Poet, cultural critic, essayist, sports fan, music fiend, and “relentless Ohioan,” Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, celebrated the release of his first book of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, Wednesday, Oct. 12, at The Silver Room in Hyde Park. It may seem out of place to include a laundry list of adjectives and qualifiers to describe someone who is releasing a book of poetry, but for Willis-Abdurraqib, it’s necessary. When published works and poems have titles like “Loving Me is a lot like being a Chicago Bulls Fan” and “In Defense Of ‘Trap Queen’ As Our Generation’s Greatest Love Song,” his vast knowledge on music, sports, and culture must be acknowledged to fully enjoy his work.
The book release—which felt more like a party than a rigid, quiet book release—was curated not only to reflect the intricacies and depth of Willis-Abdurraqib’s poetry, but also his life outside of his work, and it made for an evening of incredible readings. In addition to celebrated poets Jose Olivarez and Nate Marshall, the evening included readings from Jessica Hopper, well-renowned rock critic and Willis-Abdurraqib’s editor at MTV News, and Willis-Abdurraqib’s close friend and partner at Echo Hotel Eve Ewing, who both fused music and cultural references from Van Morrison to Prince and Erykah Badu into their readings.
Chicagoland native and poet Jose Olivarez—co-host of The Poetry Gods podcast— shared poems about being a native Chicagoan longing for greasy food and cheese fries in a city that prides itself on organic, quinoa burgers, a reflection on what cultural identity and skin color has to do with being considered “a citizen or an illegal,” and an epithalamium (a “fancy wedding poem” as Olivarez described it) centered around getting a slice of New York-style pizza and what that means about commitment.
The second reader was Chicago staple and National Program Director of Louder than a Bomb, Nate Marshall, who said that his book, Wild Hundreds, and Willis-Abdurraqib’s book were “like cousins” because they used the same cover artist. Their connection runs deeper though as both Marshall and Willis-Abdurraqib’s work focus on concentrated setting—the South Side of Chicago for Marshall and Columbus, Ohio for Willis-Abdurraqib—and how racism and violence intersect with culture and literature in their respective spheres.
Both poets introduced Willis-Abdurraqib’s work in their own way. Olivarez introduced the aspect of Willis-Abdurraqib’s work that deals with feeling like an outcast, lost, and sometimes hopeless—whether that be because he now lives on the East Coast and longs for the comfort of his home or, as his humorous wedding poem suggested, the struggle of stepping into the role of a newlywed. Marshall primed the audience for Willis-Abdurraqib’s work that deals with with racism, gentrification, and black culture in a way only Marshall could—by infusing hip-hop references and having the flow that seems to have inspired Willis-Abdurraqib..
When Willis-Abdurraqib finally took the stage, he somehow infused all of the individual elements of those who read before him. For instance, he read selections from an upcoming chapbook, Vintage Sadness, which is a book dedicated entirely to his reflections on songs he didn’t know were about sex until later in life like Ginuwine's “Pony.” The poem itself was about everything but sex—manhood, love, oppression, race, loneliness—but just as expected from Willis-Abdurraqib, seconds after the piece was done, the audience sat anxiously awaiting the next poem in hushed awe.
Perhaps what epitomizes Willis-Abdurraqib’s work the best was the final piece he read, “Ohio on the Night Biggie Died” which uses imagery taken from the book of Genesis’ flood narrative to discuss gentrification. Before he read the poem, Willis-Abdurraqib took a seat on the floor in the corner of the room and asked the audience and previous readers to gather in close. In that moment Olivarez, Marshall, Hopper, Ewing, and the entire crowd took seats cross-legged in front of Willis-Abdurraqib where he spoke about how much those who decided to take part in the event meant to him—he told Marshall The Crown Ain’t Worth Much wouldn’t exist without him, he told Hopper that she is his literary idol, and Ewing that she keeps him, “doing what he does,” and before anything else, she is his best friend. And with all of us gathered around, Willis-Abdurraqib talked about the sweeping wave of whiteness that overtook his neighborhood and forced his family and friends out and how they all hoped for a promised land, a “new hood” of their own, just like the biblical characters did. And it’s clear Willis-Abdurraqib’s voice will be one of the most prominent of this new land—if or when he finds it.