‘To Renounce Awe in Something Large Is to Make the Large Thing Touchable’, by Hanif Abdurraqib and Marwa Helal

In the latest instalment of our Poets in Conversation series, Hanif Abdurraqib talks to Marwa Helal about taming obsessions before they can tame you.




Marwa:

I was thrilled you were in Egypt last month (and near my hometown!) interviewing international legendary footballer Mohamed Salah. Kept clicking on your IG stories hoping to get a glimpse of the motherland but nope, it wasn’t happening [dramatic pause] because you were posting about watching owl videos on YouTube!! :/ Brief disappointment for me, but still happy for you. Really want to hear what your impressions were of the country based on the short time you were there.

Hanif:

Yeah! I mean, I couldn’t post too much stuff about being there because I was tasked with keeping the trip/ profile under wraps, but it was hard. There is a lot of beauty in the nuances of Cairo. So many people talk about how crowded it is, or how loud it is. And yes, it is those things. But I stood atop the peak of a tall-ish building on my first night there, and I saw candles flickering in the windows of homes and people reading beside them. I got to see the way the moon hit the marble lining the sides of structures. The nights there were so beautiful. People talk about dry heat and I tend to roll my eyes because the concept of it is so exhausting for someone who grew up in the midst of humidity. But the payoff of a truly dry heat during the day is the night which blooms out of it.

I walked around Cairo really aimlessly at night. I got lost on my second night there, because I just carried myself to wherever sounds were coming from. I played soccer with some kids in an alley who, at an age considerably younger than my own, were far more skilled than I ever was. Obviously it’s more than just a city that comes alive at night, but I found most of my joy there, in the silence of the beauty from above and in the hectic and beautiful buzzing of beauty from below. We spent time in Nagrig, the village Mohamed Salah is from, and I was so heartened by the people there, who were kind to me even though my Arabic is not near what it should be for conversation. The kids who wanted so desperately to show me their Salah jerseys and shirts. I think my idea of what a small town could be was so rooted in Western (American) thinking. Nagrig was a real awakening for me. Everyone there claimed they were Mohamed Salah’s cousin, which I loved. In the hood I grew up, exaggerating your relationship to the person closest to making it was a type of ritual. I kind of appreciated that small bridge between my life and the life of the people in Nagrig. I am sorry I couldn’t fulfil the experience of sharing more of Egypt with you from afar. But have you ever watched videos of owls walking? They are fascinating.

Marwa:

Aahhh, I miss it so much and can feel that energy in your description. I think what you said about your idea of what a small town could be is important. The deep sense of connection in the villages there and the genuine happiness and knowing of life’s cycles exists there in its people, regardless of how outdated the culture’s codes are — they’ve maintained something true. It is the place I go in my mind and dreams when I’m troubled to regain a sense of hope and peace. To me, those villages are a form of true civilization. And in Egypt, you have the other extreme: the buzzing potential of what a non-Western cosmopolitan metropolis can be also — Cairo, made of cities within cities, bears the marks of every great civilization that has passed through it, but is its own. I haven’t watched videos of owls walking, lol — but through some random logic, I want to share that I have fed silkworms to bats — does that count?

Hanif:

I think that definitely counts. I have had a bat in my apartment once, and it was a truly startling experience, though I did admire the manner in which it awoke: confused, eager to fight its way back to some comfortable darkness. I have been there.

Marwa:

We got the chance to travel together briefly as part of The Conversation.* I was really struck by your generosity — not only driving us between locations, but also managing to engage every passenger in meaningful discussions all while introducing us to new music. That Sleigh Bells ‘And Saints’ joint always reminds me of that time. Also, can we take a moment and talk about what a genius brilliant light Nabila Lovelace is?

*Editor's note: The Conversation’s purpose is rooted in carving out space for Black Americans to contend with their Blackness and its infinite permutations in the South. Central to The Conversation is documenting contemporary POC relationships to the American South, reformatting the literary conference model, engaging with Southern communities of young writers and the reclamation of land.

Hanif:

Yeah, I really appreciated coming back to The Conversation and providing support to the other fellows. I was a fellow the first year, and I remember how much it meant to me that everything was just as easy as possible for us. I think for a lot of writers of color (artists of color/people of color just living in the world) it can sometimes feel shameful to have other people prepared and happy to meet your needs. Or every movement should feel like labor. I enjoyed serving the project of The Conversation in that way: making it as easy as possible for the writers there, so that they could worry about finding their relationships with the land and their relationships with each other. Nabila is brilliant as a writer and organizer, sure. But her true vision is rooted in her relentless generosity and kindness. To live in a place and first think, “How can I make use of this for a community?” That’s something not all of us do, and it’s not something that all of us could pursue even if we wanted to. Nabila is so unrelenting in her desire to bring the collective closer. What do you feel like you most left The Conversation with? I felt a strong sense of kinship with the people I was there with, but I genuinely think my work shifted once I left, or at least the ways I was looking at my work shifted.

