"Giving Poets Room to Speak Meaningfully": a Chat with Kaveh Akbar, Editor of Poet-Interview Site Divedapper
Whenever a new issue of a literary magazine is published, the first section I look for is the interviews. So when I saw the inaugural post from Divedapper, a literary magazine dedicated solely to interviews with contemporary poets, I was an instant fan. Then I read an interview and I became crazy-in-love with this project. Kaveh Akbar has the ability to engage in the most interesting interviews. I feel like I’m sitting in on a private conversation—one that maybe I’m not supposed to be hearing and it’s electric.
Interview by Sarah Miller Freehauf
1. a water fowl; the didapper
2. a constellation of poetic phenomena
How was Divedapper born?
Divedapper was born from a desire to communicate with my heroes, to manufacture a reason for them to want to talk with me. Whenever I finish a book I’ve really loved, I always feel like I need to contact the author and let them know. The worse they can do is not respond, right? Even then it’s useful, because after writing a note I have a better sense of how and why the work interested me. Divedapper began as a way to channel that impulse into a more publically useful body.
What makes Divedapper different? And what do you think you do best? What do you want to do better?
Well, I don’t know of any other projects that exist only to interview contemporary poets. If there are any, I’m not the one picking the poets or doing the interview—so, that certainly makes it different! Obviously, there are myriad homes for these sorts of conversations aside from Divedapper — The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Poets & Writers. My favorites are William Packard’s craft interviews in the old New York Quarterly’s. He always elicited the greatest, strangest responses from his subjects. One of my favorites is his interview with Denise Levertov, where she says, “You can smell a poem before you see it. Like some animal. Hmmm, seems like a bear’s around here.” I love that. I love dialogues where poets feel free to get weird.
It’s hard for me to speak to what Divedapper does best, as I’m so close to it all. I’ll say that I’m very interested in giving the interviews space, in giving poets room to speak meaningfully about their craft and their joys and their fears. I figure (perhaps at my own peril) that anyone willing to read a 5,000 word interview will read a 6,500 word interview, you know? So, I’m proud of the depth of the conversations.
As far as things I’d like to do better, I’ll say this: in order for a project like Divedapper to be truly successful, it needs to account for and represent the diverse panoply of voices that make up contemporary poetry. That is always, always on my mind. There is always room to grow, always room to become more accommodating.
Who do you love right now? What books have you been passing around/suggesting to others?
Great question. Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is one of the freshest, most exciting books in any genre I’ve read in ages and I’m telling everyone I know to read it. I’ve also fallen back into Richard Siken’s Crush to get myself geared up for the release of War of the Foxes later this year. Lynda Hull has been on my mind; I picked up her Collected and have been thinking about her a lot since.
Prosewise (?), I just read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and was predictably obliterated. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk lived up to its hype and then some; it literally left me breathless as I was reading it. I’d be so in the throes of its lush prose that I’d suddenly realize I’d been holding my breath. Just a stone hard beautiful book. I recently got back into reading the goofy sci-fi noir of John Swartzwelder. I’m a huge Simpsons nerd (he was the show’s greatest writer) and his books are just so weird and fun. The one I’m reading now begins, “First of all, it’s not true that I led the Martian attack on Earth. I don’t know how these things get started. Secondly, I can explain.”
Who are your “go to” poets, your key 3?
I could never pick just three, but there are some poets I find myself returning to again and again. The postwar Polish titans are very, very important to me: Szymborska, Milosz, and Herbert. Robert Hayden, Jack Spicer, John Berryman, and Hart Crane are lodestars. Franz Wright’s poetry matters to me on some weird atomic level that defies rational explanation. Ditto for Jean Valentine. Sohrab Sepehri has become a major player in my psychic life.
I’m filled with gratitude for the words these poets have written, for the resources (psychic, physical, and temporal) they invest in their poems.
What lit. magazines do you read regularly?
There’s so much good stuff being published. I’ll read almost any sort of lit magazine I can get my hands on, but I especially love Lana Turner Journal, Boston Review, Rattle, LARB, and The Rumpus. I’m not the first to commend Don Share’s revamp of Poetry, but it’s nuts how good that magazine has become. It feels like we’re in the midst of a real golden era. And of course, I think BOOTH (where I serve as poetry editor) is quietly one of the strongest, sexiest lit-mags in the game.
How do you decide your subjects to interview? How the hell do you get them to say yes?
It all starts with my reading. I read a lot, as widely as I’m able, and I follow my curiosity. Poets lead me into other poets and I start writing letters, start making phone calls. Almost without exception, I don’t know the people I’m interviewing at all in real life prior to our interview (though I’ve certainly made some truly miraculous and nourishing friendships through the site). All my letters and calls are cold. I guess I’m blessed with a certain shamelessness?
