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Poetry Spotlight: Hanif Abdurraqib - Poetry of Responsible Curation (podcast transcript S2, E20)

Jeremy Jusek: Welcome to Poetry Spotlight presented by the Ohio Poetry Association. I am your host Jeremy Jusek. And with us today is Hanif Abdurraqib.

Photo by Andrew Cenci
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Muchwas named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others. He released Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest , which became a New York Times Bestseller, was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, and was longlisted for the National Book Award. His second collection of poems, A Fortune For Your Disaster, was released in 2019 by Tin House, and won the 2020 Lenore Marshall Prize. In 2021, he released the book A Little Devil In America with Random House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The book won the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and the Gordon Burn Prize.

Hanif, thank you so much for joining us.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Yeah, thank you so much for having me Jeremy, it's really great to be here.

JJ: Would you please start us off with the poem?

HA: Yeah i'll read a short—I haven't been writing a lot of poems, but I've been working on the new nonfiction book which has these interludes in it that feel like poems that are kind of odes to Ohio aviators and whatever form that is so. I’ll read this little thing about Lonnie Carmen who was pilot in Columbus, in the early 1900s.

[Hanif Reads]

 hundreds in the hood, called him the junk man. Throw him all sorts of their undesirables cartons and metals and cardboards right here in Columbus, and wouldn't you know Lonnie built a plane out of what his people didn't want in their homes and on their portraits, and they should have never let him get his hands on that motorcycle engine, because that was all he needed. And before you knew it, Moni was flying his plane over his hood on weekends, the people on his block running outside and pointing at him in the sky. They're old trash now, cradled by endless blue and moni had no training, which is maybe by Port Columbus. authority. Never gave from a gig, even though he tried and today not he got himself a monument in that same airport, and in the photo he's wearing his helmet and his glasses. And he is next to the plane he made from whatever the people he loved, showed up to his doorstep with. And I tell my homies I am not superstitious. but here I am touching the photo of Lonnie again while I walk to the security line before getting on a plane. Before forcing myself to forget about the mechanics of flight and all the ways it fail. And I think about Lonnie in the sky, kept safe by his people in the small but useful things that outlasted their dreams.

JJ: Wow! Thank you. You're from Columbus and you got your start here, and I was curious: How has the city of Columbus changed—both the writing scene and the city since you began writing?

HA:  Well, I think I mean the writing scene has become I think both more expansive, but also it's changed since the pandemic. Because there was a point where when I was coming up, when I was out most frequently, you could hit an open mic at almost any weeknight in the city and they were all different.

They were all unique open mics. They were all catering to different things. You could hear different poem, and you know, there was a poetry forum and there was Writer’s Block and Write and Wrongs, and I ran a night. These kind of things. One big difference is that a lot of those places have not returned, or you know have not returned to perhaps the status that they were most commonly at. And so maybe there's a bit of an absence in terms of physical places to hear poetry every night.

But I also think that the writing community has become more expansive. There's young writers who are, you know, really high school writers who are kind of making their own way, and folks who are doing incredible bits of self-publishing and kind of getting their work on the map in that way. And so you know there's a way that the ability to just kind of show up somewhere and see a poem is a bit more limited than it was. But there's also kind of an expansive nature, in how work is entering the world. And so I appreciate that. And of course I mean the city—it feels often at the whims of developers and the powerful and folks who are—I appreciate the artists and the activists and community members who are trying to keep corners of the city to their own, because left to its own devices I don't think the city would allow those of us who have been here for a long time and have loved it to maintain the things we love about it

JJ: That's interesting—what are some of the struggles that you've seen in terms of trying to hold onto that culture?

HA: Well, I mean, I think part of it is because Columbus doesn't seem to know what kind of city it wants to be. It seems to want to be multiple cities at once, and none of those cities seem to reflect the actual people who have been here: who have lived here, who have loved here, and who have created things here. And so that's a struggle in and of itself is that I think the creative spirit of the city is it odds with, or at least like brushes, aggressively up against, the whims of the city itself, or what the city believes itself to be. Which it seems to still be in the throes of figuring out at the expense of a lot of folks.

