Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, poet/teacher/mother
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, born on
My name is Cheryl Allison Boyce-Taylor. I don’t often use Allison. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is my performing name and my date of birth is December 6, 1950.
Thank you so much for interviewing this morning.
Well, you’re welcome.
I’m going to start off asking you to speak about some of the defining moments in your younger years before age 20 that have had a major impact on who you are today. I do that for a reason and that’s because we don’t often get to refer to that time period in our work.
Well, I guess the biggest thing in my life, and it still remains that, was when I was 13 years old I left Trinidad, my home and everything I knew, including my mother and father, to travel to New York to live with my mother’s sister. In St. Albans, Queens. Prior to that, I had not really been away from my mother very much. Maybe a couple of days for vacation at her sisters in the south of Trinidad but that was about it. And so here I was, at a very defining time in my life, those teenage years when everything starts to change – from the body to the fantasies – I was leaving my mother to come to New York to live with my aunt, her sister, whom I did not really know very well. I knew her from visits to Trinidad. But later my mother tells me that I wanted to come to visit my aunt and my aunt said, “Well, a visit is not a good idea. It’s better that you stay and go to school.” And that I agreed because this is what I wanted. I don’t remember that, but I’m sure that that’s true. So I came to live with my aunt. I came on November 1st. So it was winter, that is how it all began. It took my mom 11 months to join me. I did not realize I would miss her so much. I had never been away from her long. But I missed her. I felt like I would die, almost. And it was during that time that I began writing lots of letters asking her for me to come back home to Trinidad. But, the plan was already in place that my brother and she would join me here.
In New York, in Queens.
Yes, in New York, in Queens. And it took my mother 11 months to get here. But it was during that period that I began writing and I began really appreciating the things that I had taken for granted in my life. Like my family, my friends, the calypso, the dialect, the Carnival. All of those things, I believed, although it was so traumatizing, that’s the thing that connects me to my writing now.
Could you say more about that?
I took for granted so many wonderful things about my island: the sunshine, the calypso, walking out in the yard with no shoes on. Walking out in a yard that belonged to you and your family. In New York there are so many apartments. I was fortunate to move to Queens and to move into a house and still have a yard, but it was just different. And I realized all the things I had taken for granted. Cooking outside in the backyard. My grandmother used to cook on her – what we call a coal pot – it’s not exactly a stove, but it’s almost like a fireplace. And they did make fireplaces in the yard to cook on, so I realized that I had not even really paid attention to those things. And now without them, I held onto them for dear life.
For sure! What were your first impressions of New York when you got there?
Cold. [Laughter] Cold. But I’ll tell you another thing. I came the day after Halloween and I had never seen that much candy in my life. I really thought I had died and gone to candy heaven. [Laughter]. So for a couple of days I think that that soothed and satisfied me. All that candy that they had in the house! I ate candy, and began to get adjusted. But I quickly realized that being a Black girl in America was somehow a very invisible life. Because coming from Trinidad – it was a country under Black rule. I never knew anything else but Black teachers, Black doctors, Black nurses. I never knew anything else, and so that was my earliest impression of - I wouldn’t say racism as much as separation of people. People are so separate. I did move to a Black upper middle class neighborhood – St. Albans, Queens. So, I still had Black people around, but it was outside of that that I began to realize that there was prejudice. And separate neighborhoods that everybody lived in and I began to see that and to wonder about it and think about it. Because that was not something that I had to think about when I was in Trinidad at all.
Would that happen when you left the neighborhood or went to school?
Yes, because my family sent me to school in the Bronx. From Queens to the Bronx, which is quite far. I would say at least an hour and fifty minutes of travel one way. And the reason they did that was because I was on a student visa and when you were on a student visa, in those days, you had to attend a private school and pay for your education. And plus they wanted me to be in a religious school, because we were Seventh Day Adventists.
So you were going to Seventh Day Adventist high school?
I was going to a Seventh Day Adventist high school. I was in the 9th grade, traveling from Queens to the Bronx to go to school.
