The poet and critic, a Columbus native, has a national reputation and 42,000 Twitter followers. He talks to them about life, writing and Grandpa's Cheesebarn.
In his official author photo, Hanif Abdurraqib is dressed in a black hoodie and gray marbled hat facing backward. He looks a little tired, but his face isn't the first point of reference.
That would be the white words stamped on his olive bomber jacket: “OHIO AGAINST THE WORLD.”
This is the photo Abdurraqib sent to galleries, museums and colleges during his recent national tour supporting his chunky blue book of essays, “They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” His home state became the contrail that wouldn't dissipate, no matter how many miles he spent hurtling through the sky.
Abdurraqib is, before almost all else, an Ohioan.
Above that, he is from Columbus. The East Side, specifically. First, Broadleigh Avenue, a block or two from the notorious Greenbrier apartment complex known as “Uzi Alley.”
No matter the medium—essays in The New Yorker, poems in Poetry magazine or quips about food for his 42,000 Twitter followers—the nationally recognized cultural critic often slips subtle Columbus references into his work, whether it's driving around I-270 at dusk or watching Buster Douglas whup Mike Tyson on an East Side television at age 7.
Halfway through childhood, his family—parents, two brothers and one sister—hauled their belongings to a house near Livingston Avenue and Barnett Road, where Abdurraqib's father still lives. Summers were spent scuffing up the basketball courts at Scottwood Elementary until the street lights flickered on and the dusk rendered balls and bodies into an indistinct blur. These are his best memories.
Every two weeks, Abdurraqib's mother took him and his siblings to the Cub Foods off Brice Road, where she'd divide up the grocery list and send the kids off in different directions to gather their appointed items. In the checkout line, he remembers, his mother always had a kind word for the teenagers bagging groceries, even buying them treats for good grades.
“My mother was bipolar, and she struggled to get through some days, but would still offer the best parts of herself to people who could do nothing for her, you know?” he says in a rich voice, a long leg stretched across a booth inside the Johnson's Real Ice Cream shop in Bexley. “And the logic behind that was that kind of generosity doesn't cost anything. Or at least, it doesn't cost a lot. And I think about that still.”
At age 13, smack in the middle of summer basketball season, Abdurraqib lost his mother in the night, when her bipolar medication caused an abnormal heartbeat and she died in her sleep. Her laugh, louder than the laugh track on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, follows him still. The space she took in life is now memorialized in the space Abdurraqib makes for her in his works.
After graduating from Beechcroft High School in 2001, Abdurraqib went to Capital University, where he graduated with a degree in marketing and $482 in parking tickets. It was during his time at Capital that he traveled to Chicago to see punk shows on the weekends; became the first U.S.-born player of color on Capital's soccer team; skipped classes to walk to Johnson's in nice weather and was pulled over by the police for the first time.
The next few years run together like cheap watercolors. Abdurraqib moved north to a one-bedroom apartment in Governours Square, where he and his pals partied so hard he sometimes went days without sleep. During the week, he worked first for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, then for the now-defunct Borders bookstore next to his apartment complex on Henderson Road. He didn't write much, aside from journal entries and the occasional overly technical music piece for a zine.
When his Northwest Side rager scene splintered, Abdurraqib moved to Victorian Village. His second home became Travonna Coffee House, where he wrote most of his earliest magazine articles and started a music blog. The owner, seeing him always slumped over, scribbling, asked Abdurraqib to start a poetry night. Abdurraqib had never written poetry. He said yes anyway.
Pen & Palette poetry night fought for an audience in its first six months and its founder fought to push out his first poems. He served eggs and bacon at Sunny Street Café from 6 a.m. until the early afternoon, going home to his mattress on the floor to lean against the wall and read, digesting a volume of poems a night. Frank O'Hara, Gwendolyn Brooks, Will Evans. He swallowed them with such ferocity that his own poems grew mouths of their own.
It is at this pointin his oral history, as he stares at me across the table with both legs now on the ground, that Abdurraqib brings up mournful rocker Julien Baker's second album, Turn Out the Lights.
