Poet Hanif Abdurraqib on genius, basketball and deconstructing hierarchies in writing

Poet Hanif Abdurraqib on genius, basketball and deconstructing hierarchies in writing
Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch/USA Today Network

Hanif Abdurraqib only ever wanted to publish one book, a book of poems. That was it.

Now, the poet (and writer, sneakerhead, failed musician and average baker) has written five books in just as many years. His latest, “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance,” was published in March, and quickly gathered a wide range of accolades, becoming a finalist for the National Book Award.

In between writing, Abdurraqib hasn’t slowed down. Last year, he started 68to05, an archival project where writers can publish essays on albums that mean a lot to them. He started hosting “Object of Sound,” a podcast about music and culture. In July, he was named an editor for Tin House, a prestigious literary book publisher, and is set to acquire three books.

Then, in September, Abdurraqib was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius grant.” Though not the only accolade attached to his name, it may be among the most prestigious. CNN spoke with Abdurraqib about writing, the poetry in basketball, and his disinterest in the idea of genius.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you always view yourself as a writer that operated in the pop culture sphere, or is that something you developed later on?

By the time I came to writing, I already kind of cultivated this interest in this world where much of my language, much of the way I made sense of my existence and the existence of others, was tied to some might say an overconsumption of popular culture, so much so that was just where all my reference points were. I was one of those people who back in the day, when AOL and instant messenger was popping off, my away messages were all song lyrics, like I spoke in song lyrics. I spoke in movie reference. I spoke in all these things. And to become a writer for me was to ask myself a question like, “How can I hone this and become a more efficient weaver of story around this baseline that I already have?” And also, how can I dive deeper into popular culture, so that I’m not just being referential, I’m actually telling a story about how it exists in and impacts the world as I understand it? And I think that led me to the kind of research impulse I have now, I’m kind of always digging and trying to get to the bottom of something that I’m interested in.

Your work kind of does that too. You do this thing where so often you’re describing a concert, but really it’s about something else, deeper — almost playing the role of a Trojan Horse.

For me, I think it’s been always useful to begin with the something else. As writers or observers, there’s a real opportunity for us to shape the happenings within the container, so much so that the container becomes not entirely irrelevant but it’s mostly just a guiding point, it’s mostly just a lighthouse that we can keep pointing people toward so we don’t get lost in what else we’re doing.

If you look at a piece like the Carly Rae Jepsen piece that’s in “They Can’t Kill Us Til They Kill Us,” what was happening on the stage was just a thread, it was just a soundtrack to lead people from movement to movement but the piece was actually about public intimacy or public affection. There’s something about making the “ordinary,” extraordinary… making something that others might consider quotidian into something singularly spectacular.

I heard that your new book is about basketball, is that true?

I’m still in the research phase and I don’t know how it’s going to come to life, but it’s about basketball movies and the era of basketball in Ohio that gave the world LeBron James. Which is, for me, not just a story about basketball but is also a story about who gets to make it out of place. It’s a story about a state and city that was very briefly defined by this singular talent, and what that did to both the state and city. But it is also about basketball movies. I grew up in an era of from “Above the Rim” to “Love and Basketball” to “He Got Game,” all this stuff, kind of hyper-romanticization of a sport that I was also playing. Sometimes not very well but playing nonetheless. It made me think about the role of those films and the fantasies they created in someone like me, who at one point thought that I would grow up to be some kind of professional athlete.

What’s your favorite basketball movie?

I think I’m the most fascinated by “He Got Game” honestly. I have a lot of weird high school nostalgia about that movie. I think what’s actually happening in that movie is that it’s — the ending is really corny — but it’s less a movie about basketball, but more a movie of forgiveness and father and son relationships. You said you’re a basketball fan, do you watch the games or are you kind of on the periphery of fandom?

So unfortunately we are both Timberwolves fans.

(Laughs) It’s weird because every year I’m like, there’s no point in getting optimistic and then, I cling to my lack of optimism through most of the offseason and then right when the season comes up, I don’t know why, I get swept away in the optimism. The Timberwolves losing and being bad used to really emotionally impact me, and now it’s like well you know, it’s part of being a Timberwolves fan, you’re gonna lose.

I think anyone that follows the team would agree with you. To answer your question, I feel like I’m the kind of fan who’s just as fascinated with what happens off the court. The early Ben Simmons stuff, for example, really had me in a trance. It kind of feels like the basketball is a vessel into these other things, like what you were saying earlier.

Sports in general I think for me has become so much more about narrative. And some of this is because the teams I root for are generally bad, and so I have to find pleasure elsewhere. But sports has in a way become for me so much about drama and narrative equally — just as much I love the mechanics of the game, I love the nuance of the game, I love the “up close and against the glass” of a sporting event. But I also think, gosh there’s such a great opportunity for rich narrative and because it’s the theater of sport is, to me, like the theater of any kind of collaborative opportunity where people are working towards a similar goal. It’s the same kind of drama that can come about when we’re talking about album making.

