It was a big night for Emerson Poetry Project—Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib was performing. As a first-year student at Emerson college, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this big important writer, or what to expect from the night of poetry ahead, or what to expect from a poem.
He walked up to the mic, and for the rest of the night we were traveling. That’s how I ended up being pulled into Hanif’s work. He took the music in our lives, the images of them—a dorm bunk, the sky from an airplane seat—and proved their relationship, its intimacy. He brought us his own stories, and they became ours.
At the end of the night, Hanif walked to the middle of the crowd. As we huddled around him, intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder, his life opened itself up to us. Through his writing and slam poetry, Hanif’s life and influence has continued to open itself up to me. As Bobby Crawford, then-MC of the Emerson Poetry Project said about Hanif four years ago, “No one is doing it like him right now.”
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s life began in Columbus, Ohio. You can read his poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, from Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Press. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, other journals. His essays and music criticism has been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, and the New York Times. He has been nominated for the Pushcart prize, and his poem “Hestia” won the 2014 Capital University poetry prize. 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. Additionally, he is a columnist at MTV News, where he writes about music, and fights to get Room Raiders back on the air. He talked to me about exploring genre, branching out of slam, bridge-building, and survival strategies in dark times.
I think I remember you saying you got started writing a little bit later in life?
I started writing poems around 2012. I had been writing music criticism freelance for a while, since like 2009, and I kind of got a little tired of it and wanted to branch out into other things. Poetry was the natural leap for me because I was so interested in analyzing lyrics, picking through language on a larger, more artistic scale. So, poetry kind of afforded a really good opportunity to just expand on that.
So you felt drawn to the language. Were there events in your life that were leading you more toward that method of communication?
Not really. I was in Columbus at the time. Columbus has this really good poetry scene, and so all the local poets in Columbus really pushed me closer to figuring out how to make a home for myself in the genre. Poets like Will Evans, Scott woods, Rachel Wiley, really did a lot of good work for me. I would go to open mic nights and sit in the back and just listen, and that was my first exposure to seeing poetry in real life.
You were writing music criticism and some essays before, so you had developed those skills before you got into poetry, but when you were starting out writing, did you feel that you knew what you wanted to do? Were there clear paths laid out for you, or did you have to struggle with what you’re interested in?
Oh, no, it was a fight. It was a fight to figure out what I could do best. I had a bunch of ideas and a bunch of feelings, of course, but trying to figure out what medium could best translate those was really difficult.
To what degree and how consciously did you push your own boundaries? Did you set out to do that?
It was super intentional. When I first started writing poems, I was just kind of writing direct emotional vomit, you know what I mean? Without even thinking about craft or anything like that. Around 2013, I started asking around about what books I should be reading. I picked up an interest in actually reading poems, you know? Instead of just writing, writing writing. I took several months and just locked myself away and got interested in the crafting of a poem, in actually building it in the way I was seeing it built in poets I admire.
In terms of [your] actual career path, you had been doing some freelance before, but you’re pretty established now, getting New York Times articles out, and writing a column for MTV News. What were your first steps to finding a larger audience? Did it come through your slam poetry? Or were you going through different web and print publications? Any methods that really stuck out to you?
Weirdly, I think it happened first in slam, and then when I stopped doing slam and turned away, I found some luck in having some long-form pieces ending up in some really cool places. Also, being able to bring people who had found me through slam. I didn’t want to stop and then lose the audience that I had gained from slam, and I was fortunate enough to write in such a way that they would be able to come along with me, to now having a piece in the NY Times, to having a piece in these other places, and that was really valuable.
Have you stopped doing slam completely now?
I haven’t slammed in a few years, and I don’t think I ever will again. I don’t think it’s bad, you know? I think there’s still a whole lot of good in slam, and without it I wouldn’t have been able to find my voice. I think a lot of young writers are able to develop their voice really rapidly through slam, and that’s vital. I can’t imagine a world where it doesn’t exist. For me, it was more a matter of time. It caused me a lot of anxiety, I didn’t really feel an ability to do the work I wanted to do within the confines I was putting on myself in slam, so I branched out, and that was good.
