"A book that asks questions" -- A Talk with Strut Author, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie


As a follow-up to my review of Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s Strut, below is my interview with Tallie about the process behind her book, what makes her strut, and her advice for upcoming women of color writers.

1) What was the process like for writing and editing Strut?

I tend to just write poems. I don’t write with a book in mind or a theme or anything like that. I just write poems. I actually love to write. Many writers call it laborious but I find it a joy. Editing is what I find difficult but it is so necessary. Great editing is like a sharpening a knife really. The knife can work if it’s dull but once you sharpen it it is incisive. Unedited poems are dull knives. These times demand that our work be razor sharp.

Anyway, at a certain point it became obvious that I had enough poems for a book and my work was getting published in journals and anthologies quickly so I knew it was strong. I pulled the stuff together and called it Magic Unravelling which is a line from “Learning to Swim.” I sent the manuscript out to a few places but it didn’t get anywhere although people said I had a powerful voice. So I sat with the manuscript and started pulling things out of it. I showed it to my friend Tyehimba who made some suggestions. Then I sat with it again and realized that the book was really about celebrating, blues, womanhood, and survival. Not just survival though...claiming space and power even under dire circumstances. I renamed the book Strut after a poem about learning to embrace my very changed post-partum body.

My publisher Fox Frazier-Foley was really happy with where the book was when she accepted the manuscript for publication. The edits she and I made were aimed at making the work even sharper but honestly there were not many edits to make.

Every woman’s
got to know how to strum her
way to afterglow.
— Poem: Real Woman's Survival Haiku

2) How do you see this book as part of your evolution as a writer, especially in

relation to your previous work, and as a black woman?

Great question. I think Karma’s Footsteps and Dear Continuum are books that offer answers and Strut is a book that asks questions. This is not a morally upright book; it explores contradictions, complexities, nuances. I don’t think I would have been able to write a book like that earlier in my life because I was solely focused on issues of justice and injustice. I still focus on justice but I also allow my work to wander and to explore topics and voices that I might have been afraid to explore before. I have a thing about usefulness. I can easily see how a poem about sexual assault and healing might be useful to readers and listeners. (And keep in mind that I don’t write with audience in mind. I publish and perform poems with audience in mind, but I don’t write thinking about what anyone else will think or say about the poems). Anyway, I can see how poems like “Forced Entry” or “Karma’s Footsteps” could be useful to people. I can see how Dear Continuum can be useful. But how can a poem about a woman with three lovers be useful? How can poems about cheating be useful? I have no idea. And in my twenties that would have meant the death of the poems. They would not have had a public life. At this point I am fine saying ‘This is a voice and it came to me’ and letting the poems do what they have to do. I am fine exploring other themes and ideas at this point, no matter how wild they are. And so my current body of work feels more complete.

There are poems that ask questions about artists I admire. I don’t have answers but I think the questions are relevant. I think at this point in my life I value questions as much as answers. Isn’t that what Rilke talks about? “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.”  Earlier on that REALLY made me uncomfortable. I wanted answers. Punto. But there is not an answer for everything. And when you don’t get an answer you spend a lot time examining the questions. You grow up in a way. And then you become a witness. A person who bears witness. James Baldwin says the blues does that. I think there is a lot of blues in this book. It may not read like it to some folks but I am convinced this book is a blues.

these breasts are no longer stargazers
even alert they can’t look a man
in the eye. they sighed milk
for two girl children who grew round
& learned the alphabet on pearls of mama dew,
these breasts became bread, then lowered
their dough heads, watched the children
crawl & walk. these breasts erased
memory of tongues craving
different food, two bowls of fire
cupped in a hungry man’s hands.
— Poem: Homage to My Breasts (after Lucille Clifton)

3) The title Strut says so much even as a single word. What inspired you to name the book that and also to use the accompanying cover image?

Ahhh, the title poem is about self-acceptance. It is about learning to love things that are not loved in this culture: stretch marks, a belly, broken muscles. That poem is autobiographical. I realized that in a sense that is what the entire book is about. It is about learning to live with and love who we are and what we have and what we have been through though it may be flawed. It is about saying “flaunt that shit because it is yours.” It is about ownership. Empowerment.

Now the cover image is of my cousins, my mother, and my aunt. My mother is the second woman on the cover. I have never met the first woman in the picture but I know the others have all survived some serious stuff. My Aunt Lois (the last woman on the cover) actually passed from cancer in the 80s.

What I love about the photo is that you don’t see the pain that was present, the pain that was in the past, or the pain that is to come. All you see in that photo is laughing women showing their legs at the bar. These women know what real joy is because they have had to battle for it. They have had to wage war to keep their joy. I knew it was the image as soon as it came across my cousin’s timeline. But the photo alone wouldn’t work. It needed something else and so I contacted Mirlande Jean-Gilles who is a genius artist. An absolute magic maker. I sent Mirlande the manuscript and she created this. The wild thing about it is that before I had decided that the photo should be on the cover, I was thinking of crowns and sunflowers. I didn’t tell Mirlande that so imagine my amazement when she sent back this image. It was everything.

Midnight slips off her robe of stars,
places ripe slices of moon
between my lips. Songs find me.
— Poem: Inspiration

4) Who or what makes you strut?

Long baths, my husband’s body, hula hooping, red lipstick, prayers, my children’s victories, house music, old-school hip-hop, Fela.

5) What would you like readers to take away from the book?

I think I want them to feel a profound push toward health, self-acceptance, and self-love. Yes. That is what I want.

6) What advice do you have for other women of color who are emerging poets and writers?

Take care of yourself. Make sure you are surrounded by folks who love you. Get your money right. And write on.

Sherese Francis is a southeast Queens-based poet, workshop facilitator, blogger and literary curator. She has published work in journals and anthologies including The Pierian Literary Review, Bone Bouquet, African Voices, Newtown Literary, Blackberry Magazine, Kalyani Magazine, and Near Kin: A Collection of Words and Arts Inspired by Octavia Butler. Additionally, she has published two chapbooks, Lucy’s Bone Scrolls and Variations on Sett/ling Seed/ling. Her current projects include her Afrofuturism-inspired blog, Futuristically Ancient; and her southeast Queens based pop up bookshop/mobile library project, J. Expressions. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @afutureancient.