Can you say a little bit about that journey?
That was a very long journey and what my aunt did was...there was another young lady, a teenager, at my church that went to that school. So she also traveled from Queens. So my aunt arranged for me to travel with her. And I don’t really remember how this happened, but she took the train all the way, and I found out that there was a bus somehow, after awhile. And so I began taking this bus, which was a little bit more comfortable. But it was two buses, and two trains. So, it was rather stressful. To this day I hate the Bronx.
To this day I hate the Bronx.
Because of how far it was?
Because of how far it was. I thought it was very run down. And very different from what I knew. At thirteen you don’t know all that much, but it was very different from what I knew and I really didn’t like it so much. I would be scared some days, you know. There were people all over the streets and rowdy kids. I was a little afraid doing all of that traveling alone. But I did it anyway.
Cause you had to. Are there any other defining moments in your younger years, before age 20 that had an impact?
Oh yes. And I don’t talk about this one very much, but I had an abortion when I was seventeen. I was graduating from high school. That was the year I was graduating, and I had a boyfriend and I became pregnant and my mom was not good with that because she had not gone to college. She hadn’t even finished high school and for her, I was like her dream, the one to be educated. And so my mom decided I would have an abortion. And it was right before...wow, I’m really telling this...it was right before everything was legal. And so a friend of hers who was a nurse took me to someone else who was a nurse midwife who did abortions, so I had this little back room abortion. And that was pretty traumatizing. I think even now I’ve blocked it off somewhere. Because I have not really written about it.
Even abortions today – they’re legal – and they’re still very traumatizing. It’s a big deal. How did you move forward from that point?
My mother was not very sympathetic. I was graduating in June and this happened sometime in March or April and the boy and I broke up. And I would cry and tell my mother that he doesn’t speak to me anymore at school. I don’t know what he was going through. I mean, looking back, maybe he was just scared of whatever. I don’t know. But, he didn’t speak to me at school. And she was like, “Why do you care about that stupid boy?” You know. It was in a very cold way. I don’t think she knew of any other way to handle that because she was then, and she still is now, very scared of emotions and feelings. All of this I picked up after, when I became an adult. But, anyway, I had that abortion and I just went on.
I graduated, which was the most important thing for my mother, and I went to work as a file clerk during the day and went to Hunter College in the evening. But pretty soon I enrolled at City College and went on and continued to get my education. Then the next year, I met the man who was my soul mate and who was to be a very important force in my life. His name is Walt and I married him and he fathered my son. So I met him...well, I knew him in Trinidad. He had moved to my block when I was about 11. And I left Trinidad when I was 13, but we all thought he was the cutest boy to move on that block, and we all said, “Oh my!” But I came to New York and my brother stayed there [in Trinidad] and this boy Walt kept telling my brother over the years that he was going to marry me. We weren’t friends, we didn’t write to each other when I lived in New York, but he kept saying that. The year that I was 18 I went to Trinidad and he still lived on the same street as my family.. And he came over and started chatting with me and everything and he asked me if I wanted to go to a dance, and this was on a Wednesday and that Friday he asked me to marry him.
And that Friday he asked me to marry him, I was like, “Well, I don’t know. I might marry you, but I can’t stay in Trinidad. My mother would kill me. I have to go back to New York `cause that’s where I live now. So he said, “Well, okay, but maybe I can come there and we could catch back up and begin having a relationship.” And I said, “Okay.” And that was in July and he came in October – to New York – and we got engaged in December and got married the next July, which was July 1970 that we got married. So that was another big point in my life. And they continued to get bigger from there. I was 19 at the time and I became pregnant. We did get married and I had my son two weeks before my 20th birthday. So we’re up to 20 now. So here I am with a husband and a baby and my own apartment at 20.
That’s amazing. I don’t know many 20 year olds who could have that together at this time in history. That’s incredible.