JJ: Sure. And I imagine these changes, both [with] Covid and developmentally, have affected the beaten slam. The performance side of poetry more then, perhaps traditional sharing.

HA: Yeah, yeah, you know, there aren't a lot of slam venues anymore. But I think you know, even before the pandemic like, Writer’s Block it kind of turned away from slam a bit, and or at least had taken to slam in more creative ways, which I always appreciated. But you know, I came up through slam. Slam was kind of the era—or the medium that I operated in. So I owe a lot to slam and the slam community in Columbus when it was at its height, you know? Or one of the types, it's had many heights—but one of its heights was certainly when I was coming up, which is you know early 2010s.

JJ: Yeah. What do you think the difference is between coming up in the poetry community through slam versus more academic [routes]?

HA: I don't know, I mean I don't know if I could say. For me, the only reason I got into slam initially was because I just needed something to motivate me to write—I needed a self-imposed deadline in that Writer's Block, and at Writing Wrongs. If you want to slam you have to bring a new poem, you know. And so I mostly just needed something to get me to write a new poem. And what I found that I really enjoyed in slam, was that there's a real time feedback that you get, and there's a real time relationship being built with an audience.

And so, just because of the nature of it, because of the nature of say like call-in response, that is almost I would say required—it's not just something that is encouraged within slam, but it's required and so when you're reading your poem, and you hear people react to it a certain way, that's a form of like, say real-time editing. I always feel that what I get most out of slam is an understanding of how to read my work out loud. And how to edit in audible sense, and I really value that.

JJ: Oh, that's cool. And your poetry has a real sort of free form. I mean it has less punctuation, oftentimes you're not capitalizing things, and it flows. And do you owe that to slam too, would you say?

HA: I think so, yeah. I mean when I was first writing poems? I was writing them purely to be performed. I wasn't writing them to be read on the page because I would memorize everything, and so I was mostly writing just as a tool of getting the language somewhere where I could memorize it?

And so there are early poems of mine, where you know, people will see a video online and be like, “well, where's this poem?” And I don't have it—I don't know where it is. And so you know, when I did start sitting down and saying “Okay, I want to get my poems on the page in a way that they can live, you know, somewhere beyond me and beyond the stage,” I wanted to write poems as I was reading them, you know? I wanted the poems to kind of reflect, to get as close to the nature of the performance of them as I could. And that really allowed me some inventiveness with how with how I put my work on the page. And I think I've made I've been lucky enough to be able to maintain that.

JJ: Okay, Yeah. And I think that comes across for sure. So, you just finished working on a book project. It's nonfiction. So what is the project, and how did the writing unfold?

HA: The project’s called There's Always This Here, and it's a book you know—I've been kind of resisting the nature of, about saying “this is about that kind of thing.” It does use basketball as a container, so basketball is the container for the book. But the book is mostly about who gets to make it and who doesn't, and what making it looks like once you live beyond a point where you believed yourself capable of living. Wherein you’re maybe making it in a different way every single day.

And I really loved, you know, was one of those things where because basketball is the container, because I have never written a book like this with this kind of container before. I really loved—you know, much like Little Devil in America I had so much fun writing that for the similar reason which is: I got to kind of dig in the archives of a past life that, you know, for me I'm an athlete. I grew up playing basketball and playing soccer. It was really wonderful to get to dwell in you know all of these videos of basketball from an era that I grew up playing in, even though much of that stuff didn't actually make it in physical book. It was just a real delight to get to spend time in a past era that meant a lot to me.

JJ: Yeah. What was one of the most surprising things you found while researching?

