Kaveh Akbar vs. Bewilderment

May 1, 2018

Danez Smith: She’s where Christina Aguilera’s hope went, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: And they’re the overly exuberant national anthem singer at the minor league baseball game, Danez Smith.

Danez Smith: Also Christina Aguilera.

Franny Choi: Oooh!

Danez Smith: And welcome to VS, the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Brought to you, I think, by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Danez Smith: Sorry, Christina!

Franny Choi: We love you, Christina…

Danez Smith: I do.

Franny Choi: We really do…

Danez Smith: How are you doing, Franny?

Franny Choi: I’m doing OK, how are you?

Danez Smith: I’m zzzz...wwwww….dddddd…. I’m doing… really good, just, you know. Starting it off with slanders because we’re about to go into an episode with, like, one of the kindest people on the planet.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Yeah, I know. We just have to prove that we're terrible people in comparison to Kaveh Akbar.

Danez Smith: It’s just to make him look really great. (LAUGHING) We’re shit, Kaveh Akbar is great. If you know about Kaveh in these streets then you know that, like, he is, like, the biggest poetry cheerleader in the world.

Franny Choi: He really is.

Danez Smith: Yeah, yeah, I don’t know. It’s something amazing. I think all poets are poetry cheerleaders, at least I hope they are.

Franny Choi: Yeah, I mean, if you're not familiar and you want to just, like, get a daily sample of some great poems that a really smart person is reading, follow Kaveh on Twitter cause he's constantly posting the poems and ideas that he's encountering in his daily reads.

Danez Smith: Yeah, constantly. His @ should just be @poetry. (LAUGHING) Franny, what are you the Kaveh Akbar of on Twitter?

Franny Choi: Oh, like, what do I post as much as Kaveh posts poems? (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Yes.

Franny Choi: God, I wish that the answer was poems. But it certainly is not.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Gosh, it probably is, like, retweeting Democracy Now headlines.

Danez Smith: OK, OK, OK.

Franny Choi: Which each have, like, 17 likes. Whatever. From the Democracy Now account. And, like, obscure, slightly sensical Korean-American culture references.

Danez Smith: OK, that’s cool. I vibe with that niche you fill in the market.

Franny Choi: Yeah, just like ha ha, that latest episode of K-pop Star. Am I right, y'all? Ummm… our moms.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) LOL

Franny Choi: What about you, what are you the Kaveh Akbar of on Twitter.

Danez Smith: Okay, so in my heart of hearts I would like to say the black mirror of you…


Danez Smith: No, not Black Mirror the show, just, like… you know.

Franny Choi: Oh, oh, oh.

Danez Smith: No, I’m the Kaveh Akbar of either A, cussing out straight people, because they need so many reminders about why they're wrong.

Franny Choi: (SIGHING) Yeah. They’re like, am I right, am I right, am I right?

Danez Smith: No.

Franny Choi: No.

Danez Smith: Uummmm, but in truth it’s really typos, because…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I tweet more typos…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: ...than anybody in the world. And the sad part is—I usually do a follow up tweet about the typo that includes a typo.

Franny Choi: Oh no…. girl!

Danez Smith: My typo corrections have typos. And so yeah.

Franny Choi: That’s so good.

Danez Smith: Shout-out to copy editors, cause my books would all be trash without them.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) “Don't Call Is Dead.”

Danez Smith: “Don't Call Us Deed.” (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: “Don’t Call Us Dad.” (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: “insert [bay].” (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Wait, I love “insert [bay]!” I feel like that should be the B-side!

Danez Smith: OK, maybe. I like that. So now that we know what Kavehs we are, let’s get to the actual Kaveh Akbar. Kaveh Akbar is the author of Calling A Wolf A Wolf, he runs an amazing interview website called Divedapper which y’all should be into you. Brilliant professor, brilliant mind, kind heart and has the best hair in … hair. 

Franny Choi: The best hair in hair. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: The best hair in hair. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Let’s get into it, let’s hang out with our friend Kaveh Akbar.

Danez Smith: Yay!


Franny Choi: This is such a nerdy mug. It’s just, like, code.

Kaveh Akbar: Mmm, I picked a dumb mug.

Franny Choi: elsecoffee.drink. I learned like two seconds of coding.

Danez Smith: Oh, you dropped that class.

Franny Choi: Yeah, I was, like, you know what, this is actually boring. It turns out.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) My first, like, art thing was programming calculator games in high school. Like, this was before everyone had, like…. this is, like, very Middle-Eastern child of me, but, like…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: This was before everyone had cell phones on which you could play games, right.

Danez Smith: You were up in TI-80 phase?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, literally! I used to program TI-83 games. If you go to they publish a bunch of my games. There is, like…

Franny Choi: Really!?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, yeah, this was like…

Franny Choi: The original claim to fame?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah. That was, like, my creative thing. I was programming these calculator games. I did, like, Bungee Man, I did Serpent. I did this game called Sim Band where you could, like, make up your own band and, like, set merch prices and stuff.

Franny Choi: Oh my god.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: You little weird capitalist child!

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Well, the games were free, but yeah. Sure, sure, sure.

Danez Smith: But, like, the thing that’s, like, a game is like, I wanna play a game where I price things. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) It was fun! And so, in my math classes everyone would just be, like, ignoring the teacher and playing my games on their, like, calculators, you know.

Franny Choi: Did you get in trouble?

Kaveh Akbar: Well, I just made them. I mean, the people who were playing them, if the teacher noticed, would get in trouble. The same way you get in trouble if you were texting in class now.

Franny Choi: Gosh, but you were the mastermind.

Kaveh Akbar: I was!

Danez Smith: … even more than Snake, that was the only one we were really…

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, I made a version of Snake called Serpent. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: That's good active listening.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: But Serpent was where the serpent poops everywhere the serpent goes, and then you have to avoid all the poop and the snake gets longer and longer, the longer he survives.

Franny Choi: Wait, that sounds so good!

Kaveh Akbar: It was fun! You can literally still go to and download these games.

Danez Smith: Well, I still have my calculator. So yeah, let’s get this poppin’.

Franny Choi: I definitely don't have my calculator.

Danez Smith: I refuse to ever get rid of that thing. We paid a hundred dollars for it… (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, they’re expensive. Very expensive. And they’ve got, like, the market cornered. There's no other calculator company that you can go to.

Danez Smith: No, no. And I still have a fear that, like, if something ever happened to it, my mom would appear out of nowhere and beat my ass. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: If your mom just shows up like, hey, I need to use your calculator, like, ewwww….

Danez Smith: Or, like, I told you in 2004 if you ever lost that thing… it was gonna be nasty.

Kaveh Akbar: Totally, totally.

Franny Choi: Throwback.

Danez Smith: Throwback. We should use that, by the way. I like it, this is why I like us. (LAUGHING) Alright, we are sitting here in the studio with the one and the onlyest and the least oiliest, Kaveh Akbar.

Kaveh Akbar: That’s the best intro I’ve ever gotten.

Danez Smith: Yeah, I feel like you have a very balanced moisturizing plan.

Kaveh Akbar: I err dry actually.

Danez Smith: You air dry?

Kaveh Akbar: No, no, no, no, I err on the side of dry. (LAUGHING) But I can understand…. (LAUGHING) I understand how you might be confused by it.

Danez Smith: OK, you err on the side of dry.

Kaveh Akbar: I err on the side of dryness.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: That one was on me. 

Danez Smith: Well, this is what poems are about, y’all, language. How it slips.

KA en Franny Choi: Air dry, err dry….

Kaveh Akbar: Or you could be like Plath and, like, herr, H-E-R-R, like the German…

Danez Smith: Oh, heir dry. I don’t ever wanna be the heir to dry, yo, who wants to inherit ashiness.

Kaveh Akbar: There are so many [ers].

Danez Smith: Oh, you’re talking about another [er] like, which…

Kaveh Akbar: H-E-R-R is, like, Mr in German.

Danez Smith: Really?

Franny Choi: Like Hitler, people didn’t call him Mr. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Maybe it doesn’t mean Mr.

Danez Smith: It does sound a little bit too friendly… (SINGS THE SANDMAN TUNE) Mr. Hitler… Bring me a dream, dum-dum-dum-dum.

Franny Choi: Oh no!

Kaveh Akbar: This podcast is getting weird really fast.

Danez Smith: Yeah, no. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I feel like I just got us, like, two white supremacists listening in.

Franny Choi: No!! Unfollow, unfollow.

Danez Smith: Unfollow. This is not for you, no, no, no, no, no. Queer, queer, queer, brown, brown, brown. OK, gone now. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Hi, Kaveh. How are you doing?

Kaveh Akbar: We all just pile up our melanin in the middle of the…

Danez Smith: So we had the chance to see Kaveh and other Season 2 guest Tarfia Faizullah doing an amusing… amusing? Amazing. At an amazing reading last night. And we also got a live Divedapper interview.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, that was cool.

Danez Smith: How was that, have you done sort of a live interview format with Divedapper before?

