Writer Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on Poetry & Punk Rock

Here are three things I know about writer Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: He collects sneakers (presently, his favorite pair are his Bulls Over Broadway Jordan 10s). He's from Columbus, Ohio, the setting of his upcoming collection of poetry, The Crown Ain't Worth Much (published by Button Poetry), that explores the effects of gentrification and the love and loss in the evolving city. And he writes poetry and essays on music—sometimes his poetry is about music. In these poems (like “all of the black boys finally stopped packing switchblades,” which you can hear at the bottom of this article), he flings us into the chaotic pit at a punk show and hauls us onto lonely night streets, both as sites of violence. Willis-Abdurraqib spoke with me about his place as an outsider and insider in literary spaces, and how being a DIY punk never leaves you. 

“Ode to Wafflehouse at Midnight” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

AMY LAM: I really wanted to talk to you because I've never read a poet who talks about being Black in the punk scene. For so many punks of color who I know in the States, one of the reasons that they got into punk is because of the counter-cultureness of it. But often when you're in the scene, you will see mainstream whiteness being reflected in the punk scene. In that context, what drew you to punk and were you able to find a home in it after all?

HANIF WILLIS-ABDURRAQIB: I think what drew me to punk is what draws a lot of people to it: the desire to be an “other” beyond the other you already are. I grew up in a mostly Black neighborhood, and punk was not very accessible to me and my neighborhood growing up. But I also wanted to be different. I knew that I felt different, I felt unique, and I wanted to explore that. And with punk, at least the way it's sold, is all about release and freedom and rebelling. I wanted to channel those things and find a way to express myself outside of how I was expected to. I grew up loving hip hop, and around hip hop, and I wanted to feel something more. 

I don't know if I found a home in it. I think I imagined one. At the time, when I was a teenager, or even in my early 20s, I think I imagined myself at home in this space even though everything around me represented something that was not home-like. It's easy to convince yourself that you're at home somewhere when words like “brotherhood” get thrown around, and we don't think about that means. In American history, “brotherhood” has been connotated with white violence. It excludes women, queer, trans and gender non-conforming people. It excludes all of these people. But when you are in it, you're like, “This is me, this is my home.” I imagine I had these illusions of home for a very long time, and then I started feeling less at home. Not necessarily in the music, but in the public spaces where the music was being performed and the spaces where the music is worshiped. I felt very outsider, very uncomfortable with being present in those spaces. 

When you started to confront that uncomfortableness, how do you navigate your place in that space that you wanted to be in? 

For me, at least, I always made excuses. That's what we do when we want to be in a place, or we want to experience something that has—in our minds—given us so much. It's the age-old thing where someone says something racist and they're like, “Oh, but I'm not talking about you.” Or when someone says something shitty about women, and they turn to their girlfriend, mother, sister and say, “This isn't about you.” It's easy to accept that sometimes when you're in these spaces and you feel like they've given you something. It's easy to accept that and not interrogate what that means. Listen, if you say something horrible, and you turn to someone that represents that identity and say, “It's not about you,” it's entirely about them. It's even moreso, perhaps, about them because you're saying, “I don't view you. You're not a visible, touchable entity to me, so I can say these things.” 

I just grew up a bit and I did not see myself reflected in the scene I was in. I come from the Midwest, and the Midwest punk scene is kind of, maybe especially, white—not really in Chicago though. In fairness, the Midwest punk scene is not especially male, and I think that's important to point out. The Midwest punk scene in Columbus, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, there have been women for years doing incredible work. Not just music work, but activsim work, and on the front lines of a lot of great things. But it is especially white. I would escape to punk shows on the coast, New York especially, and see Black punk bands and Black people at punk shows. Then I would come home and not only not see Black people at punk shows, but Black people who were at punk shows were just routinely disrespected, dismissed, or treated as invisible. I hit a point where I felt like this can't be a scene for me, this can't be a place for me. And when I say “scene,” I mean a scene I'm actively participating in. Of course I still listen to punk, but it's easier to just listen to something than to perform the action of taking it in. 

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Do you still have bands that, looking back, you feel like you can't really rock with, but still love the music? Do you have punk bands that you really love now that you always be a stan for? 

A lot of '90s punk, like NOFX, is pretty awful. And I don't even listen to them that much anymore, but there was a point where I couldn't go to their shows because of how awful their shows were. And then I realized that their music was also awful. I think I hit that point with all music, like there are some rap artist who I loved that I just can't listen to anymore. NOFX isn't the only one, but they are the most glaring for me. Because I very much remember being at a NOFX show, being excited to go, and then halfway through the show feeling like, “What am I sitting through?” I think that was the last punk show I attended, comfortably and happily. 

