Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and Fox Frazier-Foley in Conversation about Strut

Fox Frazier-Foley, founding editor-in-chief of Agape Editions, chats with Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie about her poetry collection Strut (Agape Editions, 2018), the process of choosing the right press, and how her collection found its home with Agape.

Fox Frazier-Foley: Hi! Ready to talk a little bit about Strut? 

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie: Hi! I’m ready. This heat is doing all kinds of things to us here in New York! Oh my goodness.

FFF: Oh, I thought of you yesterday—you’ve been telling me how hot it is there, and yesterday I saw an article about how the roaches are gonna start flying in NYC because of the heat. Like palmetto bugs!!!

[Both laughing]

MET: I sooooooo gotta get outta here.

FFF: I’m sorry it’s so crazy hot there! It’s hot here, too, but you kinda get used to it. And at least nothing is on fire near me right now, so that’s an improvement.

MET: Whew!

FFF: Well maybe we can start off our conversation by me asking: when you were writing this book, and when you finished writing it, what were you thinking about in terms of what you wanted in a press? How did you decide when and where to send it out?

MET: So—I’ve been assembling some version of Strut for the last four years, but it has gone through LOTS of versions. It was called Magic Unraveling a few years ago. Then, a while later, it took a new form and I was calling it Unhyphenated Souls. I sent it out a few places and it did NOTHING. I was busy with readings, teaching, writing, and my children. I kept fiddling with it. I let my friend Tyehimba Jess see it, he read it and made suggestions. I sent it out again. It went NOWHERE.

FFF: As you revised it, did your ideas about what kind of press you wanted as a home for this book stay fairly constant? Or did they change at all? I’m curious if you had a list of places (I know some poets do that—make a list and just go down the list) or if you kind of rethought it every time you re-sent it out.

MET: I think I was just in a strange, desperate, and grasping place. I can’t even remember where I sent it. [Pauses for a moment] I remember three places. Actually, as I think back on it—I know I felt desperate, but I think I was still being fairly picky because I didn’t send it out to that many places. But I still felt that desperation, that feeling of grasping around to find the right place.

FFF: I think lots of people would recognize that feeling—just trying your best to send out your work, but not necessarily having a very confident idea of exactly where the right place for your work would be. I remember saying to my husband right before one of my manuscripts got accepted somewhere, “You know, maybe I’m just going to put this one away. Maybe it’s just not meant to be a book.”

MET: I think this is the thing—with Strut, it wasn’t until I got out of the desperate place (where maybe I felt my magic unraveling), and sat with myself and the work, and got clear on the fact that it meant something to me. And the fact that I mean something to me, and my work means something to me. I went into the manuscript myself and made changes—I replaced some poems with other poems, I threw some out, I went back and edited a lot of the poems. And by then almost ALL of the poems had been published.

FFF: There’s a kind of energy that gets raised when that happens, I think. I did something similar with that manuscript of mine that I mentioned before, and that was around the time that things suddenly came together.

MET: Yes!!! It helped me. I knew that the poems had been published and that lifted me. I remember my friend Zoe Anglesey told me, back in the day, to make sure that at least half of the poems in a manuscript had been published before I sent it out. The other thing that helped was that when I did readings, people often asked me where they could find these poems of mine they were hearing. They’d ask if these poems were in Karma’s Footsteps and I had to say, “No.” That helped me, too.

FFF: Yeah—that’s a great feeling. When people want to know where they can get more of this particular collection or project. And I’m not surprised! You know, when I read the first poem in that manuscript, I was sold on it. So I’m not surprised people were asking.

MET: THANK YOU!!!!!!! And the one thing I felt (not because of these external factors though, but because of some internal shifts) was that this book was about strutting. It was about surviving things and feeling strong. And earning that feeling of strength.

FFF: That is one of the things about the voice that pulled me in right away—that voice was strutting from page one. “I am second-line New Orleans boisterous,” the speaker says, and I was already thinking, I need to read more of this RIGHT NOW. This book is for me!

MET: [Laughs]

FFF: And the last line of the first poem—“I write my own damn prescriptions.” I was simultaneously so happy and sad when I hit that point, the last line on the first page of the book. Because I was reading it as a Sundress editor—and actually, I was reading it by sheer coincidence. I had gotten an email that had been sent out to the whole editorial board, which is pretty huge, asking who wanted to read some of the early batches of submissions from the open reading period. And it was a Saturday, so usually I would have passed on it, but my husband had been called in to work overtime that day, and I had a little time to myself. I thought, I’ll just do my part now while I’ve got some free time in front of me. And Strut just happened to be in the batch that I was sent—really, total coincidence in some ways. And as I read, I was thinking, oh I wish this person had sent this manuscript to Agape, and I was a little sad. But I was also thinking, I’m so glad I signed up to read this batch of poems today, and I will DEFINITELY recommend this to Sundress!

