Featured Poet: Hanif Abdurraqib

By-Natalie Solmer


When I think of writer Hanif Abdurraqib, I not only think of his distinct poems and essays, I think of Ohio. Throughout Abdurraqib’s work you will find copious references and fierce allegiance to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. So you might be wondering why he is our featured poet for this issue, because if you’ve been following the Indianapolis Review, you may have noticed that we always feature an interview with a poet who has strong ties to Indiana. Past poets have included: Adrian Matejka, Mitchell  L. H. Douglas, Allyson Horton, Kaveh Akbar and Diane Seuss. With the exception of Diane Seuss  (who was born in Indiana and lives in Michigan), all of the aforementioned poets live and write in Indiana.


What you might not know is that Abdurraqib has been teaching in Indianapolis at Butler University’s MFA program. Hanif has been making the long drive from Columbus to Indianapolis each week and running the graduate poetry workshop this semester, and by some miracle, I was assigned as a TA for the class. Participating in Hanif’s class has been just as rewarding as you might guess, due to his sharp insights and wide knowledge of the craft of writing, especially in working with sound.


Hanif was very generous with his answers to my questions for this interview, which we conducted via email recently.  He gives details about his start as a writer, his thoughts on his last book of poetry, and gives us a lot of interesting background on his next book of poems. He also gives his thoughts on Indianapolis and reminds us that “[t]he Midwest is of many bodies, and the possibilities within are endless.”

I didn’t ask any questions about his essay writing, instead choosing to focus on his poetry. However, I just wanted to mention that he is an incredibly accomplished essayist, and I highly recommend his book of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. I have been teaching essays out of this book to my English Composition students for a couple semesters now, and these essays are always some of my students’ favorites. He manages to braid together topics of celebrity, race, music, culture, loneliness, anger, etc., and does this in a subtle and nuanced way that encourages critical thinking. If you are unfamiliar with Abdurraqib’s work, here is the bio from his website:

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published inMuzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published inThe FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Muchwas 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. 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, 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, andThe Chicago Tribune, among others. He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, an interviewer at Union Station Magazine, and a poetry editor at Muzzle  Magazine.  He is a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with poet/essayist Eve Ewing.


NS: I have to start with the ‘at what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?’ question. I didn’t find the answer to that in any of your interviews that I read; however, I did see something about you knowing how to play piano! I was also wondering if you ever wanted to be a musician, particularly because music is so important to your life, and because so many writers before they were writers (including myself) go through a phase of wanting to be musicians.


HA: I think I kind of always knew I enjoyed writing. My mother wrote, and my house was one where reading was prioritized from a really early age. I think my siblings and I were consistently reading above our expected reading level. I also knew that I enjoyed writing as a way to kind of poke at the hive of questions that I consistently turned over internally, be it about music or sports or the world in general. I didn’t really think any of this would lead to a career path in writing, but I knew that I liked anything that helped me make sense of a world that I often felt was moving too quickly for me to engage with in the way I wanted to. Writing was my way of trying to press pause on the things that excited me, before they breezed past. I think in my early 20s, I began to pursue this idea of writing as something that could sustain a life and career for me, but I had no idea what that looked like. I was a music critic before I was a poet, so I was largely shouting into a void about the things I loved and enjoying whatever echoes danced back. I was speaking to no one at first, and that was really satisfying. I think there’s something to be said about learning to write about your passions with few people watching. It allows for someone to fail forward, in a way that’s harder for writers to do now.


I was once in a short-lived band. I played keys and wrote the songs. We broke up halfway during our first and only show, due to a disagreement over creative differences between the drummer and bassist. We had a good run. I’m hoping for the reunion tour someday. Maybe we’ll get through a whole show.


NS: What writers and/or mentors have been most influential to you? 


HA: Jessica Hopper has been vital to my growth as a music writer. Lester Bangs really laid groundwork for me, as far as learning how to write about music as a fan first. Terrance Hayes, William Evans, Scott Woods — these were all poets who I looked to at the earliest stages of my writing. I do think that the mentors I feel most close to and involved with are my direct peers. I understand why this is, but so often the mentorship model is based off of this hierarchical structure, where someone is looking up to/at another writer. And I’m with that and have benefited from that in my life and career. But I’m at a point now where I find myself most excited about looking to the writers beside me. The ones who have endured some of the same things I’ve endured at the same time I’m enduring them. A few weeks ago, I was at this self-fashioned retreat with Angel Nafis, Fatimah Asghar, Kaveh Akbar, and Safia Elhillo. And it dawned on me that these are some of the many peers I look to for direct guidance. Not only in my work, but also in my life. I feel like we are all linked by our being on this path together in this particular moment in American Letters. And so, it seems that these are the people who can help me best claw through my fears, anxieties, my language for this mess of a world. I want those beside me as my mentors now, because those are the people who know that, together, we can reshape the canon we’ve been sold for so long. And they want me there at that finish line as much as I want them there.


