The Poet as a Conductor With Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
Was music journalism a long-time dream for you, or did the job find you? (And, same question about being a poet; was it something that always interested you, or recently?)
Yeah, so I think that I found a way to transfer my natural skill of rambling somewhat excitedly and sometimes incoherently about music, and I have been lucky to have venues and places that let me do that in print. I really believe in pop culture criticism as a way to lend an importance to that which is sometimes dismissed by larger establishments and academia and generations older than my own, and potentially your own. So I think it kind of found me, but I was also, I think, racing towards it in ways I didn't know as it was happening.
Poetry is the same. I didn't start seriously writing poems until 2011, when I had burned out (at the time) on freelance music journalism. I wanted to find newer and better ways to shift and use my voice to build the narratives I wanted to see in the world. Poetry was kind of a natural shift for me, because I knew I wanted to participate in this idea of world-building on my own terms. For so long, I felt this rigid structure in how I was allowed to write, and what worlds I was allowed to occupy, and poetry showed me a window out of that. Even though my poetic evolution was really late, and not very fast at first.
What were those early ventures into poetry like? Did you take some of your voice from music journalism into creative writing, or did you go for something entirely new?
Oh, I think I definitely did! I think so much of my poetry looks the way it does now because I was trying to figure out how to translate this passion I had (music and all of its nuances) into a form I didn't first understand. So, it FELT entirely new, but I think I was definitely clinging to a lifeboat that felt familiar. I like to find ways to enter a poem that are anchored in the familiar, even now. Because so much of what I'm doing inside of a poem is still new territory, even after all of the years I've been writing poems. I still feel like I'm touching my way around the walls in a dark room. And so the one small beam of light I have at my disposal is my deep interest in making music and musical narratives come alive within anything I'm working on or working towards. I think I'm always aiming to face this idea that pop music is important and the people who find something in it are important.
I'm curious about that experience of coming to poetry later in life. If you'd discovered poetry earlier, do you think it would have been valuable to you, or did it come at just the right time?
I think it came at the right time. I was kind of looking for a new way to light the path I was on. I had tried writing songs, I had tried writing about songs, I had tried playing the bad songs I was writing. And so poetry allowed me so many things to hide behind while unmasking. I was really looking for a room I could crawl into and make myself new. I found that in poetry, but I also want to say that I found it in a flexibility of language and a flexibility of meaning. The many ways I was album to take an image into my hands and make it into anything. I loved that feeling of possibility. So what poetry really offered me was a way to be unlike myself, or perhaps even more like myself than I thought I could be. I'll always love my earliest poems when I was so visibly and obviously trying to figure that shit out, and doing out loud.
How did your past experience writing song lyrics inform your early poetry?
I became very interested in the image and how it could unfold in a small space. Perhaps that's still present in some of my work now -- though I hope with a bit more precision than in my older efforts. But I think that and a firm interest in narrative. I looked at songwriting through the lens of someone like Springsteen first: a storyteller, trying to build a world inside of a restricted window of time. And so, I took to that really eagerly. It was a challenge for me to find a way in and out of narrative spaces that were small. Of course in song, I think there's less space to indulge the mind's kind of vast and eager wandering. At least if you want to make songs that people can feel close to. But I also think of songwriting and poetry and musical things through a kind of technical lens. And I think I said this somewhere else...but I've gotten really interested in thinking of the poem as a band and the poet as a conductor, or the poet as a bandleader. In my head, I think the poem is telling me what it wants to do or how it wants to live. All of the musicians are already crowding the stage, internally. And so my work, as I see it, then becomes getting every single sound in the right place. That's the work as I've gotten most used to seeing it play out for me. I've got the sax screaming in one corner, and the trombones prodding along in another, and the trumpets howling in another. And I think the work I've gotten comfortable with is waiting until I see (or hear) where all of those things fit, so that a poem is singing in perfect harmony. It's still writing, of course. But it's more like stepping back and letting each part of the work you're reaching for fall into its place. The poet is just a gentle (or perhaps not so gentle) arranger. So that, too, is musical.
That bandleader mentality must be why your work seems so balanced to me - the language never forced, even when it's forceful. But I've also only seen the published poems, not the early drafts. While writing, do you ever find that 'stage of performers' empty, your drive to write exhausted?
I don't, but mostly because by the time I take to the page, I've already envisioned all of the performers in my head, and envisioned what their roles can be. This is, perhaps, why I'm not very good at free-writes in workshop and that kind of thing. Though I'm trying to get better at that. I spent two weeks this summer with brilliant young teenagers at the Kenyon Review Young Writer's Workshop, and I was so floored by how eagerly the young writers took to the work with such little concern for time or what a "good" or "bad" poem is. It really made me reconsider those qualifiers we place on work, and how that echoes back to our own work -- our own minds. What glorious, untethered writing we're not allowing ourselves because of this rigid binary of "good" vs. "bad."