Kaveh Akbar: I’ve done exactly one before, with transcendent Chicago poet, Erika Sánchez. We were reading together in Utah and they wanted us to do a Q&A afterwards, and I was, like, can I hit record on my phone? And we could do that.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Kaveh Akbar: But yeah, it's fun. I mean, the actual Divedapper conversations are just phone calls with me talking to the person…

Danez Smith and Franny Choi: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: you both know. (LAUGHING) And those conversations are transcribed and put up on the site. If I'm doing a Q&A with a poet who I love and whose book I'm excited about, then it just kind of makes sense to hit record on my phone and use it. Assuming they're amendable. I'm not just, like, sneakily recording people while I am hanging out.

Franny Choi: Like, wiretapping every reading you do. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Like, surprise, you’re on my website!

Franny Choi: (CREEPY) Woahahaha. I’ve been curious, do you do have a favorite interview that you’ve done for Divedapper?

Danez Smith: Assuming you love all your children.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! I love all my children. I mean, I think about this sometimes. And people have asked it to me before. It varies. You know, Franz Wright was really important to me because… he was sort of a lodestar-kind-of poet to me, and he was someone who I couldn't get a hold of for the longest time. I found his email address, and I just started sending him emails, like, constantly, like, I would send him, like, an email every week for, like, six months, I'm not exaggerating.

Danez Smith: Oh wow.

Kaveh Akbar: You know, after, like, the third e-mail it stopped being, like, can I interview you for Divedapper, and it just started being, like, hey, I'm Kaveh, this is what I’m up to this week, and this is what I'm thinking about. And it just kind of became, like, this….. It kind of became this, like, little private blog for me or something, like…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: You know what I mean? I was just sort of, like…

Danez Smith: Cause he’s not responding?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, cause he’s not responding. I didn’t even know it was, like, a real email account, you know what I mean.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: But it just sort of became, like, this place for me to put my thoughts, you know. After, like, six months—I'm not exaggerating, like, six months of, like, constant emails—he sent back, like, eight words and it was, like, call me at this number. And so, of course, I call it right away and it naturally, like, no voice mail, no answering machine. It just rings, like, 30 times and nothing happens. And so I'm, like, is this number even a real thing, you know what I mean.

Franny Choi: You’re making him sound like a wizard. Or like a…

Kaveh Akbar: Well, he kind of was that.

Franny Choi: ...wise man at the top of a mountain.

Kaveh Akbar: He kind of was that. Both to me and IRL. But so, I just, like, called him for, like, two weeks, like that. You know, like, every couple days, I would call this number again. And always just, like, ring and no answering machine, no response…

Danez Smith: Yeah, this is, like, tougher than trying to become Jewish, y’all.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: You gotta email the rabbi for six months, call him for two weeks to be able to send a pigeon? (LAUGHING) So he finally picks up?

Kaveh Akbar: Well, his wife finally picks up after, like, two weeks. And then we scheduled a time. And it was great. We, like, talked and it was normal and it was, like…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) “And it was normal...”

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! And it happened to be, like, the last interview he did before he passed away, too. So it was, like, this intense conversation, that was really sort of a beautiful and important for me. You know, that one was amazing… Obviously, both of yours were incredible…

Franny Choi: Aaaah!

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I felt so inadequate.

Kaveh Akbar: You felt so inadequate? Why? Why do you say that?

Danez Smith: I was, like, I wish he had circled back in, like, two years. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I mean, I was very young. And I really loved Divedapper. I was just, like, oh, it’s too early, but he asked me. So…

Kaveh Akbar: Well, to be honest, like, if you read the early interviews on the site, a lot of them are really bad. And it's not because of who I'm talking to, it’s because of me, because I started the site when I was, like, a baby... having not.. you know, I hadn't published a single poem, I hadn't... I wasn't, like, out. And so I didn't know what I was doing. And I was deeply insecure about the fact that everyone would be, like, why is this dude talking to Sharon Olds. Who does he think, you know… Who does he think he is.

Franny Choi: That’s a great interview.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! That one turned out to be one of my favorites. But I remember getting ready to interview Carl Phillips, and I was just, like, what am I….  like, I'm, like, this child. And this is, like… I just sort of imagine him, like, sitting on an iceberg with, like, a falcon on his shoulder reading Proust, or…  you know what I mean.

Franny Choi: Surrounded by antlers…

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah!

Danez Smith: I wonder if that’s far from what I still think.

Franny Choi: Yeah, but now he is on Instagram, lip syncing karaoke in the car with his dogs.

Danez Smith: And he’s, like, so nice…

Kaveh Akbar: He’s the nicest human being. But this to say: I was so self-conscious and I was so worried that, you know, everyone was just going to be, like, who is this dude, and, like, why is he sounding, like, such a dumbass. And so I would prepare these sort of, like, unanswerable monologue questions, you know what I mean?

Franny Choi: Oh… sure.

Kaveh Akbar: Like, like, referencing obscure, like, 19th century poetic theory. You know what I mean, just, like, these awful, awful questions. Just super obnoxious. And all these people were super super, like, gracious and still were able to answer and say smart things. But it wasn't until I was doing an interview with the poet Fady Joudah... he, like, called me out in the middle of the interview. I asked him, like, some, like, over the plate question, like, how did winning the Yale Younger change your life, you know what I mean, which is such a... you know, such a non-question. And he was, like, I mean, I could answer the question, but do you really want me to just give you the same answer I've given to, like, the 30 other interviewers who have asked me that?

Franny Choi: Wooo!

Kaveh Akbar: You know, he was, like, why am I talking to you like this sort of, like, character? Why aren’t we just talking like human beings? You know what I mean? And so, like, you talk about, like, being self-conscious or whatever about that interview. But, like, the whole, like, first third of the site is…. I feel that way about. Until I stopped, like, coming into it being, like, these are the six questions I'm gonna ask.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: You know what I mean?

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: Did you also…. like, did starting to publish your own work in the world change that mindset too?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, I mean, it certainly helped me to feel like I belonged in the community. But a big part of me publishing my own work in the world was just that my work got so much better as a result of Divedapper, because, like, for each one of these Divedapper interviews, I have to, like, read, like, just about the entirety of everyone's bibliography before I talk to them.

Franny Choi: Oh, wow.

Kaveh Akbar: And if you are reading that much poetry and, like, you know... it was coming out every two weeks, you know what I mean.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: Still aspires to, though. It slowed down a little bit. But if you're reading, like, this much contemporary poetry all the time, of course it's gonna, like, change your own poetics, you know what I mean.

Danez Smith: Yeah. And you’re reading all the time. I’m surprised you don’t have a book in your hand right now.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) I have a couple in my backpack. I just, I just... like it. Yeah, well... I mean it’s, like, I don't know. It's, like, a comfortable thing for me. If I loved Call of Duty, I wouldn't shut up about Call of Duty and I'd be making, like, Call of Duty YouTube videos all the time and, you know, I’d just be, like, that dude. But because I love poetry and that is, like, what really, really sort of sincerely… I was gonna say “gets me off”...

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: But that is, like, you know, it really sort of does it for me. This is just the body that ticks. Sometimes people talk about it, like, it's, like, I'm doing this, like, service or whatever. But, like, I think that that sort of framing it, makes it seem like poetry is, like, this chore that you have to do... and you know I mean? And that’s not, like, my relationship to it. And that's not your guys’s relationship to it. You know? And it only feels like service if you don't like to do it. Do you know what I mean?

Danez Smith: Well, I think it feels like service... because you are such an avid, like… I know you're an avid reader because you're an avid sharer of work. And that does feel like an act of service. Because I know for me, like, sometimes, like, I read a dope poem, but sometimes I feel like I have more of a selfish relationship to particular things. You know, I want to sort of keep something more insular. But I think you have this celebratory energy where just, like, this is good. I want to show it to the whole world. And sometimes I feel like that too, but it does feel like an act of service to be that generous with something that can be so private.

Kaveh Akbar: Sure, sure, sure. Well… I mean, it's this thing now, where, if I read a poem that I love, it takes me all of 15 seconds to instantaneously put it in front of, like, thousands of eyeballs, you know what I mean? Like, that 15 seconds is nothing to me, it's a time to, like, sort of recalibrate my mind. But then, you know, that can make all sorts of stuff happen for... you know, that poet or connect someone to a book that they really need…. you know what I mean. It's really cool to think about that. This is something I'd be interested to talk to you guys about. Like, people talk a lot now about, you know, like, social media poets, as if it's like this huge pejorative. And I think that a lot of it is founded in this idea that, you know, the traditional channels to success are... you know, you go to a prestigious undergrad, then you go to a prestigious MFA program and then you get, like, a shitty professor job and then you win fellowships. You know what I mean, and there are, like, all these tracks that you're supposed to go through to get an audience, you know what I mean.