HA: You know, I think that because Lebron James is also a center point of the container, you know, Lebron, and I are about the same age, we came up playing around the same time, and being immersed in the world of basketball at the same time. It was really refreshing and exciting for me to go back and remember that Lebron James, as he became noted by his junior high school you know there were other folks—because he kind of eclipsed the basketball landscape in Ohio by the time he was a junior senior, and he was beginning to by the time he was a freshman/sophomore, it was refreshing to go back and remember there was so many other folks, in my neighborhood even, who were singular players operating at that time as well.

And you know, it was kind of good to refurnish that particular corner of my memory palace with just guys I remember playing with, or seeing, or you know, it was a good reminder that you know that LeBron, is as great as he is, was not the only person operating in that moment.

JJ: Sure. Now you talk and write about sentimentality and moments in time—stuff like this where it's both personal to you and historically relevant to the community. And you mentioned in the keynote speech you gave the summer at the NFSPS conference that you wanted to write about Columbus neighborhoods you knew before they started becoming gentrified, and before people were getting displaced and the neighborhoods were changing. And you wrote an essay about the Ohio State Fair where there was that ride that killed that the kid and, it was awful God—But you said that you weren't sure why people rode those state those the rides at state fairs. But you thought it had something to do with childhood. And so what do you think is humanity's obsession about the good old days? And what do you think are some of the dangers about trying to recreate that past… or living in it?

HA: Well, I mean, I do think that nostalgia without a critical eye put on it is dangerous, because it's riding a wave of uncritical affection about the past, and as we know you know the past holds a lot of pleasures, but a lot of terrors depending on who you are, how you experience the world, how you identify all these things. And in the actual like physical sense, too, there are things that we were drawn to in our past that are maybe untenable for the world.

Now, this isn't to say of course I think there are elements of things like the fair—I didn't go this year. I kind of wanted to go to the Ohio State Fair this year, but I was too in and out of town—But you know I still like elements of the fair so like I’m not gonna get on one of those rides, that’s just me personally, I’m not—but I still like elevator of the fair, because it reminds me of a time when I was a kid. I had like a little bit of money in my pocket and I could, you know, go in and have some freedom like away from the place I lived, you know. But I also do think that all nostalgia deserves perhaps a critical eye placed upon it. That's, the most generous way that I think we can receive our past, even if we are excited about the many ways our past represents itself. I think being critical and putting a critical eye towards it is the best thing we can do for ourselves.

JJ: Sure. And when you're working on books like these where you're applying that critical eye, what is—How do you know when you got the criticism when you're like “Yes, I nailed it.”, you know what I mean like, how do you know?

HA: Yeah, well, I think for me the question is always am I implicating something or someone, even myself, beyond the initial pleasure of the nostalgia revelation, you know? Beyond the initial exuberance of just “wasn't this thing that happened in the time before this one really cool?” I think there's gotta be a way that I am kind of thoughtfully indicting myself or the role that this nostalgia played that wasn't always joyful for everyone. And I think I do that sometimes most often by placing myself at the center of my work. Or at least maybe not the center, but never too far from the center of my work, and that serves me a bit because yeah, I feel like it is easiest then for me to say “you know I was this way, and I have a different way now, and me being a different way now is for the better but I'm also not ashamed of who I was.”

I needed who I was to become, who I am. That kind of thing. That kind of honesty, I think, is what gets the job done, if that makes sense.

JJ: I mean there's a pretty stark difference between somebody saying “this needs to change” versus “this needs to change. I was a part of it. I feel bad—but I have this perspective.”

HA: Yeah and can’t, you know, beat yourself up I was you know you. You have to—the hard part is not beating oneself up right?

But it's significantly more beneficial, I think, to say “Well, I was someone different than I am now. And that's just the math. I mean that we all encounter that math in whatever we do. But it is. It is the math nonetheless.

JJ: Pardon me for a question that might be a little too philosophical and far gone. But is it possible to be irredeemable

HA: I don't know? I mean, you know, I'm someone who believes in a world beyond the structures of punishment that we currently have in place. That's one thing. And 2, I'm someone who believes in a world where people individually don't inflict prolonged punishment on each other. Now I don't believe that I personally need to redeem everyone. So, are there people who might fall into the ends of irredeemable for me? Absolutely sure.

