Poetry as a Form of Rememberance: Interview with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

As a fellow dessert connoisseur, what are your thoughts on donuts? (There is no wrong answer except that there is)

This is a great question. My Echo Hotel Collective partner, Eve Ewing, is a huge donut person. Donuts are really important to her, and so I feel like, through her, I’ve come to appreciate them more. It’s tough for me because they seem very much like a morning pastry, and I’m not much of a morning pastry person. I’m just now learning to push back against that narrative and open myself up to an afternoon donut, or even, if I am feeling overly risky, an evening donut. I live in New Haven, Connecticut now. There are square donuts here. It’s really odd, but it’s like the calling card of a local breakfast spot. It’s all very overwhelming. I used to be somewhat of a muffin man (a muffin man??? a muffin man) but I’ve evolved past that because you get past the top of the muffin and then what do you have? Crumb city, population you and your pants. Now, on a lazy weekend, that might fly. But I don’t have a lot of those anymore. The donut provides less crumbs, so I like that. I was hanging with my pal Sam Mercer, from Portland Maine last year. And they took me to this donut spot in Portland where the donuts are made out of potatoes, which is just wild. It was a real experience. I could barely finish one, it was so overwhelming. I’ve been thinking about those lately. I’ve been thinking about sweetness and how much of it I’ve denied myself because I’ve told the lie of time. How it isn’t the right time of day, or the best time of day. Like the day itself is a promised thing. I’m evolving there as well, some might say. The world is awful and I’m eating desserts at unholy hours. So anyway what I’m mostly saying is that donuts are fine.

Moving on to the ‘serious’ stuff, is there anything about you that you wish more people knew?

That I don’t really just eat desserts all day.

But also, I’m pretty much one of the uncool kids from an 80s movie. Except there weren’t a lot of black kids in 80s movies, so I’m the black version of one of the uncool kids from an 80s movie. I was at a reading last month and someone was like “I follow your work, I follow you on (whatever social media) and you’re so cool” and I was like “if you think I’m cool, you should hang around my friends.” And I don’t say this to be self-deprecating. People who know me well know I’m deeply 80s uncool. I make bad jokes, most times unintentionally. I talk way too long about things that people around me aren’t that interested in. Recently, I bored a group of my Columbus friends by way too excitedly talking about the recording of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” for like a whole hour. I am someone who cherishes excitement, I suppose. I get excited about things and I want to take everyone else on that journey with me. It has mixed results. I’m working on it. I love anyone who puts up with me. I’m so tied to my love for home because I know I can retreat there and people who have been friends with me for years will tolerate all of my uncool-ness. I like cool things. I have cool interests. And so I think people have an idea that it translates to a level of coolness that I just do not have within my body. You know what I love more than cool shit? Being in my bed, early as hell. That isn’t a new development, really. I’ve always been this way, but I used to fake it and now I’ve grown weary with the exercise of faking it. People will see me after a particularly grueling travel run and say “you look like you can use some sleep!” and I always want to say “sleep is so great! sleep is like the best shit! who COULDN’T use some sleep?”

I’m a little worried that I’m going to be a childless person who has nothing but dad humor at their disposal. Truly. So yeah, I wish more people knew that I’m uncool, but I’m trying to tone it down, and I’m thankful for being liked, nonetheless.

What are some of the biggest influences on your writing?

Place, and the privilege of having a place. The people who live in the place where I’m from. My biggest influence is my old barber. The hustler selling CDs outside the corner store, and the cashier inside who lets him. The basketball star in the hood who didn’t quite make it. All of my influences are the people who make the city I come from a living, breathing thing. Of course, I could list poets. Gwendolyn Brooks gave me permission. Terrance Hayes gave me permission. Angel Nafis gives me permission every single day we live on this terrifying and beautiful earth together. I could do this all day, but without the real people and the real lives to fill in the craft that I’ve gotten, I wouldn’t be writing the poems I believe in. My biggest influence is the Midwest. My biggest influences are cities that don’t rest on the coast. My biggest influence is the story of where someone is from, a child taking their bike out on their own for the first time and discovering every corner of a world that seemed impossible to them only moments before.

How would you describe your writing to first time readers?

It’s like those last 10 minutes that you stretch yourself into the night as a child, after the streetlights come on and your mother has already called you in for the night once and you know she isn’t going to call again. It’s that feeling. A brief and unrestrained hunt for joy, or a type of small living, no matter what lies on the other side.

With your debut poetry collection (The Crown Ain’t Worth Much) recently released, where do you see yourself going next?

