Poet Of The Week

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor

     July 12–18, 2021

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is a poet and curator born in Trinidad and raised in Queens, New York. She is the author of five collections of poetry: Raw Air, Night When Moon Follows, Convincing the Body, Arrival and Mama Phife Represents, a verse memoir about her son, hip hop legend Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor). Cheryl holds a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University and an MFA in creative writing from Stonecoast: The University of Southern Maine. On Sunday, July 18, she will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at Ba’sik in Williamsburg along with Desiree C. Bailey and Chiwan Choi.

Author photo by Desciana Swinger

When a House Lives Alone

for Walt & Malik

 

when a house lives alone

it is still filled with love

what remains goes unsettled in us

we pack up your bathroom

dad and I

I know you are laughing at us

this is what it has come to

mom and dad perfect strangers

packing up your house

there are bath towels

still tied with ribbons and store labels

two tubes of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste

fennel and baking soda     dried in the tube

when a house lives alone

beds go unmade for weeks     months even

rubber soles of expensive sneakers melt together

we throw them out

in that long weekend of solitary packing

dinner looks like five-minute couscous and salad

oatmeal and raisins

a lone glass of shiraz

the father puts more wood on the fireplace

turns pages in an old album

you in daycare                    you at eighth-grade graduation

you with your first gold album

on your feet Air Force 1s

the mother makes peppermint tea

an altar of white sage and crystals

celebrate the fourth-year anniversary of her son’s death

four years later tears still flow

this morning the same haunting questions

Malik were you happy?

did you know how much we loved you?

we pause at the mantle

a picture of us three in a green wood frame

mother father son

time is so unkind

did he call my name in that hour?

what did he know for sure?

was he still dreaming about having a child?

did the new album fill that space?

did he love me more than dad?

all I ever wanted was to be a good mother

that last night did he dream about his grandma?

was she at the gate to meet you?

by now you must be out of pain

I blow a kiss to no one in particular

to weep until exhaustion

to fold with pain

to weep with joy that too is the question

to weep with joy that too is the answer

 

—From Mama Phife Represents, Haymarket Books, 2021.

Brooklyn Poets · Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, "When a House Lives Alone"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“When a House Lives Alone” is a tribute to Malik’s dad, Walt Taylor. It is also a tribute to our life as a family unit. We divorced over thirty years ago, and while we remained civil for our son’s sake, we were not close. The loss of our only child brought us closer than we had been in years. It was difficult to go to his home together and even worse to pack it up. This was a home where we had shared birthdays, Christmases, laughter and good times as a family. Being there forced us to be emotionally mature. We had married young and in some ways we were still carrying old hurts and resentments. During that weekend, we were forced to put aside our differences and to stand united for Malik. We laughed and cried, we packed up, threw away and gave away. We savored the smells of his home, his fireplace, candles, spices, flowers and trees. When the weekend was done, we felt like we had forged a new bond and were ready to move on with our lives as his parents standing strong, honoring his music, his memory, his passion and resilience.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on my new collection of poems, titled NOW. My sixth collection of poems, titled We Are Not Wearing Helmets—a book of political poems that honors the lives of women-of-color artists in whose footsteps I am walking—will be published by TriQuarterly Books / Northwestern University Press in February 2022.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me is when I rise early, around 6 AM. I meditate and pray while listening to the native flute music of Carlos Nakai. I then write in my journal, maybe read a poem or two from one of my favorite poets—Aracelis Girmay, Audre Lorde or Kimiko Hahn. Then I rise to make fresh coffee and tend to my plants. That is when I know I am off to a beautiful day.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

The poetry and art scene brought me to Brooklyn, as well as the opportunity to live freely as a lesbian. I grew up in Queens in a Caribbean family and there was not much opportunity to be a divorced mother and an out queer person. When I visited friends in Brooklyn, I received a warm, non-judgmental welcome. I knew I was home, and I am still here after thirty-one years, still loving my home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill for over thirty-one years. When I moved to Brooklyn, the area was a thriving artistic community of mostly black folks and other people of color. What I loved the most were the beautiful brownstones, Sunday brunch and the poetry readings that followed. There was music, good food and chosen family.

