Meet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, a Jamaica-based Renaissance woman who is author of the poetry collection Karma’s Footsteps, a performer, York College educator, and the recipient of a Queens Council on the Arts grant for her research on herbalists of the African Diaspora.
So, tell us what you are currently working on?
I am currently working on pulling together my second book of poetry. I am also in the midst of this thing we call 30/30. I am writing a poem a day for the entire month of April. In May I plan to do some editing of those poems, and by June I hope to print a chapbook containing some of them. I am thinking thirteen poems in all; forty copies because I’ll be turning forty in June.
Were you always writing poetry as a child? What are your earliest memories?
My parents bought me an orange typewriter (I wish I still had that thing) and I typed my poems up on that for a while. When I was eleven, I won a writing contest sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. The essay topic was ‘What my neighborhood means to me.’ I remember writing it in a poetic way and enjoying the process. In high school, I wrote a lot of poems about boys. Yep. I would show them to my friends who thought they were good.
When did it click for you that writing was your destiny?
My subject matter shifted when I was fifteen or sixteen and a college counselor named Johnathen at the Talent Search program at Columbia University gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. After that I did a lot of reading of Harlem Renaissance writers and I read everything I could get my hands on by Alice Walker. My parents gave me a book of critical essays on black women writers for my sixteenth birthday. I have to talk about reading these authors because their books made me decide to become a writer. Reading these authors erased my negative feelings about my skin color and my hair. Self-hate for women of color is a real issue and those authors, with the movement of their pens, told me I was beautiful. I decided to believe them. They told me I had a legacy that started before slavery. I had no idea. Like the Civil Rights Movement workers had beautiful music to help strengthen them, the Black Power Movement had poets. I studied those poets and how they used their writing as a form of activism and I decided that I would be a force for good with my pen, too. So at sixteen years old I said it out loud: ‘I want to be a writer.’ That has been my journey ever since.
Why do you feel compelled to do what you do?
I write in part because I feel intense emotions and I need to put them somewhere. Writing helps me get things out and sort them out. Sometimes I say that if something has happened in my life and I don’t write about it in my journal, it hasn’t really happened for me yet. I process through my pen. Writing helps me clear the clutter and confusion in my mind, heart, soul—or at least address it. Well after I had decided to ‘be a writer,’ my parents told me a story that illustrates the importance of writing in my life. They said that when I was a little girl they were going to throw away our Christmas tree and I was upset about their decision. They packed the tree up and put it by the front door at night. In the morning they say that I had taped a poem I’d written to the Christmas tree box. I barely remember this, but the story helps me understand that I used writing as a way to deal with emotions from an early age.
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Life inspires my writing. My first book of poetry is largely about breaking silence around racism and sexism. The book does not do this in a broad or preachy way. The poems deal with disappeared women, date rape, black male survival strategies, life after 9/11. Of course there are also love poems in the book. But if you ask me, all of the poems are love poems. I love life and I hope we can move to a place where we respect life and respect each other. I write stories and voices that we don’t hear much. I am writing a lot about ancestry right now. I was telling a group of students recently that my mother, the earth, the students themselves, my daughters, and life are my inspiration. Injustice and a longing for a better world are my inspiration.