A Literary Community Powered By Vida: Women in Literary Arts
Hair as Storyteller and Reimaginator:
A Conversation with Imani Tolliver and Beth Gilstrap
HER KIND: Let’s just get down to it. Why do we care so much about our hair?
Beth Gilstrap: I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year since I made the big cut. Hair is deeply tied to our sense of identity, both cultural and personal. Hair has emotional memory and, as with anything, society has its ideas of appropriate and normal for gender and culture.
My grandma cut hair. Old white women were in and out of her chair with the same “set” and cut. Even then, the hive mentality bothered me, but my grandma’s in-house hair studio was my playground. I’d stick my hand in jars of awful blue jelly and spray Strawberry Shortcake’s hair into spikes until I cut it down to nubs and took the scissors to my own. I’d cut right down the middle of my part turning it into a sort of mohawk without the side buzz. Mortified, mom had my grandma fix it into the same cut as my brother’s, cowlick included.
People said, “Oh, what a cute little boy.” I corrected them, hands quick to my hips, never afraid to sass.
The sub-conscious fear of mistaken gender stuck. Now of course I know gender is a social construct, but as a youngster, it messed with my head. Maybe that’s why I kept it long for most of my life. People complimented my long hair and little else.
At 17, I dyed my hair. I colored it every 8 weeks for 19 years. Self-induced burgundy. Black. Blonde streaks. Cherry red. Any shade but my own. Kool-Aid. Manic Panic. Henna. Professionals. At that age, my hair hung past my shoulder blades not brushed as much as it should have been. Still a virgin, rocking my army jacket, smoking my Marlboros and weed, I worked hard to wear the uniform of a girl who didn’t give a damn about depression or panic attacks or breaking apart razors to cut lines in my leg. Yeah, I was that girl, with that hair. Put the apparel on and make it so.
Last December, I suffered a series of losses. My 16-year-old dog, Mia, who was more mother, sister, and friend than any human could have ever been. Within six weeks, I also lost two senior cats. I still don’t connect with many people. In the pit of grief, I no longer recognized myself. Going through old pictures, I found a black & white 15-year-old me. Eyes down. No smile. Long hair with bangs. At 35, I had the same haircut, the same despondence. Off it went.
Imani Tolliver: I can’t remember a time when I did not care about my hair. As a child, it was my mother’s nimble hands and my father’s heavy ones that would straighten my dark hair into ponytails that never quite reached my shoulders, try as they might. I remember the handful of coils, never artfully festooned with barrettes and colorful rubber bands like the other brown girls that I went to school with. Rather, their main mission was to keep the follicles together – some kind of brown, crowned community atop my head. This wasn’t about style, functionality was the point. I barely remember thinking about my hair until the bun that my mother artfully pinned to my scalp morphed into the mid-seventies mushroom bob. It wasn’t the shape that was so topical with the black girls who were mystified with the way I spoke, dressed and ate, that I as I look back, I probably seemed more like an international exchange student than a girl who only lived around the corner. Victim to the constancy of the California sun and the chemicals used to straighten my hair; it bleached. I was rocking ombre decades before I could define the word. The girls insisted that had I colored my hair. No, I cried. No I didn’t. You dyed your hair!, they countered. My mother didn’t even color her hair; the most revolutionary change that my she made to her hair (exempting her brief afro phase in the early 70s) were her small assortment of wigs that she would sport from time to time. For kicks, I placed her pageboy on my 5 year old brother. He would sway his head back and forth, tossing the brown tresses from his shoulders. I laughed as I imagined him the darker and cuter member of The Beatles. Yup, even cuter than Paul.
As the late 70s manifested into window pane jeans, rabbit fur jackets, and playboy gold-front silhouetted grills, all I cared about was my armpit hair. When would I be able to use the pink Flicker razor, the blades of which were wrapped with a fine wire to keep inexperienced and eager hands like mine from nicking my adolescent pits? Pubic hair was a mystery. It came in slowly, without much notice; it wasn’t there, then it was kinda there, then…full bush. It was my armpit hair, the managing of which would made me into a real teenager. Mysterious management of blood and mood and underpants was to follow. How I wished to be one of those girls, shaving, superintending my woman self. These days, knocking at 50s door, I am shocked at the sight of silver on my head, and yes, down there too. In fact, silver hair on my pubis happened first. What did it mean, I wondered? Grief? The mark of trauma? Or wiser…is my vagina wiser than it used to be? If so, I wish that she would share what she knows; sit me down in front of a toasty fireplace and impart that warm, woman talk that my mother’s friends whispered to each other when I was sent to bed. Imagine it, your own vagina (ahem) imparting knowledge. I’ll bet she’s got some stories.
BG: Why is it that hair can be so revolutionary? When women or girls step just left of what’s deemed normal, other women often barrage them. Natural is a loaded word, full of pocks. When my stylist cut off a foot of my hair, her assistant said, “What will your husband say? My boyfriend would never let me cut mine short.” I let her comments sink in, twisting the gut of so much pain. I’d never have a partner that would “let” me do anything.
