My Body, My Stones

February 8, 2022


Poetry Off the Shelf: My Body, My Stones





Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, My Body, My Stones. Poet and playwright Malcolm Tariq grew up a quiet kid in a loud household. What he loved most of all was, hang around, so quiet his parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles and cousins stopped paying attention to him, and he could just listen to them talk. He did the same thing with the place he’s from, Savannah, Georgia: hang around the beach, the port, the island where enslaved Africans first arrived, the plantations where they were forced to work. And then he would listen, for the stories hidden in the landscape’s very stones. That these stories aren’t always easy to hear I probably don’t have to tell you. But they need to be told, if only because history is fragile. We only remember what we record or pass on to anyone who will listen. And Malcolm Tariq, in his debut collection, Heed the Hollow, as in life, is always willing to listen. Here’s my conversation with him.


Helena de Groot: So, okay, so my first question is, you write plays, you write poems. Which one came first?


Malcolm Tariq: Oh, wow. That’s the question that I probably cannot even answer. Wow!


Helena de Groot: Why is that?


Malcolm Tariq: I don’t even—I know I was writing stories a lot, because I grew up around a lot of stories, you know, people just talking about, you know, back in the day, like, you know, ’60s, ’70s, when my parents were growing up. And my grandma, I grew up a lot around her family. So, lots of stories everywhere. So I think I was, like, making up stories based on what I had heard, And … I know the first poem I ever wrote, I have because I was at, my father had a T-shirt company and he’s Muslim, so he went around the corner where his mosque was for like Friday evening prayer. And me and my cousin were just at the company, which is in like this house in downtown Savannah. And I just picked up a pen and wrote a couple of poems. One of them was about Savannah. (LAUGHS) So odd.


Helena de Groot: So how old were you?


Malcolm Tariq: 10 or 11. But then at the same time, I was also writing plays for church. So, some people grow up singing in church. I grew up writing in church. And they were like, funny. But, you know, it was about Easter or Christmas, so there had to be some Christian element in it. So writing plays. But when the pastor was talking, I would be writing poems in my church bulletin. And so like, I really don’t know which one came first. I think they were kind of born at the same time, but I focused a lot more on poetry at the time, because that is what you could go to the library and get. I mean, you could get plays, and I did, but poetry definitely took over at a young age.


Helena de Groot: And do you know what drew you to it?


Malcolm Tariq: I guess the way I was raised, and my cousin read a lot. She read a lot of books, like, stacks of books, but they were like fiction. And I had a cousin who really loved Langston Hughes, so I think to me, poetry was a … it could be theater. Like, Langston Hughes did both. But that type of engagement, there’s just a lot of room in poetry. And I think growing up in church we had to—I grew up in a very small church across street from my grandmother’s house. We would have to do like, Easter speeches, which was like recitations. Have you heard of this?


Helena de Groot: No.


Malcolm Tariq: It’s like an Easter recitation. We called it, colloquially, speeches, but I learned that it was a recitation, because it’s more like formal. But, yeah, there are these books that you can buy from the Christian store that just has, you know, there’s, they’re basically poems. So you could just write your own Easter—I probably did write my own Easter speech at a certain point.


Helena de Groot: Oh!


Malcolm Tariq: And you just, it’s a poem, you get in front of the church, you say your Easter speech, and people clap.


Helena de Groot: And do you have to learn it by heart?


Malcolm Tariq: You have to learn it by heart.


Helena de Groot: That’s interesting.


Malcolm Tariq: And so it’s like, oh my gosh, I really do need to write about this. It’s like a rite of—not even a rite of passage. Just like, it shows how much you—because the babies, you know, so your Easter speech, “Happy Easter,” but it takes them five minutes to get it out.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And then the older you get, the longer your Easter speech is. And I don’t know if it’s like a Black church thing or in general, like, yeah, we had recitations. And then, at the same time we were, I grew up in, as you can probably tell, a Black community, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask,” like these things, poems by Black people, we would be saying in church regularly.


Helena de Groot: Ohh.


Malcolm Tariq: That were about, like, Black uplift.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And like, being secure in your Blackness. Like, Black is beautiful type of thing. And so, I think maybe that’s why the poems to me have always been like, culturally specific, like relevant to, like, carrying history.


