2017 Contest: A Conversation with Nonfiction Judge Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

May 22, 2017Archive, Interviews

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.


Black Warrior Review: Let’s just get into it. So, you’ve got the book of essays dropping his fall, which I’m super pumped for yo. That being said, how are you feeling about this book of essays dropping? Can you give us a sneak peek of what we can expect out of this collection? & will Migos be a part of this collection?

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: Yeah, actually, it’s funny that you say that. I have this essay about Johnny Cash & Migos & authenticity, & what we demand out of rappers or other black artists, & what we never demand out of white artist, or particularly country artist, because they’re so focused on narrative building. & I love Johnny Cash & wanted to write about mostly myself. & how, I, too, sometimes demand an authenticity out of black artists that I don’t demand out of the white artist I love. I thought Migos was an interesting entry point into that because people have such a hard time with them being from the suburbs, you know? Like, their from the north Atlanta suburbs, & people really struggle with that when listening to their work in ways that they don’t seem to struggle with like, you know, Johnny Cash’s prison narratives. So, yes. Migos is in the book. It’s a lot of essays about music. Some about, of course, not just music, but how music can intersect with race & culture & emotions. Some, personal ones, about death & Ohio & my friends. Some about about sports. I have this long thing about Michael Jordan & Allen Iverson that is going to be a late addition, that i’m really hyped about. So yeah. It’s pretty well balanced I think, but I think most of it, is going to be at least, somewhat, musical.

BWR: That’s fly! I wanna hear more about this Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson joint. [Laughs]

HA: Yeah it’s mostly about the shift. Essentially, it’s centered on the night Allen Iverson crossed Michael Jordan, but it’s talking about the shift of the racial lens on the NBA that happened after that. Not after that night, but post that era. The era where Jordan stopped being the coolest NBA player, & it became someone like Allen Iverson who was really kind of an antithesis to Jordan in a lot of ways.

BWR: Yeah. Shit. I didn’t think about that, that’s great. Gahhhhh, I’m so hype for this book! How different does it feel to be bringing a book of essays into the world than a book of poems?

HA: Yeah. It feels pretty weird, it’s pretty odd. For me this was something I never expected, it’s not something, I like, went out after. A handful of presses reached out to me, & i turned a lot down. & then one did, & it was kind of just the perfect home for it. Like, Two Dollar Radio is this really cool indy press that a lot of people are hype on. Um. & they’re also based in Columbus, OH, where i’m from. So it was just a very logical thing, & they gave me a heavy green light to do what I wanted. Yeah, it’s been really cool. It’s been really really cool.

BWR: & it’s so fly that it came out so organically. Of course it’s ill when you are trying to submit, submit, submit, which is a big difference, obviously, just in terms of process between the poetry book & this book.

HA: Yeah, definitely

BWR: Like, it feels good when you submit it & it gets chosen, but for it to be like, ok word, maybe I should think about this opportunity. That’s pretty fly.

HA: Yeah, it feels really fly. & it’s been good to get back. You know I didn’t really write poems as much when I was working on the book. Still have a couple of essays I need to tighten up before I throw them in there. But, it’s been good to also get back to writing poems, & feel good about writing poems again.

BWR: Has that kind of just come about recently., or is that something you’ve been feeling since maybe, only, a couple months after The Crown Ain’t Worth Much dropped?

HA: Only recently, I think. It’s been fun to mess around with a bunch of poems, & not eying a specific project, just kind of writing poems as an exercise. Um. & now I feel like I have a vision set on a manuscript project, & that really is good because i’m very much, like, a project writer. I right toward projects. I mean, writing the aimless poems has been great, but it’s really cool now, figuring out a project & trying to write into it.

BWR: That’s excellent. Shoutout, ok. So, of course we’re thrilled to be having you. & in thinking about the nonfiction contest what are you looking for in a winning entry? What makes an essay shake your bones?

HA: I get really hype when I see personal narratives that speak to something entirely unpersonal. I feel like in poems i’m very interested in world building, but in essays i’m more interested in bridge building. In a sense that is organic. & i’m not saying some of those [essays] have to get on some like, we are the world shit, but I think the difficult thing is when you are not on that, & you are trying to articulate a very specific experience, & make room for other people within that experience. That’s really hard, & I like seeing that.

BWR: I love the difference between bridge building & world building.

HA: It’s a different approach when it comes to poems & essays. In essays you have more room to build bridges with nuance & accessibility, & in a poem you don’t always have that room. So, you gotta be the best with what you got.

BWR: Hell yeah. There’s an economy that poems ask for, even when you’re doing, like, long joints, right?

HA: : Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. It’s a matter of language right? You have to adhere to at least some ideas of language & imagery that you don’t always have to do in essays.

