Ms. Muse: What Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s Womanist Poems Tell Us About Love, Language and Race in America

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of female resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.

(PS: With this installment, Ms. Muse marks its first birthday!)


“If you gotta say it, you gotta say it,” says Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie in an intimate video of her book launch for Karma’s Footsteps. “I love that poem—Ruth Forman says something like if you’re looking for your pen and you can’t find your pen, well then you write the poem in blood. It’s gotta get written and if you’re so busy looking for your pen in the couch then it’s your voice that’s been stolen. So use your pen. Use your blood. Write.”

Tallie’s summary of Forman’s gentle and longer “If You Lose Your Pen” is spot on but adds a visceral urgency at the end—exactly what a distracted writer needs. At 1:25 minutes into the video, she reads “Her Voice,” a poem for Dr. Nina Simone, written soon after the singer, songwriter, and activist’s death. Tallie tells the packed house, a lively, diverse audience, that she’d been listening to a radio special “and they played her music for hours and hours and hours, and if you listen to Nina Simone for hours and hours and hours—something’s gonna happen. Something!” The audience laughs heartily and knowingly.

The part of “Her Voice” that stuns me with every reading—for both the words themselves and her staccato performance that gathers speed, then slows, speeds and slows:

...bent-backed women
walked up her throat,
flew straight arrow
from her mouth,
Mississippi, Gullah,
Baptism, the Nile,
Congo, belly of
Slave ships, Harlem
potent cocktail
of her
 Pitch
           black
                      notes

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie says her work focuses on “resilience, women, body image, race, ancestry, social justice and the healing power of art.” She is the author of Strut (2018), Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation (2015), and Karma’s Footsteps (2011). Poetry Editor of African Voices from 2013 to 2017, Tallie is a Ph.D. student at Brown and holds an MFA from Mills College. I Leave My Colors Everywhere, Tami Ravid’s short 2003 film on the subject of Tallie’s poetry, features the title poem and her appearance at the Black Magic Woman Festival in 2002.

For Tallie, the line between reading and public speaking is often fluid, and each serves as a vehicle for the other—but clearly, what matters most to her is connecting with her audience. Her candid, vibrant warmth transforms even her video restaurant review into a funky, friendly, flash documentary.

While much of Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s body of work is protest poems, she answered my recent call for feminist love poems with two odes to the complexities of love and relationship within the context of language and Black culture. She also opened up to Ms. about writing, being a “womanist” and the danger of living in America while Black.

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie (Photo: Dominique Sindayiganza)

THE POEMS

What I Remember

(I. The First Phone Conversation)

Our words were ripe, wild
raspberries chosen
carefully on a green afternoon.

          I wanted you
          to change the soundtrack. 
          Unbirth Billie’s
          moan from my throat, help
          me speak honey
          again.

Your words
were palms pressed
in prayer, a hand
open & offered to me.

(II. The First Date: You Brought a Mango)

You carried the sun
gently, sweet Haitian
rain in your palm.

Dawn’s sugary flesh
against the midnight
of your hand.

I remember the mirror
of uprooted 
fruit.

I remember 
the tears you spoke,
orange candles in your basement,
how I listened to your footsteps.

          Our hands were quiet

we memorized each other
like scripture.

(III. Nothing Left but the Fall)

          Days running our
          fingers over each others’
          words.

Plates of yasa & Joloff rice,
afternoons
          reciting Shange
          & Perdomo,
 
coaxing the light back.
          Breathing into me—

red candles flickering,
roses, morning glories.

Did I ever thank you?
Not for the gifts of food
          or books

but for the gift of you?

(IV. Fin)

Goodbye to water,
to ocean, to salt, to us, 
breaking,
waves of you 
still hummed in my skin.

Why You’ve Loved Me Ever Since You Started Thinking in English

(for Dominique)
 
There are no soft
sounds, no words
like pillows, plump
vowels ripe sweet
juicy sliding down
your chin, your neck
there, there where my lips
meet the hollow below
the apple. My English
gives you what your
language does not—
 
cotton, Coltrane, candied
yams, marches, sit-ins,
panthers, black, Black
Black Love & space,
spirits drenched in honey,
oh oh oh my God gospel
in bed (and Sunday mornings), 
orchids, Sun-Ra, collard greens,
swagger, collage of tragedy
and dignity, Romare, romance & salt
water, house parties, hands
on hips, don't let them get your
fingernails or your hair, trumpets,
          volume, bass—

loving me
hums you
closer to unburying
the root. 
Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie (Photo: Dominique Sindayiganza)

THE INTERVIEW

Can you tell me about your process of writing “What I Remember” and “Why You’ve Loved Me Ever Since You Started Thinking in English.”

