Interview with Samaa Abdurraqib

As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. Samaa Abdurraqib moved to Maine in 2010 to teach college students. By the time that job was over, she’d fallen in love with Maine and decided to stay for a bit. PhD school taught Samaa that words need to be researched and well-argued to be powerful, and she got very good at creating those kinds of words, but forgot how to write other kinds of words. After 15 years away from poetry and creative non-fiction, Samaa is trying to be brave once again.

When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem? How has your understanding of the poem changed since then? What elements / images / phrases strike you most now? 

To be honest, I’ve always been drawn to apocalyptic narratives and moments, which is something that has helped prepare me for the current times we’re in. I’ve always been interested in understanding who *we* become in these moments of intense global/local crises. I’m often interested in all of the different ways that humanity continues beyond apocalyptic moments. In that way, my love of the poem has remained the same. What I didn’t realize would change is my grappling with the idea of what constitutes an “apocalypse.” I first read the poem before the current COVID-19 moment, and felt moved by all of the broadness of the term apocalypse in the poem. I continue to be moved by this, and by the underlying understanding that oppressors visit apocalypses on oppressed people and on lands.

What are you planning to create for this cycle? How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?

I’m a writer—I’ve written a lot of different types of prose, but now I’m getting re-focused on writing poetry. I’ll be creating a (chap)book of mostly poetry exploring the themes of worlds ending & worlds going on. For my application to A CLEARING, I originally wrote the following: I’m interested in exploring apocalypses as Black sci-fi writers have imagined them— particularly in the work of Octavia Butler. Black sci-fi writers imagine worlds that either come to an end or near an end to make space for new ways of being and surviving. Butler, for example, creates worlds that are predicated on the notions of constant change, adaptation, interconnectedness, and symbiosis (to name a few). I believe that moments of collective and historical trauma can be seen as apocalyptic and require new ways of being and surviving. 

While this is still VERY VERY true, since the approaching of and the immersion in the COVID-19 era, I’ve also been writing about the odd experience of living in the midst of a global pandemic. 

I believe that moments of collective and historical trauma can be seen as apocalyptic and require new ways of being and surviving. 

What themes of Black science fiction have been on your mind most lately? What historical echoes do you feel moving through your work at this moment? How do you imagine those echoes embodying a new vision of the future? 

GOOD QUESTION! Well, there are the obvious echoes of Butler’s Parable series in this moment. I’ve always been drawn to Lauren Olamina’s understanding of change as the One True Thing and the organizing force in/of the universe. This notion of change being constant whether or not we believe or accept it is something that I return to when I’m considering how to be in the moment while preparing for an uncertain future. Also with the Parables, I’ve always been so deeply struck by the idea of an empathy that operates on such a physically painful genetic level that it can compel a person to act or not act. This idea of change as the One True Thing has the potential to carry some of us through this current moment and into a vision of the future. I think the notion of an empathy so strong, we’re can’t ignore the suffering happening around us is also something I hope for in a new vision of the future. I’m also drawn to themes of “new beginnings” that are ushered in by oppressed or otherwise marginalized people—themes that can be seen in writing by NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nalo Hopkinson (to name a few).

Oddly enough, the historical echoes running through my work right now happen to be deeply personal—familial and legacy/lineage—but also expand out to cultural moments and stories that have been carried forward.

I think the notion of an empathy so strong, we’re can’t ignore the suffering happening around us is also something I hope for in a new vision of the future.

What does your writing practice look like? What draws you to writing (specifically as a medium) as a means to envision and build new futures?

My writing process has been fairly haphazard in the past. I moved away from writing poetry and creative non-fiction right before I started graduate school—I lost that ability for about 15 years. Grad school and my short life as an academic taught me to write towards a need or an ask: a dissertation, a call for an article submission, etc. 

When I first got back into writing poetry, in 2017, I had a poem that was bouncing around in my head for maybe 3-4 months, but I was too nervous to write it down. Eventually I wrote it down, and it became a whole set of firsts for me (first time sharing my poetry publicly, first time reading on stage, etc). For about 1.5 years, that was my writing process—a line or two would bounce around in my head for a couple of weeks, and I’d eventually get around to writing it down. I drive a lot for work, so I’d often dictate lines into my phone as I was driving. Towards the end of 2019, I decided to become more disciplined and focused in my writing because I wanted to 1) produce more poems; 2) test my writing flexibility; 3) have a better gauge of how my writing changes over time. So now, I set aside time several mornings a week to write. It gives me discipline in my writing. It also gives me space and time to slow down for a few moments. I need clarity in my brain to envision anything (not just the future). I used to find that clarity while I was driving from Portland to Augusta to Bangor, etc. I’ve realized that I much prefer to be sitting at home with my first caffeine of the day and letting that clarity come to me that way. 

