation’s best poets will compete in a literary showdown on Saturday, November 3rd in Christchurch. Poets representing Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, Dunedin, Nelson and Southern Lakes will perform in a three-round poetry slam as selected members from the audience will judge to determine the winner. Can Christchurch defend their title or will a new city take the crown?
Featuring 2017 National Slam Champion, Christchurch’s own Daisy Lavea-Timo (DaisySpeaks), this is not a night to miss.
What: NZ National Poetry Slam Finals
When: Saturday November 3rd 2018
Time: Doors 7pm, Show 7:30pm
Where: Haeata Community Campus, 240 Breezes Rd.
Cost: $20 general, $15 students
It’s World Poetry Day today! As an occasional poet myself, I’m a bit embarrassed to say I didn’t know there was a World Poetry Day until earlier this week. Turns out the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization are behind it, declaring in 1999 that March 21st would be a day to celebrate poetry globally each year.
What’s so good about poetry though? For lots of people, poetry doesn’t really play a part in their lives – at the most, perhaps when people think of poetry they think of a stuffy 3rd form classroom, being lectured about World War One rhyming couplets and Shakespearean sonnets.
But, as the UN says: “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings…” which is a pretty comforting idea. At its most simple, I guess they’re saying that whatever background and culture and language you come from, poetry provides a way of explaining thoughts and feelings and ideas that maybe just don’t make as much sense in other formats. What would the Hogwarts Sorting Hat be without its introductory poem? The Oompa Loompas without their songs? And on a more serious note, those soldiers writing in the trenches certainly thought they could express their experiences more powerfully through poems; and the poems that come out of revolutions and wars and times of upheaval can give us insight into the humanity of a situation that a simple news report cannot. For most cultures around the world, storytelling, poetry, and spoken word are the key ways histories have been recorded and traditions have survived.
There’s plenty of opportunity to explore some poetry this World Poetry Day – a short walk around the city will get you face to face with a poem on a bollard or a wall with thanks to Phantom Billstickers poetry posters; a quick YouTube search and you’ll find plenty of slam and performance poetry (Button Poetry is a great place to start); and of course the library has plenty of poetry to get your hands on – why not start with Kate Tempest (UK); Rupi Kaur (Canada); or Selina Tusitala Marsh?
Bill Manhire is one of New Zealand’s leading poets and writers. Bill is a mentor to New Zealand writers, founding the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. He was New Zealand Poet Laureate for 1997-99 and is the driving force behind several anthologies of New Zealand poetry,
The Stories of Bill Manhire brings together The Stories from The New Land : A Picture Book (1990), South Pacific (1994) and Songs of My Life (1996), the choose-your-own-adventure novella The Brain of Katherine Mansfield (1988), and one of my favourites the memoir Under the Influence (2003); a charming memoir of growing up in pubs in the South Island.
An incredibly versatile writer, Bill has also contributed to a wonderful work for children, The Curioseum: a collection of writers’ impressions of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, collaborated with artists, and has had his work put to music by Norman Meehan in Small Holes in the Silence.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I have only been to Christchurch once before in my life, way back when I was a teenage backpacker, and all I remember is getting lost looking for my hostel and standing on a street called ‘Barbados’ in the pitch dark and pouring rain, so maybe I will try and recreate that moment from my youth.
What do you think about libraries?
I find them enormously relaxing. Something about being surrounded by all those books. If I’m having a bad day I will sometimes go into the library at my university and stand in the shelves and recompose. A surprising number of people have this response to literary places, like libraries and bookshops and as libraries transition into the digital space I think they need to be aware of the important role that huge rooms filled with physical books play in the emotional lives of the public.
What would be your “desert island book”?
I used to think this would be Proust, but then I read the first volume and hated it. I liked Middlemarch a lot, but can’t imagine finding the time to read it again in a non-desert island scenario, so I’ll pick that.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
I have very soft earlobes. Softer than anyone else’s.
We are asking four quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival on from 24 to 28 August. First up, it’s Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, award-winning Auckland-based Pacific poet and scholar. She recently performed for the Queen as the 2016 Commonwealth Poet.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I look forward to jogging around the city to see resilience in action and get my feet earthed long the Avon River! Also, catching up with Festival participants, soaking up the creative energies of others, writing in my hotel room, enjoying the air.