Helena de Groot: That is so interesting that poems were actually a very normal part of your everyday life. They were not—


Malcolm Tariq: In ways I didn’t even know.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, right.


Malcolm Tariq: And then I think that maybe I blocked out the Easter speech because growing up with a speech impediment like—


Helena de Groot: Oh, wow.


Malcolm Tariq: I, it was a big deal for me to, like, get up and recite things in front of people.


Helena de Groot: Do you remember the time when it was your turn or you decided finally to do it? Do you remember how old you were? Like, what was that?


Malcolm Tariq: Well, you really didn’t have a choice whether you were going to do an Easter speech, you had to just do an Easter Speech. So I would probably go with the ones that were shorter for a while, but I don’t remember … any specific moment while I was giving the speech, probably because there was so many. (LAUGHS) But I do remember one time—oh, what was this lady’s name? She was a substitute teacher. She had big eyes. She was this Black woman. Also, the elementary school was literally down the street from my grandmother’s house, like, five or six blocks. And she was a substitute, and we all had to read from this book. And so, you know, “Let’s read this all together.” Again, reading out loud: lot of stress. And so, when it was my turn, I, like, stuttered when it was time for me to, like, I couldn’t get the words out. And she didn’t wait, she just said, “Who doesn’t know where we are. Who’s next?” And I knew where we were. I just couldn’t say the thing.


Helena de Groot: And did you know you had a speech impediment?


Malcolm Tariq: Oh, yeah I knew. Because I talked to this speech therapist and she said, stuttering is so interesting because we don’t know where it comes from. And then I thought about the trajectory of my life, you know, being a queer kid in this space where there wasn’t a lot of queer people. I had a gay uncle who I met like in middle school later on, but he wasn’t like a part of my everyday life. So, that mixed with like in high school, I realized I had like a touch of OCD. And then I started having panic attacks. So I think, like, growing up with, you know, borderline maybe anxiety disorder or some sort of anxiety with the queerness on top, and just, I was also a very quiet kid. And I was the only child for my mom and my dad for eight years. And being around a lot of loud people, you know, family’s huge, that I think speaking to me in any sort of context—and very shy, like deeply shy. And so like, saying things was just, no matter how serious it was, was like a big thing that a lot of the adults didn’t know what to do at that time. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: And so I think all those things contributed to, like, my stuttering and like, who … because you really like, you didn’t know when it would happen, like who I would stutter around versus who I didn’t. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: That is so interesting. And so do you remember, was it something that almost disappeared as you grew older and you grew more comfortable with yourself? Or did you really have to work on it with a speech therapist and, you know, do exercises”


Malcolm Tariq: I did go to two speech therapists in high school. One of them, or was that in middle school?


Helena de Groot: Yeah, I was thinking, you still stuttered in high school? Because you have not a trace of it today. Is that common?


Malcolm Tariq: There are things that have happened throughout (LAUGHING) the time that we’ve been together where like, it’s like strategies kind of.


Helena de Groot: That we’ve been together, here?


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah, like, where I was stuck and like, I pivoted around it in some way.


Helena de Groot: Can you remember? Are there—


Malcolm Tariq: No, I can’t remember. It happens so often that I can’t even remember. But the first speech therapist, I think it was Miss V. or something, she was a short white woman with, I think she had, like, a prosthetic leg or she had a disability where it was something with her leg. And she was very stern and she had a calendar that her friend painted every month and would send it to her. It was, you know, I remember this. And she had a certain pen that I loved. And I had to go to the store and find this pen. So I worked with her for like a few months. And then after a while, she was like, “Yeah, he doesn’t need me.” And then in high school, preparing to go to college, I told my parents, like, “I want to go back.” And so they’re like, “Yeah, we’ll—”, and so I went back, and that one was so short, I don’t even remember much about it. I just remember it was at the hospital this time. So this person worked at Memorial Hospital. So I went there like two or three times. The therapist basically said, “I don’t think he needs to be here.” Because by that point, I probably had picked up enough strategies to—and then once I grow comfortable with someone, it’s not as apparent as, like, being on stage. I mean, I know how my voice works and whatnot, just learning how to maneuver it. But then lately I’ve been thinking like, how to be comfortable in it. And like, there’s this—I don’t even know how to describe him—poet, musician, composer, JJJJJerome Ellis, who, I have his book here, I’ll show you later, but, so his stutter is like, you definitely notice it. But he, he talks about it and incorporates it into his art. And so sometimes for his performances, he’ll be talking, and if there’s a word that he can’t get out, you sit there and you wait. Everybody waits together. And so that silence … is … it’s powerful, but it’s also, for the person who doesn’t know what that’s like, like, you get to sit in that with the person who’s experiencing it.


