The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Hanif Abdurraqib about his new poetry collection, A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House, September 2019), how the film The Prestige became the unifying principle for the book, Marvin Gaye (and his ghost), and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Shira Erlichman, Malcolm Tariq, Cameron Akward-Rich, Danez Smith, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Ariel Francisco, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Hey Hanif! Thanks for joining us. I just saw on Twitter that you’re at the Writers for Migrant Justice reading right now. Want to start by telling us how that’s going?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Oh, I just got home from it! It was really great. We raised around $600 for Immigrant Families Together, and the reading itself was really wonderful. Poets in Columbus really pull together heavy for things like this. It’s really valuable for me to do something larger than myself or my work on any day I’m fortunate enough to have a book come out.[The GoFundMe for Writers for Migrant Justice is still live, should you wish to donate. – Ed.]
Brian S: My first big question about the book is how you decided to use The Prestige as a unifying principle for this collection. (I still haven’t rewatched it. It’s been a crazy busy month)
Hanif Abdurraqib: Yeah, so I got really into the movie when I was struggling in the phase between leaving Connecticut and coming back home to Ohio. There’s something really daunting about having to live with a person who has stopped loving you, and being unable to leave, when the promise of a better emotional/mental landscape is right on the horizon. So I’d just stay up watching The Prestige for hours on end. I got really invested in the idea that one person could be several people, all capable of loving the world differently. It felt like a very touchable magic.
Brian S: I have had that experience, the time period between when my ex and I agreed to divorce and when I could afford to move out. It’s indescribable.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Yeah, it’s really fascinating, looking back. I found myself unable and unwilling to give up on any kind of future because I was still surrounded by the materials of a shared past. There was something sad and magical about that, too.
R. Rafferty: Are the references to Nikola Tesla based on The Prestige then or are they separate from the movie? (I admittedly know very little about Tesla’s life myself outside of David Bowie’s rendition…)
Hanif Abdurraqib: All the Tesla poems are based off Tesla as he appears in the film. But, any quote by Tesla (both the epigraph, and the quote about inventions made by married men) are things he actually said.
Megan: I can’t stick around long, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for helping me get my high school students really engaged with poetry on the first day of school this year. I shared the poem, “Watching a Fight at the New Haven Dog Park…” with them and we had fantastic conversations about what makes poetry poetry and how it works. The year is off to a fantastic start.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Thanks so much for sharing my work with your students!
Brian S: Can you talk some about the impetus for the set of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This”? That’s a familiar phrase to me for some reason, and there’s a whole bullshit assumption in that statement that black people are somehow supposed to only focus (presumably) on pain and suffering and not on beauty.
Hanif Abdurraqib: Oh, for sure. So: I was at a reading shortly after the election, and the poet (who was black) was reading gorgeous poems, which had some consistent and exciting flower imagery. A woman (who was white) behind me—who thought she was whispering to her neighbor—said, “How can black people write about flowers at a time like this?” I thought it was so absurd in a way that didn’t make me angry but made me curious. What is the black poet to be writing about “at a time like this” if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower—that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes? I thought flowers were the exact thing to write about at a time like this, so I began this series of poems, all with the same title. I thought it was much better to grasp a handful of different flowers, put them in a glass box, and see how many angles I could find in our shared eventual demise.
Brian S: I wonder how she would have reacted if someone had asked her, “How can white people write about flowers at a time like this?” I mean, white people were pretty much responsible for the results of that election. Probably not well, if I know my cousins at all…
Hanif Abdurraqib: Yeah—I do think I moved away from centering the poems as a response to her, mostly because I was so excited to get down to writing about flowers. I didn’t know anything about flowers, or grow up around them. To dig my hands into the research and writing of these poems offered me a lot of doorways.
Jenny Cook: I’m loving this book and now plan to watch The Prestige this weekend! Thank you! Marvin Gaye has always been part of my soundtrack to heartbreak and transition. Just curious about what it was like to channel him for this book.
Hanif Abdurraqib: It was really interesting mostly because I gained an obsession with the album Here, My Dear, which is the album Marvin made to pay off the alimony from his divorce in 1978. At the time, his money and fame had begun to dwindle, and he was sort of spiraling. But making this album—out of rage, or grief, or some combination of the two—allowed him to briefly recapture his old magic (there’s that word again) and I thought that was so interesting. To let your resentment for a world that you feel has wronged you catapult you to the heights you once scaled smoothly.
Brian S: Is that the album that had “Sexual Healing” on it?
Hanif Abdurraqib: No—its most notable track was a song called “Anger,” which is pretty heartbreaking and also magnificent. The album was panned when it first came out, but when it was revisited about a decade later, people fell in love with it. I think all relationships require some distance.
R. Rafferty: “When Did You Stop Loving Me” is also pretty stellar from that record and actually jumped into my mind at several points while reading these poems
Brian S: I need to listen to it. “Sexual Healing” came out when I was old enough to be scandalized and thrilled by it, and then I heard the other monster hits later on, but I’ve never really done a deep dive into his work.
R. Rafferty: Music obviously plays a big role in your work, and I would love to hear more about some of the other artists that you channeled while writing these. Like Drake, for instance…
Hanif Abdurraqib: I’m always immersed in music, and I think in this book I got really invested in the manipulation of song lyrics, and how they can fold into my own language. So you get poems like “Women and Children First” or “Man It’s So Hard Not To Act Reckless” which are just rearranging existing lyrics to blend with my own language. I get excited about the musical iconography, of course. But I’m also really invested in the rhythmic qualities of language, and how borrowed language and original language can create a dueling percussion.