“It's a breakup album, essentially. But it's more than that. It's a thing of, you met a person and you're with a person who you think is going to keep you alive, and then they leave and what do you do? I was, like, rocked by that idea.”
Before Baker, this thought trailed his writing like a small dog.
First his mother disappeared, then the city he knew, and, finally, his first wife.
In the midst ofhis poetic education, Abdurraqib married an Ohio girl and they moved on the night of the World Cup Final in 2014 to New Haven, Connecticut, where she took a teaching job. He worked steadily on new poems as a Midwestern expat in New England, also writing imaginative essays for MTV's website, where an editor recommended him to co-write the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. Abdurraqib released his first published book of poetry, “The Crown Ain't Worth Much,” via Button Poetry in July 2016. An ode to his hometown and the people and places he brushed up against while living here, the book is, in many ways, a work of mythology in which the author romanticizes his early years while mourning the city's inevitable modification.
In a series of several poems, all written in rushed italics, he documents his barber's chatter as it shifts from East Side gossip to East Side eulogy over decades of changing demographics. Abdurraqib loves and leaves girlfriends, feeds quarters into jukeboxes and stares into the maw of racism both hidden and unearthed.
A month after “Crown” was published, Eric Obenauf of the Columbus-based publishing company Two Dollar Radio asked him to write a book of essays. Abdurraqib waffled before accepting an advance of $1,000.
In December, he holed up in the deserted beach town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, for three weeks. His marriage had eroded. He was exhausted and alone on the precipice of divorce. “I remember feeling, like, ‘I feel terrible right now but I also feel bulletproof,'” he says.
The emotional teeter-totter brought triumph to his work.
“They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us” dropped in November 2017. Its stories include depictions of Columbus, but they also embrace music and blackness and pro wrestling and death. The book was an immediate success, with help from exuberant reviews in the Village Voice, NPR and O, the Oprah Magazine. (Abdurraqib doesn't read his reviews.) It's remained on the Midwest Indie Bestseller list nearly every week since its publication. An essay on the rapper Future will be included in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2018 anthology.
Suddenly, Abdurraqib found himself sitting in airports more hours than he liked en route to reading for national audiences—some packed with stuffy museum guests, others with eager black punk teens. After every reading, he slides off whatever stage is given him and spends time with his people. It is a small act of generosity, like his mother smiling through pain.
“My work is trying to uncover things, but also draw people close so I can whisper that which I'm uncovering into their ear instead of yelling it in their faces,” he says.
Since moving back to Columbus in mid-2017, Abdurraqib's opportunities for quiet kindnesses have multiplied along with his recognition. Someone recently stopped him in a Giant Eagle Market District to talk about pop singer Ariana Grande's latest song. He fields regular requests for signed books and receives essays about music from random fans. He reads most of them.
“If someone is like, ‘I wrote 2,000 words on Mariah Carey,' I'm going to read that thing,” he says, especially if the work comes from a young writer. “I feel like more and more what I'm thinking of is creating a lineage of a kind of caring. I don't think it's anyone's responsibility to do that, but I think that for me, I'm very much a product of a community that offered me that when I was young, here and beyond.”
In this quiet seasonbetween books and book tours—he has several projects coming out in the next few years, including a biography of rap group A Tribe Called Quest, a book about black performance in the United States seen through the lens of dance, another book of essays and a book of poetry—Abdurraqib is relearning rhythms of routine.
His partner and fellow poet Eloisa Amezcua was about to move to Columbus at press time, and he recently found an apartment big enough to fit the two of them, their large sneaker collections, and, he hopes, a dog.
Once a month he hosts “Ships at a Distance,” a conversation series at Two Dollar Radio's South Side headquarters on Parsons Avenue that features two black Columbus artists from separate disciplines.
He documents the latest puns on the North High Street Pierce Cleaners sign for his 40,000 Twitter followers and makes regular trips to Grandpa's Cheesebarn in Ashland. When we meet, Abdurraqib brings me a fresh hunk of his favorite flavor, the garlic-heavy Dynamite Dill white cheddar.
“Do you like cheese?” he texted me a few hours earlier.
In the question, I hear the generosity of his mother.