What do you think about libraries?
I love libraries (and librarians – especially school ones because they are my key contact people when I visit schools to perform and run workshops) and I especially love the relatively recent development of turning them into active, brimming social spaces (we’ve got a cafe in the Auckland City library) with noisy and quiet areas!
What would be your “desert island book”?
No island is a desert, there were always people there before us! Plus, I read buffet-style with commonly 5 on the go, so, at the moment my 5 must have’s are Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, Austin Kleon’s Black Out Writing journal, the latest Chimurenga journal (picked up in Cape Town – amaaazing!) and Cherie Barford’s most excellent poetry collection, Entangled Islands.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
I got caught in an arm bar during this morning’s MMA sparring session and am filled with thoughts of revenge!
Anis Mojgani is a songful sculptor of words. It was apt that on his return visit to Christchurch, the US slam poetry champion performed at both the Wunderbar in Lyttelton and the Christchurch Art Gallery – hosts to music and art – because when you witness Anis in full flight you can’t help but marvel how artful and performative he is. WORD Christchurch Literary Director Rachael King introduced him to Saturday night’s audience as someone who “engages your brain and heart and something intangible within you”. On Saturday, he certainly engaged a few librarians.
Here is our list of reasons why one should never miss out on seeing Anis in performance:
1. The way he moves
It is as if Anis embraces the whole world with his arms. Along with his voice, his gestures illustrate images in front of one’s eyes. His expressive hand gestures call you in and lift you up; they manage to point to the cosmos and vital organs all at once. His exceptional performance illuminates poems in a different light, so they reveal themselves in a new, unexpected context, different from the ones that surface up during a reading experience.
2. The way he is in relationship – with you and the world. His empathy and inclusiveness.
The phrases and lines of his poetry honour who you and we all are as human beings. He draws you in to be in relationship – with him and with others (Come closer). He invites you to be empathetic and to see the good in others and yourself. He speaks of the human condition in a playful uplifting way. His poems resonate the excitement of being alive (Direct orders), but also battle with the enigma of it (For those who can still ride an airplane for the first time). His poetry honours the holiness in the ordinary and looks for ‘God’ in the everyday.
In particular, his well-regarded poem Shake the Dust is an ode to the unheard, the unnoticed, the unnamed, the unloved, the innocuous and the banal and even the inappropriate. He doesn’t discriminate. He bears witness to us all. He speaks for the bullied and bullies. He honours, validates and appreciates everyone.
During the performance, Anis revealed one of his favourite phrases these days – “10-4“ – which is his way of saying “Ok, I read you, I hear you, you are understood.” Having grown up in New Orleans, he has a genuine understanding of the process of grief, sorrow and healing we experienced here. His particular affinity to Christchurch is obvious, you feel “he gets it.” And when Anis tells us his name means “companion“ an “aha“ moment happens. Yes, he is a companion in our collective journey of experiencing and examining humanity. Indeed, we are all each other’s companions bearing witness to one another’s existence. In Here I am he answers our fears:
“Will I be something? Am I something? And the answer comes: you already are, always was, you still have time to be.”
3. He honours childhood and a child’s view of the world
Particularly striking is how many of his poems deliver an impressive and colourful tapestry of a childhood. Told from the eyes of a child, who has an incredible innate gift of poetic language, they draw from childhood memories and experiences such as climbing trees, playing on street or overhearing parents in another room. His poetry takes listeners back to their childhood and school days, and reveals a child’s open, innocent and exuberant experience of the world (Even if somebody pooped a poem it’s alright cuz somebody somewhere made it or Invincible) in which “small children speak half English and half God” and “peace comes with a popsicle” – instant resonance from both a child’s and a parental perspective.
4. We love how he oscillates
He manages to write about his own individual experience and a collective experience in one swoop. He says he speaks to the spectrum of love – and not-love. He conveys what it is to be at once both vulnerable and invincible. Ordinary human abilities to a child can seem like superpowers. Within a single poem, he swings listeners from amusement to sadness, from love to fear, from laughter to deep contemplation about the saddest and cruellest moments of human experience. And while performing, at times Anis seems to hardly stop to breathe when he recites his poetry, but can slow things right down and draw you in.