Once I reach them, I’m just honest. Lewis Hyde writes that gratitude requires an unpaid debt—well, I’m filled with gratitude for the words these poets have written, for the resources (psychic, physical, and temporal) they invest in their poems. I can channel a little of that gratitude and pay off some of my debt by spreading the word, by sharing these conversations.
What is your interviewing process?
When the site started out, it was a mixture of phone and email interviews. Nowadays, I only do them over the phone. It’s more work for me (transcribing the interviews is the most grueling, least fun part of running the site) but I appreciate the organic flow of the conversations. I think it’s become part of the aesthetic of Divedapper, the house style.
Your interviews are so detailed and it’s clear you know the poet’s life and work in an intimate way. Do you go in with questions planned?
That’s kind of you to say. Early on, I’d go in with questions planned; I would have a couple pages of questions written out and just move down them. I think it sometimes felt a little starchy, a little contrived. A poet would mention something I didn’t have questions about so I’d redirect the conversation instead of allowing it to move organically. Now I’ll prepare some notes, some dates and names, but mostly I try to let things flow naturally. I don’t go in with any questions written out anymore, no. It’s important to remember that the people I’m interviewing tend to be poets who’ve written books that have dominated hours, weeks, months of my life. I’ve been dreaming these conversations long before they actually happen.
How has editing this magazine affected your life?
It’s filled my days with the most spiritually generative, practically rewarding labor I could imagine. It’s given me direction and colored every second of my life with gratitude.
What are you most excited about for the magazine’s future?
I’m excited to be able to contribute these interviews to the larger conversation of contemporary poetics. All I’ve ever wanted has been to be a part of that conversation. Continuing to be of service in that way with Divedapper is the most thrilling, lucky thing in the world to me.
Favorite interview thus far? Which are you most proud of?
I know it sounds like a cop out, but I really do love them all differently—some for their wit, some for their candor, some for their backstories and unprintable bits. Usually, it’s a combination of all of those. I’ll say that Franz Wright’s interview took a long time to arrange and was the interview I was most nervous about beforehand. I’m very proud of how it turned out, in spite of my anxiety. I think the one with Wanda Coleman’s widower, Austin Straus, flew under many people’s radar. It was one of the very first ones on the site, and he really allowed himself to be open and vulnerable. I find it extremely touching.
Recently you asked folks on social media to quote their favorite line from the interviews, what is yours?
I have at least a couple from every interview, but something Stephen Burt said has become a sort of credo for me. He said, “I’m happy to spend my time persuading you to read non-me poets.” That’s it, isn’t it?
It is. Are you doing this project with the help of anyone else or is it one-man?
I spent months and months working with the most gifted graphic designer I know, Alex Sperellis, to design the site before it went live. He took my clumsy vision and deepened, improved, and built it. He designed the Divedapper logo too, which I love. Our developer and great friend, Boyma-njor Fahnbulleh, handled all the unsexy tubes and pipes pumping behind the scenes. In terms of the day-to-day stuff, the interviews, transcriptions, coding new content into the site, social media, etc, that’s all me. I’m not averse to the prospect of bringing more people aboard, but this has worked pretty well so far.
How do you spend your time outside of Divedapper?
I’ve only just started sending out my own work in earnest in the past six months. I published some early in my undergrad, but quickly realized it’d be wise to wait a while and let my ability catch up to my ambitions a little, you know?
And, regarding future plans, I’ll be moving to Tallahassee to study and teach poetry in Florida State’s Ph.D. program for the next four or five years. It’s a happy little volta in my life and I couldn’t be more excited.
Do you get a lot of feedback on your interviews you post? Via email or social media?
I do, via email and social media, and it matters deeply. I spend so much time on each of these interviews, from soliciting them to reading and prepping notes to transcribing audio to coding into the site to promoting the interviews. It means so much to me when people reach out to me to tell me they read an interview and bought a book by the poet, or related to some experience discussed, or just that the reading made their day a little better. I can ride that sort of thing for days.
Desribe Divedapper in one word.
Anything you want readers of Divedapper to know?
Only how monumentally grateful I am they exist.
Sarah Miller Freehauf is the Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket Literary Magazine, Co-Assistant Editor for The Citron Review, Founder and Editor of Teenage Wasteland Review, a reader for [PANK], and an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles. She also teaches high school English and Creative Writing in the Midwest. Her most recent work can be found in Stone Highway Review.
Above photo credit: Kip Carter