It’s been said the act of writing is the act of thinking, so to read the poetry of Kaveh Akbar is to view a mind caught between two homelands -- stunted here and overgrown there -- and one of a person who’s never felt truly at home wherever he was.
“I’ve been so careless with the words I already have. I don’t remember how to say ‘home’ in my first language. Or ‘lonely.’ Or ‘light,” recited Akbar on Friday, Oct. 25, before a hearty crowd in Central Lakes College’s Chalberg Theatre, most of them college and high school students.
During his Verse Like Water performance, the Iranian-American’s stage presence reflected a young man of prominence and prestige, particularly in the world of poetry. His chapbooks have been lauded by big names in the publishing world and his poems have appeared in publications like The New Yorker, while Akbar is also an assistant professor at Purdue University and enjoyed a fellowship with the Poetry Foundation.
At the same time, the starting point of Akbar’s identity and his art is immigration to the United States from Tehran when he was only about 2 years old. He and his brother were forbidden from speaking their native Farsi at home to better assimilate into new communities across the Midwest. It was a difficult transition, he said.
“As a result, in a room full of Iranians, I feel the least Iranian. In a room full of Americans, I feel the least American,” Akbar said. “My brain was formed around one language and then another was poured in. … I’m not sure how that happens, so my poems are trying to figure that out.”
This limbo between feeling truly Iranian and feeling truly American forms a cornerstone of his art.
Thus, his interactions with the crowd were quirky and warm, and, at times, verbose in only the way a wordsmith could talk about “archipelagos of the mind” at length. Much like his poems, Akbar’s thoughts came as tumbling digressions, or like a fall down the rabbit hole. They also ventured into similar topics: alienation, addiction or oppression, as well as love and serendipity.
“These moments of gratitude pile up and in my previous life, my scumbag life, I didn’t have any relationship to gratitude. I just lurched from crisis to crisis,” Akbar told the audience as his segue into his next poem. “I didn’t know what to do with joy, or gratitude. Well, as much as anything is about anything, this is about that.”