Sara Deniz Akant.
There’s something special these days about a phone call. A particular kind of listening happens when you’re not watching faces on a screen or coping with the internet connection but instead focusing just on the voice on the other end of the line. Sara Deniz Akant is a poet whose ear is especially attuned to disembodied voices, whether they be documents from long ago or the memory of her mother’s singing.
As a result, so many of Akant’s poems feel alive with multiple speakers, though they are playfully mysterious characters. Her collection Parades (2014) sent me to my old Latin reference books, but in vain. Everything I recognized was not quite what I’d thought, a familiar ancient sound slightly muddled on its way to the twenty-first century. The poems in Babette (2016) are also deft explorations of meaning that toggle between their own lexicon and one you can translate. Akant’s two poems in the Winter issue of The Paris Review are just as convivial, with voices fading in and out of focus. It’s tempting to say her process is about acting more as conductor or clairvoyant than as poet, but at the same time, Akant speaks about days spent writing in her spare office with an academic’s clear articulation about everything from research to how to recognize the end of a poem to the perks of living between languages.
Throughout our telephone conversation earlier this year, Akant and I discussed how one’s own language can linger in notes until it becomes like the voice of someone else, how marginalia can mingle with text, and the creative boundaries of word processing.
Can you remember what first sparked your interest in literature?
SARA DENIZ AKANT
I was forced to memorize and sing poems in grade school, and I think just having all of that language set to music was pretty influential. Also, my mom would walk around the house singing songs, and singing the wrong words to them. There was one about a sinking ship called “The Golden Vanity.” And my grandfather would sing to me in Turkish—for example, “Fış Fış Kayıkçı,” a nursery rhyme.
But I mark in my mind one particular moment in retrospect, because at the time, I certainly wasn’t thinking that real people were writers. One year I got really sick, and I stayed home from school for a few days and had all these fever dreams—I called them “voices in my head.” That’s the origin of my feeling, for the first time, like a writer. In my mind, there’s the fever dream time, and then I dabbled in it until I was twenty-one or twenty-two and taking a class called Poetry in the Present during my last semester of college. It was a small seminar taught by Anselm Berrigan. We mostly read New York School poets. I was really moved, and everything kind of fell out in front of me. I didn’t have any other plans after college, and so I found this passion in the last moment.
I’m not surprised to learn that you attribute your first writerly impulses to this dream moment. I think of your work as very voice-driven or language-driven.
I always think of it as language once removed—it’s just a little slant. My dad speaks a number of languages, and he doesn’t really have an accent, but he still communicates certain words and phrases in a peculiar way. Having all of those different languages and sounds—and then also being a little dyslexic on top of that—generates sound-based ditties in my head. I went to speech therapy when I was younger because I had trouble saying things out loud in the correct way. My mouth couldn’t make the words come out. And so when I started actually writing poems, there was so much internal language, and all these strange, unused sounds tumbled out. Things unsaid, not-quite-real sounds—they were suddenly just available.
What makes you want to take that language and shape it into a poem?
Speaking was hard, but reading was also hard. At a certain point, I realized that reading was really overstimulating. So I started reading in this creative way where I let my thoughts be associative and distracted—I let myself read things incorrectly. I still have a habit of picking up a book and moving from the back of it to the front. I was just doing that the other day, and I was like, Why do I still do this? But the linearity of the page is really hard for me, so learning about cut-ups and collage in contemporary writing allowed me to be like, Oh, there’s this word, and it looks like this word, and now I’m remembering a story, and actually I’m seeing this other word inside the word, and so I’m going to write that word instead.
Has your way of coming to a poem changed?
My early poems were produced out of a sense of error on the page, or some flicker of language I would see as I was reading, or something I heard or misheard. But I also was really interested in building characters. I liked the way a character could emerge from language play and then build its own narrative. All of that is still part of my practice, and when I get too far away from it, I feel a little lost. I guess what’s changed is I’ve grown out of the neologisms, if you want to call them that—they were part of a certain skill set I had at that moment, and maybe it’s still there, but I’m less interested in it. I think now, I’m slightly more intentional, which makes everything more difficult. It’s not the younger energy of putting all these words on the page and seeing what happens. It’s more taking notes all the time and working toward getting something to emerge on the page.
Does it feel more satisfying to be more intentional?
