The internet is kind of like a giant game of ping-pong where there’s always somebody at the other end of the table ready to rally the ball back—whether you like it or not. A thought served out is returned with a friendly lob, the start of a conversation. A joke is returned with sidespin, the same joke but a little bit funnier. An opinion meant for the person across the table is returned with pummeling aggression from ten tables over, soon a barrage from all sides. Thwacks, bounces, ricochets. They echo and redouble.
What kind of space is this for language, for poetry, for art? We’re now almost thirty years deep into the experiment of the World Wide Web, and we still don’t really know. This featured series takes stock of the internet’s ping-ponging echoes by asking how we make art and tell stories about the internet, with the internet, and around the internet.
In a series of letters, Eve L. Ewing and Hanif Abdurraqib, the two halves of the poetry collective Echo Hotel, close out the special issue reflecting on what it means to be a collective—to make art with, for, and alongside others. Though each is known for having an excellent social media game, both with tens of thousands of followers, they reflect in this epistolary conversation about some of the off-line dimensions of artistic community, such as expressing gratitude and preserving intimacy—especially amid rising success. Moving between shared memories of togetherness, discussions of each other’s books, and real-time dispatches from their separate travels, Ewing and Abdurraqib narrate how Echo Hotel first formed and how it continues to constitute their “life of shared lifting.”
— Melanie Walsh
Eve L. Ewing and Hanif Abdurraqib in Conversation
Sometime in maybe 2014 or so, I think my work began to circle Eve’s work a bit. We hadn’t met in person yet, but I had just moved to the Northeast from the Midwest, and Eve was a writer living in the Northeast from the Midwest. There was a relationship with love and longing for the region that we were both from. Also, I was so drawn to Eve’s ability to, very plainly, be whimsical. By the time we’d actually met, it was like we’d been friends already. We both had stories about old indie rock concerts and road trips and small corners of our home cities that only we knew.
Echo Hotel is simply a name we came up with when considering words that started with letters of our first names. I remember the night we came up with it. It was late and we were texting back and forth about all of these ideas for names. Eve thinks a lot more quickly than I do, which is a benefit to our friendship for me, probably. I’m anxious all of the time, so I’m such a calculated and measured thinker, always slow to act. Eve will grab you by the arm and sprint towards the cliff. I envy that, and I’m forever thankful for it. So once we decided on a name, by the next morning, Eve had made this cool little logo—two small radios with ECHO HOTEL written on them. It felt really large, but all we were really saying was I’ve got your back. The idea of a collective is, simply, someone willing to keep grabbing your arm, and running you towards the cliff.
I’m writing you on a plane, which seems fitting enough because I think we’ve talked plenty about how we’ve both been on too many of those this year. And last year. And the year before. And that’s a difficult thing to feel, in a sense, because we both want very badly to be grateful—to recognize that every day we get to do things that we’ve always dreamed of doing, one of which is make a living with our hearts and our questions and our insisting. And so it seems inappropriate to confess frustration with something like a plane. On the other hand, we both like very much to be home—to have patterns and routines, to be with the ones we love, to eat the things we like to eat and run to the places we like to run and hear the noises we like outside the window. It’s good to have some people you can be honest with about that.
Do you think about home in the same way that you used to? I remember when you were doing press for The Crown Ain’t Worth Much and you talked about how disconcerting it was for journalists to want to see the places you wrote about, and their unabashed vocal surprise that it didn’t look the way they saw it in the book. And of course, the book is partially about gentrification. So yeah, keen observation, journalists. We feel displaced from the places we write about in the books about displacement. And you talked about trying to reconstruct a place that in a sense doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist the way it used to. How are you feeling about that now?
I guess I should say why I’m writing, other than to share my ungrateful melancholic feelings. Somebody asked us to write a thing together about being in a collective, and we said we wanted to do an epistolary thing like Kaveh and Danez did, because doing what Kaveh and Danez did is always a good idea, and so is writing letters. You know, a couple of years ago when I was at Serenbe we talked about doing a project together by mail, and what I don’t think I ever told you was that I made a bunch of little handwritten poems and drawings for you and never mailed them. I don’t know why.
