Reading at The Poetry Foundation with Hanif Abdurraqib
I meet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib in a Wholefoods store before our reading at the Poetry Foundation. I’d come across Hanif’s work on Button Poetry and I’d read some of his essays on music criticism on the MTV blog. We spoke a bit about British and American poetry but more about Grime and what poetry works well with music – I think we all agreed Gil-Scott Heron’s collaboration with Jamie XX is the best example of this in recent times, but we gave head nods to Tricky, The Spaceape, Ursula Rucker and The Streets.
The Poetry Foundation is a smooth glass, marble, wood and stone building that feels like the future got its act together. It’s the Blade Runner of libraries. There are towers of neat silvery bookshelves around the building archiving poetry from all over the world (with a focus on authors who have been published in Poetry Magazine). It was truly an honor to be invited to read here. I’ve been reading Poetry Magazine for years and it’s become groundbreaking since Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt took over editorial. As the audience pour in I decide my set list, do my usual breathing and visualising of how the event will go and step onto the platform. My set begins shaky, it took a few minutes to focus myself. The wide prestigious walls of the space had thrown me. The back room had portraits of Seamus Heaney and Gwendolyn Brooks who’d also read in this space. A few poems in I feel the audiences were with me so I relax. The sound in this room travels well. Given the space you’d expect echoes, but it is a clean and solid sound. I end my set with Echo, which was published in the March issue of Poetry Magazine 2017.
Hanif follows with a set of poems that are graceful, elegiac and charged with emotional visual power. Between poems he is charming and humorous. When I say Hanif has a strong musical sensibility in his poems I’m not just talking about his warm concrete voice, nor his arresting style of repetition, but (as stated before) he’s a music journalist and weaves his knowledge and experience of music into poems. I’ve seen this attempted many times but very few pull it off this effectively. Hanif has the mellow presence of a man in the street who’s lived to tell us he survived. He closes his set with an essay, “Can I invite you all to indulge me?” he asks the crowd of around 70 people, all nodding, not yet aware what they’ve committed to. “Can you all come closer, I’m going to sit on the stage and read this to you”. The audience gather, the listening in the room goes from the listening of a great and worthy orator to the listening of a humble storyteller by a camp fire. It’s a shift of intimate energy, a bold decision, especially in a space like this but this pays off, for me at least. It created an unforgettable listening experience. It was an essay, which starts off as a critique on the career of the rapper Future but develops into an elegy for Hanif’s late mother and his recent break up. As someone also going through something similar, I feel embraced, like my sorrow has found company, this is holy.