But now do I believe that people by and large should be, or could be, redeemable? I don't know if I believe that. I do believe that, or at least my hope is that, there is an arc of redemption for everyone. But I also very much realize that I don't necessarily need to do that work. I don't need to be the one who redeems people.

I can say “Well, I hope this person finds redemption somewhere,” but they don't need to find it through me.

JJ: Sure. Okay, that makes sense. So, you have this amazing ability to pull in pop culture and history and the personal, which we've already talked about. And to prove a wider point. And, for instance, in a little double America, it starts with the nationwide dance craze, which, super interesting And it continues to show how black involvement in creative communities was incredibly influential and impactful on America. But it was also ignored by the rest of society.

And you have this anecdote when you're talking about how the Hell's Angels murdered Meredith Hunter at a rolling stones concert, and you wrote “His family could not afford a tombstone, so he was buried in an unmarked grave in East Vallejo, California. He became a footnote to the land, as he'd become a footnote to the Altamont, the victim of that concert’s logical conclusion.”

And, okay. So, these questions are kind of tangentially related.

But, 1, how do you choose your stories and see the wider implication they have for society, and 2, how do you think Americans can be educated about these parts of history that they seem almost determined to ignore?

HA: Well for me I don't ever think about myself as someone who's interested in educating Americans in part, because I think as Americans I think there's a desire to forget the history that doesn't serve the greater goals of furthering empire, or, you know, to become kind of forgetful. I mean every time there's a there's a shooting, not only school shooting, a police shooting, and we have we have these conversations about what violence is and what acceptable violence is, and this “this is not who we are” kind of things.

That for me signals this idea that we've America really relies on a really rigid relationship with forgetting things, and hoping that everyone else forgets things. And so I've perhaps given up on if I was ever invested in it—which I don't think I ever was—but I’ve really given up on the idea of educating folks because you know, Little Devil in America was a book that I wrote out of a lot of exuberance and a lot of excitement and uncovering those stories meant a lot to me, and it was really fun.

Now of course, if people find their way to the book and learn something that's great! Like I'm you know I'm not refusing that. I'm not saying like don't learn anything through this book, certainly not refusing that. But I would not say that my intention was one of “I hope to teach people something,” because yeah I don't know if that's where my brain was at.

JJ: Sure. Well, it's strange you say that because my book actually came with a copy of horse binders. Do you think that shortsightedness is uniquely American? Or do you think that's more of a human thing?

HA: I would imagine—I don't know you don't spend as much time in other places, so my relationship with it is uniquely American. But part of me does—you know, the impulse I have suggests, or at least I feel like it is an American, I mean a human affliction. A global human affliction. And I feel myself personally immerse myself in it in lower-stakes situations. Perhaps, you know. Like, I also rely on situations that are of the lower stakes, sort of the of the lower-stakes emotional sort, perhaps. And I don't you know it's one of those things where I’m often like, “Well, I wish I were better at confronting—there are things that I wish I was I were better at confronting.” But I don't think—I’m not there yet. And that is, you know, that is an ever-evolving challenge.

JJ: Sure. I think that's natural, too, because you can only work on so many flaws at a time, you know what I mean?

HA: Yes, yes, yes, it's true. And you can't work on them all to the same with the same ferocity or intensity. I mean this is one miracle of being fortunate enough to age. I think, for me at least, is being intensely and acutely aware of that reality—in embracing it in a way you know? And kind of being like “Well, yeah, you're right, like I can't work on. I actually physically cannot work, on every single thing at once. And if I am lucky, I will live long enough to be able to work on any number of things. But they're gonna come slowly.” I think.

JJ: That's a healthy, generous way to look at it, I think. There are flaws that I think, where, I’ve just shoved them. “I’ll deal with you later, I’ve got other, more pressing things to do now.”

