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.