Tucker Leighty-Phillips interviews Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib 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 have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in June 2016 from Button Poetry. It was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others.
His latest book of nonfiction, Go Ahead In The Rain, a biography of A Tribe Called Quest published by University of Texas Press, was a New York Times Best Seller, a February Indie Next Pick, and was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2019 by Buzzfeed, Nylon, The A. V. Club, CBC Books, and The Rumpus and a Winter's Most Anticipated Book by Vanity Fair and The Week. His next nonfiction title, They Don't Dance No' Mo', is due out in 2020 by Random House.
In February, he visited Phoenix to serve as a faculty member of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference and was interviewed by HFR Managing Editor Tucker Leighty-Phillips.
Tucker Leighty-Phillips:I want to say that I think many of your pieces avoid categorization, that there are essays that read like poems, poems that read like essays, and your body of work as a whole seems to avoid blatant categorization. Of course, they have to be compartmentalized for marketing purposes… So The Crown [Ain’t Worth Much] becomes a book of poems;They Can’t Kill Us [Until They Kill Us] becomes a book of essays. But—I was wondering about the fluidity between these genres. Are there things that you have started with one thing in mind that have become something else?
Hanif Abdurraqib: When I sit down to write, I’m governed less by genre and more by whatever my curiosities are arcing towards. And so what happens more often is that I sit down and begin to write what I imagine as a poem and then it becomes an essay—or something more flourishing. Or I set the poem aside to explore what it has taught me about what an essay can be. In a rare case, an essay gets pared down into a poem, but as a writer, I’m way more invested in getting the short version down and then seeing where I can push the scenes out further and further. I’m far less interested in writing long and dividing things up into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces so they can fit into a box. You know, the way my brain works is that I begin short and then take a step back and see the many places the writing can go. So I don’t sit down to write starting with genre. But what usually happens is I’m drawn to the poem first. I’m romanced by the idea of a poem first, then after that I see every other possibility for the work.
Leighty-Phillips: One of the things I’ve been trying to teach my English composition and rhetoric classes is that they’re allowed to write about their interests. I’ve been using some of your work as examples in my classes—they’re reading your Prince Super Bowl essay and what-not—but one of the things that I’m trying to get them to understand is that they don’t have to limit themselves to what they think it means to be academic. So, when I give them the option of writing about a documentary or something it doesn’t have to be on topics they perceive as academic. I think that you bring a lot of interests outside of the typical poetic canon to your writing and I wanted to know, how do we encourage young poets or young writers to bring that same energy to the page and say, “Hey, here’s what I can contribute to a continuously fluid canon”?
Abdurraqib: Well, I think any contribution to the canon relies on a cohort, or several cohorts, of writers understanding that nothing they love in the world is small. I write about my interests, despite living a life that suggests many of my interests are small. A big narrative that writers, or thinkers, or anyone alive now runs into is this idea that the world is what it is and it’s so large, how can you care about this other thing? But that other thing is a part of that large and ever-moving world, and I refuse to diminish the things that make me feel anything. I think it’s a real encouragement for writers, particularly young writers, to understand that their interests are not small. I read a lot about fandom, and I know that on the internet, music fandom can manifest itself in ways that are less than desirable, but I’m so invested and interested in the young music fan, who has built an entire world around their particular bit of fandom, and has intimate knowledge, and has imagined a space where they and the artist that they’re a fan of are breathing the same air the same way at the same time—that is not a small thing. Sure, we can all do without the vicious internet attacks or whatever, but at the core, all fandom is the boldness to imagine a world in which you and the things you love are at the center. To understand that is not an isolated feeling is important. I think I became a better writer when I stopped imagining that I was the only one who had the passions I had. Because this might be small to someone but it’s surely not small to everyone.
Leighty-Phillips: To get specific to Desert Nights, Rising Stars, I attended your “Poet as Bandleader” talk yesterday and you spoke a lot about the sonic elements of poetry. I was thinking about that in conjunction with your performance with Julien Baker—which I just found this week on Youtube and completely immersed myself in. I was super interested in your discussion of the merits of poetry that stands on its own musically, but I was also wondering how it felt to perform your work with instrumentation behind it and if you could speak a little bit about how that came together, how that experience was, and how it differed from typical readings?