Helena de Groot: Yeah, like, “This is my life. Welcome.”


Malcolm Tariq: Yes. Yes. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: What made you, the second time around, when the first speech therapist had already said, “I don’t think you need this.” and then the second therapist actually after like two, three or three or four times also said the same thing, what do you think was it that made you go. “You know, I think I have to go and do that again”?


Malcolm Tariq: I was going to college. And, you know, preparing to leave home, the only place I’ve ever lived in. I don’t know what those people do there, but I know I need to be prepared to speak when I have to speak. And I just wanted to be prepared in every possible way. So I also (LAUGHS)—I grew up with a TV in every room, so I used to fall asleep to TV. And I still do sometimes. But I remember training myself to fall asleep without the TV on, because in college, maybe there wasn’t going to be a TV. And so I also needed to go to a speech therapist. Oh, let me go get my eyes checked again. Turns out I didn’t need the glasses I’ve been wearing for four years, or maybe my eyes corrected themselves. So yeah, it was in preparation to leave home.


Helena de Groot: How was it then? Because there’s only so much preparing you can do, right?


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah. Um … it was, I enjoyed, I guess, the freedom of choice.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: Because growing up, I really didn’t have a lot of choice with things. Like down to (LAUGHS) like, it was a big deal for me that I could wear jeans multiple times before I washed them. Because at home, my mom was washing the jeans every single time. And then once I went to college, people were like, “Oh, you don’t wash jeans every time.” And so, you know, waking up and not having to iron my clothes. Like, these are things I did every day. I don’t have to iron clothes? That was a big deal. Buying my own clothes was a big deal. When I got to go to the library, like what books I checked out, what I got to do throughout the day. I can take a nap? Like, naps were not a big thing growing up. And even now, a nap to me, like, I would have to accidentally fall asleep, unless somebody says to me, “We are going to sleep right now.” But then going to college … in terms of the, like, speech thing, we had to take a poetry class and you had to do a poetry recitation. But instead of doing an in-class recitation, I recorded. I did it like a rap style, kind of, like a freestyle.


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh.


Malcolm Tariq: And so, I ran through the dorm room, recruited my friends, “Hey, you want to be a part of this video? You want to be a part of this video? It’s gonna be really quirky. It’s going to be really cool, like, you know, avant-garde.” And so the video is, there’s like a dresser from his dorm room. One person is doing the beat on one end of the dresser. I’m at the other end of the dresser reciting the poem. And then one of my friends is just standing in the background doing nothing, because he’s the avant-garde piece. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) He’s just, presence.


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah, so that was one way I got around speaking in front of the class.


Helena de Groot: That’s interesting. In a sense, you’ve already touched on this, but I still want to ask you specifically, because I think there’s a lot there. I feel like more than any other form of writing, poems and plays are very much about listening. Like, you have to be a good listener to the way people speak, to the language around you in order to be able to write them. And can you describe maybe a scene or two where you really know that’s where you learned to listen in that way?


Malcolm Tariq: Mm. I think for me, growing up, being a person who didn’t talk a lot, and you could not be in adults’ business, but the adults only noticed you if you were actively looking or responding. I would never get into an adult’s conversation. Like, to this day, if there is a child near, and they start talking while adults are talking, I cringe because like, I don’t know what’s about to happen to you little child. (LAUGHS) But I was able to be in certain spaces where adults were talking and they felt so comfortable talking to each other sometimes because I was so quiet. But that also meant I knew a lot. And there was a lot that I did not say. And so listening to me was, I just, I wanted all the stories, because I wanted to document them. But I also noticed how there was a lot that I could tell from how a person said something, or from … I think maybe knowing a person, like my grandmother who’s a Scorpio was at times so loud. I mean, she had eight kids and raised 10 total. Grandchildren always in her house. So, if she wants to say something, she is going to talk, and she’s going to let you know she’s talking.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: But then like knowing these other things about my grandmother that she does not like to talk about. And these are things that, I don’t even know what it is, and you don’t want to ask her, an older person to like, say this thing. But I would learn so much about my grandmother from these stories, and just hearing her talk about seeing her son’s obituary in the newspaper. Like, my grandmother had three children that have died. And so like, seeing that, and the way she described that experience to someone—I don’t know, again, I don’t know if she was talking to me or someone else, I was just there.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: That was so, it was so … it was unfiltered. And that is something that I don’t see a lot with my grandma. Just like, this is what happened.


