Hanif Abdurraqib – “All Of The Ways I’ve Kept Myself Alive”

Performing at his book release at Art Share LA.

“I imagined a single bird for everyone I loved, carrying them perhaps to a new and cleaner place.”

Don’t miss this remarkable poem from Hanif Abdurraqib, performing at his book release in Los Angeles. Check out Hanif’s incredible debut book, “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much”.

Come to Minneapolis, MN, June 2-3 for the 2017 Rustbelt Poetry Festival, hosted by Button Poetry! Tickets are now available!

While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out all our books and merch, including books by Neil Hilborn, Danez Smith, Hanif Abdurraqib, Jacqui Germain, Sam Sax, our newest release from Olivia Gatwood & more.

Hanif Abdurraqib – “A Song to Make Us Forget the Burning”

Performing at Art Share LA

“I am invisible with the lights off.
I am invisible with the lights on, sometimes.
I walk into the sun and become nothing.”

Don’t miss this incredible poem from Hanif Abdurraqib, performing at the Button Poetry/YesYes Books showcase at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. Hanif’s brilliant debut book, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is available now.

While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out our books and merch, including Button t-shirts in both female and unisex cuts, and books and more by many of your favorite Button artists.

Hanif Abdurraqib – “All the Gangbangers Forgot about the Drive-By”

Featuring at Button Poetry Live

“We all have to keep the dirt from underneath
the fingernails of our mothers.”

Don’t miss this stunning poem from Hanif Abdurraqib, performing at Button Poetry Live. Check out Hanif’s incredible debut book here.

While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out all our books and merch, including Button t-shirts in both female and unisex cuts, and books and more by many of your favorite Button artists.

Hanif Abdurraqib – “The Four Seasons – December 1963”

Performing at Art Share LA

“Watch as I press my lips to your neck
and fade from my baby pictures.”

Don’t miss this incredible poem from Hanif Abdurraqib, performing at the Button Poetry/YesYes Books showcase at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles. Hanif’s brilliant debut book, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is available now.

While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out our books and merch, including Button t-shirts in both female and unisex cuts, and books and more by many of your favorite Button artists.

Conversations II: Ocean Vuong & Hanif Abdurraqib

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Conversation with Ocean Vuong

Button author Hanif Abdurraqib (The Crown Ain’t Worth Much) interviews acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds.