Abdurraqib: Julien and I have kind of been pals for a couple of years. We met at a festival in Michigan that we did together. I think, specifically, Julien and I are interested in the same emotional corner of the human condition. This idea that there are many things that might have killed us and yet we’ve survived so what do we do now? Kind of thrashing about. We were booked to be at this festival called Eaux Claires this past summer. As part of that festival, performers arrive a few days early and are supposed to build some collaborative ideas with each other, and Julien was like, how great would it be if we did something? and then we just ended up talking in a room and catching up for a while and it was like, “Oh shit, we actually didn’t plan anything.” And you know, so often when poetry and music are blended together it’s not done very well, so we came to this agreement that it would resonate more if we did not have Julien freestyle some kind of instrumentation behind the poem but if we folded the poem into a song, if we folded the poem into an already existing landscape that Julien had preset and built a shared space for both of us to have room in. That to me felt really beautiful and honed in on the communal aspects of the work. At Eaux Claires I did other stuff where people just freestyled instruments behind me and that was fine too, but I loved the intentional nature of one artist saying, “I’m going to make room for you on this song I have.” And a poet saying, “I’m going to make room for these words in your creation.” I think that is the best way that music and poems can kind of play off of each other.
Leighty-Phillips: It came through; I just saw it secondhand but it was great.
Abdurraqib: It was a lot of fun.
Leighty-Phillips: What was that first fest, where you met, in Michigan?
Abdurraqib: It was like this festival of faith and music that I was at in early-2017. I was like, “I don’t know why I’m here, maybe I’m not the best pick.” But Julien had come to one of my readings. I didn’t know—she’d apparently read my book and liked my book—but she came to one of my readings and we kind of hit it off.
Leighty-Phillips: Maybe tangentially related question: when reading your work, I feel like religion really permeates in the work.
Abdurraqib: Someone said that last night, I thought that was fascinating.
Leighty-Phillips: Really? I think it’s not necessarily in the traditional sense—I don’t feel like you’re preaching to a congregation or anything like that. You made a joke like that in your talk yesterday: the hip youth pastor. But, I feel like there are ways in which some sort of church is constructed in your poems. Let me know if I’m off base, but—I was wondering if you could speak to the role of religion or spirituality or of church in your work, if you could say a little bit about that, in any way you choose to interpret it? Either as a concept or a community or something beyond that.
Abdurraqib: I think that’s interesting because I was raised Muslim, and so my relationship with the construct of the American church is purely aesthetic in that I would occasionally pop into black churches when I was young, or I would be in churches for funerals when I was young. So, my ideas around the construct of church are all about its communal and incantatory nature. Or about the ways that music can jump into the body and force it into some unexpected movement or leap of pleasure. I think that so much of my work is perhaps trying to channel that particular aesthetic. The communal aesthetic of the American church that is somewhat rooted in the stereotypical—but is also rooted in the history of how church has moved among black folks in America. How church has saved, or restructured, or given a beacon to people who didn’t have it otherwise. There are some poetic aesthetics around the incantatory nature of language, or around the direct address, that can be present in a church. I think there’s no greater trick in my writing than the direct address to make sure a reader is still with me. The same way that a preacher might break a fourth wall or something to make sure that the congregation is still paying attention on a Sunday morning. I think I see that more now than I used to. But it’s almost unintentional, it’s not like I’m thinking toward these things. But I do think that, because I didn’t grow up in the church, it’s easier for me to romanticize.
Leighty-Phillips: I think about that in my own work because I was raised Southern Baptist. One step-parent was really pro and the other parent was really anti—and it’s just a part of the community whether you’re a part of the church or not. It’s hegemonic; it’s just steeped into the south. So, it resonates in my own work as well just because I don’t know any other way. Do you mind if I ask you a question about anxiety?
Leighty-Phillips: Cool, I’m an anxious person, so I’m like I’ve just gotta make sure. It feels like there’s an underlying thread of anxiety in a lot of your work. Both formally, with long winding sections without breaks that sometimes create a very fast pace, and with the subject matter—a lot of pieces about youth, finding oneself and one’s place in the world, and all the ways we experiment and discover those things. I read an old essay of yours where you talk about the volume knob of anxiety and I was wondering if there are other ways in which these volumes of anxiety manifest themselves in your work?