Helena de Groot: I want to hear that poem now, actually.


Malcolm Tariq: The poem, “Grandma’s Black Bottom”?


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yes. I wasn’t planning on asking you that, but now you brought it up. And it’s such a beautiful poem.


Malcolm Tariq: (LAUGHS) Yeah.




Grandma’s Black Bottom


When I position the recorder, she straightens

into narrative—every inch of lived detail gone

asunder. She leans forward looking back.

I attend inquiry as I’ve done for years,

converging on craft. What she refuses

to say haunts this entire process of returning.

Together we construct memory: this the bottom,

she says, indicating this porch. This street.

This same spot that borned her mother shaped me

my mother and her billowing in the same space

for nearly a century that claimed us cost us

our lives where we make our living our business.

What we don’t say is divided as communion;

it creeps along the edge of the storied.

And though I hunger for testimony, I have learned

to listen and ask later for what will never come.

What lingers in her request to not talk

about her childhood. She still remembers

to forget that. Everyone wants the strong black woman

with Sunday greens. No one wants to hear about

the dirt she washed from them, the strain that went

into the pot used in defense. Everyone wants

the black woman loud-mouthed and big but no one wants

to live in her loud-spaced silence narratives.

The dissonance dancing around them.

Everyone wants pot likker but no one wants to cleave

leaf from stem to salt the earth to dig into dirt

toward the deep root. Silence is testimony.

I take that as daily bread when she says

I didn’t say anything for a long time.

This is hard to imagine, for years we slid

along walls in a waited out the shrill profane of

grandma’s black bottom. Her device against control.

Perhaps this is the lesson: to say what I have to

when I don’t have to listen to what I’m told.

I am this obedient a grandson—listening

and listening and listening. To who else

do I owe that much? We long for stories

we aren’t prepared to carry.

Foolish of me—learned negro—to feign scholarly

with this conscious backwardness. Grandma speaks

into the air waxed on repeat. Her eyes

on my steady moving pen. My forward glance.


Helena de Groot: Thank you.


Malcolm Tariq: Every time I read that I just remember, I actually recorded her saying this stuff. And I remember she was looking at my pen. (LAUGHING)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) It’s so beautiful. Because it also shows me something about you, right, that you weren’t just listening to what people were saying, but also to what they weren’t saying.


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah, it is a lot about like what she, what she isn’t. Because, I’m the writer in the family, so like, I want to follow up: What do you mean by that? Or, Who was there? What did that person say? How did that make you feel? So, when she said that, what is your neighbor— like, I have questions and questions and questions, but I knew that I was growing up around people who like, we didn’t know how to process a lot of things, because, you know, we didn’t grow up thinking about mental health that way. Now, as an adult, I’ve realized they were figuring it out. Figuring it out, or doing the best they could with what they were told and what they had. Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: I think that’s, maybe that’s why listening to me has always been so important, because there’s something there, but, if you just keep concentrated on the fact that this person isn’t talking, then you are not listening enough, because even in not talking, there’s like something that this person is communicating or saying. Which could be because, you know, I grew up gay. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)




Helena de Groot: So, the next thing I mean, like, you know, something that is really the connective tissue, almost, in this book and across like your plays, too, is history. And not just history, but I feel like primary documents. You know, there’s like this long erasure poem based on firsthand testimony of lynchings. Yeah, your play, Social Work, is based on an actual court case, you know, of housing discrimination from the ’50s. And I was just wondering, like, what’s your history with primary documents? Like, who taught you to go back to the source? When did you start, and like, what is so thrilling about that for you, or so generative or fertile?