Danez Smith: Maybe not all these tracks, all these doors on this one track.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, all these doors and … yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a good way to frame it. And, you know, there are all these gatekeepers that you’re supposed to impress. And I feel like people like you two have sort of… done a lot of really, really important work to show that there are alternative paths to gaining an audience, while still making, like, really, really, really, really dope, really, sort of, like, formally interesting, creative poetry, you know what I mean? And I think that there is a way in which those who are more aligned with the traditional modes of poetry and those traditional avenues, really kind of resent that.

Franny Choi: For sure. But I also think it's so weird that it seems sometimes like the same people who believe so much in gatekeepers, that believe that poets have a responsibility to do, like, A through Z with whatever shine that they've gotten. It’s just weird because, like, that track you just, like, outlined, is not one that really depends on any kind of community, you know. It just, like.. you do well and then you do well to the next thing and then you do well again. And you don’t owe anyone anything then, you know? I just been thinking about, like, the way people talk about, like, what poets owe whoever else, you know.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, well, for me... I hate the idea of trying to speak empirically about, like, everybody else's responsibility, you know what I mean.

Danez Smith: Yeah, that's actually what I detest.

Franny Choi: Totally!

Kaveh Akbar: Like, anyone who tries to tell me, like, how I'm supposed to be acting, or how I'm supposed to be, like, managing any part of my life… you know I mean, like, this is something that I struggle all the time to try to manage, you know, my whole life is built around this constant, sort of, inventory-taking of, like, what am I doing, what could I be doing better to be a more compassionate, empathetic, useful person to the people around me, you know what I mean?

Franny Choi: Totally.

Kaveh Akbar: And so, like, for someone else who, like, doesn't know anything about my life to come in and be like, you should be (ANGRY SOUNDS). You know, it's really sort of an insult to…. a lot, you know. That to say, my being here, my being able to be talking to you guys here in this beautiful studio full of fruit snacks and string cheese is predicated on a constant orientation towards gratitude. My whole being here and not living the old life that I've, you know, sort of written about is predicated on constant, sort of, inventory taking and being abundantly aware of, like, what I have to be grateful for, you know what I mean, because as soon as I lose sight of that, it's easy to start backsliding. And so, when you pile up gratitude, when it piles up all around you, what you have to do is push it out. What you have to do is share it. You know what I mean?

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Kaveh Akbar: And so it becomes sort of incumbent upon me... in taking care of myself. Like, it's still a deeply, sort of, selfish personal thing to be pushing this sort of gratitude outwards. But that to say, you know, someone who has intense social anxiety, or someone who may not have the same sort of faculties in the same sort of capacity that I have. So for me to be, like, if you have success you have to be out there talking... you know I mean, like, that's bullshit, you know what I mean. Because not everyone has the ability to do that. And everyone is able to, sort of, contribute however they can, and everyone sort of has to figure it out for themselves.

Franny Choi: Yeah. And not all the different kinds of, like, service is visible in the same way as well.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Danez Smith: Yeah, cause that's my real problem with it. I think a lot of, like, when we're talking about this thing with social media, it's interesting because, I think…. Especially, I don’t want to say, especially for poets, but I think there's so many little sub tweets and arguments on Twitter all the fucking time about what poets should and shouldn’t be doing, when really, to be the most popular poet is to say that nobody knows who I am.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, Richard Howard has this quote where he says, being a famous poet is like being a famous mushroom.

Danez Smith: Exactly. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Wait, what does that mean?

Danez Smith: I mean, that's kind of nice because mushrooms are all kind of connected under the earth, right. So you’re only connected to this thing that nobody can see.

Franny Choi: Ooooooh!

Kaveh Akbar: I like that too. I think, like, there are a few people out there who, like, go out into the woods and they're, like, I hope we’ll find a really dope morel today or whatever. But most people just, like, you know, they just see the mushrooms in the mud and walk by, you know.

Danez Smith: Maybe this is happening in our greater culture, too. But it feels like people have forgotten that our social medias are  not our real selves. That they are literally an avatar for who we are. I think that it’s started to replace us and that it’s become more important than the physicalness of who we actually are and what we do in our daily lives, sometimes. I worry about that sort of rising concern about, like, you know, I actually don't care about how anybody else uses their Twitter.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Danez Smith: I don't. That is not up to me to decide, if you want to pump out… You know, I think, I love people when they, like…. Because I get to see new poems too when people share a lot of stuff. But if, like, you just want to share your friend’s poems then go ahead and share your friend’s poems. If you just wanna share your poems, cool, that’s, like your professional thing…

Franny Choi: If you never want to share poems…

Danez Smith: If you just wanna retweet dogs and pornstars, I’m down for it, you know.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I love those two things on Twitter, sure. And actually, it makes me just want to say, okay cool, could we stop talking about Twitter and actually just go back to talking about poems. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Truly, truly, truly. I mean it's, like, anyone trying to dictate…. you know, if you're not harming someone else directly by your actions, then, like, who the fuck cares what any of us are doing with anything, you know what I mean. I don't know. Yeah.

Danez Smith: Amen. So you’ve recently released your brilliant collection, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf.” How's it been touring around and doing these poems. How has it been taking these…. because it's a very personal book. And I know I've wondered about this too, and I struggled with it when “[insert] boy” came out and I was, like, oh, like, I'm just, on a national read-my-diary tour.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: I mean, that’s very real. (LAUGHING) For one, it's been living a dream. You know what I mean? To get to just be a person who goes around talking about poems all day everyday, doing, like, the one thing that I want to do all the time. I'm a full-time professor. I'm a full time Ph.D. student and I did 32 gigs last semester. I'm doing, like... you know what I mean?

Danez Smith: So you are Hermione Granger.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! And so, like, it's, like, this thing where, you know, I've had to become, like, very, sort of, disciplined about my time, you know what I mean. Which also means being disciplined about, like, taking an hour to, like, play chess on my phone with Paige, my partner. Or taking a break to, like, watch an episode of The Simpsons in the middle of the day to, like, sort of reset myself, you know. Or take a nap.  These sorts of things.

Franny Choi: That’s hard. Breaks are so important.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Well, because, like, you know, if I take an hour to talk to my partner and don't do work during that time, I'll find that, like, afterwards, I will get way more work done than if I had just worked through that hour, you know what I mean? I’ll also say, with regards to the actual question you're asking, you know, going around and reading difficult poems about the low time in my life, you know…. Like you're talking about with “[insert] boy,” I found myself writing more gratitude-y poems, you know. And I've had to sort of balance that out, you know, in my readings. You know, if I just get up in front of an audience and read, you know, eight poems about being a rock bottom addict pissing myself every night, I'm going to feel like shit afterwards, and they're going to feel like shit too, you know I mean? It's not going to be an experience that anyone leaves feeling positively about, even if they are vibing with the poems, even if they're, like, really, really sort of, like, feeling it. It's not gonna be an uplifting experience, it's not gonna be something that they're going to want to think... You know what I mean?

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure.

Kaveh Akbar: And it’s not a accurate reflection of who I am today, you know what I mean? Because I'm not feeling desperate and lonely and scared of the world, you know what I mean. A lot of the times, I'm feeling really grateful to be here with, you know, friends like you guys, and feeling really, really lucky to get to be in love with my favorite person, you know what I mean. And, like, I want to have poems that sort of reflect this sort of thing, too, you know.

Franny Choi: Danez is weeping.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) But that I feel is such an act of care for… the people that you’re reading poems to, the people you are trying to reach, and for yourself, and, like, the person that those poems are about, too, you know. There’s, like, an ethics of care there.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, I love that, I love that. I mean, how do you guys deal with it, you know? Because you guys have both written about difficult things, but you guys also are complex humans who find deep wells of joy in this world.

Danez Smith: I think you're right, you know. It's about knowing how to balance it out with, like, poems from the books that may be about hard things, and newer poems and also, like, jokes… I, like, really…

Kaveh Akbar: Yes.

Danez Smith: interested in the non-poem connection that you can make with an audience as well.

Kaveh Akbar: Me too.

Danez Smith: And just really building up that space, which allows, I think, myself to go to the harder spaces if I know that I can joke around and be funny, just have these intimate moments outside of that. But I also... I think I've got a lot more greedy with my own energy, in terms of, like, what poems I chose to perform on tour. And so, like, really depending on rooms. And really be able to go and feel out energy is… Like, sometimes I go in rooms and, like, if I'm in small-town whatever the hell, where, like, obviously I’m the first black person a lot of these folks have seen in front of a room in a long time, then maybe I do less of the, like, sad Danez, like, you know, has-to-think-about-his-blood-today poems. And I do more of the, like, yo, white person, you need to think about this shit. And also think about how, like, black people are worthy of tenderness. And those are the poems I decide to give to those audiences. And I really try to pick and choose which spaces I can truly open up myself with, and I think that's always been sort of a thing with my poetics is, like, balancing the personal with, like, sort of the things that can feel a little bit further from the self.

Kaveh Akbar: Hmm.

Danez Smith: So yeah, it's just about that balance and, like, recognizing that, like, I can offer up myself to an audience without exhausting myself or without depleting myself.

