Poetry connects us to ourselves and others on a fundamental level, says Sara Deniz Akant
What is poetry? It’s slippery by nature, resisting clear definitions—but that’s part of what makes it so powerful, according to Sara Deniz Akant, who joined Tufts this past fall as professor of the practice of poetry in the Department of English.
A Turkish-American poet, educator, and performer, Akant recently released the collection Hyperphantasia, whose title is defined as “the condition of having extremely vivid mental imagery.” The collection was named one of the best poetry books of 2022 by the New York Times, whose reviewer said it was “one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in a while.”
Akant’s previous two collections, Babette and Parades, won the Rescue Press Black Box Poetry Prize and the Omnidawn Chapbook Prize, respectively.
She spoke with Tufts Now about poetry as a way of connecting with our many selves, starting a conversation, and moving toward fear—and healing.
Tufts Now: What do you think makes a poem a poem?
Sara Deniz Akant: For me, a poem almost always necessitates a movement toward fear, or a kind of danger on the page that can’t quite be traced. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, a poem has that quality of slipping out of your hands, and through that sense of disjuncture, you arrive at something—but it’s not where you thought you were going to arrive.
A poem is an articulation of what can’t be named, a sort of untranslatable substance. It’s an alive thing, and the role of the poet is to bring this new life into the world. Like a synapse between yourself and either some other part of yourself, or the listener on the other side.
Can you talk about your writing process?
I like to recognize the very minute daily experiences—practically anything that happens in a day, or a moment. I use my iPhone notes, the margins of books, my text messages and emails, the daily writing that I’m already producing. That’s writing level zero.
Then I go back and look at what I’ve documented, and it’s a different day, and I’m already a different person. I start to see a new chemistry in those accountings, and I build the poem as an alternative world around that material. That’s how writing navigates the different layers of the self and connects them with each other, beginning with the process of recording.
How did you start writing Hyperphantasia?
During the pandemic, I had a lot of internal and external strife. Something about being inside all the time, and the world was clearly ending, and there was a collective unconscious that was no longer unconscious saying. These things are falling apart, and we have to acknowledge that.
I started doing this project—write a poem every day—with a friend, and then continued it with another friend. It was a technique for survival. Like a newspaper, you end up saying whatever’s going on in a very immediate sense; tracking desperations, joys, questions at a basic level.
Hyperphantasia is a collection that follows a set of voices that appeared in those daily poems. I think of the poems as a world built elliptically around this shifting consciousness that’s really to the side of the self—it is always in slant.
Phanta is a voice that says, Here I am looking one way, and here I am looking a different way, and it’s actually someone else, but really it’s me. She runs on a performative gesture that produces a sense of childish pleasure, but is also pretty creepy. Freud’s uncanny, Frankenstein’s monster, Haraway’s cyborg, with the hinges flying off.
How does Hyperphantasia compare to your past work?
My previous book, Babette, was hermetic, with language that was often incredibly fabricated, a sort of ur-tongue removed from normal speech. For Phanta, there was a more intentional desire to connect with the reader and to reach out to the person who’s listening.
This book was also about building a consciousness both my own and other, and thereby loosening boundaries around social constructions like gender, race, and culture. Instead of creating a voice or narrative that could be easily understood, like a female Turkish American writer from this city and social class and background, I took the imperfect approach of performing and un-performing the self.
The point was to avoid being overtly legible within a single category; how the doubling voice can be used to escape the linearity of neoliberal constructions, how the multiplying voice can be used to disrupt its own intersecting lines of power.
The poet Hala Alyan wrote an essay about fear, in which she poses an image about being very afraid all the time, yet still jumping off the diving board and carrying on with your day. That’s something I learned from writing this book—jumping towards my own fears—including the fear of cultural reduction or over-identification—letting the mess happen, and knowing I can girdle it in to create a new sound, or at least a sound that is more authentically false. Doing so involves trusting not just myself in the process of diving off the edge, but also the people around me.
What writing advice do you have for poets, especially new ones?
Start incredibly small. Treat almost anything you do as writing. Avoid the idea that language is precious or writing time has to be continuous—make it accessible as a practice and an understanding of how to move through the world. The poem is already happening, whether you intend it or not.
It’s important to try to harness the power of distraction and inconvenience, too. We live in a world, and a body, where daily traumas and experiences come up and say, Don’t write this poem, don’t do this self-indulgent thing.
But you can see those impositions as opportunities for acting towards something larger, towards something necessary to continue living at all. Distraction is, in a way, a productive sort of fear. Audre Lorde wrote beautifully about this when she said that poetry is not a luxury. Wherever it is that you feel tension, or discomfort, or that something is standing in the way, that’s where the writing lives.
What’s your philosophy of poetry?
A poem is an attempt to heal, although a necessarily failed one. There’s never a point where you find, OK, now I’m fully connected to all my different selves or needs or problems or thoughts. Especially for those of us who come to writing from the margins, from troubled categories of belonging, from outside traditional lines of hegemonic power, there will always be the disjunctive feeling of the world being not quite right.
The experience of difference or the moment of trauma will keep rearing its head in new ways, the self will continue to slip into the other—the monster, the misfit, the alien, the animal—but that slipping is sort of what a writing life is.
How do you use this idea of poetry in your teaching?
When I workshop a poem, I always ask who is in the poem. Is it the writer—the poet—or someone next to them? Or some version of themselves that’s not quite the same, but is another side of themselves? And who is the listener or reader? Who are we imagining them to be? We use pronouns a lot in poetry, and I’m always interested in who is inside of that, if we can pinpoint or describe that consciousness a little bit more.
There does not have to be a single answer. A poem articulates a question or set of questions, as opposed to insisting that everything is determined. It’s about the thinking through and negotiation of the self and other in the poem. And there’s no real end to the feeling of reading or writing a poem.