Abdurraqib: That’s also not intentional, but I think I’m much more aware of the ways [the different volumes of anxiety manifest themselves in my work] than I am the church thing. For a long-time I’ve lived with anxiety. I was diagnosed properly, quote unquote, with two anxiety disorders in my late teens/early twenties, but I lived with anxiety before I knew what anxiety was. The thing about living with constant anxiety is that it’s kind of a little hum that you just get used to. I’m anxious all the time, and it’s hard to articulate that to people who experience anxiety perhaps in bursts—because I think all people experience anxiety in some fashion. But it’s a little bit harder to explain to the people who experience it in small bursts. Because I don’t feel a burst of anxiety all the time, but I am awareof my anxieties all the time. I think to write about and be aware of your anxieties, for me at least, manifests itself as constantly looking for an escape on the page. I think that’s why sometimes my work is winding and breathless and other times it’s harshly punctuated. Racing to a stopping point provides me a small bit of freedom—it just depends on how I’m willing to race that particular day. I also think, my anxiety showing up so much in my work is perhaps a thankful thing. Since I’ve noticed it showing up much more in my work formally, just like you said, and content wise, it shows up a bit less in my actual life. It still very much shows up in my life, but I think it shows up less in my life now that it shows up so much in my work. That’s perhaps a happy thing, I don’t know.
Leighty-Phillips: So you think being able to name it makes it…
Abdurraqib: Yeah, yeah… Being able to point to it in my work and understand what’s happening has made it a bit better.
Leighty-Phillips: It’s the incantatory! Which—actually I think is a good segue for another question. One of the ways that I prepped for this interview, as goofy as it sounds, is by going back and listening, revisiting old Wonder Years albums. That was a big part of my life! I’m in my late twenties and I was a young white kid in a small town who wanted to be out. And I remember when The Upsides came out and the thematics in that album and then when they released their next album, Suburbia, it feels like they’re looking back and going, “Wait, things are pretty good now, how do we revisit the things we’ve done now that things are picking up? Now that we’ve found our foundation?” And I was thinking about that in relation to your books of poems because I know that you’re currently in the process of writing or finishing—
Abdurraqib: It’s done! We’re in the cover art stage which is great.
Leighty-Phillips: It’s done—hell yeah! That’s awesome. Congratulations.
Leighty-Phillips: So what I was wondering, is now that you’re, I think, three years removed from The Crown.
Abdurraqib: Yeah, approaching three years which is wild.
Leighty-Phillips: Thinking about what you said about anxiety, how being able to name it on the page makes it a little less intrusive in your life, looking back on that collection, how do you view it with some distance from it?
Abdurraqib: Yeah, you know I was talking to a poet, a young poet, who told me, “I’m so ashamed of my old work.” And I said, “Well, that breaks my heart a bit.” I always think about Crown or any of my old poems, and I tell myself, “Well, I wrote the best possible thing I could write at the time with the tools I had.” That in and of itself brings me pride. But I also feel pride with the understanding that every time I sit down to write, or every time I live a life that requires me to go out into the world and witness—intentional witnessing, or intentional feeling—I’m acquiring new tools with which to write. So I am hopefully evolving as a writer every time I sit down in pursuit of writing. Which by nature means that I could not write Crown again. I don’t have the interest in it. It would be a different book with different methods. Crown is a book I wrote during a really tenuous time, both in America and for myself. I wrote some of Crown during Ferguson summer, I wrote some of Crown on a plane descending into Ferguson during the protests, I wrote some of Crown during the Baltimore uprisings, watching protests on Livestreams at 1 AM. And my mission was to present a narrative around Midwestern blackness and all that encompassed for me personally, a singular story that did not attempt to speak for the whole of the black Midwest. I don’t have an interest in writing that book anymore, you know. I didn’t want to write about people dying, I didn’t want to write about the fear or the anxieties that I always feel. I wanted to unravel something else, I wanted to pursue the unraveling of some otherdifficult emotion. I wanted to have another emotional landscape, one that did not present stories of black people dying to our country. Which doesn’t mean I’m not proud of Crown; I am. I think at the time I wrote the book I was called to write, the book that I felt was important to write. I don’t really read from it much anymore, but I’m still very proud of it. It’s shocking to me that we’re on three years—what’s most shocking is that when I finished that book, when it came out, I thought that was going to be the only book that I’d write. I didn’t have much of an interest in writing books. It was amazing to me—I came to poetry so late, I started writing poems in like 2012—and so it was just amazing to me that I’d gotten to the point that I could put out a poetry book. But as time went on I felt like I owed it to myself to continue creating a body of work that fairly traversed all modes of the human condition that Iwas being immersed in.