Well, yes, things cost so much now, but we were both working and we had a lot of family support. My family. Because his family stayed in Trinidad. We did not live very far from my family – from my mother and aunt – so we had a lot of family support in order to be able to do that. When I had my son, I had twins – I had two boys – and they were premature. One baby didn’t make it. And my son, whose name is Malik Taylor has survived and he is 37 years old, as we speak. But there’s one connection...I wanted to tell you why I mentioned the twins. My mother, when she was pregnant with me had twins. She was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. She was in a bus accident and the boy was still born. And so I was born when she was seven months pregnant, so I was two months premature. Twenty years, almost to the day, I would have my two sons and one would not make it and the other one would…we both had twins.
That is so powerful.
I have just begun to write about it. Very little.
That is really so powerful.
So these are all these things leading up to 20.
How did you start writing? I know you mentioned that you started writing letters when you moved to New York. How did that develop over time?
Well, I want to just go back a little bit and say that when I was eight, I had an amazing teacher and I had the same teacher for two years. And when we were going on vacation at the end of the school year, she said, “I want you to travel. And I want you to write before you come back to school in September, about those travels.” Looking back, she did not literally mean get on an airplane and travel. She meant, travel in fantasy. And somehow I knew that. I don’t know how I knew that, but I knew it. And so I wrote about all these places I visited and traveled. And I wrote a bunch of essays and I think that I loved the fantasy of it. And that was when it got in my blood.
What a gift.
I didn’t really take it that seriously. I didn’t really know I had a gift until that year I was without my mother – that year between 13 and 14. So, I got married and had this baby at 20 and I started realizing, “Wait a minute, this whole marriage and motherhood, this is really hard. I don’t want to wash dishes and cook and all of that responsibility.” I would tell my husband and it would hurt his feelings, so I began writing poetry about how I felt. And it was corny poetry, you know: roses and red violets [laughter] but, I was involved with a church family and they supported it, as did my husband and mother. They supported those corny poems, and so they would say to me, “Oh, we’re having something at church. Write a poem!” or “So and so...there’s a funeral. Write something for that.” This was the support from the church. And from my family and my community, and so I began doing it. But, I really started writing because of my dissatisfaction with motherhood and marriage, which is not to say that I did not love my son and my husband. I loved them dearly, but I wanted the fun and not the work. [laughter]
No one can fault you for that!
I began exploring my feelings, and I would write a poem about it. But then I also began writing about the wonderful things that were happening in my life. So it wasn’t just the angst and the anger, like I had at the beginning. I began writing lovely things looking around my community, what was happening in my world as a Black woman, and I listened to Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni and June Jordan – that was also during the Black Arts Movement – and the Black Panther movement, the women’s movement. All of this came together while I was this young mom raising this brilliant boy, and so I had a lot of things to draw on.
And you were in New York at this time?
I was in New York. I never really left New York. I spent time going to hear Nikki Giovanni...she was the person who most influenced my writing at that time. The others came later, like Sonia Sanchez and Audre Lorde was way down the road, but those were my early inspirations. There was Etheridge Knight, Haki Madhabuti, then Don L. Lee. That’s really how I came to writing. Out of my dissatisfaction... and questions.
And into something extremely powerful.
I would love to hear more about your experience of being in New York during the Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther movement and everything going on during that time.
And it was also the Vietnam War. I’m not going to say that I was out there marching and doing the sit-ins and all of that. I wasn’t doing that because I had this little boy. And you know, those were dangerous times. I think sometimes people forget about it, but those were dangerous times in America for Black people. Even though we were protesting, and that generation – the Black Panther movement – was a little bit older than I was. But I would go to rallies at the school and things like that, but I wasn’t out at the front lines and in Washington and all those things, but I was concerned about this child and how to raise him right. And I had to work in some way to make this a better place for him and his peers. And so I decided then that I would do it through the poetry. So, I would say I was not on the front lines of that movement, but I became active in my community. Kwanzaa was something that came up around that time. And so I joined with another poet and his wife and we would have Kwanzaa events. Around that same time, when I was maybe 22, 23, I started a little theatre company. It was really poetry. And so we went around – this was in Queens – we went around reading in different places, you know, like Black power- black pride poems.
