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. With Big Lucks, he released the limited-edition chapbook Vintage Sadness in summer 2017 (and it is very sold out). 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. 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. His next books are Go Ahead In The Rain, a biography of A Tribe Called Quest due out in 2019 by University of Texas Press, and They Don’t Dance No’ Mo’, due out in 2020 by Random House.
One rainy day in May 2018, Hanif and I met at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams where he made his own root beer float and we discussed the art of joy, the intimacy found only in barbershops, the function of community in his writing life—and music, friends, of course we talked about the gift of music.
The interview below has been edited for length.
Ruth Awad: So I know you’ve talked in the past about how folks tend to interpret your art like it’s an excavation of grief and heartbreak. But I see it functioning as the other side of joy. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about joy? Both at large—in a theoretical sense—and how it works in your art: experiencing it, arriving at it, complicating it?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I think all the time about grief as a reactionary function to the knowledge of joy and the fact that it’s not promised to you. I tend to think that of the promised emotions, negative ones are the ones I’m most certain I’m going to encounter—with the state of the world in general or the state of my many grievances in the world, at least. I know for sure that I’m going to be unhappy at least once a day, anxious all the time. The other side of that is that I don’t know for sure when I will find something that will make me happy and that I can stretch out, make a meal out of, in a way. So I always think about grief as a reactionary thing. Which is why perhaps people find that most present in my work. But I think, instead, what I’m most interested in is prolonging or making joy this hovering, always-present thing. I think in order to do that, you have to write toward opposing feelings of it so that people can be constantly reminded of it.
I always think about Ross Gay, how his poems aren’t really about gardening or flowers or tasting things from Earth—the poem is really about gratitude for smallness after having survived. I like to think that I’m trying to build a poem in which there’s one door in and several doors out. So if the door in is grief, I want every door out to be a different type of meditation on that which can get you outside of grief.
RA: Your eye seems drawn to spaces that bring people together, whether it’s concerts or the barbershop or the basketball court. What about these spaces and experiences fascinate you as a writer and keep your interest?
HA: Communal spaces that aren’t understood by everyone outside of them interest me. I don’t know how to explain the barbershop to someone who is not perhaps black or of color or who doesn’t get their hair cut like I get my hair cut. I was in the barbershop today—I got my hair cut today after three weeks; it was awful. I was talking to my barber about how he’s going to Denver for the first time, like, “I want to be in the wilderness. My girl and I have been fighting and we’re gonna go to the wilderness. Rediscover our romance.” I was like, Great, so do you want to go hiking? He’s like, “No I don’t want to go hiking. I just want to be, like, in a really nice house on a mountain.” I was like, Well that’s kind of the wilderness. My barber is of color, but not black, and I don’t know what his understanding of racial politics is, but during this rambling, he’s showing me houses on Airbnb, like, “This is what I really want to go to, it’s in this wooded area, but my girl, she’s black. So I’m worried about being out in the middle of nowhere and I look like this.”
I thought that was interesting, right? I think the barbershop invites this dialogue that is both political and not. And absurd and not.
I say all that to say there’s a community. I feel like my barber is family to me. We don’t really know each other outside of the confines of that shop, but I love him. He is more physically intimate with me than even most of my friends. And there’s a comfort there. If we’re talking about straight men, masculine affection, my barber touches my face more than any other man in my life. It’s something that we don’t even think about. I don’t think that’s weird. I think there’s something about that space or any space like that, like the basketball court, too, where outside of the confines of that space, nothing makes sense, but within the confines of that space, everything makes sense.
I grew up playing basketball, and the person I am on a basketball court is unrecognizable from who I am outside of it. Even now, I play basketball with some friends and I’m still this different person. I think what I’m getting at is these communities offer a kind of intimacy for everyone but particularly for me. I’m thinking about masculine intimacy and how I had to grow into it because I didn’t have a blueprint for it growing up. And I’m thinking about all ways which I was being provided that in these spaces I was always in but I just wasn’t seeing it.
