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Poet Hanif Abdurraqib Discusses His Writing Process

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes the small, strange moments of daily life inspire writers.

(SOUNDBITE OF NONAME SONG, "SELF")

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: So I lived in New Haven, Conn., for a stretch. And I didn't really enjoy it there. But this kind of weird and whimsical thing happened one Friday night where a lot of pizza places ran out of cheese. The owner of one such pizza place kept trying to, like, push off pizzas that had no cheese on them to people as if they wouldn't notice. But of course people noticed, and it began to spiral.

(SOUNDBITE OF NONAME SONG, "SELF")

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That's writer Hanif Abdurraqib. This month, we're celebrating National Poetry Month. The 35-year-old Ohio native also takes inspiration from music and the New York City poetry scene in the '60s. To kick off our series, Abdurraqib reads from his poem "Glamour On The West Streets, Silver Over Everything."

ABDURRAQIB: (Reading) I love the heat for how it separates the desire for touch from the practicality of it. If it gets too hot for love like it did for Mookie and Tina, then we're all on our own sinking islands anyway. There is no cheese in this town anymore. And what could be worse than the fraction of a dream behind every door you crawl to? It is Friday, and surely some of my people are praising the fresh coin in their bank accounts. And what a tragedy to spend it on a half-finished freedom. And the argument below has poured out into the streets and the waiting masses. And I imagine this is no longer over cheese but over every mode of unfulfilled promise, the cluster of sins still stuck to a body fresh from the waters of baptism, the parent who must dig a grave for their youngest child. From below, a man yells, there are only three ingredients. You can't even get that right. And isn't it funny to vow that you will love someone until you are dead?

(SOUNDBITE OF NONAME SONG, "SELF")

ABDURRAQIB: When I think about the things I'm most interested in writing in my poems, it's always about the kind of interior condition that comes with some type of anguish or heartbreak. And in this particular run of poems, I was so interested in writing a book that examined what it looks like to learn to trust yourself again and learn to trust your attempts to be a whole and good person.

(SOUNDBITE OF NONAME SONG, "SELF")

ABDURRAQIB: So I got into poetry in a - kind of a funny way. I was a music critic first and assumed that would always be my path, the only path I had to writing. But, you know, around 2011 and 2012, I had such a hard time getting freelance gigs as a music critic because the criticism around my work was that it was too poetic. And so I thought if I was going to be criticized for using poetic language, I should find some poetry to dive into. And so I got to poetry around 2012. You know, I didn't go to school for it. I got to build my own MFA, kind of.

(SOUNDBITE OF NONAME SONG, "SELF")

ABDURRAQIB: I like writing about smaller moments because in the spirit of Frank O'Hara, who - so many of his poems spoke of his days as if you were walking through the day with him and, in doing so, spoke of his friends as if you'd known his friends your whole life, too. I really value that. I value this idea that no moment is small or no moment it's unworthy of being stretched out into something larger. Having my friends be entered in a poem somewhat casually and openly is an invitation that I don't take lightly.

SHAPIRO: That's poet Hanif Abdurraqib. His most recent book is "Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest."

(SOUNDBITE OF NONAME SONG, "SELF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.