Memory, Baking, and Punk: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

Sylvia Gindick, online poetry editor at the Columbia Journal, spoke with Spring Contest poetry judge, Hanif Addurraqib, to discuss exploratory practices of baking and poetry, the complications of memory and place, the responsibility of the witness, and a writer’s relationship to trust. Abdurraqib, a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio, is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry 2016), Vintage Sadness (Big Lucks 2017), They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio 2017), Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest (University of Texas press 2019), and  A Fortune For Your Disaster (Tin House 2019). In March 2021, he will release the book A Little Devil In America with Random House. 

Bake anything good lately?

The last thing I baked was this peanut butter bundt cake, peanut butter and chocolate. Like most peanut butter and chocolate things, it was too dense. You know, I live alone with the dog, and so much of the stuff I bake I can’t really eat all of, so I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving stuff on friends’ porches. But it’s been awfully snowy here. 

Does your approach to baking or baked goods differ from your approach to poetry?

Well, yeah. I mean, in both cases I still think I’m someone who’s feeling my way around, how to best operate, or how to best maneuver my way through the world. I hadn’t baked anything really until the pandemic started. Poetry I also came to later than a lot of my peers. So there’s kind of an exploratory nature to both of those crafts that I feel excited about. I feel like I go into both of them not seeking perfection. But I will say that, in poetry, you know, for me to be experimental, feels like it’s a little more rewarding. In baking there’s not much room for me to experiment and I’m much more disappointed when there’s a letdown, if an experiment doesn’t pay off. 

I was going to ask if you follow instructions while baking. It sounds like you do. You have to! 

I’m a pretty strict instruction follower. I’m also big on eye tests. I switch up some recipes here and there if the batter looks a certain way, or seems a certain way, but I never really go outside the parameters of what is on the ingredient list. Now, I will add more of something, take away less of something, but I usually stick to the parameters. I mean occasionally if I’m doing something that calls for chocolate chips I might throw in some butterscotch chips, but I rarely stray.  

So, moving into your craft, I’m curious, what do you think a writer gains by honing in on their individual life as a source of inspiration? 

I can only speak for myself, but I think to have an intimate relationship with memory is to understand that memory is a privilege that you might not always be able to always have or access, and through that understanding I think you get to honor the pleasure of having lived in a way that was not always the way you’re living now, which for me in this moment has been especially fulfilling, at a time when I feel like, you know, things are not ideal (laughs). I often find myself wanting to revel in a time before this one. So I think having a relationship with myself, and my many selves—and that’s the other thing, too, is understanding that I have been many people in my life and have been many selves. There’s an intimacy that comes with that understanding that I find really riveting and worth appreciating. 

You’ve said, “I owe my best possible writing to that which I am able to witness.” What does the role of witness entail for you; what responsibilities does it hold, what freedoms? 

I think it holds great responsibility, maybe not as much freedom. I feel most excited watching how other people interact with the world. If there’s one point of praise that’s been consistent in my work, it’s in my ability to write about live music. The trick with that is that the music-witnessing is secondary. I’m so interested in how a room full of people respond differently to the same sonic atmosphere, or to the same performance. And I think that comes with great responsibility, to not assume what people are feeling in a moment. To not assume what is going through a person’s mind in a moment, but to report on the mechanics of the body, for example. Or to report solely on the way a person looks at another person, but to not try to define what the look is saying, just describe what the look is doing, right? When I wrote about being at the Carly Rae Jepsen concert, for example, in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, I wasn’t trying to be like, I could tell this person felt this way because of how they looked at their partner. I couldn’t do that. What I could say was, it was amazing to watch people fall into the person they loved in that moment. Because another thing is, as important as it is not for me to assume things like gender or even cultural identity, it’s equally as important for me not to assume things like relationship [status]. Like, for all I know, the person I saw making out at the Carly Rae Jepsen concert maybe met that person ten minutes ago, you know? They were so overcome by the emotion that that’s how they ended up. And I have to honor that as equally, if not even more interesting, than the couple that’s been together five years at this spot, kissing in public. So I think the real responsibility of witnessing is to strip oneself of assumption, and in doing that, I think you get a lot of real magic. Because you’re not assuming what you’re seeing. You’re letting what you’re seeing tell you what you’re seeing, you know? 

That’s amazing, yeah. Thank you for that. Zooming out a little bit, do you think there’s an asocial poetry? What would that even look like? 

Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure that someone smarter than me will have a better answer for this but I can’t imagine an asocial type of poetry. Cause I think even when I write about isolation or when I write about “loneliness” or being alone, I’m still writing about social interaction in some way. Even if it’s an ache for social interaction, I’m still embodying, stepping into, the social interaction. 

I would agree with that. Your work has so much to do with memory and, as you’ve said, building “a monument to the moment.” In your work, even more so than most, the particular seems to unlock the universal. How do you make sense of that relationship? 