Some parts of the neighborhood was rough, but we stuck together as a group of artists doing our work and supporting each other. About ten years ago, our neighborhood was gentrified by young white yuppies with big dogs and superior attitudes. The mom-and-pop shops disappeared, the condos and high-rises moved in, everything became unaffordable. The price of rent and foods skyrocketed and we the people that kept our community through rough times were closed out. Coffee shops became cafés and the rice-and-beans bodegas became fancy-schmancy Manhattan restaurants. We were shut out of our own neighborhoods. Many of our friends moved to East Flatbush and East New York where there was less tolerance for queer life. Our Brooklyn lost its warmth and camaraderie.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

A good Brooklyn experience: I was in Fort Greene at a New Year’s Eve party when I met my life partner. We have been together for almost twenty-five years. This was the gift of my lifetime and I will always thank Brooklyn for sending me my love, Ceni.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I have found a poetry community in Brooklyn where I feel challenged and supported. Additionally, I have built poetry communities not just in Brooklyn, but in all five boroughs of New York City. For me, poetry means learning, loving, growing, sharing and surviving. I have always made community through poetry. I have that special gift of bringing people together. It is as much my life‘s work as writing poetry is. Someday I want to be remembered as a political leader and a literary activist. I revere poetry as the highest art form and I am pleased to be part of our world of poets.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Tina Chang, Kimiko Hahn, JP Howard, Anton Nimblett, Lynne Procope, Mahogany Browne, Aracelis Girmay, Nicole Sealey, Jason Koo, Steve Cannon and Dennis Nurkse, to name a few.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Some of my poetry mentors are: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Dionne Brand. These poets, all Caribbean women writers, have taught me to be brave and daring. To speak my truth and to honor my Caribbean dialect and heritage.

Audre Lorde in particular taught me that “poetry is not a luxury.” She taught me to honor the outdoors, flowers, rocks, trees, and just when I’m feeling most afraid, that is the moment to dig deep and write that scary poem.

Some of my other mentors were: Cheryl Clarke, Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds and Nikky Finney.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Poem: “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.

Books: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

These were books that touched me deeply. After the death of my son, I read them again and they were my guides, like salve to my dying fire. They held my grief and gave me hope.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Poetry as Spiritual Practice by Robert McDowell. Everything by Toni Morrison, and more James Baldwin.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I generally read one book at a time, and no, not cover to cover. I dip in and out, often jumping around. Sometimes I read two books at a time, but not very often. I try to read one book at a time so I can savor it and feel it spreading through my being.

I am a note-taker. I pick my books at random and I prefer physical books. I never, ever plan my reading in advance.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d like to try the golden shovel, and I’d like to try a sestina again—my first tries failed miserably.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Before the pandemic, I loved to read and write in coffee shops, bookstores and cafés, particularly cafés with outdoor spaces in DUMBO near the water. I loved hanging in Bryant Park, reading and writing. It is my favorite reading series in New York City.

I also like writing on the NYC High Line, on trains (Amtrak, LIRR, Metro-North) and on cruises up the Hudson River.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum. These are some of the spaces where I find music, dance, magic, and communion with nature.

The outdoors reminds me of my life in Trinidad. I love summer and could never live without it. Often I find that I write more in the summer.

At the museum and BAM, I find art and beauty that pushes my poetry and my pen to another galaxy.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

To Celebrate

 

I celebrate with red hibiscus

And what I praise most in you

Is how you shift our sorrow

With your mouth and limbs

For every day that ends with us

I watch the blue light of harmony climb into our window

Love dear love

Give me as good as I give you.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is the place where I reaped the full harvest of my womanhood. Here the ripening of my dreams and words that were planted early in my lifelong home of Trinidad took root. In Brooklyn I grew fragrant and full with poems.