Hopefully to sleep for a few hours, sometime around March of 2017. I’m feeling so deeply thankful and yet eternally unprepared for all of this, you know? I sat down to write this thing, and I thought all of my friends in Columbus would like it, and that was it. I really thought I’d get like 50 author copies, hand them out to my friends, and then move on with my life. The book has really risen up and taken on a life of its own, and while it’s great to be swept up in it all, it’s hard for me to consider a “next” that isn’t just a continuation of the work I consider most vital: telling my stories before someone else who doesn’t look like me tries to tell my stories. I am, ultimately, a writer who has a hunger to archive that which I may not be able to locate or remember in a physical space. Be it through gentrification, death, or just loss of familiarity. I can no longer tell the grand lie that I’m writing only for myself, with the knowledge that people are certainly reading my work. But the worlds I’m building within are definitely for me. I need them to enter and exit and re-enter. I need to build a space where I can touch the faces of those who I’ve lost, even if it’s just when I close my eyes. It’s about memory, really. I’m afraid of what I’d lose if I didn’t write things down. I come from a people who have lost so much. Who have a history with holes, and nothing to fill them in. I want to create a lineage of storytelling, by any means. I like poems, of course. I also love writing about music. I’m a massive music nerd, and I always feel like people letting me write long and sprawling things on music and then paying me for it is somehow like I’m cheating the system. But wherever I can fill in a space that is empty for someone, most of all for myself, I will run to that opportunity. I don’t know what’s next as far as actual, concrete work. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is only a week old, and it still doesn’t feel real. It still feels like I’m going to wake up from this dream and be at my desk three years ago with the word doc open where I had the list of titles to choose from and like five poems. I’m really cautious when the joy is this heavy, and I suppose that’s sad. I suppose that means I’ve lost enough good things in my life. But, the work always answers. I recently finished a chapbook of new poems that should be out next year. Crown was a deeply sad and immense project to write. When I got done with it, I felt really weighed down, depressed, anxious. I wrote my way out (uh, but also had some therapy. shoutout to my therapist,) and the 18 or so poems that came out of that got made into a chapbook. I’ve started setting my sights on a 2nd manuscript that ties in loosely with the first. An oral history of the night in Ohio when Biggie died, told through poems. It’s making poems exciting for me. It’s a while away, of course. But it’s good to have a target.

What is it about experimental poetry/fiction that drew you in?

Nostalgia is, I think, so much prettier when you don’t have to answer for every detail as a point of fact or non-fiction. I enjoy the memory, and I enjoy what poetry allows me to stretch it into. I enjoy the moment, frozen and expanded across the page. I can’t do that everywhere. Not everything will bend to that. I keep ringing that same doorbell, and poetry keeps answering, every time. And so here I am, again, with roses in hand, asking for another dance.

Before I leave you to do your fancy author thing, I gotta bring up music.

  • Is there any song/ album that influenced your life greatly and if so is it still the case?

There are too many to name, I think! But I’ll say this. The first time I heard my mother sing a song out loud, I was small, maybe 3 or 4 years old, and on the floor of a living room with red carpet. It was a Whitney Houston song, from her 1985 album. Her debut album, where she is on the cover looking like an actual queen. I didn’t know the song at the time, of course, but I remembered the melody. I heard it again when I was 8, and it hung in the air with me for years. What I’m saying is that Whitney Houston is immensely important to me because she, through her brilliance, helped my mother to get free in a moment where she didn’t think anyone was listening. We are the music that gets us free when we think no one else is around, I really believe that. I listen to Whitney now and still think of my mother’s voice. I wept when Whitney died. There’s a poem in the book about it, though I left out some of the crying details. If I could do it again, I’d write that part in. It would feel more honest, more urgent.

  • What are 3 artists you think more people should know about?

I’ve been telling this story a ton lately, but I think it’s cool. I was at the Alternative Press Music Awards like a week ago, an awards show for “alternative” music, the kind of scene I was REALLY into when I was younger, and still, less intensely into now. Punk, Emo, Pop-Punk, the works. When I was growing up, like late teens, I wanted so badly to be a bass player in a cool pop-punk band. A lyricist and a bass player. But there weren’t a ton of black people who were visible to me in that capacity. At the Alternative Press awards, a black guy, Skyler Acord, wins best bassist. He brings his black mother and black brother and his whole family on stage. He says “if I can come from where I came from and do this, anyone like me can do this.” And I thought WOW! If I’d heard that when I was 19, fuck poems, I’d be playing warped tour or some shit right now! A pipe dream, of course, but my heart swelled for all of the young black kids who could watch that and unlock an infant dream. His band is called Issues. I think people should listen to them. I think Neck Deep is the future of pop-punk, once they figure out how to get the energy and uniqueness of their live performances into their albums. I think Jamila Woods is everyone’s future. Mine, yours, the entire world’s.

  • What are 5 of your most played songs this week?
  • Sleater-Kinney — “Step Aside”
  • Violet Cold — “Veil of Future”
  • Death Grips — “Giving Bad People Good Ideas”
  • Arthur Lee — “Love Jumped Through My Window”
  • Blood Orange & Carly Rae Jepsen — “Better Than Me”

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was released in July 2016 by Button Poetry.

You can find Hanif’s book here, here and here.

Special thanks to my friend, the space marine and editor by force, Jonina.