Cultural expectations shape our shaved pits, legs, and vaginas, too. I never talked to my mother about managing my woman self. One day a pack of razors and shaving cream showed up on my bathroom sink. At 13, my cousin wanted to compare pubic hair. Uncomfortable, I pulled my bikini bottoms out. “You have more than me, dammit,” she said, looking at her own. Frankly, all that business terrified me.
In college, a full year after I’d been sleeping with my boyfriend, I was shocked to learn I was supposed to landscape down there. A friend said, “The other night when this guy was going down on me, he asked me if I’d ever thought about taking a pair of scissors or a razor to my bush.” My pubic region was grateful to him.
To get back to the central question, I care so much about hair not only because it threads memories of my mother and grandmother and the fright of my sexual development, but because it makes me vulnerable. Perhaps hair is the definition of vulnerability, our attempt to control some aspect of our own physicality and external lives when all else is so difficult? Our shapes. Our minds. Our bones. Our diseases. Our losses. All so elusive, but baby, we can hack away at my hair.
IT: Hair as the definition of vulnerability…such a compelling thought. Is hair the signifier, the inner part that tells on the outer part of us. It enables the judging of others and ourselves. We manage the sprouting of our faces, our heads, legs, toes, pits and pubis. It’s the surgery that everyone can afford. The storyteller, the reimaginator, the blessing, the curse. Our hair tells on us; revealing how well we are taking care of ourselves, our social status, our political beliefs, who we belong to.
Once, when I was in college, on a slow Saturday night, a friend of mine and I decided to straighten my hair. Up until then, I had always worn my hair in natural styles in school; twists and braids, mainly. I had even prided myself on sporting one of the largest afros on campus. When I was really feeling revolutionary, I would pick it out to its fullness and tie a long scarf around my head, just behind my ears to reveal huge silver hoops. After we did the deed – and I remembered the trauma of a scorched scalp, the fear of burned ears, and that awful smell – my friend and I paraded me down the dormitory hallways. Some of my friends loved the look, others wondered if I was feeling alright in the head by making such a deliberate choice in contradiction to the nouveau panther hippy style that I rocked on the daily. One friend didn’t even recognize me. I mean, he knew my face, my body and my name, but the hair did not jive with the balance of the me that he knew.
These days, I wear my hair in locs. They are long enough to curl, put into ponytails, and even a bun that I haven’t worn since I was a little girl. I’ve intentionally colored my hair pink, black, auburn, blond and back to brown. I’ve sewn in shells, beads and charms. I’ve even wrapped my locs with embroidery floss, creating rainbow textiles on the ropes that I’ve worn for over 15 years. I was never the girl (or the woman, for that matter) who got her hair done in salons. Over the course of my entire life, my hair has been professionally styled a handful of times; my locs, only three times. But something got into me; I wanted my hair “done” and done right. For the past few months, I’ve been getting my locs washed and groomed by a professional loctician in a salon. Oh, the luxurious warm, wet of the water. The tender scrubbing of my scalp. The agility of my stylist’s fingers as she separates that locs that become entwined at the root. The styles that she creates by braiding my hair into itself. I must say, there is nothing that I’ve experienced like it. When she’s done, I feel liberated, beautiful, strong…and like the others, the other women who take the time to get their domes managed. Am I one of them now?
BG: When you get down to it, our hair tells a story, fiction, non-fiction, or maybe even when drastically changed and pumped full of so much emotion, it even aspires to poetry, but we craft it. We craft hair into some expression of who we think we are or who we long to be. I am the tough, unconventional woman who don’t take no shit off nobody. Maybe, if my hair’s right, I can even convince myself.
Perhaps because I grew up with a cosmetologist, had close friends who did hair, and now, a talented younger sister who crafts hair, I never thought much about the implications of being able to get my hair done. It seemed ubiquitous to me, but it is a luxury and you tapped into what an intimate experience it is when someone washes your hair. Ever the introvert, I’m never sure what to say when a stranger has my head in their hands, but I am thankful for the warmth of the exchange. Yesterday at my salon, I got to witness a 4-year-old girl getting her first big haircut due to her own handiwork. What I heard was a child afraid of what it meant to have her hair cut and a mother and cosmetologist explain, “You will have a thousand haircuts in your lifetime, and the magical thing about hair is it never quits growing.” In the mirror, I saw her at the shampoo bowl, eyes closed and smiling, her hands crossed in her lap. When I took off my smock, I leaned over to her and said, “You will be beautiful and fierce.”
IT: A luxury, indeed. The warm clean water, the perfumed soap, the heavenly touch from another human being – whose purpose in that particular moment – is to make us feel something different, something more beautiful and fierce. Fierce. This makes me think of our drag queen sisters. RuPaul says that “…we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” Indeed. =The queens teach us how lucky we women are, born into a culture that supports and encourages our radical transformation; makeup, clothing, and most certainly, hair. =Our appearance is a language unto itself, teaching and translating, signifying place, letting go, and letting in.
