Modifying Your Sahara: A Poetry Masterclass with Kaveh Akbar.

It’s 1:49pm. I’m in a mini-bus going to Ikoyi from CMS, trapped in a hold-up. I’m sweating underneath my shirt, and I’m reading Adroit Journal’s latest issue. Over and over, I’m reading these lines from Erika Meitner’s “Missing Parts”:

“Hillary, I’m sorry about yr friend who killed himself—sometimes

this world is too much to hold inside us or walk through”.

As I continue reading, the poem becomes quite difficult for me—although I’m still able to follow the movement from scene to scene and hard and beautiful lines greet me here and there. This is not because the poem is difficult, but because I’m bothered.

It’s past two already—about seven minutes past two—and I am yet to get to Falomo, where I will take a bike to British Council, No. 20 Thompson Avenue, Ikoyi, Lagos, where the poet Kaveh Akbar will be teaching a poetry masterclass.

The workshop is one of the four workshops organized by the Lagos International Poetry Festival Team as part of their program for the 2019 LIPFest. The workshop will last just two hours, 2pm to 4pm. The thought that I am going to miss about twenty minutes of the two hours with Kaveh just makes me worry.

When I get to Falomo, I climb behind the first bike-man I reach. He mentions a price; I agree—I don’t have the time to haggle.


I walked into a room that was filled with white light and poets. There at the back of room was the spoken word artiste Tobi Abiodun. On one side, on my far left, was Logan February; the poet I.S. Jones would join him there a few minutes later. A poet and essayist, Pamilerin Jacobs, who I was meeting for the first time in person, welcomed me. Next to him, the poet Wale Ayinla, a brother and friend. There were a whole lot of other people, everybody saying something. But Kaveh was not here yet. And the time was 2:32pm. I asked Wale. He said Kaveh was yet to arrive, and I thanked my head.

I settled at a table with Wale and Pamilerin, and we talked about a few things, and flipped through some new poetry books Pamilerin just received from someone and some others he bought.


Kaveh walked in, tall, dressed in a white shirt and plain blue jeans; full black hair and brown beard—I thought of him as Noah. He said good afternoon and sorry for coming late—the car that was supposed to bring them here broke down, so they had to get another. He said all of these in a voice that sounded both magical and just plain simple. He then introduced himself and asked if everyone in the room was a poet. A soft murmur of yes’s and no’s filled the room.

“Can we begin?” he asked, running his hand through his hair.

And we began.


It was almost 3pm when the class began. Kaveh asked if we all saw trees on our way to the class. How many trees were there on our way here? Maybe a thousand. Maybe more. And he asked if anyone could describe one of those trees with specificity. No one could. The reason why we couldn’t, he said, was because we are used to always having trees, because those trees have become very normal to us.

“But those trees receive light from the sun 93,000 miles away and convert it to sugar, and—I don’t know how anyone might explain that, maybe photosynthesis or something—but to me that’s pure magic,” Kaveh said.

“When you’re stuck inside your life every single day, right, it seems very normal to you. It seems very, very normal to you. The people in your life, the loves—these things seem very normal to you because you experience them every day, so you become habituated to them, the same way you’re habituated to those trees. You become habituated to them and then you stop really seeing them anymore.” He half-sits on a table and asked: So how do we return to a state where we’re able to actually see that stuff? Where we can make the trees tree-y, and we can make the stone stony, and we can make the love love-y, and the grief grief-y, and the injustice injustice-y? This is what I want to get to. How do we take ourselves out of our living? How do we get ourselves to do that?”

And mouths open.

A lady, Stephanie, said we can by writing from what Kaveh called the extremes of experience”; that point in our lives when we are able to look back at our life from a distance.

“Does anyone ever have that experience where, like, you wake up and your nose is really, really stuffy and you’re like “Oh my God, I’ll never be ungrateful for a clear breath again?”

We filled the room with laughter.

Stephanie got a copy of Kaveh’s chapbook, “Portrait of an Alcoholic”.

Ifeoma talked about telling it from the body; she gets a copy of the chapbook, too.

Someone mentioned been vulnerable—someone got. a chapbook, too.

I wanted to say something, but my mouth wouldn’t move—here’s Kaveh for Heaven’s Sake!


