Poet Kaveh Akbar talks about his recovery-focused virtual writing class

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Come to any session of The Break and you might be invited to read 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 step out to make a writing exercise.

Guest speakers from across the country stop by to teach everything from poetry to comic drawing to groups including writers, artists and musicians. The Break, which is free and meets virtually monthly, is “focused on people in recovery or seeking recovery,” but no one has to say if they are (or even who they are).

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

Akbar co-founded The Break with friend and musician Kasey Anderson during the COVID-19 lockdown. They have been recovering for nine and 10 years, respectively, and it seemed like a good time to start the group, which Akbar always intended to continue once the warrants were lifted.

The maximum COVID lockdown was particularly difficult for those participating in recovery programs. For people who attend groups like AA, community and regularity — smoking outside before and after the meeting, ruminating while nodding or chatting with other regulars — are important. When the quarantine came into effect, these 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 grew steadily over the months. Now it has gained traction, accumulating a mix of people who are half regulars and half new faces.

Akbar says he’s written letters of recommendation for people at The Break for jobs and graduate school — and 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’s Bell, which was published last month, is one of many collections written by Akbar. The book was so successful that it received praise in the new yorker by Andrew Chan, who wrote that “Akbar’s practice of separating language and exploiting the empty space around it makes even the most familiar words feel strange and unexpected” (other high profile fans include Roxanne Gay, Mary Karr and Frank Bidart).

Being in session with Akbar, 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 this work is related to recovery is entirely up to the authors.

Akbar says people who participate in The Break are never required to say where they are (or aren’t) in recovery. “There’s a huge population of people in the middle of this Venn diagram of retrieval 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 p.m. the last Monday of the month. Free.

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