What was the name of the theatre company?
It was called Boyce Taylor Theatrical Company. And I started working at a place called The African Poetry Theatre. I started reading my poetry at that place. It was in Jamaica, Queens. It still is in Jamaica, Queens. The African Poetry Theatre. And so I read around, and so did other friends. And at that time we started taking that company into Riker’s Island. And now, I’m 24, 25, I started taking the company into Riker’s Island and we would do a fashion show. We would do poetry and I had a dancer and fire eater working with me – his name is Euston James.
He was the fire eater?
He was a fire eater, a limbo dancer – he is Trinidadian – and so I had this fire eater and limbo dancer with me and we began traveling around. We went to New Jersey performing, and my husband was very supportive of it all.
That sounds like an amazing time.
It was an amazing time. And so I felt that I couldn’t be on the front lines. But I could do something and this is what I began to do in my community. My mom, very early, was involved with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and she was one of the youth leaders and so she had my brother and I reciting poetry in the Church or at any events that they would have. This was from a very young age, age seven. And so I always had that little theatre in me.
Absolutely. Do you remember any of the poems you would recite in church?
No, I don’t remember. The only one that’s clear in my mind is this particular Mother’s Day and we presented a Mother’s Day program. I would say that I was maybe around eight. And they took the acronyms from Mother, and we said, “M is for the million things she gave me, O means that she’s growing old, T is for the tears she shed to save me...” You see how much I remember that? And we would each go up to the front of the room with our little letter and say the line that corresponded with our letter. We spoke and sang it as well.
Poetry has been a part of your life...
Poetry has been a part of my life for a long time. Well, you know in the Caribbean poetry is a big part of the school curriculum. As a child my mom won trophies and awards for poetry. She would recite poetry. We had to do that as well, but it was the old English poetry. My mom recited poetry, and she would win awards and everything, she’d read poetry to me at bedtime. Poetry was a very big part of her life. She never wrote any, but it meant everything to her.
So she used to perform it, and she would have you perform it and then you would write it.
Yes, and then my son would turn out to not only write, but also make a whole career and a lot of money from his writing. He’s a recording artist, a hip hop artist, so it’s generational. Each one of us did something more with it than the other. It’s very exciting.
It’s very exciting. That’s amazing. Is there anything else you wanted to say about that time period? The Black Arts Movement time period? How would you find out about events? Was it posted in the paper? Or was it...`cause now we have internet, and one of the things I like to hear about is what did the actual landscape look like, how would you figure things out?
How would I get bookings?
How would you get bookings and how would you find out about events going on around town?
During that period I was in school, in college and so a lot of that information came through the student organizations, and I would be a part of the organizing end, and I still had to take care of my son. I worked as a home attendant to put myself through college, and I would work as a home attendant on weekends because I wanted to have the week to go to school full time and to be with my son in the evenings. To help with his school work and to take him back and forth to his little events and so I figured out somehow – well, my mom worked as a home attendant for awhile – I figured out that I could do that and have my weekends and my time available to spend with my son. I was in some of the clubs at school, but I would have to leave at a certain time to go pick up my son and it was a juggling act. And so the performances that I did, I just called up or stopped in and told people what I was doing. In those days, we didn’t do it for money. I was not getting paid. I just had this burning desire to bring this poetry to my community and to the prison communities. My aunt was a bible worker in the prisons, in Riker’s Island, and she would tell me that they didn’t have very much for the young people – the men and women there. People didn’t do a lot of work in there, and so I decided that I would. And that launched my performing career, and then I was in school for Speech and Theatre. And that’s how I really came to the theatre. I have an undergraduate degree in Theatre. So that became, that was the impetus that got me on stage to perform later.
And then you had those experiences in the community.