Kaveh talked about Jose Luis Borges, a writer he likes a lot. Borges was an Argentinian writer who was obsessed with ideas of infinity, who in lot of his stories thought of different ways to imagine it. He also wrote a lot about the Sahara Desert, Kaveh said, and he thought we could imagine infinity by imagining the grains of sands in the Sahara Desert. One day, when he was old, Borges went to the Sahara Desert. When he got there, he bent down and scooped some sand; then he let the sand sift through his fingers. As the sand sifted through the space between his fingers, Borges said, “I am modifying the Sahara.”

“Everything we do is modifying our Sahara,” Kaveh said, as he ran his hand through his hair.

He then suggested that we did some writing.


The first was a collaborative writing exercise, which was to help us listen to language instead of listening to ideas. To do this, he put us in groups of three. Each group would create a poem. In each group, one person would be the recorder, would do the writing; the other two people in each group would make a poem one word at a time.

“You can say, “Rivers/ [while the other person says:] flow/ [you:] slowly/ [the other person:] across/ [you:] time/…”

And we spent about eight minutes doing this, each person in the group taking turn to record while the two others composed the poem. At the end, each group had three poems. While they didn’t all mean something, or one thing, there were such beautiful lines from the exercise that we clapped and wowed as someone from each group read—and there was the musicality of the words, the beauty of language.

From a group’s poem: “Redemption wasted, forgiveness on display.” From another’s: “soft silky touch of longing” (Kaveh asked us to repeat it, said, “Isn’t that delicious.”) From another’s: “Boundaries are boundaries/ There is no negotiating your joy.” Kaveh read his, and these line stands out: “Grief is grief/ Rainbows are slow boys speaking in color.”

“The language will always want to show; the language always hears itself.” – Kaveh Akbar.

“What I’m trying to convince you guys of is that there is something here; there is something in language itself, right. Language knows how to follow language, right. When we start with an idea, oftentimes we get wrapped up in that idea and then we start being kind of didactic and we start just sort of telling people what to think when we ought to show them. But the language will always want to show; the language always hears itself,” Kaveh said. It is why, when he writes, he told us, he tries as much as possible to shut up his higher brain: the part of his brain that is self-conscious and prideful, that wants to convince people. He said he uses his deeper brain, the part of his brain that wants to connect with people.


A few minutes later, Kaveh wrote these words on the white marker board:

“I see_____

I smell­­­_____

I taste______

I hear______

I feel _____

I think_____”

We wrote this down; twice—he said we would be making a twelve-line poem.

He walked to a side of the class and turned off the lights. He then asked us to close our eyes and pick a specific place, a place that means something to us emotionally. It could be your grandmother’s kitchen, or where your first kiss happened, or where you first got broken up with. “What does it smell like there? What does it feel like? What are the curtains like? Are there curtains? What does the air taste like? Maybe you’re just a little child coiled up in your mother’s lap and you’re scared. What does your mother smell like? Are you outside, maybe on a beach? Can you taste the salt in the air? Is there music playing on a radio somewhere? Do you smell someone’s perfume?”

There were two places that sprang to the fore on my mind—the bus where I had the first kiss that meant something to me and Maami—my grandma—’s house where my mom’s cold eyes greeted me. I pick the latter. I imagined the burnt firewood in the compound, the smell of the smoke from it sifting through the Ankara wrappers used to cover the windows; the rusty bunk bed on which my mom died; what she smelled like before she was taken from her body; the cold look in her eyes.

Kaveh asked us to open our eyes and, without saying a thing, just write down what we just imagined, completing the phrases we copied from the board.

I wrote the first line: “I see the rusty bunk bed, your fragile self pressed into its bosom.”

When we had written down what we imagined, Kaveh asked us to remove the phrases—the “I feel, I see…”—and reshape the poem, and give them tight endings. Ten minutes later and everyone had made a poem that meant something to them.


It’s past 5pm, though the sky is still all white and blue with no tint of grey. We just finished taking photographs with Kaveh. We are leaving now.

In the car, I think of the new poem I wrote, of a particular line from the poem that Kaveh loved—“& what is grief if not the unbottling/ of hunger?—and my insides taste like someone just filled me with honey, or as if someone is sprinkling sugar on my heart. But then, I remember I didn’t get a copy of Kaveh’s chapbook, and my heart breaks.


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