Hi, everybody. >> Hey. >> Anna. >> Hello. >> Hello, Amber Rose. >> Hello. >> Good to see you, Davey. >> Hey. >> We're here to talk about a poem that's in this remarkable book, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, and it's by a poet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. And the poem is called USA v Cuba as in versus. So we're going to listen to a special recording that Hanif made at Amber Rose's request for us, and then we'll talk about it. So here we go. >> USA versus Cuba after Frank O'Hara. It is 3:15 on a Saturday and I am in a car on I 95 On the way to the soccer game and mate is riding shotgun which is also the name for when you plunge something sharp into a can of beer and split open. It's aluminum shell before swallowing it's urgent sacrifice and I once saw Nate do this five times in one night before the Mount Union game. And we got to the field late the next morning smelling like something coughed up in the heat of a 1980 summer. It was almost as hot then as it is right now in this traffic that isn’t moving and hasn’t moved for what feels like 30 years which is to say that it feels like we haven’t moved since we were too small to speak and burden everyone we love with our refusal to crawl back into silence. And every car on this highway is in the park and somehow people are still pressing on their horns, and Nate turns up the radio and David Ruffin is singing, I wish it would rain, and his voice is unfolding long and slow in the backseat like an eager lover. And there's a whole history of men demanding the sky to shake at their command. And I'm not saying out loud whether or not I believe in God. I'm not saying out loud what I know the rain means, I'm only saying that I mean this dry summer to stay dry. I'm only saying that the tickets to the soccer game cost as much as my best suit, and kickoff is at 3:,30 and we are absolutely going be late. And there is a whole history of black people being late to things and there is a whole language signaling our arrival. And there is an entire catalogue of jokes that dissect this happening and they never get old. And by they, I mean black people in America and I can hear the joke our college soccer coach made when the only two black boys on the team stumbled late onto a hot field, and lateness always makes for a good joke. And the punchline is I slept through my mother's final breaths. Or the punch line is I stumbled into a living room fake with a family's grief of clearing a night salt from my eyes with a punch line is that I'm always running late. I'm always running, I'm always trying to move time backwards and tell everyone that I love them and isn't that funny. And Nate points to an ambulance speeding down the highway opposite us and disappearing into the sun, and I don't want to think that there might be a body inside of it and then all the cars start moving. >> What's the scene? I mean, it's, somewhat obvious, but worth saying, where are they, Amber Rose? Where are they? >> They are in traffic. >> Mm-hm. >> Sitting in a car in traffic. >> Mm-hm. >> Hanif is driving, Nate is in the front seat, it's 3:15, they're trying to get to a soccer game, which starts in 15 minutes. Presumably that's the US versus Cuba soccer game. >> Right. So it's a major game because it's an international, >> That's CONCACAF Qualifying. >> So it's a real thing? >> Yeah. >> It's a real thing. >> Okay, and so they're in traffic and they're very frustrated because they really want to get to this game. >> And they spent a lot on the tickets. >> Yeah. >> And then there's a memory of lateness or being late. What happens there, David?. >> In that memory Hanif is, steps into the room just after his mother has died because he slept through his mother's final breath. >> Which is what, what would that mean to the family? I mean, being obvious here? >> That the family is in crisis and sitting at the bedside of a loved one, and that's a moment that he misses. >> He missed it, just possibly because it was a complicated thing that was happening or sort of a traumatic thing, but possibly because he sleeps in, he sleeps late, and just prior to that, and there's this riff on lateness. >> Yeah. >> What's happening there, that thing? >> Well, the whole poem shifts right at, we are absolutely going to be late, and there's a whole history of black people being late to things and there's a whole language signaling our arrival and there's an entire catalog of jokes that dissect this happening. >> So there's a reference to a prejudice >> Right. >> A form of racism on this the assumption and he is sort of describing it and he's thinking about being late and he is thinking about that, and particularly a soccer coach who made a racist joke. >> Right. Okay, and then the family and then Amber Rose, there's this important turning point, a realization at the end, what is that? >> Yeah, there's an ambulance that's coming the opposite way on the highway. >> Which means? >> I mean, one of the final lines is I don't want to think that there's a body inside of it. But the ambulance signaling life and death signaling urgency and emergency and precarity >> So he discovers what about his