Like a scream—or an echo: A Conversation with Malcolm Tariq

Malcolm Tariq is from Savannah, Georgia, and is the author of Heed the Hollow, winner of the Cave Canem prize, and Extended Play, winner of the 2017 Gertrude Press Poetry Chapbook Contest. A graduate of Emory University, Tariq has a PhD in English from the University of Michigan. He lives in New York.


Noor Ibn Najam: First, thank you so much for making time to talk to me about Heed the Hollow. It’s beautiful. Thank you for writing it.

When I read the poem “Tabby,” I felt a moment of recognition—I don’t know if I’ve seen that word written in a poem before, only spoken by family members. (You write in your Notes that tabby is “a type of concrete made from oyster shell, water, lime and ash” used in the coastal Southeast.) Where did “Tabby” start for you?

Malcolm Tariq: So, I am from Savannah and had grown up with tabby, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. I used to see it everywhere, all around. Then, when I lived up in Michigan, I was visiting home on break and I saw it. I was like, “That’s so weird that I’ve never seen it anywhere else.” I researched it and found out what it was, and the history behind it. In graduate school that semester I was taking this modern British literature class; we were reading Trilogy by H.D. I wanted to model a poem after Trilogy, because I really liked it, and that’s how it came about. But also, I remember reading Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris years and years ago. It’s like a combination of those two influences. That’s how it generally came about.

NIN: I love how it was multiple sources that came together in this interesting way, because those are very disparate on the surface.

MT: Yeah, and, like, from years apart. Like, years.

NIN: Yeah! In that poem, the line “a shell falls from brick // even that echo / is a part of me now” seems to tie a lot of other parts of the book together. I was wondering if this book could be called the “echo” of something? And, if so, can you name the initial sound that caused it?

MT: I don’t even know if I was thinking about it in terms of “sound.” …Yeah, I was thinking about lineage, or heritage.

NIN: Would you say you’re abstracting the concept?

MT: Yeah. I guess the echo would be—I was explaining to somebody the other day at a reading that Blackness goes forever. We (well, I don’t wanna say “we”) but growing up, we were taught that Black people came from Africa, and then we were taught as Black people in America that our experience starts here, from 1619. But that’s not true. We extend way beyond that. Some of that we can know, some of that we can’t know. And how to be in touch with that unknown?

And, to that “echo” piece, I was also reading Fred Moten’s In the Break, and he talks about Aunt Hester’s scream from Frederick Douglas’s autobiography—so I guess there is that sound element in there, imagining sounds—like a scream, or a Black person’s hands going into water to make the tabby. It’s not one particular sound so much as the fact that sound is a part of our historical narrative. There are parts of the book that reference a sound but it’s not one sound.

NIN: Thank you. I’m interested in your response about taking it away from sound because there’s so much play with sonics in the book that I was really drawn to.

In fact the word echo only comes up a few times. Words that relate to sound are infrequent in the book. And yet there’s so much engagement with sound. I really enjoyed that, and telling the reader to Heed the Hollow, referencing the shell again and again, that was really lovely.

To kind of bridge our perspectives on your approach: I’m thinking about the polyvocal feel of the book as a whole. Some poems seem to engage multiple vantage points and gazes. Do all of these perspectives you’re dealing with, either directly or indirectly, affect your choices as you write? Do these multiple voices affect your approach to craft as you write these poems?

MT: You really have all the good questions.

NIN: Because I’m really interested in this book!

MT: I don’t know if I’ll answer this “correctly,” but maybe this’ll get us to some sort of answer: “Tabby” is three different voices—so I, as a poet and a playwright—you know, as writers we’re into language. When you go to a play and it’s about slavery and all the Black people are talking a certain way…I’m like, “But did they really sound like that? I don’t think all the Black people sounded like…that.”

You know, the South was still big as hell back then. People sounded different. I also want to make a point that we don’t know what some people said, how they would say it, what they “would” say—you know, the content. When I was writing “Tabby,” I wanted to differentiate the voices so that people would know that what I was speaking was different from, you know, what ‘this specific person who died’ was speaking. The person who’s dead, in the poem, their voice is in brackets: ‘this is what I think the person would say but I’m not sure.’

Wait, can you say more about the question? I really wanna get at it.

NIN: Well, yeah! First, I love that approach—being real about how history plays into this and what you can and can’t speak on, and how to bring in those other parts you can’t speak on directly.