Malcolm Tariq: I was writing this book as I was writing a dissertation. And so like, being a writer who didn’t go through an MFA but went through a PhD and like a research based analytical PhD in English, my approach to writing is, “Oh, what’s not there that we need to know? And how do we get there?” But, and then going to a place like Emory for undergrad, they have these archives. Like the Alice Walker papers are there, Lucille Clifton. I mean, to this day, I love archives. I’ll walk into an archive, especially Emory’s and just type in something. Usually it’s “Savannah” or something interesting.


Helena de Groot: Uh-huh. (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: And like, I find things. Like, there’s a fortuneteller from Savannah whose stuff is in Emory’s—I don’t know how it got there, but they have her crystal ball, they have her spell book. They have, like, things.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Malcolm Tariq: And you can just go in and look at—so I mean, that’s where it comes from is that, I was, I was going to say I was raised—I was trained as, like, a scholar, to just like, look at primary documents because it gets us there. I think they give me a way to access the history. But then I know that there is more to it than what I’m reading.


Helena de Groot: Right. Okay, so let’s get to another poem. And before, it’s the one called, “The Road to Chocolate Plantation.” First of all, I can’t believe that there is a plantation really called Chocolate Plantation.


Malcolm Tariq: Chocolate Plantation.


Helena de Groot: They don’t make chocolate there, right?


Malcolm Tariq: No. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: I believe Chocolate Plantation, Chocolate was the name given to the place or the area by the native people who lived there.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: I think that’s the story. But also, I mean, I think the Spanish and/or the French owned it at one point, this island.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Malcolm Tariq: Or they settled there for a while. Not settled. They like, took over. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah. So before you read though, can you talk a little bit about tabby or tabby walls and what they are?


Malcolm Tariq: Yes. So I grew up around this material. It’s like concrete with like oyster shells in it. And so if you go to downtown Savannah, Savannah, Charleston, because, you know, it’s in Charleston as well. Parts of Florida. I just thought it was like an esthetic, a coastal esthetic, which it is. And I was living in Michigan at the time, visiting Savannah, again, you know, on my Zora Neale Hurston, collecting the stories. And I see this material somewhere. And at that moment, I realized I had never seen it anywhere else. And I’m like, “Wow! What is that?” So then that prompted me to go look at what this material was, and I was just blown away by the history of it. So, yeah, I found out that tabby was this concrete material made from limestone, ash, water … limestone, ash, water, oyster shells, maybe a couple of other things. And it was a very intense process where you had to, like, mix all these things together, and I’m sure there was a recipe or some sort of process. But a lot of it was done by the enslaved people, so a lot of it was done by slave labor. But it was material that was used for actual buildings or, like, housing structures. I mean, today you can go to places and it’ll be like on the sidewalk.


Helena de Groot: Hmm.


Malcolm Tariq: And it’s not—obviously, it’s not made the way it was back then. Now it’s just like concrete and oyster, like, some sort of shell.


Helena de Groot: Sure.


Malcolm Tariq: But I think it just became a part of the culture, like the esthetic and the culture. And we just forget about like, the history of it. But like, I mean, like so many things, Black people making something for white people to live in and thrive off of.


Helena de Groot: Right. Right. So, what is Chocolate Plantation? Like, because it’s about a trip you took with your little brother. How much age difference is there again between?


Malcolm Tariq: It’ss 16 or 17 years.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Malcolm Tariq: He’s 14 now.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. So and yeah, so just like really briefly, what is charcoal plantation?


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah. Chocolate Plantation is on Sapelo Island, which is a Sea Island off the coast of Georgia. It was one of the islands where the Gullah Geechee people are from, and so a lot of the Black culture in Savannah that I grew up with came from the Gullah Geechee people, even though my family is not Gullah. But, you know, a lot of those speech patterns and food culture is in our everyday. And so I was researching. I wanted to find some tabby ruins and they have them on Sapelo, where I had been a few years before. And Chocolate Plantation is, I don’t know if it’s on the northern tip of the island. It’s this very small island that you have to take a ferry to. And Chocolate Plantation was, you know, it was a plantation. I’m forgetting the specific history about who owned it at certain points, but they still to this day, Chocolate Plantation has, some of the structures are still there.


Helena de Groot: Mm.