I wish I knew where these drafts are so I could give you some nitty-gritty details. I always write in longhand first. I’m pretty sure I wrote these down in journals. I do what Nikky Finney refers to as “the outpouring”— I get it all down on paper. Then I read it again and edit. I read things out loud because Sonia Sanchez said it’s a good way to edit and of course I listened because it’s Mama Sonia.

Then the thing is to leave the poem alone for a while and go back and see if it works. I know you asked about these specific pieces but I approach my poems the same way most times. Of course, they don’t approach me the same way. Ever.

“What I Remember” is a piece I started writing on a stoop in Brooklyn while hanging out with an ex who was and is a fantastic man. I realized that I had never written about our relationship and I wanted to pay respect to it because it had been a healing force in my life.

“Why You’ve Loved Me” was inspired by one of the most amazing souls I know: my husband. Way back when we were still dating, I asked him when he knew he loved me and he said it was when he started thinking in English. He pretty much handed me a poem. I thought about what it means to begin thinking in another language, then I considered what the legacy of “my” English is and how the celebratory resilience of it carries so much richness.

What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry?

At home I was surrounded by books, magazines and newspapers—there was always something to read. I was born and raised in LeFrak City, Queens so I was always surrounded by different languages. As a child I tried to imitate the sounds of Spanish because I thought they were beautiful. Language seemed to me a way to shift reality—although I would not have said that then.

I fell in love with poetry at school. I was drawn to poetry whether I understood it or not. It got into me enough that I started writing it. My parents tell me the first poem of mine they saw was dedicated to the Christmas tree they were throwing out. Apparently I taped the poem on the box. So I must have felt that poetry and feeling went hand in hand.

Do you seek out poetry by women and nonbinary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

It wasn’t until I sat with the work of Black authors that being a writer became a possibility. I had read the work of Black authors in school many times but it was specifically reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, many pieces by Langston Hughes, and everything by Alice Walker that signaled to me that I could be a writer.

I seek out the poetry of Black, Latina, Chicana and Indigenous women first. That is the work that nourishes and sustains me. Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange and Lucille Clifton’s work have been deeply important. Lorde taught me about interlocking oppressions before intersectionality was a word; Shange’s work shows me that love and sensuality are crucial to liberation and she points to liberation struggles throughout the Diaspora, which stops me from being U.S.-centric.

Lucille Clifton, ah. My goodness. She didn’t waste time with the “motherhood or art” bullshit. She became a beacon for me after I had my older daughters. And Alice Walker gave us the term “womanist,” which has always sat very well with me.    

“Womanist” sits very well with me, too. What groundbreaking (or ancient) works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest and/or concern you?

I’m annoyed by the professionalization of poetry. I talked about that subject in my second book. I love haiku and blues forms. I’ve become a lot more interested in ways to lift words off the page.

Can you say a little more about your annoyance with the professionalism of poetry?

When I got involved in poetry it was very community-oriented. The spaces we would read in were restaurants, cafes, independent bookstores or cultural centers in our communities. We would read in drug rehabilitation centers, in parks, at rallies. 

No one used to ask what MFA program you were in or what organization you were affiliated with. Even if you had an MFA…so what? Being a poet was not like climbing a corporate ladder. It has gotten more difficult for people to grasp the idea that people who never went to college or university can be poets. 

Thank you for speaking up about this issue, especially from your perspective as a Ph.D. student. And low-income folks who do get a degree in poetry, like I did, are more likely to be burdened with student loans for decades—directly affecting their ability to devote time and energy to their own work when it rarely pays well or at all. 