Kaveh Akbar: That’s a beautiful way to say it.

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure. And, like, kind of getting away from the idea that, like, you have to sacrifice yourself in front of people in order for them to, like, feel moved by something, you know. I don’t know, like, I want to read the poems that are moving to me at the moment in ways that don't require me being broken. I mean, I made a pact at some point last... last year? A few years ago? That, like... There were certain poems where, every time I read them in front of an audience, I felt just, like, shittier and shittier, each time reading those poems. And I was just, like, I'm not going to do that anymore. Like, I'm not gonna read a poem that makes me feel... like, that puts my own, like, destruction on display and then doesn't offer anything in its place. Also, especially if you're on tour, and you're doing, you know, ten shows in a row or something, that's rough on all of us.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Danez Smith: You know what I also started doing, too? Pro-tip if you're on tour or find yourself touring one day. I started bringing my own personal altar wherever I went, I bought, like, a really nice piece of fabric and, like, wrapped up things from home that I care about, and that really allowed... I think that also, like, in this last tour that I did, help me go deeper into those places, because when I did go back to the hotel room, I was someplace that was mine. Even if it was only temporary, like, you know, I touched the turtle that my friend Kelsey gave me. I touched the lei that my friend Will gave me, who’s.. it came from Hawaii and now it’s just shriveled up flowers that are crunched up. I'm able to do those things…

Kaveh Akbar: I love that.

Danez Smith: Yeah, so being able to come back into a space that still felt precious, even if it was a Holiday Inn.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah!

Danez Smith: It made it really possible for me to say, okay, I can actually do that harder poem tonight, you know, cause I get to go back to someplace that feels like me.

Kaveh Akbar: That’s beautiful. There's this really great Tess Gallagher line that I'm gonna butcher, but it's something to the effect of, like, that hotel rooms have the most people, they have the most humanity passing through and no record at all of that, you know what I mean. It's the weirdest thing to be on tour and to finish a gig where you just talk to, like, 100 people after the show who came through, you know, to say something. And then you go back to an empty hotel room in a city where you don't have a car, and you don't know where you are, and you're just, like, oh well, it's just me and these sheets.

Danez Smith: You know, sheets / TV.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Gonna watch this dog walker and this librarian buy a 10.000 million dollar house on… Yeah.

Franny Choi: Or look at this painting of orange triangles.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I like those orange triangles.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah.

Franny Choi: Isn't that also something kind of comforting that, like, every hotel room in the world kind of looks the same? Like, you walk in and you're, like, aaaah... Very basic again.

Kaveh Akbar: It’s like ordering a Big Mac anywhere around the world.

Franny Choi: Right!

Kaveh Akbar: You know exactly what you’re gonna get.

Danez Smith: Yeah… I don’t know about that, y’all.

Kaveh Akbar: Me neither.

Franny Choi: Really!?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, I’m not a Big Mac person.

Danez Smith: I’m not a Big Mac person either, but I heard KFC is poppin’ in the Caribbean and Japan, which is..

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: …disgusting.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, well, it would be a beautiful thing to just do… Well, no, it would be a deeply strange thing…

Danez Smith: I was about to say, a KFC tour?

Kaveh Akbar: Well, yeah, but all around the world, like, international KFC touring and just like do a blog about, like, in the Polynesian islands, they have spam, and, you know what I mean, this sort of thing.

Danez Smith: KFC, if you're listening…

Kaveh Akbar: Sponsor it… It’s like Amtrak doing the residencies.

Danez Smith: I forgot about that. Can I circle back to something we’ve mentioned. I hope it's OK to talk about. I want to talk about poetry and love for a second. So, your partner Paige, they are a phenomenal poet.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. I agree.

Danez Smith: If you’re not yet up on Paige Lewis, y’all, you need to get on it. Get up on their poems in the January issue of Poetry magazine.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: What has poetry taught you about loving and being better about being a partner. And, like, in maybe each other too, you know.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah. Well, we started out as kind of puppies together, you know what I mean, like, we were both little idiots in MFA programs, you know what I mean. And we were just writing postal letters back and forth, and then we started writing poems within each postal letter. People talk about doing, like, a poem everyday, thirty poems in thirty days or whatever, but this was, like…. The stakes were so high for this…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Because it was, like, if I wrote a shitty poem, Paige might love me less. You know what I mean, like, and if they wrote a bad poem, you know, then maybe I'd be like, oh no. Not that that would ever happen.

Danez Smith: It’s true though. I know… You’ve seen someone read a bad poem and they got a little bit less cute.

Franny Choi: For sure, oh, for sure.

Kaveh Akbar: But never… Paige… Never transcendental American poets’ influence.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: That was really, sort of, when I became disciplined as a poet, you know, because I had to write, like, a good poem, you know…. And not… I think actually, one of those poems did make it into the book. But that taught me a kind of discipline, you know what I mean. I also think that, you know, I would be a hopelessly uninteresting person to anyone who wasn't a poet to spend all your time around.

Franny Choi: What?

Kaveh Akbar: Well, no I just mean, like…

Danez Smith: Cause you’re just such a poetry nerd?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! I’m like, I’m like a huge geek and, like…

Danez Smith: Somebody’s, like, this n**** taking pictures of books again. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: That’s what I’m saying, like, they will sit by my side and write with me for eight hours. You know what I mean, like, who could I ask that of if not another writer.

Danez Smith: Not an engineer.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, or, like, one of our favorite things to do is to just, like, walk around this pond that is in Tallahassee where we live together, and memorize poems while we walk around the pond, you know what I mean. And, like, I'm sure that you could find someone… (LAUGHING) Daniel is rolling his eyes.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I’m sorry, this is, like, the cutest slam team in the world.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I know, it really is.

Kaveh Akbar: And, like, they’re so much better at it than I am, too. Like, they're, like, they'll have the poem memorized within, like, our lap.

Franny Choi: Do you memorize the same poem together?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re helping each other memorize it, you know.

Franny Choi: Ah, nice.

Danez Smith: And it's not their own poems, like, they're memorizing...

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Oh, oh yeah, no, no we're not…

Danez Smith: Not getting ready for the reading. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Me and Franny come from slam, so when we hear ‘memorizing’ we think ‘gotta get ready for that bout.’

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah.

Franny Choi: Yeah, like, headphones in, on the street…

Kaveh Akbar: Well, I have most of the poems in my book memorized now, cause I spent so long… I still like to have the book in front of me, cause it’s sort of, like.. If you’re…

Danez Smith: (WHISPERING) Advertising.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Well, I never even thought about that, but yeah, that works!

Danez Smith: Sometimes it’s just there to, like, remember to buy this after…

Kaveh Akbar: I never even thought about that! I was gonna say something way more pretentious.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) About how, like, if you're, like, in an orchestra, you still want to see, like, the conductor up there. Because of the little batons or her little batons or their little batons…

Danez Smith: That’s actually really nice. You’re profound, I’m capitalist.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: No, no, no, yours is good though, yours is smart. That’s some real pro tips. (LAUGHING) I don’t know, I mean, like, how does poetry work in your love life?


Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Well...

Kaveh Akbar: That’s a whole other podcast.

Franny Choi: Yeah, well, I mean… As someone whose Venus is in Aquarius, I like to be loved for having mental, philosophical, kind of like, connections, is the way that I prefer to, like, fall for people. Yeah, I don't know. I think it's a lot of... I, like, I, like, geeking out. And I think, like, love is, like, a process of, like, geeking out.

Danez Smith: Totally!

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, absolutely.

Franny Choi: You geek out about each other so you get to geek out about a thing and, like, practice doing that together. I don’t know, it makes sense to me.

Danez Smith: Yeah. And it’s nice to already, like.. I think it’s nice to geek out about things your partners like, so, like, sometimes, like, somebody will make you a fan of Battlestar Galactica because they love it. Yeah, shout-out to my ex…

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Battlestar Galactica is great though.

Danez Smith: I didn’t know. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: It’s one of my favorite shows.

Danez Smith: I didn’t know. I didn’t know until somebody was fucking me right.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Isn’t it just, like, sexy Star Trek?

Danez Smith: Yeah, it is like sexy Star Trek.

Kaveh Akbar: It’s super bad-ass.

Danez Smith: It is. Well, don’t go too far down this road.

Kaveh Akbar: I’ll go as far down that road as you’ll let me.

Danez Smith: I don’t. Now I don’t watch it anymore, cause…

Kaveh Akbar: OK. OK, OK, OK.

Danez Smith: ...I’m finished receiving the dick. Ummmm...

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: But it’s, like, nice to walk into… walk into love. Already having love for the same thing.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Danez Smith: That's, like, really… I want that. Yeah.

Franny Choi: And also, I think so much of it is, like, building up, like, a shared library and, like, language, you know, to use, like, with your partner and stuff.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: And so...

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, totally.

Franny Choi: If you already have part of that language, then yeah, sure.