What do you think it means to be a collective? I know some of our friends are in collectives and they perform together and stuff (most notably, Dark Noise) but I think a lot of our other friends are in collectives that people don’t even really know about publicly. The only other people I know who are in a two-person collective are Morgan and Angel. I think a lot of people think about collectives as primarily being about shared production—making together, or doing together. Those things can be very cool. I think in our case, I mostly think of a collective in the sense of being together, and thinking together. (Of course, all those verbs aren’t mutually exclusive.) It means a public co-sign. It means I stand with you. I’m on your team. I have your back, and I’m counting on you to have mine. That’s such a simple thing, but it counts for so much. It also feels wildly risky and dangerous, because so many people are just so terrible, and so many things are just so terrible. It’s so risky to trust anyone. And even riskier, in a sense, to tell someone else that you’re ready to be accountable to them, to keep promises, to take responsibility not only for not embarrassing yourself (hard enough) but for not embarrassing them. That’s a lot. Human relationships are so risky.
Makes a two-person collective seem like a pretty good idea, no?
I am spending a month in Las Vegas, which is a place of real interest to me. I remain fascinated by cities that are seen by the outside world as primarily vehicles for tourism and/or excess. I often think, what of the people who live here? Who have grown up here and love the city for much more than what the visitors can project upon it/take from it? With enough people imagining what a city is from afar, the people actually within the city become a monolithic chorus. I am thinking of this now, as I write. From outside of my window, if I look to the east, I can see the lights from the Vegas strip in the distance, blinking eagerly and waiting for the sun to go down (which it is promising to do!) and if I look to the west, there’s a neighborhood of playing children and parents on porches and people tending to their grills in the way that people tend to grills with nothing on them. It strikes me that within the imagination of every place, there is another, more tactile place.
I am also thinking about this, of course, because I am always thinking about what it is and what it means to be from somewhere. The joy, shame, and burden involved with claiming a place. You and so many of our friends are so necessary to the forever ongoing project of breathing actual, real life into a place that America uses as a very particular canvas. I’m particularly floored by your new project, 1919, which I spent time with while on the final run of my book tour, sitting upon many of those cursed planes. I’m floored by the writing, sure, but that isn’t entirely surprising. I think that is something I perhaps take for granted, isn’t it? That I come to the work of my peers expecting to be surprised by something other than the quality of the writing, which I now assume is a given. I do think it allows me to see past the surface of the work and into some other, more exciting corners of it. At my first poetry workshop-type thing ever, the instructor gathered us around a table and said, “Well, congratulations. You’re all here because you can write. Now, with that out of the way, can we write poems?” and, of course, the corners of the internet where people talk about poems could (and most certainly will) argue about what is or isn’t a poem, and I suppose I’m not really here to do that (in part because I know very well where you stand).
I’ve gotten sidetracked, which I feel like we do in conversation, so it makes sense to have it happen here. But what I’ve been meaning to say, Eve, is that what was so vital to me about 1919 is the way a place is afforded a history. The world has its fair shares of inevitabilities, but history is the mother of them all. I think about place and gentrification differently now, or at least I have more language for the ideas I was chasing after a few years ago. What was pushing me towards honoring the people of a neighborhood—the elders, mostly—was to say that I was not the first person here. That there were people here before me, and people here before them. Lineage is yet another inevitability. I have gotten more cynical in the past three years, but I think I’ve also gotten less interested in empathy and more interested in honesty. If the end result brings people a little closer to some version of empathy, that’s fine. But I don’t need to have it happen on my watch. I love 1919 for how it takes something undeniable and does the hard work of adding beauty to it. I think this is the book that combines all of your best impulses. I am wondering, mostly, how it was to immerse yourself in such a specific history?