NS: Speaking of mentors and influences, we see how much Columbus, Ohio, “the city that raised me” has acted as mother and mentor to your writing, especially in your 2016 book of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, where you seamlessly explore coming of age stories alongside gentrification, music, loneliness and friendship. The book is so rich and layered, and I was wondering if there was anything about that book that you feel was overlooked by people who were reviewing and commenting on it? Is there anything in particular about it that you wish someone would have asked you?


HA: Well, I think a major thing is that gentrification is structural and generational, you know? It is hard to articulate that in a book of poems, and so some of that failure is entirely on me. But I hate that the talk of gentrification still centers on the material aspects of it. Yes, it is definitely about buildings and homes and stores and all of that. But what I was trying to hone in on in the book is the idea that it is even more about people. And not just one person, but potentially an entire lineage of people. To be displaced is to cause a disruption in lineage, and to have your former neighborhood become illegible to you is a disruption in your understanding of place. Those things reach beyond the material aspects of gentrification. That impact reverberates, and it is hard to track with that in a single collection of poems. I don’t really feel like I failed, but I do think that if I could do it again, I would try and trust myself more.


NS: You have a new book of poetry, A Fortune For Your Disaster, coming out with Tin House in 2019. You have said that it contains 3 series of poems: a series about Marvin Gaye, a series about Nicola Tesla, and a series that are all titled, “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This.” The form of this book is a big departure from your previous book, in that The Crown contained a lot of prose poems that often consisted of one long sentence. How did you end up making this shift into using constraints in your writing such as sonnet form and repetition of title/topic? 


HA: I got a lot of joy out of editing myself into restraint. Then again, I suppose becoming immersed in serial poems isn’t exactly restraint, it’s just a different form of excess. I think it all became easier for me when I realized that the same idea can live in many different ways. What has really changed is my thinking around production, and what it means to produce one’s way out of a curiosity. There’s labor in that for me that sometimes extends beyond the single poem. I want to do justice to all of my ridiculous excitements, and I don’t know if that justice can be or should be tied to writing a single poem, or writing two poems. I got better when I stopped looking for answers as a conclusion. I think there are many ways to fulfill artistic questioning that don’t end in answers, but that end in a satisfaction with the exploration. I had to learn to restrain myself in how I overturned rocks in my writing, and I had to learn to restrain myself when being honest about what I was actually looking for in that overturning. I’m still using far too much language, probably. I’m still stretching sentences beyond their most logical stopping point. But the biggest shift in my writing is that I’ve learned how to make better use of the sprawling. A weapon can be a tool, and a tool can be a weapon. When I’m chasing these poems about flowers, for example. I realized before starting them that I knew very little about flowers. But I didn’t start writing the poems to (only) gain some deeper intelligence about flowers. I started writing the poems to find out all of the different ways flowers could help me unravel several other things rattling around in my head. Sure, I maybe know a little more about flowers than I did when I started, but I’m really just shaking a tree until all of the fruit is at my feet, and then I’m trying to make as many uses of the fruit as possible.


NS: I am super curious about the title of your new book, A Fortune For Your Disaster, and am wondering if you could elaborate on how you chose it, and how it relates to the book. This is a entirely selfish question, because one of my obsessions in my own work is “fortune” as it relates to poverty/wealth and as it relates to how much of your life is predetermined and how much of it is under your control. I also love that the word “disaster” literally means, “from the stars.” (Horticultural side note: there are a whole family of flowers called “asters” (translation: “stars”) and now I’m wondering if you wrote a poem about those!)


HA: So, I think so much of my work is, or at least has been inextricably linked to Fall Out Boy, for better or worse. And, at its most base level, the title comes from the opening line in the Fall Out Boy song “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am,” from their album Infinity on High. The full line is: “Penny for your thoughts / but a dollar for your insights / or a fortune for your disaster.” There’s much more to it than that, of course. But I’m always struck by how Infinity on High, as an album feels now, compared to where the band is. It was their third album, released in 2007. I have little interest in the album that makes a band famous, and all of the interest in the album that comes after the album that makes a band famous. Infinity on High is this really long meditation on what it is to desire fame, but not want to be famous. Especially for a band like them, that came from a scene where the performance of closeness and intimacy with fans was a type of currency. It was a brief era for them, before they got very comfortable with their status, but I thought it was refreshing and interesting to see a music group wrestling with those concepts as they were happening to them. Especially on an album that, like, literally had Jay Z on its intro.