So, I mostly wanted to talk about how your first book came along, or what it came out of. But beyond that, I’m interested in your relationship with history in your work. I think that how you approach history in your work feels very beautiful. I feel like I’m reading a historian. How do you take such care with history in your work? Your history, of course. But also history as a general term.
That’s a wonderful question. And I think it’s something that I both consciously and unconsciously consider, every time I’m writing. I think the most important moment for me was when I realized that history is always part of the present. To navigate it in writing, one must consider everything that leads up to the present moment. In this way, I don’t see history, or the past, as a linear projection. I don’t see it as something that has passed on, or is irretrievable. I see it more as a spiral, particularly when we consider how one experiences memory. We move away from the epicenter in this sort of spiral-like shape, where we get closer to it every time, and yet, a distance is still traversed. There is a progression, but not one that is totalizing (and therefore reductive) in the way a “timeline” represents.
I think, in this way, history starts to have certain characteristics that appear in the present. I can’t write about Vietnam, for example, without thinking about Iraq, or Afghanistan, and the myriad nuclear threats that we face in our contemporary moment. In this way, one could not be any less intricate, in writing or otherwise, when the present is so irreducibly interwoven with the past.
Did you spend your formative years in Connecticut?
Yeah, my family lives in Hartford. We live in government-assisted housing, and that’s where my mother still is. My brother, too. They work in the nail salons in and around Hartford.
Can you talk about what that was like, as far as America itself, and your experience in Hartford specifically? I live in Connecticut now, though I’m from the Midwest. I realized that my perceptions of Connecticut were really wrong, before I arrived.
(laughs) Yeah.
I live in New Haven, but I go into Hartford. There are parts of Hartford that signal a type of familiar feeling of home that I didn’t expect. I grew up poor in the Midwest.
Oh, ok. So you know how it is.
Definitely. I think the discussion about “living in poverty” in America is sometimes discussed in ways that are really flat, not all-encompassing. I came to Connecticut and assumed everyone had money, because that’s the image of Connecticut that is most prominent, the reputation it best has in the Midwest. Now that I’m a resident, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about what it was to grow up here?
Yes, I think southwestern Connecticut, Danbury and Greenwich, really dominate the connotation of what Connecticut is. You think of people drinking wine on their porch with sweaters tied around their necks. And that’s certainly true, but that was made possible by places like New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport. Maybe this is just in retrospect, but I felt like it was a very rich childhood. By rich, I also mean dangerous and scary. As I moved away from it, I see that there was so much life and color there. We didn’t have TV or radio, but we had stoop life, we had songs and stories and legends, even playing the dozens was a kind of narrative. We had the Baptist church and gospel music. That was a community that informed the way I think. The way I talk. The way I listen to language. Even that way someone says “uh huh” or “mmhmm”…the intonation of sounds, and how that, too, is communication.
It was also a bit disorientating, because Hartford is a place where people worked. People from the suburbs would come in to work for the day, but by six o’clock, the streets would be empty again. Downtown would be a ghost town. Except us, of course—because we lived there. The people with business suits and careers, they had “bedroom communities” (also known as the suburbs) where they went home to. And we would go to the welfare office downtown, we would see this wealth. We would see people having these big lunches, and living what appeared to be great lives. And then we would go back to where we lived, only a few blocks away.
There was so much shame in being poor, you know? I remember, as a kid, food stamps used to come in this colorful packet, like a packet of coupons, except each bill looked a lot like money. And I would always see the discarded, used packets on the ground and think it was a dollar bill and I would run to pick it up, but my mother would always yell at me, slapping my hand away, saying we were not the kind of people to use that. It was so odd to me then, because I knew she had the same packet in her purse.
I get that. I really thought that, once I moved here, I would be surrounded by all of this incredible wealth. To some extent, we are. I grew up with very little proximity to wealth. Even those who worked were still poor. In a way, seeing pockets of Connecticut that are similar to that make me feel more grounded, more honest.
I used to do this thing, when I was about 14 or 15. At night, in the summer, my friends and I would be so bored, we’d take our bikes and ride across the bridge and the river. It was only about a 45-minute ride across the Connecticut River, and we’d go into the suburbs and just look at all of the mansions at night. And it was incredible, you know? All of these mansions were separated by orchards. Apple orchards, pear orchards. That was how those folks bordered their homes. We would stand at their long, winding driveways and look up. It was an extraordinary feeling, to see how close we were to all of this.
I think having that window into a life that is not yours was really great for me, as a writer. Figuring out how to occupy imagined spaces, or spaces where I may not be welcome. Do you still feel like you lean into that?
Absolutely. And I think an otherness can be useful for perspective and insight into other feelings, ideas, even diction. There are layers to it, of course. And at every layer I think it’s evident, whether it feels terrible or exhilarating, that there is even more we have yet to name of ourselves. And that the self and its experiences are only a departure point. I found my borderlessness and my otherness to be a potent moment of exploration. Of course, I looked into that more when I became a writer. But when I thought about it, I realized that I was feeling that energy from the very beginning—even if all it did was make me feel lonely and frustrated.
I’m most drawn to the well of language and imagery that you pull from in your writing. Not just the words themselves, or the images themselves, but how you give them life. What about language excites you?
Thank you for saying that…you never know how things are going to work out. You just go inside yourself and hope to pull out something valuable. My family is illiterate. So they have no choice but to carry language, to memorize stories, and poems—inside their bodies. They composed poems without knowing how to read or write. They just created the rhythms. It’s a rich tradition, going back to Vietnamese farmers. The farmers would pass news to one another by putting information into rhyming couplets, and sing them. So my family was always very vocal.
