Close up image of hands playing piano

Image by Jordan Whitfield/Unsplash


Dear friends, 

One time, years ago, for Lent, I decided I’d give up listening to music. My idea was that when I was alone I’d be completely alone. 

Only, I was alone a lot anyway. And it was a rough year, and I made it rougher by giving up something that was a kind companion. Towards the end of Lent that year, I began breaking my fast. I allowed myself one song: The Promise by Tracy Chapman. I played it over and over. It broke me by helping me, and helped me by breaking me. With her voice, her lyric and melody, Tracy Chapman’s music helped me be alone in a way that I could cope with. 

Music is a kind of alchemy in us. It provides a shelter, a soundtrack, a background noise, and an accompaniment. Music allows us both to be alone as well as to be in company. 

I interviewed Hanif Abdurraqib for On Being this week. He’s a poet and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio, and my wide ranging conversation with him begins with music — Nina Simone and the Muslim Call to Prayer. Hanif is wise about all aspects of music: listening to it; watching it at a gig; wondering who is making decisions and who is making money; wondering what the relationship between the audience and performer is like. In his latest book, A Little Devil in America, he writes in praise of Black performance — on the stage, in sport, in TV and music. 

He speaks of griefs — the grief of systemic racism; and the personal grief of his mother’s death when he was a teenager — and about how music helps in times of struggle: Life has been difficult, and because of that I’m acutely aware of the things that have felt to me like mercy, or felt to me like something that has helped me get through. I am very serious about honoring that getting-through and the tools that help one get through. When Hanif reads his poem, “How can Black People Write About Flowers in a Time Like This" (he’s got 15 poems with the same title in his collection A Fortune for Your Disaster), he speaks of how the artistry of poetry helped him go deeper than anger after overhearing a White person say this about a Black poet — Ross Gay — who was reading a flower poem. The anger was true. But so was what he discovered by not giving the person he’d overheard a place in the poem. 

In this conversation Hanif Abdurraqib talks about struggle, as well as clinical anxiety, and how friendships, preserving privacy, and music can be a support. He returns, again and again, to how a safe experience of performance can be one that uplifts both performer and audience. It was Ramadan while we recorded this, and it’s still Ramadan as we air it, and in light of that time, I’m brought to the wisdom of that season: to contemplate mercy, the mercies that save us. 

Poetry Unbound is back for its third season this week, too. Our first episode features Hanif’s brilliant (and brilliantly titled) poem, “When We Were 13, Jeff’s Father Left The Needle Down On A Journey Record Before Leaving The House One Morning And Never Coming Back.” It’s a whirlwind of a poem — featuring Hanif in the backseat of a car with his friends, including Jeff, whose mother is driving the friends around. A song — “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey — comes on the radio, and this brings memory of Jeff’s father to the car. Jeff’s mom starts crying, pulls the car over, and Hanif is watching her, watching his friends, but also — importantly — watching himself. One person’s grief reminds us of our own griefs, and the poem ends with the hidden things he carries: his own loss of his mother, his father asking him to sit at the piano and play. The song itself was a mercy, because the song allowed everyone’s emotions to be carried with it, in it, by it. Carrying these things alone can be too heavy. But music helps. 

Lorna Goodison’s poem “Reporting Back to Queen Isabella'' is the second Poetry Unbound episode this week. In it, she positions herself as the unobserved watcher of a room where Christopher Columbus — Don Cristobal in the poem — gives a report of the so-called discovery of the island of Xamaica (an original spelling of Jamaica) to the Queen of Spain. The scene is filled with pomp. He unfurls a map on the table and it falls off the edge, landing at her feet, implying that what he’s “discovered” is at the edge of the world. Then, he lists all the things he and his army have counted: massifs, rivers and mountains. The poem’s final line is, “And yes, your Majesty, there were some people.” But, unknown to him, people were already mentioned in his poem: the word Massif is, in many dialects of English, including in Jamaica, a word meaning person. There we were, Lorna Goodison says, extending attention, life, voice and power to all peoples who were destroyed and abused in the tides of merciless European expansion.

Friends, our hope this week is that our episodes bring you to wonder, to appreciation, to listening, to change, and to the mercy at the saving heart of art. 


Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound


P.S. – Reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest book, A Little Devil in America, I became transfixed by his writings about Aretha Franklin, particularly his essay considering the album (and documentary film) Amazing Grace. This film epitomizes so much of what he speaks about in our conversation. Watch. Weep. Wonder. 



This Week at The On Being Project

Our Latest Episode

On Being Logo

On Being with Krista Tippett
Hanif Abdurraqib
Moments of Shared Witnessing

“People are impacted and affected through a moment of shared witnessing ... And that brings me closer to what feels like a type of emotional salvation.”

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Our Website


Poetry Unbound

Hanif Abdurraqib 
When We Were 13, Jeff’s Father Left The Needle Down On A Journey Record Before Leaving The House One Morning And Never Coming Back

Hanif Abdurraqib remembers stories of childhood, friendship, grief and growth alongside a classic song from Journey. 

Lorna Goodison 
Reporting Back to Queen Isabella 

Colonization begins something that doesn’t end when empires crumble. This poem recreates a scene where Christopher Columbus gives a report to his funder, the Queen of Spain.

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts
Google Podcasts
Our Website



Global Summit on Repair, Reconstruction, and Restoration
May 6, 2021, 9:00am – 3:15pm EDT
Online Event

Pádraig will be a part of the Facing History and Ourselves Global Summit convening of scholars, educational and civil society leaders, artists, and educators to explore some of the processes that have been used and are actively being developed in countries around the world to establish accountability, build democracy, nurture peace, and promote inclusion, justice, and equity. Karen Murphy, who Krista spoke with last year, will lead the facilitation. To find out more and register visit here

Fetzer banner





The On Being Project
1619 Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55403
United States