What’s funny about collectives is that a very kind person in Utah recently asked about us as a collective and asked where I saw us both working together the best. I think all of the time about production and how so much talk about production is solely about a finished product and not the entire life lived, carrying oneself to that product. And the many hands that push a person forward when their project feels unreachable. And so, I always imagine that we’ve made a commitment to continually work at pushing each other forward. In ways that, to me, are both explicit and implied. I find that as I get older, I start to speak more and more in sports/coach metaphor, but there was this thing a basketball coach would say to my team once, when we were groaning on about early morning practices. Someone would complain with something along the lines of “Why do we have to be awake this early?” and our coach would reply, “Because Michael Jordan is awake.” It was foolish, really, but as a kid it was this ridiculous motivator. The idea that the greatest basketball player alive was awake, working while no one was watching (which, of course, wasn’t rooted in fact, but mythology.) To be in this particular collective, for me, is to know that even if it is unspoken, I’m more inclined to work because I know you are somewhere, working. Even if working means that you are simply looking at the world and imagining the many ways it can be thought about more critically and generously. I’m never failed by your vision, or the many ways it manifests itself. But also, I find myself thankful for what our friendship has allowed for me and my ability to reach for other friendships in the world of writing. Because I fell for the lie that writing was an act of isolation, there was a lot of power and permission that finding early friendships in writing gave me, and I’ve been really propelled by that. I started a reading series in Columbus, and was driven to bring in poets I didn’t know, or hadn’t yet met. I was so excited about the idea of broadening the space for friendship and building outward. I’m in a basketball group chat with poets, and a soccer group chat with poets, some of whom I still haven’t met in person, but we’ve built this small collective out of something beyond our work. We’re tied together by our interests and excitements, and we’ve built these really strong friendships out of those things. I’m really excited about that, as someone who doesn’t always come into friendship easy due to my many anxieties. I’m so many things before I’m a writer, and I know that many others are, too. And I have to say that I appreciate the way this friendship has guided me to an openness and eagerness to create new friendships. There are poets I message back and forth with about music a few times a week. None of this feels as exclusive or isolating as it did when I first started writing. There’s a real trust earned in that, too. Also, we’d still make a great band.
Thank you for your beautiful letter. Just before I read it, I was thinking about how sometimes I feel so incapable of responding adequately to true kindnesses. I try to just say thank you and put all the force of my heart behind it, hoping beyond reason that the person I’m speaking to will sometimes be able to see beyond the thin veneer of my language and understand what I really mean. Maybe it’s the fault of colloquial interactions: thank you and I love you, which are two of the most important things we have to say to each other in this world, are expected to bear so much weight in so many contexts that when you really need them they don’t feel like enough. I think about this every time I look at my loved ones, especially my husband, and I think about how language fails us. The metaphor that usually comes to mind is that I wish the people I love could see into my heart—my literal, embodied heart, the muscle keeping me alive and allowing the blood to flow around my body so that I can write you this letter sitting in a hotel lobby in Toronto. And this is a funny thing to think, because… well, what would that reveal? But in my head, there is something shining there, something transcendent and surpassing the capabilities of speech. Or maybe just a series of portraits hung in there, all the people I love rendered in oil, looking out from filigreed frames. Here my mind goes to the e.e. cummings poem I love so much:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
This is all my way of saying: thank you.
This has been a recurring theme for me this week. Three days ago I traveled to Cambridge to honor the retirement of my mentor, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, after 47 years of teaching and mentorship. And it felt like no thank you I could offer her was good enough or worthy of her magic. And then I’ve been going through old letters as I start thinking about sorting my archives (this is a morbid topic for some people, but have you thought about doing the same?) and I found many from a dear friend, someone who has struggled mightily and someone I’ve worried about a lot. It made me grateful for our friendship, and for these little artifacts. For instance, he had printed an iTunes playlist of some classical music he thought I would like. Maybe fifteen years ago. And with a small, fine-tipped light blue pen, he had annotated the list, telling me which concertos were his favorite and how I should think about encountering the music as a novice to the form. And I thought, What have I done to be loved in this way?
Liner notes. Last month you came to Chicago and spoke at the Seminary Co-op, my favorite bookstore in the world, with Tara Betts, about Go Ahead in the Rain. You talked a bit about liner notes and how precious they are, because they offer us an intimacy into someone’s understanding of their own work, and they also offer a place where someone can be themselves, an artist, a creator, beyond what otherwise might be obvious. Beforehand we ate in the cafe next door, and ended up at a communal table with several people who were there to see you, and who had also read some of my work, and this was difficult. Because I think both you and I struggle with drawing boundaries around how much of ourselves we share with the world (a funny thing to say to you in a letter which will be published… which frankly I kind of forgot about until right now? yikes). And there is something about wanting to be able to just have a sandwich, alone together, and talk about things. But we also were readers before we were writers, and we know that in a sense these small interactions with the people who are kind enough to read anything we write—in a world full of good things to read, so many things, and they chose ours!—comprise, for them, the liner notes of this work. There will be something about us that is intangible, something we can’t even see in ourselves or each other, that helps them see the personhood in the things we’ve foolishly put into the world.
