Is It an Album or a Song? Interview with Kaveh Akbar by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

HA: What kind of music were you reviewing when you started reviewing music?

Click to purchase  Calling a Wolf a Wolf   by  Kaveh Akbar

Click to purchase Calling a Wolf a Wolf
by Kaveh Akbar

KA: I was never writing for any super cool places…when I was in high school I started a general interest journal called Quirk and I reviewed records for them. I’d also do these like 17 word album reviews in haiku. I wouldn’t even review new albums all the time. I’d do stuff like review the Violent Femmes’ Hallowed Ground right next to the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, you know? Just whatever I was listening to. And then All through college I would review records as a side hustle. I’d review them for this website for hardcore and metal, called Scene Point Blank. And there was this short-lived site called Spinner that was like an AOL offshoot and I had this kinda gig where when artist where going to South By Southwest, they would do an interview with every artist going to South By Southwest, and you would get $150 to transcribe these interviews with these artists. And I did as many of those as I could because it was a good way to make a little money on the side. I was writing anywhere that would give me a little bit of money, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. I had this linguistics professor when I was in undergrad who learned to speak a new language fluently every summer. And he told me that the key to being perceived a genius is to only be seen doing the things that you’re good at. Which, for me, wasn’t music reviewing. I took to poetry much easier. Meaning I got to a point where I wasn’t embarrassing myself. It’s the same with me with like – wait, do you play any instruments?

HA: Yeah, I play piano

KA: No way!

HA: Yeah, not that well anymore, but I can still play at least four things.

KA: I had no idea. Well, the same thing has always happened to me with playing instruments where like once every two years I get it in my head that I’m going to learn how to play keyboard, guitar, or drums. And I’ll throw myself into it for a couple of months and then give up. I’ll watch a YouTube video where a four year old is doing something that I still don’t know how to do and I’ll just throw in the towel. I wasn’t natural at reviewing music in that way.

HA: Do you think that there was a natural blending of your poetic devices with your music writing? Like were the moves and stylistic choices you make in your poems showing up in that type of writing as well?

KA: I think that it’s definitely true that a lot of the worst writing about music leans heavily on taxonomy. The best writing about music is really dense and metaphorical. And in those ways, I think that the two lent themselves to each other. That said, when I was seriously writing about music, I wasn’t a mature enough poet yet to have a conscious understanding of my sensibilities that would lend to any crossover between the two. I mean your music criticism is deeply in conversation with your poetry. You have pieces that really blur the line – there’s that essay in your book that really blurs the line, that Whitney Houston/Michael Jackson one…what is that like for you? You’re someone who can think about this with a lot more maturity.

HA: For me, all it has done is kind of made the idea of genre obsolete at an entry point for my writing. Upon exiting a piece, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as genre. But I sit down to write like I’m attacking a poem, no matter what I’m taking on. Because that’s what I’m comfortable with. I know that sometimes with writing, when people sit down with one thing in mind and they get up from writing with a different finished product, there can be shame or frustration in that. And for me, I think I’m more invested in the idea of more people doing away with the concept of genre when approaching the work. I think that’s easy to say because I think my poetry and prose use a lot of the same maneuvers, so it’s easy for me to make that declaration.

KA: I think it’s important that you’re honoring that there’s not a hierarchy between criticism and poetry. I think people get fucked up on that too – this idea that poetry is delicate and precious or that music criticism is some kind of working man’s thing. Like, it’s important to not privilege one over the other.

HA: That’s true and I think that if you’re doing music criticism in the way that I believe it’s going, it works better. I’m not sure if the job of the music critic now is to sit up on high and tell people what they should or shouldn’t like. I imagine the work now is to, perhaps, build a connection with a listener, even through potential dislike and disagreement. I feel like that is what is happening in poems, for me and I think in your poems as well. In Calling A Wolf A Wolf, sure. But in Portrait Of The Alcoholic I felt like so much work in that chapbook wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. Rather, I thought it was fighting to pull a reader into a space and then let them reckon with what it meant to be with you in that space. You allowed for a type of trust in the reader that I really appreciated, the way I appreciate when a critic trusts in the listener. As the reader may also be a writer, as the critic should also be a listener.

KA: That’s a fascinating and generous take. That’s sort of what Lester Bangs did too, right? He wasn’t telling you that everyone should sit down and listen to Metal Machine Music and that it would enrich lives. He was saying I listen to this every morning, and here’s what it does for ME. And he was asking you to sit with him in a space and understand how he understood Lou Reed, you know?

HA: Yeah, and I guess I’m interested in what you listen for in music. Are you interested in entering a space with a musician as you listen, or is music purely an escape? Or is it a little of both?

KA: Tell me more about what you mean when you talk about entering a space with a musician. 

