The Annotated Nightstand: What Hanif Abdurraqib is Reading Now and Next

MacArthur “Genius” Awardee Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and essayist on music and performance, with his essay collection A Little Devil in America winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal. He’s a newly minted music critic for the New Yorker, which I explain to my non-poet friends as a poet “making it” and “living the dream” (from this vantage).

Abdurraqib’s latest book There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension is broken down, like a basketball game, into four quarters. A timer ticks down (12:00, 11:40, 11:30) as headers, giving beats between ideas or interrupting thoughts. We have timeouts and intermissions. “In sports, the clock can oscillate between the minutes feel­ing eternal and then rapidly tumbling away at a pace that can­not be grasped by anyone,” he writes—and this is something he plays with in a sense of time descending, quickening, protracting (at some points second by second).

He also does this on a sentence level, allowing a moment that may last not much longer than a blink to go for three lines. At one point he describes a desperate move on the court: “The floater, the most romantic shot in the game when done right, guided toward the rim with a heave and a wish, how the follow-through after the ball leaves the hand can look like an overeager wave, like saying goodbye to a person you never wanted to leave.”

In the most reductive terms, There’s Always This Year is about basketball, Ohio, Black life, youth, and growing up. In reality, the book is about everything (and I mean everything) that swirls around these topics, places, and ways of being—and lights up where they intersect. We also get grief, cars, trophies, LeBron (of course), fireflies, protests, the mob.

Rather than a sense of crowding, it feels like connectivity. He writes, “I love a sport where even when I am alone, I am not alone”—and that sense of camaraderie, haunting, and community is palpable throughout these pages. His frequent second-person asides to the reader allow us to be invited in, making it feel like an arm-over-shoulder conversation with the most astute friend you have.

Abdurraqib has a poet’s sensibility that in less able hands might feel like frenetic free associating. We go from his father’s bald head to Michael Jordan’s to Abdurraqib’s own clipper mishap that leaves him shorn to his hook-up buddy wanting to buzz her own head to basketballs weathered to baldness from the court. Beyond the brilliance of his sentences and ideas, what defines Abdurraqib’s writing, to my mind, is its stately pace and intimacies—how embodied it is. He is in no hurry, and therefore you aren’t either.

So yes, please, give me several loving sentences describing how sweat accumulated on your father’s head when he ate a meal he loved. As Publishers Weekly writes in its starred review, “The narrative works as if by alchemy, forging personal anecdotes, sports history, and cultural analysis into a bracing contemplation of the relationship between sport teams and their communities. This is another slam dunk from Abdurraqib.” We’ll forgive them the pun due to its accuracy.

Abdurraqib tells us about his to-read pile, “I most crave the comforts of familiarity in my bedroom, and so my ‘to-be-read’ pile that lives on my nightstand usually consists of either authors I trust or books I already know I love. I like to read a few poems before bed and then kind of immediately read a few poems upon waking, and so the majority of what stays within arm’s reach on my nightstand are books of poems, ones I know so well that I can pick them up and go to the exact page that holds a poem I am certain will delight me. I think of the nightstand as a place for trust and tenure, it has to live up to the privacy and intimacy of the bedroom itself.”


Maggie Nelson, Like Love
This volume of Nelson’s otherwise uncollected essays and interviews is about to hit shelves. Julia Hass said of the book in the “Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2024”: “There are a couple authors and artists out there that I am distinctly grateful to be alive alongside, and Maggie Nelson might be at the top of that list. She’s someone whose mind I trust to tackle the hard, complicated subjects of our age, as well as the long-lasting, eternal ones, like love, for example. This new book of Nelson’s is a collection of her writing on the subject, as well as interviews, conversations, and more, all from the last twenty years: a myriad and immersive look at the way this subject has been woven into her life, relationships, and work. The topic is infinitely compelling, the medium is new and different: it all makes for a stunning and integral book on the topic.” (It’s also a “most anticipated” for Time and Kirkus!)