I was a student in that program! It left an interesting impression on me. It was my first time writing in a rigid, structured way, and as someone who usually writes in a very disorganized way, being forced to produce several pieces a day forced me to dig deeper into the themes that concern me. I've been interviewing Page Lewis, who also uses a structured, "read and write for several hours every morning" structure to produce their work. It seems like lots of writers have similar routines to that. As someone who doesn't like the structured free-writing thing, have you found any other sort of routine that helps you write?
Yeah, I mean I don't really have a structure in my writing life, but I think that because the rest of my life is so rigorously structured, that feeds into my writing time. I spend an hour or so in the gym with no distractions. I put on an album and shower for the entirety of it. I build all of these spaces outside of the actual work of writing to do what I imagine the actual work of writing to be for me: allowing my imagination a space to really run into things and kind of continually bloom. I build in structured reading time, though it's all so uneven. I travel so much that the time is often there, it just depends on the time of day I get it done. I've gotten great at reading on planes, when I wasn't before. There's something about allowing myself to be swept away in a narrative while also being carried above the clouds that really moves me. I think I'm less interested in producing work and somehow more interested in producing ideas that complicate my idea of what my work can look like -- which is also work. I don't think about work like I used to, which is to say I don't think about it as a living thing that I can point to and say "I did this. I wrote this and now it's on a page in front of your faces." I kind of like to think about work as anything that gets me closer to my own set of central questions, and teaches me to take to them better.
You address and incorporate music often in your poetry and music essays, inspecting the purpose and effect of it; your essay "A Night In Bruce Springsteen's America" and your poem "When we were 13, Jeff's father left the needle down on a Journey record before leaving the house one morning and never coming back" come to mind. As Jessica Hopper puts it in her blurb for your new book, "when Abdurraqib is writing about music, what he is really getting at is the true nature of life and death in America, in this moment." How do those two forms feel different when approaching the same theme? What does each provide that the other can't?
I think there's a layering and nuance that is allowed in a longform work that isn't always allowed in a poem, at least on the surface. But I've gotten really good at trusting readers to enter a poem knowing that the think I'm showing them isn't exactly the thing I'm pointing at. I mean, in the poem you mention, for example. Journey and the song "Don't Stop Believin" is the thing I'm showing to people, but the thing I'm pointing at as adolescence and fear and loneliness. None of which really sits on the surface of the particular song at use in the poem. And so I think they can both provide different directions to the same emotional address, depending on how much a reader is willing to look, and what they're willing to commit to in their looking. Something we can't control, of course. But something I really encourage.
In that poem, did you put any thought into picking out "Don't Stop Believin," or did you just depict the situation as it really happened? And the same question for your other musical poems, like your several Odes to ____, Ending in ____; what is the reasoning behind the artists you pick for those pieces?
In that specific poem, I wanted to depict something as close to how it happened as possible, but I also find myself always putting thought into what music I am pulling from and the ways it can -- hopefully -- move a narrative forward. I think about that with individual musicians, as well. All of those ode poems were essentially me asking myself what musicians I'd most be eager to find myself in conversation with, and what I'd want to extract from them. Or I'd want to find out what of myself I could see in these artists, and figure out why I was seeing it. The great thing about the structure of those poems for me was that the title -- decided on before the poems themselves -- determined the ending. It was kind of freeing to have this thing that told me what my stopping point was, before I even got started. It taught me how to maneuver the page in a way that I hadn't previously considered. I was really thankful for that, and I love that series of poems and also never want to do anything like them again.
“I love that series of poems and also never want to do anything like them again.” I love that. Your career is incredibly interesting to follow because of that approach, that brave ability to let go of old forms of expression and venture into the new - even when you clearly love the old. At this point, do you know yet what’s next on the horizon for you?
Yeah, I'm working on a new full-length book of poems that deal with distance, longing, and loneliness and that's difficult for me. I'm writing the hard book, I think. I'm trying to distance myself from poems strictly about home and instead write about a kind of a lack of an emotional home. Distance is a hard thing to write in the direction of, and I'm continually trying to understand it. Also, of course, I have an essay book coming out in November (They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us) and I'm very excited about that. I'm also writing a book on a Tribe Called Quest, which I'm really excited about. There are a lot of words, and I'm trying to keep chasing them with the same excitement that I always have.