Kaveh Akbar: And I think that so much of what attracts me to somebody is passion. And it doesn't matter if they're passionate about stamp collecting or oceanography or…

Danez Smith: Well…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: I was… so I was staying with Nate and José, right….

Danez Smith: Nate Marshall, José Olivarez.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah. And Nate was driving me around the other night and, like, just showing me, like, all of his favorite places in his neighborhood and, like, he was, like, this is where I wrote this and this is where my grandma used to….. You know what I mean? And just, like… And I was, like, this is someone who really, really loves what he's talking…. you know, he was, like, glowing. He was aglow. You know, I never loved him more. You know what I mean? It was, like…. it was a really, really beautiful thing.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Awww. Yeah. Nate does love Chicago.

Danez Smith: It’s true, to see somebody else put love into it.. And it lets you know that they are capable of love.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah.

Danez Smith: Which makes you, then, love them more.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah. Even they are just, like, playing with their dog and they’re being just, like, vulnerable and non-self-conscious in a way that they aren’t often in their… You know?

Danez Smith: Yeah. That’s wonderful.

Franny Choi: Mmmmm.


Franny Choi: Do you write love poems?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. Yeah, I do.

Danez Smith: All this n***’s poems are love poems.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I agree, I agree with you. Do you write poems that are, just straight-up love poems?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. So I don’t publish, like, nearly everything that I write. So I write a lot and a lot of, like, dear Paige Lewis, I think you are great, you know, sort of love poems.

Franny Choi: Aha.

Kaveh Akbar: Almost all of them haven’t been published. But they’re really fun to write.

Danez Smith: Would you ever publish those?

Kaveh Akbar: I mean, I have published a couple of them. It isn’t even, like, I want this stuff to be secret. I mean, that’s some of it, but a lot of it is, like.. it will lean on some of the, like, private language that we have, you know what I mean. Stuff that wouldn’t necessarily translate… over the course of a relationship you build private iconography, you know..

Franny Choi: Yeah, sure.

Kaveh Akbar: … you have, sort of, totems of your love, you know, that wouldn’t really necessarily have the same sort of connotative effect on the relative vacuum of a reader’s mind, you know what I mean.

Franny Choi: Yeah, yeah, that’s like if you watch siblings talk to each other…

Kaveh Akbar: Exactly.

Franny Choi: … and they’re just, like, language.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Danez Smith: I feel like we also receive warnings about that from histories of, like… I don't know, if you look into, like, some of your favorite poets’, like, history and their relationships, right, like there tend to be some warnings there about, like, writing too much about partners… And I think it is sometimes much easier to, like, write about the family members that hurt you, than to write about the people in your life that actually, like, love on you.

Franny Choi: Woo!

Danez Smith: ...sometimes that has a lot less repercussions, cause if you already have beef, then it’s, like, cool, continue to have beef in these stanzas. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: And that ties into a bigger thing, which is just that it’s just… oftentimes easier to write about pain than it is to write about joy.

Danez Smith: Oh, so much harder.

Kaveh Akbar: And that’s something to constantly navigate. Like, you want your poetry to relay the entire corpus of your emotional experience, right, but it’s easier to write a, sort of, formally, technically interesting poem about sadness or grief or loneliness or desperation…

Danez Smith: True.

Kaveh Akbar: You know what I mean.

Danez Smith: Sure. I’m writing a book about friendship right now, and this shit is corny y’all. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: It’s so unbelievably corny. I love it.

Franny Choi: Well, I don’t believe that, first of all. That it’s actually corny.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: But yeah, I think, like, so much of the energy of a poem comes from, like, something being off, or, like, right?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah!

Franny Choi: Something being, like, not right, mismatched. And if everything fits and is OK, then what do you have to write about.

Danez Smith: Yeah. And it also.. it’s also hard to have, like, a double play sometimes. Like, usually we play in our poems because of the hard topics that are there.

Franny Choi: Right.

Danez Smith: But it’s hard to, like, play in play.

Franny Choi: Right. Like, let’s be silly about happy stuff. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) It's also, like, you come into a poem, certain that you love someone. And I think certainty... you know, you were talking about this last night, certainty is really kind of death to a poem, right.

Danez Smith: It’s true.

Kaveh Akbar: When I come into a poem certain that I'm in love with Paige Lewis...

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: You know, there's nowhere for that poem to go, really. It's, like, a complete circuit already. Whereas if I come to a poem being, like, this person fucked me up in this sort of amorphous, abstract way, and I'm not really sure what it is that is, like, broken in me, but, like, maybe the space of this poem will sort of... you know what I mean? Then it's a lot easier to catch that sort of charge across the synapse.

Danez Smith: I mean, ever since Plato, it's been better to find the light than to just be in it.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Look at you!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I remember eleventh grade philosophy… I learned the word “existential” and I used it in all my papers in my junior year in college. Literally every paper… my teacher was, like, it’s not existential, you just like that word. (LAUGHING) Can we switch gears?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Danez Smith: This is also about love. So, you have worked with one of my, like, icons, Maggie Gyllenhaal...

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: …who I fucking love, on this movie called “The Kindergarten Teacher”...

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Danez Smith: ...which is about a, like, 5-year-old poetry prodigy. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays his teacher, and you and Ocean Vuong wrote poems for this. How is it, one, to write poems for a movie, and then also, to put those poems in the mouth of a five-year old; what does a five-year-old’s poem sound like? Good five-year old poems.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah. The whole… so, like, the conceit is that the movie is sort of loosely about, you know, this five-year-old who has an interest in poetry and, sort of, writes these incredible poems. And his teacher tries to, sort of, foster that. And so Ocean and I wrote the poems for the five-year-old. And then this other poet, Dominique Townsend, wrote the poems for the teacher. Because the teacher is also a poet. It was this wild thing where Paige and I were literally reading in bed, and I got this email on my phone from Maggie Gyllenhaal. And, like, it was….

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: ...and it was this thing where, like, I looked at it and I was, like, this certainly isn't real. But then it, like, the more I looked at it, the more it seemed kind of real.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: She was, like, I’m Maggie Gyllenhaal, I'm an actress and a director and producer….


Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) She could stop at “Gyllenhaal.”

Franny Choi: Right. Oh, you’re that Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! I showed Paige, and they were, like, wait a minute. You know I mean, it was just, like, this weird, sort of, surreal moment. So I talked to her, I talked to the director, Sara Colangelo, on the phone for a while to, sort of, get a sense of, like, what they were looking for for the project. And it was... it actually turned out to be this really, really fascinating thing where, for the five-year-old, they wanted poems that a five-year-old could conceivably write. Which is to say, they wanted, like, the sort of vernacular and grammatical patterns native to a sort of five-year-old mind, right. And so, it became this really, really interesting project. It was almost like translating, right, where I had the sort of strictures given to me, like, they had to be fairly short poems, using only vernacular native to a five-year-old, you know what I mean. Or, like, working in a really, sort of, strict form, like, writing a villanelle or something. And I wrote, like, a bunch of these. I wrote, like, 10 poems. I think there are two used in the movie. And it was actually this really, really, sort of, awesome, fun game to play with poetry. Even movie aside, just, like, trying to write good poems that were, like, fifty words and only using vernacular…

Danez Smith: And good for a five-year-old.

Kaveh Akbar: But, like good…

Danez Smith: Cause that’s a weird persona..

Kaveh Akbar: Right, but I didn’t want them to be, like, these sound like children’s poems. Like, I wanted them to be, like, good poems that, like, if you read in a journal, you'd be, like, oh, that's interesting, you know what I mean. But also that, like, a five-year-old, you know, could conceivably pull from their mind, you know. Actually I haven’t seen the movie yet.

Danez Smith: Oh, shit!

Kaveh Akbar: It’s, like, premiering in Sundance right now.

Danez Smith: Do you know when you're going to get to see it? Is there a premiere, like an author premiere going on?

Kaveh Akbar: I was contemplating making my way out to Sundance to see it, it just didn't work with... I had a lot of, sort of, plates spinning this month with the semester starting and stuff. But no, I don't, actually. I'm looking forward to it.

Danez Smith: Yeah, me too!

Kaveh Akbar: I mean, I've read the script…

Danez Smith: I love that still that I see of the movie.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, of them sitting on a…

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: It’s getting good reviews and stuff, too. It's cool. It's an amazing, sort of, weird thing to have had happen. And, you know, to get to do it with Ocean is pretty incredible.

Danez Smith: I hope you’re an Oscar winner, Kaveh.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Ha, yeah!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Have you written other poems, like, specifically with younger audiences in mind?

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, that's interesting. Oh! I haven't. You know, I read at high schools sometimes, and it's always this, sort of, interesting thing to, like, go through my poems and be, like, which poems can I read that, you know, don't say bad words and don't allude to sex and aren't about, like, addiction or at least aren't, like, about addiction in a really sort of, like, grotesque, sort of, nitty gritty way.

Franny Choi: But also not just, like, “appropriate,” but in other ways.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, no, I know what you’re saying. No, I haven't, I haven't. Have you guys?