And in the church.
I’m going to change the focus of our conversation a little bit and ask you about your coming out story – whatever that means to you.
Well, I would say that I don’t think that I ever came out, because I think that I was always involved with males and females. When I was growing up in Trinidad, I was having experiences with little friends, little girl friends. I hear people say that that’s a normal part of growing up. I had little experiences with girl friends, but it didn’t get to a place where that desire stopped. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Yes, it never became something that felt like, “Now I’ve outgrown this.”
Exactly, it never became, “Okay, you’re fourteen. That was practice, now you’re with boys.” So I guess that’s why I never had to come out. Cause this was always a very natural part of my life. Something I sought out even as early as twelve, I had a girlfriend. We weren’t a couple or anything, but we did have romantic times together. And I remember getting off the bus, going to her house, having some romantic time with her and it felt so natural and wonderful, but I didn’t go home and tell anybody about it.
And I was a big talker. Because in my house my mom always said, “Always tell me the truth and you won’t get a beating.” So I always told the truth to her, to my mom. I’m not saying I’ve never lied or anything like that, I’m just saying that was something that left a great impression on me. But I did not go home and run my mouth about those little rendezvous.
But I sought it out. I would visit this girl. Her parents worked, I think, and she would be the only one at home. And there were always people at my house so I could never do anything like that at my house and that really remained a part of my life. There was a period when I didn’t do that at all…the year that I got serious with my husband, all my time was spent caught up in our relationship and in the marriage and everything. And so I didn’t date anyone. But I remember going away on a vacation with a friend of ours – I would say that I was married about a year, maybe even less – anyway, I went away on vacation with this friend and we slept together. And I said to her, “Oh, you know, I have to tell Walt about this when I get home.” And she was like, “No!” cause we were all friends, the three of us. She was like, “I don’t want you to tell him.” And I didn’t know why she was afraid of that. There was a little naïve part of me, too. I will be honest with you. And I was like, “I don’t know why you’re saying that. He’s my best friend and we tell each other everything.” And she was like, “No, if you tell him, I’m not going to come over anymore.” But, I knew I was going to tell him, because at that time I think I was 20 or 21 and I knew “Uh-uh this isn’t anything that’s just passing. I’ve got to tell him this because I can’t keep this secret.” Because I really, really enjoyed being involved with that woman and realized this was something that I wanted in my life.
I did not know that women could live together, and buy homes together and do all of that. Remember that this is 1970, `71. I didn’t know. I thought that there may have been two women that lived together in my community, I heard people saying something about them, but I think the kids told me that they were cousins. So it still didn’t register, and I’m talking 18, 19 and it still didn’t register. That’s why I’m saying that there was something a little naïve about me, but anyway, I told this woman I had to tell my husband. And when I got home, I told him that I had had a relationship while we were on vacation and that I wanted to try it again. And he said, “I don’t think it would be a good idea to go to her house.” And, now, this was maybe...it was sexual more than emotional, or maybe it was emotional and I didn’t realize it then, yet. So when I said I wanted to do this again, I think I was thinking the sex, but in another part of my mind, I wanted to really explore this and have this be part of my life, but I don’t think I had the words for that yet. And so he said, “If you sleep with her, you’d better do it at our house.” This was a Trinidadian guy. That was unheard of for a Trinidadian man, `cause they’re usually macho and he’s not like that. He’s still to this day not all macho and controlling and you know... and so I told him that, and she came over. What we began doing was having threesomes with friends of mine, with women. You know, sometimes it would be one woman for a very long time, and then it would be somebody else. It really began like that. I guess, yeah – maybe there’s a coming out piece in here. Because by the time...this lasted through my 20s with my husband’s consent and approval and even encouragement.