To repeat the question, basically, do you find that the multivocal nature of what you’re writing affected your craft choices, or just choices in general, as you were putting this book together?

MT: Yeah. I don’t think I knew, ‘til I was done, what it was. Once I finished both of the erasures, for example, that was a form for me to use to talk about a collective rather than, like, a “me.” A lot of the book is not a “me” or an “I,” or if it’s an “I” it’s a collective “I”—especially the George Washington erasure that was saying “I” or “me, negro,” and that was, you know, not just one person. And then, in the lynching erasure [“1 Yearning”]: it was, I think, at the end, that last vignette, that has the word “I” or “me.” That’s the only place in the poem where it appears. With those two poems, because I was so interested in the collective experience, or a collective public history, those were forms for me to really go into it, and divorce myself from it, and think about all of us, all the people.

NIN: Thank you. You wrote from a lot of primary texts, historical figures and legacies of those figures. Is there a certain type of primary text or historical narrative that intrigues you in particular, and why? Or do you just work with whatever catches your interest?

MT: I love primary text, as a researcher. I don’t believe in writer’s block. For my own self, I don’t believe in writer’s block, because if I’m not writing, then I’m just not gon’ write, and that’s just how it is. I don’t really have to be doing it all the time.

But if I need inspiration, or I wanna to get at something that’s really rich, I’ll go into the archives. When I was a student at Emory I would just go in there and type in my hometown, “Savannah,” and all this stuff would pop up—crazy stuff that I’m still very interested in and have notes on.

But, with this book, with these two erasures [“1 Yearning” and “Self-Portrait as George Washington’s Teeth”]—oh, I was trying to if George Washington was our first Southern president, and I figured out that he wasn’t, because the South was not the South back then, the idea of the South… Then I was looking at Thomas Jeffferson’s will, because when I was being trained as an academic. Notes on the State of Virginia is considered one of the first Southern texts, and sometimes syllabi on Southern literature will start with that. I looked at Thomas Jefferson’s will, and it was very boring, very short. And then I looked at George Washington’s and there was all this stuff—like, I found out he really liked hot chocolate.

NIN: What?

MT: Yeah, it’s weird! It’s all on the website, the Mt. Vernon website. And so I was trying to write this very erotic poem about white poeple and race, and chocolate and George Washington’s mouth. That didn’t happen, but when I was reading his will, I saw “tooth” and “gum,” and then I remembered this thing about the teeth, and I was like, “Oh, here we go.” That’s how I found my way to it.

With the lynching poem, I was visiting the lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. I was gonna write a list poem with all the reasons Black people were murdered. But I didn’t take any notes at the museum, so when I was in New York, I had to do all this research to find all the reasons. I’d forgotten about the people writing and describing these lynchings, how erotic they were, and decided to switch courses and try that erasure, which I think is definitely more interesting.

Overall, I just like working with archives and primary sources, because it provides a different way of engaging with history, a different way of not rewriting history, but bringing to light what has always been there, that we didn’t see before. I don’t know if it’s the Southerner in me. I really like interrogating stuff like that.

NIN: How would these poems have been different, or would they have been possible, if you hadn’t done an erasure?

MT: I think, because it’s someone else’s language, I felt powerful: taking the language out of white men’s mouths and making it ours. I just feel like it was an important way to take that power back.

NIN: I definitely felt that agency and ownership in those pieces; your answer helps me understand why.

Switching gears a little bit: some poems that engage your family come pretty soon after “Fucking With Ralph Ellison.” Does it feel different or easier to write toward literary lineage vs. blood or familial lineage?

MT: It feels different because when I’m thinking about literary lineage, a lot of the time it’s people or works that have informed my writerly practice. It’s more like student and teacher. The main thing is, “How am I entering this conversation that has already been started, my interjection? How am I carrying that on?” When you’re talking about actual family stuff, it’s far more difficult to do that. I’m just getting back into writing after not writing for a year, and I wanna write about my grandmother, who I’ve never met. My only access point is my father, who knew her, so that’s difficult because I don’t really know anything about her other than the few stories I have.

There is that poem in the book about my other grandma, my mom’s mom, and that actually came from an interview I did with her for something else that turned into that poem. I think it was easier because I had more of a relationship with her.

NIN: What’s pulling you to write about your other grandmother, then?