Danez Smith and Franny Choi: Yyyyyyyyyyyeah…

Danez Smith: I think you have more explicitly than me. You had a job…

Franny Choi: Yeah, with Project Voice when I was, umm, doing gigs with them. Then we were going into elementary and middle schools and stuff. So I have some, like, elementary and middle school poems.

Kaveh Akbar: That you've written?

Franny Choi: Yeah, yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, that's cool.

Franny Choi: It's weird.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Franny Choi: It’s totally weird and hard to…

Kaveh Akbar: Well, you're sort of, like, someone who really, sort of, thinks deeply about, like, the materiality of language in general and, like, your poems are very sort of invested in experimental forms and, like, thinking way, way outside the … sort of, box that we, sort of, inherit as poets…

Danez Smith: We’re not on Divedapper, y’all.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: I’m sorry, yeah, yeah.

Danez Smith: Go ahead, go ahead. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: No, but I mean… like I love that it’s not just like in the sort of, like, avant-garde, like, Pussy Monster way that you’re thinking about thinking outside the box, but also, like—Pussy Monster being one of Franny’s poems, by the way. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: What did you call me?

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) I didn’t realize, no, not in a…

Danez Smith: It’s also not an inaccurate description.

Franny Choi: Thank you!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: But you’re also thinking outside the box in, like, the ways that, you know, like a language poet. You’re thinking outside the box in, like, ways to make poetry accessible to people who aren’t often thought of... you know...

Franny Choi: Yeah. And then to be, like, OK, kids.. Well, I had a pet goldfish! Or just like, it's spring time!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: What do you guys think about that!

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. (LAUGHING) That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. I love that.

Franny Choi: It’s a totally different challenge. I mean, I think the biggest challenge is to write things that also... don't just make me, like, cringe as I'm saying them, right. It's that same sort of, like, self-preservation move to, like, try to write things that you won't feel shitty about afterward.

Kaveh Akbar: Totally.

Danez Smith: You know, and there are things that kids relate to that we all.. will always relate to. You know, kids know what it means to be in love.

Franny Choi: Totally!

Danez Smith: To have family. To be sad. You know, like, you don't always need to... And I think that's… I think, if you’re worth your salt as a poet, over an extended period of time, you will eventually have some poems you can read in front of kids. Because, like, I'm, like, the most foul-mouthed motherfucker you know. Evidenced by motherfucker.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: But you know, like, I still, you know, like, I don't know... I feel like... I write for a wide range of people, like, I have poems that are for gay bathhouses, and poems that are for, like, black grandmas and five-year olds.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) They are in the same category together?

Danez Smith: But I think it’s because, you know... poetry—and you've said this a lot, Kaveh—like, poetry is so much about delight, that I think, you know, if you move through those many modes of delight enough, you're eventually gonna come to something that I think young people can identify with. And that's why I think the question, like, do you write for young people… I like the question, but I think, what happens is that, when you ask that, you realize that actually, young people are capable of a lot more…

Kaveh Akbar: Totally.

Franny Choi: Absolutely.

Danez Smith: … understanding than we actually say.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. And whenever I read at a high school or... you know, read for young people or whatever, that's always the experience that I end up finding, you know. I have written plenty of poems that they're, like, fully capable of stepping into, you know what I mean…

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: I also think that….you know, I was talking about this a little bit last night, but I find that there is this sort of, like, upside-down bell curve or upside-down parabola or whatever, where a lot of the time, my sort of... I think that, like, the poetry by, like, five and seven-year-olds is really, really interesting, you know what I mean. Because they haven't, sort of, been acclimated to, like, what a poem is supposed to be, you know. They haven't been, sort of, encultured in this way of, like, how you're supposed to sound, like, really sort of highfalutin and …

Franny Choi: Yeah! And words are new and…

Kaveh Akbar: Words are new and fun and they’re eager to try things out and like to be silly. And then, you know, as people like to internalize bad pop music or, you know, like, Taylor Swift lyrics or whatever.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: That becomes what they have in their head is, like, what a poem is. It's, like, this sort of verse. That is oftentimes people's first experience with, like, mellifluous, charged, condensed language. And so then they start to, like, imitate that in their poetry, and then it becomes a little bit less compelling to me. And then, you know, usually people will figure that out again if they keep writing. They'll figure out how to get back to that place of play and delight and fun. Like, the introduction of the word delight into this conversation, I think that’s important.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Can I ask you about a synonym of delight?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah!

Danez Smith: Wonder!

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: So, so you’re working on an essay about wonder in poetry.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Danez Smith: So what’s that about. Because I love how you look at things.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, so actually, it might be… and this is, like, you know, I guess I'm talking about it on a podcast, I was about to be, like, this is low-key, off the record…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: This is high-key downloadable.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: ...but I think, I think what it's actually becoming is a book-length essay.

Danez Smith: Oooooh!

Franny Choi: Oooooh!

Kaveh Akbar: Which is exciting and this is, like, the first time I've talked about it with anyone besides, like, Paige, and…

Danez Smith: Exclusive!


Kaveh Akbar: Yeah… But I’m writing a long thing about how wonder has really oftentimes been the kind of precipitating agent for a lot of what we now experience as poetry, and what has been poetry through our entire culture, you know, the first attributable poem in human history was written 43 centuries ago. In 2300 BC by the Sumerian priestess, Enheduanna, who lived in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. And it's about wonder! It's the sort of, like, praise song to this goddess, Inanna. But it's, like, sort of, like, in wonder of Inanna, you know. And so, like, the precipitating spirit of all of our species’s poetics is wonder, you know. Is, like, is, like, astonishment and bewilderment, you know. And I think that it's very, very easy to chart a course through all of human poetics, starting 43 centuries ago and ending with you guys and, you know, like, our contemporaries, just talking about wonder, you know what I mean. And using that as, like, the sort of guiding agent. Rumi talked about how the two most important things in life were beauty and bewilderment. You know what I mean, we talk about poems being interested in beauty all the time, you know, poems…. That is what everyone talks about... poetry…  is that they're beautiful, right. But, as important is that they're bewildered. That can mean bewildered by grief or bewildered by sadness or bewildered by rage, or bewildered by love, you know, but there's some fundamental spark of, like, bewilderment and curiosity and wonder, I think, at the core of any sort of meaningful, substantive poem.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: And that seems like an idea that could have big implications outside of just, like, poetry as well. Like, I'm wondering what, like, a more bewildered or wondering… wonder-filled world would look like outside of poetry.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: Absolutely! Well, isn't it cool that, like, that gets to be our… I mean, if you accept this thesis then my job becomes to be someone who, sort of, helps people to wonder, moves people back into wonder, you know, like, defamiliarizes the world around us. Something I think about constantly. And, you know, I talk about this a lot because it's very, very exciting to me but, like, the fact that, like, every green thing that you see out there, has this, like, magical ability to turn light from a star 93 million miles away into matter! Into sugar! Into glucose! You know what I mean, like, every blade of grass, every tree leaf, you know what I mean, has this ability to take light from a star that would take years to get to, into physical things that you can touch…

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: You know what I mean that's... that's... that's magic.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That is magic. It turns light into sticky insides. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah!

Danez Smith: Light!

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Our job as a—I don't mean to speak for anyone else— but it seems to me that my job as a poet is to take that, sort of, wonder, to take that and, like, make people see that. Make people experience that. You know, and to, like, reignite this kind of curiosity in people.

Danez Smith: How close are wonder and the divine for you, in your work, in how you see things?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, well, I mean, oftentimes they're sort of insep..a..rable? In-separate-able...

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: ...inseparable, right. G.K. Chesterton talks about having a vertigo of the infinite, right, which I think is, like, a really, really good synonym for wonder, right. If we're talking about synonyms for wonder, “vertigo of the infinite” seems, like, a really, really kind of perfect one. And that seems to bridge the gap between wonder and belief. You know what I mean? Between wonder and the divine.

Franny Choi: It’s like a wonder that, like, forces you to, like, lose your balance.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, yeah! Good! Yeah. Well, it has physiological repercussions, right, like, if you are, like, intensely wondering, you become less aware of your physical self, right. That's why dervishes spin, you know, that's why, you know…

Danez Smith: That's the Holy Ghost and the…

Kaveh Akbar: That's why we fast, right, like, the less attention you're giving to your physical body, the more present you can be to what lies beyond it.

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure.

Kaveh Akbar: You know, at the core of just about any sort of spiritual practice is something that removes the self from the body.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Man, I feel like you're, like, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of poetry.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: In the, like, just look at how cool this is! Look at how cool that is!

Kaveh Akbar: We're both very tall. We're both, like, sneaky tall people.

Danez Smith: Yeah, you gotta get your old man weight on. Kaveh, you need some work on those cheeks…

Franny Choi: Oh, yeah…

Kaveh Akbar: I’m working on it, I’m working on it. I’ve been, like, anxiety-eating a lot. It's, like, being on tour and stuff and, like, just being, like, really, really stressed out. Like, it's been hard for me to eat well. And I have this wedding coming up in June, and I keep thinking, like…

Franny Choi: When you say this wedding you mean your wedding.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Sorry, I have my wedding with transcendent American poet Paige Lewis, coming up in June.