RA: You mentioned the unique characteristics that exist only in the certain spaces that come to define a community. That might be a fine enough transition to talk about music and its ability to create these spaces. Both physical space, how it draws people to a show or certain place, and cultural space. So I kind of want to talk about that idea and how music functions in a way that other works of art maybe don’t. And why music is a good lens through which to look at our culture and to look at our interpersonal spaces and relationships to figure out what’s going on, what brings us together, what keeps us apart.
HA: I’ve written a lot about soul train lines. One of the best soul train lines ever is the Earth, Wind & Fire one where they play “September,” and there’s something about the way that song pulls another body out of a body. A body that is yours but also not. I’m saying that I think music is a good way to build a bridge to interpersonal connection because, in a way, music divides you into various persons. What you listen to when you’re sad is not what you listen to when you want to dance, what you listen to when you want to write or want to reflect. Because music is the lens through which we are divided into multiple selves, it makes sense that all of those selves need bridges toward each other.
When people are like, When you write about pop culture, don’t you worry that the thing you write about is going to expire? Well, no, because it’s a vehicle to get you to something else. I don’t really care if you know the song or like the song. If you were like, I’ve never heard “September” in my life, I would say, Fine, but I could describe the exact feeling that I get when hearing that opening line. And I would hope that you have felt that feeling in your life before. And you could be like, I’ve felt or something around that area. Just like that, we’ve built our bridge.
I think that perhaps music is what I return to because I see myself so many different ways through the same song. I think about Kesha and the song “Praying,” how it’s both triumphant and devastating. Every now and then, I watch her performance this past year’s Grammy Awards and I just cry. It just really fucks me up, for a lot of reasons. But I have both run a last mile to that song and cried in bed to that song. Those two versions of me are different people. And knowing that means I can connect with people who have felt similar things.
I think what I’m really getting is this idea that songs are timeless because so many of them act as touchstones. I remember the first song I heard my mother singing along to. Which means that music in some ways is helping keep my mother alive. That’s helping to keep me alive and keep me in touch with my lineage. There are ways in which memory for some of us is tied distinctly to sound. Largely my memories are tied to sonic elements. And therefore, music is in my work because I am trying to recall memory.
RA: What do you think is the role of community in the life of the writer and in the actual process of writing?
HA: My community—which is multilayered at this point—it’s kind of like my barber, where he loves you enough to not have you look foolish. Or who loves your work but loves you as a person more. That is really vital for me. I think about Eve Ewing specifically because she has made own spaces. And I think about people like Kaveh, Nate Marshall, José Olivarez, people I love and am really close to, who, in reaction to not feeling cared for by institutional places have found a way to build their own institutions of homies. No institution has ever done for me what my friends have.
For me, community looks like the people who push my work and who demand more out of me as a person, which in some ways is also pushing my work. People hold me accountable when I fuck up, because I undoubtedly do and will. Through that accountability, even if there’s some anger in it, they want me to be a better steward of the world we’re in. I think so much of community comes into play with writing in ways that don’t have anything to do with page.
I think what I value most are people who love me enough to be angry at me then come back and still love me. People who are patient with me when they have no right to be. People who know me well enough to know that I am a collage of failures with some really good intentions.
RA: Do you subscribe to the idea that art has moral responsibility? That it should or shouldn’t do certain things or function in certain ways? If so, what does that look like for you?
HA: I don’t think it has to have a responsibility; I think it can. I think that should be of the artist’s choosing, or something the artist decides on upon creating. You also can’t control the way art lives in the world. Like, do you think you wrote a political book?
RA: Kind of, yeah.
HA: My reading of your book is the politics of it are very well fleshed out and inextricable from the narrative. I think like I’ve read this comment on Eloisa’s book, the chapbook Mexicamericana, that it was very political. And people were like, From the Inside Quietly is not as political. I think it’s really political because it is largely a narrative about a mother’s relationship with a daughter with a border barrier. To me, the minute a border appears and there is a separating between people, that’s a political book.