So, naturally, the ear became my first instrument. Hearing is not a passive act, but an active one. My ear became a filter, and I started to have this very intimate relationship with language, one that was removed from the written word. Language is something I hold, and keep close. I internalize and listen to…I speak it, I chant it. For me, the writing is the last part. And there’s discovery there, too—in pressing a word out of the pen and asking of it more than it might hold. But a lot of the linguistic developments happen when I carry a line in my head for a long time, allowing it to grow, becoming more malleable and myriad at once.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds came out in April. I’m curious about your approach to writing the book, especially with so much anticipation. Is there work from your two previous chapbooks in this book?
Yeah, there’s work from the chapbooks in there. I never think anything is really finished, so I just keep working on it until editors just say “stop.” I’m always growing, and I want to keep my poems growing with me. As for the book coming to being, it was a stroke of luck. Copper Canyon was the only place I sent the manuscript to. I got to a place where I was satisfied with it, which happened to be the same time their open reading period was announced. It just seemed like the next step. I was just hoping for a personal rejection, because that’s what they promised. They respond personally to everyone. And I thought that would be nice, you know? That’s better than what you often get. It’s usually just “dear writer…sorry” or something like that. I thought something personal and nice would be great, and I could move on from there.
And then a few months later, they said they wanted the manuscript. It happened really strangely, but also organically. I put the book together, and it felt, for the first time, that I had nothing else to say on the themes that I was dealing with. It was enough, and I felt okay. And that’s when I knew it was done. But of course, that feeling of exhausting one’s obsession is only temporary. I was naïve to think I could be through with it. Now I don’t think questions are exhaustible at all—not as the world keeps changing.
What are some of the things that you want the book to do? Beyond any measure of success, I mean. How do you want it to hold up in this global moment, or this American moment, or in the minds of the people reading it?
I hope that it’s an agent of unraveling. I hope that it troubles ideas of what it is to be an American, what it means to be a person. To be a person in love. To be queer. What it means to be many things. We always go back to Whitman, right? Well, I hope that it will contain multitudes, for this moment as well as the next.
We’re kind of in this same cohort of poets who are in this space and exploring how to push the door open wider and make space for both us, and a potential generation of poets after us. I really find a lot of joy and warmth in turning to the work of my peers when I’m looking for both a way out, and a way in. Who do you look to?
I go to what surrounds me, which is the work of both the dead as well as the living. And I think the difference between literature and life, if there is one, is that in literature, we can speak with the dead, and therefore the past, quite clearly. The syntax of Lorca is still true because it is there, on my shelf—speaking, whether I am reading it or not. It speaks. The present, again, is a sum total of the past. And reading my peers, my contemporaries, my friends. That makes me happy. Whether it informs my work or not, it gives me joy to know that people around me are dealing with difficult and challenging things. Who knows if it enhances my craft. I don’t know HOW one enhances their craft, really. But I know there is pleasure and joy given to me when I read, and I know I feel nourished. When I read the works of my friends or my contemporaries, the works of writers like you, I just feel happy. And that’s enough.
You don’t write a lot of poems per year, am I correct in remembering that?
No…I tried that, and it didn’t work for me. I’m envious of my friends who are brilliant writers and can produce a lot of good work frequently. I wish that I could do that, but I just couldn’t get it to work. It took me a while to be ok with that. In a good year, I’ll write about seven poems. Maybe six will be good enough, and one or two, I’ll put away or lift decent lines from for other poems. That’s my pace. I don’t ever plan it, that’s just how it goes. People often ask how I am so prolific—I guess because there are a number of my poems out there. But the truth is, what you see is about 85% of everything I’ve written. Beyond that, all I have left are scraps.
There’s often this difficult conversation that people have to have with themselves, trying to figure out how much they “should” or “shouldn’t” be writing. Before I ever wrote poems, I dabbled in journalism. The demand to produce there is high, there are deadlines everywhere. I think that, in some ways, hurt my early approach to poetry. It took me a long time to feel fine about not writing, or finishing a poem. To be hopeful about a tomorrow where the poem just arrives, instead of consistently chasing it. What would you say to someone who is struggling with the idea of output, or of quantity?
First off, you know Patricia Smith started off as a journalist, right? So you’re in good company. I think writing begins with how we define “work,” as artists. We want to believe that by calling ourselves artists, and by practicing art, we are removed from capitalistic obsessions. After all, we are not trading stocks and commodities on Wall Street. We think we are instantly cleansed of it. Part of the issue is our very vocabulary, our language, this thing from which we fashion our voices and ideas, has been dominated by centuries of capitalistic and mercantile obsessions. It would be foolish to believe that by simply turning away from the market, we have liberated ourselves from its influence.
And when we examine the way we create, we can see that destructive capitalistic notions have already seeped into the way we look at art making. The way we talk about the workshop, for example, is charged with the language of market production, the assembly line, the “tweaking” or “tightening.” The “cutting” and “scaffolding.” It’s part of our culture, as Americans, to value things by quantity. Something is only worthy when we can count it as such. There’s this fear of stasis. Silence, even a thoughtful, meditative one, is equivalent to death. Publish or perish, we say. If you are not working, you must be lazy. You must be a fraud, an imposter. There’s, always, in the American writer, an inherent shame in not meeting the capitalistic quota that has consumed her culture, and now the way she considers her work.
What I would say, then, to a poet who is struggling with that expectation is to redefine “work” for yourself. When we start to redefine what it means to create, when we start to step away from the production line of peer comparison and self-shaming, and go into our first intentions as artist, the original questions that drove us here in the first place; when we start to nurture those things, without the anxiety of producing, we realize that we’ve been doing a LOT of work. Sure, there’s no writing. Sure, there’s no evidence or “proof,” which is another thing we’re obsessed with, proof. Paper trails. But, when you take an idea and you nurture it, look at it from every angle, and you care for it and tend to it every day, you will realize that you’ve built an entire world, even if there’s no proof of it on the page. That, too, is work. That’s valuable work. Every moment we live, the places we go, how we wash the dishes, how we talk to one another, me talking to you now. This is all work. This is us—building something that can never be quantified. This is us opening doors.