There are bands that I'll always be a stan for. I grew up on '70s and '80s punk, so The Clash is immensely important to me. Even early Blondie records are really important to me. It also depends on how far we stretch the idea of punk. The Talking Heads were punk to me, some of their stuff like Fear of Music. My interest in punk bled into an interest in pop punk/emo music, and I found a little more comfort there, although there's a whole other set of issue that comes with some of those bands, too. But I saw more of my friends of color able to access those spaces and able to move in those spaces better. Because it was about less physical violence and—in some ways—more about emotional violence, which is also awful but does not impact people in the same way. I would go to punk shows in Pittsburgh and see young women being thrown to the ground, and people of color being pushed back against walls so that big white dudes could see the stage. That was often hard for me. So when people talk about how I write about punk rock and how it's often about violence and not about this romanticized familial thing that I think most—real talk—white writers write about punk rock. They write about punk rock and it's like a glorious haven of beautiful sweat and blood, etcetera. How cool that you can romanticize those things? But that's a very real violent space for a lot of people. It would be a disservice for me to write about how this was like holy music that saved my life—because it didn't. 

I can say that while enjoying some of the music still and also knowing that there are a lot of people for whom going to these shows was violence and survival. There are people who enjoy being in the pit, they had to work to be violent enough to not be harmed. I don't know how good I feel about that. 

You brought up a really great point about who gets the privilege, or the ability, to romanticize punk rock without problems. Like you, I gravitated toward punk because it was an outsider scene and I felt like an outsider in so many respects of my life. There were definitely so many moments that I felt like punk rock saved my life, because it gave me “community.” But the longer I stayed in that community, the more I realized that I wanted punk to save my life because I wanted something to save my life. When it came down to it, it was just a lot of white dudes and they weren't for me. But I had to be for them. That makes it doubly heartbreaking, because you invest so much emotional energy into the scene and this music that you really actually, heart-bleeding love for a long time. And then you have to break up with it. Ugh, it's so hard. 

When I think about your work, and when I think about you as an artist, I think you're in this unique position of being a Black punk and a poet. In a way, these can be considered identifiers, or markers, of somebody who is an outsider. I was wondering if you think about these identifiers when you're in the spaces devoted to punk, even though you're not in punk as much, or in literary spaces? Do you think about what these identifiers mean in your work, how you're perceived, or how you understand your place in that space? 

I'm always interested in how I'm perceived in both the spaces where I'm talking or writing about music and spaces where I'm writing about poetry, because they're vastly different. I sometimes still feel very much like an outsider in the literary community because I came into poetry later than a lot of people, or at least publicly came into poetry. Or, when I did come into poetry there was a very short and loud swell. I was fortunate to have enough people like my work that I hit a very sharp upward trajectory very quickly. I think that can lead to some discomfort for people. I'm not talking about like how I got haters, and not jealousy, but it's more from a place of, “This person wasn't here last year, what is this person doing here now?” And because I grew up in punk, and a very DIY space, and I grew up poor, these are all things that make me not interested in a lot of the things that literary spaces value. I know that awards are important, and awards are signifiers of a lot, and they're important to a lot of people. But I'm often not interested in them, and in this kind of career-driven networking process. I attend events like writers conferences, I do them occasionally, but I always do them hopefully serving my comfort and the fact that there are people in literary spaces who I love and value, love seeing, and who I am pushed by. But my interest, for now at least, are a bit different because I come from a space where success is something different. I come from a place in the world where success means living, being alive, and surviving people. Which, I think, is why I write the way I do. The question is, “How can I honor the people who I'm fortunate enough to have survived?”

You mentioned that you sometimes do have a feeling of “outsiderishness” within the lit scene, so how do you navigate or work around that? Or does it not matter to you?

Oh, it doesn't matter to me, because it's never hostile, I don't think. I never feel like people dislike me. Or I never feel like the uncool kid on the school bus. It would be a lie for me to say that I also haven't been incredibly fortunate with people who have been incredibly kind to my work. 

I want to be clear on that, because I'm not pitying myself. Some of [the feeling like an outsider] has to do with my own anxieties as a person who is just anxious all of the time. It doesn't bother me a lot because I'll either learn to fit in a better way, or I won't, but either way the work has to be written. Above all, I just want to write. That's the thing I say repeatedly, all the time. I want to write, and I want to meet people where they're at and have them meet my work where it's at. And I'm lucky enough to have that happen, and so I never feel too outside. But there are elements of it there. 

Your answer is so punk rock. You're saying, “Yeah, I feel like an outsider, but I don't give a fuck.” 