MT: Well, I was interviewing my dad to talk about his brother, my uncle, who was HIV positive and queer and passed away when I was in middle school. I was asking my dad about that, and then it turned into a whole story about his mom, who died when he was in high school. Apparently she was queer, which I just found out a year or two ago, and living with this white woman in Florida, and my dad spent a summer with them when he was young. She was murdered when he was in high school (they think by a boyfriend or someone else she was involved with). And then he told me that, a few years ago, he went back to get her death certificate. I didn’t know a lot of that stuff.

My dad’s so random—he’ll just bring me newspaper clippings about family members, like, “Yeah, this is about your granddad—I think he would like that.” And then just…leave…just random stuff! Like, he bought this first edition of Frannie Kemble’s travel journal. She was married to one of the largest slave owners in the coastal South, where I’m from, and she wrote this journal, which I had read in grad school and actually wanted to read again. Me and him were having brunch one day and he said, “Oh, I bought this first edition book. I think you’d like it.” I’m just like, “Why did you have this?!”

Anyway, I think that’s where I get it from. I realize that we have this whole culture to preserve, this history. That was a long answer.

NIN: That was great! Tangents are encouraged.

Okay, so talking about lineage, I was really interested in how you engage Black women in this book. The poems that center more directly around Black women come later in the book, and they feel careful—earned, even. “Grandma’s Black Bottom,” that poem you just referenced, feels close and personal, like you know her well.

In the preceding poem, “Callie Barr’s Black Bottom,” it felt just as intimate, to me, even though you didn’t know her personally. What was your investment in her story?

MT: Well, definitely different from the poem about my grandma. I was in Mississippi for a conference. It was all these white students who idolized Faulker. And then we went to his home—and it was nice to be in his home, and learn about him. But then we got to the place where Callie used to live and where one of her relatives lived years after. I asked if we could go in, and they were like, “Oh, this is used for storage now.” Then, we went to where he was buried. Where he and his wife were raised, people leave notes and stones and such. Then I came across Callie’s grave, and of course it was not the same at all, and had that weird little phrase about her “white children.”

I write a lot about Black women in my poetry and plays. I grew up around a group of Black women and always noticed the gender divides. I know writing Black women can easily fall into caricatures, or specific types, and I try my best not to do that. I know from watching the women I grew up around that everyone has their own ‘character’—I can walk into somebody’s family and it’s like, “Okay, you’re the jokester, you’re the quiet one, you’re the caretaker.” You can point them out. But I also wanna complicate why that is, you know—it’s there for a reason. So I tried to be deliberate—not just writing women because we need them in the story, but also why do we need them, and what are they doing, and how is that complicating my own relationship to that experience as a person who’s not a woman, even though I was raised by these people and have heard their stories. I recognize that there’s something I don’t know there.

I want that to be known, and poetry gives me a way to do that, to hold both. I find that more difficult in playwriting.

NIN: While we’re talking about these multiple generations… I noticed points in the book where you sort of complicate ideas of age and time. Was that a reaction to anything you see happening in current discourse, or was there another reason for that troubling of age and experience?

MT: Where, specifically?

NIN: Well, I first noticed it in “The Road to Chocolate Plantation.”

MT: Oh, and also “On Tybee Island.”

NIN: Yeah, after that poem, I started seeing it in other places

MT: Well, living in different places… I lived in Savannah for 18 years and moved to Atlanta for college—very formative years, 5 years. Then I moved to Michigan for 3 years, and then I moved back to Atlanta, where I started writing this book.

Part of it is seeing how other people in the North (in this case, Michigan) talk about the South—I live in New York, and people talk about the South like this excursion. I’ve heard multiple people say they’re afraid to go to the South alone. Like…what?!

NIN: You heard this in New York?

MT: And in Michigan. I heard this Black woman say, “I read that Toni Morrison novel. I’ll never go to the South!” That’s what she said. It’s outrageous to me sometimes.

So, that, and also me and my cousins… My grandmother had 8 kids and raised two others, so all of her kids have kids. I always grew up with a bunch of cousins. I thought everybody had a bunch of cousins and lived by the beach. That’s what I thought for 18 years.

Me and my brother are 16 or 17 years apart, and so the way that me and my cousins (who are so close to me in age) grew up is different from me and my brother. We [my cousins and I] all grew up around my grandmother’s house—at some point everybody lived in that house. That’s not the case anymore; my brother grew up in a different way than I did. He didn’t grow up with the stories, knowing our lineage, knowing who aunt Sarah was, who lived around the corner, who could pass as white… That type of stuff.