Malcolm Tariq: So this poem was about going there to see them. And I don’t know if I had to take my little brother because my mom wanted to do something else, and I was like, “Oh yeah, he can come with me.” And you know, he’s, we’re so far apart in age that a lot of times when I write, I do think about, you know, this is where the history to me is very personal and important is because, I knew a lot of stories that he won’t get to hear. So he won’t get to hear my grandma—I mean, he can, because my grandma is still alive, but—talk about her aunt, Sarah, who lived around the corner, who was mixed, she had a white father, because I think, you know, I don’t know if it was a process probably of, like, rape. So like, she appeared, like, lighter skinned than a lot of other people. And when the Ku Klux Klan would come around and put crosses on people’s yard, they would skip over her, because they thought she was white.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Malcolm Tariq: But, guess she was that. So taking him with me on that trip was also a way to, you know, give him some sort of grounding in, I guess, our history of, like, Black people on that island, which, they don’t have a lot of inhabitants on it anymore. Like, a lot of people, more people used to live there, but more people are going mainland to Savannah and other places. So. Did I answer that question?


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: Okay.


Helena de Groot: So the poem is on page 22.


Malcolm Tariq: Yes.




The Road to Chocolate Plantation




When we leave Savannah in search of searching,

My foot weighs down the road for an hour


until we cross over into Meridian—a journey

I’ve taken before, not in this seat


but following my cousin’s curious eye

for history. At sixteen, I understood then


what I can’t recall today. I remember

the drive, the walk to the shore, and


the bus ride into Sapelo. I remember picking at

a charred mullet fish fresh from the water,


roaming the heritage festival, scanning a Bible

in Gullah—native and not. Today there is none


of that, only the deeper search of remembrance

and belonging—capturing some stable place


between rippling gray water and shore.

I drive further. In the back, my baby


brother’s head bobs against the window—

his first journey already courting sleep.





At the port we board the school bus, its rickety

machinery—aged but useful—carries us


into the island, past Behavior Cemetery,

past the post office, past into another past.


The tour guide’s heavy foot plunges further

and we lurch into the dense coastal Georgia bush—


the stick-like trunks tall and fallen, the spikey

growth of small palm trees waving us through.


Beneath us, the red earth brambles up

after yesterday’s rain, the puddles bound


to form rivers that could swallow us

here on an island nearly lost to memory.


Re trudge forward, and I see myself

in my brother sitting across from me


as if on a school field trip, unsure

of the destination but down for the ride.





At Chocolate Plantation

I heed a path trotted for me before.


I am the studious—furthering

and furthering and furthering. What else


is there but the tabby walls crushed

beneath my feet, nearly forgotten?


Like me, they too were shaped by the hands

of ancestors. Beyond, my brother


walks through and in the historical,

not privy to the storied. At ten years old,


he looks for the shells that have fallen

from brick, those dislodged


or never having found a place in stone.

I wonder what he will take from this


and search for narrative, placing the hollow

against my own for a voice, a whisper, a sigh.


We explore separately, seventeen years

between us and what we believe to know


about heritage. In the end, we each take

what we need to survive.


On an opposite shore, I ask what he has learned.

“That the slaves made these,” he says,


holding forth his collection of fragile fossil.

He is the smarter one, having taken narrative


into his own hands before its forgetting—

using more than his ear for the listening.



Helena de Groot: I love this poem. I mean, you know, there’s again, what we were talking about before, you know, in that poem about your grandma, “Silence is testimony.” And then what was that other phrase like, you know, moving along the ragged edge of the story or something … “it creeps along—”


Malcolm Tariq: Oh, “it creeps along the edge of the storied.”


Helena de Groot: Because we talked about, you know, primary documents. And like, how immediate they are. And yeah, I feel like across your poems, there’s a real engagement with history that is about going back to the source, and the source not only primary documents, but as you said in that archive of this fortuneteller—


Malcolm Tariq: Oh yes, yeah.


Helena de Groot: Like, the things. You know, the crystal ball, the cards, like, you know.


