Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib Shares How Columbus Shaped His Writing

The poet and essayist discusses how his hometown helped him on his literary journey and talks about staying focused in the face of success.

Ask Hanif Abdurraqib’s favorite spot in Columbus, where he still lives, and get a day tour: the Park of Roses, Franklin Park and Resch’s Bakery on the city’s east side, where he grew up. He runs a music website (68to05.com) and serves as an editor-at-large for the publisher Tin House, but is eager to start a basketball book and pursue documentary filmmaking.

“I’m mostly just trying to stumble my way forward and see what’s next without getting so excited about everything that I overextend myself,” he says. 

This strategy has turned the poet, essayist and cultural critic into a literary star. His 2017 essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire and Oprah Magazine. In March, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance was a National Book Award finalist. In September, he received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” We talked with Abdurraqib about his hometown, writing and staying humble.

What role did Ohio play in you becoming a writer?
Columbus specifically played a big role. That’s where I learned how to write. I cut my teeth, blending criticism and poetry at poetry slams in the city, like Writers’ Block and Writing Wrongs. That’s where I really learned how to do the writing I do now. And I shaped my writing voice and [learned] how to write and make low-stakes mistakes and really learn from that. Columbus really shaped the way that I write and think about things. 

When did you realize that your writing resonated with people?
I’m still kind of in awe of that and disbelief of that. It’s one of those things that I don’t ever think about until people come up to me. I always appreciate that. I know a lot of writers have that big ‘a-ha’ moment, but truly I keep my head down and work. Again, it’s not out of a lack of gratitude to the folks who were moved by my work. If I began to think of it on a granular level, it would make it a bit harder for me to keep my head down and keep working. 

How do you maintain that attitude when you win a MacArthur grant? 
That doesn’t really change the work. The work is what brought me here and the work has to continue. I’m not much of a celebratory person. I’m a person that’s steeped in gratitude. With gratitude, I can be propelled toward more work. The fact that I get to write and pursue my curiosity in the way that I do is a bit miraculous. That’s what kind of propels me back to the work and keeps my head down. I just find real pleasure in the work; I find real pleasure in unearthing the delights of the world that I did not know before. 

For more information, visit abdurraqib.com