The moment Kaveh Akbar realized he’d broken through as a poet, he was driving down the highway. It was Dec. 26, 2016, and he glanced at his phone to change the music in the car and saw an email from Pulitzer Prize winner Frank Bidart.
“I literally pulled over to read it because I was like, holy shit, this is a true hero of mine,” says Akbar, who’d previously corresponded with Bidart about an interview for Divedapper, Akbar’s website featuring conversations with poets. But he didn’t expect Bidart to remember him, let alone read his work in a literary journal and send him a fan letter. “For Bidart, this titan whose thoughts have indelibly shaped my thinking, to take the time to write—it was like Olympus.”
When Bidart emailed him, Akbar had already finished his MFA at Butler and was about to publish a chapbook titled Portrait of the Alcoholic; his debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was also forthcoming from Alice James. All the pieces were in place for a promising career, but he had no idea whether he’d make an impact. Those misgivings were soon dispelled, as Wolf went on to sell more than 17,000 copies, according to Circana BookScan.
Today, Akbar teaches at Iowa University, where he’s the director of the English and creative writing major. His work has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and on PBS NewsHour. He’s also edited two anthologies and published another collection, Pilgrim Bell. His highly anticipated debut novel, Martyr!—which follows a young poet occupied with questions about what makes for a meaningful death—is due out in January from Knopf.
Akbar says the positive responses he receives from readers are just as surprising and satisfying as validation from heroes like Bidart. “The other zenith of impossibility is that you can write something,” he says via Zoom from his office at Iowa, “and people who aren’t blood related to you or married to you will actually read it and find value in it.”
Behind him, the walls are plastered with comic book covers, a Michael Jordan poster, and an etching of John Keats’s grave. “During my misspent youth, I used to be really into graffiti and tagging,” says Akbar, who was born in Iran and moved to the United States when he was two years old. “Now the form that takes is just cutting stencils of art that I love. This isn’t my actual house. My house doesn’t look so much like a 12-year-old’s bedroom.”
What Akbar means is that he’s matured. Despite his calm, grounded presence, there’s a youthful exuberance about the 34-year-old writer, who’s dressed in a black hoodie, is wearing double-bar aviators, and speaks rapidly in long sentences full of digressions. A passing mention of the New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus leads Akbar to rhapsodize over their early records.
Akbar’s passion for music is also on display in Martyr!, with bands and singers playing crucial roles in the characters’ lives. His protagonist, Cyrus Shams, an Iranian American poet in recovery from alcoholism and opioid addiction, lives in an Indiana college town and listens to Sonic Youth to deal with his loneliness and despair. A recent graduate, Cyrus gains a sense of purpose—and the novel gains its engine—when he begins writing a book about historical martyrs.
Cyrus’s preoccupation with notable deaths is informed by that of his mother, Roya, who was killed in 1988 when the plane she was traveling on from Tehran to Dubai was shot down by the U.S. Navy—an episode that draws on the real-life destruction of Iran Air Flight 655. Roya’s tragic end shaped Cyrus, filling him with hopelessness and the feeling that her death was “meaningless.” His martyrs project finds focus when he discovers an Iranian artist with terminal cancer who is performing her death at the Brooklyn Museum. He travels from Indiana to Brooklyn to interview her, bringing with him Zee, an Egyptian American man who became his roommate and sometimes lover toward the end of college, when their bond was cemented by Zee’s obsessive ravings about the drums on Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
But Akbar’s love of music isn’t just reflected in his characters. In the acknowledgments of Martyr!, he thanks novelist Tommy Orange, whom he calls his “bandmate.” In 2018, Akbar was teaching at Purdue University and Orange was on campus to give a reading from his debut novel, There There. While chatting with students, Orange spotted Akbar and ran up to the poet with a copy of Portrait of the Alcoholic. It amazed Akbar that Orange had a copy of his chapbook.
“He said very gratifying things,” Akbar recalls, “and I was like, all right, this guy clearly has great taste—just kidding.”
Akbar ended up driving Orange around the Purdue campus and they got to talking about The Simpsons. Orange had recently attended a table reading with the show’s actors, and Akbar, a Simpsons superfan (he met his partner because of their shared appreciation for the show), started geeking out.
“That kind of broke the seal,” he says, “and we started actually talking to each other.” The conversation continued after Orange left Purdue, and the two began trading poetry over email.
Orange, speaking last month at a media lunch in Manhattan where Knopf was showcasing him, Akbar, and other authors, said that sharing his writing with Akbar felt like being in a band—the way musicians riff off each other and swap ideas. “He calls it the band,” Akbar says about their partnership, which involved writing poems that helped their novels-in-progress. Orange’s poems featured characters from his There There sequel, Wandering Stars (Knopf, Mar. 2024), and Akbar used the exercise to amass the first draft of Martyr!
Still, the transition to fiction wasn’t easy. Akbar, who was drawn to the novel form by the opportunity it affords to explore ideas through different voices, found moving a narrative forward and establishing the logic of the story challenging. “Getting people through doorways and onto planes and explaining how they got the money to buy the ticket—that sort of stuff was outside of my wheelhouse,” Akbar says. But he again had a little help from his friends: after meeting Akbar at a residency, novelist Lauren Groff read an early draft of Martyr! She “ripped it apart,” he says, but she also gave him a blueprint to move forward. “It was one of the great kindnesses that anyone has ever done for me in my creative life.”
Martyr! explores art, death, and sobriety via Cyrus’s search for meaning. For Akbar, writing about recovery is personal. He got sober a decade ago and recalls how his life felt like oblivion followed by a blank slate. “I’m still calibrating to feel things like a normal person,” he says. “To feel what hunger feels like or sleepiness, because I went so long without feeling them organically.” To this day, structure and the support of his partner help him stave off relapse.
“After I’m done speaking with you, I’m going to ride my bike home and take my dog to the dog park, and then I’m going to go home and my spouse and I will probably play Cocoon for a while, and then I’m going to go to a recovery meeting this evening, and after that, I’ll probably read until I pass out,” he says. “And so if I can stick to that plan, I’m pretty sure I can make it till the time I go to sleep tonight without drinking or using.”
Reading Martyr! and knowing how the book took shape offers a certain satisfaction. The novel is clearly a labor of love, but it’s also a product of love and support, with a network of writers—from Bidart to Akbar’s “fiction parents,” Groff and Orange—helping him along the way.
“I feel like I have this super-team Avengers squad of writers around me to scaffold my work and anything I’ve ever made,” Akbar says. “I was the hand that moved the pen, but it is indelibly inflected by the labor of countless others, including people who died before I was born.”