5. His vibe and presence. His warmth and wit. His generosity. His aroha.
Anis doesn’t talk to the audience as a crowd, he addresses each individual. Even though you find yourself sitting in a hall full of people, you have feeling that he is talking directly to you. His poems are “for you”, they are yours – it seems his generous outreach to the listener:
“I am cutting out parts of myself to give to you… make my words worth something more than just a poem, write make this more than just a night that sits heavy over every one of us …”
His poems seem to reach out, to hug and kiss you, inviting you to walk with him through ups and downs of life (Come closer).
Watching Anis perform is like being at the concert of one of your favourite bands. The anticipation of your favourite lines to come is electric! When they come, you find yourself grinning. You can feel that warm feeling of satisfaction spreading through your body and lifting you up above the crowd. It’s addictive. And then there are some lines that are totally new to you and come like marvellous gifts, falling from the sky. “Rock Out”, he insists in a prolonged invitation in his poem Direct orders. On the drive away from his show the temptation is too great to not blast the car radio and do just that – singing at the top of one’s voice.
For one librarian lucky enough to get a book at the signing afterwards – just before they sold out – his inscription reads: “Keep your heart full of wonder”. It feels like quite the invitation indeed.
Performance poet Anis Mojgani is coming to town this week courtesy of WORD Christchurch. He is performing at the Wunderbar in Lyttelton on Thursday 17 March, and at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Saturday 19 March. Check out WORD Christchurch’s info and get some tickets. Librarians – and fans – Kim and Masha asked Anis some questions, thanks Anis for your fab answers!
You performed in Christchurch at the WORD Festival in 2014 – what impact has visiting the city and its people had on you?
My visit felt pretty impactful on opening me up to a literary community on the other side of the world, both the the work and stories produced by it, and also the people making and supporting such literature, which I’ve been very grateful for. But also, I had a very strong connection to visiting in 2014. New Zealand felt like a place I would return to and could see myself spending an extended period of time inside of, and still feels as such. A lot of that was definitely connected to being in a city like Christchurch that seemed to be in a period of sorrow and confusion and rebuilding, one similar to my hometown in the wake of its destructive natural disaster. But also, the strange quirky creative patches of Christchurch that I was shown or stumbled upon, spoke to me, as well as being inspiring. And the audiences I had in Christchurch were some of the best I’ve ever had, terribly kind and inviting, present and excited.
You are from New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What observations or messages would you share with people of Christchurch based on your experience in New Orleans?
I don’t know if I’m the best person for such, I haven’t lived in New Orleans in a number of years. But being from there, and going there often, as that’s where my family still is and is, as Rachael King shared with me the other day, one of the places I would refer to as tūrangawaewae, there was a strong connection to Christchurch I felt because of the disasters in both cities.
When walking through Christchurch in 2014, I was reminded of how confused New Orleans was while in such pain, that it didn’t know in what direction it was supposed to move, how to begin rebuilding, what was the right choice. And as I write that sentence, I recognize the same connection in my personal journey over recent years. And as such with both, just to say that 1. when in broken places, sometimes, often, it is important to just get moving. To get out of the rubble, to move debris out of your home, to build again. And then see what to fix and change. To not let the destruction make you fearful of a future or to hinder the decisions that need to be made.
And 2. To use this opportunity for change, to change in good ways and with different patterns, while not forgetting to hold on to the beautiful traditions from before. I think about how it has been challenging for New Orleans, a city so incredibly rich with culture and tradition, to progress and rebuild, while keeping the parts of itself that make it the city that it is. A lot of growth there has threatened to change the city, and not necessarily in good ways. There are definitely people in New Orleans that have used the wake of Katrina to shape the city that may be more in line with the city that they envision it should be––losing and getting rid of people and cultures that they deem undesirable, which is a travesty. So I think of that, but don’t want to suggest that a broken thing should only then heal back to the same place it was before. What I loved, utterly LOVED, about Christchurch on my earlier visit, was how people embraced their city and claimed ownership of it by creating these pockets of awesome and weirdness and creative endeavours, to inspire others and to push forward perhaps the possibility of what an additional aspects of their city could grow to embrace. And those things are not what should be lost as the city rebuilds itself but rather invited to the table to participate, perhaps more fully.
What role/influence have libraries and books played in your upbringing? Is there a library you call your favourite (besides yours, which has 17 books).
