Pop culture and personal experiences were synthesized into a lyrical composition of humanity through the poems and essays read by Hanif Abdurraqib Tuesday night at Liberty Hall.
Cultural critic and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib, whose work has been featured in the New York Times and The Fader, came to Lawrence to share pieces from upcoming projects and his critically acclaimed book “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” The event was hosted by the Commons and the Raven Bookstore.
Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Bookstore, introduced Abdurraqib. Caine said Abdurraqib’s lyrical approach to his writing was the most important aspect because it makes his work transcend the boundaries of essays and poetry.
“You can’t really call an essay collection essays, and you can’t really call a poetry collection poetry,” Caine said. “The middle of the venn diagram between poetry and essay is where Abdurraqib seems to operate. This is true in that ‘They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us’ is a surprisingly effective book, not just that Migos and Nina Simone are in it, but they are considered with poetic, lyrical writing that pushes what you would consider an essay.”
Wearing a bright yellow sweater with words “Fried Chicken USA” on it, Abdurraqib took the stage. He introduced himself to the audience by reading a poem that related his mother’s death to Michael Jordan winning championships.
“On the same night, the year before my mother died, Jordan wept on the floor of the United Center locker room after winning another title because it was Father’s Day, and his father went to sleep on the side of the road in ‘93 and woke up a ghost,” Abdurraqib said in the poem.
After mentioning his love for Allen Fieldhouse, Abdurraqib began to read various poems and essays from his book and other collections. One of them, a poem about Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson titled “There Is a Picture of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston on the Cheek,” required audience participation for its different sections.
The poem references a 1989 photo of Michael Jackson kissing Whitney Houston on the cheek at his Neverland Ranch. Abdurraqib said that the photo often makes him think about black pop stars in the 1980’s and how they dealt with fame.
“I think all the time about black pop stars in the 80s and how they often exited the 80s differently than they entered it and what that means about stardom, survival, and being a singular representative of your race,” Abdurraqib said.
Abdurraqib ended his talk with a section of his new essay titled “Vices and Virtues.” Instead of being on stage, Abdurraqib moved to the center of the concert hall to read the poem because he said he usually performs it in a circle with people gathered around him. Each section of the essay is based on singer Julien Baker; however, the particular section he read evoked themes of pain, love and death. A question-and-answer session followed.
Dylan Sack, a Kansas City resident who attended the event, said that although he wasn’t familiar with Abdurraqib’s work prior to coming, he became intrigued by Abdurraqib’s poetry when it was over.
“I thought it was really excellent event,” Sack said. “I think he has a lot of energy and nice things to say; sometimes it’s more delicate, and, other times, more vivacious.”
— Edited by Hannah Strader