They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is Hanif Abdurraqib’s first essay collection; his first poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was published in 2016. The title of his new collection is also the text of a note near the grave of Michael Brown, a young black man who was shot and killed by a white policeman in 2014.
The collection is specific in its sprawl and sharp in its love. It insists on being alive right now. Encompassing everything from sneaker wealth to violent public attacks to Carly Rae Jepsen, Abdurraqib’s work resonates here as both personal essay and an invitation—for most of us, if not all—to listen better.
I read the book in two gulps on a plane and the Chicago Red Line. Hanif and I emailed back and forth in October.
The Rumpus: How did you know this book was finished?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Marvin Gaye wrote the book, in a lot of ways. I’m always chasing the complexities and ideas behind Marvin Gaye, and so it’s fitting that I let him guide me in the book’s structure and movements. There’s this story about Marvin Gaye, about how, when he was working on What’s Going On, the album was falling into place really smoothly. And so Marvin, thrilled with the way it was coming along, burst into the studio in Detroit one morning and told Smokey Robinson that the album was being written by God himself. I don’t know where I come down on my belief that God has an interest in writing and sequencing soul albums, though I suppose if God had to pick a genre, he’d pick the one where all of the old choir kids ended up, even if they weren’t singing about holy machinery anymore. I say all of that to say that Marvin was my small God here. Marvin was kind of the North Star I followed. I don’t know if the book is finished, but I know that the book is ready. Which mostly means that I’m fine with it being received by the world. I kind of hope I’m never finished with it. I hope I am still really wrestling with what I put in the book for the next several years to come.
I don’t want the reader experience to be that tedious, of course. But I don’t know if my brain yet understands a concept of letting go, even as I’ve had to get better at it in the life outside of my own head.
Rumpus: What does “letting go” mean to you here? Does it have to do with publication? Or a peace?
Abdurraqib: I’m not entirely sure what it is. I’d imagine that peace is kind of fluid in this case, sometimes being bullshit and sometimes not. It almost certainly never has to do with publication, and I guess knowing that is also a type of peace.
Rumpus: Some of these essays pivot around your-self-in-time-and-space, and some don’t. How do you decide where to be? And where your audience is?
Abdurraqib: Oh, I don’t think I’m particularly that interested in audience, but I do ask myself why anyone would care. How can I make something vast seem human enough to be singular but also shared? Sure, me and my pals all have dead friends and you and your pals might all have dead friends. I’m not trying to say my cloud of grief is heavier than yours; I’m mostly trying to carve out enough space on the cloud for the whole lot of us. I guess I’m maybe interested in getting as close to what others perceive as sadness and I’m trying to peel its layers back. I’m more fine with my gaze being distant when I’m doing the act of witnessing something joyful, expressed by others.
I was so fascinated by the choreography of public intimacy at that Carly Rae Jepsen show. I was so interested in what pulled that out of people in that exact moment. I was so fascinated by it that I didn’t want to touch the experience myself, but I wanted to tell everyone about it. It is the brightest moments that I want to shout from the rooftops. The darker ones, I find myself reaching out from the interior, seeing which hands might be willing to reach back.
<strongRumpus: As a performer, how do you balance being “real” for an audience but not re-traumatizing yourself every time you read? This question is not about “how do we be happy” it is about “how do we look at the fucked-uppedness of everything and still have the energy to wake up and show up.”
Abdurraqib: Well, I can say that I keep showing up because I don’t like the alternative. I want to be alive now. I’m a survivor of many things, but most of all myself, and I want to honor that survival by showing up. Not just for my own desires and small joys, but to be witness to the small joys of everyone else I love. Everyone else I want to keep living with me. I keep showing up for the talk I have with the old man who sits on a bench at the park across from my apartment. When I walk by him on the way to the gym and he’s throwing bread in the water, and I ask what the ducks are talking about and he tells me “nothing I can make sense of.” I want us both to live until the answer he gives me is different. I’m alive chasing a different and better answer to one hundred different questions. And I am doing that understanding that it’s a journey that may require me to reenter some trauma. But I’m lucky enough to have so many people waiting for me at the exit. I don’t know any other way to be real beyond that. I think I owe whatever audience I have a version of myself that is at least somewhat representative of every part of me. The part of me that jokes about food opinions, and the part of me that lightly slaps a palm on a table in excitement when having a friendly debate about some old album, and the part of me that loses card games in the small hours of morning, and the part of me that cries at the Friday Night Lights pilot, and the part of me that looks at the news and doesn’t want to get out of bed some mornings, and the part of me that does anyway, and the part of me that sometimes doesn’t.
Rumpus: What are your feelings about genre? Like, you write poems and criticism and elegy and the shapes on the page are different, but it’s clear you’re Hanif everywhere. Is “from Columbus” the most important part?
Abdurraqib: I have yet to discover a reason to think of genre as something to be governed by. I am a person who is lucky enough to write things, from a lineage of black writers who wrote many different things, sometimes all at once. And “from Columbus” is always the most important part.
Rumpus: Do you think being a human who writes about love and tenderness and crying, and is often cynical, too—a combination that is publicly radical. Or do you not think about that?
Abdurraqib: All of the writers I love most and grew up loving seemed to write about the full range of their emotions with a lot of honest clarity, and so I’m following a path lit by many tiny lights that already existed. I really grew up learning to write at the feet of black women writers, and so many of the ones I loved—Alice Walker, for example—created work where characters were whole and but also vulnerable. Both in love and afraid.