Malcolm Tariq: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: And I feel like a lot of your work engages with the immediacy of history. You know, that it’s really close to our skin. And like here, for instance, you know, in that last part, part III of this poem. “What else // is there but the tabby walls crushed / beneath my feet, nearly forgotten? / Like me, they too were shaped by the hands / of ancestors. Beyond, my brother // walks through and in the historical,”—I love that—“not privy to the storied. At ten years old, // he looks for the shells that have fallen / from brick, those dislodged // or never having found place in stone. / I wonder what he will take from this // and search for narrative, placing the hollow / against my own for a voice, a whisper, a sigh.” OK, and then there is, you know, a little part I’m skipping over. And then you write, “I ask what he has learned. / ‘That the slaves made these,’ he says, // holding forth his collection of fragile fossil. / He is the smarter one, having taken narrative // into his own hands before its forgetting— / using more than his ear for the listening.” It’s just that sentence, “using more than his ear for the listening.”


Malcolm Tariq: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: Rings through this entire collection. You know, there’s a lot of history in this book that is told through other means than words.


Malcolm Tariq: Mm-hmm. Mm.


Helena de Groot: I feel like it’s such a sensual collection. Like the poems sit so close to the body, and I’m just wondering, like, what is your relationship to the sensual in history?


Malcolm Tariq: (PAUSES) I tend to think of history as something that is, it’s so active that it’s like present. Like, this is history right here, what we’re doing. Like, in my mind, I’m already like, Oh, I can’t wait to—I was like, should we take a picture? So then like, years later, I can be like this—Like, I’ve always been this type of person who’s like, “Oh, I need to have this for the archive.”


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS LIGHTLY)


Malcolm Tariq: I was telling someone that when I was younger and I would write letters to my cousin, who was, you know, in jail or elsewhere, I would make another copy by hand so I can have it. And so, history to me has always been in stories. In stories that are not written down, so you have to tell them from person to person. But then in doing that, you kind of lose something, you lose some bits of the story, which is why I think I need to catalog it in some way that is not just a recounting, like a … These are the facts of what happened. So that phrase, “it creeps along the edge of the storied”, is because—I don’t know if you know this, but at least in my part of the South, we couldn’t say—oh, Kevin Young writes about this in The Grey Album. We couldn’t say somebody lied, because that was like a curse word. So we had to say they told a story.


Helena de Groot: Ah, yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: So even in saying like, this is what happened, if we’re saying somebody told the story, we’re saying they told something that wasn’t true. So to me, a story has always been true and untrue, kind of.


Helena de Groot: That’s interesting.


Malcolm Tariq: But I think it’s something about knowing that the history can go away at any moment.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And like, oh, how do I preserve this, so like, this doesn’t happen again or so that we can like get this down. Like I said earlier, Sapelo, not that the island is dying, but a lot of people are moving away from it. But that to me, like, the history, it’s like we’re living it. And people that we know have lived a different history. Especially when I go back to Savannah now, I get off the plane, you know, I go to Walmart or something (LAUGHS)—


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: I don’t like Walmart, I go to Target. And I’ll see, you know, everybody in the store. And I’m looking at the old white person who’s like 60 or 70 going, “You hated me back in the day. Do you still now?”


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: Do you? Is this your true nature to, like—I’m really interested in that, like, you know what it used to be.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And like, what we are now, like, it’s not that far—like, my parents can remember this stuff. It’s a lot. But history has … I think it has always been, and when you think about, like, the history of slavery that … it is not that long ago. So to me, it has no choice but to be like sensual, like you can definitely feel it, like in the fabric of your life. And then going back to listening, growing up near a beach where I’m from on the coast of Georgia, you go on a field trip or whatever, with elementary school. And there’s a tabby and in that the oyster shells or whatever shell that they use. And I remember the whole thing was, “Oh, put it to your ear and you can hear the ocean.” But for Black people, the ocean means a different thing, because, you know, where everything is like, Oh yeah, slavery. But actually, yes, and so like, (LAUGHS) you know, as I got older, that I’m listening to the ocean. Oh, am I listening to whatever the ocean means, like how we got here, you know, the ocean, the port. And so living in a port city, that is like the first, I think, how I started thinking about, like, Oh, is that just the ocean? Like, what else is in there? Because there was, there is terror in the ocean, like, even when you look at it, it’s really paying attention to something that, you know, you can’t even name what that is, or you know what you’re feeling, but it’s still there and it’s still present.




Helena de Groot: Let me just jump in here with a little parental advisory. If you’re listening with kids, this is probably a good time to hit stop. Our conversation turns to decidedly adult topics, nothing too explicit, but then also probably nothing you’d want them to hear.