At night, I oil my scalp and locs. Tying the long scarf around my head, I place my hair in an order before I lay down to dream. When I awake, my hair is softer and more pliant, ready to endure the constant combing of my fingers, the bands that break and pins that bend, as I attempt to harness it while working. Mostly, I think my hair just wants to be free. It wants to be brightened by the sun and captured by the wind. It doesn’t mind being caught in a rainstorm, dressed in silks or sparkly, pretty things. Perhaps we are more alike than I have imagined, my hair and me. We take up space, our bodies, abundant. We have the flexibility and silence of the Tao, yet a bodacious gesture, so beautifully looms, around every corner. Blessed be the strength and resiliency of our lengths, our endless possibilities.
Beth Gilstrap was a recent writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Blue Fifth Review, The Minnesota Review, Superstition Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.
Imani Tolliver is a poet, visual artist and educator. She has been a consultant for several museums, educational institutions and has been honored with a Certificate of Appreciation by the City of Los Angeles for her work as a promoter, host and publicist in support of the literary arts in Southern California. She also served as the 2007/2008 Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles, California.
She has been a featured poet across the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, The World Stage Performance Gallery, University of Southern California, California State University at Long Beach, California State University Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Central Library. Imani also volunteers, marches, and pitches in whenever she is able, in support of the vibrant and beautiful LGBT community of which she is wholly and happily a part.
KCET Departures' exploration of Leimert Park extends into the literary realm this week in LA Letters. It is common knowledge by now that Leimert Park's World Stage has been one of the most important West Coast poetry venues since it opened in 1989. Hundreds, if not thousands, of poets have shared their work in Leimert for going on four decades now. This week L.A. Letters features eight literary lions of Leimert Park, chosen because they have each put in over 20-plus years of work in Leimert as a poet, writer, and community activist. At the end of the essay a few other writers will be mentioned as well as a few more book and film titles.
Before naming the writers, some background information is important to establish. Leimert Park's poetry scene traces back to the famed Watts Writers Workshop. World Stage co-founder and City Lights author, Kamau Daaood, was the youngest member of the Watts Writers Workshop. Founded after the 1965 Watts riots by movie producer Budd Schulberg, the Workshop was a creative incubator in the Watts community until an FBI informant burned it down in 1972. Daaood joined writers like Quincy Troupe, Ojenke, Cleveland Sims, k curtis lyle, Watts Prophets, Eric Priestley, Wanda Coleman, Jayne Cortez and many others. These writers came a decade before hip-hop and slam poetry. The Watts writers gradually migrated to Leimert Park through the Reagan years. Following the 1992 uprisings, the Leimert Park community emerged even more as a mecca for music and poetry.
Voices From Leimert Park
As noted before there have been hundreds of poets in the Leimert Park community of writers. The closest thing to any type of record of the movement is the 2007 anthology "Voices From Leimert Park," edited by Shonda Buchanan. At just over 200 pages it effectively captures the magic from close to two decades at the World Stage and other Leimert Park poetry venues. Forty-seven Poets are published in the book: writers like Kamau Daaood, Pam Ward, AK Toney, Regina Higgins, Ruth Forman, LeVan D. Hawkins, D Knowledge, k curtis lyle, Conney Williams, Imani Tolliver, E.J. Priestley, S. Pearl Sharp, Merilene Murphy, Michael Datcher, Peter J. Harris, Wanda Coleman, Paul Calderon, V. Kali Nurigan, Jervey Tervalon and many others. Like any anthology, it's just a drop in the bucket.
Anthologies and lists by nature are problematic. There are always other writers that are important or could have been included. There have been numerous excellent writers that have passed through Leimert Park to do important work along their journey. Buchanan, for example, was very active in the community before taking a professor job on the East Coast at Hampton University. She orchestrated and edited the anthology, splitting her time between coasts.
I first began attending poetry events in Leimert in the mid-1990s. Thanks to A.K. Toney, I was warmly welcomed into Leimert Park venues like the World Stage and Fifth Street Dick's after we became friends around 2002. Toney is a published poet, educator, and founder of the "Reading Is Poetry" youth writing workshop. Coming out of high school in the late 1980s in Inglewood, Toney gravitated to Leimert Park's community of coffeehouses and performance spaces.
Toney has been a part of the World Stage family since the early 1990s. Toney explains the evolution of Leimert and his own involvement: "Leimert Park Village exposed its secrets and origins that I would use as a reference in my development for poetry. The experiences I became part of were priceless," he says. There were several elders that nurtured his artistic, intellectual and spiritual growth. He fondly recalls listening to Billy Higgins and Horace Tapscott tell stories about Louis Armstrong, Coltrane and Central Avenue. Toney even briefly lived a few doors down from Tapscott on 11th Avenue. He also shared a connection with Fifth Street Dick's Coffeehouse owner, Richard Fulton.
"If there was anything that gave me the new golden years of Leimert Park Village during the time between 1989-2000, it was Richard Fulton," Toney says. "Fulton once said, 'I created this as a Sanctuary, a community space where people can express themselves. A place where creativity can flourish. Don't ever forget where you come from and what made you who you are.' He was the heartbeat of The Village." Toney inculcated the community spirit at an early age and ran with it.
