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"We Pointed to the Sky at Dusk": An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, writer, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released by Button Poetry in 2016. His first essay collection, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in November.

His poem, "A Poem in Which I Name the Bird," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about about the writing process as a sonic process, specificity, and the struggle between comfort and loneliness.

The language flows smoothly throughout this piece, and I think one of the main reasons for this is the breath that you allow in between the two-line stanzas. What prompted you to format this poem in that way?

I think that I’m often trying to figure out a way to find my own breath in poems, and a way to let the poem do that is to write it and then let it tell me how it wants to be heard out loud. I think the writing process is also a sonic process – one of sound. I commit myself to writing in blocks, and then reading the work out loud to see how it might best fill a room. I chose to format the poem in the way the breaths in it were asking to live in a world where I (one day!) will read it out loud.

What role does the image of the bird play for you in this piece?

Promise and protection, surely. The image also began as somewhat of a soft directive to some brilliant young writers at the Kenyon Young Writers summer program. So many of them had birds in their poems, and I’d ask “ok, what kind of bird?” and they’d all be stuck. And so I demanded that they name the birds in their poems, and they asked the same of me. I was interested in how much more endearing language can become if we lean into specificity.

The seventh and last stanzas are in conflict. The seventh stanza illuminates the presence of human touch, while the last stanza sort of breaks that previous peacefulness. In another way, those two stanzas mirror one another—human touch is never really accessed in the seventh stanza, there are only images of the yearning for permanent warmth. What were you trying to reveal through this language?

Ultimately, the poem is about the tension between comfort and loneliness, and I tried to make that come to life by being as explicit as possible in the short distance of the images of touch and not. How comfort and loneliness can be kind of siblings, in a way.

 What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a biography of A Tribe Called Quest due out late this year or early next, which means I’m having a great time digging in old hip hop archives and pulling out stunning gems I hadn’t accessed before. Even as someone who loves the music, there’s always another hidden something or other around a corner to dig up. I’m also working on my second full-length collection of poems—which this poem is from. It is a project unlike my first collection of poems, focused on the interior of isolation and what it is to look for joy there.

What have you recently read that you would recommend to poetry lovers, young or old?

I really loved Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches works in every possible way, in every possible room. Angela Veronica Wong is one of my favorite contemporary poets, and last year she released a book called Elsa: An Unauthorized Biography, and I truly loved it. Changed me.

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