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Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Whiting Award. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, he has received honors from The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, Narrative magazine, and a Pushcart Prize. His writings have been featured in the Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in New York City.

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Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is out now from Button Poetry

Button Round-Up 12

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Welcome to the first Button Round-Up of August! As the summer pushes on and the heat covers us all in a layer of sweat, why not kick back for a little while in the cool embrace of the internet?

Bitch Media Fellowship for Writers
Recently, Bitch Media opened application submissions for its fellowship program’s second year. The fellowship, directed by Bitch Media cofounder Andi Zeisler, is looking for writers with minimal publication experience and a strong voice on subjects like activism, feminism, and pop-culture criticism. You can apply until September 15th!

Nashville Review, Summer 2016
The Nashville Review, edited by the MFA students at Vanderbilt University, has released its second issue of the year. The Nashville Review seeks to share a combination of traditional and non-traditional literature, from poetry to comics. The Summer 2016 issue features not one, but two poems by long-time friend of Button, Hieu Minh Nguyen!!

“5 Reasons to Read: The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, by Hanif Abdurraqib” by Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah
This week the internet was gifted with this stunning review of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah. Though this may look like a listicle based on the title, this review is so much more, grinding deep into Hanif’s work with voice, time, anaphora, and many more literary techniques and explaining just what Hanif is doing in his work that makes The Crown Ain’t Worth Much the beautiful collection that it is. Get your copy here.

“Venom (ft. Lucien Parker)” by Guante
Guante released a new single, “Venom,” on his Soundcloud this week. If you were looking for a cool new track to throw on your Saturday-night playlist, look no further! “Venom” can be found on Guante’s album, “Post-Post-Race” which is available on Bandcamp.

“Pack These Pages” by Samantha Raphelson & Justine Kenin
Check out this reading list released by NPR! The list was curated by seven different professional booksellers and should fill your last month of summer with some great reads. The list offers selections of fiction, nonfiction, and children & young adult books.

Button Round-Up 10

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It’s the weekend, so you know what that means. The Button Round-Up is back with another exciting installment! Dive with us into the magical world of the poetry-related internet.

Buzzwords Poetry Competition 2016
This one’s for our fans across the pond! Our own Chapbook Contest is now in full swing (and open to international submitters!), but the Buzzwords Poetry Competition can be a great way to submit your poems if you don’t have a full manuscript and are living in the UK. Submissions close on August 7th.

Poet Activist Spotlight: Jacqui Germain
One of Button’s newest authors, Jacqui Germain, recently did a wonderful interview with Stevie Edwards from Ploughshares at Emerson College. Jacqui speaks about her own poetic influences and her work as a community organizer and activist. Don’t forget to check out Jacqui’s book, When the Ghosts Come Ashore, after you read this interview!