Writing helps me evolve, I think. I’m learning that it  helps me find and remember my center. It might be a place where I can put my ego so that I don’t carry it out into the other work I’m doing in the world. (Always wrestling with the ego). But that’s more complicated, so I’m not sure about all of that, with the ego. I think that having this private practice that I then use to humble myself a little bit and be vulnerable with by sharing publicly allows me to continuing pushing myself towards authenticity and change for the better. If I want to continue to show up for others and/or continue to work towards justice in the world, I know I need to keep pushing myself in evolutionary ways. 

How does your practice engage with processing personal and/or collective grief through art?

Oh, well isn’t this a humdinger of a question. 

I have been calling this “journey” or whatever it is that I’m doing with my poetry my Vulnerability Project. It has taken me a long time in my life to feel comfortable being vulnerable and, even now, I have very contained & controlled limits to that vulnerability. And yet, I openly welcome the vulnerability of others & work hard to hold others in their vulnerability because I have deep empathy and a commitment to validating others. I’ve recently realized that I need to push myself to engage the places that I’m least comfortable because it will help me deepen my connection with others and with myself.

One of the most difficult things for me to process is loss & grief and the suffering that accompanies those two things. I lost my mother when I was 19. With that loss, I lost connections with her side of the family—a wild and remarkable group of humans. After reconnecting with many of them around 2011 or so, I lost my aunt under tragic & deeply heartbreaking conditions in 2017, shortly before I *finally* wrote that poem that had been bouncing around in my head for months. I still get very stuck about my aunt’s death. More stuck than I get about my mother’s death. The layered tragedy of it takes my breath away. I have yet to actually publicly share a poem about my aunt’s death. I’ve only been able to really share two poems about my mother. And that was so very terrifying for me. 

I write about my mother and my mother’s line fairly often. And through writing about those losses, I’ve found that I’m able to explore other losses and other grievings. For whatever reasons, I feel like artistic depictions of loss and grief resonate with people in powerful ways, even when the loss isn’t theirs. I think that so many of us have experienced loss; I think so many of us are, right now, experiencing loss & grief of grand proportions. I think that much of the art that comes from this current COVID-19 period will reflect loss & grief.

What role does personal / collective history play in your work?

See above for the personal history. I also write about blackness—not always the collective trauma of the Middle Passage, the slave trade, and violence at the hands of the state—but blackness and identity and history. I also write about being Muslim—this is often woven into my poetry about family history.

Who is one of the most influential people in your biological or chosen family lineage? How does their influence appear in your work? 

In my biological lineage: my mother and my mother’s line. Also my father. They both influenced my love of music and my love of the written word. My father loves musical sound—he taught himself to play several instruments. He taught me to love jazz, Latin jazz, salsa, doo wop music, male vocalists, and the list goes on. My mother loved singer/songwriters and the written word. She taught me to love Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman, James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Patti Labelle, classical music, samba, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, This Bridge Called My Back, and Toni Morrison. Because of her, I was reading Toni Morrison when I was 12 and 13. My parents weren’t perfect, but this is some of what they gave me. My mother’s line is full of odd, overwhelmingly charismatic & funny people who are artists and creatives going way back. Her line is also full of a lot of mental illness. 

My chosen lineage is all of the Black women writers (many of them Queer) who came before me. I turn to Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez regularly. My most prized possession is a recently signed copy of Sonia Sanchez’s very first published book of poetry (no longer in print). My other prized possession is my mother’s copy of This Bridge Called My Back. When I do poetry readings, I often invoke my ancestors by beginning with their words instead of mine. These ancestors often show up in my work.

What is currently inspiring you locally?

Right this very minute or what have you, I’m writing and trading one poem a day with a group of 6 other writers. We’re doing this for National Poetry Month. It is inspiring the shit out of me. Taking this on was such a bold move for some of us, and I’m in awe of how we’re stepping up to the challenge. These 6 folks are writing some beautiful, powerful, HONEST shit. Somebody wrote a ghazal, which is hard af. Another person wanted to try their hand at a pantoum and created something beautiful. Two of them taught me how to write an erasure poem. One of them wrote the most breathtaking poem about eating olives. We are all writing about finding joy, bumping up against different types of loss, living during a global pandemic, and about friendship and family. And we mostly just let the writing be. We shower each other with praise here & there, but we mostly just let the writing be. LaLa Drew (who is a writer and a friend I love) suggested we all do this together. I am eternally grateful to them.

