by Hannah Fowler
When I asked one friend if he was familiar with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s work, he replied, “He’s an excellent tweeter!” While this response doesn’t fully encompass the poet and critic’s talent or highly acclaimed publications, it does point toward something unique and important about Willis-Abdurraqib. Although his work—poetry, in particular—deftly handles universal themes of violence and loss, he also seems to have a finger pressed firmly upon the cultural pulse. His poems, essays, and tweets all respond to the contemporary moment in a way that is thoughtful yet timely—and often, humorous. Immediately after I received his responses to my questions, I texted all my friends to share—in particular—his absurdly beautiful response to a relatively inane question about his emotional state following the most recent installment to the X-Men franchise. In another answer, Willis-Abdurraqib briefly discusses the daily struggle to get oneself out of bed; yet his writing demonstrates him to be someone who has his eyes wide open.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was published by Button Poetry in July of 2016. His essays have appeared everywhere from Pitchfork and The Fader to The New York Times and ESPN. The Huffington Post included his essay “In Defense of ‘Trap Queen’ As Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song” on its list of the most important writing from people of color in 2015. Willis-Abdurraqib is the poetry editor of Muzzle Magazine, co-founder of the Echo Hotel poetry collective, and is currently working on both a chapbook and a collection of essays. Somehow, he has also found time to come read to us on April 8 at 6 pm at Refinery Nashville—where he will host a workshop earlier in the day—and to answer of few of our burning questions.
The workshop you’re teaching at The Porch is on poems of self-affirmation. How did you decide on this topic, and why do you think it’s important?
So, I'm always thinking a lot about how precious joy is, and also how consistently vanishing it can feel. Especially now, in the tenseness of our social and political moment. The opening of each day, for me, can feel tedious and difficult. I love thinking about the poem I would write myself which would get me out of bed. I'm mostly just trying to get myself out of bed and see if maybe some other folks would like to join me. The world is so big, and so vast in the ways it can overwhelm. It needs as many of us as possible. I've got nothing against sadness, obviously. But part of this is challenging myself, too. To speak a different language, even if briefly.
Many of the poems in your collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, are reflections on your college experience. Did you write most of these poems then, or did they come later? If so, what did it mean for you to look back on this time? (I'm mere weeks from graduating, so this is one of my selfish questions.)
Oh, they came much, much later. I didn't write poems in college, thankfully. They would have been very bad and extremely problematic, I'm sure. It was hard to look back on that time and be honest and hold myself accountable to behavior I'm not entirely proud of now. I think that's the hard part about memory and nostalgia, isn't it? It's really seductive to paint a certain type of narrative that isn't the one where you're at your worst and not glowing.
Some of your poems that I most connected with are those that come from conversations or that (at least seem to) deal with real people and real interactions. I’m interested in anything you have to say about why you lean towards those topics. Specifically, how do you select the moments that you write about? What role does fiction play, if any at all?
I love the idea of working in a kind of surprising conversational narrative. I love poems that read the way I speak out loud and I want to write poems with an ear tuned towards intimate listening, and molding a conversation out of that intimate listening.
In the years past, you’ve been included on lists such as Blavity’s “13 Young Black Poets You Should Know” and the Huffington Post’s “The Most Important Writing From People of Color in 2015." How do you feel about being distinguished as a Black writer? Is it something you embrace?
Definitely. I think my identity plays a role in the narratives I write, so embracing recognition for it makes sense, especially if it serves as a tool to use larger conversations to bridge gaps with people who don't identify as I do.
How is your process different when writing an essay versus a poem? How do you know when a certain thought or idea will become one or the other?
I don't, and I think that's the exciting part! Well, at least it is some days. I really and truly believe that the work we all write will tell us how it wants to live in the world, we don't always get to tell it how it should live. And I think working in between genres has really afforded me an ability to see that firsthand, to see a piece of work come to life in refreshing and unexpected ways. I've learned to trust my instincts when it comes to the starting point and stopping. I'm guided more by instincts than by what I think the work is demanding out of me.
As a genre, pop music isn’t generally taken that seriously. By both writing about pop music critically in essays and including it in poetry, however, it seems that you view it has having significant value or meaning. What is that value? Or perhaps another way to ask this question would be: What made you start writing about music like this? I’m thinking particularly about your poem in response to Carly Rae Jepsen (which has actually been discussed in one of my classes)!
I think anything that people can touch and interact with frequently on a very frequent basis has a lot of value if it can be turned into a mirror and pushed into a position to critique something larger. People love pop music, even when they say they don't. There's this great quote from a Rolling Stone cover story on Fall Out Boy from maybe 2006, where Pete Wentz says, "There's the music you say you listen to in public, and then there's what you actually listen to." And I've just got bored with blurring that line, so I'm going to talk about the music I really listen to in public, in hopes that maybe some other people will join me in talking about the music they really listen to in public, and then we can have a bigger talk about something else. A larger critique of gender, or race, or politics, or power, tethered to that singular entry point that we all know and love so well. And sometimes, as is the case with the Jepsen poem, it's just fun to revisit an artist that thrills you and see what you can pull out of what they were generous enough to share with the world.
What can you tell us about your forthcoming projects, particularly your essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us?
I've got a chapbook called Vintage Sadness coming from Big Lucks this summer. It kind of acts as a bridge between The Crown Ain't Worth Much and the new manuscript of poems I'm working on. The Jepsen poem is in there. It's a lot of poems pulling directly from songs and seeing what I could come up with. I'm really excited about it. The essay collection is coming along. It's almost finished. There's about 27 brand new essays in there, so it was really exciting and thrilling to write new work with no restriction about time or relevancy. There are some things pulled from previously published spaces and re-worked, but I'm so excited about it. I look at the cover almost every day. It was the first book cover of mine that I had a vision for and I'm really glad that when I articulated the wild and somewhat ridiculous vision, Two Dollar Radio was able to bring it to life.
What are you reading right now? Any recommendations for us?
Read Khadijah Queen's I'm So Fine: A List Of Famous Men and What I Had On and the re-read and then re-read. That's been my year.
Finally, I recently made the wise decision to follow you on Twitter, and so I have to ask: How are you working through your post-Logan grieving process? I gasp-cried through most of the last scene and need some advice on coping.
Yeah, Logan was such a tough one. For some reason, I was so unprepared for both the sadness and violence in it. I didn't thoroughly read reviews, and my friends told me it was sad, but I was expecting maybe a 6 on the sadness scale. A thing that's tough about me is that once I open myself up to feeling things, it's really hard for me to close that door internally. And so movies that have kind of persistent, hovering sadness are hard for me to get through unscathed. There's kind of a small house inside of me that sadness is always eager to occupy. Logan unlocked the door to that house early, and then sadness had a party. But also such a richly textured and surprising narrative in a superhero movie, wasn't it? I feel like it raised a bar for storytelling and emotional honesty in the genre, and I'm looking forward to what comes next. I want to watch a million movies with those kids.