Even through the phone, you can feel Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib's passion. His voice lifts up gently when he tells stories dripping with nostalgia about growing up in Columbus, Ohio. His tone drops as he describes his struggle to be joyful even when life makes that almost impossible for a black man.
In his debut collection of poetry, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, Willis-Abdurraqib tells the story of a young black boy growing up in a world that doesn't make space for him. The poems are raw: some passionate, some distant, some laden with fear. But as a collection, they create a life that's almost as arresting as it is moving.
Almost none of the poems rhyme, and some of them are written in blocks of text like a paragraph. Near the end of one poem titled "My Wife Says That It's a Good Thing Humans Don't Hold Fear," Willis-Abdurraqib writes:
so many moments like these writhing
under the skin of black boys
you would think that we would
always be full & never hunger for anything
So much of the beauty of The Crown Ain't Worth Much lies in how powerful, how beautiful, the words we use every day can be when shaped by the pauses and endings of an artist.
I chatted with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the phone Tuesday about gentrification, emotional honesty, and how it feels to publish his debut book of poetry.
It’s your pub day! How do you feel?
I feel… okay. A weird thing was that there were a handful of people who had my book before the actual pub date because Amazon is Amazon. So there’s been this really weird gradual buildup, which is good, but also I don’t know.
I talked to my editor at MTV Jessica Hopper last night and we talked for a while about how the book publication date is not at all like an album release date, which in my head I felt like it was, because I’d never published a book before. It’s been good. I’m home in Columbus because I was at the Alt Press Music Awards last night. To wake up in Columbus at home, where the book was dreamed up and created, largely, has really made it good.
I loved the inscription to your book: “For the mother who raised me. For the city that raised me when she no longer could.” How did Columbus influence the creation of this book?
I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I’m from the east side of Columbus, Ohio. It is rapidly gentrifying now, but when I was growing up it was really a community space. I came up in an area that was primarily filled with poor and/or working class black families. It was sandwiched in between two very nice suburbs. It was a weird experience for me understanding wealth and being able to see wealth but not having access to it in my own life. I’m thankful for that because of how it’s helped me maneuver the world. But my mother passed away when I was 13, and I was very close to my mother.
So I had to learn to maneuver the world independently through a lot of my formative years. That’s not to say my dad wasn’t around, because he was. My dad is also great. But I was so close to my mom that after she passed away it was hard for me to form connections with a lot of people.
So why are you so glad to be in Columbus for your book's publication date?
I think a lot of skills I have as a writer were built largely independently because I kind of shrunk inside myself in this city. It’s still the only city where I feel like I can really be myself, where I don’t have to answer for who I am. People in Columbus don’t give a shit about anything. They love me because I’m from here. They don’t care how many books I sell. They are gonna read it because they love me and they see themselves in it. I’m glad my book released and I woke up in Columbus, because I’m not anxious. I know I’m in a place where people are gonna love it no matter what. I don’t have to answer for reviews or anything else.
When did you start writing poetry?
So this is a thing that I think people are always shocked about. I started writing poetry really seriously in 2012. But the thing about that is, I also understood writing on a very real level. People are always like, “You started writing really late to have this accolade or this accolade.” But the truth is I grew up in a house that was very literary. My mother wrote. I read a lot. I was writing music journalism before I wrote poetry.
But I dedicated myself to it rigorously. I locked myself away and like really studied it. It’s been like an intense labor of love. I would say that I’ve been writing poetry for four years seriously, but I feel like I’ve put eight or 10 years' worth of work into it.
This is your first book! Can you tell me about the process of getting it published?
So it’s weird. It started off as like a weird, small idea. So Button Poetry, who is the press, they have a manuscript competition every year, but the manuscript is mostly for chapbooks, which are smaller books of poems. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much started as a 12-poem idea, and I submitted it to them because they had asked me.
I came in second. I didn’t win. I got a call from them and they were like, "Hey, everyone here really likes your poems." And I said, "Great." And then they said, “But you didn’t win.” And I said, "Well, okay." And then they said that they hadn’t done a full-length book before, and they wanted my poems to be the first full-length book. That was the start of it, and then it was all work.
How long did it take you to write the poems in this book?
A lot of first books of poems, people craft them over decades. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is a collection that was created largely from 2013 to 2015. There’s a little bit of 2012 shit in there, but the work was done in a really short period of time when my life went through almost a decade's worth of changes. I got married. I moved out of Ohio. I began writing “not poems” for a living. I think the book meets me in a good place, because I will never be as jarred from comfort as I felt while writing this book. Never in my life again. Because I spent all the time before it looking at the world one way and then I was very quickly in a lot of different arenas forced to view the world in a different way.
The growing pains are evident in the book. My insecurities are evident. My anxieties are evident. And I’m really proud of that. Once I figured out that I wanted to do this thing that was like good kid, m.A.A.d city-esque. Not a memoir, but a portrait of a child growing up in a changing city into an adult. It was a lot of hard work to recall memories of mine, because I wanted to put some of myself in it.
It’s not a non-fiction work. But it was hard for me to recall memories and be honest about them. And go back to Columbus and be honest about the city changing and not being what it once was, and have to reckon with that.
Much of your work is laid out on the page in full sentences. How do you define a poem?
I believe in the prose poem because I think the prose poem is often discredited. What I wanted to do was show people that it is possible to craft really strong, really well-done prose poems. Of course there are poems in the book that have line breaks and that fit into the canon of what poetry is.
I want this work to be for everyone, and if I want that, I am going to try and meet people where they are at. And also still do it while respecting the craft and the art form. I think a prose poem, if it’s done well, is just as good as any other type of form or any other shape of poem. I want people who don’t read poems to read my poems. I want people who don’t normally read poetry to feel like they have an entry point here. For them to think this block of text is something they can approach.