HA:  Late last year, when I was going through a lot of anguish that was dragging out, I found myself more invested in Fleetwood Mac’s Roumours than I had ever been before. And, yes, an easy reading of that album is to say that it’s about a breakup. But a more complex reading – at least for me – is that it’s about this very singular interior of heartbreak, you know? They all had to sit together and record in this windowless studio and the album sounds frantic and it must have been really fucked up. Listening to that album then, I felt like I was in that space with the band even though that album is forty years old.

KA: Yeah, absolutely. For me it’s definitely both. It’s a funny thing because my relationship with music has changed as I’ve gotten older. Music was the first aesthetic experience I felt close to. There was this band called Beep Beep that I discovered when I was like 14 or 15 and the first time I heard their first album This Is Casual, I almost literally shit my pants. It was one of the five most intense art experiences of my life, and it’s because it was the first encounter I’d had with real thoughtfully produced rock. And that sort of led me into discovering other musicians that spoke to me in the same language, which me to other art and literature that spoke to me in that same language, which led me to people. It made all the difference. And for most of my middle and late teens, that’s where I deposited my intense obsessiveness and need to acquire encyclopedic understanding of things. I didn’t want there to ever be a situation where someone could reference a band that I didn’t know about. And so researching bands is just what I did all the time. And as I got older that impulse shifted over to the way that I thought about poetry and the way that I hungered for an understanding of poetry. I think that it sounds really sad to say out loud, but I think that those really intense experiences of listening to those albums, those sorts of experiences have been fewer and fewer the more that I’ve grown up, as poetry has kind of taken its place. I still have those experiences with music a handful of times a year, but it’s not the predominant mode that those experiences take. But I think more and more now, I’m just as likely to listen to Rap Caviar as I am to listen to like, Pet Sounds. It’s a very mood dependent thing, me catering to the mood I’m already in as opposed to me trying to create a mood with a record. 

HA: But also, I’m super interested in your ability to sequence – which I don’t think all writers do very well. With books of poetry, I’m not always sure the sequence matters. For me, if the poems are especially good, I am more likely to forgive bad sequencing. But it seems like you have a good eye for that, and I’m wondering if that’s anything you’ve picked up through your ear in some ways. Like are you an album listener? Do you listen all the way through?

KA: Yeah, wow, yeah this is my favorite question. This is the question I’ve always been waiting for someone to ask me about my poetry. First of all, yes, I am absolutely an album listener. Even albums that I don’t take all that seriously, I believe in listening to in the context of the album. It’s sort of obnoxious. It’s very important to me – I’m somewhat of an evangelist for the things I care deeply about. But if I’m trying to show someone an album that I care deeply about….it’s work for me to mediate my excitement for things, because I realize that not everyone gets as excited about things as I do. So when I’m like no, no! you can’t talk yet! We’re only 20 minutes into the album! You know what I mean? Mediating those impulses is important to me. But I am an album listener, and I used to constantly make mix CDs. I used to not even have to know you that well to make you a mix CD. When I was in undergrad, I hung out with these four guys who all lived in an apartment together. I thought they were super cool. And the second time I went over to hang out with them, I had already made each of them a mixtape. Like a completely separate, fully curated mix CD. And I made art for them, and I think it weirded them out, but I was just so excited because I thought these four dudes were so cool. I’m still friends with all of them. But all that to say, that sort of thinking about sequencing has been such a native part to how I think about the way art works.

HA: I think what I specifically liked about Calling A Wolf A Wolf is that there are these small increases in intensity without being deeply obvious. I think I remember in the third section, has this run of poems – it goes from “An Apology” to another poem, and then “My Kingdom For A Murmur Of Fanfare.” And the pacing there opened up a real type of intensity that echoes through the end of the book. Especially “An Apology,” which feels communal in a way. But then the next few poems really strip that away and focus on a type of individual longing.

KA: Totally. And I mean, well, you’re someone who has made a lot of Mix CDs in your life, I imagine?

HA: Oh yeah, absolutely.

KA: And so you know that you can’t just do three Converge songs in a row and then an Iron and Wine song. You have to modulate tonality in ways that feel organic and connecting, you know? It has to be a kind of gentle and subtle movement, otherwise it just feels like you put twelve songs on a CD. And I think those impulses guided how I thought about the ordering of the poems. Even things as small as words that connected from one poem to another. I don’t know. How did you go into thinking about the ordering of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much?

HA: Well, that came together a bit easier because it was tracking a loosely chronological time period. It had a biographical trajectory. But still, inside of those sections, I did a lot of laying the poems of the floor and letting them kind of figure themselves out. I let them find their siblings through my reading of them in that space. It’s kind of like…I know we mentioned Pet Sounds, have you ever heard the Pet Sounds Sessions?