Marwa:

Yes, exactly — Nabila’s deep sense of community was resonant throughout that fellowship. Not just in who she invited to participate — I feel psychically and spiritually close, sometimes on a telepathic level, linked to my fellow fellows. The fellowship came at a time when I was losing trust in a lot of areas of my life and being there with everyone was restorative. And what you said about having shame around others meeting our needs, it’s so true! This is what was so restorative. Unlearning that shame doesn’t happen alone. It happens in communities and relationships like the one we are cultivating in The Conversation. I’m really grateful you stated that the way you did.

Marwa:

You know I’m a huge DJ Khaled fan — in fact, they’re running that poem in this issue, so would you please tell the story about how he offered to replace your cell phone for everyone to enjoy. God is the greatest.

Hanif:

Yeah, Khaled is a really kind dude who I enjoyed working with for one pretty wild week inside of Madison Square Garden. I wrote for the MTV Video Music Awards in 2016, and a part of my job on the night of the show was to be in the room with Khaled, to make sure he understood everything happening in the script that we worked on together. The set was in this Madison Square Garden penthouse, and at some point in the night, a lot of Khaled’s pals showed up. I won’t name them all, to avoid the inevitable name dropping, a door we’ve already creaked open a bit here. But, I will say that when the PA speakers started playing ‘All The Way Up’ during a commercial break, the rapper Fat Joe got very excited in the penthouse, as if he’d never heard the song before, despite the fact that he wrote and performed it. Anyway, he started pouring champagne out all over a table? Which seems like weird behavior indoors, but I suppose I am not wealthy. And he got my phone covered in it. A funny thing is that I had a Samsung Galaxy, and at the time, there were these commercials where Lil Wayne was walking around pouring champagne on the phone, to prove to people that it was waterproof. Well, it turns out those commercials were a lie because my phone was dead within maybe thirty minutes of the champagne incident. At the end of the night, after the show wrapped, Khaled overheard me talking about the incident to a producer, and seemed to feel genuinely bad. He apologized profusely and offered to go out and buy me a new cell phone. It was 1am on a Sunday. Still, it was a kind offer. He’s such a fascinating person in popular culture, and an interesting catalyst for music, despite not being musical in any way, really. I know we’ve talked about this before, but what about him pushes your writing/work/thinking practice?

Marwa:

Thank you for indulging me — it’s such a great and funny story. I especially love that moment where life imitates the commercial, but it just don’t work like on TV. DJ Khaled is a vessel. I believe some people are meant to be a kind of intuitive center connecting others — in that way Nabila was for us with The Conversation. He does that as a producer and has obviously been incredibly successful. His success is symbolic at a time when our country (America) is currently and has historically made very clear they want Black and Palestinian people dead. And so, the statement, “They don’t want us to win,” becomes very radical in this context. And the “keys,” well — I will let my poem speak to that. I love how he uses his platform to raise emerging artists. The way he loves his son and family brings me so much joy. It is infectious and reminds me of the best times with my own family. A friend of mine recently said to me, “Wow, he must really love his son — he named himself ‘Father of Asahd,’” and I explained to her that this is actually Islamic tradition — that when the first born arrives, the parents are then referred to as “Father/ Mother of [firstborn’s name]” or “Abu/Um [firstborn’s name].” I love how he unapologetically takes up space as his fully Arab, Palestinian, Muslim self, living his life to the most in a country that literally pours billions and billions each year into sustaining the apartheid state of I----l, which consistently denies basic human rights to Black and Palestinian peoples. Bless up, DJ Khaled.

Marwa:

Have you been to the Eat Purr Love cat cafe in Columbus, OH?

Hanif:

Absolutely not. Please sell me on it. I must say, I am becoming a dog person these days. I might have a dog in the next seven months or so. That’s the hope.

Marwa:

Amazing. Do you have a dream dog? Or will you just know it when you meet them?

The cat cafe is this really sweet place where you can go and hang out with cats of all ages and personalities. I went there with my brother last summer and still remember this cutie named Oscar who was getting adopted as we were leaving.

