Conversations with Contributors: Hanif Abdurraqib (Poetry)

We’re thrilled to be featuring Hanif Abdurraqib on our blog today. Hanif is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism has been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Muchwas released in June 2016 from Button Poetry, and was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book prize. With Big Lucks, he released a limited edition chapbook, Vintage Sadness, in summer 2017 (you cannot get it anymore and he is very sorry.) His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is being released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio. He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, an interviewer at Union Station Magazine, and a poetry editor at Muzzle MagazineHe is a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with poet/essayist (fellow Adroit contributor!) Eve Ewing.

Click here to read his poem “Just Like That, A New Black Child is Born to Replace the Buried One“, featured in our thirteenth issue.

Our first question comes to us from our recently featured contributor, Elizabeth Metzger. Elizabeth asks, “Where do your poems begin and end—in other words, what are some typical entry or inspiration points and how do you know when the work is finished, ready to be abandoned?”

HWA: What a brilliant question to open with. So, I think a thing I consider a lot is that I don’t ever truly abandon a poem once I’ve committed to it. A commitment meaning a commitment to the page, or to “The Process,” whatever that may look like for me on any given day. There is a lot to be said about a moment when a writer can feel a poem leaving their body, but not as much to be said about a moment where, instead, the body makes a new / comfortable / permanent home for a work that a writer imagined they were carving out of themselves. I think of the work as finished when I can, perhaps, walk into a day without it (or the idea of it) rattling around inside of me – which doesn’t mean (to me) that it has exited me, rather that it is fitting inside of my always-blooming tapestry of emotional absurdity in the exact manner that it is meant to. The problem I have – which I must say, Peter and Eileen, is unfortunately increasing by the day – is that I see an entry point in everything. I want to see an entry point in everything, sure. But there is no exit in everything. What, then, to make of the garden near the parking space at my apartment, and how the gardenias were stretching their wide and perfect mouths earlier this summer until I backed into them with my car one morning in haste, while running late for yet another something or the other? Is there an entry there? What might that entry allow me to explore about a little corner of my own selfishness, and am I ready to do that and still find my way out? Is there an entry for me in the two people embracing at the concert while a band plays a song from when we were all children and knew less of violence than we do now? Is there an entry in the way I call to a dog and that dog then runs to me, as I surely once ran to someone larger than me who had open arms and my name on their tongue? Of course, yes – at least I believe the answer is yes. But I’m trying to control the throws I make. I apologize for the sports metaphor, but just because a wide receiver is good doesn’t always mean that wide receiver is open. And so I’m trying to learn to check down more. Maybe hit an open running back – the entry point that is less glamorous, but might provide me with more options and more ways to move around. This is, I think, why I write so many serial poems. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much had two sets of them, and my second manuscript (which I am working eagerly on right now) also has two sets of them, and is tempting a third. I guess what I’m saying, friends, is that I don’t believe that I am ever finished with any work, though I’m sure the work would appreciate me releasing my hold on it from time to time.

Major celebrations are in order—your essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us will be unveiled by Two Dollar Radio this November, and your biography on A Tribe Called Quest is due out in a few years (though more on the latter later). I’m always interested in what motivates and governs the writing process of multi-genre writers—do ideas flow in and demand to be poetry, or demand to be essay, memoir, or a column (for your post at MTV News—so cool!)? Or does your exploration of genre tend to be more just that—an exploration?

HWA: There is this story I like about Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham. Right after the band made Rumours and it sold like 80 billion copies or whatever, he led them into making Tusk – this weird, noisy, experimental pop album that is beloved now, but was kind of not as much so in 1979. Naturally, he got asked all of these questions about the shift in sound and he was like “I could have made Rumours again if I wanted to. I could have made that album for the rest of our career. But I wanted to make the thing I maybe wasn’t as good at.”

My exploration is tied to this: trying to find the ways to tell stories that I’m not good at, and seeing if I can get good at them. Do the hard thing until it becomes the less hard thing and then find a new hard thing to do. My entire process is governed by a repeated survival of small difficulties. And – I really want to say – none of it feels particularly triumphant. They Can’t Kill Us was an incredibly difficult and frantic thing. I locked myself away in Provincetown last winter, when no one was there, and paced around an apartment for days on end, fretting about these essays and writing this scattershot of things. But I left it with a better understanding of what my process needs from me and what I need from my process.

Also, I only think of myself as a multi-genre writer because that’s what I’m told I am. Sports again – I apologize – but when he was at his brief and glorious prime, it got to a point with Bo Jackson where people just said “well, that motherfucker is an athlete.” And while I’m certainly not the Bo Jackson of the writing world, I have never considered the idea of genre as something that governs me. My curiosities govern me. My desire to be wrong and come out the other side of that wrongness governs me. My passion for archival and connection and storytelling governs me. Sometimes that’s in stanzas and sometimes that’s in paragraphs, but make no mistake that it’s rooted in poems as much as it can be. I know what I’m doing, even when it looks like I don’t.

To back-track for a bit, we’d love to hear about the origin of your writing. What led you to first turn to writing, and what led you to stick with it? What did your transition to writer from someone who writes look like?

HWA: I found myself really curious about language first through a lens of songwriters and song lyrics. Which explains a lot and I apologize for being a cliché. I’m so fascinated by the work of a songwriter and their ability to tell story. Someone like Bruce Sprigsteen, who can create an entire world inside of a song. I mean, “Jungleland” is a fucking novel. And yeah, that song is like 9 minutes long, but half of that shit is a sax solo. And so I found myself wondering how to bridge these worlds I was fascinated by. I stuck with it – and continue to stick with it – because I haven’t found all of the answers yet. I hope I never do.

Here comes the obligatory question—who have you been reading lately? Who’s got you feeling excited about poetry and writing out there in the world? Lay all the reading suggestions on us!