Maybe intentional isn’t the right way of putting it. With the earlier books, what I was really interested in was writing sci-fi-esque poems and accessing that liminal space I felt throughout childhood but didn’t really have words for. I was interested in accessing that by creating something sort of scary. I liked the internal language in my head and collaging it with other voices or with my family, but I actually wanted it to be hermetic. I liked it to shock people into feeling like, Oh, wow, I really don’t know where this came from. I still want that intimacy of the internal language and the connection I’m building with the stories I’m throwing on top of each other, but these days I’m more interested in reaching out than retracting. Whereas I think in the earlier work, it was like, I’m all the way over here, and you could never reach me. I liked that sort of loneliness.
In your collection Parades, you make use of things like characters or marks down the page, em dashes filling up a line. What do these bits of typographical play signify to you?
I love thinking about the limitations of a Word document. What do I have on a keyboard that I could use to try to add to language or build it in a different place? I wanted more—more distance but also more visual cues, more information that wasn’t necessarily semantic. You know that thing in an email where you don’t quite know how to end it, and you don’t want to say “best” because that’s boring, and you don’t want to say “all best” because that sounds weird? With people I knew well enough, I started just putting colon, colon, slash. It’s like an emoji that’s not directly translatable. I like experimenting whenever I put language on the page. I remember spending hours moving a colon around, trying to decide where it went, and at a certain point realizing like, Huh. Other people aren’t doing this. Am I wasting my time? But I liked it. I liked the lo-fi aesthetic. What can a keyboard do without trying too hard, without going and finding a preexisting image? What can I just make with these symbols?
Do you have a particular writing method or technique or rhythm? How do you go about getting ready to write?
I use my iPhone notes a lot. It’s just what I have in front of me. The notes are just where I dump things. I don’t know when I do it. Sometimes it’s like, Oh, let’s open up a note on my computer and see what comes out. But most of the time, it’s just that things collect there. It happens a lot more when I’m moving around or traveling for some reason—not now, because of COVID-19—taking a bus or just in a new place or feeling dislocated. Whenever I go to Turkey, for example, all of this writing flows out, or into the notes, let’s say. I don’t think this was necessarily my process a while ago. But now I have these notes that I then create out of. It’s a little retroactive, but I guess it gets fused with whoever I am that day. I was recently using notes that I definitely wrote a long, long time ago. So I don’t necessarily remember what the emotions or experiences around my notes were. It’s just material that I get to reinfuse with my current interest, current mood, current desires or intimacies. I also use notes in the margins of books while I’m reading—mostly my own but also sometimes notes made by others in used copies. The marginalia build a narrative adjacent to the narrative.
How do you decide when you’re done with a poem?
I struggle with the question of closure. I do love that chill at the end when you think, Ah, it’s done! Now everything’s opening up in front of me, and I have to go and think about it. So I guess a poem feels done when I reach that moment—when I’m sufficiently scared or a little uneasy. I used to think of poems as their own thing. It’s just this one poem, and this is the world that it lives in, and this is what it does. But I’ve started thinking more of poems in relation to other poems. Like, even if this thing is done, it’s just continued in the next one. The ending of a poem isn’t stressful because there isn’t anything that’s really ending. It’s just this section, or it’s just this moment. And at some point I feel like I’ve reached an emotion that is new or frightening enough for me to disappear for a bit.
What are you working on now?
I’m working with family documents, family archives that are pretty sparse. It’s a challenge. I don’t even know if poem is the right word. Projects? Spaces? Moods, characters? I’m trying to create stuff out of that material. I have these really dry documents right here on my desk today. For example, this one reads, “He who has read this speech with great interest on the continental shelf, please allow me to close some material.” When I said I would misread or mistranslate what I saw on the page and then create, I was working with language that was a lot richer. It’s a challenge to see if I can use this much drier, dustier material. It’s also hard because it’s family stuff, so it feels different. It’s not that surreal gesture of, Oh, I’m going to just use this material like it’s paint on the page. I’m forced to insert myself back into a place where I was already semi-existing. There are traces of me in that debris. So whatever I built around myself in this world or in the poem, it’s a different kind of perverse growth, a new uncanny process.
Lauren Kane is a writer who lives in New York. She is the assistant editor of The Paris Review.
Read Sara Deniz Akant’s poems “Dracula, by Marriage” and “Bruce Baba,” which appear in the Winter 2020 issue.
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