Poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib strives to pursue whatever curiosities are in his mind when he sits down to write. The end result this time around is his latest poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, exploring grief, change, heartbreak, history, and moving forward. Fortune, out this month from Tin House Books, is his second poetry collection, following 2016’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Because Crown was his first book, Abdurraqib said “I figured out the poet I wanted to be while writing it.” This time around, with two additional books under his belt—2017’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, an essay collection, and 2019’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest—Abdurraqib has honed his focus. “If there’s anything that’s changed, I’m asking myself harder questions. Is it a worthwhile pursuit to anyone outside the room I’m in?” His interest lies in articulating pain, suffering, and grief, but “through what lenses do I want to do that?” he asked. With Fortune, Abdurraqib is trying to figure out how “to articulate the fullness of life beyond what that life endures.”
When he sits down to write a poem, there’s a lot of work that’s come before it. “My best writing is done in full contact with the world around me,” Abdurraqib told Spine. “I do my best writing driving through a changing landscape, or on a treadmill looking at the same repetitive background. Or walking my dog at night. That’s me sitting down to write the poem...I try to be observant of my own feelings and how they move throughout the world.”
From there, it’s not only about examining the feelings and getting words down, but it’s about figuring out “what’s the story beneath the story...if a poem is pushing me towards sadness, I think about the other side of sadness...the larger emotion itself is the easiest, but isn’t the most fulfilling always,” Abdurraqib explained. This leads to surprises and subverted expectations throughout Fortune.
Given the heaviness of the themes in this book, Abdurraqib finds it important to set his writing table up so that there’s “something that brings...some kind of joy. When [you] finish a difficult poem, there’s something that reminds you that you’re real.” This practice was inspired by writer Frances Ivy. Right now, Abdurraqib’s object of choice is crystals. “There’s one I like...obsidian, it’s good for creativity. I have another one I like a lot, it looks like a cave.” His interest in crystals was sparked by friends. “People’s excitement rubs off on me...I want to be adjacent to that excitement if I can find myself there,” Abdurraqib said.
As a cultural critic and essayist as well as a poet, Abdurraqib does a lot of writing across genres. “I don’t throw anything away” he told Spine. “I don’t discard lines, poems, words. I’m piecing together parts of old drafts...I’m often trying to build newer, better, more effective imagery...it’s part of the excitement, for me, if I have the opportunity to repurpose something I was going to part with.”
Abdurraqib’s skills as a writer of both prose and poetry shine through the variety of forms the poems in this collection take. He explained that “all my poems start out as prose blocks, just a block of text on the page.” Once he’s got the words on the page, “I like to read a poem out loud. I record myself and play it back to me. Reading informs you how it wants to live on the page. I know when it’s asking for more white space or asking to be a run on sentence. I respond to what the sounds tell me.”
Often Abdurraqib finds that “every poem has several poems inside of it. If I’m at my best, I’m thinking of ways to make it so each poem inside the larger poem is clear.” Sometimes, though, a single poem requires even more exploration. Astute readers may count the number of times poems by the same title appear throughout Fortune. There are 13 versions of “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This,” three versions of “It’s Not Like Nikola Tesla Knew All Of Those People Were Going to Die,” and two of “I Tend To Think Forgiveness Looks The Way It Does In The Movies.”
Again, it’s Abdurraqib’s curiosity that functions as the driving force for these poems. “The act of those poems was wholly planned,” he explained. But “I didn’t think they’d all go in the book.” They were crafted as writing exercises, “ways to challenge myself and write new concepts and new ideas.” The poems sprawl because “the curiosity kept hammering away at me,” Abdurraqib said.
Still, many of the variations did get cut. There were 28 different versions of “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This”at the start of the editing process. “Readers and editors suggested which ones spoke to the book’s central themes the most. I wasn’t very precious about keeping them; I understood that some would have to go,” Abudrraqib said.
When it’s time to decide the order of the poems in the book, Abdurraqib prints them out and lays them on the floor. “I begin to ask questions about poem shape, poem length. How it physically sits on the page...how the thrill can be enhanced based on what’s next to it. It helps the puzzle come into place a lot easier.”
For those who don’t consider themselves poetry readers (or writers), Abdurraqib advises that you find authors you love and “build a poetic lineage.” By reading the acknowledgements and finding out who inspired the authors you love most, you can keep reaching back and reading more poets’ work. Reading broadly and widely helped Abdurraqib “find out what my voice could be capable of.”
Next up for Hanif Abdurraqib: more deep dives on Etsy into their eclectic assortment of vintage shirts as part of his process of “celebrating procrastination as a worthwhile exercise” and the release of his next book in 2020, They Don’t Dance No Mo’ from Random House.
Emily Hessney Lynch is a freelance writer and social media strategist. She’s an avid reader, a dog mom, and a coffee enthusiast.