Very strange for the background we come from. You know, Caribbean background, religious background. It was unheard of, but the part of us that wanted to get married and live on our own was so that we could do what we really wanted to do. So this was just part of that. And by the time I got into my 30s, or before my 30s, I began realizing I wanted to have a serious relationship with a woman by myself, because I began to realize that I might be a lesbian and that was the hardest, most painful thing. To leave a husband that was so loving and supportive and present. It was the hardest time in my life, and it took a few years to evolve so I could come full circle with that idea. We had worked together for all of these things and then, he’s an engineer and we’d both gone to college together and raised our son together and here I was going to change the landscape of everything. (Going with my heart, It is still the thing I love the most and fear the most about myself.) So I felt guilty and I felt bad, but I started to realize it was not just something that I wanted to explore. It was something that I couldn’t help. I wanted to see what that life was like. I knew, somehow, my life depended on it. Realizing that I was a lesbian, and that I had to try and live that and see what would happen. So that was the hardest time for both of us, and our family as well.
How did you maneuver that transition? How did you find community? Did you find community?
Well, I didn’t really find community until after our separation. After we separated, then I began to reach out. I had this friend that was part of the lesbian movement in New York. And she went to Hunter College and she knew Audre Lorde and all of that, this was a very sad time for me because my marriage had ended, but this friend invited me to a reading and so I went with her. And I met a bunch of women, we didn’t become friends or anything, but I began to know “Oh – there are other lesbian women! And they’re writers! Ohmigod.It’s so great!” I didn’t know them personally, but it’s good to be in that company.
And so this friend, invited me to [an event where] they were dedicating a library at Hunter College for Audre Lorde. The Audre Lorde Library. And so she invited me and I went and I met Audre Lorde and then I was telling Audre that I was a writer and she said, “Oh that’s nice. Listen I’m having a class in September, and it’s going to be a very small workshop for women of color and I’m inviting you to come.” So I got so nervous, I said, “Oh well, I don’t go to this school.” Because I immediately felt so insecure because I thought my writing was not good enough to be in any class with Audre Lorde, you know. So I said, “Oh I don’t go to this school.” And she said, “Oh that doesn’t matter.” She said, “Come as my guest.” And I was like, “Oh no.” [Laughter] And, uh god, I was so scared. I think this was in April and the class was not until September. But I was terrorized from that time until I went to her class.
And I went to Audre’s class and that’s where I met all these young lesbian women, including her daughter Elizabeth [Lorde-Rollins]. And, slowly I began to have community. But that class with Audre Lorde was the biggest turning point in my writing, because I knew I wanted to be a poet. But something was holding me back. So when I went to her class, I felt like I was not writing up to the level of my experience, of my life experience. I felt like my work was a little bit immature, and I really wanted that to change.
And with that class, you felt a shift in your work.
Oh god yes, because I was ready. And it wasn’t just in the work, it was in my head. Because by the end of that class, I knew I wanted to be a poet more than anything else. More than I wanted to be a mother, more than I wanted to be a daughter. More than I wanted to be a lover. It was like, I wanted to be a poet and I was going to be a poet.
And on the first night of class, she said to the class, “What stops you from writing the kind of work you want to write?” And she says, “If you write that work, what will happen? Who’s holding a gun to your head?” And boy, I began crying because I knew that it was me that was holding that gun to my head.
Look at that.
In so many ways that class opened me up. I began to meet other lesbian writers. From that came a group. We formed a group in New York called the Stations Collective. I want to say that was 1987 – 88. We were called the Stations Collective because we came together to perform some of Audre Lorde’s work. And she has this poem called “Stations” and so we took the name from that poem. I met Dorothy Randall Gray, Sapphire, Pamela Sneed, Stormy Webber, Hadley Mays and a few other writers and we formed this collective, it was an all lesbian women collective and we performed all around the city. And so I was in my element.
We performed for a long time. And you know, then everybody got big. Starting with Sapphire. I don’t mean big in the head, I mean everybody’s careers started mushrooming out and so we all kind of ended up being overloaded with our solo careers and so we stopped the collective.
You all got overloaded by your own success.