Leighty-Phillips: That’s awesome. And do you feel like your upcoming book… how are the two in conversation?
Abdurraqib: They’re not.
Leighty-Phillips: They’re not at all?
Abdurraqib: I’ve thought about this a lot because I figured I would start getting asked about it as we got closer to the book coming out, but they’re not. And I think it’s fair to say that they’re not. The new book is a lot about managing distance, heartbreak, and recovery. Not recovery from addiction, but emotional recovery. This idea… Dan, you know, Dan Campbell from the Wonder Years, said this thing once—I went to go see his side project, Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties—and he said this thing to me before going on: “I kinda hate that, you know young dudes come to the show and think it’s all about…” Have you heard that side project?
Leighty-Phillips: I haven’t heard it, but I know about it.
Abdurraqib: Yeah, yeah. He’s like, “I hate that young dudes come to the show and they like think it’s all about like hating this woman who broke my heart.” And he’s like, “The thing is, a whole part of the project is understanding that no one is required to love you.” There’s no requirement for anyone to love you. I think that is what the book is kind of wrestling with. It’s charting a really immense heartbreak—and I thought I was gonna write this book traversing that really intense heartbreak—but then in the process of working on the book, I fell in love again. And I thought about how unfair but righteous it is for humans to have to restructure the architecture of the heart again and again and again and again. Much like the toolbox changes as we write, our identities around love should change every time we are fortunate enough to fall in love with anyone—not just romantic love but new friendships and platonic love too, right. Every love should restructure the architecture of our heart, but there’s risk in that. And how beautiful and how unfair it is to manage that risk, to have to weigh that risk-reward. So that’s kind of what this book is about. And so, I don’t see it in conversation with Crown. Speaking of anxieties, my big anxiety is that this book will come out and no one will really like it because it’s so different.
Leighty-Phillips: That’s awesome. I’m glad that I wasn’t totally off-base with making a Wonder Years comparison. Okay, we’ll do one more because I know you have to… Hayden’s Ferry Review, we’re currently hard at work on a magic-themed issue.
Abdurraqib: That’s dope.
Leighty-Phillips: Yeah, I’m excited about it.
Abdurraqib: My new book has a lot of magic themes in it.
Leighty-Phillips: Yeah! So that’s one of the things I wanted to ask—especially to bring in the new book: I was compelled by the quote from the beginning Go Ahead in the Rain, where you discuss jazz as often being viewed as a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires. And that jazz has historically been created by people obsessed with survival at a time that did not want them to survive and is, therefore, a genre of myths, fantasy, and dreaming. And I wanted to know, does this still hold true for the genre or has that torch been passed somewhere else? What is the space that people—again this is something where if I’m off base—has that been passed to something new? Is there a new space where people are saying, “We have to make as much as possible before…”?
Abdurraqib: Maybe. I don’t know if it’s been passed to something new, but I still think jazz holds that space. I think because America commodifies black creation so quickly, right, I think what we’re starting to see, or what I’m starting to see that I like, is black creators getting ahead of the curve and creating, or attempting to create, kind of untouchable mythologies. Why I like the show Atlanta so much is that it is deeply magical and surreal in a way that is difficult to articulate and therefore difficult to commodify. And I think, what I’m kind of loving is seeing capital B, capital A, Black Art circling its way back around to a type of magical realism. A type of myth-making that might be touchable but not always take-able. I think to separate those two is really important. So I like seeing it show up in television and film, not just in music anymore. That’s really valuable.
Tucker Leighty-Phillips is the Managing Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and second-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University. His work has been featured in or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Whiskeypaper, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. He can be found on social media at @TheNurtureBoy.