KA: Yeah, but only once and a while ago.

HA: It’s not a great or fun listen, but what I love about it is that you can hear Brian Wilson running around the studio and fucking with things, and he’ll be on take four, but he’ll yell out take seventy-five. And so I began to think of structuring less as an album, and more as a singular song. Pet Sounds relied so heavily on this makeshift wall of sound – so much of which existed in Wilson’s brain and nowhere else. But everything had a place. “God Only Knows” is a great song, but it took the coming together of a ton of instruments, making all of the right movements.

KA: And it sounds so intricate, too. It doesn’t sound like the Phil Spector wall of sound. That song sounds so clean that it belies the complexity of it. It’s like Keats saying if the poem doesn’t come to you as naturally as leaves on a tree, then it’s no good. The complexity of it should seem so organic to it that it’s not about the artifice being fore fronted like Mars Volta or Primus. 

HA: Yeah, and I think I like a book of poems where I feel like it’s either an album, or it’s just one song. The horns have their place, and the drums have their place. I thought of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much as building a kind of relentless wall of sound. I think that’s why I often hear from readers that it feels overwhelming to take in. I think I’m now considering pacing my next manuscript like an album.

KA: Yeah, I definitely think about Calling A Wolf A Wolf as an album, not one song. I’ve never thought about it this way, but I think a lot of the time, in my favorite books, those tend to be like the one long song. I think that more often than not, the books that speak most deeply to me are of that ilk, and not the ilk that I wrote. 

HA: I think that’s the way, isn’t it? I love a book like yours, one that feels like an album. Or a book like Adrian Matejka’s new book (Map To The Stars.) I was just talking to someone about how Matejka’s new book felt to me like a late 80s or early 90s rap album. I feel like, knowing his leanings, he put a lot of thought into that structure and pacing.

KA: Oh, absolutely.

HA: And so reading that, it felt to me like a De La Soul album, and then a Public Enemy album.

KA: Yeah, when he talked to me about it, he said he was listening to a lot of the music he grew up to, which is 80s rap. And now, those songs are really ingrained in his composition process, and now he wants to listen to more murky or grimy stuff. Like Metro Boomin’ or Future, and find a new tonality to write into. I think you’re picking up directly on the tone he was writing into.

HA: Do you write differently depending on what you’re listening to, or do you not have a soundtrack to your process?

KA: I do write differently depending on what I listen to. I write best when I’m in public places but also isolated. For instance, like an office where people are milling about where I have a corner. I wrote a lot of my book in a coffee shop because I didn’t have an office. And it was there where I started becoming really dependent on listening to music, because I didn’t want to hear stray bits of conversation, because it would cloud my ability to compose organically. So I have to be listening to something I know well enough to tune out, but not that I know so well that I’m predicting lines. For a lot of this book, I was listening to – and it’s funny because this isn’t a big band for me – but I was listening to Health’s Death Magic. They’re one of those noisy deeply hip bands. You should listen to this record, because there’s something about it that vibrates deeply to the frequency of my poems. I think that a lot of my favorite music seems to be unified by the word “Incantatory,” like a lot of my favorite musicians or bands or artists make work that can be described as incantatory, and it’s a deeply incantatory album.

HA: Oh yeah, that’s actually my favorite of their albums, I think…that’s the one with like “New Coke” and all of that?

KA: Yeah yeah! That’s a good record, for sure. It came out when I was starting to think and focus on concentrated ways about the book, and I was trying out new records to write to. And I had a breakthrough when writing to that one, and so I just kept coming back to it over and over.

HA: We were both raised Muslim, and I know we both have written on things adjacent to this, but I wrote recently on how the call to prayer was the first music I knew – it was the first singing that I knew as singing. 

KA: Yeah, and I wrote that essay recently on that phenomenon. About how learning the language of prayer – which we kind of did in an Americanized way. We would aggregate the five prayers and just have one really long prayer at the end of the day. Both of my parents worked on farms and in labs and it was just easier that way. And so I learned how to say this long Arabic prayer which, like … wait, do you speak Arabic?

HA: Not as well as I used to.

KA: Yeah, neither of my parents know how to. They don’t know the words, but they know the sounds. And so when I was young, my dad sat me down and taught me the entirety of the prayer in Arabic. He typed it out in colorful inks and he sat me down on the couch and I would learn with him. I learned them and that became how I prayed and that became the first encounter with intentionally charged mellifluous language. I loved this idea that if you string together language that is charged and earnest and beautiful enough, it will give you access to some higher consciousness, or it will give you access to the divine. And that definitely informs how I approach my poetry.

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Kaveh Akbar's poems appear recently in The New YorkerPoetryThe New York TimesThe Nation, and elsewhere. His first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is just out with Alice James. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA program at Randolph College.