Huge influence. There was a library called Nix that was about three blocks from our house growing up and was also on the walk home from school, and having one so close was very special. Not to mention memories of my school library, and of course the children’s bookstore my mother had when we were growing up. We’d walk there from school usually about half the week, and it was like having a large personal library, combing the shelves for the next thing to open and discover and explore. That was crazy influential, I think in a myriad of ways. Not only the importance of stories and how many different ways there are to share them, but also the feeling one gets from being surrounded by possibility, that here are these shelves to walk between and you have no idea what’s between all these covers – it could be anything! And you’re allowed to seek that out, you have permission to step into that mystery and many mysteries. So that sense, that feeling of discovery and curiousness is something I feel was fostered from the library and the bookstore.
I don’t know if I have a favourite library – the library as a whole in Portland Oregon where I live, is a really great library system that has an incredible selection. And there is a beautiful house of a library in New Orleans, the Latter branch. I love though seeing photos online of libraries that stand out, ones that are so beautiful, like temples designed and built to respect that which they hold. But also ones that are so small and tiny, in the middle of nowhere, that illustrate that even in the emptiest places, there should be a place where a person can go and discover books.
A rumour reached us about your current project, which – if we got it right – includes illustrations and is aimed at children. Could you tell us a bit more about that or is it a secret?
Can definitely tell you some! And it’s a couple things that you may have heard of. The first is my new book The Pocketknife Bible, which is a weird book that’s kind of a poetry-novel-memoir-picture book for both adults and children. It’s through the voice and eyes of me circa 6-8 years old and my childhood and the surreal wild boring beauty of childhood, but enters into some strange and dark places. It’s fully illustrated by me which is the first time I’ve done a book like this.
The other thing is that I’m starting to more seriously work on some stories for children, picture books mostly at the moment. Just completed a residency specific to that, so finished that up with a number of my stories more developed and fleshed out, story- and art-wise. So excited to see where all that goes.
Slam performances have a similar spirit as music gigs, there’s a flow in communication and audience seems to be very expressive. What was the most unusual reaction from the crowd you ever got?
I can’t think of a specific instance unfortunately, but it can be pretty interesting and fascinating. Because we all process information so differently, so there are plenty of times where you might share something that you think is funny and no laughter, or where a laugh may spring out of a random audience mouth, in the middle of something serious or sorrowful. And it’s definitely like music, because those little blips add to me then rolling with it, maybe reshaping little bits in the moment, like if there was something sad I spoke to and there was a chuckle, how can to offer up the next line in a manner that both makes that reaction comfortable and allowed, while also pulling the person/audience back in the direction I’d like to move them towards.
Who are you at the moment? A poet, an illustrator, a slam star? All together? And what else?
Who am I at the moment. I don’t know. Tired? But excited. Scared. And curious. Filled with sorrow and pain. And joy and a terrible gratefulness. I don’t know. I’m asked this question at a very open and new chapter in my life, one where I’m not fully formed, one where I’m reforming so many parts of who I am and what I’m seeking to make. I look at myself as an artist, and strive to continue creating work that respects this and speaks to it, whet here that’s through words, pictures, music, performance, or whatever. I love the work that I’ve been focused one for the past decade, but feel a reimagining of this as of late, or a new exploration of it, whether that is in the context of what is being written, or through more performative ways such as dance or theatre, or whatever.
Who/which are your recommended/favourite reads/authors and illustrators? Any that you have recently read and have lingered with you for a while?
I always recommend the poets Lucille Clifton and William Stafford, Kevin Young’s Dear Darkness. Tracy K Smith’s Life On Mars is wonderful. I didn’t get to finish Brown Girl Dreaming but it is beautiful. I’m drawing a blank on his name, but the author of the Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, I think it’s Gary something? His books are magic.
My three favorite books, novel wise, are probably East of Eden, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Maniac McGee. But I have too many books stacked up to read and probably even more that I’ve only started. I need to crack the whip and find my way back into a good kick butt reading habit. Crossing the seas is both a good and bad thing, as it invariably introduces me to books/writers that I wouldn’t have known before. As such, I’d want to read Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, and Tina Makereti’s Where the Rekohu Bones Sing.
What do you hope to do while you are in Christchurch / New Zealand this time?
A return to C1! Miniature burgers delivered through vacuum tubes is how all life should be!