Okay, you touched something close to me with the school and debt conversation. I went to grad school the first time and had no idea that there were programs out there that I wouldn’t have to pay for. None. I only found that out years later when younger friends started telling me about the “fully funded” programs they were attending, and I mean friends from different socio-economic and racial backgrounds than mine. It is a well-kept secret that people can go to school and not pay for it. Obviously, the ideal situation would be that school is free or damn near free—but for now, I just want folks to know that you do not necessarily have to pay for your degrees. And people without degrees write poems. 

Can you share some of the ways you “lift words off the page”?

One way is through performance. Another is by working with other artists like my comrade Ahi Baraka. We collaborated on a number of pieces using the name The Quiet Onez. My husband and I used to make cinepoems which I loved. We would take our phones or a little pocket camera out with us on a walk to collect images. When we got back home, he’d record me reading the poems and we’d do edits on the computer. 

As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies and actions can/could make a direct difference for you—and for other women writers you know?

I need a pen and a journal to do my work. That’s pretty much what I need. I have been doing this work single, married, with children, with money, with very little money, without my name in lights, on tour, with health insurance, without health insurance and so I’ma keep doing it. The entire system would have to change to truly support anything that is about life in this country. Money is held up as the thing that can confer health, joy, community and wholeness upon people. The quest for money here is not a life quest. It is a quest to attempt to avoid death.  

I don’t think I can isolate what I need as a writer from what I need as a Black woman, mother, wife—which is to live. Do you understand what I mean? And to know that my children have a future. And to know that my husband will not be hunted down. That’s what I want, period. A humane system where our humanity is never questioned.

Charles Mingus said “My music is evidence of my soul’s will to live.” That is what my writing is too.

Mariahadessa, I ask featured poets the same set of questions as informal “anthropological” research—a way to build a body of evidence based on lived experience—in addition to a couple of unique questions. But you just revealed the importance of also asking Black poets: “What do you need as a Black woman?”

This is the first time a Ms. Muse poet has said she simply wants to live, wants her spouse to not be “hunted down,” wants her kids to live and to have a future. And isn’t that the same thing Black Lives Matter is trying to say, but which, astonishingly, so many white people find intimidating and respond defensively?

Yes, it is exactly the same thing and it is a thing that has been said one way or another since we were dragged here. I think Baldwin framed these defensive reactions best in “My Dungeon Shook,” his letter in The Fire Next Time. Things like Black Lives Matter somehow threatens these people’s sense of identity. In their minds, if my life matters, their lives can’t occupy the center anymore.

The whole letter needs to be required reading in this country, but this line: “Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

Black Lives Matter is messing with people’s ideas of reality.

You asked, “Do you understand what I mean?” No, I cannot fully understand what you mean because my white privilege insulates me. As a woman, I understand the calculations we make daily, throughout our lives, to avoid assault and death. As the mother of a daughter, the math worsens, as does the worry. As a lesbian, I understand the way gender identity and sexual orientation multiplies the risk of taking a walk with my wife.

But to compound that with the realistic day-to-day fear of having your spouse “hunted down” for the crime of “living while Black” in America—well, I “know” but cannot fully fathom that. Damn, I’ve panicked when my wife’s phone broke and she was late returning home. So I’m holding your words closely. 

Yes. I hear you. And movements like Say Her Name remind me that my daughters and I are not immune to those types of violence. We never have been. Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Jones. Their stories stay with me.   

How has the current political climate in the U.S. affected you as a woman and as a writer?

I have been writing, marching, teaching, gathering people and facilitating since I was a teenager. Since becoming a mother, I added writing about motherhood, pregnancy and self-care. I became involved in herbal communities, farming and community gardening. Two years ago my now-11-year-old and I created a poster called “10 Self-Care Tips for Artists, Activists and Other Folks Who Give a Damn.” But I’m not going to be what Zora Neale Hurston called “the mule of the world.” I’m not going out like that. I just keep doing my work.

What’s next? What upcoming plans and projects excite you?

I’m really excited that my first children’s book, Layla’s Happiness, comes out in September. I started writing for children about ten years ago because I had a hard time finding stories and characters that mirrored my children, but it really takes work to get the writing right and it is tough finding a publisher.

The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. Illustrator Ashleigh Corrin, publisher Claudia Zoe Bedrick and I worked very intentionally to bring something about life and happiness—as seen through the eyes of Layla—into the world. I think we need it.

About

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.