Abdurraqib’s A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House, September) wrestles with cultural and personal history, as well as how to move forward after heartbreak.
How would you describe the organizing principle for the collection?
In early 2017, I rewatched the film The Prestige on a flight. Christopher Priest explains the three parts of a magic trick: the pledge, where a magician shows a participant something that appears normal; the turn, where the ordinary thing becomes extraordinary; and the prestige, where the ordinary thing returns to its normal state, with the new understanding that it could easily become something else. The main magic trick of the book is the question of “how do I trust myself with the world again?”
What is the process of titling like for you?
I mostly rely on the idea that the first line of a poem is likely good enough to be the title of a poem. But I also believe in the preservation of a great first line, so I consider that, as well.
The poems propose a tension between the everyday and the higher stakes of survival. How do you see one informing the other?
I think for many—myself included—the ordinary and everyday are intertwined with those high stakes. In my first book of poems, I felt like survival was a binary concept of being alive vs. not being alive. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun asking questions of how I’m living. I don’t want to be alive every day, but I want to be alive most days, and I consider that a vast improvement over most of my life. I feel obligated to honor that by asking how I am surviving, how people around me are surviving, how the ecosystem that holds us all is surviving.
How did the sequence “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This” come to be, and what role do you see it playing in the book?
I was at a reading shortly after the election, and the poet, who was black, was reading gorgeous poems, which had some consistent and exciting flower imagery. A woman, who was white, behind me—who thought she was whispering—said, “How can black people write about flowers at a time like this?” What is the black poet to be writing about “at a time like this” if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower—that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes? So, I began this series of poems. I thought it was much better to grasp a handful of different flowers, put them in a glass box, and see how many angles I could find in our shared eventual demise.