Jenny Cook: I noticed and loved that (the playing with lyrics) with the De La Soul poem…
Brian S: Anyone who follows you on Twitter knows you adopted a beautiful dog recently, and since someone already mentioned the New Haven Dog Park poem. Can you talk some about your new family member? Did the poems you wrote about dogs here predate her adoption?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Oh, with Wendy, yes! I actually owned a dog before Wendy—I married into dog ownership, so all of the dog poems are about that dog. I think I might be tapped out on dog poems, but Wendy is pretty inspiring. It’s amazing to have a dog because every time I come home, I know that someone will be excited to see me, as if we’re just meeting for the first time and I’ve got some good news.
Brian S: That never seems to change, either, for dogs. That excitement level never goes down, it seems.
How many of your friends gave you grief about the admission that Michael Jordan pushed off?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Ha! Well, all of the Chicagoans, of course. It’s funny, that poem title came from a thing I overheard a flight attendant say (verbatim!) to two arguing passengers on some plane I was on to somewhere, I don’t remember. I wrote that poem in a workshop with some teenage writers at Kenyon College. They edited it with me. I have read in Salt Lake City two times in the past year, and I always open with that poem. It’s a huge hit.
Brian S: I would feel bad for Utah basketball fans but I was a kid living outside New Orleans when the team left and kept the name and some grudges die really hard. So yes, Jordan pushed off, and no, I don’t care.
Jean-Luc Tilly: Speaking of channeling musicians—I’m really interested in how you feel about putting poems out there without any more context or explanation than the other poems in the collection; for example, in “Man It’s So Hard Not to Act Reckless” you’ve interspersed lyrics from Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” but not everyone might be familiar with the track. Or might not have seen The Prestige, etc., etc. At the poetry readings I’ve been to there’s usually a fair amount of lead-in to each individual poem, and I’ve found that helpful for my interpretation and understanding. I’m especially mindful of your amazing talent as an essayist—have you thought about publishing a combined poetry/essay book? Does it bother you to put out poems where they might be misunderstood or where what you were going for might not be appreciated?
Hanif Abdurraqib: No, not at all. I’m pretty intensely against explanation. I also think identity plays into that, for me—I came up reading mostly white music critics, who didn’t explain much to me. Lester Bangs wrote to me about The Clash as if I knew exactly who they were. Greil Marcus wrote to me about Dylan as though I was already immersed in fandom. And, in doing that, they made my journey of discovery more rich. They built my voice as a writer by withholding explanation and sending me on my own path of discovery. And so, I really take to that, with the same boldness as the people I came up reading. If someone doesn’t know they’re reading lyrics from a Kanye West track, I don’t know if their experience of reading the poem loses anything. And, I’ll root for the moment when they hear that Kanye West track in passing and some of those lyrics leap out of a speaker and they remember that they’ve seen them before.
I entirely believe that the idea of explanation can dull exploration, or a spark that arrives somewhere down the road. I don’t want to deprive anyone of that by defining the experience too closely.
Brian S: Can I just add that sometimes the least qualified person to “explain” a poem is the person who wrote it? Like, we know maybe what we were aiming for, but often we’re too close to the work to know just how near we got to the mark. As a writer, you kind of have to just let the work get out there and let the reader find their own version of it.
One of my first teachers, Miller Williams, wrote something like poetry is when the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader meet inside an act of language, and the poem on the page is the meeting ground. That’s a bad paraphrase, but the sentiment is accurate. I truly believe that’s how poems happen.
Which poems are currently your favorites to perform at readings?
Hanif Abdurraqib: I like reading the first Prestige poem to open a reading—and then an assortment of the flower poems. I like reading them all out loud, so it’s often hard to choose! And I really love reading the poem about the pizza shop. I don’t love big, long prefaces, but I love introducing that poem because it’s so fun and ridiculous but then very sad.
R. Rafferty: On that idea of setting the stage or explanation to a reader or listener prior to experiencing the work, can you talk a little bit about the poem after Eve Ewing?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Yeah, so Eve has this poem that’s just one side of an interview with the ex-NBA player Metta World Peace. And in that poem, it’s just chunks of answers. I really liked the idea of a reader filling in the questions, particularly before getting too deep into the character of Marvin Gaye’s ghost in the book. It allowed for the character to be grounded in absence, before other poems filled out around him.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Is there anything we should be on the lookout for?
R. Rafferty: Any music that you’re excited about recently?
Hanif Abdurraqib: Oh, always. I love the new Charli XCX and Haim song. I really love the band Terror Jr, and their albums have stayed in rotation. The new Big K.R.I.T. album was great, and I was thrilled to get a new Little Brother album a couple weeks back.
Brian S: Are you working on a new project yet? Or is it bad luck to talk about that kind of thing?
Hanif Abdurraqib: No poems, but I’m finishing my next nonfiction book, which will be out in February 2021. It’s about the various modes of black performance in America throughout history. So, examining minstrelsy and Josephine Baker, but also examining playing spades and the NFL.
Brian S: Oh wow, that sounds excellent. I haven’t played spades since I left Louisiana twenty years ago. I would absolutely get my ass handed to me in a game if I tried now.
Thank you so much for joining us tonight, and happy publication day!
Hanif Abdurraqib: Thanks so much, y’all! Appreciate you all taking the time. Have a good night!
Photograph of Hanif Abdurraqib © Andy Cenci.