Ohio writer Hanif Abdurraqib talks poetry, basketball and A Tribe Called Quest

by Micah Wimmer 

Over the last half-decade, Columbus-based writer Hanif Abdurraqib has created a body of work that far more experienced writers would have reason to envy. Each of his four books contains writing so lovely that it can pierce the heart, causing them to hear an old song anew or reconsider their relationship with a work of art, and just as often, with themselves. 

Last year, Abdurraqib released two new books, including the New York Times best-seller Go Ahead in the Rain, a genre-defying work about A Tribe Called Quest, and his second poetry collection, A Fortune for Your Disaster. Both are tremendous, meeting the standard set by his 2017 book of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and debut poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

Last week, Hanif gave a reading at the University of Akron and afterwards, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Hanif and talk about Ohio, his last two books and how he came to love the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

MW: What is it about Ohio that you think prompts so many people to be so fiercely loyal to it?

HA: I think any state that is perceived, or any place that is perceived by the nation in one way, means that you’re going to cling to the way that you know and understand it. So I don’t know if it’s loyalty as much as it is an attempt to uplift the known beauty of a place, and its flaws. For me, it’s rooted in its flaws too. I live in Columbus, which is a place that I am frustrated with about half the time, but I’m frustrated with it and willing to fight for it because I do love it. Also, I think many Midwest states are a blank slate to the rest of the country or are only known by a few things, so some of that loyalty is just filling in those blanks with what a state actually represents. 

MW: When people come to visit you in Columbus, where do you like to take them?

HA: My old pal Mia and I were talking about this question, and we both agreed it’s just so hard to identify what those places are anymore — in part because of gentrification and the fact that some of those places just flat-out don’t exist. But the other side of that it’s hard to identify the place to take someone because, if you’ve loved it, you’ve squeezed so much out of it yourself. That said, I take people to Little Palace, which is a diner around the corner from my apartment. I take people to Soul Classics which is a sneaker spot I frequent. I tend to like to take people to, or at least around, the art museum. I like to take people to the topiary garden and walk among the gently carved figurines made of leaves and grass, which are both horrifying and kind of adorable. But mostly I like taking people to the Scioto Mile downtown because it offers up my favorite angle of the skyline of the city. And I’m not much for skylines generally. As much as I love a city and love Columbus, I’m not much for the actual architecture of any place. I think that’s what happens when you grow to love buildings and then watch those buildings be torn down and replaced.

MW: How do you see Northeast Ohio — Akron, Cleveland –as being different from Central Ohio where you’re from?

HA: It’s more sprawling, for one. I was talking earlier about what I like about Northeast Ohio is that it kind of reflects the Northeast where I lived for about two and a half years. You can just hop in your car and be in another city or in another place where something active is happening, from Cleveland to Akron or from Akron to Youngstown, all these areas. And I don’t know if Columbus is like that. Also, I think there’s a creative spirit — though creative spirits differ. While there’s work that is in conversation with other work along those cities, it still feels really distinct. 

MW: Do you have any favorite spots in Akron? 

HA: Musica’s the place. I love Musica. 

MW: When it comes to Akron music, are you more of a Devo, Black Keys, or Pretenders guy if you had to pick one?

HA: That’s a tough question. Devo’s out, because I think the first Devo album is singularly great, but after that it’s hard for me. I think they get a little hit or miss.  I’m thinking about those early Black Keys albums — Rubber Factory, Thickfreakness — but I’m going to say Pretenders because I really wouldn’t want to give up those first two Pretenders albums for anything. 

MW: What led you to want to write a book about A Tribe Called Quest?

HA: I wanted to articulate a moment in my life where I felt heard, seen, and understood by musicians who felt far away. A Tribe Called Quest is the first group in my life that made me feel like someone from a landscape different from my own as I understood the architecture of my life and I wanted to put that into words and I wanted to find a way to offer gratitude for that through a text. 

MW: Some of the most poignant sections in Go Ahead in the Rain are the letters that you wrote to members of Tribe and Phife’s mother as well — how did you settle upon that format? 

HA: It was this idea of building a barrier between myself and the type of fandom I was trying to evoke in the work. I really wanted it to be like a fan letter. I grew up as a music fan in an era when you still wrote fan letters and mailed them out with expectations that you would get something in return and I thought it would be rewarding to reflect that in a book with no expectation of return or even engagement. I didn’t really care if they would read them or not. I really wanted to offer up at least a familiarity, or an understanding of an intimacy, that felt very touchable even though it was distant. 

MW: Were there any music books you looked to for inspiration as you worked on Go Ahead in the Rain?

HA: Weirdly, no. Normally I would, but I wasn’t doing a straight biography and I wasn’t doing a straight criticism book, but I also wasn’t doing a straight memoir. I really just stumbled my way through, kind of on my own, and made a lot of mistakes then went back and corrected them and made better mistakes and kept making mistakes until the good mistakes came out. 

