Poet Kaveh Akbar Discusses His Recovery-Minded Virtual Writing Class The Break

“There is a huge population of people in the middle of that Venn diagram of recovery and writing, and there are surprisingly few spaces dedicated to that space.”

Kaveh Akbar (Courtesy of Kaveh Akbar)

Come to any given session of The Break and you may get a prompt from a 100-year-old poem by Jorge Luis Borges or a brand-new story—or be encouraged to write while a song is playing or to step outside to do a writing exercise.

Guest lecturers from across the country stop in to teach everything from poetry to comic drawing to groups that include writers, artists and musicians. The Break, which is free and meets virtually each month, is “focused towards people in or seeking recovery,” but no one has to say whether they are (or even who they are).

“This is a writing group,” Tehran-born poet Kaveh Akbar tells WW, clarifying that The Break is in no way defined by any specific recovery program or philosophies. “You don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to turn on your camera,” he says. “It’s a low-impact way of engaging with the material.”

Akbar co-founded The Break with friend and musician Kasey Anderson during the COVID-19 lockdown. They have been in recovery for nine and 10 years, respectively, and it seemed like the right time to start the group, which Akbar always had the intention of continuing once the mandates were lifted.

Peak COVID lockdown was especially difficult for those in recovery programs. For people attending groups like AA, community and regularity—smoking outside before and after the meeting, mulling around nodding hello or chatting with other regulars—are important. When quarantine went into effect, those rituals were lost.

For The Break, which is sponsored by the Alano Club of Portland (a drug and alcohol addiction recovery support center), attendance started slow and steadily increased over the months. Now it’s gained traction, accruing a mix of people that is half regulars and half new faces.

Akbar says he’s written letters of recommendation for people in The Break for jobs and grad school—and that seeing raw, honest work emerge from the group has been moving. “It’s been powerful to be able to experience people’s creative or psycho-spiritual breakthroughs,” he says.

Pilgrim Bell, which was published last month, is one of several collections that Akbar has written. The book was so successful that it earned praise in The New Yorker from Andrew Chan, who wrote that Akbar’s “practice of taking language apart, and harnessing the empty space around it, makes even the most familiar words seem eerie and unexpected” (other high-profile fans include Roxanne Gay, Mary Karr and Frank Bidart).

Being in session with Akbar, an associate professor at the University of Iowa and poetry editor of The Nation, is a monthly honor that provides a safe and encouraging space for writers to explore new avenues with their work. Whether that work is related to recovery is completely up to the writers.

Akbar says people who participate in The Break are never pressured to talk about where they are (or aren’t) in recovery. “There is a huge population of people in the middle of that Venn diagram of recovery and writing,” he says, “and there are surprisingly few spaces dedicated to that space.”

GO: The Break meets virtually, portlandalano.org/the-break. 5-6 pm last Monday of the month. Free.

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