I’m thinking about your poem “All The White Boys On The Eastside Loved Larry Bird.” In my mind, that’s where the poetry is, that’s where the narrative is when I think about sports. But then I also think about Ross Gay’s recent book, “Be Holding,” where he just went really in on one moment and also the mechanics of the moment, which is also poetry, but I never would have thought of it in that way.

I think what Ross’s book did so well, is that it gets down to the granular notion of that. People often talk about Steph Curry’s shooting as poetry in motion. But what’s more poetic to me is how Steph Curry moves without the ball. Like Steph Curry’s off ball motion, to find himself some open space with which he can operate and shoot in, that to me is more poetic. Because he understands he is someone who is kind of gliding along a restricted area, understanding really small angles and really small openings, and how to fit his body through them so that, in spite of being pursued by a great many people at all times, he can still find himself a little bit of air. And that to me, knowing the challenges of escape despite relentless pursuit… still being able to weave through a mass of, almost of forest, to find a clearing. That’s poetic.

To switch gears, I wanted to ask you about the MacArthur grant. When the award was announced, you said you have a “personal disinterest” in the idea of the genius. What did you mean by that?

I think to uphold the idea of genius is to kind of create scarcity, to present the idea of genius as rare to me is not really useful because I see moments of brilliance every day in people who I believe are granting me a type of genius, or offering a type of genius to the world that I get to be a part of. So that to me means that brilliance is abundant and not singular. And I don’t want to be on the outside of that abundance, which is why something like 68to05 exists. That’s a selfish pursuit — that’s mostly just me saying I want to read people on albums they love and that’s it. Because I know there’s an abundance of thought and excitement in writing that I just haven’t had access to, that I want access to desperately. I want to read people I haven’t read before. The same way I want to hear bands I haven’t heard before, I want to read people I haven’t read before and fall in love with their work.

You’ve had so many books out in the last few years, almost a book out every year. And now, you’re doing 68to05, and you’re working on a book as an editor with Tin House. It feels like you are refocusing on bringing other writers up, especially as you have become such a lauded name in writing circles. Has there been a shift there, have you thought about your role as a writer differently?

I’m acutely aware of the fact that when I was coming up, I didn’t have a background like some other writers. I literally have zero academic background in writing. And I came up through slam poetry and every turn in the slam poetry world, in the music criticism world, in the world of essays, in the world of book publishing, people have been immensely kind to me — and offered me guidance and opportunities and advice. For me the real challenge of being a writer, the kind of writer I want to be, is being a writer that thinks about the practice of writing as a collaborative act and chooses to cede some ground, or give up some space, so that I might be able to learn from someone else. And to seek out those someone elses.

68to05 was like, what if I remove myself from that space and then created a space where people other than me could write for the internet? What if I paid people to write for the internet about things that other outlets might not let them do? I don’t know of any outlet out right now that would pay someone to just be like, “I like this album from 30 years ago, it’s not having an anniversary or anything, I just love it and I want to talk about it.” It’s not a purely altruistic thing, I have to stress that. I don’t want to just be a person who writes my books, I also want to be a person who helps bring books into the world. Especially folks that are on their first book.

Prince Shakur, who’s the first Tin House book I’m working on, it’s Prince’s first book. And Prince is brilliant. When I got the gig at Tin House, he was one of the first people I reached out to. I’m going to learn a lot from Prince, helping bring that book into the world. Some of this, too, is an investment I have in the deconstruction of the hierarchy of the “established writer” or the “decorated writer” teaching the younger writer or the less established writer.

I think editing affords me an opportunity to learn from people who are immensely gifted in looking at the world in a way I am not, or that I have yet been able to look at the world, because I haven’t had access to their brilliance yet. I’m going to be a better writer by the time Prince and I finish working on this book together.

What have you learned so far?

I’ve learned particularly with 68to05. That has made me not only a better reader, but a better listener. Because even if I don’t love an album, when I look at pitches for 68to05, I’m never like, “well I don’t like that album so I don’t want an essay on it.” It’s not about my taste, it’s about if some can tell a good story about the album… 68to05 achieves something for me because even with albums I love, and with albums I don’t love, it has made me a better, more effective listener, to get to experience those albums through the lens of someone else.

Raye Hendrix wrote this essay on “Led Zeppelin II”, and I’m not a big Led Zeppelin guy, never have been, and II is one of my least favorite Led Zeppelin albums, but Raye wrote this really beautiful [piece] about “Led Zeppelin II,” her family, growing up in communities she grew up in, and with that lens I went back and listened to the album. With 68to05, it’s made it so that I can kind of be at the mercy of someone else’s brilliance, of someone else’s experience. And that has happened countless times.

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