I really appreciate you reading 1919. It’s a weird book in some ways, and it was so hard for me to finish it, as you know. To answer your question, immersing myself in that history felt like time travel, even more than my usual writing does. I think I probably traveled through time to write the book. I don’t know. I sort of think with the vagaries of the way publishing schedules work that no one is going to know about it or read it. (If my publisher is reading this, ignore the last sentence! Everything is fine!!!! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!) But I just wanted to be brave like you and like the other people we love, the people with whom we make a weird kind of family. Brave enough to try different things and to push myself.
I should close this letter because it’s making me have too many feelings, but I want to say something about Go Ahead in the Rain and why it’s so important to me to be in a collective with you. At that same event with Tara, you read a bit about “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” which is the first Tribe song I ever heard, which I came across (maybe like you, I think?) through my brother, and which unlocked something for me about the tradition of storytelling in hip-hop and among Black people generally. What I love about that piece in the book is that, like all your work, it gives us a way for seeing that the stories laid before us are only the first of many… how can I put this? Okay, you know how the crust of the Earth is like only a tiny percentage of the planet’s composition, but it’s the part we can access, the part where every single thing we know and love and call “the world” is dwelling? But actually the Earth has this whole interior life that we can never know and understand but only try to access through moments both violent and miraculous, like the eruption of a volcano? Well, when you write, it’s like the volcano, you know? It’s like we’re peering into something glowing, something that allows us temporarily to see the truth of the matter, something too hot and dangerous to really look at, but which also feels glorious and holy. You invite us to excavate beneath the obvious, to see the real story beneath each story, and you endow even the ordinary with the quality of the epic.
P.S. Okay I was gonna close the letter there, but I went back and read the beginning of your letter about the grills, and it made me think of the first time we ever met in person, at Janae Johnson’s Memorial Day barbecue. We should have more barbecues.
Your letter is teeming with so much I’m eager to respond to it but let me first say that I have been thinking lately about liner notes and lineage, and how I learned to read most eagerly about music by skimming all of the ways the musicians I loved felt connected to the musicians they loved. Back in 2012, when I first got into the idea of writing poems and taking it as seriously as I could, I would do this thing where I’d ask people for book recommendations, and then I’d read not only the book of poems, but also the liner notes. If I read a book where a poet thanked Adrian Matejka, I’d then seek out an Adrian Matejka book. If, in his book, Matejka thanked Mary Oliver, I’d seek out a Mary Oliver book. And so on. It occurred to me then, as it does now, that a part of the collective (or a peer group, or a cohort, or a cluster of writers stumbling towards one another) is simply the public performance of support and affection, so that one might know what path to continue walking on. A thing I mentioned in Chicago was that J. Cole album. How, at the end, he effectively just reads his liner notes out loud, thanking everyone and anyone. There’s some magic in that moment, how his gratitude accumulates, perhaps peaking in the moment where he remembers that he’s forgotten to shoutout his own beloved mother, leading him to shout the word “MAMAAAAAAAA” long and loud.
I’ve been welling up with that type of gratitude lately, and it is such a difficult thing to carry around. I just got back from AWP, and I have to tell you that you didn’t miss much, maybe outside of a few moments where all of our friends gathered in a bar to watch sports and crack jokes. But then again, we’ll surely have one of those moments together before this very year winds down. Anyway, at AWP, I found myself, still, seeing all of these writers and not knowing how to adequately express to them what they’ve meant. It is a funny thing, to be confronted with so many writers who have given you new ways to use language, and then to be in front of them and have no language that feels like it rises to the moment. For this, I imagine thank you must do. It seems small, sure. But spoken genuinely, it echoes. What else could I say to Carl Phillips but this? To Mo Browne, to Tracy K. Smith? To Ilya Kaminsky, to Rita Dove? What else can I say, now, to the peers we have? The people I look to my right and left and get to see working beside us. Thank you doesn’t feel sufficient for Danez, for Nate, for Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, for Nicole Sealey, for Safia, for Angel, for Kaveh, for Fatimah. I am listening to Jamila’s new album as I write this, and I’ve been listening to it as I’ve written the things I’ve had to write in the hours before this one. And thank you does not seem like enough for this particular gift either. But, for all of it, I imagine that thank you will have to do. A part of vulnerability and closeness, for me, is trusting that the people close to me will understand that my affections are larger than the language I have. Language is so flimsy, and there is so much of it, but it all shrinks at the feet of genuine gratitude, which is something that I imagine is lived more than it is spoken.