Do you put pressure on yourself to do more than just write poems?
I often joke about Fetty Wap, who I adore. The observation I make is he’s trying to swing for the fences every time. And when he misses it’s awful. I’m not trying to become this popular whatever, but I write the way I speak and I think I have to represent that on the page. I want people to read this poem as I speak. They run on and they're restless. But that’s how I speak. That gives permission to other writers. Zora Neale Hurston was writing like I spoke, and that made it very possible for me to write.
I want to redefine the canon and redefine what we imagine as valuable. I think the prose poem is very valuable. I think it makes the book more accessible, more touchable, and more firm.
I feel like so many of these poems have a sense of generational history to them. Why did you portray the past the way you did in the book?
I’ve said this a lot over the past week. Nostalgia is very important to me. Columbus is changing rapidly. I come home and I don’t recognize some of the neighborhoods I lived in because the gentrification has taken over. I’ve only been gone two years, and I come back a lot. I come back multiple times a year.
I can’t point to a park where I used to play basketball because now it’s a Whole Foods or a shopping center. If I took someone there and said, “This is where I used to play basketball, this is where I used to ride bikes. It’s not there now but it used to be.” That person would say, “I can’t see it.” What happens, I think, when we stop being able to see where a person comes from, is we can’t see that person as a whole person. We lose empathy. I portray the past because it’s a place that I will always have my foot firmly planted in. I want you to see where I came from, because I don’t see the world where I came from in the world today.
So you want your book to kind of function as a written history of place more than of you?
The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is an expansive thing, I hope it is. Because it’s like a map—it’s a large map of what Columbus was. I did that very intentionally because I needed people to hear these stories and know the names of people I’ve known and the landmarks I knew. I know that if I take someone, they won’t see it. I did like a video interview a couple weeks ago where I took an interviewer to places that were in the book, and I was showing her things like, “Here’s this landmark.” And about halfway through she turned to me and said, “it doesn’t seem like you grew up in a bad neighborhood at all.” And she’s right. Because if you look at the landscape, it’s not the place I grew up.
People are being not only moved out of places that they’ve owned for years and loved for years, but they are also being thrown into areas they cannot possibly afford. We think about gentrification as a very one-note thing: that low-income housing project is becoming a shopping mall. But there’s a human cost and there’s a memory cost. People feel dehumanized, and they can’t afford to live where they’ve lived forever. And there’s a generational memory lost. You can’t take your children to where you were a child. I want to archive. The past is important to me because I have to archive my childhood, because I run the risk of my childhood not being believed and then I run the risk of people not being empathetic for where I came from because they can’t see it.
This book has so much emotion in it. It's very exploratory about how people feel and how that makes them behave, which isn't something male authors often take the time to do. Why did you feel that kind of exploration was important?
The short answer is I just have a lot of feelings. I am really big on emotional honesty because I think for so long I did not have an outlet for that. My mother was an outlet for that. I also believe in not burdening the people I love. Oftentimes I think that as men, I do it, I think we tend to burden particularly the women in our lives. Really, a single woman in our life, and then the rest of the world never sees it. I’m sure I still do that from time to time.
But I think part of my hopeful evolution as a less shitty person is like being emotionally honest in a way that is really difficult and writing fully dimensional people. In my book there’s a suite of poems that have to do with my barber. And he is like the most masculine person I know. He’s a real person. That narrative strand is real. He’s from the streets. But I also wanted to be really clear that this is a man with fears and emotions and he loves his son. He’s afraid for his partner. I can’t leave these things unspoken. I can’t leave emotional honesty off the page because I don’t want to leave it out of my life. Those too things were in concert, I think.
So it's more than just emotion. It's empathy?
That’s not to say that I’m always just weeping. But I don’t ever want to be someone who takes away permission from someone to talk about their feelings. I am very literally emotionally wrecked by the world right now that we are living in. I look at like deaths of unarmed black men. I look at people I love, people who are trans, people who are being erased. Their rights are being erased. Their humanity is being erased. This is all my way of saying I hear you, and I am hurting for you and I will be better for you. That’s something I’m always processing.
How do you continue to create art in the wake of tragedy and injustice? Do you?
I’m writing poems right now but they’re not necessarily about death. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was a very specific project with a very specific narrative. And I felt some guilt about the fact that it’s coming out now in the midst of all this, because it does deal in death and grief. But there is a very specific motif behind it.
But now I think for myself and for the world, I think writing about surviving through a lens of joy is really important and really vital. Writing about what keeps me here, and what keeps me wanting to stay here despite everything. I can’t tell other people what to write. But as a black contemporary writer, who sometimes people look to to write words on a thing, I think the best service I can do right now is offer words on the other thing.
So people are like, “I’m looking for your words on coping with black death.” And I’m like, “Okay, here are some words on how I am expressing black joy.” Here’s a picture of my dog. That’s the joke I always say because when shit is popping off I often take a picture of my dog because my dog is adorable. That’s how I approach the writing. If I wanna write something joyful, I take out a picture of the dog.
What are you spending your time doing now?
I’m working on a second book of poems because I think it just doesn’t stop. I thought after you finish your first book, it gets published immediately. But The Crown Ain’t Worth Much has been finished for months. I’m working on a second group of poems that are based around the night that Biggie died. It’s this weird kind of biblical fan-fiction. A lot of it is about joy and dancing, sweating and holding a child and hugging someone and imagining a future in which joy is our default thing. I think the world is absolutely terrible and I have very little hope some days that there is something better. But I need to imagine that something in order to want to stay, and I need to write that something better into the world.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.