BWR: Facts. Soooooooo, I find so much of your writing compelling for lots of reasons, but especially because of how it wields music, historical narrative personal & cultural & critically. It feels very permission granting. So i’m wondering who was, or who were, some of the first writers who made you feel permitted to be able to write the way that you do?

HA: So my mother wrote. So, my mother, because she wrote. But, because she wrote, & was a black woman, I think that my natural, organic, framework that was made for me was by black women so: Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston— Zora Neale Hurston was the first person I read, who made me feel like I could write the way I spoke. That was really important for me. Because she was writing the way I heard language in my neighborhood. & language that would get dismissed by, you know, people outside of that neighborhood but was whole world, & she was writing it. Zora Neale Hurston changed the way that I looked at what was possible for the words that sat on my tongue & read them to the world— Octavia Butler was so essential to me, as far as talking about that world building.

The wildest thing to me about my upbringing is that, um, I read a lot, but I stopped, & I feel like I started it again. Even though she wasn’t a writer, Josephine Baker is so important to my political ethos. The epigraph to The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is a Josephine Baker quote. I think she was just so smart, & challenged people in ways that really is fascinating. Gloria Naylor. Sorry i’m naming a lot. (laughs)

BWR: No you’re perfect!

HA: I think with Gloria Naylor, people talk a lot about The Women of Brewster Place, & The Women of Brewster Place is great, it’s one of the best debuts of all time, but one of the first books of Gloria Naylor’s I read was Mama Day, which was beautiful. It was just a tragic love story, that was like a black woman writing Shakespeare. It’s one of the best books i’ve ever read. & this isn’t to say that there haven’t been other people. In my canon there are not only black woman, there are mostly black women, but there are also other people. Lester Bangs is the music critic who really shaped my voice. You know, he did criticism in the 70’s & early 80’s before he died. His criticism really shaped my voice, the way I write & the way I think about criticism. & I love revisiting his work & the way it is unafraid to be wrong. I think the work of anyone who takes on anything critical, particularly music because that’s what I do— Am I talking too much?

BWR: No. You’re perfect yo!

HA: — I was talking about this this weekend with Jessica Hopper, who’s my boss at MTV & also a brilliant critic, & she was talking about how the work of the critic is to not be afraid to be wrong. The work of the critic is to engage in a conversation with the public, & if you are to engage in a conversation with the public you need to be prepared to engage. What that means is that you might be wrong sometimes, & so Lester Bangs was unafraid of being wrong in a way that I hope to be unafraid of being wrong. But, if you are unafraid of being wrong, you are also unafraid of taking the really big swings, because you want to back them up, right? You want to look at something that everyone loves & complicate it. Not because you’re like this devil’s advocate asshole, but because that work is the work of the critic, is to complicate the beloved thing. So that was a long answer for a question that took us all over the place. (laughs)

BWR: Lol, no! One, this brings us to our next question really naturally, & Two, it’s so funny that you’re talking about this unafraidness to be wrong. I feel like i’ve been thinking about this in terms of thinking about failure & some of my favorite writers who unabashedly use failure almost as praxis. So, in that way i’ve been talking about Ross Gay a lot, because of his Cave Canem lecture in which he talks about failure of the imagination. Um, & then also, because of his Book of Flowers lecture which is all about the failed imagination in terms of how they imagine the black body, which is like an American failed imagination. But um, this works really seamlessly because for me I have certain books that are talismans. So, like, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude is a talisman often. I don’t leave the house without it. I bring it everywhere with me. What are your talismans right now in terms of books? What books are you not leaving the house without?

HA: Um, Khadijah’s book, the I’m So Fine joint, cause I think that is one of those ones I find something new in it when I reread it every time. & i’m so invested in that kind of critique of gender & power. I was talking about that book to someone, & it does these small & subtle things. The whole thing that the arc is shaped around the clothes she was wearing at the time that all of this stuff happened. Speaking to the age old point of what women have been saying for years, folks who are not men have been saying for years, about street harassment. Which is that it is about power, & nothing else. The way that book articulates that relationship to gender & power is really haunting. & i’m not saying I read that book & was like wow. street harassment is bad. Obviously I feel like I was at a point where i was ready to receive a book like that because I have in the past been taught by women & queer folks about how masculinity informs violences throughout. Entering the book & exiting it, i’m a different person every time. That is one. Right now i’m revisiting the Natalie Diaz book because it’s just so, When My Brother Was an Aztec, it’s just like so brilliant, sharp, & overwhelming. I’m working through Nicole Sealey’s chapbook, again— oh i’m a rereader, so I reread & reread— so i’m working through Nicole Sealey’s chapbook The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named.

BWR: I was just talking about that book earlier today!

