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.
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:
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.
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.