Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was released by Button Poetry in 2016. His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in winter 2017.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
What would you say drew you to writing in the first place? What keeps you here?
It’s tough to say what drew me to writing exactly, but I’m sure it stemmed from a type of curiosity—about the world, about myself. I like the idea that I can be in no rush to figure things out because I’m certainly never going to figure everything out. I guess that’s what keeps me here, too. I like focusing on the minutiae of the lived experience, because the grander aspects of it are so often terrible and overwhelming. What’s inside of that small joy, and is it another, smaller unraveling joy? I don’t know I guess I also still write because it’s cool to go on dates and tell people I’m a writer while smoking out of a large wooden pipe, crafted in my wood shop. I’m kidding of course. I don’t go on dates. Or smoke. I do, however, have a very impressive wood shop.
Your Twitter presence is incredible, and my favorite part of your bio is “Relentless Ohioan”: there aren’t a lot of people who write so consistently about the Midwest and do it well. What do you think it is about the Midwest that prompts such deep creative work?
Both its vastness and a desire to prove that it is more than only its vastness. I mean, I’m an Ohioan, and a thing I learned when I lived in the northeast for about three years was that people who aren’t from the Midwest can barely tell our three major cities apart. It’s not offensive or hurtful or whatever, but it did make me consider the ferocity with which I engage with place. The specificity of it, in particular. All of these Midwesterners still cling to that underdog narrative—even the Chicagoans, which like, love you all, but come on. Still, though, an uphill battle is most romantic if you build both the hill and the battle. And so I think that’s it. The crafting of the Great Midwestern Narrative™ is mostly in opposition to being swallowed by the coastal narrative. I am invested in my own personal work as something more than a clashing of geographical ideals, though. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is an Ohio book. I wrote it with Ohio in mind, facing Ohioans. I didn’t even consider a world where other people would give a fuck about it, which made honoring the ethos behind it a smoother process.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
According to Wikipedia: Lester Bangs, Pete Wentz, Zora Neale Hurston, Josephine Baker, Octavia Butler, and my artistic partner and dear friend Eve Ewing. Now, of course, all of that is true. Hurston taught me how to write before I knew what writing was. Josephine Baker is central to my politics in a way that I can’t articulate. So forth and so on. But I find that some of my biggest influences are my friends, or heroes who became friends. My book wouldn’t be alive without Terrance Hayes, who was the first poet to make me feel like I didn’t have to sacrifice the way I wrote or spoke to serve a poem. I write about music the way I do because, throughout her career, Jessica Hopper has taught me that no pop song or the feeling it gives you is unworthy of unraveling into something larger. Danez Smith, Safia Elhillo, Nate Marshall, Clint Smith, Sarah Kay, Angela Veronica Wong, Will Evans…I mean, influences are such a tricky, fluid, and ever evolving thing, right? My influences are the people who are in the room with me even when they’re not in the room with me. The people who I think of first when I finish a draft of anything, wondering if they would like it. My influences are, mostly, still the people I just want to make proud. Poets. Journalists. All of Columbus, Ohio.
If you could remake the literary canon, what are three books or pieces of writing that you would include?
Temple Of My Familiar by Alice Walker, I’m So Fine by Khadijah Queen, and the essay, “The White Noise Supremacists,” by Lester Bangs.
How do you think Twitter—and social media in general—has changed the way that writers interact with each other and with their followers?
Well, I feel like I live in an interesting space because of the writing I do. So, for me, I’m always hype for how it allows me to engage with the poets I love and miss, who live far from me. Watching sports and being able to dialogue with Kaveh Akbar and José Olivarez is a real joy. I also really enjoy engaging in discussion with people who read my work and have immediate questions about it. I feel like there are times where there can be a real imagined distance between the speaker of the poem and the person taking it in, and I like that window closing. But also, because I write music criticism, I also sometimes get yelled at by pop music fans and I guess that’s cool too (hello, Swifties, if you are reading this I’m very sorry for that thing I said or wrote a year ago that I don’t even remember but let’s just be friends now please).
Writing poetry and essays can have definite overlaps—how do these styles feel different to you? How do they fulfill you?
Honestly I don’t feel that big of a difference in them, or at least the approach I take to them. I am more intentional now, though, because I am very invested in the way I both enter and exit work. I mean emotionally, of course. And so, I have to prepare myself to enter and exit differently for each situation. Exiting a poem takes more out of me, so I need to be aware of that when I sit down
What was the process like for publishing The Crown Ain’t Worth Much? How did it feel to see the book in your hands?