There’s a difficult thing to cop to, and I think it’s important to say it here: I’m a poet first, and I think whatever emotional flourish I inject into my work is also rooted in poetry. Still, I’m also a straight man, who is rewarded for a type of emotional clarity that my peers who are not straight men can sometimes be punished for (or punished for not delivering in a manner that pleases the masses. It’s worthwhile for me to struggle with that and also be very aware that I was given a blueprint for vulnerability by women—largely women of color. And by queer folk, and by people against the margins who chose a type of radical vulnerability when they didn’t have to. And those people who shared it with me and encouraged me towards it when they CERTAINLY didn’t have to. And I don’t find myself exhausted by the hope that in writing about tenderness I might be leaving a light on for someone else to find their way to writing about tenderness. Which isn’t me saying that I’m trying to save the world. I spend some time every now and then in classrooms with teenagers, and I’m interested in the teenage boy who writes poems about the interior of his feelings and doesn’t look to be rewarded for it, but does it because it’s the way he keeps himself slightly whole.
Anyway, cynicism? Sure. I can’t get enough of it. I’m cynical about everything, but I try to always leave every door cracked, so that some wild hope can make its way in from time to time. I don’t think all criticism is emotional. Sometimes I want to talk about the machinery of music. I’m still very invested in sound and the parentage of sound. When Fleetwood Mac was recording Tusk, Lindsey Buckingham made a sound chamber out of his bathroom and beat on tissue boxes to make the drum tracks for “What Makes You Think You’re The One,” and I think about shit like that all the time. I don’t have an emotional connection that I want to unearth there. I’m thinking less about emotion and more about what kind of madness drags one of the biggest pop stars in the world into a hollowed out bathroom to bang on tissue boxes with sticks. Maybe that is emotional. Maybe it’s all emotional, I don’t know.
Rumpus: Will you please take some time to brag about your friends?
Abdurraqib: My dearest pal Meaghan has kept me grounded for more years than I can count and deserves probably more than I can ever give her. I currently owe her a pint of ice cream that I’m very late on delivering because I’ve been away from home so much. David and I have been friends since we met on a high school soccer field and there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for me and I think that’s harder to find as I get older. My friend Mia has great hair and is also a deeply generous soul. She gives of herself in ways that most don’t, and never asks for anything in return. I have no real metrics to confirm this but I am 100% certain that my buddy Sam is the best father in the world. Madison has a really loud laugh that is so warm and inviting, it shakes the clouds away from the sun. Stephanie is honest in the spaces where others might be afraid to be honest. Matt and Regan have these inside jokes that they let you sneak into every now and then and it’s delightful. Meg and Jake are too good. I don’t know. I could go on. I’m often traveling, away from Columbus, and these people still make the time for me when I’m back, when I’m late to things, when I have to leave the party early. There’s a very specific patience in these friendships that I value. I’m really very much still just a dude from Columbus who wants to walk through a park or sneak into an open mic and listen to a few poems and pop into the United Dairy Farmers after midnight for a shake. I’m glad for all of the friends I have who write brilliant things, of course. But the architects of my least public joys are the people in Columbus who still put up with me.
Rumpus: Have any recent reading experiences surprised you?
Abdurraqib: I have to give a ton of credit to Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio, who made the calls on cuts. He was always very spot on, and I never felt like I had to let go of anything I didn’t really want to. There was stuff in there that probably should have been cut and I just didn’t have the eyes to see it until he told me. So there’s that. I’m often surprised by the reaction that reading “Defiance, Ohio Is The Name Of A Band” gets in spaces that aren’t Ohio. I mean, most people don’t really know the band and I know the piece is only tangentially about the band, but I’m often amazed by how many people see themselves in that piece.
Rumpus: But what do “good” reactions look like when people don’t see themselves in a piece? Empathy is obviously deeply important but sometimes it can blur details, especially in this political moment.
Abdurraqib: I’m not really sure how to answer this but I think maybe a good reaction when people don’t see themselves in a piece is that they, perhaps, look for a way to enter it through a feeling of empathy for others so that they might exit the piece looking at the world differently.
Rumpus: Where does a person find the World’s Best Milkshake™?
Abdurraqib: I’m really partial to United Dairy Farmers in Columbus, Ohio. United Dairy Farmers is interesting because it’s only really in Ohio, mostly only in between Columbus and Cincinnati. And it’s a gas station. And it’s a convenience store. But mostly—depending on your desires I guess—it is an ice cream parlor. And the people working there aren’t really certified ice cream employees, whatever that means. They’re mostly just cashiers, or convenience store workers who happen to have to scoop ice cream every now and then. This is really good news for people who like ice cream, because the scoops are often not measured. A lot of ice cream places, the scoops are measured to within an inch of their allotted size. At United Dairy Farmers, you’re entirely at the mercy of the person behind the counter who, I must add, might sometimes be overjoyed to see a person, depending on what hour of the night you stumble in. I go after midnight, where the person behind the counter tends to get a bit more heavy-handed with the scoops, especially if you can engage them in some conversation. The key is that they also know how to blend the shakes back there. They really take their time, at least if you get a good person who really has an intimate relationship with the blender. I like UDF because it is ice cream, given back to the people by the people. It’s what I miss most when I’m not in Columbus.
Rumpus: Do you always get a certain flavor?
Abdurraqib: I get a sherbet freeze, which is kind of like a milkshake except with rainbow sherbet and lemonade (or fruit punch or limeade, but I think lemonade is often the safest bet).