situation? >> He has to sort of put it against someone else also dealing with a timely urgency, but that could be far more severe and that sort of click things into a different perspective. And that is aligned with the cars starting to move. >> Right. So it's really beautifully structured. This is basically just the narrative. Basically, this is such a bad situation. We're going to be late to this game. We spent a lot of money on the tickets and the reason we're late because of traffic jam and a traffic jam is because there was an accident and somebody's probably dead as a result of that accident. Why were we complaining? Why don't we have a larger perspective? Mixed into it is this trauma of not being there for death in the family, okay. So now let's enter, let's add Frank O'Hara to it. >> So I mean, >> After Frank O'Hara, what does after mean by the way? >> Often either in the style of or in response to- >> Both probably. >> Yeah. And this- >> And also post dating. >> Right, yeah. >> That's the three after. >> Yeah, yeah. >> Okay. >> Just to start, I mean poetically speaking there's two kind of great bookends that are direct calls to O'Hara. The it is 3:15 on a Saturday recalls, O'Hara's day lady died. It is 12:59 on Friday. >> The day lady died. >> Yeah. >> So it's a specific reference. >> Three days after best deal there, right like he really spells it out for us. And then in the end we can talk more about other sort of New York school style elements, but the end I really thought about O'Hara too. I don't want to think there might be a body inside of it and then all the car stop moving reminds me of it's kind of an inverted version of she whispered a song to Mount Waldron along the keyboard at the five spot and everyone and I stopped breathing. >> Right. >> It's an inversion of that because, well, we do have a person that's potentially stopped breathing or maybe stopping breathing in the ambulance. But all the cars are not moving, so the traffic suddenly opens up again. >> So, Davey, why does Hannif or why would he, we don't know, but why would he use O'Hara as the basis for this meditation? What purpose is that's serve? >> One reason that he might have done that is that those are both poems that are are interested in the simultaneity of memory and the poems move through time, they are located in different temporal elements, but that those moments that are distinct occurrences, two different moments in time, Are simultaneous in the active memory, so in with the way that just like this is a study in, among other things, the relationship between seeing something or experiencing something and it triggering an associative memory and thinking about how relationships unfold over time. And this is going to drive all of you nuts but is it true to form, they're also both poems about infrastructure, that O'Hara's poem is about moving through open space and then being in a train station. And this is a poem about a different movement of infrastructure about the non functionality of American highway infrastructure, that traffic jams before sports games are super common and are a major problem to being able to use a highway network to have people be able to move from place to place. And so they're both poems that are conditioned of a disruption in the use of transit infrastructure. >> Yeah, good observation. >> I think something else that is happening in this kind of gesture towards Frank O'Hara and but really is just happening in the poem is that Hanif is also talking about a racialized experience of time. And how even something as moving through time is not something that is devoid of [LAUGH] conceptions of race and how different people respond to time or are able to access time or move time backwards or move comfortably through time. So even as he's feeling this pressure, he's also feeling a whole history of black people feeling sort of pressured by time and not- and being at in a sort of disjunct relationship to time. >> And having a lack of it, right? I mean, one of the most devastating lines in the whole poem is towards the end of this first huge stanza, there's an entire catalog of jokes that dissect this happening and they never get old and by they, I mean black people in America. He's not talking about the jokes never get old. He's saying that a lot of black people in America never get the opportunity to get old. So they don't have fun. >> Yeah, it's sort of a pun because also this black people don't age. >> Yeah. >> [LAUGH] Because we just have flawless skin. [LAUGH] But there's a lot of things happening in there but also another line, I'm always running late and I'm always running. That to me is another one of those points where he's kind of turning right on the head of that line. And pointing in a lot of different directions to say a lot of different things. I can't separate that I'm always running from the sound of this ambulance going by and thinking about racialized violence in America and there's so much that he's packing into every single one of these lines. >> I'm always running also is essentially a quote from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. >> They're also both poems about sudden