He has numerous stories about the greats he learned from. "I met such greats, as Billy Higgins, the most recorded jazz drummer in the history of the world. He was also a founding Father of the World Stage, partnering with Kamau. Billy is famous for the recording 'Round Midnight' with Dexter Gordon." By the time Toney was 20 he had met Billy Higgins, Juno Lewis, Kamau Daaood, Horace Tapscott, and many other poets and musicians.
"I discovered how the rhythms of Africa transported from Louisiana to Los Angeles to help form jazz. I learned this from Baba Juno Lewis. He was a musician that hand crafted his own drums and horns. John Coltrane came to Los Angeles with one sole purpose at one time, and that was to find Juno Lewis to record the album known as 'Kule Se Mama.'"
Toney reminisces about nights when there'd be three or four venues in the village packed with people playing live music, poetry, and tables of chess players well into the a.m. It still can be that way from time to time these days, on days like the Leimert Park Book Fair or World Stage Jazz Festival. In recent years a few documentary films and a book have been released documenting the Leimert Park scene.
In the late '90s Toney traveled internationally, performing poetry with Keith Antar Mason and the Hititte Empire. He presently teaches poetry workshops throughout Southern California and is finishing both a book of poems and a Science Fiction Novella. Toney is a popular inspirational guest speaker around schools in Southern California and has also recorded two albums of his poetry accompanied by jazz.
Kamau Daaood is a major poetic pioneer. I have written about him many times before in this column. He's shared the stage with legends like Gil Scott-Heron and Amiri Baraka. S. Pearl Sharp directed and produced a film about Kamau Daaood called "Word Musician" in 1985. Daaood has always been a poetic prodigy. In the late 1960s when he was only 18, he was asked to move to New York and join the Last Poets. Similar to his mentor Horace Tapscott before him, he chose to stay in Los Angeles and act locally.
Daaood's poetry album is titled "Leimert Park." It's a collection of twelve poems over a well-crafted musical soundscape, with pieces for Coltrane, Art Blakey, Billie Holiday, his wife and his family. Recorded in 1997, the album features legendary Leimert Park musicians like Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, pianist Nate Morgan, and vocalist Dwight Trible. Daaood's most recent recordings with Carlos Nino's project Ammon Contact are as powerful as ever. His City Lights book, "The Language of Saxophones," is one of the legendary publisher's best-selling poetry titles. Daaood also has an encyclopedic knowledge of vinyl records, poetry books and film.
S. Pearl Sharp
S. Pearl Sharp is a writer/actress/filmmaker well known for projects like the aforementioned film on Kamau Daaood, her nonfiction book, "Black Women For Beginners," her five books of poetry, several poetry recordings, and another documentary, "The Healing Passage/Voices From the Water." Over the years she has published in numerous anthologies and journals, like Eugene Redmond's "Drum Voices." Sharp's work reflects a wise woman that has seen the world and combines love, wit and sarcasm into well-crafted poetry. Her poem "When Billy Died," about the night Billy Higgins died, is the first one of hers I heard at the World Stage. The powerful short poem was very memorable as was her sincere delivery. "They heard him/when he put down/his sticks/they came/when Billy died." She lists the instruments that showed up and ends the poem noting that they came, "and didn't need no email, they came." The mix of wisdom and humor in her work always uplifts a room full of listeners. Her voice translates well on the page as well. She has also mentored numerous younger authors.
Peter J. Harris
Peter J. Harris has published poetry, personal essays, and journalism since the 1970s. His book, "Hand Me My Griot's Clothes," won the Josephine Miles Award. An editor, broadcaster and arts educator, Harris won the Pen Oakland Award for Multicultural Literature in 1993. He worked in the California Poets in the Schools program in the 1980s, published his own magazine geared towards uplifting Black fathers, and created countless workshops for both youth and elders. I first heard his work on both KPFK Radio and Carlos Nino's first "Build An Ark" record in 2003. One of his best known poems is the recording of "Love is Our Nationality," in which his voice and the music blend seamlessly. "Put down your gun, pick up your baby." There are many memorable lines in the piece. His work, like S. Pearl Sharp's, translates well on both the page and the stage. Harris has participated in international writing conferences and poetry festivals and shared the stage with many jazz greats. He's recently done a series of events at California Plaza downtown.
Michael Datcher is a poet, novelist and professor, known for both his time at the World Stage and now as an LMU instructor. Datcher's novel "Raising Fences" is one of the best known novels to take place in Leimert Park, where he was living at the time while a UCLA grad student. Datcher had spent much of his youth in Southern California but had gone to UC Berkeley, where he studied with the legendary Professor June Jordan. Datcher moved to Leimert when he came back home to L.A. for grad school. Eventually he became a central figure at the World Stage. His description in "Raising Fences," about the first time he met Kamau Daaood in Daaood's former Leimert Park record store sometime in the very early 1990s, is a historic episode very important in Leimert Park literary history. The conversation shows Datcher, an earnest young poet in his mid-20s, as he begins to tell Daaood about his graduate studies in Poetry and previous experience at Berkeley. The older Daaood slows him down a bit and then tells Datcher about the World Stage. The rest, as they say, is history -- shortly after his first visits to the World Stage, Datcher dove in head first and ended up becoming the World Stage's Workshop Director for over a decade. Datcher's inventive energy combined magically with the wisdom of older writers like Daaood, Harris and Sharp along with contemporaries like A.K. Toney, Pam Ward, Imani Tolliver, Conney Williams and many other writers to create a formidable nucleus of writers at the World Stage.
