The Mr. Rogers of Columbus, Ohio

The poet Hanif Abdurraqib is as idiosyncratic as his unclassifiable new book.

Photo: Courtesy of the subject
Photo: Courtesy of the subject

When I meet the poet, essayist, and critic Hanif Abdurraqib in Columbus, Ohio, it’s the kind of false-alarm early-March day that lures the locals out of winter burrows and into the park with the promise of warmth and Frisbee and fishing rod. Ducks skim the reflection of a cloudless sky, and purple crocuses poke up through thawing earth. In fact, it’s uncannily like a sentence from Abdurraqib’s latest book: “Spring, twirling out from behind the doldrums for a brief audition, just to check and see if it’s still got it — and it does.”

There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension is about the sport in its title, but it’s equally about the passage of time, grief, and Columbus itself. Abdurraqib tells me this is his most personal work to date, a book he’s intended to write for years. “It’s one of those things where you have a crush on someone for so long and you finally go out on a date with them — and you just don’t know what to do or you’re talking too much,” he says, which resulted in a first draft that was 120,000 words long. “So much of the overwriting — I can tell I was just trying to convince people to love basketball instead of listening to what I knew to be true: I was brought to this book by basketball, perhaps, but it’s not a basketball book.”

It is more like an extended prose poem divided into four quarters with time-outs. Abdurraqib moves freely between the literary forms that have defined his career: memoir, verse, regional history, music criticism, odes to specific basketball movements (including his father’s jump shot, which he witnessed on just one occasion). He is adept at finding subtle through-lines for seemingly disparate topics, as he does here between a famous LeBron James chase-down block in the 2016 NBA Finals and a bombing spree by Cleveland mobsters in the 1970s. It’s a gift for recognizing the underlying structure of an emotion and pointing to its different manifestations, like a biologist alerting you to the Fibonacci sequence in pine cones and seashells, only for matters of the soul.

Abdurraqib greets me on his way to a flower vendor, where he picks up a bouquet for himself every other Sunday, one of many rituals in his life. Chin atilt, leading with his beard, he shows me around the city he’s lived in for all but two and a half of his 40 years. An employee at the flower stand recognizes him and says she’s excited for his upcoming book event. Wherever we went that day — even when we went as far afield as Cleveland — people were happy to see him. In Columbus, Abdurraqib is like a Mister Rogers in Jordans and a 1978 Springsteen jacket, giving dap and small kindnesses wherever he goes. The city has painted him, his face foremost among local artists in a mural three minutes from his home.

Being a professional writer did not occur to Abdurraqib, it seems, until he was halfway to being a successful one. In the book, he details spending nights in jail in his early 20s, fleeing the cops after stealing sandwiches from a grocery store, and straining the graces of his father. One passage describes the summer after he lost his job and was evicted from his apartment: sleeping in a storage unit, showering at the gym, lying low in churches and libraries. “You’re either invisible or a nuisance,” he says of life unhoused in an American city. He adds, “Because of my background — being in and out of jail, having a criminal record — it was really hard for me to get a job.” He came up writing in mid-aughts punk zines. While working shifts at a diner, he wrote music reviews for local papers until editors phased him out because he was skewing too “poetic.” Abdurraqib didn’t actually know anything about poetry, but he was asked to host a poetry night at the café where he wrote and was soon deep in the community. He put out a book of verse in 2016 and a collection of music essays in 2017 and the next year quit his nine-to-five at a health-care start-up to write full time. By 2021, he had published five books and won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Now, he’s talking about poets like Maggie Nelson and Diane Seuss as if they’re gifted two-way wings starring for a conference rival. “I study tape of my peers,” he says, looking ahead to Nelson’s new release. “Not on some competition shit. But like — what levels did she rise to in this book that I might be able to rise to next time out?”

Abdurraqib lives with his dog, Wendy, on the city’s East Side in Bronzeville, which he describes as one of the last historically Black neighborhoods in Columbus to hold the line against gentrification. He moved into this house in February 2020, before everything stopped, and has spent the years since cultivating his obsessions. Some of those are ordinary enough, like the Minnesota Timberwolves or the flowers. Others are more exotic. These include a chocolate-brown safe about five feet tall that reveals itself to be full of bobbleheads, the tottering rictus of Suns-era Stephon Marbury peering out at me from the dark. Nearby is a 1936 Wurlitzer jukebox and 1912 Swedish Mora clock — both bought broken, now objects of Abdurraqib’s off-and-on meditative tinkering. “I like vintage stuff. I’m fascinated by the life that something can live when someone else decides they’re done with it,” he says.

He believes this house is so tuned to his infatuations that if he were to try and share it with a partner, they’d have to scrap it all and start from scratch. When asked what feature of his home is most hostile to a potential cohabitant, he cites the room off his bedroom that contains 242 pairs of sneakers, organized in shelves, behind dust-guarded windows. That door stays shut on dates: “It can be a little weird, perhaps, and overwhelming and unapproachable to someone who maybe understands obsession but not at that temperature and tone.” When I admire a pair of mustard-yellow LDV Waffles from 1979, he tells me he needs to send those out to his sneaker guy who fixes shoes and is different from his other sneaker guy, who sources them.

We walk across the driveway and into a carriage house. Inside are two cardio machines, three computer monitors, a handful of records, and a poster of Prince. I’m struck by the smell of damp exertion, the vestigial aroma of his Sunday-morning run: six miles in here, followed by six miles outside. This is a place where work gets done. Abdurraqib moves fast; he said he recently turned around a 3,000-word essay for The New Yorker in 90 minutes. He intends to maintain his running through March’s dual demands of book tour and Ramadan fasting. (His solution: predawn runs, then protein pancakes, dense smoothies, 64 ounces of water, then a nap.)

Though Abdurraqib jokes about spending his whole life puttering between his home and its little satellite and says he has a “firm and thoughtful relationship with loneliness,” he is by some margin the most hospitable hermit I know. On the page, or even in an Instagram caption, his words charm with their intimacy, like a friend sidling into a worn passenger seat with a secret to spill. In person, he’s roughly the same. Ask him anything, at any level of emotional sensitivity — whether his father is proud of him, how he feels about beleaguered power forward Karl-Anthony Towns — and he replies in limpid sentences, plainspoken if occasionally bending toward metaphor, following a clear line of inquiry yet resisting tidy closure just as
a good poem might.

We hop into his Volvo to drive two hours up I-71 to Cleveland and watch the Cavs host the Knicks. I ask him about the candor with which he confronts painful personal history in his new book. How does he determine whether to present a given memory in blunt facts or shift into a more oblique poetic register? His answer calls back to an earlier conversation over diner omelets about hooping on asphalt versus on hardwood. “Sometimes what is required is the grittiness of giving oneself in to the raw realities of a scenario,” he says. “But sometimes using poetic forms simply slightly softens the impact so that you can continually endure the harder realities.”

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The Mr. Rogers of Columbus, Ohio