HA: Yeah, I mean you know I’m a deeply flawed person. I've lived a very flawed life. And I think that my impulse particularly—I think my life changed a bit when I felt like I took on a bit more responsibility for the ways that I was failing. Not just with others with myself. And I wanted to change that. My impulse was like, “How do I become, a quote unquote, a better person overnight?” You know, like, “How do I become a better person like, today?”

But that's just not how any of this works, and you know that's, again, I'm really thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to age beyond the point where I thought I would age, because it has afforded me a real ability to understand that these things kind of turn slowly and to kind of take some heart in that. And understand that I don't have forever. But I have a have perhaps some time to make the world, to make myself, comfortable with how I am in the world.

JJ: Yeah, I feel that. And those times where I told myself “Okay, tomorrow is gonna be different. You know, I’m gonna wake up and have everything's gonna be perfect.

HA: Yeah.

JJ: Those were the times where I was the least kind to myself, because you expect immediate results, they don't happen, and then you fall back into those cycles again.

HA: Yeah, yeah. And it puts, I mean, it puts all of us in a bad place. To put all of us in a pretty unfair place of expectations. And I think we, broadly speaking, I think It's possible that we deserve better. Not just for ourselves, but for the people who love us and care about us. I think we deserve grace.

One of my dear friends—Yesterday I was talking to my friend, the poet Angel Nafis, was like “I'm at a point in my life where I don't even know if I deserve grace, but I need it.” And of course, like she deserves grace, of course! But the whole thing is like “I don't know if I like—I don't wanna fight for this. I don't wanna like make a case for my deserving of grace.” Like, I just need it to survive. And so, if I need it, then we're gonna have to come to some kind of agreement on the, you know, it's one of those things where it's like, “We gotta hit an agreement on what I'm going to receive from the world.”

Because it's hard, you know, like I have been thinking so much about just the challenges of being, and it's tough. I feel like I am most now most commonly in a place now where it's like, I hope that I deserve grace. But even if I don't in the eyes of some, like a lot of us needed to function so like that's where we're at. We gotta have it to function. And there's no other questions. You know? No—no other questions at this time. That's just what I need, you know.

JJ: Yeah, and you know it's funny because you think, you know, if somebody has an episode. Like they break down, and they just, that was it. That was the final last straw, and camel's back’s broken, the you know, all of it. Usually those times—those are the moments when people pull away from that person. You know what I mean? Like, they wind up suffering more because they've now alienated themselves, and maybe they did something where they don't deserve grace.

But perhaps grace in those moments might be what's needed the most.

HA: Yeah, it's a challenge though, you know—it's a challenge to extend grace to people who I know this. I'm not even like—I know this as someone who has both felt that challenge myself, and someone who's been challenged to offer that to people. It's just not easy. And that is perhaps why you know my impulse is always how do I become a slightly better person who can articulate not only my needs, but also tap in with the needs of other people, you know? How do I? How do I best get to the heart of what other people need and be a good steward of other people's needs as well?

JJ: Yeah, alright. So you're also a culture critic which I found fascinating. One of your projects is a podcast called the Object of Sound, and in it you mentioned that you want to find how musicians and artists use music to make sense of the world around them. And so I wanted to ask, what did you learn while working on this podcast? In it you called yourself, in one of the recent episodes I was listening to, you called yourself a responsible curator, as somebody who enjoys making playlists to tell a story.

And I remember burning CDs and like giving them to friends and being like “This is like that time we all went camping!” and they're like “I don't know what you're talking about, Jeremy.”

HA: Right right, right. I think one thing I’ve learned is there are so many musicians who kind of just like want to talk about, who want to talk about their work in deep and thoughtful ways, and who don't always get the opportunity to do so. And you know, one great thing about Object of Sound is just simply like having the opportunity. Have these conversations to say to someone like “I’ve done really deep listening. You know, I'm coming to you as an admirer of something you've created, you know?

I think a lot of musicians are used to having these kind of sometimes like, with respect to other interviews, is dry conversations. And for me? I, you know, I’m a real fan! I love music, and so I don't wanna—if I have the opportunity to have someone's ear and they've created something that I think is really special, I don't ever want to pass that up, you know?