I love Button [Poetry], and I owe them a lot for the wide berth they gave me. I’m not sure if other folks with first poetry collections can say the same for that type of freedom. I submitted first to their chapbook competition because the original manuscript of Crown was only like 15 poems or some shit. And I came in second I think, to Danez [Smith]. But [Head Editor] Michael Mlekoday called me and asked me if I’d be interested in making it into a full collection, which seemed overwhelming at the time. It all feels so long ago, you know? I lived with that book as a part of my body for so long before I had to let it go, and it still doesn’t feel real during a lot of moments. I got it shoved into my hand in Minneapolis a few months before it came out and I couldn’t believe it. I cried in a rental car at this really weird intersection where there was no traffic because it was the middle of the day. I just sat through a couple cycles of green lights and got myself together. I think there was a woman on the sidewalk looking at me, wondering what the hell was happening.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us will be your first book of essays. Can you talk about your driving forces for writing this collection?
Yeah, well…I have to say it’s mostly because Eric Obenauf and Brett Gregory at Two Dollar Radio kept on me. They told me they wanted to talk to me about it like last summer, and I blew them off on some “oh, well, my poetry book just came out…sooo…” and they kind of kept persisting, really gently. And at the time, I didn’t really know how beloved Two Dollar Radio was, not only in the world of publishing, but also in Columbus, where I’m from. So I was telling folks like, “oh, this press wants me to do an essay collection, but I’m not into it because I write poems,” and they’d be like, “uhhhh…well…you also write a LOT of essays…like for a living.” It’s so wild to live life imagining yourself as confined to the genre that you clung to first, but that’s what I was doing. It was refreshing to let go of that idea.
Two Dollar Radio has been perfect. I didn’t want to just do a collection of a bunch of essays people could have gotten on the internet, so a lot of the stuff in the book is new, or reworked. A lot of unseen stuff. I went to Provincetown, MA for like two weeks last winter and just wrote every single day. It was quiet, because it’s a beach town, so in December it’s fucking empty. I stayed inside with whatever I could snag from the Stop & Shop before they closed at like 3pm, and just wrote. The way I used to when I wasn’t really considering the idea of other people reading my stuff. It was freeing. And that is, in some ways, how They Can’t Kill Us came to life. I’m terrified, honestly. I got like this before Crown, but it feels like the stakes are higher now. I can’t stop thinking about people hating it, but I also look back to my Provincetown exile, and the people I was writing towards in that moment, and I feel a bit better. I’ll likely still read reviews with my fingers over my eyes.
How have you learned to pitch yourself to publishers over the years?
Well, truthfully, I haven’t. But I will say that I’ve learned to engage with and share my work like I’m proud of it and I want a place for it to live in the world, and that helps.
You’re also a lover and writer of music criticism: What are you listening to right now? How is it inspiring you?
I really like the Lorde record, Melodrama. It’s interesting because it isn’t particularly seasonal—it’s a winter album that is living in summer. But it’s a rare fit for the endless gray of the Midwest at the moment. I like an album that asks a lot out of a listener. I like to be met eye to eye by an artist who won’t let me take the easy way out. Narkopop’s Gas is great, ambient writing music. Slowdive came back just in time to revive shoegaze, the only genre that has ever mattered. I am interested in 2 Chainz and his approach to the craft—as a writer and a formalist. Kelly Lee Owens forever. I been fucking with the new Oxbow album on the days I need to be either rattled or unrattled. I listen to a ’75-’79 era Fleetwood Mac song every single day. I listen to a Patti LaBelle song every single day. There are spaces in your heart you just gotta keep full in the same permanent and perfect ways I guess.
Not enough people spun the new Michelle Branch album and I do hope that they’ll all be haunted by ghosts clad in early-aughts boot cut jeans slung over doc martens. I have appointed myself the sole American defender of the Grime genre, so I guess I’m kind of doing that now. There’s a cover of “You Can Call Me Al” by this Cincinnati pop-punk band called The Scrubs that I’ve listened to in the mornings. “You Can Call Me Al” has that great imagery and extended metaphor, doesn’t it? “Bonedigger / Bonedigger / Dogs in the moonlight.” There was a point at which Paul Simon really knew what the fuck he was doing, and it’s a shame that we don’t talk about that more. A friend of mine is, like, very into Third Eye Blind. So I’ve been doing this whole nostalgic thing. I guess I’m always doing this whole nostalgic thing. Anyway, I mostly listen to the Starland Vocal Band and Mary J. Blige. It’s all so much. I think about music all of the time and I’m sure it’s insufferable.
What guidance can you give to new writers (and “new” can mean anything from just starting out to finally publishing)?
This isn’t my own advice, but it’s the advice that has served me the best. A long time ago, at a cramped poetry slam, when all I had to my name were like three poems, Jamaal May talked to me. And that was massive, for me. And the advice he gave was simple, and in three parts: 1) write the work you believe in, 2) share it with the world when you’re ready, and 3) be good to people. It’s the third one that people get really caught up on, even if we are to understand “good” as something fluid and ever-changing. Anyone can do the first two. The third one is what makes an artist who can look themselves in the mirror. And what good is making grand, sweeping work facing the masses if you can’t face yourself?
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