I'm sure there are some days where I care. If you ask most people, especially poets of color, poets who are not straight, white men, they're going to also feel like outsiders in this community that is still so driven by the physical space of straight, white men, or the narratives that they've built over decades. In a way, my feeling like an outsider is no different than so many of my peers who are poets who are not straight, poets who are Black, poets of color. They have to live in a literary world that was not built for their narratives and still find a way to make those narratives really resonate. So many of them do that so effectively. 

I don't know if there's time to care about being an outsider when the entire structure of what I'm operating in was built to keep me outside in the first place. 

But within the community that you're in, or that you've built, you do have a home and an “insiderishness” within that space. 

Absolutely, yeah. I'm as much of an insider as I am an outsider. Even if we are to understand that I operate with levels of privilege from my writing, levels of space that I'm allowed to take up that other people aren't. But even beyond that, I have a community of writers who push me and make me feel like I am one of them. They make me feel like they are rooting for me, we are rooting for each other. 

I did a workshop last year with Terrance Hayes, who is my absolute hero and my favorite writer in the world. And he said this thing about how it's important for our generation of writers, the generation of 25- to 31-year-olds to build their own cohorts and support each other and don't always look for mentorship in people who are older or “greater” than we are and have more career experience. But we should look to each other because ten years from now we're going to be all we have. That was really motivating for me. I feel very connected and very “inside” with all of the poets in this generation of writers who are really pushing the work forward and planting a flag in the ground. 

That does also speak back to what you were saying about having DIY-ness, to have to create the space that you need so that you can be an insider. Often when I speak to writers, I ask why they chose the form they chose. Why poetry? Why not express yourself through other avenues? 

Before I wrote poetry, back in the mid-2000s, I used to write only music journalism. Around 2011, I just got tired of it and I had more to say. At the time, the music journalism I was doing was more restrictive. Now, I feel like I'm very fortunate because I write for brilliant editors and human beings who are very interested in writers being themselves. I'm hugely fortunately there. But at the time, that was not the case for me so I did not know what to do with myself. 

In Columbus, Ohio, where I'm from, there's a great poetry scene and I would stumble into open mic nights and hear things I like and think, “Man, I feel like I could do this.” I don't have formal poetry training, and maybe I will one day. I've always had an interest in lyric, meter, and imagery in a way that was always conducive to the writing of poetry. I found that poetry was a way to build—again very DIY—to build a world in which any story could be possible. Any feeling, or any grief, or any joy could be built and stretched really wide and held outside of my body so I could return to it when I needed it. I felt restricted and poetry took off all of those restrictions, and in doing so I wrote a lot of bad poems for a year. In my first year of writing poetry, I thought, “I could do whatever I want. This is great.” 

Then I started to take it more seriously and lock myself away until I got better at it. I've been really, really fortunate. Often times, I don't know what I'm doing, very genuinely. I know that I like to write poems where I see myself still telling stories that are not being told elsewhere. So I think it's great when people respond to them, because I never think they will. 

all of the black boys finally stopped packing switchblades

to punk shows ever since the summer of ‘98 when
danny went into the pit and got his front teeth
divorced from the rest of his mouth by the fist
of some white boy from the side of town
where no one buries a body that came into the world
after they did and no one ever has to swallow
their own blood and pray that it will keep them
fed until morning
so danny told us that he was going to
go home with someone’s teeth even if they weren’t
the ones that he came here with
because how many things have we boys had ripped
from our mouths and never replaced by anyone?
how much of our language has been pulled over the tongues
of everyone but us?
reparations were sought in dark alleys with a blade sharp
enough to scare a jaw open and a prayer out of a sinner’s
body which explains how the white boy wept
and called his father’s name when being pressed
into the brick with danny’s foot against his neck while
we watched until danny finally let the boy
go and we ran back out east towards our homes and maybe
it was the way the rain howled or maybe where
we come from we see everything drowning in red anyway
or maybe there is no other way to explain the haste with which I make
my pockets barren before leaving the house
even today
or why my wife needs a bigger purse to carry such weight
for the both of us
but when the police came for us that night
we did not hear a sound until danny’s blade fell out his pocket
and the bullets that followed
because I guess anything can be a gun if the darkness surrounding it
is hungry enough
or at least that’s what I’ve been told when
the bodies of black boys thrash against what
little life they have left tethering them to the earth
and isn’t that what we’ve always been fed? that it is
just like the nighttime
to rename everything that moves
into a monster?

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by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam was a contributing editor and co-host of Backtalk at Bitch Media. Find her at byamylam.com & Twitter / Instagram.

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