Poet, visual artist, educator, and community worker, Imani Tolliver is another longtime Leimert stalwart. After studying English Literature and African-American Studies at Howard University, she's had a very successful writing career and served as a consultant to community organizations, museums and educators. Besides her many years at the World Stage, she has done work throughout Southern California at Cal State L.A., Cal State Long Beach, USC, and in 2007/2008 she was selected the Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center. She was a Graduate Fellow with Cave Canem in the late 1990s and has published several books of her poetry. In 2007 the city of Los Angeles awarded her a Certificate of Appreciation for her work as a promoter, host and publicist in support of the literary arts in Los Angeles.
Pam Ward is a writer and graphic designer who has been very active in literary Los Angeles since the 1980s. A UCLA graduate and recipient of a "California Arts Council Fellow in Literature" and "New Letters Literary Award," Ward grew up in the Crenshaw District. She is equally adept at both poetry and fiction. Like each of the other greats in this article, she is also a longtime stalwart of the World Stage. Her prose poem "Los Angeles," is a relentless parade of vivid images. It begins:
Because I inhale L.A, like the smoke from a Skid Row bum. Because I used the slick white sheet inside a pantyhose pack, to write. Because I grew up at 54th and Crenshaw, a million miles from O-Jay's glove but a stone's throw from Ray Charles' View Park door. Because Mom washed and sang 'Rainy Night in Georgia,' off-key, turning our porch into a bleach and Ajax concert. Because Daddy drove a Porsche, tooling the 110 with ease, passing men who eyed his kinky wild hair with suspicion and would have lynched him, if they could get away clean. Because my uncle's a cop. Because my cousin sold weed. Because my Aunt is a poker playin' fiend.
Ward knows the city well and extolls all of its virtues in her work. Her two novels, "Want Some, Get Some" and "Bad Girls Burn Slow," are set in contemporary Los Angeles. She has also published several books with her imprint, Short Dress Press. Ward is a mother of two recent college graduates and is well loved throughout the city for her warm personality and great writing.
Conney Williams is a poet, community activist, and father active around Leimert Park and literary Los Angeles for over 25 years now. He is the Artistic Director at the World Stage, an organizer of the Leimert Park Book Festival, and has published two poetry collections: "Leaves of Spilled Spirit from an Untamed Poet," and his newest book is titled, "Blues Red Soul Falsetto." Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he worked as a radio personality, Williams came to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Aside from his years of service in Leimert Park, he has also hosted numerous events in Downtown L.A., Venice, and Highland Park. He has recently featured for the Los Angeles Poets Society and can be seen throughout the city. Williams is known for his supportive spirit and potent poems like "Ballad For Gwendolyn Brooks."
There are many other great poets and writers that have been active in Leimert Park over the years. K Curtis lyle, another contemporary of Daaood and an early member of the Watts Writers Workshop, has split his time between L.A. and St. Louis. Will Alexander, another great Los Angeles poet published by City Lights, grew up with both Lyle and Daaood, but Alexander has never been one for being too associated with one school or geographic location. He is more known as a Surrealist poet, and though he has undoubtedly shared his work in Leimert, it's not a point of identification for him and his work. Billy Burgos is another very active Leimert poet; I wrote about him and the Leimert Park Book Festival last year. Burgos, along with emerging writers like Nikki Black, Hannibal Tabu, Tamara Blue, and the young poets I met a few years ago at View Park High School, like Monique Mitchell and Philip Williams, are preparing to continue Leimert's literary legacy.
Nina Revoyr's book, "Southland," is an excellent book that takes place near Leimert Park over three generations. An interracial romance between a Japanese man and African-American woman during the Post War period, the novel offers an insightful window into the history of the Crenshaw District. The Crenshaw District was once equally African-American, Japanese, and Jewish. The Japanese influence can still be seen near 39th and Norton Street. Jazz musical icon David Axelrod went to Dorsey High School, and grew up near Jefferson and Crenshaw. George Takei from Star Trek also went to Dorsey and grew up in the Crenshaw area.
The recent documentary "This is the Life" tells the story about the famed hip hop open mic held at the Good Life Café, which operated on Crenshaw from 1989 to 1994. The Good Life, along with the Project Blowed hip hop open mic held at KAOS Network in Leimert Park since 1994, have been as important to the underground Hip Hop community as the World Stage has been to poetry. In a future article that will also be covered.
The writers and artists mentioned here are only the beginning; there are dozens of other writers worthy of attention. Eso Won Books in Leimert Park is one of the best places to begin further research. Salute to A.K. Toney, Kamau Daaood, S. Pearl Sharp, Peter J. Harris, Michael Datcher, Imani Tolliver, Pam Ward and Conney Williams for their tireless years of service to Leimert Park and Southern California. These illustrious authors are leviathans of L.A. Letters.