I’m glad you mentioned us eating in Chicago before my reading. Another thing I’ve been kicking around is the idea that the distance between I know and love your work and I know and love YOU seems to have gotten smaller, for both of us. On the night I found out about The New York Times bestseller list, I think none of it felt real, or felt like something I had a permission to celebrate until we spoke, and you reminded me of the times we came to see each other read, or the times we read together, a few years before now. The idea that people weren’t really checking for us, and so we had permission to check for each other in this really large and immovable way. I thought about that, as we were eating in that booth with a rotating group of (very kind!) strangers who wanted to talk. I have gratitude for that, as well. My many anxiety disorders push me towards a preference for either absolute privacy, or absolute immersion in the world, and I’d like to keep that balance a little more even these days, but I still find myself thankful that anyone cares at all. And so, you’re right, I think. I don’t think the exchange of my work for people reading it means that my life is without boundaries, but I do want to remain thankful for people who come up to me to tell me something about a song they love, or a friend they miss, or a music video they watched once. Ultimately, I think that’s what drove me to write about music. I was so eager for people to talk to about so many things I truly believed weren’t small. No matter what I was told, it always occurred to me that music was worth writing about with reverence. I had watched music, and a love for it, drag so many of my friends back from whatever ledges they were standing on, and if there is anything that has kept my people alive for longer than they might have been alive otherwise, then I believe it is worth honoring.
We should have more barbecues and by we I certainly mean those of us who have never invited anyone to a fictional barbecue, because I am now convinced that at the fictional barbecue there will be only white people. I remember that day so vividly because you (and I) were at the time (and I imagine still now) so enamored with the song “Post To Be,” which I somehow still can’t listen to without thinking of how eagerly you sought it out on a phone and played it on the speakers at that cookout. It is so wonderful for me now, I think, to have a relationship with songs that relies on the memories of my dearest homies, and the joy those songs brought them. The way some people I love do that half-sing, half-hum thing when a song they love but don’t know every corner of comes out of a speaker. The way an unexpected tune leaps onto a playlist on a long drive and someone bounces up and down in a seat and eagerly reaches for the volume. I have become an archive of these moments as I’ve gotten older. So, in some ways, I’m no longer just building a soundtrack for my own memories, but also I’m borrowing from the soundtracks of all the people I love. It is quite the sonic tapestry. I suppose this means that your contribution is “Post To Be,” which, honestly, is as good as any.
I hate to end on a sad note, but even as I say that, I imagine you were expecting me to end on a sad note, and I also know that if it were just the two of us talking, you would understand that beyond this sadness is something that isn’t sad at all. Since we’re talking about songs and friendship and affection, though. When Scott Hutchinson died last year, I had a hard time returning to Frightened Rabbit’s music. In part, because everything he was struggling with was all in there. What does a listener do when what eventually takes a musician from them was there, in the words the entire time? The stakes become different. Even if we tell ourselves it was never just songs, there are things that make that idea more real. Despite my very intense aversion to the use of a communal “we,” I’m going to say “we” here and I do mean everyone—I so loved Scott, and his music, and I think the loss for even those who did know or love his music is large. It took away an opportunity for that knowing. So, a few months after we lost Scott, Death Cab For Cutie did a cover of the Frightened Rabbit song “My Backwards Walk.” The work of mourning manifests in so many different ways, and for Scott, it seemed like there was a type of immovability. People in an emotional holding pattern, waiting for permission to be blown in one direction or the other. Death Cab’s cover of Scott’s song was a gentle push forward for so many still steeped in grief, myself included. To complete this circle and wrap up this long and winding letter, I’ve been thinking about that gesture lately. With any luck, what it means to love and care for someone—their full selves and not just their work—is to have a desire to lift them up when they can’t lift themselves. To echo their lives and their work into the places they can’t echo into. And to forever feed the ecosystems they were a part of. Not just in death, of course. But in any mode of silence, or sadness. That all seems so massive, but it isn’t, really. We are so much more than what we create, Eve. I always hope to be one of the people who sees that about you first. I gain so much more from you than our production could ever articulate. For this, I carry you everywhere. It is such an honor to live this life of shared lifting.
Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer from the east side of Columbus, Ohio.
Melanie Walsh is a PhD candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is completing a dissertation about the recirculation of postwar literary texts on the internet. Beginning in August 2019, she will be a postdoctoral associate in Information Science at Cornell University.