Kemi Alabi is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Their poems and essays appear in the Atlantic, Poetry, Boston Review, Catapult, Guernica, them., the BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2, Best New Poets 2019, and elsewhere. They have served as cultural strategy director of Forward Together and helped bring into being programs like Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers, and annual art campaigns like Trans Day of Resilience. Kemi Alabi makes their home in Chicago, IL.
Where are you writing to us from?
Beneath a black cat named Radical in a half unpacked, new-to-me bedroom. Chicago, IL.
What has been most important for you, personally/artistically/habitually, during the pandemic?
In a post-lecture Q&A, someone asked Toni Morrison what brought her joy. She answered, “Sex. I’m sorry—I meant to say ‘my writing.’” So ditto, plus time by Lake Michigan. One day I’ll combine these delights.
Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?
To revise Against Heaven, I created this playlist—it follows the book’s moods and many referenced songs, so all of those artists left a mark on the collection. Then I must must must name Audre Lorde, Patricia Smith, bell hooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rachel McKibbens, Danez Smith, Samiya Bashir, and Terrance Hayes.
What books are you reading right now and would you recommend any to others?
I just finished Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. And I’ve finally unpacked my books, which have been in storage for months, specifically to reread Taylor Johnson’s debut collection Inheritance. Please pick them up, and let me know what you think!
If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
A traveling book fair called Lorde’s. Can’t restock Sister Outsider fast enough.