Writing from her Scar
Featured Underground Poet: Imani Tolliver
May 5, 2005 by emceere *
Imani is a queen of the scene. Elegant, wise, lovely, a class act. A great writer and performer.
when did you start writing poetry? why? I started writing poetry when I was a girl, fairly young. I didn't know that I was writing poetry. Mostly, I wrote wishes that held the tiny blossom of fiction - boys I had crushes on, first kisses I dreamed of - things like that. I don't know why I started writing. It was most likely my mother who encouraged me first. I was an only child until I was 11 years old, so I spend a lot of time alone. My mother is an artist herself, so she was always putting projects into my hands. Things to make, to weave, to paint. I’m not sure if she gave me my first journal - but over the past 30 years - she has given me the bulk of them that have been gifts. As time went on, wrote to make sense of my world, my life and the haunts and dangers that surrounded me.
which poets inspire you? So many. In the beginning, it was Maya Angelo and Alice Walker. With their work, I no longer felt invisible and alone in my experiences of incest, rape, and physical violence that built the house I in which I grew up. Later, it was Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. I found out about the Harlem Renaissance and fell into the glamorous and self-defining sepia artists that showed me how beautifully precise black artists are. Then I found the Black Arts Movement and it was all about Haki, Sonia and Nikki for years. In between was Lao Tzu for center and the lessons from Spirit that have no color, just divinity and pure love. I return to his texts (poetic, but not classified as such) when I loose sight of center and need reminding of the power of love, of reed, of water. And then Michelle T. Clinton and Sapphire for their ability to write and publish the experiences that I lived myself - but could not bear to even think about, let alone write down or share with others. It was their courage that made a road for my own truth. Now, my favorites are e. e. cummings for his precision, humor, and eroticism. and Pablo Neruda for his lush appreciation of the beautiful. An artichoke, a lover dreaming, a pair of socks. He loves like God loves. Without bias or judgment.
which other arts and artists inspire you? I love Bob Marley and Frida Kahlo. James van der Zee. Lisa Wedgeworth for her poetic precision as a photographer. The Indigo Girls. Sweet Honey in the Rock. Jaha Zianabu. Buddha. Sunday mornings at Agape. People who know how to make buttery lentils and samosas. Don Miguel Ruiz. The creators and contributors of the New Yorker. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Water fountains. Candle makers. Perfumers. People who make clothes by hand. Children who recreate themselves, love their families, stand for what they believe in, face illness with courage, walk to safe places on streets that are not safe, who smile and laugh despite abuse, struggle or injury.
how do you feel about theLos Angeles poetry scene? That's hard to answer. What I love is that there are so many places to perform, to hear people express themselves poetically. I don't like the fighting and inbreeding. (but I don't like that generally.) I don't like big egos and grandstanding - unless it's for love or children or the voice of someone who's been silenced unjustly. Plus, folks need to travel! I am so sick of the litany, "east coast writers don't respect us. They don't take us seriously. They don't know we exist." So what! First of all, I really hope that poets are writing to set free what's in their own true hearts, aching to get free instead of hoping to get recognized on the street. Secondly, the writers that I know in NYC aren't even from NYC. So if being a part of that school is so important, then get out there. But mostly, as artists generally and poets specifically, we have a responsibility to the craft. So do the work. Read away from the street that knows you. Read to others what frightens you to do so. Listen to others. Get inspired. Play in other art forms. Write from your scar.
what are your goals, poetically speaking for the next 5 years? To have published an internationally distributed collection of my poetry. A beautiful, informative, lucrative website. Possibly an MFA in creative writing and a professorship somewhere wonderful. But mostly, continually growing and manifesting truth, beauty and divine connection where I read, publish and where people come in contact with me and my art.
what is your biggest vice? Hiding and the tools that make that possible.
what is your biggest fear? That I won't have the courage to be essentially, absolutely myself.
what feeds your soul? This. All of this. Using my voice. Connecting to people in a beautiful and profound way.
what is your new year's resolution? To rest in God.
* Photo by Mark Savage
Ode to the Commute
Local Poets Stage Rush-Hour Reading at Union Station
by Lea Lion
On Monday, April 30, Mike Casey was passing through Union Station when he stumbled across an unusual scene.
The bespectacled 30-year-old commutes roughly 30 miles from Los Angeles Community College to his home in Claremont four days a week. Usually he kills time during the more than half-hour wait between trains, but on this particular day he was crouched down against a curving marble wall listening to poetry.
In celebration of the last day of National Poetry Month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collaborated with the Poetry Society of America for the latest installment of a program called Poetry in Motion. The event featured six local poets - Tony Barnstone, Elena Karina Byrne, Brendan Constantine, Teka Lark Lo, Rubén Martínez and Imani Tolliver - staging a live poetry reading during rush hour at Union Station.
The audience were the people who happened to be passing through the station. At an East Portal ticket booth, they included a young girl with a skateboard, a middle-aged woman in a police uniform and an older man in a light blue turban.
Each time a train arrived, a new batch of commuters flooded the atrium. Among the passersby were students, tourists and office workers. There was a boy with a shaved head and a woman whose high heels provided a beat for the poets as she passed. Occasionally, someone ducked out of the stream to stand against the marble wall for a few poems before rejoining the flow.