Yes, by then everybody was teaching and writing books and it was amazing. It was an amazing, amazing time in New York for me. And we did a lot of things at the Gay and Lesbian Center and then there was this other thing...we began doing an annual show called “Divas and Desire”. And that show was erotic poetry and some of us wore teddies and sexy clothes to perform and this was the 80s. And there was a group of women in New York, white women, who really felt that lesbians don’t dress that way. These were the lesbians with the boots and the army navy surplus clothes and what I must say about the Black lesbians in New York City – they would always dress up. So there was a whole bunch of stuff going on with the two groups, this led me to write a poem called “A Dyke in a Dress” Because I’m from the Caribbean, I love dresses, `cause you know: it’s hot there. One of the refrains from that poem was “A dyke in a dress/allows easy access.” [Laughter]
But I’m telling you, that poem became a mantra. People loved it. And I have to say that it really switched the tide. Lesbians began wearing lipstick and make up more, sexy clothes…I saw this happen. It switched the tide in women. Because you felt criticized if you wore a skirt and a bustier to perform. You would almost feel criticized by these women. And I was like, “Nah-ah. This is what I want to wear; this is what I’m holding onto.” And so, it kinda switched the tide and people started feeling really comfortable. Also, Joan Nestle who was at the Lesbian Herstory Archive, she always wore this black, sexy slip to perform. I don’t know if you know this.
I didn’t know that about her.
So this was what was happening. Well, I don’t think we had as many names as lipstick lesbian, top, bottom... we were just proudly taking back queer, tranny, dyke, butch ect.
That sounds like such a fun, exciting time. I would love to know – and this is a combination of two questions – and you’re speaking to this, which is how your work is influenced by who you are, and within that, how you’ve come to define success for yourself as a writer, as an artist.
Okay, well, I guess I want to say that my poems are filled with childhood memories. So they’re filled with sounds, aromas, colors, textures of the land, basically. They come from that earthy place. I have a lot of trees, mountains, flowers, water in my work and it’s because of my connection to Trinidad. I feel like sometimes I’m conjuring up that place in my work, the place of my childhood where most of my writing originates.
I have “Convincing the Body” here at home.
That was a photograph [on the front] that was taken in Tobago, it’s a Slippery Elm tree. I just feel so connected to that time in my life, I guess, I felt most free, most protected, most innocent and happy in those years. I am happy now, but there was something organic about that happiness and about that time in my life. And so sometimes, I write in dialect, and I write in dialect to stay connected to my ancestors. I like to use the language that connects me to my culture and my people. What I say is that when I write in dialect, I want the world to hear what Trinidadians sound like in their bedrooms, in their fights, in their lovemaking. That is what I want people to know, how we feel and what we sound like, but I also want to capture my grandmother’s tongue. I want to recreate family stories. And a lot of my work has a big migration theme in it, because that was a time when I felt most fractured. Because migration is fracturing, and so I guess up until my last book, I was still working on that fracturing. That’s the best way that I can put it. Does that answer your question?
Absolutely. Within that how have you come to define success for yourself as a writer and as an artist?
[I am the author of three books of poetry] and I make my living as a full time writer. I do residencies at grammar schools, senior facilities, and colleges. I lecture too, mainly lectures on writing and dialect, and why dialect belongs in the world. Another way I define success, I dedicate quite a bit of time to new writers, I help them to find their voice, and their place in the art world. This is one of the missions of my company Calypso Muse, to introduce new voices to the NYC arts community. Another way I define success is that I have had an opportunity to work with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company. They’ve commissioned my work, twice. The first piece I did for them was called “Water” and that was in `99 and we toured that for awhile. And the second piece that was commissioned was three years ago, my piece called, “Redemption”. I travel with them and perform the piece on stage while they dance. And that was a fantasy of mine from the very first time I ever saw that company. Ronald [Brown is an amazing man. And working with him defines being an accomplished poet for me. To have the opportunity to work with people like Ron Brown and to perform in places like BAM in Brooklyn or Lincoln Center and I did all of that work with him. I would say that, outside of my work with Audre Lorde, he influences me the most as an artist with his humility and his obedience to the ancestors, and his obedience to his work. I once asked him, how did he choose the music and the dance for his work and he said to me it was all about obedience. And just letting the work stand on its own. You can’t infuse yourself in the poem. You get a gift to start on that poem, but then you have to let it rip and let it stand on its own.