HA: Yeah, I love it, love it. & then I have some essay books that i’m working through. Because when I was writing my book I was interested in other essay books & how they were structured. So, of course have The Fire Next Time & Bad Feminist, but I also have Consider the Lobster, the David Foster Wallace joint. I have The Opposite of Loneliness the Marina Keegan book. This is all in my bag, my bag is often overflowing with books. I have Men Explain Things to Me the Rebecca Solnit book, she’s really great. I have Teju Cole’s Known & Strange Things. So i’m bouncing between reading essay collections & books of poems. I’m really trying to reenter fiction too. I always put fiction on the backburner & I always reenter Fiction & I think to myself what am I not doing this more.

BWR: What do you find are some of the biggest differences that you bring into reading different genre books?

HA: Like what differences do i find in them?

BWR: Yeah, not differences. Like uhhhhh, how does your eye read those things differently? How does your eye read different mediums? Does that make sense?

HA: Yeah. I read slower when i’m reading fiction or essays. Not that I, like, speed through poems, but poetry books are so easy for me to go back & redigest several times. For example, Khadijah’s book, I read it in one night. One night at AWP, & I read it again when I got back to Connecticut. & of course this is a question of length too, a question of density, but I know I can go back easily & reenter a poetry book comfortably & learn something new. If i’m reading a really dense fiction thing or a really dense essay project I don’t always know if I can find a new thing, so I read those slower. I absorb them, I sit with them longer.

BWR: I love your thought process of reread-ability almost? Like, I think about White Girls by Hilton Als, which like, it took me while to read. Just cause it’s so good.

HA: Yeah that’s a good book.

BWR: But i’ve been rereading just the first essay for the past year [laughs]. & that’s not something that I had thought of. That’s facsinating.

HA: It’s a good one, it’s another of those that’s, like, really dense, you know?

BWR: Yeah, & it reads you, you know?

HA: Yeah Yeah Yeah.

BWR: & there are certain poetry books like that for me too. but that book will read you. So just a couple more questions. So um. “In Defense of ‘Trap Queen’ as Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song” you argue for Trap Queen. If you had to argue for our generation’s greatest joy song, anthem of petty or call for reparations what would you defend?

HA: Our generation’s greatest call for reparations, so i’m thinking of a song that’s a call for reparations? I think— can i say a song that is visual? I think [Beyonce’s] Formation, as a song, yes, but as a visual is also a great call for reparations. Because I want black people to have enough money to build the world that existed in that video as an artistic project. Maybe not all of it, like not the water.

BWR: [Laughs] right, right.

HA: But there’s like real small pockets of joy in that video that I want people to have the resources to build. Wait what was the first option?

BWR: Oh! Um, greatest joy anthem.

HA: Oh this one is a little bit easier. I think it’s gotta be [Kendrick Lamar’s] Alright, you know what I mean? — If we’re talking joy across all, cause when I wrote about Trap Queen it wasn’t like it was the greatest love song for just black people— I am of the line of thinking that Alright is a song that was specifically written to bring joy to Black people. Because it uses the “we” & the “us” in a way that is for Black people, but I am also not— if there are black people at a party dancing to Alright & there is one white person who’s there nodding their head along. I’m not throwing them out the party. You know what I mean?

BWR: Right. Right.

HA: Now. If there’s a party with no black people, & theres like, only white people turning up to Alright, then I got questions.

BWR: That’s how i feel about Formation, tbh

HA: Yeah, yeah. Same thing about Formation, & I think the real thing with these, what I like about these songs is that they cause us to have conversations, & it’s not about who “gets to” & who “doesn’t get to” enjoy music. But, it is about acknowledging what that music does for other people. When Adele had that Grammy speech, where she was thanking Beyonce. You know what I loved about that? Um, she had that moment where she was, like, gushing over what Beyonce means to her, means to her, means to her. & yeah she said it awkwardly, she had that awkward moment, but it was a good moment where she said, you know what it’s actually really important because you impower my black friends. & that’s a small acknowledgment, but it’s saying you have a different impact on the people you are making your music for, than you do on me, but I still love you, I still love your music, but I need to acknowledge that my love for you music is different than the black friends that I have. & I think that is, we talk about appropriation, we talk about who gets to participate in things, sometimes the work is really about how you honor the space your in with people. Not just about this linear thing, well you don’t get to dance to this song only I get to dance to this song. Sometimes it’s about that, but sometimes it’s about, how do you honor the spaces you’re in where you gain enough trust with people & get into dialogue with people where it becomes a community that is sharing. Are you dancing to Alright with your black friends & then dropping your black friends off to the protest & not rocking with’em? Alright can be the great joy anthem, & it can be a door opener for conversations about who gets to experience what type of joy & how that type of joy can be a bridge built between people. Maybe that’s a little overly optimistic, but —-

BWR: Nah, I don’t think so, I think that you’re right. I think those songs force folks, or we would hope that they force folks to think about how they are honoring the space if they are going to be consider playing them.