Danez Smith: Is that part of your prenup that you gotta say that?

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: And I feel like I'm, like, sort of putting on weight so that I can, like, intimidate any would-be interlopers who might, like.. They’ll come and, like, get out of here!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: This is my transcendental American poet.

Kaveh Akbar: This is my muse.


Danez Smith: So on every episode of VS… It would be a shame if we did not ask our guest to read a poem.

Franny Choi: Silly.

Danez Smith: It'd be silly.

Franny Choi: Stupid.

Danez Smith: It’d be anti-this podcast.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And so, we're going to ask Kaveh to read a poem for us. Kaveh, what poem are you gonna read.

Kaveh Akbar: Well, as we’re in Chicago, I have a Chicago poem.

Franny Choi: Ah!

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Kaveh Akbar: I mean, this is the Chicago-iest poem that I have. It references a restaurant in Chicago called Reza’s Restaurant.

Danez Smith: It’s still open?

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Y'all should go there. They've got a really, really great lunch buffet.

Danez Smith: I’m dying for a lunch buffet.

Kaveh Akbar: Me too. Oh my god. Oh my god. Again, like, I'm trying to put on weight for the wedding. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: I grew up largely in the middle... I mean, I've lived all over the place. But I grew up in various places in the Midwest and... there were... obviously, there aren't that many Persian restaurants around. So there is this one, it’s in the heart of Andersonville, called Reza’s Restaurant. Actually, there are a few now. But back then there was only the one. And so we would take these, sort of, pilgrimages as a family, you know.

Franny Choi: Totally.

Kaveh Akbar: To... we would all, sort of, pack into the car and drive two or four or six hours or however long it was and, like, just, like, make a day of going to eat at Reza’s Restaurant.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: God, my family would definitely… When we lived in New Haven, we would drive into Flushing.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! Yeah.

Franny Choi: Just spend the day and just being like (EXHALING). My parents would just, like, breathe for a few hours and then we’d go back to Connecticut.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah! Totally. That's so real. You know, I grew up and I didn't meet my first Middle-Eastern person until...I think I was in sixth grade. A Pakistani kid joined my classroom.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Kaveh Akbar: And then I didn't meet my first Iranian until.. not even high school; college. College.

Danez Smith: Wooooow.

Kaveh Akbar: It was a desert, you know what I mean.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: God damn.

Kaveh Akbar: Just, like, being able to go there and see, like, Iranian waiters milling about.

Danez Smith: Damn, Midwest.

Franny Choi: I feel very grateful for my dinky Korean Catholic Church of Connecticut now.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Yeah. Shout-out to n**** in Minnesota, I guess. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: This is called “Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997.”


        the waiters milled about filling sumac

shakers clearing away plates of onion and


           my father pointed to each person whispered

Persian about the old man with the silver

                 beard whispered Arab about the woman with

           the eye mole Persian the teenager pouring

water White the man on the phone

                                           I was eight

                   and watching and amazed

I asked how he could possibly tell when

                                                          they were all brown-

            skin-dark-hair’d like us almost everyone

                 in the restaurant looked like us

                             he smiled a proud

                 little smile a warm nest

            of lip said it’s easy said we’re just uglier

                              he returned to his lamb but I was baffled hardly

touched my gheimeh I had huge glasses and bad

                   teeth I felt plenty Persian

                                                                         when the woman

                        with light eyes and blonde-brown

hair left our check my father looked at me

                   I said Arab? he shook his head laughed

                        we drove home I grew up it took years to

                   put together what my father

meant that day my father who listened

                  exclusively to the Rolling Stones

who called the Beatles

                             a band for girls

                  my father who wore only black even

                      around the house whose arms could

                                            cut chicken wire and make stew and

                  bulged with old farm scars my father my

father my father built

                   the world the first sound I ever heard

                                             was his voice whispering the azan

                                                           in my right ear I didn’t need anything

                                                           else my father cherished

                                             that we were ugly and so being ugly

                                                                          was blessed I smiled with all my teeth


Danez Smith: Woof!


Danez Smith: Yeah. Our producer has fallen.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Daniel is down. (LAUGHING) Can I ask you a question about how you read? How do you experience your poems in your body, what does it… what do they feel like?

Franny Choi: That is a great question.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. I mean..

Danez Smith: Kaveh has, like, a particular movement, like, even, like, when standing, it's really beautiful to see, and even when sitting down in a chair, like sitting in the studio, the head is going.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. It’s a weird thing. I didn't even, like, really notice that I was doing it when I first started reading in front of people. And then I…. you know, there was a time where someone pointed it out to me and I became really self-conscious about it, and I was, like, no, no, no, no, I have to stand really still and read the poem... you know. And then it was, like, all of my attention was paid to my physical body, and trying not to... you know? I mean, you guys have been around me enough that you know that, like, I'm always playing with my face hair, or playing with my head hair….

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: You know, I'm, like... I have a really, really, really strong manual fixation and I'm, like, super, super hyperactive. When I was a kid, growing up my dad would always get so mad at me because I was constantly, constantly playing with my hair. Like, it was, like, super, super compulsive. I couldn't stop doing it. And, like... So I’d just sit at the dinner table, like, with my hands at my side just, like, white knuckles, like, just, like, being, like, don't touch your hair, don't touch your hair. And then, like, the second I stopped consciously thinking about it, I’d be doing it. So eventually my dad just kind of gave up. But this is all to say that, like, when I'm reading, you know, there gets to be a point where so much of my attention is just in the poem, you know, and so much of my attention is just in the experience of the poem. There's this beautiful thing, and I'm sure that you guys are familiar with this phenomenon, but when you write a poem, there's sort of this, like, kind of magical thing that happens when, you know, even the least supernatural poets talk about, like, hours flying by or, you know, “it just came to me.” You have to mine the language of the supernatural to talk about it. There's something sort of, like, extra-normal that happens when you're writing a poem. And when you're really, really sort of feeling the poem, you connect with some bit of that, you know. And when I'm really connected with that, I'm not thinking about what my body is doing at all. You know. And I can either allow my brain and my mouth and my tongue and my lungs to be connected to that, sort of... precipitating force that gave me the poem, or I can be worried about, like, managing my hands not doing weird shit or my, you know, my legs not doing weird shit. And it seems more useful for me and my readings, more useful for me and my connections to my poems to allow…. allow the former to happen.

Franny Choi: Yeah. That seems, like, very in line with what you were saying earlier about, like, the super concentrated attention toward the divine, like, manifesting in, like, weird movements.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, absolutely! Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. If you made a Venn diagram of my spiritual life and my poetry life, it would just be one circle on the page, you know what I mean.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Like, my poems are where I go to meditate and think about wonder. And the fact that it comes out when I'm reading them, I think, is altogether fitting and proper, I guess.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Amen.


Franny Choi: This season, a new segment that we've brought in is something we like to call Knock Out, when we ask guests to talk about something, a piece of media, a piece of art, a poem, etc., that's knocked them out, knocked them off their feet recently.

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Something that’s wrecked you. Have you thrown any books across the room, lately?

Kaveh Akbar: Have I thrown any... like, in anger?

Danez Smith: Noo!!

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, I see, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Danez Smith: Get this away from me before it ruins me.

Kaveh Akbar: Have you guys seen Coco?

Franny Choi and Danez Smith: YES.

Kaveh Akbar: Oh my god, I’ve seen it twice...

Danez Smith: Have I seen it, I wept to it! Multiple times!

Franny Choi: Brought to my knees by Coco. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Oh my god, yeah, me too. Yeah. I saw it twice in theaters and I still, like, quote it at least once a day. I mean, this is not maybe... you know, I'm not talking about something cool like a poem or whatever. But this is something that has been, like... it's enmeshed itself in my vernacular, I'm constantly quoting it, you know, like, come on, Mama Coco! You know, like, these things, like, it's so sweet and good and beautiful and just, like, visually stunning to look at.

Danez Smith: I want to make some of those things happen in poems. That flower bridge?

Kaveh Akbar: Oh my god, yeah! Yeah. That you can just sink into? Holy shit.

Danez Smith: Holy shit.

Kaveh Akbar: That's, like, out of a Llorca poem or something. You know what I mean, like, like, just, like, sinking into the petals, you know.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Totally.


Danez Smith: So. We have come to my favorite point of the VS podcast. Ummmmmm… though all of them are my favorite. A little game that like to call This vs. That. We're gonna give you two things, two concepts, and we're gonna ask you, just straight up because we are violent motherfuckers—there is a lot of cussing, I’ve said MF a lot.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: This is still the Poetry Foundation, y’all. Umm, so. Your question is now: who wins in a fight; The New York School or the Milwaukee Bucks?