That is so powerful. I wanted also to give you an opportunity to say anything else you might want to say or ask any questions of me before we wrap up.
Why are you doing these interviews? I heard Gwendolyn Brooks say that she thought of herself as a historian, documenting people in her time and I immediately grabbed that and held it very close to my body and so I wanted to ask you why are you doing the documentation. What leads you in this direction, I’m sure you’re probably writing another book of fiction or poetry, but what leads you to document other peoples' stories.
It’s actually this very visceral sense of survival. I’m 31 and as I grew up as a lesbian and as I grew up as an artist, and as I get older I find more and more people who have gone on this road, but I really feel this gap that was created by cancer and by HIV in our communities and I feel its impact because I look back at history and I see so many people in the 80s - before we had so many people gone - and they’re talking about a certain kind of mentorship happening, a certain kind of closeness and community and interaction happening that’s much harder to find these days. Especially if you’re young, so this is my attempt to fill that gap for people who are younger than me, and people who are my age, who might have something to learn from our courage, and your courage in particular, and your road.
Well, I’m also...I continue to write not just for myself, but for other women who don’t have a voice, or are not able to say the things that they want to say. And I have a very loving partner, who is also my muse. And I write for her, too. And I also write for my grandson and my son, who’s experiencing a very difficult time right now. He’s awaiting a kidney transplant. And we’re going to get there, and I continue to write to get through these problems. I have so many questions for the world, and I’m lucky that as a poet I don’t have to have answers.
You can ask questions.
I write to raise questions in the world. To have other people think and talk and share. And I really do appreciate you calling me. Well, when I saw the interview with Sharon [Bridgforth], I was like, “Ohmigod, her life parallels mine.” with the marriage, and even though she moved from one state to the other, she felt this void that migration leaves. And, I was like, that’s my story, because I felt that void and the writing began from that void. I just wanted to tell you one other story, about why I write, and write in dialect. I was reading at a place in New York, this was about five years ago, and this very old man came up to me and he had tears in his eyes and he said to me, “You know what? You remind me of my mother.” He was Caribbean. He was like, “You remind me of my mother and my sisters and my aunties.” And he was a little fresh, you know, he tried to cop a little feel [laughter], but he said, “If I die tonight, I’m going to be so happy because you have brought back all those stories and all those feelings.” He said, “I’m living my childhood experience tonight just hearing you read.”
That gave me chills. That is the other thing I do. I want to tell the Caribbean story because there’re not enough Caribbean writers writing in dialect in New York. There are in London and they’re in Canada, but I want to keep my grandmother tongue alive. So, that’s a really important thing in my life. And I want to dedicate this interview to my long time partner, Ceni, because this last year, with what I’ve been going through with my son, she’s really, really been there at my side.
It’s so special, and people don’t know the gifts they give back to us as poets and as writers when they share things like that.
This last year I’ve become very, very isolated. And my daughter-in-law is this amazing woman who walked into our lives and just embraced everything that I was and that made it so easy to focus on my work and not have to wonder, “oh god, how am I going to get her to like me because I’m a lesbian?” because family means a lot to me and I didn’t want that to interrupt my relationship with my son and so I’ve been very blessed this year, and very lucky, despite all of the challenges. And we writers really need our friends and family and our community to support us. And this is the other reason I decided to be in this interview, because I feel that somewhere someone will see my life in theirs, or will see themselves in my life and will be encouraged.
Absolutely. I realize that I forgot to ask you your place of birth.
Arrima. In Trinidad. That’s my place of birth.
Thank you so much.
I thank you, too.