A Book of Questions: Interview with Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Author of STRUT

Jessica Walsh spoke with Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, author of Agape Editions’ latest collection, Strut. See hyperlinks in the interview for clips of Mariahadessa reading her poems!

JW: When you look at the book now, what experiences or other influences do you think led to its creation?

MET: Rage, loss, sensuality, and the blues were all huge influences in what got written and included in Strut. And love, of course, always love. Up until this book I tended to write about solutions to the -isms that me and the people I love deal with but this is a book of questions. Even if the questions are not explicit, they are beneath the surface. It’s a book filled with contradictions and voices that are not saintly. A good friend read it and said “This is a grown woman’s book” which made us both laugh. I think there is truth to that though. And damn, can I say that just because I can write a truth it doesn’t have to be my personal lived truth. A man I know used to like to joke that “Brazen Hussy Blues” was my life and I think that was wishful thinking on his part (or mine?) but the truth is I wouldn’t like anyone to be around me morning, noon, and night whether the sex was thrilling or not.

Anyway, I re-read a lot of Lucille Clifton and went wild over Kim Addonizio’s work while I was writing. I was all over the place performing my work and meeting a lot of poets. Too many poets [laughs].

I always listen to music so there is music here too [as in “We Still Don’t Know–for Jimi Hendrix“]. What was the soundtrack? Howling Wolf, Nina Simone, Sun-Ra. Betty Davis. And there is a blues ethos. Sekou Sundiata said “I think of the blues as a philosophical stance. That thing which finally as a consciousness allows us to transcend.” In that regard, there is a lot of blues in the book.

JW: Water flows through the poems in Strut, powerful enough to claim and give life [as in “Unhyphenated Souls”]. Oceans are Middle Passage graveyards, still grasping for sacrifices even as women today fight to help daughters swim and thus survive. Waves come back like blues refrains, patterned but with something new each time. In the gorgeous final poem “Ars Poetica,” you write “May the poems be/…/the wild water.” In that concluding image, what power does “the wild water” hold?

MET: Water. It has been a healing element for me for as long as I can remember. Long baths, going to the beach, showers,rain, waterfalls, rivers. I used to go to a ceremony on Coney Island every summer which is a tribute to the ancestors lost in the Middle Passage. The ocean holds so much: history, memories, resistance, the unknowable, possible futures.

Wild water was something I read about in herbalist Stephen Buhner’s work when I was apprenticing with Robin Rose Bennett. Buhner discusses a lot of Indigenous beliefs about the earth and our relationship to it. In one of his books he talks about how there is power in wild water; water that has gone through processing and comes through taps doesn’t possess that power. In “Ars Poetica” the wild water is the life force, the healing, the root, and the untampered soul.

JW: Tell me about the visual elements of the book, not only the cover but also the way the poems move on the page and the use of imagery in the poems. I understand you’re currently in graduate school for performance and theater at Brown University. How has that course of study influenced you as a poet?

MET: I just finished my first semester in the Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Ph.D. program. I have no idea how it will influence my work yet. I do know that my second interview (before I was accepted)  made me think about how the ways that poems are laid out on the page can communicate resistance. In the interview I was talking about writing that resisted oppression through content and Spencer Golub asked me if I had thought about “aesthetics of resistance.” Ntozake Shange and Amiri Baraka sprung to mind immediately so I talked about them and their work. When I left the interview I kept thinking about that though, how I could physically represent resistance on a page, how I could let poems express themselves through the way they look on the page. I had not really given that much thought before. Some but not a great deal.

So the opportunity to put that into practice came up. The book designer was having a hard time getting a poem on the page. I talked with Jen Fitzgerald about this and she suggested putting it in the book sideways. It made sense because the poem is about a love that turns oppression on its head. We decided I would choose other poems to put in the book sideways but only if the poems were as radical as that sort of layout. I chose three in the end: one about embracing having gaps between my teeth, the one about the liberatory love, and one inspired by Amiri Baraka.

The cover photo is of a cousin I have not met, my mother, my cousin Jacqui, and my Aunt Lois. I felt the image exemplified what it means to Strut which means to me to move with grace and pride and dignity and attitude, the take up space in the face of things that try to reduce you. It was a challenge to figure out how to put this photo on the cover by itself and so I asked one of my best friends, the brilliant artist and writer Mirlande Jean-Gilles, to create something. She created this gorgeous collage. I gasped when I saw it. The cover says everything I hoped it would.

JW: What projects are you working on now?

MET: I am traveling between two cities, raising three kids, and entering the second semester of this Ph.D. program so my current project is being present, centered, joyous and creative.

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Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie is the author of Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation (Grand Concourse Press) and Karma’s Footsteps (Flipped Eye Publishing). Her work has been published in North American Review, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Black Renaissance Noire, VIDA, Crab Orchard Review, BOMB, Paris/Atlantic, and Listen Up! (One World Ballantine). Ekere has travelled across the United States sharing her poetry and ideas about healing. She has taught in New York, London, Amsterdam and Rundu, Namibia. Ekere earned an MFA from Mills College in 2002. She is a mother of three girls and an enthusiast of plant-based medicine-making.

Jessica Walsh is the author of the poetry collection How to Break My Neck and The List of Last Tries. She teaches English at Harper, a community college in the Chicago suburbs. Her poetry has appeared in RHINOTinderboxWhale Road Review, and many other journals. She writes and shoots arrows at targets, mostly missing the mark in both but enjoying the effort. She is the Blog Manager for Agape Editions.


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