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart
Joel Brouwer and Joshua Clover write in the New York Times of this poetry collection, “Calvocoressi brings keen and sympathetic attention to the local disasters the larger world has often overlooked, from a 1944 circus fire to a small town poisoned by its factory to even less visible dramas of personal longing and loss. The political edge in a poem like ‘The Death of Towns,’ which describes an industrial town of ‘huddled and wheezing’ workers and a river so poisoned the fish ‘wore their organs / on the outside,’ recalls the work of Muriel Rukeyser, but Eavan Boland is a more pervasive influence here; like her, Calvocoressi is more interested in archetypal history than in documentary particulars. In the book’s long title poem, a succession of speakers project their own yearnings onto Earhart, gradually turning her into a metaphor for the American dream of escape. When a high school teacher who took her class to see Earhart fly says of one student, ‘Camille’s father lost an arm / to the canning factory. / She left us to take his place,’ the antecedent for ‘she’ remains ambiguous. Just as the daughter left school for the cannery, Earhart left earth to provide us all with a dream of transcendence.”

Dior J. Stephens, Cruel/Cruel
In an interview with Stephen Patrick Bell at Lambda Literary, Stephens states, “I had to get this book out of me if I wanted to have any hopes of reaching for a certain depth of healing that I desperately needed while writing the collection. 2020 was a massive year of reckoning for the world and for myself personally…I wanted to write something that featured, highlighted, whatever, a Black, queer personhood surviving through these massive world-shifts whilst meandering through their labyrinth of self.” They go on about on section of the book—“what I affectionately refer to as the ‘vortex/black hole.’”—saying, “While pursuing my MFA, I also dabbled in an MA in Visual/Critical Studies. We were having a lot of discussions about the implications of gallery spaces almost always having the same look: White walls with images/art on top of/imposed onto it. So, thinking of that and/with all of the racial tension that popped off in 2020, I asked myself, what might happen when we invert this presupposition? What happens when Blackness is foregrounded (and everything else, the text, comes out from that)?” 

Laura Kasischke, Lightning Falls in Love
Barbara Hoffert gave Kasischke’s collection a starred review at Library Journal, stating: “A National Book Critics Circle Award winner for Space, in Chains, Kasischke delivers intriguing scenarios in cut-glass, page-turningly readable verse that carries shadows underneath. A woman and a vulture are paralleled to reveal the burdens of freedom (‘Not to have wanted to go. // But to have flown’). A flower girl’s photograph presages personal and global trauma, the red-eye effect suggesting ‘a frozen horse, and/ a frozen field, my/ country’s wars, and/ my own child’s future.’ In the title poem, lighting falls in love with a range of linked characters, as the speaker concludes unperturbably ‘then my own lightning’s work here/ is almost done.’” That spookily all-capped “VERDICT”? “Inventive, if more unsettling than whimsical, these top-notch poems acutely observe an unpredictable world. Highly recommended.”

Noor Hindi, Dear God, Dear Bones, Dear Yellow
This exciting collection was in a recent to-read-pile, and my annotation still stands. Hindi’s poem “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying,” made rounds when it was first published in Poetry in late 2020 and is understandably being posted on social media again and again since Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. “I want to be like those poets who care about the moon,” she writes. “Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.” The intensity of this poem seems to be the general tone of the forceful collection. Viet Thanh Nguyen says of Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow., “Noor Hindi wields her poetry with passion and righteous anger in this powerful, striking collection that touches the heart and the head, the body and the mind.”

Hayan Charara, These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit
The Publishers Weekly review of These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit states:“Charara (Something Sinister) offers in his ruminative fourth collection poems that challenge the moral and metaphysical hierarchies in deceptively simple language. ‘Which is holier, / the cathedral / burning // or the spiders / under the pews?’ he asks in one poem. Nor do political hypocrisies evade Charara’s penetrating lyricism: ‘In a big country / the leader warns the leader of a small country / there must be change or else.’ Whether chronicling Arab American experiences of discrimination or relating uncomfortable episodes in a marriage, these poems favor an honesty that will elicit laughter if it doesn’t make one cry, as in a suite of short poems simply titled ‘Mean,’ in which Charara writes, ‘you broke my heart. / And I thanked the sun, stars, and moon/ when you got sick / and did not come back.’ These surprising and transgressive poems confront the everyday contradictions of living with equal parts biting insight and grace.”