Beyond that, I was thinking a lot about heartbreak, fear, anxiety, and loneliness and how there can be a currency to the articulation of those feelings. Even in my attempts to test the great expanse and see if I am not alone in my particular agony, there is a reward for that. The series of Marvin Gaye poems existed in the book first, because I was thinking about his album Here, My Dear. It was an album he made in the late 70s, and it was wrapped up in his divorce proceedings. He was getting divorced from Anna Gordy — the older sister of his boss, Berry Gordy. And as a part of the settlement, he was instructed to pay her half of whatever royalties he made from his next Motown album. So he made this album, Here, My Dear which is over seventy minutes of mid-tempo emotional exhaustion. Marvin, fighting through his own rage, and heartbreak, and self-pity. It was a failure when it came out, both critically and commercially. The story goes that he went into the album recording process just wanting to make anything to get through the legal process of his divorce, but then became consumed by making the project one of the best. It really made me think about what it is to be publicly sad, and to use that sadness to propel you towards some brand of prosperity. I was really heartbroken when I sat down to write the first few poems in this book. And as I worked my way through them, my life drastically shifted in ways I was unprepared for and had to learn to keep up with. It felt like I was writing my way out of an older, sadder version of myself and into a newer, slightly less sadder version. Here, My Dear wasn’t valued until after Marvin was dead, which is the way of it, I suppose. But it also made me think about cost. Always, at what cost.


NS: Another thing I’m always curious about is revision. What is your process like? I think grad school taught me how to craft a poem and shape it, but if there is something at the core of the poem that isn’t working, no amount of shaping or condensing or moving around lines will help. Now that you are teaching a graduate poetry workshop and helping students with revision, are you thinking about it differently?


HA: I like to think more about revision now as a sonic practice, and a sonic exercise. I came into poetry through slam, which meant that I came into poetry in a space where I was consistently reading my work out loud and being made very aware of how it sounded coming out of my mouth. This is a great editing tool that I didn’t appreciate until now. The fact that each word can be its own type of instrument tells me that words make different sounds when paired with other words, and I’m really eager to take advantage of that, always. Sure, I’m more into writing short and editing into length than I used to be. But really, I’m thinking about lines on a language level now. I’m structuring my poems as I would make a musical arrangement. I’m looking at them and wondering how I can add more bass to certain parts, or how I can add more wind to a crescendo. I feel that I am tasked with building arrangements that serve the needs of the poem, from a sonic standpoint. Every poet is a bandleader. We write the instruments first, and then we spend our revision time placing them where we believe they belong. That’s what excites me now.


NS: The other day in class, you mentioned how the Midwest has a quality of “always trying to be something it isn’t.” I found that to be really fascinating! I’m kind of scared to ask this, but do you have any thoughts about Indianapolis’s and/or Indiana’s place in the Midwest? I feel like we have one of the worst reputations, as a state, and people don’t realize that there are some cool things and people here. I also read in an interview something that really interested me.  where you talked about the Great Lakes culture as being totally its own thing in the Midwest, and that people don’t really talk about that. I really resonated with that because I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which is quintessentially Great Lakes, and I now live in Indianapolis, which I see as really different. For example, all my grandparents were from Poland and Eastern Europe, which was a big demographic of the Chicagoland area, but not so much down here in Indy. Anyhow, I would love to hear more of your random thoughts on the Midwest!


HA: I think it is odd that Indiana is one of those states that just gets saddled with a lot of negative connotations. When I was young and driving in between Ohio and Chicago for punk shows, my pals would always joke that the speed limit was higher in Indiana because people wanted to get out quicker. I personally am fond of Indiana — or at least parts of it. Indianapolis is a great food city, and a great art city, and a great sports city. Those are three things I really value. A thing that bothered me and continues to bother me about how the Midwest is discussed in national conversations is this idea that it is a monolithic entity. The Midwest is vast, and there are many different versions of it, even within itself. Cincinnati is a different Midwest than Columbus, and South Bend is a different Midwest than Chicago, which is a different Midwest than Omaha, which is a different Midwest than St. Louis. And I’m not just talking values, I mean the actual language and interior of these places are all different. And I find a lot of value in each of them. I love the sprawl and welcoming golds and oranges of a Nebraska highway the same way I love the communal commitment to surviving winters which exists in the upper Midwest the same way I love Chicago’s collaborative spirit. The Midwest is of many bodies, and the possibilities within are endless.