And so I’ve learned how to be an attentive and eager fan, too. And it's not just like you know, one big thing during the pandemic that I tried to avoid, I guess the ongoing pandemic, but you know the questions that so many musicians got were like “So, you made a pandemic album,” and that kind of thing. You know? And I get it, I get why, that's—

But I my whole thing is like I wanna get into the weeds of the writing, you know? I’m such a big exuberant fan of writing, and so I wanna get to the core of how the writing happened on an album, and what the writing tells me about the person who created it, and these kind of things. I don't want to pass up these opportunities to have in-depth, generous conversations with folks who are doing work I admire.

JJ: Yeah, yeah. And what would you say is an element of success of that? Like, when you're sitting down to talk to somebody and you know you've hit the pinata, so to speak.

HA: You know for me it's always telling when someone gets excited about what I like to call the “song within the song” or the “creation within the creation,” because when I get someone not just talking about an overarching process, and have them talking about a line of a song or a sonic movement in a song, and they get to a point where they're excited because they know that I want to hear about the actual moving parts inside of the moving parts—then the conversation really flows, the conversation becomes incredibly generous. And that's where I think I really learn from folks.

And yeah, I don't know, I don't think by nature I’m a great interviewer, but I am a very curious person, you know? I mean you interview people so you know like, sometimes curiosity is just that's it. That what turns the key to the door.

JJ: That's true. A lot of times a question will spiral into other things just because I wanna know more. I love it: “That sounds really cool. I wanna know more about that. Tell me about it.”

HA: Yeah, yeah, I always say like curiosity actually is what—that's what does it for me most of the time, because I don't know if I'm a great asking of questions, but I think that I’m a pretty good seeker of excitement, and yeah, I think that's it.

JJ: And I think—to go back to Little Devil, I feel like I can feel that in the writing, because your poetry collections are excellent. What I really appreciated about Devil was that you had all these stories. And sometimes you would just tell an anecdote, and you could tell it was there just because you found it interesting, and I thought that was such a neat way to present the material and like—so how much of this research did you do that didn't make it into the book? You had talked about the non-fiction piece—you've done all this research.

HA: Yeah, I think for me, I'm a big researcher, right? Because what I’m actually doing when I’m researching is trying to find these things of excitement where it's like “I can't believe this, I can't believe I found this thing and I want to tell people about it.” I want to shout from the mountaintops about this thing that I heard, or this thing that I found, or you know—it allows me to transfer towards somewhat evangelical notions which is to say, to find the good word of something, and then deliver the good word to others. And that's kind of it you know?

For example, in Little Devil in America, for that opening essay I watched so much Soul Train. I watched literal hundreds of hours of Soul Train. And I hit a point where I was like “I think the essay has maybe already written itself through these videos.”

And the best I can do is just tell people what I’ve experienced, you know? And so that in part, the research allows me to kind of build a baseline or a trampoline towards the evangelical motion. I think that’s maybe why I’m at my best, I think.

JJ: Okay, yeah, your details are really good. So going back to the dance crazes at the beginning, which was a super interesting way to start the book, you had this one line about how you're talking about once the dances became a nationwide craze.

You described white people dancing, and they were going for endurance. They were trying to see who could dance for two days straight, or weeks in a row, you know that sort of thing. And then you talk about how black communities that were dancing. African Americans were dancing for style. Like, they didn't have these rhythmic movements just to keep them going past the point of physical physicalness.

And then you have this line where you said “because they had already endured.” I thought it was such a poignant way to take the elements of the stew and bring out the flavor. You know what I mean?

HA: Yeah, I'm always kind of interested in the point of this point of expansiveness that pushes an idea to a breaking point. And how can I tie up a bunch of ideas at once before that breaking point descends. Which is hard, and so that's you know part of my writing process is just continually seeking seeking seeking until the balloon is near bursting, and that is—it's a tight rope, you know? It's a tight line to walk. I actually credit—people actually talk about poetry and writing a across genre.