Well, I think I make sense of it by understanding that universality is kind of a scam. And having a clear understanding of that means that I’m not seeking to demand or request that everyone feel the same thing at the same time in the same way. And I am instead offering up a feeling for consideration. It’s one thing to say everyone should feel this way about this, or everyone can feel this way about this, and it’s another thing to say, y’all, check out this feeling, isn’t this weird? You know, like, isn’t sadness broadly weird, because it’s not a universal thing? It’s a primary color. And I think the work I feel most drawn to is the teasing out of those primary colors, and the search for a secondary color, so to speak. That feels more interesting to me than an idea around asking everyone to feel something. Because that’s impossible. That feels impossible. But if I say, this is how this song made me feel and this is what this song reminded me of, and at the intersection of that there’s a kind of oddness that I’m hoping to get at– so for me it’s all about questioning. It’s not about asserting or positioning one’s authority. For me, it’s just like, this is how this made me feel, and that’s a little odd to me, is anyone else there, can anyone else get there with me? And that’s where I’m at. 

That makes me think you must have a kind of baseline trust with the reader. Do you care about being understood? 

I care about being trusted more than I care about being understood. I think one comes with the other, right? I’m assuming trust when I sit down to write. I talked about not assuming things but I think when you assume trust, at least for me, when I assume trust, before I sit down to write, it makes the work of earning that out in the writing a little bit more necessary. So when I sit down, I’m assuming people trust me. For me, that means I need to work hard to earn that trust out. 

You’re working on multiple music-related projects—guest curator-at-large at BAM, Object of Sound, 68to05, Lost Notes. You also have a book, A Little Devil in America, which is a meditation on Black performance in America, coming out in March. This is all super exciting. How do you approach musicality in a poem? Do you write for live performance? 

Well, yeah, I mean —sorry, I have crystals on my desk and I always play with them when I talk. 

That’s okay! Me too, actually. I’ll do it, too. 

Oh, yeah? What do you got? 

It says “Trust.” I don’t know what it is. 

Oh, I love that. 

Maybe it’s jade. Yeah, it’s perfect for what we were just talking about. 

Yeah, well, the way I came up in poetry, which maybe people know but maybe don’t, is through poetry slam, which is funny because, although I owe a great deal to slam and I still cherish that arena a great deal, I got into slam mostly to give myself deadlines. One of the slams I went to here in Columbus — if you wanted to perform at a slam you got to bring a new poem or two every week. I’d never really written poems, I wanted to write poems, and well, this is this giving me a directive. And so I came up writing just for the ear. We’re writing mostly for the stage, in a way. And I still carry that with me because I think one of the coolest things, or one of the things that I get most excited about is this idea that language, when pressed up against other language, offers a variety of sound, and offers a variety of musicality. And so I began to think of myself primarily as a composer of sound and not just a translator of language. And so that manifests itself in a lot of different ways, I always read — I know no one — I can’t say no one — I don’t like hearing the sound of my own voice, but I edit. I record myself reading my first drafts, and then I play it back to me in the editing process. Because when I think about editing as a sonic practice, what I’m thinking about is word choice and language choice that serves the ear, which I think serves the poem. 

Has writing about home changed your concept of “home?”

Well… I mean, I think about place. I’ve maybe thought about this for a while — place is privilege, where I believe I am privileged to love where I’m from, and to have a relationship that is complicated but still affectionate with where I’m from, because I don’t think everyone has that. And I don’t know if I’ll always have that. I imagine there will come a point in my life where my complications with place, with Columbus, where I’m from, will outweigh my affections. And then I have to make some hard decisions. About staying, about what I can do to make the place that I live in for equitable for the people who are not me, for the people who are more vulnerable than I am who live here — but I do think that in my writing about place I’ve come to appreciate place as — I’ve come to appreciate Columbus specifically as something worth wrestling with, if I can, if I can keep wrestling with it — as something worth — if I am going to sing its praises, and I imagine I also must kind of fight with its messiness, and I think writing about place allows me to do both of those things simultaneously, in a way that I maybe can’t do just in conversation, or even in my own head. 

This is going back to the musicality question a bit — you’ve described the ampersand as a catchall tool to speed up the narrative. I’m wondering what draws you to speed or breathlessness — or if that’s just part of… everything else that goes into a composition?

I think it’s because I came up on punk scenes. I came up seeing bands play really short, fast, loud songs, and albums that were short, fast, and loud. And I was always compelled by how much you could fit into a small container; how much of a narrative can live and breathe in a really small space. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to long poems, I love a long poem — I am not a skilled writer of long poems, but I love reading long poems. But I am someone who often asks myself the question of how can I arrive here quicker, how can I get there quicker? Like, what’s the fastest way I can get to the point of a poem that is surprising or enthralling or illuminating? And so, I do have an investment in speed, but also I have an investment in kind of, like, a controlled speed. And not just, like, speed for the sake of speed. 

Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me. You’re a Springsteen fan–

Huge Springsteen fan.

Yeah, you’ve commented on his glorification of labor as a means to freedom, and you’ve said that his America is different from your America. Could you elaborate?

