A Secret is Another Type of Ghost

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An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

Sometime in 2017, before boarding a plane, my brother sent me Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay, “On Seatbelts and Sunsets.” After reading it, I said loud enough to turn the heads of my seatmates: well, damn. I proceeded to reread the essay for the entire flight from Chicago to New York. This was my introduction to poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s work, all of which similarly made me say damn— the only thing to say when someone’s writing makes you exhale all the breath you’ve been holding for years because it has articulated that thing, that feeling, that stretch of highway in your mind you thought was a secret. Abdurraqib’s most recent book, Go Ahead In The Rain, a biography of A Tribe Called Quest, was recently released from University of Texas press. Go buy it, and the rest of his books.


                                                                                                               — Raisa Tolchinsky




I’m thinking of your incredible poems "The Ghost Of The Author’s Mother Performs An Autopsy On The Freshly Hollow City" and also “The Convenience Store’s Broken Glass Speaks.” In both, absence becomes a presence, absence has a voice. How would you define a ghost? How do you approach the ghosts in your work? How do these voices come into being?


Well, so much of it involves my operating with a very particular type of curiosity that leaves me asking what voice could be given to every witness, even if that witness is not thought to be a speaking one. What archive could be built if there could be new language given to object or animal or desire? I don't really do much but project my own voice and curiosity onto the landscape of silence. Which, of course, comes with a type of privilege and power. But, in terms of the dead I knew and loved, there is something about knowing that voice well and wanting to have it carried back and living again. A selfish act, surely.


In your poem “The Ghost of Marvin Gaye” you mention Noah and how “you can write your own bible” and how "in this version of the gospel, the flood is already there." Does the Bible and / or the mythology of the Bible contain ghosts for you?


It's tough to say. I was actually raised Muslim, and so while I have a relationship with the Bible, it is vague at best. I would imagine that any religious text can contain the ghosts of anyone who followed it while living. I look at old Qurans, and think first of the hands that held them open for me when I was a child.


Do you think that music is a way to encounter (or ignore) our ghosts?


Oh, I think it varies by listener, and by what the listener is demanding from their experience. Some songs help me outrun my various pasts and some songs immerse me in them. And sometimes, it truly is a surprise to see which part of the emotional wheel will strike first. For someone like me, music is so inextricably linked to memory. And memory is a faulty, unreliable machine. And so when hooked up to song, or lyric, or sound, memory lights up in many corners. The trick is in not knowing exactly what will be illuminated.


Can poems be ghosts? Can essays? What does it mean to “ghost-write”?


Raisa, I have to say that I am definitely out of the business of arguing what could or couldn't be a poem. I'm not particularly smart enough to, for starters. And so my wading into those waters doesn't have the most satisfying payoff. It seems the question I'm more interested in isn't what can or can't be a poem, but what can or can't be a ghost? How are the many ways that one defines ghost in the current moment? To ghost is to be haunted, but to ghost is also to leave without warning (and perhaps haunt in a different way.) Some ghosts are gone and some ghosts you take the long way home from work to avoid running into on the walk. Once, years ago, an ex-pal told me that I was dead to him, and yet I'm still alive and he's still alive, and we're still in the same city. So, what do I owe the people who have granted me the pleasure of being one of their ghosts? Maybe to ghostwrite is to archive a past that someone has written you out of. To place yourself or your people back into a narrative you all were stripped from. I wish I had a better and more concrete answer for you, but I think there is something ghostly about endless searching.


Lastly, have you ever had a paranormal experience?


Surely I have, though it's so hard to say, isn't it? These days, I most find myself trusting the homies who are up on their astrology shit, because I am decidedly not. I want to be, but then again, maybe I don't. I love trusting what my friends know and letting them guide me through the parts of the universe that don't make sense. This has nothing to do with ghosts, but to say that my friends who know the stars also are the type of people who know their way around the occasional departed spirit. And I say all of THAT to say that recently, I was up on the Oregon coast, teaching a workshop. And I was in this old and beautiful writer's hotel, where each room was named and styled after a dead writer. The windows were big and at night, I could hear the water from the ocean flirting with the sand. I was in the Agatha Christie room. There were old pictures of her littered around, and pictures of random children, and all of her books in shelves on the wall. Miss Agatha was the architect of the modern murder mystery structure. All of her books were filled with people hoarding secrets, and trying to not be found out. A secret is another type of ghost, of course. Anyway, at night in the Agatha Christie room at the hotel on the shore, the sink in the bathroom would turn on. Gently, not a full cascade. But also not a small drip. There are multiple ways to address ghosts — some people might confront them, and others just let them have their space. I always choose the latter. The way I figure it, I'm a visitor in your space. You've lived here before I arrived, and will live here after. Turn on your water, rattle your chains. I've slept through worse.





Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of The Crown Ain't Worth Much (Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press, 2016), nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), named a best book of 2017 by NPR, Pitchfork, Oprah Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Esquire, GQ, and Publisher's Weekly, among others.  He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, and a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with poet/essayist Eve Ewing. Abdurraqib has multiple forthcoming books including a book on A Tribe Called Quest titled Go Ahead In The Rain (University of Texas Press, February 2019), the new collection of poems A Fortune For Your Disaster (Tin House, 2019)  and a history of Black performance in the United States titled They Don't Dance No Mo' (Random House, 2020).




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