I don't actually ever think about in a practical sense, because I’m not really beholding the genre, but if I’m being honest I do think that there is an element of poetry that taught me about walking this tight rope to, towards at least, what a breaking point could be, and knowing how to navigate that breaking point. You know, saying a lot in a small amount of space, for example.

JJ: Okay. Yeah, it's funny you said that cause I was just about to ask you “Wouldn't that make poetry more limiting to you?” because I was thinking, well, it's if it's hard to do in a big expanse where you have hundreds of pages, do you find a poem constricting for that very reason?

HA: No, I feel like it trains me, it trains me along the delivery of information, you know. Like one of my—to pivot to music slightly one of my favorite musicians (I make no secret of this) of all time, one of the musicians that means the most to me is Bruce Springsteen. And I studied Bruce Springsteen as a writer, you know? And he’s mastered this gift, this form of information delivery wherein he is downloading a lot of information and putting a lot of information into a small space.

You look at a song like “Atlantic City,” right? You know, where the first rest of “Atlantic City” is wild, because in that verse alone, that verse is like forty seconds long, but there’s a novel in there. We get the stakes of the situation. We get characters, we get development of characters, we get sympathy built around characters. We get an understanding of this place that is kind of coming apart at the seams. And that rush of information built out in that way in that first verse allows for the rest of the narrative to fall into place.

And for those people listening who not have not heard it yet, I say “go listen to it, immediately!”

But you get a thing where you feel for this guy. You feel for this guy wandering through this unstable city that is on the verge of exploding. There are people coming in looking for a fight. Gambling commission's falling apart. This guy's house got blown up.

And that’s the wild thing, right? The first line is like “They blew up the chicken man of Philly last night. They blew up his house, too.” And the impulse I think as a listener is to say, “Well, I feel bad for that guy.” But then we get to the end of the verse, and it's like “No no no I actually feel bad for this guy. Like I don't feel bad for the guy who's house got blown up anymore. I feel bad for the guy who has to find a way to make a life in the midst of this Hell right?

Because the bomb, and the blowing up of the house, is just a byproduct of the ongoing Hell that this living person has to maneuver. And so you know, I take queues from that. I learned so much from Bruce Springstein about how to how to input and how to download a lot of information in a tight space to say “Okay, now that you have all this information at your disposal, we can tell a real story.”

JJ: Yeah, that's really cool. Who are some of your other favorite lyricists?

HA: Tracy Chapman means a lot to me, you know. Tracy Chapman for me is the one of the great Ohio writers, and I don't mean songwriters, I mean, like, I think Tracy Chapman is in some ways a novelist. In some ways a poet herself, you know? I am always—I’m so drawn to her work, and I’m so drawn that the way that she tells stories.

That's a big one. I love Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music. Roxy Music is a band that means a lot to me, and I love Bryan Ferry. I love Meshell Ndegeocello. Who I just saw! I just saw her—you know she's someone who I interviewed for Object of Sound but I’d never seen her live before in my life, and I got to see her maybe 3 weeks ago she was in Columbus?

And that was cool, you know there's not many artists—There's not many artists who at this point in my life that I haven't seen because I've seen—actually, so many shows, like I was gonna say a million but I'm trying to work on not being hyperbolic. I've seen I would say that in my life I have definitely seen, have to have by now seen 100,000 shows like real talk. And so, there's like not many artists left on the list of artists I love who I haven't seen.

And you know, getting to see Meshell Ndegeocello was a dream for me because she was on that list, and so that was cool.

JJ: That's fantastic. How—you seem to be really in tune with music. I'm surprised you're not a musician.

HA: Well, I’m not very talented! When it comes to that at least. I, you know, I play piano a little bit, but not very well. Have a piano on the house I mess around on. I was in a couple of short-lived bands. I’m just not very good at—I'm a better, I'm good at hearing sound and talking about sound and translating what sound means to me. And the impact it has on the body and the spirit, and all this… when it comes to making sounds I, you know I think people would rather hear from a great many other folks than me.

