The Interview Issue is, as always, a space where we get to pay tribute to the city’s iconoclasts—those with something important and interesting to say—and doing so in a way that lets us lay claim to their talents acutely.
And while each year we’re proud of our non-profit warriors, restaurateurs, and artists, this year it’s extra exciting to promote one of Columbus’ more unique recent cultural exports: Black Nerd Problems.
Thanks to local poet and self-professed nerd William Evans, now there’s a place for people of color to extol their love of comic books and explain to their fellow men and women why it’s okay to like Dawson’s Creek.
It’s an extra special opportunity to have an exchange of ideas conducted by another of our famed cultural exports, author and fellow poet Hanif Abdurraqib: former Columbus resident, current hardcore nerd and contributor to MTV.com.
Hanif: I think a lot of people in Columbus probably read black nerd problems, but don’t know that the person who started it is actually here. What made you start it?
Will: I started realizing that the media I was consuming walked around the edges when it came to race or sexuality or marginalized representation. It just wasn’t a priority. It bothered me that I was consuming so much media from perspectives that did not seem to have an interest in diverse viewpoints. In starting Black Nerd Problems, I knew I had a chance to diversify the landscape, but I knew it couldn’t just be me. I am straight black male, which would be a diversification from what people are usually used to, but I was interested in making it more than just me. I wanted to pull together a team of people and expand. It’s base is Columbus, because I do a lot of the top-down level stuff, and I’m at the center of my people, both metaphorically and physically. A lot of my writing comes through the lens of being from here. It’s very down-to-earth, no BS, and I think that is something we do here. Sure, we’re extremely gifted with metaphor and how we describe things, and how we relate to things. But I think we’re also very rooted to that philosophy. Columbus is in that weird spot of being a big city, but not a metropolis. A lot of the glamour and stuff that comes with the Metropolis is stuff, we don’t have to deal with. And because we don’t have to deal with it, we don’t have to cut through it either. Maybe that’s a privilege.
Hanif: Do you think something’s lacking in the nerd culture in Columbus?
Will: Well… not entirely. We have a lot going on from a nerd standpoint. The gatekeepers are not the most diverse. A lot of the nerd nights, or the trivia nights, or the conventions aren’t always the most diverse. I think those places are accepting of marginalized groups, but they haven’t had that representation either. The cool thing is that I can walk around Columbus now, and someone will see me in a Black Nerd Problems shirt and they’ll say, “Hey! I know that site! What can I get into around here?” And so, I’ve been thinking about those things. What kind of answers and feedback I can give to nerds around the city.
Will: I’ve known your writing for a long time—Columbus is very simple to the sentiment that you’re trying to express. Do you ever have any fear of the work being too local? Not accessible on a universal level?
Hanif: The short answer is yes, but I don’t care. I don’t believe in too local, I think; the idea that I’m trying to shoehorn into all of this local imagery into universal ideas. I’m trying to create a romanticized version of the city that I’m from that can reach to everyone who has ever been from somewhere. I think the people my work doesn’t speak to are people who maybe don’t feel connected to a certain place. I think being from somewhere, being able to claim somewhere is a real privilege, and not everyone can experience that as I have. Sure, the Midwest sentiment is obvious. But there’s also just the sentiment of being from a place and wanting that place to remain a certain way. I don’t have a lot of work that’s about Columbus as it is, you know? I have a lot of work about Columbus as it was. It’s not the same.
Will: I think these stories could really only exist in a city like ours. These stories could get lost in New York or Chicago. Sure, the poems feel universal, but they are very personal to the city, right?
Hanif: Sure. I think I’m big on archiving personal memories, from Columbus specifically, and making my work revolve around those. I think that if we don’t do that here, and we take for granted that these stories won’t get lost, they’ll actually get lost. They have to echo down generations. In order to do that, someone has to archive them and write them down and have them in a place where they can be remembered. My life doesn’t revolve around hoarding Columbus memories. But I know that if someone doesn’t, we risk forgetting the city as it was. I say this as someone who comes home now and doesn’t recognize the neighborhood that I used to live in. When a city is rapidly changing, and people are being displaced, or leaving, those stories become more valuable. So, my mission is one of memory. Not only for people here, but for people who live in other places and long for stories like these. Most of my book is about people being displaced, and so I want to ask about place, and how Black Nerd Problems helps you find your place here.