HA: & that’s what i love about Arlight. I know this isn’t all white folks, or all non-black folks, but i’ve heard it & i’ve seen it in spaces where it’s made people think. It’s not a time where you can throw on a song at a party & not have to consider the weight of it. Because inevitably there is going to be someone at that party who is considering the weight of it, either because they have no choice, like they’re black or of color & have no choice, or if they are thinking critically about their own positionality. Like, I feel that way about Formation. I have to think critically about how I enter Formation because as I read it, how most people read it, it is explicitly for those facing an experience that isn’t mine. & some of it’s mine, yeah sure, but so much of [Beyonce’s visual album] Lemonade was facing a black woman’s experience, & that doesn’t mean I can’t fuck with it. I immensely enjoyed that joint, but i enjoyed it while knowing the conversation I wanted to see driven on Lemonade, critically & from just a joy standpoint, was not mine to drive. & I got a lot of joy out of seeing brilliant critical work being done by Black women on Lemonade. That doesn’t mean that I feel like I can’t ever write about Beyonce, but for Lemonade, you gotta take a seat. You gotta know when to take a seat & still enjoy some shit, which is not bad! It’s not bad to take a seat & enjoy some shit, & let the actual lifting up of the critical space be done by someone else.

BWR: Yeah & I love how much you are evoking the “&”, because that’s really just the biggest thing. It’s not saying you can’t enjoy this thing. It’s saying enjoy this thing & think critically of your space in it. Are you in it? Or maybe outside of it?

HA: It’s the “or v. &” & I think we get so caught up in the “or”, right?

BWR: Yup

HA: Either you’re this or you’re this. & I think there’s an “&” there & I think the “&” has to be honored. Until it can’t be any more. Because don’t get me wrong, sometimes an “&” isn’t honored & it has to become an “or” thing, you know what I mean?

BWR: Yup.

HA: But for me, my work, especially as someone who is trying to be more empathetic & gracious is trying to honor beginning with the &. For myself & for people in my life, even strangers, if I get a good vibe from them at least. [Laughs]

BWR: Hell yeah. [laughs]

HA: I try to honor that first until I can’t, & sometimes & can’t any more. & then I have to say, well you know, now the conversation is different. Sorry, I feel like i’m talking a lot & i’m sorry.

BWR: Yooooo, not at all. This is great, this is fantastic. Just two more questions & both of them are short. So as a fellow ice cream connoisseur What’s your favorite ice cream & is it in your crib right now?

HA: So here’s two things, I eat more sorbet now than ice cream—


HA: —for no real reason. I went to the doctor last year, & the doctor was like “you’re in pretty good shape, you’re a healthy dude.”& I was like yeah, I go to the gym sometimes. & he was like, maybe cutting down on dairy would be a good idea.


HA: & it wasn’t like, cut down on dairy cause you’re sick or whatever, it was just like, as we age we gotta start backtracking on some shit. Because I was eating ice cream like a lot. So just cut down on ice cream & just replaced it with a non-dairy option. but that is to say, I got ice cream yesterday.


HA: I was in the Miami airport, for 4 hours & I got ice cream. I think, on just a base note, chocolate chip cookie dough is pretty undefeated. It’s like just the base undefeated flavor. I don’t have it in my house because I try not to keep ice cream in the house too much anymore. Started eating it less, but I do have sorbet in the house at all times. That sounds like a cop out, I don’t have ice cream in my house, but I have sorbet in my house all the time.

BWR: [laughs] but NO! Stay ready so you ain’t gotta get ready. Like that is how this works. Excellent. So wait, what’s your favorite sorbet?

HA: So I live in Connecticut, at least for the next two and a half weeks & they have this sorbet out here called Gelato Fiasco, & they have a flavor that is a Balsamic Strawberry sorbet, & it’s only in season, like, sometimes. So you really gotta jump on it when it’s in season & stock up. Which I do. It’s amazing, it’s the best flavor of sorbet i’ve ever had.

BWR: It’s seasonal? that’s incredible.

HA: Like, when I move back to Columbus i’m going to have to order it online, because they don’t sell it there, & the online way is very expensive, but i’m going to do it.

BWR: [Laughs] Oh do it, absolutely, damn. I believe in living into the Migos way of life.

HA: They’re so fun. I love them.

BWR: SO MUCH. Like, I was watching the T-Shirt video the other day & I was like yeah, if you are from a place that gets very little snow, & the climate you are used to is mostly sun & like a little bit of cold, if I could have the video of my dreams I would definitely choose a place to have it where I could reasonably where fur.

HA: Go wild. Gotta go wild.

BWR: Gotta go wild. I’ve never experienced snow much, so let’s do it now.

HA: That’s real. Is that the one where they have bows & arrows & shit?

BWR: Yeah!

HA: I love that video so much.

BWR: Thank you again for your time, Hanif!

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