Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib

by David Brunson

  Photo by Justin N. Lane


I’m very interested in your use of persona for your “Ghost of Marvin Gaye” series. How did your exploration of Gaye’s persona come about?

I found myself very interested in the afterlife of Gaye, and the way his particular type of death could lead to a set of unanswered questions in whatever the afterlife might look like. I was interested in kind of picking through those questions and trying to unravel them bit by bit. Marvin Gaye is so layered and complex, but it often feels like there's only room for one or two projections of him in the discussion. I wanted to place his ghost in the modern day, in hopes that I could shorten some distance between him and his many narratives.

I wanted to place his ghost in the modern day, in hopes that I could shorten some distance between him and his many narratives.

When writing persona poems, is there a certain process or set of criteria that you use to find a speaker? Do you feel indebted to an accurate portrayal of a historical speaker’s voice, or does your own personal voice find its way into the poem somehow?

Not entirely. I am fortunate here in that I am working with a person who is dead. And so, I have no framework for how Marvin Gaye might sound or behave in the current time. This allowed me to take some liberties with what I was working on/working with, in terms of tone and language and things like that. It was freeing. With this particular set of poems, I found myself taking on the musical and personality aesthetics of Gaye, but then working to blend those things with my own voice as best as I could.

I found myself taking on the musical and personality aesthetics of Gaye, but then working to blend those things with my own voice as best as I could.

As a poet who often explores music in your work, how do you view the relationship between poetry and music? In what ways do poetry and music inform one another?

For me, I'm often looking for narratives and stories resting underneath whatever stories I can find in a song, or an album. I'm often looking to do the same with the world around me to feed into a poem. Sure, there are ways that the two inform each other for me that are rhythmic. But more than that, I find myself grasping at one to flesh out the other.

Are there any limitations to what poetry and music can do, respectively? For example: is there certain emotional and/or psychological terrain that only music can address, and vice versa?

I don't think so, no. I think that if the space is used well, in each medium, the work produced can impact the emotions in a way which is limitless.


HANIF ABDURRAQIB's poem "The Ghost Of Marvin Gaye Stands Over His Father’s Grave And Forgets To Ask For An Apology" and "MAN IT’S SO HARD NOT TO ACT RECKLESS" can be read in the Spring 2018 issue. Hanif is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in 2016 and was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in fall 2017 by Two Dollar Radio.

DAVID BRUNSON is a poetry candidate at the University of Arkansas MFA Program in Creative Writing and Translation. He works as Outreach Director and Assistant Poetry Editor at The Arkansas International.