Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Hazem Fahmy reads “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib.
Hazem, this is an incredibly poignant, powerful poem you’ve read for us today. What can you tell us about Abdurraqib’s poetry for those folks who might not be familiar with his work? Also, have you had a chance to read his new, debut book The Crown Aint Worth Much?
Hazem: Hanif’s work is so rich and captivating, I really don’t think there’s one way to exactly encapsulate its power. I’d say my favorite thing about it is his incredible weaving of pop culture and personal experience to create a mythos out of his native Columbus. I know of no other poet working today who has such an impeccable ability to immediately and thoroughly familiarize the reader with their hometown and, really, whole world.
I actually just recently ordered the book and it’s on its way now!
Chris: What are some of the elements that makes “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” essential to you as a writer? Are there certain qualities in this poem that you try to emulate in your own work?
Hazem: This poem really highlights three things I am actively concerned with in virtually all of my work. It’s a powerhouse narrative that works with culture’s relationship to trauma and empowerment and brings the history alive through the voice of a city. As a Cairo native navigating American spaces that continually demonize and ostracize my culture and identity, I find immense power in this kind of emphasis on cultural history as a means of validating both the self and the identity to which the self belongs.
Chris: I’m curious about your take on the opening line of “After the Cameras Leave, in Three Parts” where the narrator says, “They listenin’ to the wrong music again, child.” What do you think the narrator is trying to communicate about the wrong music (“Mississippi Goddamn”) and right music (“Sinnerman”)?
Hazem: I am not very familiar with Simone’s work (let alone nearly as familiar as Hanif is), so I won’t attempt to analyze the dichotomy between the two songs too much. As I understand it, both songs are a response to extreme violence, but in slightly different ways. “Sinnerman” seems to be more concerned with sheer grief whereas “Mississippi Goddamn” focuses more on rage. This poem takes a long, hard look at the trauma and grief marginalized communities often can’t find the time for, often because the brutal marginalization is ongoing, and in that sense I see why Hanif would pay more attention to “Sinnerman”.
Chris: Cultural commentary, conceptions and receptions of the self, and “powerhouse narrative” as you put it seem especially important to poetry today which calls to mind a lot of incredible books—Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village is one, Suck on the Marrow by Camille Dungy is another. Hanif tweeted the other week about his poem, “On the Filming of Black Death” being shared after the recent events in Tulsa and Charlotte (Hanif’s poem references a different, earlier shooting in Tulsa). Are there writers in addition to Abdurraqib that you feel people need to be reading right now?
Hazem: In general, people absolutely need to be reading more poets of marginalized identities, especially ones who’re actively attempting to craft new narratives out the of histories and cultures we’ve been born in. If I have to pick a few, I’d start with Safia Elhillo. Reading her work means being in a master class on how to see the world, in all its beauty and pain, through the smallest and most seemingly commonplace facets of our lives. Ocean Vuong has similarly changed the way I think of writing on the self, especially in the way he weaves his personal and family history with that of his country. I can also never recommend Danez Smith enough. I can’t think of any other writer who has such a thorough ability to wrestle with trauma and the horror of oppression while also creating space for hope and breathing.
Hazem Fahmy is a poet and critic from Cairo. He is currently pursuing a degree in Humanities and Film Studies from Wesleyan University. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in Mizna, COG and HEArt. In his spare time, he writes about the Middle East and tries to come up with creative ways to mock Classicism. He makes videos occasionally.
Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Still: the Journal, and elsewhere. Chris enjoys drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.