Will: What grounds me here with Black Nerd Problems is that I built it from nothing. In the last month or so, we’ve been quoted on a hard cover of some Marvel books. We’re on an actual Marvel property. And that’s huge. We built a thing that didn’t exist, and now it’s here. Taking a platform that didn’t exist and building it out of nothing feels very Ohio to me. We didn’t have anyone watching over us. Everyone invested in it is invested in what we produced, and not what our potential could be. That felt, to me, like something that could only be built here.
Hanif: The symbolism of Black Nerd Problems is important because the marginalized are being pushed further and further to the edges of the city, and now have to exist in places where they weren’t before. People are having to build their own, newer spaces.
Will: Right. These jokes are made about Brooklyn or Detroit as the faces of gentrification, but it is very much here in this city. When I talk about the mission of Black Nerd Problems, I often say that we’re “invading” and of course, that has a negative connotation, impeaching upon an established place for someone else. But in our lane, that’s what we’ve had to do. When we enter into the spaces we’re trying to fit into, people look at us like we’re not supposed to be there. But we are.
Hanif: So it’s all about a fight for space, the fight to be seen. That is a very nerd-like pursuit, especially if you are being erased in any way.
Will: Right. And there’s a way for the culture to grow in a healthy manner. I’m weary of having natural borders in the city because the culture doesn’t grow. People aren’t driving from Westerville to Reynoldsburg regularly to go to trivia night or nerd night, or something that happens once a month with 20 other people. You’re going to the ones in your neighborhood. While that’s fine, that isn’t growing and diversifying the culture here. If we don’t look at the city as a segmented entity, I think it would do a lot of good.
Another thing is that Columbus has so many transplants from bigger cities. So when you’re talking about creative spaces, you get so many people from other cities, and they just do their thing. Because their thing is ripe for the picking.
Hanif: True. And with that, I think so much of Columbus’ identity becomes more wrapped up in being something other than what it is.
Will: Well, yeah. And those of us who are proud to be from here… we’re good. We know that we don’t have to be these other things. And I think the work we’re both doing shows that. If Black Nerd Problems could start here and expand into a national entity, that says that things are happening here for people like us. For people of different backgrounds and diverse interests. It helps Columbus ground itself and what it is. How has moving away from Columbus influenced your writing, not necessarily being in the city?
Hanif: It’s easier because I don’t have to account for the city as it is, and I can account for the city as it was. I can account for the memory of the city as I knew it best. A lot of these places aren’t what they were five years ago, and so it helps to be so far away that I don’t have to account for exact geography. Especially when I’m writing memories and nostalgia. I love Columbus fine now, but I’m a kid from the East Side. I’m a kid of City Center Mall and a lot of things that don’t exist anymore. In order to attach myself to those memories, I need to imagine them as they were. It’s hard to do that when you’re there, looking at where they used to be. Shifting geography can convince people that things didn’t happen, or that places weren’t real. The great victim of Gentrification beyond people is memory, the general effects of this; there are people not able to look at the city and see anything they remember. People are not able to take their children to where they grew up. It has generational impacts.
Will: I get that. When I write poems, I have an easier time writing about Akron, where I grew up, as opposed to Columbus, where I live now. We’re across the street, right now, from a spot I used to go to, and I can’t visualize it. I can’t see the building, because not only is the building not there now, but it hasn’t been there for a decade.
Hanif: Right. And so it all becomes less believable. It makes your past, your history less believable and that, therefore, makes your experience in life less believable—and it all comes back to making your existence less believable. People need to be able to see where you came from. That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what I also think the work of Black Nerd Problems is, giving people a place. Telling anyone who is searching for a place, “we got you.”