So I don’t think art has to do that, but we don’t get to choose the way our work lives in the world. So I’m always open to the idea that I have created a political book or that I’m writing a political poem. My new work, in my brain, is not at all political. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was so intensely political. And the stakes were high. I wrote the back half of that book while watching streams of protest. The Baltimore uprising was happening and you could just like stream it on the internet. Which was so wild to me. I wrote so many drafts of those poems, just up until three in the morning watching protests. Now I’m not writing toward that. And so I think in my brain I’m not writing a political book but it could arrive and someone can easily say, This is a political text. And I have to be OK with that. I think I’m always prepared to be OK with the idea that I’m working toward a political narrative even if in my brain I don’t think I am.
RA: Right. Like if I write a book just about dogs and like have no subtext to it. But the fact that I’m putting it out for consumption in the context of the world makes it say something else.
HA: It’s interesting because I feel like now that I have some new poems from the new manuscript entering the world and people are like these are different. It’s like wow your new stuff is like wild different than Crown. Yes. Decidedly. The joint in Poetry Magazine would never been in Crown. But I don’t think that means there’s no politics within the work. The whole concept of that was born out of a political thing. I got barked at a lot on the sidewalks of Connecticut by dogs and their white owners would freak out. Just because that isn’t explicitly in the piece doesn’t mean the impetus isn’t political. I was like the only black person in my neighborhood in Connecticut for miles. So I think about what it is to be Other and to have dogs barking at you out of what could be excitement or love. And to have an owner apologize for that excitement. Or what is it to be no longer loved in your home that you share with a person but to go outside and to have dogs welcome you. So all of that to me is political. But I don’t know if an artist has to mean for everything they make to be political, but when it enters if the world, the artist is removed from the discussion. I think if you’re an artist, you have to be OK with that.
RA: Ok, last question: What is something right now that brings you joy? Is it a marked shift from what has brought you joy in the past?
HA: Yes, there is a shift. And I don’t know how to talk about this well. I think my life has changed in the last year. A lot more people care about my personal life now than they did before. What I’m trying to get at is that what brings me joy now is kind of the moments of isolation that feel like they can be endless. This is gonna sound really wack and corny, but I was cleaning my apartment today and I was so overcome with the happiness of that. The way it allowed me to feel youthful again. By that I mean I remember being a kid. And turning up music and doing my chores and hating it. But having music to power through. And today I turned on a playlist. I’ve been gone for a long-ass time.
Anyway, what I’m saying is I love that I can come home and hold a scrub brush in my hand and wring it out and feel the water splash my fingers. Today what I love about cleaning is scrubbing the past away from a surface and watching it become new, you know what I mean? There was something so satisfying about that. I bought new sheets for my bed. And I’m gonna get new pillows after dinner. Do you do this? Put a billion pillows on your bed? I think a lot of people do. I am an outlier. I didn’t start sleeping with pillows until like three years ago.
RA: What? Just head on mattress?
HA: Yeah, and then when I was training for my second marathon, my doctor was like, How do you sleep? And I told her and she was like, You’re going to fuck up your spine. So I only sleep with one pillow. (I Instagrammed a picture of my bed recently and there was only one pillow on it and so many people’s comments were like, ONE PILLOW?) But I think what brings me joy is the single pillow, the single sheet. I’m becoming more domestic in my joys. I think it’s because I’ve been away from home for so long. So that the things that make me happy right now are the ridiculous minutiae of being at my apartment.
I am so aware of death, and that means that I do not want to squander my life by fixating on that awareness. I’m really fortunate. People read my work. Talk to me about songs. I live in a city I love, in a city that I’m so proud to live in. There are a handful of really good reasons why people should not love me but they do regardless. There are many ways in which I’m not good but also forgiven. All of those things are worthy of celebration. And if celebration means spending time with my friends and reveling in that, that’s great. If celebration means me in my apartment scrubbing month-old dirt off the sink, then that also is a type of joy.