MW: How did you fall in love with poetry?

HA: When I couldn’t get any criticism work anywhere back in 2011 or so, poetry offered me a way to hone my skills without pressure. I wasn’t trying to write poems to feed myself or pay my rent. It was completely exploratory and it was a way to form a relationship with language that wasn’t beholden to sustaining myself through that type of productivity.

MW: How would you say you’ve grown as a poet in between your two collections?

HA: I think I’ve become more honest with myself and more aware. There’s a self-awareness in my work that wasn’t there before. I am less willing to write my pain as the most important thing in the room, that’s the main thing. And I’m more willing to instead offer up a world where I am furnishing that room with different indictments of myself that don’t particularly reach an end where I feel better, but give me better language to be curious about how grief happens and how I move through the world understanding that it happens and sit with it inside myself. 

MW: There’s a series of poems about the ghost of Marvin Gaye. What was it about Gaye that made you want to focus on his ghost?

HA: It was the album Here My Dear, which was an album he made to pay off the alimony from his divorce. I was interested in this idea of folding back into the comforts of your talent in order to free yourself of the burden of someone you loved once. That really kept drilling away at me. Of course Marvin Gaye did it in a very monetarily exchanged type of situation and I was just writing poems, but I was interested in that as a concept. Marvin Gaye did not want to make that album and then poured himself into it and used it as a freeing thing. I was interested in this idea of exchanging talent for comfort, exchanging talent for distance, exchanging talent for the opportunity of having your heart a little less broken. 

MW: There’s another suite of poems entitled “How Can Black People Talk About Flowers at a Time Like This?”. How did that title come to you, and was it the title or the poems that came first?

HA: The title was something I overheard at a reading. A black poet was reading and I was sitting behind a white person who whispered that to the person they were hanging with. A black poet was reading a poem about gardening and moving through the world with gratitude for the land. So the title came first, and then I got curious about mortality and flowers as a tool of manipulation, but also beauty and how to articulate that through my lack of understanding about flowers. I didn’t know anything about flowers, I didn’t grow up around flowers, I didn’t understand flowers as a concept. I wanted to write a bunch of poems that were trying to explain my way through a world I didn’t understand using the tools I did understand well: grief, sadness, mortality, all those. 

MW: Growing up in Ohio, how did you become a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves?

HA: Mostly, it’s Kevin Garnett. I was very young when Kevin Garnett came into the league. My parents and most of my family members were from New York, so I grew up in a household of Knicks fans, but I didn’t love the Knicks because I didn’t have a connection to them. And I didn’t have a connection to the Cavs because they also felt pretty distant, in the Ehlo era, the pre-Terrell Brandon era, which was an era I actually liked. But I loved Kevin Garnett. I loved KG as a young player coming into the league out of high school which was a little less common to me at that point. And I just loved everything about him. I became very invested in the Timberwolves because of him, those battles he would have with Tim Duncan throughout the playoffs in the 90’s. It’s just the team I’ve been with ever since. It hasn’t been great. 

MW: What are you most looking forward to throughout the rest of the NBA season?

HA: I’m one of those people who has been really fascinated by the Grizzlies and I think the real question is can they hold on to the 8 spot. I’m really excited about Trae Young. I love Trae Young. The Hawks are bad and Trae Young is maybe the biggest defensive liability in the league and I don’t think he’s going to get better but he’s just such an electrifying player, real fun. I don’t know if the Hawks are ever going to be good. I think they maybe missed entirely in the draft this year. I don’t like [Cam] Reddish, [DeAndre] Hunter’s fine. I don’t really believe in that team, but I love Trae Young. 

MW: What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?

HA: Hard Damage by Aria Aber, Felon by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Dunce by Mary Ruefle, The Collected Schizophrenias, Esme [Weijun Wang]’s book, and Darkly, a book by Leila Taylor about black loss.

MW: What’s the first thing you remember writing?

HA: The first thing I remember writing is this bad poem about Jackie Robinson’s matriculation through Major League Baseball. It was mostly a lament for Josh Gibson but it came out as a betrayal towards Jackie Robinson. It was bad. 

MW: Last year you released two books and traveled a ton. What’s on tap for 2020?

HA: Not traveling as much. Trying to figure out how to be at home more. I’m teaching at [the University of] Iowa this semester so it’s not really working, but the main goal I have is to be home in Columbus and work on projects that help uplift the arts and activism scene there. 

MW: And finally, if you could give your younger writing self any piece of advice, what would it be?

HA: You’re not defined by the work you produce, you’re defined by the way you live. 

Micah Wimmer is a writer whose work has appeared on Nieman Storyboard, The Step Back, and RealGM. A lover of cats, the NBA, and southern soul music, he lives in Akron, Ohio. 

Photo: Micah Wimmer