'Calling a Wolf a Wolf': Kaveh Akbar’s redefinition of the addiction narrative

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 5:45pm

Iranian poet Kaveh Akbar’s debut collection, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” released in September, is an empathetically and expansively written collection addressing addiction and sobriety. Akbar’s poetry is refreshingly honest and incredibly human.

Wrestling with alcoholism, identity and the denial of the self for salvation, Akbar’s collection weaves the struggle of addiction into an eloquent compilation of raw, painful and beautiful poems.

In contemporary poetry and prose alike, addiction narratives are some of the most commonly written — Mary Karr’s “Lit,” Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” Charles Bukowski’s “The Suicide Kid” and more. Akbar’s collection, however, avoids cliché and pity, creating an addiction narrative that is both incredibly personal and widely relatable which is a difficult balance to achieve. Akbar wrote in an email interview with The Daily, “I can only write into and out of the person I’ve been. The person I have been and will always be is an addict – there’s no escaping that. One doesn’t choose one’s obsessions — one can only hope to find in common experience an unprecedented language.”

The writing of “Calling a Wolf a Wolf” was not a quick process, but one written throughout Akbar’s lived experiences battling addiction and sobriety. Akbar explained that the creation of this collection has spanned over his 28 years of life. More concretely, however, Akbar told The Daily: “The oldest recognizable poems in the collection are about five years old.”

However, Akbar approaches the painful and personal topic and complications of addiction with meditation and ease. “Writing is a daily meditative practice, for me,” Akbar wrote. “Every poem is a Herculean trial to write, and every poem is also completely effortless. Keats said, ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.’ I think the work is in making oneself receptive to the poem, turning oneself into a permeable conduit through which the poem might pass unimpeded.”

Though Akbar writes primarily of his personal experience, he addressed the place of poetry in the current political climate — writing poetry as a profound political act.

“Poetry asks us to slow down, to consider the materiality of language,” Akbar wrote. “In a climate in which the great weapon used to stifle critical thought is a vast overwhelm of empty, meaningless argle bargle and doublespeak, reading poetry, slowing down and reconsidering our metabolization of language becomes a profoundly political act. Poetry’s social and political utility cannot be overstated. It’s not the only reason to write and read poetry, of course, but it’s an important one.”

Akbar, along with contemporary Hanif Aburraqib, will come to Ann Arbor today to read at The Neutral Zone for Literati Bookstore’s reading series. He will be reading from “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” and, quite possibly (as he hinted), new and unread material.

“I never know what I’m going to read until I’m onstage,” Akbar wrote. “It’s always a mix of new things, old things, things I’ve read before, things I never read. My favorite readings feel like conversations, and conversations demand active listening. I listen to the audience, and choose my poems accordingly.”