stillness, about the kind of cadence of thoughts that happens when you suddenly can't move. And this is a poem that begins being trapped in space wanting to move. And so what moves while Hanif is stuck in traffic is the sequence of thoughts, that the thoughts are tumbling out of themselves. And as soon as the car starts moving, the poem ends, the poem perhaps exists as like a motor, a strategy, being able to deal with I can't move forward in space, but I can move forward in time. But like cyclical temporality of this poem in the way that O'Hara's poem moves speedily through urban space until it crashes to a halt. That they're both poems that are fixed by, grounded by not being able to move for either reasons of infrastructure or reasons of emotional response. >> And we've talked about the ways in which it is after Frank O'Hara using similar modes. We've just started to talk about how it turns O'Hara or even resists O'Hara, starts moving, as opposed to stops breathing. So let's talk a little more about resistance. What other ways in which are there in which he's doing something different? I don't know if we want to go so far as to say critiquing the New York school mode but- >> Well, just to jump off what David was saying a second ago there. I mean, there's so much of O'Hara's lunch poems in general, but the daily diet particularly, are about this moving through space. You imagine O'Hara's splashed the speaker of that poem, just kind of flitting back and forth, ducking into a shop to buy this, go into the bank to withdraw money. Buying a whole bunch of cigarettes and thinking about the people that are going to feed them for dinner and there's a lot of consumption and participation in the sort of New York lunch, our economy. And the poem really kind of has its own sort of sense of economics. Whereas this is deeply interior and the poem moves from this specific moment of 3:15 PM on a Saturday. I'm in a car on I-95, Nate is next to me and the thoughts just kind of move increasingly inward from the first sort of memory of watching his buddy shotgun a beer all the way down to the memory of his mother dying and not being there. What a progression, this poem moves even further than O'Hara, O'Hara probably walked like ten blocks in that poem. [LAUGH] >> Participation is interesting to me, you use that word. So, the speaker of this poem, played soccer and is going to a soccer game. There's a reference to the Mount Union game and they got drunk prior to it and they were late. And then there's a reference to the coach, soccer coach. So in other words, these are two players, former players, they know the game. I wonder if the- what's the parallel to O'Hara? It's funny to think of O'Hara as an observer non participant. In so much of what he's seeing in New York even though he loves and what's his relationship with the event he's going to see which is the weekend out in the Hamptons, with a lot of abstract expressionists or something [LAUGH] like that. Anyway, what do you think about participation? Is that a difference? That Hanif is stressing, yeah. >> Yeah, and for me, one of the biggest differences is participation in capital. That O'Hara is just like, I bought all this stuff, I bought these train tickets, I got a shoeshine. In that poem and in many of the poems and lunch poems, he feels totally available, the systems of capital are totally available to him. And we get a very clear understanding that Emily's saying the tickets to this game cost as much as my best suit, that this is not a purchase that's made lately or with the understanding that it could be replicated. That buying these tickets has a lot of weight on it and you feel that O'Hara's just nonchalant interpolation and like, I'm just buying all this stuff, whatever. I'm a white cis man, capitalism is for me, I'm the subject of capitalism, that's not happening here. >> What are the consequences of missing any one thing? For O'Hara, there's a lot of random stuff that he could have missed. He didn't miss the front page of the newspaper but he could have missed just about anything else and the poem would be no less for it. Now Hanif, he is going to miss this game. He put a lot into this. He missed his mother's death. There's a lot of consequence in missing things, in not getting to go to things. Here, so it kind of ups the ante a little bit. This is great, let's get final words all the way around. So this is, nobody's talking about the present tense even though it's sort of implicit in our discussion about the use of the New York school style. >> Yeah, I guess I can start there if you want. I was thinking that this poem sort of takes the O'Hara sort of I do this, I do that style, and adds a great deal of emotional urgency. And sort of applies I do this, I do that and in continuous present and I think as Davy was saying earlier the way that poetic language means that you can straddle different temporal spaces and not worry about it right, that it takes this the sort of bouncy momentous jauntiness of I do this, I do that with the ampersands and that the poem like has a lot of energy despite being literally stuck in traffic. But it adds this element of really deep, emotional