Hanif:

Perhaps this is too whimsical, but I believe that our dogs, much like our truest loves, are born and then spend an entire existence traveling towards us. And so, I don’t have a dream dog as much as I have dreamed many dogs in the hopes that they are also dreaming me. I’m currently at a teaching thing for the next two weeks, but will look forward to the cat cafe when I’m back home. I grew up a cat person — a cat was the first pet I had and understood as a pet. It was only recently that I accumulated a fondness for dogs.

Marwa:

What music video do you think best summarizes or represents your poetic aesthetic? And why?

Hanif:

When My Chemical Romance made their 2006 album The Black Parade, they really worked to sell the concept of the album: that it was a song cycle in which a patient experiences a passing out of life through the metaphor of a parade carrying him to the afterlife. It’s a sprawling and intense album, and the band really had to immerse themselves in the concept. The album’s final single is the final (proper) song on the album, ‘Famous Last Words’. And in the video, the band, who spent the entire album cycle in persona as The Black Parade, is performing in front of a parade float that is literally on fire, in their tattered and dirty band uniforms. It’s exhausting and painful to watch. The director didn’t want to use real fire, but the band was so committed to this singular idea. And so they played in front of this burning float. The results of the video are really jarring. Almost every band member ended up in the hospital. Gerard Way tore ligaments in his knee, Ray Toro fractured his blistered fingers from playing guitar too hard. Bob Bryar got third degree burns on his back. It’s truly absurd to think about. This band became so obsessed with the idea of articulating death that they chased themselves to the edge of it. And I am perhaps done suffering for the creation of my work. I’m committed to that now. I’ve written the books that are hard on me. The ones I didn’t think I’d survive writing, where I felt like I had to choose myself or the project. And I think about that video because I think My Chemical Romance maybe learned that lesson there, too. My poetic aesthetic was once about finding a many-armed obsession, and letting it drag me to whatever vicious end I would let it take me to in the name of the work. And now I think I’m getting better at taming my obsessions before they can tame me. I’ve become a better poet, I think. I’m not fighting for control as much as I’m fighting for the sake of my own imagination.

I love talking music videos, so I’ll ask this same question.

Marwa:

Okay, wow. I’m so glad I asked. Because yes, those visuals really speak to the grit in how hard you work for your pieces. What you said about suffering for the creation of your work really gets me, I think the first book is always like that. I certainly couldn’t have finished mine without good friends and a wise therapist.

My music video ars poetica would have to be Flying Lotus ‘Until the Quiet Comes’, directed by Kahlil Joseph. Everything propelling this video is how I like to think about my poems — the submerged subconscious quality of surfacing from in this case: underwater into an empty pool where the viewer is forced to not look away. The fact that there is a pool of blood in an empty pool, I don’t care much about being too ‘on the nose’ — sometimes you have to drive through the nose. The deceptively whimsical moments of children playing in a field, how brief and fleeting — followed by a focused and intimate attention to detail (the J Dilla T-shirt) and small gestures (an adult sharing Hot Cheetos with a child; giving another child money to go to the store or the ice cream truck). These things touch something in my core. Those palm trees. And the dazzling dance of resurrection — how graceful in its awkward inventiveness. The undercurrent of anger, the call to bear witness, and the ghosts, the ghosts. The fact that time and space work nonlinearly throughout, while the spiritual planes between life and death coexist.

And the promise of one day being able to ride away with the ageless ancestors in a sweet red ride and to return to the place where dreams are made. In a time when the media has made a mockery of our humanity and a spectacle of POC deaths — specifically, Black death — this video transforms. It gives us freedom to imagine another version of Heaven. I strive to achieve these things in my work and it is helpful to have this visual as a model or blueprint.

Your answer also touched on another thing I had wanted to ask, which is, what does it feel like now being a few books into your career?

Hanif:

I think the only difference with being two books into my writing life instead of one is that I no longer feel as though what I’m doing is impossible. A blessing and forever an honor, to get the opportunity to wake with a head full of language and spend my days in an attempt to unspool it all. But I’m no longer in awe of the responsibility I have, which makes it a bit more terrifying. For me, to renounce awe in something large is to make the large thing touchable, more delicate. So I have been trying to be more aware of what I’m offering and what I can offer. I’ve stopped wanting to do everything, and have committed, instead, to bringing my best writing to what I can do. How do you feel, on the verge of your first full-length book arriving?

Marwa:

What a statement. As for my first book, I’m finally feeling good about it. I appreciate you asking and look forward to sharing a galley with you so soon.




This conversation was first published in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.

Hanif Abdurraqib is from Columbus, Ohio.

Marwa Helal is the author of I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN (ND/SA, 2017) and Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019).