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Hanif Abdurraqib on reading poetry, becoming a poet

Hanif Abdurraqib is an American poet, essayist, and cultural critic.
Hanif Abdurraqib is an American poet, essayist, and cultural critic.Megan Leigh Barnard

In his new collection of essays, “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” Hanif Abdurraqib explores what it means to be Black through the lens of brilliant Black performers. The poet, essayist, and cultural critic has published work in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. His best-selling book “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest,” was longlisted for the National Book Award. Abdurraqib lives in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

ABDURRAQIB: Daphne Brooks’s “Liner Notes for the Revolution,” which is a really deep and thoughtful book about Black feminist sound and Black feminist music writing. I’m a big nonfiction reader. It’s funny because while I was growing up all I read was fiction but I missed out on so many genres, like nonfiction and poetry. But I’m trying to get a better fiction practice. I’m excited for the new Kaitlyn Greenidge book, “Libertie.”

BOOKS: When did you stop reading fiction regularly?

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ABDURRAQIB: I think after high school, which is interesting because I was in an AP English class that evolved me as a reader. We read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and we read Zora Neale Hurston. It was the first time where I could discuss reading, and the teacher didn’t have the final say about the book. That changed my relationship to talking about books.

BOOKS: Who have you been reading for poetry?

ABDURRAQIB: When I finish a book of my own, I like to return to poetry books that shaped me as a writer. So I’ve returned to the first poetry book I ever bought, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s “The Last Time I saw Amelia Earhart,” which is still one of my favorites. I also always return to Khadijah Queen’s “I’m So Fine.” It’s a brilliant, sprawling lyric.

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BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?

ABDURRAQIB: In 2011. I used to write in this coffee shop and the owner asked me if I wanted to host a poetry night. I didn’t write poetry but I told him I’d do it. Through that I started folding into the brilliant and robust Columbus poetry community. I’d ask them whom I should be reading. I would get those books and turn to the back to see whom the poet was thanking, and then go find those books.

BOOKS: Who were some of the poets you found that way?

ABDURRAQIB: A lot of Ohio poets, such as Thylias Moss, who is a big one for me. I trace some of these poets back to Robert Hayden and Frank O’Hara, who I love. These are people who just wrote about the seemingly unspectacular things of life as if they were the most important things in the world.

BOOKS: What have been some other recent best reads?

ABDURRAQIB: Marianne Chan’s collection, “All Heathens.” I felt like it was written just for me. I loved the poetry collection “Inheritance” by Taylor Johnson. I’ve been big on chapbooks lately, and I’ve been loving the press Game Over Books. They have had a run of books that I’ve really enjoyed such as “Grown” by Claudia Wilson.

BOOKS: Are you someone who keeps all your books?

ABDURRAQIB: Nah. When I was a kid they built a library down the street from our house, so I came up in the cradle of the library system. I grew up really poor and there wasn’t a ton of money for books but we had the library. I have a different relationship with books because of that. I’m not too romantic about having books just to have them.

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BOOKS: What’s on your to-read pile?

ABDURRAQIB: I have a whole bunch of books waiting in my car that I want to read, such as James McBride’s “Deacon King Kong,” Jin Meng’s “Little Gods,” and Anna North’s “Outlawed.” I loved Naima Coster’s “Halsey Street,” so I got her new novel, “What’s Mine and Yours.” My goal is that this summer I will read only fiction or mostly fiction. That’s why I’ve been accumulating novels.

BOOKS: How many books are in your car?

ABDURRAQIB: I have between eight to 12 books. I run to the bookstore, buy some books, and then just leave them on the back seat. It’s just laziness. Maybe today’s the day I bring them all in.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane.” She can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.