Kaveh Akbar: OK, which Milwaukee Bucks are we talking about?

Danez Smith: I will even give you the option of, like, starting five all-time Milwaukee Bucks.

Kaveh Akbar: This is my favorite question I've ever been asked, because I get to pick my favorite five starting all-stime Bucks.

Danez Smith: You could also pick, maybe, like, your favorite all-time, like, five poets from New York or something like that.

Franny Choi: (WHISPERING) This is sports?

Danez Smith: Yeah. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Sorry.

Danez Smith: They’re not, like, dollars you can only use in Milwaukee.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: So my starting top five all-time Milwaukee Bucks… And this is personal, not, like, these would empirically be the best. This is, like, my personal picks. At point guard would be Oscar Robertson, shooting guard would be Ray Allen, who is my all-time favorite NBA player and also has the best calves of any human being.

Danez Smith: Great calves and a very smooth head.

Kaveh Akbar: He does have the smoothest head. If you don’t know Ray’s calves, just Google Ray Allen jump shot from behind and just… I’m sure that it’ll give you what you need.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, Daniel’s nodding.

Franny Choi: “What you need.” (LAUGHING) Not what you deserve, what you need.

Kaveh Akbar: Here are the calves that you need. Yeah. Hmm..  Small forward would be Glenn Big Dog Robinson, power forward would be Vin Baker. Obviously, center would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The starting five for….

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) ...the New York Poets.

Kaveh Akbar: Okay, well, so, Frank O’Hara, Angel, Kenneth Koch, can I put Eduardo Corral as a New York poet? Cause he went to… I mean, he’s been there for a long time.

Danez Smith: Sure, yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: James Schuyler would be on my team, and Morgan Parker, just because I know it would make her really, really happy to be able to hang out with Frank O'Hara, too.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Now who would win. This is, like, who would win in, like, a fight? Like who would win in a game of basketball?

Danez Smith: Now I feel like we have a 3-round thing. So, a basketball game, a poetry slam and then..

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, wow. So basketball game, the Bucks would win.

Kaveh Akbar and Danez Smith: Poetry slam the poets would win.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Although… Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a sneaky good writer. So they would put up a better fight than you’d think. As would... well. I don't imagine that, like, Frank O'Hara would have been much good at basketball.

Danez Smith: No.

Franny Choi: Too sad.

Danez Smith: He’d come up with some really strange awesome cheers though.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah. He would have been like a really, really good trash-talker. Maybe a couple of the Bucks would have just broken down.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Cause he would have just, like, ripped them apart. You know, Jack Kerouac...

Danez Smith: He would just go, I love you, Ray Allen! (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, there you go, yeah. Jack Kerouac famously said something to the effect of, like, Frank O'Hara is ruining American poetry, and Frank O'Hara retorted, that's more than you've ever done for it.

Franny Choi: Shade of it all.

Danez Smith: Ooof! Gays have been shady through time. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, you know that, you know that he would have had that. I feel like the poets would be way scrappier, right.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: I mean, Frank O’Hara got hit by a dune buggy.

Danez Smith: Really?

Kaveh Akbar: Yeah, that’s how he died. He got hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Kaveh Akbar: I feel like that's, like, way more metal than anything any of those basketball players have ever done.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That’s true.

Kaveh Akbar: Although he did die from it.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I think I’d be more impressed if, like, and then he wrote Lunch Poems. (LAUGHING)

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING) Still, I think the poets would be scrappier, I think the poets would come out on top.

Danez Smith: You won’t put Sam Cassell on your team?

Kaveh Akbar: I mean, not over Oscar Robertson!

Danez Smith: Yeah, OK, that’s real, that’s real. Alright, y’all, so this has been…

Kaveh Akbar: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: … an awesome little ditty with Kaveh Akbar. Thank you so much, Kaveh.

Kaveh Akbar: Thank you guys so much for having me. This was so much fun. This was… I expected it to be fun, and then it was even more fun than I had anticipated.

Danez Smith: Yaay!

Franny Choi: Aaaaw.. You’re the best.

Danez Smith: You’re the best.


Danez Smith: I'm a better person now. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That was so good.

Franny Choi: I know. He’s so kind and generous.

Danez Smith: Hmm. And just, like, so smart and wonderous. I’m bewildered by him.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Danez Smith: Yes.

Franny Choi: What are you, like, bewildered by, in a good way. That spirit of bewilderment that Kaveh was talking about.

Danez Smith: I've been thinking a lot, lately, like, I think I finally have made, like, all my family a family of LGBT allies. And I think…

Franny Choi: Oh, that’s so beautiful!

Danez Smith: Yeah, and I think, like, what I'm realizing is, like, we are never so set in our beliefs that we can't learn to love in new ways.

Franny Choi: So you’re saying you are bewildered by, like, the capacity of people to keep learning.

Danez Smith: Yeah, the capacity for people to keep learning, to keep growing for our empathy to expand.

Franny Choi: Woof!

Danez Smith: I'm not trying to figure out how it happens. I just have to, like, trust that, like, our love is good enough. That we will push our own empathy and understanding in order to reach those that we already love.

Franny Choi: Pffffeew……

Danez Smith: The further that they go into themselves.

Franny Choi: Oh my god. Well, mine sounds sort of dumb compared to that.

Danez Smith: Well, what is it?

Franny Choi: Okay, well, cause I was just gonna be, like, animals?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Animals are great! No, that’s totally..

Franny Choi: I feel like constantly in rapturous bewilderment of, like, the natural world of, like, so many creatures living on this planet that have lived here for way longer than humans have been around…

Danez Smith: Talk about it.

Franny Choi: And whose evolution didn't have anything to do with us, you know.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: An elephant is a magical creature.

Danez Smith: It really is.

Franny Choi: Like, even a god damn moose is a magical creature, and I just, like, I feel so…

Danez Smith: Birds!

Franny Choi: ...grateful… (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Birds!

Franny Choi: Birds.

Danez Smith: They learned how to fly and haven’t stopped since.

Franny Choi: They, I mean… OK. I could... we could talk…  I just heard what you said.

Danez Smith: (SINGING) Bird don’t stop us now… (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) “Birds” by Danez Smith. But I just feel so, like, grateful at the possibility that as somebody in their late 20s, I can keep encountering new animals...

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: ...the existence of new animals. And just, like, be brought to my feet by, like, knowing that they are alive.

Danez Smith: Word. Shout-out to animals, shout-out to empathetic grandmas.

Franny Choi: Yeah! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: May we always be able to be here with y’all.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: Alright, let’s get on out of here.

Franny Choi: Yes.

Danez Smith: Yes. Let’s thank some actual people. I would like to thank Kaveh Akbar’s hairdresser…

Franny Choi: Wooo!

Danez Smith: ...because, you know, you're really doing some things. Whoever you are, just, like, shout-out to you.

Franny Choi: Yes. What a sculptor.

Danez Smith: Right, you know, artiste! Alright, artiste.

Franny Choi: Artist-e. On the subject of being bewildered by animals, I'd like to, just, thank David Attenborough for actually, like, really introducing me to that world of bewilderment.

Danez Smith: Amen. Shout-out to you, David. We would also like to thank the Poetry Foundation, especially our partner in crime, Ydalmi Noriega, we would like to thank Postloudness and our producer, Daniel Kisslinger, oh my god..

Franny Choi: Make sure to stay up on all things VS, @VSThePodcast on all social media. And you can find all the episodes from this season and from Season 1 on Soundcloud, iTunes, the Poetry Foundation website, the NPR One app and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Danez Smith: Alright, y’all, goodbye.

Franny Choi: So long.

Danez Smith: Farewell. (SINGING) Adidas and goodbye….

Franny Choi: (SINGING) Adieu, aslieu, a-dooba-dooba-dieu. (LAUGHING) I know all the words.

Danez Smith: I do too. Alright, we’re about to go watch this movie, y’all. Peace!!









Danez and Franny dive deep with Divedapper creator, poet, professor, and voracious reader Kaveh Akhbar. The squad talks Twitter, trees, memorizing poems while in love, and the Milwaukee Bucks, plus much more.

More Episodes from VS
Showing 1 to 20 of 31 Podcasts
  1. Tuesday, January 29, 2019
  2. Thursday, December 13, 2018

    Jamila Woods vs. The Remedy

  3. Tuesday, December 4, 2018

    Kara Jackson vs. Titles

  4. Tuesday, November 6, 2018

    Jonathan Mendoza vs. The Movement

  5. Tuesday, October 9, 2018

    Jacob Saenz vs. The Block

  6. Tuesday, September 25, 2018

    H. Melt vs. Trans Liberation

  7. Tuesday, August 28, 2018

    Nate Marshall vs. Fear

  8. Tuesday, March 6, 2018

    Tarfia Faizullah vs. Beauty

  9. Tuesday, February 27, 2018


  10. Tuesday, February 20, 2018

    Franny and Danez's Season 1 Favorite Moments

  11. Tuesday, February 13, 2018

    VS Season 2: Coming March 6!