Valzhyna Mort, Music for the Dead and Resurrected
Mort’s collection won the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize. the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize. In the “Short Conversations with Poets” series at McSweeney’s, Ilya Kaminsky writes, “The wide embrace of human senses in [Mort’s] work appeals to any reader, not just those familiar with the terrifying and ongoing historical disaster in her native country of Belarus.” Mort begins her response to Kaminsky’s question “Could you touch a bit about that age-old equation of ‘poet v. state’?” by explaining, “I was born in Belarus: an invisible country with a traumatic past and without historical memory. Now I live in the USA: a highly visible country with a traumatic past and without historical memory. A poet and the state are at war over historical memory, and it has nothing to do with poetry being ‘political’ or not. In cultures without historical memory, it’s memory that’s political…In school, I had to make up imaginary dead veterans while my actual dead didn’t belong in the official narrative.”

Janine Joseph, Decade of the Brain
Cindy Juyoung Ok writes of Joseph’s recent second collection at Harriet, “Janine Joseph’s Decade of the Brain tracks the agony, bewilderment, and repetitiveness of traumatic brain injury and its long aftermath. Using invented forms and typographies, the poems speak as though directly from the brain, as well as about it, observing the remaking of memories and the selves that have multiplied in recovery from a car accident… A profound dependency on institutionalized systems for healing—from grief counselor to machine technician, neuropsychologist to acupuncturist—parallels the experience of living with undocumented status in the United States, which Joseph regarded closely in her debut, Driving Without a License. In Decade of the Brain, visas are exchanged for intake forms (‘My torso scored in order / of severity’), and lawyers for medical professionals that multiply.” 

Bryan Ferry, Lyrics
Ferry, a contemporary of Bowie, became a cultural icon who has had an enormous impact on music through a cultivated vibe (aural and visual). Ferry got together with model Jerry Hall after a photoshoot for the cover of Ferry’s band Roxy Music’s Siren—Hall eventually left Ferry for Mick Jagger. According to the cultural commentator Peter York, Sir Bryan Ferry “should hang in the Tate, with David Bowie.” These being some of the heights of a man who grew up working-class in northeast England with a father who cared for pit ponies and farmed. In response to the question “Are there singers whom you studied in developing your own style of phrasing?”

Kate Bush said in a 1985 interview, “I thought [Ferry] was the most exciting singer that I’d heard. His voice had limitations, but what he managed to do with it was beautiful, I mean, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. For me it covered the whole emotional spectrum, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. You know, the early Roxy albums, with this beautiful voice and lyrics, and Eno there in the background—magic!” As a wild aside, in 2000, Ferry, his wife, and three sons were all on a flight on which someone with severe paranoia and tried to change course of the plane. His struggle with the captain caused the plane to rise, stall, and plummet at 30k feet /minute. Apparently the captain’s recovery from this descent is unmatched.

Irene Vázquez, Take Me to the Water
The first of a few zines/chaps in Abdurraqib’s pile. Vázquez’s chapbook received a blurb from Claudia Rankine, who writes, “Take Me to the Water is an impressive collection of poems that stage a dialogue between the personal and the collective history of African Americans. Like Rita Dove’s Thomas and BeulahTake Me to the Water carries the reader across time—into the specific voice and history of a single speaker who understands their life to be both inherited and made. The manuscript argues that we are all products of the Atlantic crossing, even if not everyone can float. Our speaker holds this knowledge in every utterance in some way, even as each poem also holds joy, beauty, desire, refusal, and perseverance.”

diary of a sistah grrrl
Zines are such an amazing form that seems to have largely disappeared because of the internet—this was the way to quickly put together some righteous art, subculture knowledge, or just fun with some tape, paper, and a photocopier. So I’m thrilled to see that there are some that are, it seems, new and alive and kicking! This zine is defined, it seems, by a call for submissions: “i’m taking art submissions for issue 3 of diary of a sista grrrl!!! visual art, photography, collage, essays, poetry, and all kinds of art are welcome. this issue is about various BIPOC experiences in the alternative/punk scenes, so if you’re a BIPOC artist with something to say about the scene (whether good or bad), please, please submit! …can’t wait to see yr art <3333”

The Purpose of All Things
This zine, in true zine fashion, eluded me in my search for info on the internet.

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