HWA: Well, poetry is a long and always shifting list. I just got my hands on my dear pal Kaveh Akbar’s Calling A Wolf A Wolf and it’s exactly what everyone says it is and perhaps more. He’s a person who has work that really mirrors his personality: on this delightful edge of playfulness but deeply contemplative. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead is a really outstanding continuation of the work from their first book. It’s like their building a family, or a really clear lineage – much like a musician creating albums that echo each other. Eloisa Amezcua has a little chapbook called MEXICAMERICANA which is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. There’s something about the way she really bends a word until she gets the most out of it that I really like. I think this may be due to her work as a translator, perhaps. Looking at a single word and seeing multiple possible endings. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve managed to get my hands on copies of sam sax’s Madness and Marcus Wicker’s Silencer and oh, fam. I read with my dear friend Aziza Barnes recently and the ferocity of their new work held me for days after. Layli Long Soldier is asking fantastic and riveting questions in her work, and I only look to answer them because I find out so much more about myself in the process. Khadijah Queen remains important to me. I’m reading Francine j. harris’ Allegiance for the 9th time. I have to keep buying it because I lend it out to people and, well, I’m sure you both know how that goes.

But I’m also reading a lot of musician biographies and essay collections, given the nature of my hovering projects. I revisit Lester Bangs often, who lit a path for me. I read his series of interviews with Lou Reed from the 70s over and over again, to get a sense for how a writer can approach a subject with both fascination and contempt. I just picked up a book called Dunbar Boys by Alejandro Danois. It came out last year, and is the story of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School basketball team from the 80s, out in Baltimore. It is both triumphant and tragic. I’m thinking about the balance of those two things while writing this Tribe Called Quest book. The Tribe story is both of those things in equal measure – both triumphant and tragic I’m always working at the intersection of those things and trying to figure out how to do it better.

And speaking of poetry and the world, your website bio says you believe that poetry can change the world. What sort of advice do you have for young writers (particularly those of marginalized identities) who hope to do just this?

HWA: Well, to be fair… I wrote that bio a long time ago. I’m not as optimistic as I used to be, but I’m still more optimistic than many of my peers (who, I think, would label me as too optimistic). But I’m always thinking of this very thing: how the young marginalized writer can change their corner of the world. I don’t know if storytelling and archival can absolutely change a world at large, because while I haven’t given up on empathy, I’ve given up on the idea that empathy automatically moves people towards some kind of action that aids those they are feeling empathy towards. So I think there is a new virtue in world-building – a way to create within your work the place you want to see and live in. This is easier said than done. Especially when a writer has to re-enter a world that isn’t like the one they built, perhaps. But I’ve enjoyed chasing that dream. There are certainly worse dreams to chase.

Much of your work directly or indirectly calls upon pop culture while also invoking heavier topics of gender, race, and family. How do you think cultural references enhance our understandings of our identities and relationships with the world?

HWA: I think I just have a firm belief that no pop culture is stupid or unworthy of using as a bridge to something greater. So much of the pop culture we consume is already attempting to do that work for us, or asking us to join it in the mission of looking outward at the world. I was so fascinated by all of the people who, after November, insisted that we “need poets now more than ever” as if we haven’t been building an entire language around this political moment and other ones just like it for years. So I’m thinking, then, of how people consume this work, or how they’re being asked to consume this work. Pop culture has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It has helped shape my views of gender, race, and family and it continues to. And so I have no other lens through which I can best articulate those things. I think being able to use it for all avenues is best. Yes, I can listen to the new Jay Z album and just hear an album. I can marvel at the production and appreciate the sonic landscape. But I can also listen to it and think critically about the role that gender plays in who we do and don’t allow forgiveness. I think I want to hold a space for myself, and within my work, where I am doing both of those things. Nuance is hard to come by on the internet and I understand all of the reasons why that is. But I want my work to always feel like a conversation that is being had across the table from a friend, where we can approach hard things and be unafraid to be wrong. Truly – and I know I keep returning to this – but I most want to strip the shame away from being wrong, which is hard. It’s hard to be wrong in public. But I have learned best how to write and approach things critically by being wrong and hearing from peers / readers / music fans / etc. what they’re seeing. I’m looking for a relationship wherein that kind of exchange is comfortable, and I think pop culture helps provide that.

Finally, I’ve heard wise writers say here & there that the best writing gives body to contradiction. The title of your essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, seems to do just that. What, in your eyes, is the relationship between contradiction and art?

HWA: In becoming comfortable with my many contradictions, I become more comfortable with myself and the work I’m presenting to people. The only thing consistent about my work is its inconsistencies, perhaps. I’m only proud of this because it’s a reflection of how I’m aiming, again, for a real human relationship with the reader. I love sneakers, for example. I will, upon finishing these last few sentences, find a sneaker store where I currently am (Phoenix, Arizona. Where I’m sad to report, Peter and Eileen, it is over 100 degrees – a far cry from my beloved Columbus, Ohio where it is currently a cool 77, reaching into an early fall the way only the Midwest can. I believe this to be a contradiction, as well. I am from a place of contradicting weather, so perhaps I never had a chance.)

But, I have a million complex feelings about sneakers. The way they are manufactured. The way they are valued and the violence that can cause. I’m mostly saying that I am a nesting doll of contradictions and so why wouldn’t it show up in my art? I think to exist now is to be in constant negotiation with the things you can accept and live with and the things you can’t. I am now off to buy sneakers and continue that negotiation that never seems to end, until it does. I hope the work remains exciting.

Peter LaBerge

Peter LaBerge founded The Adroit Journal in 2010, as a high school sophomore. His work appears in Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades, and Tin House, among others. He is the recipient of a 2020 Pushcart Prize.

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