The poets sat in a semi-circle directly across from the culturally themed mural "City of Dreams/River of History." One by one, they approached a mic and wooden stool and launched into a poem of their choosing.
"Good afternoon travelers," Tolliver, a dreadlocked African-American poet dressed from head-to-toe in black, said. "It's really cool to be here in a train station because when I was in college I read a lot of poems on the train. First, I'd like to read a poem by Pablo Neruda, who is one of my favorite poets."
In addition to their own works, the poets read short pieces by Gwendolyn Brooks, Federico García Lorca and William Carlos Williams, among others.
Of course, Union Station is no library, and the poets knew that some of their words would get lost in the shuffle. But that is beside the point, said Byrne, who coordinated the poets for the Metro event.
"Most of these poems are very accessible and easily understood," Byrne said. "But even if the crowd didn't have the time to listen or understand the poem, they were able to get an experience of just the words washing over them."
The Human Story
Since its inception 10 years ago, Poetry in Motion has brought poetry to the public in many forms, including group performances on subway cars and one-on-one readings on buses. The program has also placed more than 60,000 poetry placards in trains and buses.
"Many cities have a Poetry in Motion program in their transit system, but nobody else has these live readings," said Maya Emsden, the director of Metro Art. "We just thought that was a really wonderful, immediate way of having transit customers meet poets."
The program connects poets and the public, but it also connects people to their inner poet, Byrne said.
"One of the benefits of this is that people will be reminded that the power of language is theirs," she said. "Communicating our thoughts about ourselves as human beings, our human story, is something that people recognize in these poems."
For regular riders like Casey, Poetry in Motion was a welcome break from the monotony of the daily commute.
"There should be more use of public space like this," he observed.
While most travelers rushed by the poets with confused looks on their faces, Casey knew he would miss a good thing if he did not stop.
On a recent trip to New York, he had come across a professional dance performance at Grand Central Station. He had also heard about concert violinist Joshua Bell's impromptu performance in a Washington, D.C., Metro station earlier this year.
"Nobody knew who he was," Casey said, "They even threw money into his violin case."
There is no telling who you'll bump into at a train station, he added.
Page 24, 5/7/2007
© Los Angeles Downtown News
New Nigerian Times
Interview by Sumaila Umaisha
Let’s begin with your short biography. I was born in Los Angeles, California in 1965. I was only a few days old when the Watts riots broke out and even though the police came to our door, looking for folks to arrest, my mother allowed them entry into our apartment with the warning of not waking the baby. I was suffering from colic.
You are a poet, visual artist, educator and community worker, all at the same time. How are you coping? It’s tough. Nearly any free moment that I acquire, I tell myself that I should be writing, editing, reading or creating something. Especially lately, I am looking very closely at the way I measure my day. When time I go to bed, how early I rise, prayer, and so on. And daily, as I answer my e-mails, pay bills and accept calls at my desk, pounds of poetry await a closer reading, a finer edit, a rewrite, a submission. Actually, the poems are waiting right now.
Briefly tell us your experience in each of these fields of endeavor. Writing came naturally to me. I wrote stories as a child, creating fantasies of places I wanted to visit, boys I had crushes on. The evolution of my stories into poetry was not difficult either. It happened naturally. When I think about it, I am still writing about love, still creating worlds of truth and beauty that I would like to share. My visual art is simply play for me. It is an exercise I commence when the words don’t come as easily as I’d wish. Often, it’s due to me having so much that I want to say and wanting to say it well, that slows me up sometimes. So painting, collage, deconstructing clothing and putting it back together again releases the judgment and anticipation. It allows me to be freer. Education and social justice are entwined. As a poet, I am writing the dreams of my world. As an educator and activist, I am creating the world of my wishes. It has been a journey of protest, recreating literary cannons, speaking loudly and clearly when my voice – and those I represent in color, gender and political place in this world – is not represented in arenas of power. I learned how to create my own, our own. Audre Lorde writes, “Your silence will not protect you.” When silent, our dreams fester and burn inside of us. Our “dreams deferred” can destroy us or can fuel us to greatness. Humble as a poem, mighty as a changed destiny for an entire people. Silence cannot save us. Speaking, using our voices will save, and recreate us, us over and over again.
When and how did you start writing? I started writing when I was a little girl. My mother bought my journals for many, many years and still does from time to time. Not long ago, I told her that I missed her buying them. I have felt for years that she was giving me permission to speak in my own tongue, with my own truth. Even when the words did not compliment her. Truth was (and is) the important thing. And the vehicle (words) in a beautiful home (those amazing journals) honored me tremendously. I told her that it was as if she was encouraging me to speak the words that she could not. She had never articulated this aloud, but she says that it’s true. So now, she gives them to me again.
How many works have you published so far and what are their titles? I have published several poems over the years. Many on-line. You might happen across the following titles, “gin and juice”, “the hardest part”, “what love was”, and several others. I have also recorded a poetry CD, “pink” and two chapbooks, Ghettos are not Beautiful and My Man.
