The Sweetest Debut: Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on ‘The Wire’, Zora Neale Hurston, and Kendrick Lamar


Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Today’s respondent is poet and music critic Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of this summer’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, a book of poetry (read four poems here) inspired by his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. His poems vary in form but are united by the sense of place, touching on race, family, friendship and community, and are full of pop cultural references from Frank O’Hara to Drake, Michael Jackson and many other figures from pop music.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is a book about magic tricks. What happens when a city disappears before your very eyes, and reemerges as something entirely different than what it was.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

So, I sometimes wonder if this process is different with poems, you know? Poets are so often writing singular poems, and I think that a lot of times, those poems are all reaching to a larger thing, even when we don’t know they are. The Crown Ain’t Worth Muchstarted as a 15-poem project in 2013. I gathered all of the poems I had been writing that seemed to be stitching themselves together while I slept. Poems about my neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio. Poems about loss and music. They kind of chose each other as dance partners before I even thought of a venue to hold the dance. I submitted them to a chapbook competition that Button Poetry was having, just like, “well, I’ve got these 15 or so poems, and that’s about a chapbook length.” I was a finalist, and they called me and asked if I wanted to stretch the concept into a full-length book of poems. It was both delightful and jarring. It was someone telling me that this small idea I had wasn’t a small idea at all. I let the work lead me, ultimately. I think poems tell you what they want to do. They tell you how they want to live in the world.

At this point in my writing, I think I need the poems more than they need me.

What’s a canonical book you think is totally overrated?

Literally everything Bukowski wrote.

A book you’ve read more than two times?

I read Hurston every single year. I read Their Eyes Were Watching God early in every year, to remind me of how I ended up here in the first place, chasing language. Nothing breaks into me like, “It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night.”

I think about Hurston all of the time. I would not be a writer if not for Hurston. She wrote an entire world that I wished to be alive in. I don’t know if I would be writing if I was not given that book even before I understood it.

Name a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much?

There’s a lot of Josephine Baker in the book. A Josephine Baker quote opens it, sure, but I think a lot of her also lives in it. I was reading and watching a ton of Josephine Baker interviews while working on the book, revisiting her as a figure of resistance. There’s the story about how Coretta Scott King flew to see her in the Netherlands after Martin Luther King’s assassination, and asked her to be the new leader of the American civil rights movement. I’m always so overwhelmed by that, and even more by Baker turning it down. There’s the spirit of a lot of black women in the book, because I learned to write at the feet of black women. But Baker, specifically, really drove a lot of the life of the writing. She existed for both everyone and no one. When she died, her family found her in bed, surrounded by newspapers with glowing reviews of her final show. I often think about whether or not she got to read them all.

Do you have a favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I watch and re-watch The Wire all of the time. It’s unsurprising, really. The title of my book is a quote that I pulled from The Wire<. I think my reactions to it change as I get older, as I look at the world in different ways. But I still think it’s a vital show. I really believe in revisiting the shows you love without the burden of having to keep up the linear narrative. I sometimes just like to watch my favorite episodes of a show, knowing already how the story began and how it will end. I’m trying to get invested in new shows. I have Netflix and I don’t use it nearly enough. I get really discouraged when I look at Netflix and gaze out over all that I haven’t seen. I watch most of my TV on planes or in airports now. It creates an interesting social setting. I have watched entire episodes of shows with strangers, pretending not to watch with me.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Oh! This is so perfect. I saw a screening ofThe Land>. It’s this brilliant coming-of-age film, set in Cleveland, Ohio. I’m from (and fiercely loyal to) Ohio, even though I live in Connecticut now. There’s a little theater about five blocks from my house that plays indie films, and they ran a two-night screening of it. I went alone, because I love few things more than going to the movies alone. Especially now, when I’m more frequently rationing out my time for things that are not silence, or calm. There’s something about folding into a theater chair and holding a button on your phone until the screen goes black. For a block of time, answering to no one but whatever characters in the film speak to you the most, or whatever unhealthy snacks you allow yourself. I have endured bad films just for the sake of that small mercy. The Land, though, was spectacular. Beautifully shot, with a cast of young people of color who actually reflected the neighborhood that the film was aiming to reflect. Everyone must go and see it wherever they can. It made me miss home, but then again, the wind on the right day can make me miss home.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I definitely do, yeah. My work is all so driven by music. The soundtrack often bleeds into whatever I’m writing. While writing this book, I listened to three albums, in particular: The Wonder Years’ The Greatest Generation, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?I kept those in rotation, almost exclusively. All of them play into the book’s themes and narratives. Place and displacement. Confusion and anger. Growing up while the world shifts around you.

When I wrote the book, I would rarely listen to anything else but those albums. I’d occasionally do things like loop the back half of Springsteen’s “Jungleland” if I was struggling to close out a poem. From Clarence’s sax solo until the end. I’d play the first Whitney Houston album when I had moments where I thought the entire project was falling apart. Or I’d listen to the Pet Sounds Sessions if I was stuck In the middle of a poem, the parts where Brian Wilson is so clearly fighting through it all, yelling out random take numbers and instructions that make sense only to him. There was something comforting about that, listening to someone else try to unlock something that only they had the key to.

Do you prefer writing in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Buzzing coffee shop. Buzzing anywhere, really. I have to take to the work in living, breathing spaces, if I’m not writing in my house. I crave silence outside of the work. But when I’m deep in it, when I’m writing and lost in that, I need to be able to pull myself out of the well and know that there are other people around me, living. Perhaps deep in their own caves.

Do you write at a desk, in bed or on a couch?

Desk, but only until the day when someone attaches a desk to a bed. And then it’s a wrap for me ever getting out of bed — sorry to everyone whom I’m already bad at keeping plans with.

Are you more into morning writing or late-night writing?

I truly wish that I could say morning here, but I think I write best when I’m risking the loss of sleep. I love sleeping so much. I know some writers romanticize not sleeping, which, come on. Not sleeping sucks. That shit is not for me. I have had times in my life where I’ve wanted nothing more than to go to sleep, and I’ve not been able to. So sleep is a deeply precious thing for me. Writing at night has done wonders for me, but so has setting a firm end-point and sticking to it.

Do you prefer writing all your work out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I walk around with a ton of ideas kind of slow-baking in my head, all day long. And I’m always trying to grab as many as possible. It’s like those lottery machines, where people are in the tubes with dollars flying everywhere, and they have to catch as many as they can before time runs out. I’m always feeling like I’m at the edge of time running out. If I see a new ice cream shop, I’m distracted for an hour. So what that leads to is a different relationship with editing, or with perfection. The best editing I do is internal. I have to flesh out any idea or concept I have, for hours, sometimes days. So that when I commit myself to the page, I’m no longer looking for the right questions and am instead looking for the right answers. I suppose that’s something in between. All of my drafts are messy. I’m really lucky to have great editors who look over my long-form work, and dear friends who look over my poems. I have times where I don’t want to touch anything I write after I’ve gotten it outside of myself, because the work of getting it outside of myself makes it feel like a complete thing. A lie, of course.