A Song for Columbus: The Importance of Creature Comforts with Hanif Abdurraqib

 In Culture, Feature

The red block lettering of Pierce Cleaners’ outdoor sign is a staple of Columbus’ popular High Street. The sign, perched a few yards from its related brown-shingled storefront, offers a new joke or lighthearted pun each week, as it has for the last few decades. For acclaimed poet, New York Times bestselling author and Columbus native Hanif Abdurraqib, the cheeky phrases are a reliable and welcoming beacon after weeks on the road performing shows across the country. In the face of rapidly encroaching gentrification, the city’s familiar features are things Abdurraqib has come to treasure, inspiring a sense of nostalgia and evoking an interest in documenting the changing of landscape and experience.

“In my work, I’m interested in the act of archiving,” Abdurraqib explains. “I’m not just talking about gentrification here, but I do think to watch the landscape shift and then to watch parts of it vanish—pushes my urgency towards archival, too.”

While a new visual landscape begins to develop and stretch across Columbus with an eye on the future, Abdurraqib’s work tends to reach back through time. Memory is a common fixture of his poetry, music criticism and essay writing, often using poignant past moments to offer the reader an unexpected take on an old idea or a sharp insight into the human condition. His style of storytelling makes his work distinct across genre and form, but despite the overwhelming praise and his success today, that wasn’t always the case.

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Abdurraqib got his start as “kind of a bad freelance journalist writing bad reviews for things,” covering underground bands for small zines and blogs. The punk-music scene—and punk music, in general—was a pillar of his teen years, and getting into music writing was his excuse to consistently write about a community and a genre of music that defined much of his life.

Abdurraqib’s tendency toward flowery prose and poetic language was the subject of regular criticism from editors who preferred a more straightforward approach. Poetry, then, became the most logical medium to explore next. Why work against his natural inclinations, right?

But writing poetry—and writing poetry well—would take work, and Columbus’ own poetry scene was already full of talented poets. Trying his hand at poetry offered a real opportunity to fail in public—in front of the people and poets he admired. Thankfully, Abdurraqib found himself surrounded by writers that embraced him, creating a welcoming and encouraging community to build his own experience and voice in verse.

“To come up in Columbus was to come up in the arms of many people who all had an investment in my writing. And I think it’s because Columbus isn’t a city where everyone is trying to make it,” says Abdurraqib, reflecting. “The goal with poets in Columbus was—and I think still is, to some extent—if one of us does well, it makes all of us look better. There’s celebration in that.”

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As he continued writing and performing in Columbus, he looked to other contemporary poets and writers of earlier generations to read and study. Unsurprisingly, the more he wrote, the more his music roots bubbled to the surface to inform everything from his poetic syntax to his editing style.

“For me, the writing process and the editing process have always been about music. Editing and writing are both sonic experiences that should be honored as such,” he explains without missing a beat. “I want to honor the fact that with words comes the opportunity to rub language together and have it make different sounds, and that’s a real gift that we have—the fact that we can place different words next to different other words to create a different clashing of music. I really want to honor that more than anything.”

By 2015, Abdurraqib had a burgeoning poetry career and decided to return to music criticism on a whim. The essay that marked his reentry, “In Defense of ‘Trap Queen’ As Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song,” opens with a Bruce Springsteen quote and unfolds into a three-part ode to faith, Motown-era love songs, the haphazard romance of the song itself and the realities of love in times of struggle. To say it went viral is an understatement. Abdurraqib’s telltale weaving poetic style struck a resonate chord, and his career took off.

Since then, he’s published four books: a full-length poetry collection and limited-edition chapbook—“The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” and “Vintage Sadness,” respectively—an essay collection called, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” and his New York Times bestseller nonfiction book, “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.” He has published essays in The New York Times and Pitchfork, was a columnist at MTV News for a year, has two more books in the works and in his downtime manages to travel around the country sharing his writing and teaching poetry nehttps://www.amazon.com/Go-Ahead-Rain-Called-American/dp/1477316485arly year-round.

And yet, the ease and familiarity of his hometown remains a steady backbeat. Here, the book deals and his 60,400 Twitter followers are barely present, more like distant notes in the background of a song he knows by heart.

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“For most of my life I’ve been just a part of the larger world of Columbus and not a poet or a writer or a notable anything,” he offers. “And there are pockets of my life here where that hasn’t shifted at all. My closest friends here are proud of me, but they were also proud of me before I wrote anything. And to some extent, they don’t necessarily care what I work on as much as they care that I’m taking care of myself.”

On the phone during our interview, he’s checking his mail after having been on the road for a week. He remarks that getting mail is another one of the small but reliable joys of being home, similar to the neighborhood streets from his childhood, and a retro red-lettered sign in the center of the city. Alas, he has none—yet. It’s still early, he jokes. It’s snail mail, after all—there’s no rush.

Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Volume 18, Issue 2. The digital version is available now. You can also order a print copy or purchase a subscription online.

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