MET: That is hilarious! Well, once I stopped the grasping desperation and reshaped the manuscript again—then at that point it was Strut. And once it was Strut, I became clearer about some things. By Spring of 2016, I was looking for a press again, but with a calm. I wanted a home for my work. I was more interested in building relationships with people at a press, and less interested in a “fancy” spot. So I called some friends about this manuscript—Latasha Diggs, Patricia Spears Jones, Frank X Walker—but I didn’t send the manuscript anywhere. I decided to be very, very deliberate. Frank said to me: pick four presses, and if none of them accept it, consider doing it yourself. And so I decided to do that.

FFF: And around this time, separately, you and I were talking about you writing a book on herbalism for Agape, right? That’s been a shared interest of ours, so we had gotten the idea for this book—and I wasn’t even aware you had a poetry book you were thinking of shopping around at that point, I don’t think—but we had already started talking about our ideas for an herbalist’s diary.

MET: Yes! We were talking about the herbalist’s diary, and you were going to send me a contract for that.

FFF: Right, and so right before I finished typing up your contract, I had decided to offer to read that batch of submissions for Sundress. It’s funny because, you know, as I kept reading further into Strut, I got to the poems that reference a bembe, and Mami Wata, and I was really thinking, this would have been so perfect for Agape! Then when I got to “Blue Libation,” I was like, well, I think I recognize this one, though. So I went and looked in the Acknowledgments, and it wasn’t listed there. I started trying to figure out why this poem was so familiar to me but not listed as appearing in a journal recently.

MET: That is funny!!! Ohhh, sorry I didn’t put that acknowledgement in there. I think I put the print one in.

Fox: Ha! Well, it kept me from knowing that the book was yours. I knew the poem was familiar, but I didn’t realize from what publication. So I sent in my comments on the submissions I had read, and went on with my day. Then, later, I did finally Googled that poem, because it was driving me nuts. And only then did it click for me that I had read a whole book by you without knowing it!

MET: [Laughs] Well—when Frank said to choose four or five presses or choose yourself, I felt very empowered. But I STILL didn’t know where to send the book. I asked Jen Fitzgerald if she had any suggestions. She suggested YesYes, Agape, and Sundress.

FFF: Ha! So she did suggest Agape, too!

MET: She did!!

FFF: I love Jen! That’s too funny. And I love that she suggested Agape—she’s a smart cookie!

MET: But your reading period was over! AND I thought if you were interested in the book, you woulda told me. AND I didn’t want to put you in the position of hating the book and having to say no. Because I see you as a friend. I kind of don’t like sending work to friends. It doesn’t feel right. So I sent Strut to: Haymarket, The Word Works, YesYes, and Sundress. Those were my four.

FFF: That is too funny! I was a little bit jealous that Sundress had “gotten” the manuscript as a submission, ha—but then I was like, well, whatever, she can send her book where she wants! [Laughs] I decided not to ask you about it because, yeah, we were friends at that point. I didn’t want to make anything feel weird. It wasn’t until a few days later, I was thinking about the wait, you know, after you send something out to presses, and I thought, if someone read my submission in a reading period, and had liked it, I would want to know about it. So that was why I texted you to say I thought I might have read something by you and I loved it. But I almost didn’t even say that! Of course, now I’m glad I decided to mention it.

MET: Me too. But that was hilarious.

FFF: So with those four places that you sent to, if none of them took the book, you were going to self-publish it?

MET: YES!! I was certain I could do it and do it well. The only thing was that I knew I’d have to publish other people after that. Sigh!

FFF: Ha, yeah—publishing other people is quite a project.

MET: I know!!

FFF: So when I got ahold of you and mentioned the book—which, to me, feels deeply spiritual—how long had it been since you had started sending it out again? I don’t think I ever asked that. I’m curious if it was a long wait.

MET: Two months. And to me, it was a new book!

FFF: Two months isn’t that bad of a wait time!

MET: It was not the book I sent to the other places. So yes, it took two months. And after you and I talked about it, I withdrew it from the other places, because I felt like I’d finally found a secure home with Agape. And THAT was the book I felt good about. I’m not saying it is perfect—

FFF: —well, probably no book is perfect?

MET: The book is—let’s just say it is layered and contradictory in some ways. I think it reflects a whole person.

FFF: I agree. And it reflects transformation and illumination, too. So what are your hopes or goals for what you want this book to do in the world? How do you want readers to feel about it?

MET: I don’t know. I always feel like I’m in a continuum—I think this is about falling and getting up and falling and getting up and falling and getting up. And respecting your journey and your faults.

FFF: Yeah, I think self-acceptance was one of the phrases I was thinking of when I read it.

MET: Yes. It is VERY much about that!! Totally about that.

FFF: I felt like this book is so much about lineage and personal histories— and the way it draws self-acceptance from those things, for me, is a big part of what made it feel spiritual and religious. It’s why I was so happy to have it end up at Agape.

MET: That is beautiful. Maybe if it wasn’t so damn hot, I’d’ve said those things! [Laughs]

Strut is a book of poetry that encounters, and facilitates dialogue about, global warming, genocide, racism, sexism, capitalism, slut-shaming, slavery, and mental illness. It is about ancestry, survival, sensuality, acceptance of self, and celebrating the gorgeousness of life while bearing witness to the ugliness that accompanies living. Strut is forthcoming from Agape Editions in 2018.

Photo credit: Dominique Sindayiganza

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