“Why Poetry is the Best Medium for Kids Who Want to Change the World” by Ketherine Brooks
Last week was the 19th annual Brave New Voices festival, featuring over 500 kids from 55 cities participating in the poetry slam tournament. Featuring Button author Danez Smith, this article goes on to affirm the positive benefits of youth slams and young kids expressing themselves through spoken word poetry.

If you are a young poet still trying to figure out your way into spoken word, then Verbalise is just for you! Starting next week in Birmingham, Verbalise is a four-week program offering classes and one-on-one mentoring that can give you the tools to launch your own career in spoken word poetry. It’s not too late to sign up!

“On Continuing the Work of Who Carried Us Here” by Hanif Abdurraqib
Celebrating the release of his debut book The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, Button author Hanif Abdurraqib is back in this week’s Round-Up with another essay. Unlike the past two weeks, with his regular music features, Hanif is reflecting on the release of his book, and how to be thankful to and honor those who have made it possible to get where he is today. Writing more a love letter than an essay, Hanif is back with his usual brilliance.

“for lee buencamino” by Mae Verano
To close out this week’s Round-Up, here is a short but sweet poem by Mae Verano. A member of the Brown 2016 CUPSI team, Mae Verano’s “for lee buencamino” is haunting in it’s brevity. “how lucky am i to speak your words / savor that same story / and still stand here / existing.” How lucky we all are to have this piece this weekend.

That’s all for this week, folks. I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here, and read something that will make some kind of impact, no matter how small, on your week moving forward. See you next Saturday!

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Spencer Brownstein is a poet, student, and Button staffer living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves beanies, dogs, and a nice cigarette after dinner.

Hanif Abdurraqib – “Ode to Kanye West”

Performing at the AWP 2015 Button Poetry/Organic Weapon Arts showcase.

“How easy it is for all of us to wake up next to someone
who never will again.”

Don’t miss this incredible poem from Hanf Abdurraqib, performing at Honey in Minneapolis. Check out this poem and more in his just-released debut book, AVAILABLE NOW.
While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out our books and merch, including Button t-shirts in both female and unisex cuts, and books and more by many of your favorite Button artists.

Button Poetry Update 7/21/2016

Button Poetry Update 7/21/2016
Hey Button fans!
We’re here to give you an update on some of the exciting stuff that’s been happening in the last few months at Button, as well as what you can look forward to in the near future.

First of all, we’re thrilled to announce that alongside this year’s 5th Annual Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Chapbook Contest, we’re launching the first ever Button Poetry video contest, where anyone can submit their own video for a chance to be run by Button! Over the last year, we’ve increasingly realized the limited nature of our film work: we can only really film poets in specific physical spaces where we’re present each year. We intend for this to be the first of many opportunities for people around the world to get on the ever-larger digital stage for poetry. Both contests are now open for submission; you can check out all the details here.
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Button Poetry Live has been running strong, packing out CAMP Bar in Saint Paul every single month (we had to turn away over 50 people at our last show, so if you’re in the Twin Cities, get your tickets EARLY for the July 29th team send-off show). We’re so thankful to all the supporters who helped fund our Kickstarter Campaign last year to get the matching grant from Knight Foundation. In addition to the amazing poems we’ve been filming and running on the Button channel, we’ve also been livestreaming the show to thousands of viewers each month. Keep an eye out on our social media (or sign up for our mailing list) to stay up to date on the next one!

Speaking of Button Poetry Live, we’ve been churning out new audio albums over at the Button Poetry Bandcamp! Our “Best of Button” series highlights the top poems from YouTube each month, while the “Button Poetry Live” series offers exclusive tracks and live material available only on the album. Check it all out here, and subscribe to get our full back catalog and all new releases, as well as exclusive subscriber-only content.

Finally, in June and July we’re celebrating two major book releases, with Jacqui Germain’s chapbook When the Ghosts Come Ashore released June 7th, and Hanif Willis Abdurraqib’s full-length debut, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, released earlier this week. Hanif’s book has already reached the #2 spot on the Small Press Distribution bestsellers list (you can find some other familiar titles there as well!) and #1 in new literature on Amazon!
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That’s all for now. We hope you’re enjoying your summer, and we can’t wait to share some more big news with you all soon.
-The Button Team