Those confines, would you relate those to the experience of performing? When you performed at Emerson, you had a really strong air about you, and everyone was really into the language. And, you have all these successful slam videos on Youtube. I was looking at them, and I think you have at least a dozen with tens of thousands of views, and many with over 40,000. Your idea of performance, is that something that confines your work? Or is it just a separate element?
I think it’s a separate element. I mean, I enjoy performance, I don’t mind performing. I’m not as comfortable as a lot of my peers are at it, but I think it is important to be able to read your work out loud, right? I think it’s really important to sound good reading the work you’ve written, and to feel good about it. And so I committed to that, you know? I’m committed to what that looks like.
Right. When you were developing how you wanted to convey yourself, were there any big names or big authors or big thinkers that had a mentor-ship role for you? Or just played a big role in your life, what you were reading?
Scott Woods and Chris Evans were both my mentors. Two Columbus poets who are still in Columbus and doing great work. I wouldn’t have been able to write without them, and have that guidance. They really pointed me in the direction of where I should take my work, and that was vital.
I also just wanted to ask, what’s it like writing for MTV?
I love it. I’m really excited. I’m really thrilled about the freedom I have to write about the things I want to write about, the things I care about, and I am really feeling like the changes they made to bring in these new writers—we’re really making each other better.
Within your work, I wanted to ask you about music, because I think you come to music, and art in general, but music specifically with this really deep cultural understanding. Then, you use those voices in tandem with your own voice and your own language in a way that is a great compliment to those artists, and just makes their voice louder, and your voice louder. Is that something you set out to do? Do you use your writing to project farther the voice of the people around you?
I think so. Project their experiences, and experiences similar to mine, and using music as a vehicle to do that. Try to bring as many people in as possible, to try and bring people to a point where they can relate to what I’m saying, absolutely.
That’s good to hear! Because, I wanted to ask specifically about the Seven Scribes article you had in 2015 about Trap Queen—
Trap Queen! (Laughs)
The Fetty Wap song, because I remember reading that article back then, and you use the phrase, “There may never have been a more un-relatable song that so many people have related to.” Do you think of your music criticism, or your essays, as a bridge between experience? Or where do you place your own role in that communication?
My hope is that I can be a bridge between experiences. I hope I can touch down and find something that works for me and show what works about it to other people. I’m not really trying to convince anyone that they need to like what I like. I’m mostly trying to tell people—show people—perhaps a personal experience I’ve had that drove me to like a thing, and see if they can enter from the place I entered in. So yeah, it’s all about bridge-building, and less about the traditional criticism of hammering home and demanding that people like what you like. I’m really way more interested in telling people about something personal, or stripping something down to the core element of the song, and seeing if there’s common ground in it for everyone.
In your New York Times article about your first police stop, your poems, and the Fuzion article as well about safe places of joy and rebellion for young Muslims, you write about one’s own racial/religious identity, wrapped up in the body and defined by the body, and specifically the body’s ability and freedom to dance. I’m wondering, looking at the other people of color around you and all that’s going on in America today, all the political and social upheaval, do you feel more of a call to dance? And are you calling others to dance?
I think I’m kind of more—and I talked about this earlier today—I’m less interested in reporting on the horror, you know? Reporting on the horrible things? I don’t feel as called to do that as I do to report on the things that bring me joy in equal measure or greater measure. It’s a really hard time to exist right now. It’s a really hard time to feel good about what’s going on in the world, and I think that the work of the reporter and the work of the writer is to report on those things, but also to give people access to the ability to feel good about something.
I like that idea a lot. There’s a lot of visceral language and visceral experience in your work, and one of the experiences that spoke to me especially was—and this is in your New York Times article too—the way one can both fear and be feared, and the way fear enters a person, or an entire nation. I think that’s so evident now. Can you speak to the fear around you? Or across the world? Your own fear, Is that involved in your work? Are you focusing on other things, or is the fear present?
I hope to be able to focus on other things if I can. I like to be able to focus on either multiple things, or sometimes other things altogether, just because I don’t know any other way of survival. I think that’s my number one priority.
Matthew Kok is a poet and part-time line cook living in Vancouver, BC. He is a student of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. He wants what he reads and writes to reflect the vibrancy, the encompassing, and the occasional suffocation of the world in which he lives. He would love it if you emailed him, email@example.com.