November 16–22, 2020
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic from the east side of Columbus, Ohio. His books include The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, A Fortune for Your Disaster and A Little Devil in America, forthcoming next March. On Wednesday, November 18, Abdurraqib will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Jessica Lanay and Jihyun Yun.
How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This
Forgive me, for I have been nurturing
my well-worn grudges against beauty.
I am hoping my neighbors will show some mercy
on me for backing my car
into the garden
& crushing what I will say were the peonies.
a flower with a short
season. born dying.
some might say it’s a blessing to know your entrances
& exits. forgive me, for I have once again been recklessly
made responsible for the curation of softness
& have instead returned with another torrent
of viciousness. in the brief moment of their
flourish, at the opening of spring, I drove across
to gather peonies for a woman
who loved me once.
as a way of surrender,
I pull the already dying thing from the earth
in a mess of tangled knots & I insist
that you must keep it alive
for a year, even after it so desperately wants to be
done with the foolishness of its living.
The last thing I ask
of this relationship is to burden you with another
relationship. it is so delicious to define
the misery you are putting
a body out of. & just like that, we are talking about power.
how awful this must be for you I whispered as I closed my eyes
& put the car into reverse.
—From A Fortune for Your Disaster, Tin House, 2019.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’d moved home in early 2017, and I lived next to a person who had a small garden, and who was tending to their peonies at the time of my moving back. Within a week of being home, I accidentally ran over them while backing up my car. It was a horrifying dilemma that hit the intersection of many anxieties I have: the desire to please people, being worried about doing damage to beauty, the general anxiety about backing up a car and having to account for that which cannot be seen from every angle. When I offered to replace the flowers, my neighbor, kindly, said “Don’t sweat it, it’s barely their season anymore.” When I was working on the book, I was considering all of these things—if love itself had seasons, or if the times we have with others are merely seasons that pass whether we want them to or not. And peonies were an interesting consideration for this, due to their immense beauty but also the shortness of their seasonal flourish.
What are you working on right now?
A few things I can’t talk about, but the most prominent thing that I’m forever excited about is 68to05—a playlist and music archival project that I launched in June. I thought about it as an opportunity to make something that I felt like I wanted to see in the world. It’s a selfish pursuit in some ways, but it is also a chance to offer people who normally don’t get opportunities to write about music a chance to get paid a little money to write about an album they’re excited about. That’s what I find myself most wanting to read, when it comes to music writing. People just going for 1,200 words or so on an album that changed their lives. Those kind of opportunities don’t exist as much as they used to on the Internet, and I wanted to make a path for them.
What’s a good day for you?
Right now, a good day feels like a day where my attempts to come to terms with isolation end with some joyful resolutions as opposed to more crushing ones. A day where, even in my isolation, I can be satisfied with what my many isolated selves have to offer, on a small scale. Not even an offering to the world at large, but small offerings, room by room, or corner by corner.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio, mostly all of my life. And it is a city at the mercy of developers and corporate colonization, like so many other cities. It is a city that made a show of removing its Christopher Columbus monuments, but hasn’t moved on changing its name. And yet, I love it a lot. Amidst all of that, there are young, eager, inspiring activists. Many of my beloved elders are here, still in the places they were when I was young, despite the city around them being uprooted. My closest friends are here, the people who loved me before I wrote anything, and who will love me after I’m not up for writing anymore.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
My parents had roots in Brooklyn, so most of my first memories were in Bed-Stuy, spending time in my grandfather’s project building. Of course, Brooklyn isn’t the same as it was when I was a kid, but there was something good and pure about those memories that are, largely, animated by long drives from Columbus to Brooklyn, spanning across the exhausting stretch of Pennsylvania.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Quite simply, for me, it doesn’t center on the work someone does or doesn’t do. I have close homies who happen to be poets, and I suppose that can be a community. But I take the word “community” pretty seriously—it is an intentional act, one that has to be steeped in trust and mutual care, and a desire not only to uplift someone at all times, but also a desire to be accountable to each other at all times. Also a desire to check in with each other when things aren’t smooth. To understand that momentary failings aren’t an indictment of the whole person. All of these things. And so, what I think I’m saying is that I have known and found that type of closeness and that type of commitment with some people who are poets, but the fact that they’re poets doesn’t really define the architecture of the community structure.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I think I’ve always looked up to poets like Adrian Matejka, Khadijah Queen, Rita Dove and Terrance Hayes. I feel like the idea of a mentor, for me, has increasingly just become someone who has lit a path for you that you didn’t know existed before. Someone who has work that shined a little light on a road that you start down until you accumulate your own light(s). And I’ve got too many to list on that front. One of the first poetry books I purchased with my own money was Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, and it absolutely changed my life, what I believed a speaker in a poem could do. I didn’t go to school for poetry at all, and I didn’t study writing on any level. So I kind of had to build my own MFA in the bedroom of my apartment, and that just meant figuring my way through a genre of writing that felt entirely unreachable to me, and seeing what feeling I could unearth in the work that made me see what I could be capable of. Matejka’s poem “Maggot Brain” was so formative for me because I read it and thought, “Ok, I understand this.” It was speaking to my interests, if not yet my abilities. But I know that if I pursued the excitement behind the interests, I would have no choice but to want to hone the abilities.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Yona Harvey’s You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love is formally stunning and also brilliantly sequenced. Marianne Chan’s book All Heathens is great all the way through, but the poem “In Defense of Karaoke” sticks with me.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I’m often reading between genres, and so I like to maybe read one book in each genre at a time. I have been reading chapbooks on Saturday mornings these days. I really love a chapbook. People often compare them to mixtapes, but I feel they’re more like EPs. A sampling of brilliance that whets the appetite for more. But more than that, there’s a real chance for thematic and aesthetic cohesion, risks that can be taken in the short-term that might not survive a longer book. And so I’m really spending time with old chapbooks I’ve loved and new ones from writers I’m eager to get familiar with. I’m very much a chapbook-seeker. If I see someone post about their chapbook, or any chapbook they dig, I’m gonna look out for it and grab a copy. It’s maybe my favorite form of reading, at the moment. The time-commitment stakes are low, but the payoff is sky-high.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Well, I used to be very committed to writing on planes, because I was on them so much, and the terror of being on a plane was dulled, for me, by focusing on something as equally miraculous as being able to careen through the sky in a metal container. But, as it stands, I don’t think I’ll be on a plane again for … months? years? maybe ever?
I am thankful for the roots I have there, and I am thankful for the closeness I once felt to the place it was.