a desire to build a world
An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, and his poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His debut poetry collection The Crown Ain't Worth Much (Button Poetry, 2016) was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and his 2017 limited release chapbook Vintage Sadness (Big Lucks) sold out of its 500 copies in under six hours. His prose has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Fader, and more. His essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017) was named to a list of "25 must-read books" by the Chicago Tribune, and his 2019 book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a A Tribe Called Quest debuted at number 13 on The New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction. Abdurraqib's forthcoming poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster will release in September of this year. His first out of a two-book deal with Random House, They Don't Dance No' Mo', will be published in 2020. Find him on the web at abdurraqib.com, and on Twitter and Instagram.
TMR: As noted in your conversation with Ocean Vuong, you dabbled with journalism before writing poetry. What shifted you toward poetry? What books and creators guided your journey?
HA: I found that I was running into trouble finding steady work writing music criticism at the time, because editors would tell me that my work was too poetic, or too inclined to circle the main point in favor of coloring in the otherwise unseen areas. I can write about music and criticize music very plainly, by pointing at it from a technical and structural standpoint. But that didn't interest me then, and it doesn't much interest me now. The issue is that back then, that was what people were really looking for me to do. I didn't really know much about poetry, beyond the fact that people were calling my work "too poetic" as if it was a negative thing. It didn't make any sense to me. I knew poetry, when done well, contained beautiful language and imagery. I didn't know why I wouldn't want to add that to my work.
So I got into poems, first by performing them. I'd go read at this local slam in Columbus, and read whatever books people told me to read. The fist book I got and read was Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. Given that I had very little knowledge of contemporary poets, I'd do this thing where I'd read the acknowledgements section of a poetry book, and then get books by all of the poets named in the acknowledgements section (or as many as I could.) And in their books, I'd read the acknowledgements and do the same thing. Coming up, I trained myself to read and love every bit of an album's liner notes. So it was kind of repeating that process, and building a poetic lineage for myself.
TMR: You've tweeted that you prefer to read previous works from an author before visiting their newest release. Do you have a similar self-reflective process? Before breaking into new material, do you visit your past works? What's your process?
I don't find myself reflecting as much as I find myself attempting to reinvent.
HA: I don't visit my own past works, but a big part of that is because I often feel like I'm creating by pulling threads from things I'm working on in a moment. I started my new book of poems while finishing my old one. Half the essays in They Can't Kill Us sprung forth from failed attempts at poems. My past work is so woven into the fabric of my present work (and hopefully, my future work,) I don't find myself reflecting as much as I find myself attempting to reinvent.
TMR: Where art meets social media, and where social media becomes marketing, the creator-to-audience formula changes all the time. How do you choose to navigate social platforms such as Twitter and Instagram?
HA: I wish I had a better answer for this, but honestly I just share things I'm interested in. I'm sure my publishers might like it if I talked about books or poems more, but I am so many things other than a writer/reader, and I think those things are a lot more interesting, even if they don't bring me the same type of pleasure.
TMR: In your essay "Chance The Rapper's Golden Year" you describe "gospel" as something that is "in many ways, whatever gets people into the door to receive whatever blessings you have to offer." What blessings do you seek out during times of trouble?
HA: I'm honestly less optimistic than I used to be myself, and so now I think I seek out isolation. And, in that isolation, small things that bring me back to a desire to build a world outside of the one we've all been tasked with. I think I return to songs in this way. And not just songs, but the small moments in songs. The way that, through good headphones, you can hear Aretha Franklin inhale gently before providing a foundation-shattering note, or the way Janet Jackson laughs lightly as a song winds down. The blessings I search for keep becoming smaller and smaller as the crises of the world widen. I'm looking for the moment inside of the moment.
TMR: You also note that Chance stood as 2016's great optimist. Three years later, who do you think is this year's great optimist? Why?
HA: Truthfully, I'm now looking less for optimists and more for people who are honest about where society is and why.
TMR: Your upcoming poetry book will be released in September of this year. The title phrase "A Fortune for Your Disaster" sounds like it comes directly from a Fall Out Boy song. What is the significance of this title?
HA: It is a line from a Fall Out Boy song, yeah. Beyond that, though, this book was written as a really traumatizing portion of my life gave way to a really promising part of my life. And so the book is me figuring out how to write about that in-between period, which I think is difficult. I've figured out how to write about the grief, and I've figured out how to write about the triumph well after the grief. But what of the moments when you think you're tearing off the bandage, only to find another bandage behind that one? I wanted to write about getting "better" in small increments, with the understanding that some pain embeds itself within and never leaves. I needed a title that balanced all of that at once.
TMR: There are artists who stick to one genre, and others who dabble in several, like yourself. Do you have a preferred genre? What do you favor about it?
HA: I think my preferred genre now is whatever one gets me away from answers and brings me closer to newer, better questions that I can run into the world with.
TMR: Do you have any band/musician that has been your go-to lately for emotional relief?
HA: I've been listening to Nipsey Hussle a lot since he passed. I listened to him a decent amount when he was still with us, but I am hearing him differently now, knowing that I won't hear from him in the same way anymore. I was in Los Angeles recently, walking kind of aimlessly with Nipsey in my headphones. There is something about the way he allowed people a window into where he came from. He ascribed so much beauty (both metaphorical and very much literal) to places that people not from there would have dismissed or written off. I so related to and appreciated that.
TMR: We spoke with Eve L. Ewing last year, and rounded off our interview by asking her what role poetry can play in America's future, particularly when it comes to young people. When it comes to new and modern music, how do you think it may improve and move society?
Music has given me an opportunity to engage with otherwise unexplainable emotions. My hope is that can continue.
HA: Well, I think if people are lucky, they'll be able to continue seeing themselves reflected in the songs they love. And in that, they'll be able to appreciate what the music does after a song ends. Music has given me an opportunity to engage with otherwise unexplainable emotions. My hope is that can continue.
TMR: You bring your admiration for music into your poetry with your "Ode to" poems. What was the catalyst for you to begin writing these?
HA: I mostly just liked having a pre-decided ending to a poem, before it started. So, building in both the form of the poem and the ending image of the poem right into the title made writing them more challenging, but also more exciting. It was good to define my own exit and then work my way towards it. Because of that, the musician was kind of perfunctory to the exercise. The musician just offered me some familiarity to cling to in case things went off the rails.
TMR: Your Stereogum essay celebrating the 20th anniversary of "My Heart Will Go On" is very touching. In the end of the essay, you discuss the song's power and permanence: "I was just very plainly sad, and I needed to hear a loud, corny ballad about perseverance. 'My Heart Will Go On' is good for that, too. It's another type of life jacket for another kind of drowning." Have you found more songs that align with this feeling? What about them draws you?
HA: I'm not necessarily drawn to sad songs because they make me feel better, but I am drawn to sad songs that remind me that I'm not the only one who has ever felt the way I'm feeling. I'm kind of bored with attempting to make sense of emotions, and have gotten so much more interested in simply understanding that my own sadness is not necessarily unique, but can find its own place in a melancholic choir, and still stand out. I have found that in a lot of songs, probably too many to list, but Celine hit the perfect intersection of corny and emotionally affecting.