I’m really interested in how to preserve history and a culture for later generations, and how do we keep that alive? More generally, in the South, sometimes I look at a white person and think, “Man, 20 or 30 years ago you would’ve hated me.” I don’t even have to say 50 or 60 years, I can confidently say 20 or 30. The law doesn’t change people’s opinions. It’s that close. It amazes me: right here in that spot, my mom had to stand in line to use a colored water fountain, and now y’all are just like kiki’ing in the corner at the Macy’s. It’s weird! And I wanna bring that out. That’s why I’m really invested in the generational thing.

NIN: Yeah… I think your choices around that, and more generally thinking about time, are really interesting and new to me.

I also wanted to ask how you use pace in your poems, and in the book as a whole: how it moves, how a reader shifts to keep up as they read. I noticed pace changing suddenly within a poem—it actually happened in “The Road to Chocolate Plantation” and also when I read “The Body Politic” aloud. It made me stay on my toes, and it was really enjoyable for that reason. I wonder what your intentions were behind that kind of choice, and also if that relates to the imperative nature of title, at all?

MT: Hmm. Well, language itself is really fascinating for me because when I was younger I didn’t talk a lot. And going into situations now, I don’t have to have my voice heard. I’m not interested in that or in getting my point across to “you.” I never was the type of person to speak to get As in class; I got Cs because of it. (It still doesn’t make sense to me why they make you speak in class. I think there are other ways to get your participation points.)

So, because I’m not that type of person, sometimes I don’t know what the pace needs to be until I do it. Sometimes when I’m writing it’s not even my voice I’m thinking in. I can think of other people’s voices from my life that I channel in my head as I’m writing. Or, if I’m reading the poem I’ll think of them reading it instead of me, just to hear the way their voice sounds. But then, how do you get writing to do that without giving instructions?

And, you know, generally, it’s a Black thing—music, being a child of the hip hop generation, growing up with different, inventive types of speech. I haven’t really thought about it, but I would say that’s it.

It’s also a way to break up this book. It can be a lot. Having the cake poem [“Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom,” from the book’s first section] and “The Body Politic” in there is a nice way to break it up. “The Body Politic” does keep you on your toes. It’s easy to miss things if you’re not really reading, if you’re just going along with the rhythm. That’s the point. “You” don’t know about all this stuff, but you still gon’ say it anyway. (You know, like white people rapping.)

NIN: HA. Word.

Well, I think this is my last question: I’m still really interested in the title you chose. A lot of what you’re doing layers so much onto a single word—like, there’s several definitions of the word “bottom” in this book. I enjoy how you make things turn and catch different angles. How did you end up coming to Heed the Hollow?

MT: Well, originally it was called Tabby. I had written a book before this one, one that I’d been writing since I was in high school—constant revisions. I sent it to several first book contests and such, but it never placed—thankfully that one was not published. Then I started writing this book and said, “I’ll just do a trial run,” and only submitted it to very specific places—like, three.

The Cave [Canem Poetry Prize] deadline is around March, so I found out that summer that I’d won the prize. But I’d been writing it, still, and had realized that [“Tabby”] was not the end of the book. My editor, Jeff [Shotts], at Graywolf, contacted me to talk about logistics and said that they wanted to change the title from Tabby because it required too much of the reader to know what that meant. We were having this conversation literally as I was putting stuff in a box to move from Atlanta to New York, finishing a dissertation, not having a job or apartment… I was like, “Now I gotta think of a name?” So I was on the phone with him, packing, and told him I had this poem that me and Chris (Abani, who selected the book) workshopped at Cave that I really liked. Maybe it’d fit into the book, I don’t know. So I sent it to Jeff, and he loved it and was like, “Yes! Let’s use this as the title poem.” When I was done with that draft, I noticed how many times “hollow” already appeared in it. It just fit perfectly.

NIN: Wow. Thank you. Again. This book is gorgeous. Thank you for these generous answers, too!


Noor Ibn Najam

noor is a poet trying to live in the world—currently in West Philly. she thinks the truth exists. she's a fellow of Callaloo and The Watering Hole. her work has been/will soon be published with Muzzle DIAGRAM, ANMLY, and others. her chapbook, PRAISE TO LESSER GODS OF LOVE, was published by Glass Poetry Press in 2019.

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