I think one great strength of mine is that I know better than knowing what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at. And that is how I maintain.

JJ: Last question, little on the generic side, but what do you want people to know about your writing, or you as a person?

HA: Oh, gosh! I think—that’s such a good question. I think, to take it to myself, I think one thing I want people to know about me as a person is just that I am—in a way I feel so much beyond the work I do. I love the work I do. I love writing, and I love you know—and I think that folks who know me a little bit, even folks who see me around the city, you know, when I'm out and about in Columbus. A lot of people stop me and say, “hey,” and one thing I feel like I'm always more interested in someone else than they could ever be in me, you know? Even if we're just having a small interaction. If I’m like at a coffee shop, and someone comes up and is like “Yo, what's up I love your book.” I'm always like “You know that's cool, but what's up with you?”

You know, because I live here. I'm a person who lives here—and one reason I love living in Columbus, and I wanna be here for a long time, is because I feel a part of this community. Which means that if someone comes up to me and says “What’s up?”—we're in the same community, so you know, we could chop it up for a bit. I sometimes feel bad because I feel like sometimes people are legitimately just coming over to say like “Hey, I read your book” or whatever and I end up holding them in a conversation for like ten minutes more than they probably want—which I’m trying to work on that, too—but I do have a real exuberance about—like I can't believe that I live , in a place—

I'll say this: When my first book a nonfiction came out when They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us came out, Two Dollar Radio here in Columbus put it out. My whole thing was like if 50 to 60 people in this city read and love this book, that's all I really want, you know? That that would mean the world to me, because I came up here and I love the people here.

And to now be at a point with our people in the city that I love who are that appreciative of my work,  you know, it's like a dream come true. But it’s also a dream come true that, you know that I can build with folks here. That I can build with folks here and talk to folks here. I have teachers sometimes come up to me and are like “I read your work and like, come by my class.” And that's how I meet some young writers that I mentored, you know?

And this kind of stuff we're building, it's not just me. It's not just me moving through this city on high, as like the writer, the capital “W” writer. I feel like we're really building a web of community care through these interactions that I get to have with people that, sure, maybe admittedly begin with like someone's relationship to my writing. But I'm so quick to steer in a different direction, because people who know me even a little bit here also know that I’m a million things beyond the writer and—not a million, not a million. Again, working on hyperbole—but I'm several things from a writer before I’m a writer.

In order to write well, I have to check all these other boxes that make me a person, and I’m thankful to live in a place that allows the fullness of me as a person to exist. Like, I wouldn't be the writer that I am if I didn't live in a place like Columbus where I feel like I am a full and whole person, and I'm treated that way. By the really grateful and whole people who live here alongside me and with me and all that.

JJ: Yeah. You moved to Connecticut and then came back home.

HA: Yeah, for like two and a half years I was in Connecticut. My partner at the time had gotten a job, and so I moved out there… and I did not love it. And you know, there was a point where when that relationship fell apart. It was kind of like “Well, I could live anywhere. I could go anywhere.” And I contemplated the many—You know it was wild to have to have that level of freedom. At the time I was working for a place where I could work remotely wherever I wanted, and I was like, “I can live in any in any city I want.”

And after awhile I thought “But why? I've spent all this time missing home. And so, it makes sense for me to just return home.” And every day I'm thankful for that decision.

JJ: Wonderful, alright. Well, would you like to read a poem before we sign off?

HA: Yeah, I’m gonna read another short ode to an Ohio aviator from the book.

[Hanif reads.]

JJ: Excellent. I'm very excited to read this book. Alright! Thank you so much. This has been Poetry Spotlight, a production of the Ohio Poetry Association. Please follow the OPA on Twitter @OhioPoetry and on facebook at A transcript of this episode can be found on the OPA blog. Visit for more information.

And Hanif, thank you so very much for joining us.

HA: No doubt, Jeremy.


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