I am, as always, inspired by all of the Black and Brown poets and writers and artists in this state. Always. I think of Maya Williams, MiMi Leah & Signature Soul, Daniel Minter, Moon Nguany Machar, Ahmad Kafari—just to name the artists closest to me. (THERE ARE SO MANY!)

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

Hahaha! Well, right now, I’m re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I wanted to come back to it a couple of months ago, but couldn’t find my copy, which was heartbreaking. Dune was a very formative text for me. It felt like it was time to go see about those Bene Gesserit again. The stay-at-home orders reignited my desire to find a copy & I found someone to leave their copy on my porch for me. Lo and behold… I come to find out that a new Dune movie is in the works! Maybe I’ve got a touch of the magical foresight in me.

I’m simultaneously trying to finish Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s collection of short stories called Friday Black. I am forever doing too much.

Listening to. Well, that depends. I’m currently in love with Kojey Radical—his videos give me yet another reason to love Black people. I’m also listening to Free Nationals. Their Dec 2019 album feels like the soundtrack to big portions of my 20s, 30s, and now my 40s. Burna Boy is always on heavy rotation. As is (haha…this will be hilariously random): Glen Hansard/The Frames, Sufjan Stevens, and a playlist I call Happy Happy Happiness which includes a range of artists/songs from Jon Lucien to Kendrick to Juanes to Little Dragon to Blood Orange to Rickie Lee Jones to Teyana Taylor. So. There’s that. Music is important to me. A friend recently & accidentally gave me the gift of inadvertently pointing me towards the version of “Mas Que Nada” I grew up listening to. Jorge Ben’s version. I’d been looking for that version of the song for like, 15 years, but didn’t know who sang it. And just two days ago, my friend was like “Did you listen to Jorge Ben growing up” and I was like… “That name sounds familiar, but I don’t know.” I looked at the album cover and it all came rushing back. The Mas Que Nada version from my childhood was on that album. I love moments like that. 

What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?

See previous answers re: establishing a consistent writing practice + participating in this poem-a-day exercise for National Poetry Month.

Describe your practice space.

I have an off-white and medium brown wooden IKEA Poang chair that sits by a window in my living room. Next to it sits a tall wooden end table, with mostly white legs, and a brown wood top. The top of the table has a carved/burned bird scene on it. That’s where I sit to write!

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

“I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” —Audre Lorde

“You are the life I needed all along.” —Sufjan Stevens

What is an important message you’ve recently received?

Oh man. Back in May 2019, Audre Lorde visited me in a dream—like Audre IN THE FLESH. I am so glad that I wrote that bad boy down & eventually typed it up. It was…W.I.L.D. I won’t go into the whole thing, but we were, no joke, in some sort of weird post-apocalyptic world thing. At the end of the dream sequence, when Audre shows up, we’re in some building trying to make a decision about whether or not to let the police person in who’s at the door doing a “wellness check.” As everyone discusses,  I’m silently taking the whole conversation in. I’ll just cut and paste what I wrote from the end of the dream here: As a hush settles into the discussion, [Audre] turns to look at me again. She smiles and asks me: “What do you think?” As a response, I make a small, shruggy face and gesture. Audre gently laughs and says, “This little one doesn’t give a shit!”—implying that I don’t give a fuck about the cops and think we should let them in because I’m not afraid.

I often forget about that dream. I should go back and fully read my notes from the dream.

What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

Hahaha…my homie on social media bemoaning her attraction to cis-het men and asking her bisexual prayer warriors for a prayer circle to pray for her deliverance from the heterosexual lifestyle. (I’m laughing all over again)

What is one question you wish we’d asked? (And answer it.)

Do you have a familiar? (in the vaguest sense of the word)

Why yes, I do! My best bud, Stashiell Eileen Hammett, most attractive feline in the world and resident charmer. In general, he doesn’t openly express care or concern about my writing process. And, in all honesty, sometimes his lack of care and concern hinges on disdain if my writing gets in the way of his inconsistent yet persistent attention seeking. However, there was a time when we used to joke that he would run upstairs (where I was living at the time) to hide out and write his Meow-Meow Memoirs, so I really do think he gets it.  ✽

Samaa Abdurraqib moved to Maine in 2010 to teach college students. By the time that job was over, she’d fallen in love with Maine and decided to stay for a bit. PhD school taught Samaa that words need to be researched and well-argued to be powerful, and she got very good at creating those kinds of words, but forgot how to write other kinds of words. After 15 years away from poetry and creative non-fiction, Samaa is trying to be brave once again.


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