Visiting Writers Series: Hanif Abdurraqib

Visiting Writers Series: Hanif Abdurraqib

By: Austine Model

This week, for our Visiting Writer’s Series, our program will be hosting a reading and discussion with Hanif Abdurraqib. The discussion will be held via Zoom on Wednesday, September 23rd at 7:00 PM (ET). This event is closed to the public and will only be available to those in the program. A link will be sent out via e-mail; please do not share this link.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of the New York Times best-selling biography on A Tribe Called Quest called Go Ahead in the Rain (University of Texas Press, February 2019), as well as A Fortune For Your Disaster (Tin House, September 2019), The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press, 2016), which was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), named a best book of 2017 by NPR, Pitchfork, Oprah Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Esquire, GQ, and Publisher’s Weekly, among others. He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, and a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with poet/essayist Eve L. Ewing. Abdurraqib has a forthcoming book that is a history of Black performance in the United States titled A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2020).

I am incredibly excited about this event, because the summer after my first year in this program I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with Hanif Abdurraqib through the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. Something alchemical happened in the small, hot, bright-walled studio that week in late June last summer. There is an expansive and holistic quality to the way Hanif writes, both in prose and poetry, that changed, foundationally, my relationship between my various modes of perception and language and how I translate that into sentence and/or line construction. When A Fortune For Your Disaster came out a few months after my workshop with Hanif, it became an oasis for me – a collection that I could return to time and again, whenever I felt creatively depleted or hopelessly looking for something to land on in the midst of chaos.

Choosing a favorite poem in this collection would be, almost certainly, impossible; however, I found myself continually returning to “You About to Tell Her You Love Her, We Off That” after listening to it on the audiobook recording, which Hanif reads himself (10/10 recommend listening anytime). Over the course of several listenings to the collection, it is the last line of the penultimate stanza in this poem, and its curve into the final stanza, that lingers, perhaps, most.

In this collection, as well as in The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, the self-contained narratives in each poem build throughout the collection finally swelling with immense momentum, much like listening to a perfectly paced album on vinyl. “You About to Tell Her You Love Her, We Off That” is one of many in A Fortune For Your Disaster about his recent divorce and the ending of that relationship. Having semi-recently gone through a divorce myself, reading the collection felt like finally I could understand so much of what I’d found myself unable to articulate.

The engine behind much of Abdurraqib’s work is his command of language and the breadth of its linguistic potential. His unique syntax on the page and the way it aims to mimic the aural experience of the poem is dazzling and, at times, even dizzying. “You About to Tell Her You Love Her, We Off That” begins:

I text you & instead say distance is a mirror inside
of which the only echo is your face but then I delete
it & type something to make you think I laughed
at the joke / the one about a dog / the one about

a boy / the one about making your own ending &
walking through it & I thought of you during the movie...

The poem takes the reader from a seemingly mundane space, a text message, and propels them through the speaker’s mental chain reaction to that text message. The stanza breaks allow for the reader to comfortably follow the speaker’s jumps in thought and logic. For example:

in the dark of the theater when the man had a gun pointed
at his head & he closed his eyes & prayed as if god has any

sway over the evil unlocked in a stranger's hand & I thought
of you on the way home when the car was being pushed
through the gap of snow by 5 people & still moving only
inches & I think of you now when the blades of a helicopter sever

the single cloud & it becomes two drifting corpses, one for each
coast & the thing about texting a joke is that no one cares whether
it's actually funny & when we are not in the same room

This is another example of how Abdurraqib uses the stanza break to guide the reader through the speaker’s jumps. My favorite part of the poem is its conclusion below (this section continues with the end of the fourth stanza from above and moves into the fifth and final stanza):

I imagine a lie to be better than silence & the word hollow

in any language sounds like something the body wants no part
of & I text you again: I have made my own ending & the door is yawning
& on the other side of it I am praying & I am pushing & I am drifting away
& the funny thing about the boy who cries wolf if that he eventually becomes one

The way that Abdduraqib constantly muses on the relationship between the self and the world beyond the self continually draws me back to and into his work.

I hope that everyone in the program will be signing on this Wednesday! I am, naturally, quite sad that we cannot have this event in person, but I know that it will still be incredible! In the meantime, feel free to check out another project Hanif is working on: 68to05, which is a compilation of playlists (made by Hanif) and essays (from some of his favorite writers) about important albums and music between the years 1968 to 2005 that are important both to Hanif and society more broadly.

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