Yeah, I do want to say that with the understanding that I have learned a lot from being immersed in his America. But I mean, our Americas are fundamentally different, right? Because our identities are fundamentally different. So, what our identities have meant in America is fundamentally different. And to say that our Americas are different is not a disparagement of Bruce or his work, it’s just a reality, it’s our material reality. I think it is one — you know, it’s hard to — when I talk about the glorification of labor and the American dream being tethered to the simplicity of work and the freedom that work affords, and the freedom that being off of work affords, I’m thinking of a very specific era of Bruce, in a way. I think about songs like “Out in the Street” or — it’s just about, like, getting off work and feeling free, and all these kind of, like — the stories he tells of people, good people working hard, trying to achieve an American dream — I don’t know if my understanding of the country aligns with that. Which doesn’t make me love those songs any less. I think that one of my greatest critical understandings, or one of my greatest critical mountains that I keep climbing, is that I love Bruce Springsteen almost beyond language. Despite the fact that America as he presents it, while not necessarily violently or horrifically at odds with my America, is just a completely different interpretation. And there’s ways that the America he presents is an America I don’t necessarily want to live in. But his articulation of that America makes me think more richly about my own understanding of the America I do live in. Or, for me to complicate his version of America helps me to illuminate my own political understanding of the country — country as fantasy, especially. Like, the ways that a country can very quickly and very easily become a fantasy. 

You’ll be looking at our finalist poetry submissions as our Spring Contest judge. Are there certain aspects of poems that you consistently find compelling? Any aspects of poems that would cause you to dismiss them?

There’s no aspect that would cause me to dismiss a poem. I think I’m a good listener of music in part because I came up in an era where I listened to cassettes, which means that it was hard to skip a song. Like, physically hard. It was hard to forward, it was hard to rewind. Just the mechanics of a cassette tape were, like, fucked up and difficult. And that means that I sometimes listened to things that I wanted to initially dismiss, and then I fell in love with the back end of them, or I found something in them that was exciting for me. And I’m just not interested in dismissal. I used to be a Poetry Editor at Muzzle Magazine, and I cannot count the amount of poems where, the first four lines, I was like, “I don’t know,” you know, like, “this might not be it for me.” But by line seven, I was like, “I love this poem.” So many poems that I love rely on voltas, quick shifts. So many poems that I love rely on tricking me into thinking I’m reading something that I’m not reading. I love to be fooled by a poem. And so I’m against dismissal because it goes against the very thing that I most love in my reading; which is, I love to be tricked into reading something that is different than what I thought I was reading. I can’t stress enough that I am fully against dismissal as a reading practice — of course within reason, if there’s something racist or transphobic, I’m out the door. But hopefully when I say I’m against dismissal, people understand that I’m operating within a bubble of discernment. 

Yes, definitely. I love that. So, would you say that you read for surprise, primarily? Or is that not fair?

I don’t know about primarily. But I think that I get most excited about a surprise. I don’t know what I read for primarily, but I will say that a good surprise in a poem makes me feel an excitement more than almost anything else in a poem. I’m not reading for it, but when it arrives I feel very excited. It’s my whole thing.

If you could go back and tell your younger self anything about poetry — the practice, the industry, anything — what would it be?

It’s so funny because I didn’t read poems coming up. I have so much gratitude for high school and middle school teachers now. All of the high school and middle school teachers I know, or even know of, or ones who reach out, they’ve revolutionized the way poetry is taught in classrooms. Because I did not read any living poets when I was in high school and middle school. Not a one. 

I don’t think I did either.

I can’t even think of how many black poets or poets of color I read — because I just had a poetry unit when I was in, like, eleventh grade and that was it. And now contemporary poets are being taught in schools, and high schoolers are self-determining on their own the poems they love and how to connect with them more — I think that knowing that there was a world of poetry that I missed out on when I was young. If there is anything I would tell myself, it’s to go and seek that world. And I’m from Ohio, where so many great poets, like, Rita Dove is from here, and Van Jordan, and Ross Gay, and Mary Oliver– there’s just a real rich poetry history here and I wish I would have immersed myself in it at a younger age.

Yeah, I can relate to that. What does a first draft of a poem look or feel like to you?

Well… I often liken a first draft to trying a bunch of keys in a lock. And finding a lock that fits, and opening the door. And I think editing is finding the light switch in the room. So, what I mean is, I think a first draft is just a cartography of attempts, a map of trying, in a way. And anything goes, anything’s possible, because you know what key is fitting that lock, so you gotta try ‘em all. So it allows for a real risk. But editing, I think, is where you search for what lights the poem up in the best way possible. So that feels important. 

Do you often start writing without a clear idea of what you’re writing about or into?

No. Mostly because I’m too anxious. I’m too anxious for that route. What often happens is, I begin with a plan and then very quickly that plan becomes something else. I begin like, here’s what I’m writing about, and then two paragraphs in it’s like, no, no, no, I’m actually writing about this other thing. But I like having a plan that I can deviate from. I can’t not have a plan. I would prefer to just have a plan that I comfortably and happily deviate from. Because that’s thrilling, too, for me. That’s exciting for me — is knowing that what I’m sitting down to write is not going to be what I end up writing. 

About the author

Sylvia Gindick is pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University where she also serves as a Chair's Fellow and the Online Poetry Editor of Columbia Journal.

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