Apart from poetry do you also try your hands on other genres of literature such as drama and prose? Years ago, was very anxious to write a play. For years I tried to make sense of the dialogue, which always felt forced. The subject, although valuable, read as didactic. It wasn’t until I met August Wilson once, at a conference years ago, that I let myself off the hook. Among other questions, I asked him how to do it. How does one write a play? I shared my struggle with him and he old me this: there should be one character in the play who knows everything and that the audience is as much a part of the drama on the stage as the actors. For example, say you have a character who comes on the stage and says, “That Joe Turner is a son of a …”, you have the audience thinking, “Well, who is this Joe Turner and what did he do?” Later on in the play, another character may come on the stage and offer a completely different point of view. So now the audience is wondering which is right? Questioning the earlier or later opinion. The story that touches me most is how much brother August wanted to be a poet. How he dressed in warm sweaters with those leather patches on the elbows and smoked a pipe. He told me that he was a really bad poet and laughed about it. I figured, if I could be a fine a poet and a bad playwright, that’s fine because the opposite is true of August Wilson. These days, it seems as if poets are pressured into writing novels and screenplays. Decades ago, before the big information age, a poet could simply be a poet. The genre was respected as a specific, albeit elitist form. Now, I’m not agreeing with the elitist bit, because I do believe that art belongs to everyone, absolutely. So sometimes, I am resistant to inhabiting a form outside of poetry. But I must admit, from time to time I wonder about writing a memoir or creative nonfiction. Essays also. I used to teach with someone who preferred my essays and letters to my poems, so we’ll see. You never know.
Most of your poems are romantic, even those you wrote as a child. What informed this style? I am in the business of dreaming a world, truer, more specifically made of my own wishes. Some of those wishes involve romantic love, some do not. It is important to mention that my more overtly political work doesn’t often get chosen for publication. Or, if more honest with myself and your readers, my romantic poems are fairly political. Body consciousness, interracial dating, spirituality within the love hemisphere – all of these tropes are present in my work even with they are nestled in the body of a romantic poem.
Specifically, what inspired these poems; The Safest Place and Kind of Blue? I wrote “the safest place” when I was living in an apartment that I had put a great deal of energy into its interior design, the feng shui of it, in an attempt to create a peaceful and inspiring place to live and create. One day, I was sitting in my bedroom and I began looking around. I realized that I created a beautiful space, but the most important part was missing. The love part. Yes, I was living with Spirit in me, as me. Yes, there were poems and collages and paintings. Letters and pretty things. But where was my partner? Where was the lover who would bless my bed? [She] wasn’t there. Creating a safe space was really about creating a space quilted from my own fears – the anticipation of pain. So this “safety” was a lie. And still is. Safe for me now, is walking is resting in the heart of God, knowing that all of my needs are met and that I am blessed beyond my imagination. My blessings, all of our blessings, are bigger than what I have imagined for myself. These days, I recognize the power of letting go of striving, and tightfisted wishing. These days I am less about striving and more about being. “kind of blue” was written about my father. It’s very narrative, so I won’t explain it. But I will say this; love, forgiveness and embracing lessons from an abusive parent is big work. Love for those who have been abusive to us is complicated. This is the message of the poem. To forgive is the gift you give yourself. Letting go of the pain you hold in your fists allows for light to live there. Every time.
You have won a number of literary awards. You have also been a featured poet across the United States. What is responsible for these successes? My prayer when I write and read is that I connect with people in a divine way. Again, here is an example of a divinity that I didn’t expect: the divinity of connection through true stories where I used to hold shame. Toi Derricotte teaches that our beauty is where we hold shame; our beauty lives in our scar. It took me years to understand and embrace this. It always astonishes me when I read a poem that I believe is so specific to my own experience – the images, the references – and then people connect it the work so personally and specifically. I can only believe that people are interested in truth. In connection. There is a divinity in that. And I am thankful that there are readers and listeners who connect with me. Together, will find higher ground.
Has your being an African-American affected your writing career in any way? A friend told me once, that I speak for a very specific audience. I love and am honored to be a part of this beautiful, complicated culture. I embrace it. I am thankful that others embrace my work that is a reflection of my own experience as an African American.
Have you ever visited Africa? Not yet.
What’s your image of Africa like?
As complicated as borrowed language. Beautiful beyond my imagination. Brilliant, high singing. Sadder than the bluest note. Optimistic and forgiving. If God has a physical heart, I’d imagine that the continent could take its shape and scope. A large part, I’d imagine.
Who is your favourite African writer(s)? Why? Oh, I’m still learning. The breath of my knowledge of African poets is tethered to their American experience. Recommend some. Recommend many.
What’s your advice for young writers who want to be like you? The best advice I can give is to be more like them, not like me. I’m still getting to the center of who I am. But I will say this; be yourself. Tell your truth. Be brave with it. Speak when you are shaking. Speak with others may tell you to shut up. Never compromise your truth. Learn your craft. Believe in your voice. Read, listen, learn, play, laugh and love for real. Stand for love. Stand for your people. Stand for your ancestors. Watch the divinity of Spirit transform your life, which is only about letting go and being who you really are. And in the words of Jean Michel Basquiat, "...no mundane options". Ever.
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