urgency that is mostly absent from O'Hara's poem until that final couple of lines. >> Right. >> So, why does that matter? In that poem, it's all about how among the many things that that poem is about. It's about how a sudden surprising event happens on an ordinary day, you could be out doing normal things and then you hear terrible news. Well, this poem is about, you're just sitting in a traffic jam and you're going to get thrown back into traumatic memory. And that that stuff is always just sort of below the surface and all it takes is a few sentences to get you there. >> Yeah, good. Thank you, Davy final thought? >> Yeah. Something that became apparent to me Anna as you were talking is that in O'Hara's poem there are lots of actions that he does, material actions in space that he does in the present tense. I go to get a shoe shine, etcetera all the things that he's buying. And no, the speaker of this poem does not do any material actions in the present tense. We get, I believe, I love, I need, but the person who is doing actions in the present tense this poem is Nate. Nate is riding shotgun. I once saw Nate do this five times. Nate turns up the radio, Nate points to an ambulance. This is a poem in which Nate does this and Nate does that. And that feels really intentional to me that it's both a homosocial reading that it's really about male friendship in a way that O'Hara is not interested in and it's a poem that is at once generous in its relationality, it's a poem about two people sharing an experience together as much as it is about the speaker's memory. And it's also a poem about turning the focus of the poem onto the actions of someone else, and allowing their actions to speak to their experience of what's happening. That other people, for the most part really disappear in O'Hara's poems, that those those poems in which poems are so centrally about him and his actions and it's his subjectivity that matters to him. And it's Nate's subjectivity and their friendship and the longevity of their friendship that I understand to be important to Hany for this poem. >> Nice. Thank you Davey, Amarose final thought? >> Yeah, my final thought sort of dovetails with the things that Davey was just saying. I was really stuck on this mention of David Ruffin singing I wish it would rain and, Hanif gives this line I'm only saying that I need this dry summer to stay dry. And another moment where he's having the memory of 30 saying that it feels like the car hasn't moved since 30 years before when they first decided that they were going to speak and that there's something that gets frozen in this moment when he's young when he takes up agency or tries to take up agency to speak. And that was sort of a moment when things went into pause and thinking about Frank O'Hara as someone who's just sort of moving through the city as he pleases and as he might wish, thinking about hearing someone singing I wish it would rain and I'm almost imagining Hanif's like hands being up to the sky. What does it feel like to try to stop the sky from raining or to try to stop time from moving or to try to stop this ambulance from rushing by, to be trying to respond to these things that are so much larger than one's individual subjectivity and agency but have such a huge impact on how one is experiencing life. So that move to look to Nate actually I think is about sort of sharing that burden and how that burden becomes shared, the burden of being black and being in capital time. And, and under such huge pressures in these impossible ways, in the ways that friendships that last throughout years don't necessarily make it easier but it gives you, a little bit of a way to strategize, to share burden, to be with someone, as you're trying to push the sky back. >> Really nice. I'm really liking this poem, more and more, as we talk about it. My final thought is just to add something about elegy because I think this is an elegy for his mom. And she comes in not quite as late as Billie Holiday does, but pretty late. And I think of this poem as about the whole history of men, people. Demanding the sky to shake at their command you were talking about this too. You can't determine fate, you can't stop some things from happening. And you know one of the greats of romantic gestures is a person standing against the great flat horizon trying to say God. Why did you do this? Of course it becomes trivial at the beginning because it's about like, I wanted to see this game and we can't get there. But it also turns out to be I can't control anything. I can't control the whole history of black people being late to things and having that be part of racism and it's part of soccer, in this way I think about this thing that I really love. And I couldn't keep my mom doing the Billie Holiday thing. And, then I'm reminded that people die all the time and I can't stop that. So there's this, In a way just to be therapeutic about it he's saying we just gotta slow down a little bit. We gotta calm down a little bit because there's a lot of things that we can't control. Right but I'm still angry about it, yeah. Thank you all, this was really good. Thank you so much. >> Thanks Al.