Hanif Abdurraqib left Connecticut in the spring of 2017, after a painful breakup. Now he was back in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. A wounded writer. Perfect. Anger and bitterness have filled many, many library shelves.
Except, it was too easy to be bitter, he says. “I don’t really write well when I’m bitter. And so I needed to figure out something for myself that served my writing.”
Abdurraqib figured it out by going back to what had once been. In the case of that relationship, it was the hope. Generosity and kindness. That’s “A Fortune For Your Disaster,” a collection of poems that outlived pain.
“It’s a book, essentially, about the dissolution of a longstanding relationship,” he says. “And I was thinking about the way heartbreak lives in the mind, in the body, and trying to articulate it generously and not with anything that felt like bitterness or rage or….”
He pauses, and finds a different way to say the same thing: “You know, I didn’t want to be punishing on myself, as much as I wanted to be thoughtful about the kind of gratitude I feel for having lived a life that intersected with another person to love me. When no one, no one, is required to love anyone.”
Abdurraqib joins Rochester’s literary center, Writers & Books, for its Visiting Authors series at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Of course, “visiting” is relative in these pandemic days. Writers are saving a lot of gas money on book tours. He’ll be reading online from “A Fortune For Your Disaster,” followed by a talk with Virginia poet Tim Seibles. It’s free, but you’ll need to get a ticket for the Zoom link through Writers & Books.
The literary world is responding to Abdurraqib’s soul-baring with the whispers that accompany an emerging star. He’s no longer living the solitary life of a writer; he’s in demand for interviews and book appearances. When this all dies down a bit, Abdurraqib confesses, he’s looking forward to getting some rest.
Abdurraqib seizes the freedom to write about anything that catches his eye, with no regard to what he is supposed to be. He is a published poet. An essayist. And that catch-all for a brain ruminating through a keyboard, “cultural critic.”
Browsing through his words, it’s clear music is a key. Abdurraqib is not genre-bound. He writes about A Tribe Called Quest and Olivia Newton-John. And it’s through music that he connects with the greater world. A rumination on a film about Aretha Franklin. An appreciation -- appreciation, mind you! -- of the 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy, “You’ve Got Mail.”
And on into a world where, for some people in this country, a flag at half-staff “reminds me to either feel fear or sadness.”
His writing is the accumulation of what Abdurraqib calls “pop-culture investments.”
“I grew up in a household where music was kind of constantly playing,” he says, describing himself as an avid record collector. “I just grew up with a really curious sonic palate that has extended into my adult life. And at the core, I’m a big pop music fan. I think that I spend, I spent, a lot of time expanding my musical excitement in my adult life."
Music, he says, is how he often makes sense of the world.
“Because it’s how I did as a kid, it’s what I had at my disposal when I could not find language otherwise," Abdurraqib says. "And so I think I have come to rely on music, to kind of feel my way through a more complicated world. And still to this day I do that, I turn to music new and old to kind of make a map for me.”
“I can think my way through the world more comfortably with a soundtrack than not.”
Unusual structures are a part of his style. “Poems From an Email Exchange” is what it says it is: a poem set up as a series of imaginary (I think) communications between a writer and a publisher, over the publication’s rejection of a poem about a dog taking a morning poop.
Dogs also play a lead role in another poem, “Watching A Fight At The New Haven Dog Park, First Two Dogs And Then Their Owners.” It opens with the instantly classic line, “The mailman still hands me bills like I should be lucky to have my name on anything in this town…,” and then goes on to eschew any form of punctuation. Just one long, run-on sentence of misunderstandings. It is a tough urban poem that makes me think of the late Amiri Baraka. Pounding out a stream of consciousness.
So many of these “pop culture investments” are drawn from the 1990s, when Abdurraqib was in high school. It’s nostalgia, he admits. Inescapable influences. Of “You’ve Got Mail,” he says, “There was a point where that film was always on TV. I’d be home from school in the summer, and it seemed like it was on every channel.”
And there are times, like now, when he’s reaching back even further. To the early 1970s, and Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” Kind of a companion album to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” Music that reflected the Vietnam War, and racial unrest in the streets.
“There’s a palpable understanding of discomfort and upheaval,” Abdurraqib says of those two albums.
At the same time, he’s been watching and rewatching a documentary on Aretha Franklin. “Gospel is always present in the undercurrent of American comforts and discomforts,” Abdurraqib says.
Discomfort and upheaval. Are these pop-culture investments showing us where we’re heading with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter?
“I definitely don’t know where we’re going now,” Abdurraqib says. “And I think more often my writing addresses the unbound uncertainty, and a comfort with that uncertainty, of knowing where we’re going. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But that kind of uncertainty is not always a comfort. So I’m kind of writing my way toward something that feels more comfortable.”
Ultimately, the malfunctioning aspects of society that we’re seeing are pieces of a much larger engine.
“I hope the world becomes more equitable and more understanding of the needs of the vulnerable people living in it,” he says. “But I also think that’s a broad statement that requires a lot of more smaller, moving parts.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.