People: Poet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib explores the changing landscape of Columbus

Erica Thompson

Poet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib lives in New Haven, Connecticut, but he often returns to his father's Columbus home near Scottwood Elementary. The now-rundown park abutting the school is where he spent his formative years.

"It's one of the many neglected East Side Columbus relics," he said.

Willis-Abdurraqib is passionate about discussing the shifting landscape of the city. He made gentrification a major focus in his first collection of poems, "The Crown Ain't Worth Much," which will be available July 19.

"We talk about displacement in terms of structures and buildings and commerce and capitalism, but we rarely talk about the actual, singular lives of these people who are uprooted … or pushed further to the margins of a place," he said. And so the book follows the linear story of one person's life, along with viewpoints of other characters, against the backdrop of Columbus.

"The voices shift with each section and people die and buildings get torn down, and then we reflect on a new building," he said.

While the book isn't autobiographical, it contains elements from Willis-Abdurraqib's life. For example, there are several poems in the voice of his former Columbus barber. "[He] had to close his shop down last year because he could no longer afford to be there anymore," Willis-Abdurraqib said. "He left the city."

In addition to exploring gentrification, Willis-Abdurraqib said his poems "give nuance and layering to the black experience." He originally intended to publish the book with three sections, and then Freddie Gray died while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department last summer.

"I wrote the entire fourth section mostly late at night … watching livestreams of protests," Willis-Abdurraqib said. "I felt like it would be a disservice to live in that moment and not write [about it]."

The poems should prove even more meaningful in the wake of the early July killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police.

"Every time a person of color's killed and the narrative becomes about whether or not [the victims] were good, I feel like I still have work to do as a writer," Willis-Abdurraqib said. "I think the humanizing of all people goes a long way. … We do so much damage when we don't see each other, when we don't account for the full weight of our complete lives and experiences."

Willis-Abdurraqib tackles other emotionally difficult issues using music.

"It's insufferable to write about traumatic things … without any kind of parachute, and so music is my parachute," he said. So the reader will find "odes" to Drake, Kanye West and Jay-Z, ending with images of blood, death and addiction.

Despite those tough topics, Willis-Abdurraqib insists the book is not a complete downer. "There's some of this urgency around happiness and urgency around excitement to be still alive" - even in the midst of loss, he said.

It's remarkable Willis-Abdurraqib has only been pursuing a poetry career for a handful of years. "I come from a lineage of writers and readers," he said, referencing his parents, who raised him to appreciate literature. "So I think there's maybe some natural advantage."

But he did spend time in isolation developing his voice after working in the music section of Borders Books and Music and writing for local papers.

Local poet Ethan Rivera has noticed a positive change in his friend's writing.

"[Willis-Abdurraqib] always had a way of creating images that were interesting, and as he's progressed, he's really harnessed those images and made them sharper," he said. "Since he has so much control, he's able to really get his message across even clearer."

Outside of poetry, Willis-Abdurraqib is an MTV columnist and has published essays inThe New York Times, Pitchfork and ESPN. He hopes to return to Columbus permanently and inspire future generations in the city.

"I want kids to … walk into [the Columbus Metropolitan Library on Livingston Avenue] and find my book and crack it open and see a landmark that is still there," he said. "I want them to feel like … they can write about where they're from."

Age: 32

Day Job: Writer

Hometown: East Side

Current Neighborhood: New Haven, Connecticut

Currently listening to: Blood Orange'sFreetown Sound

Favorite restaurant in Columbus: Tommy's Diner

Favorite Movie: "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo"

Favorite TV Show: "The Wire"

What convention (real or imagined) would you actually travel to attend? A napping convention