Okay. When you read Malcom Tariq’s book, History the Hollow, besides history, there’s another thread that runs through it from beginning to end: queer sex. And especially, the concept of “bottoming.” There are three poems, for instance, titled “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom.” There’s the opening poem, “Power Bottom,” and another one titled, “Learning How to Bottom.” It gets a lot more explicit than that, too. There’s an erasure poem where Tariq turns a series of newspaper clippings about lynchings into something that resembles gay porn. We didn’t read any of those poems, you’ll just have to buy the book for that, but we’d be missing the point of the book if we didn’t talk about history and sex.


Helena de Groot: Maybe this is the question of a white person. I mean, it is a question of a white person.


Malcolm Tariq: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: But maybe this informs the question to an extent that feels a little silly to you, is what I’m trying to say. Okay? But I had never thought about how history may come up when you’re having sex.


Malcolm Tariq: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: You know? I had never really stopped to think that, maybe as a Black person, there is something there that you’re just, whether you feel like it or not, you kind of have to think about that history.


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Like, especially when you’re, as in the book, you’re talking about things like being dominated. And, you know, what that means if you’re Black, you know?


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: So, there are not many people who link the story of slavery to their current sex life.


Malcolm Tariq: (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) Not too many people go there. So what made you do that?


Malcolm Tariq: Well, the true story (LAUGHS)—


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: The true story is that, um, I was in Michigan. I moved to Michigan when I was 23. And in college in Atlanta, I didn’t really, not really, like, I did not date or, like, have many sexual experiences like at all. And I often joke that while I picked the wrong time to do it when I went to Michigan of all places. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: So, you know.


Helena de Groot: Wait, why is that? Tell me.


Malcolm Tariq: Oh, Michigan, is, okay, so Ann Arbor, Michigan … I should contextualize Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is a, it’s a specific place, because, you know, just—


Helena de Groot: Sure, it’s not Detroit.


Malcolm Tariq: 45 is Detroit, which is, you know, a Black city. (LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: But in Ann Arbor, you know, mostly a white town. There’s the university there. And you know, their students. But even the university, when I was there, the percentage of Black undergraduates there was declining. But so, I started dating in Michigan, white people (LAUGHS) and I have never—people talk a lot about the South, but the things that I experienced on Grindr in Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, were just the most racist things I’ve ever experienced on this app. Like one day on Valentine’s Day, I opened the app and there was this message that said, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” which is so specific and targeted. And it came from an anonymous account. I don’t even know how you can do that on Grindr, having an anonymous account. But that would happen, or people would say, you know, “I’m not really into Black guys, but—” or, “Oh, there’s another guy—” Because again, it’s Ann Arbor, so you can count the number of people of color and you remember them because it’s not many people to begin with on the app. And so there was this one person around town who, I’m forgetting how he looks, but definitely he had locks like me, probably of similar height. None of my friends would mistake me for this person.


Helena de Groot: Sure.


Malcolm Tariq: Someone sent me a message like, “Oh, you look just like this other guy. We should have a threesome.” Basically, like using the Black people as sexual experiences. And, you know, and this is around the time that people are really interrogating what that means to have, like, a racial preference, like it’s dumb. So all of that’s happening while Black Lives Matter—it’s just like all in your face.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And a lot of students of color had issues in Ann Arbor, so much so that we all started going to the same therapy group.


Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: We were comparing—


Helena de Groot: Wait, there was a therapist or it was just you all had an impromptu therapy—


Malcolm Tariq: Oh no, it was, there was a therapist group. So there were different therapists at this group.


Helena de Groot: Oh, I see.


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah. It was owned by this woman, I want to say it was a Black woman. So it was like a feminist focused kind of therapy group. Integrative Empowerment.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah. And so we were all going to Integrative Empowerment.


Helena de Groot: That is not funny, but it is kind of funny. (LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: Well, it became funny because my house was kind of this center of social life, mostly like queer social life. (LAUGHS) And one of the therapists, my roommate was going to her, like, “Girl, now what’s happening at your house? Because so-and-so said that this thing happened. So what’s your story?” Like, the therapist also would have stories about what was happening. Like, this is how small Ann Arbor was.


Helena de Groot: Wow.


Malcolm Tariq: And so, like, all of that combined, the Black Lives Matter movement that was happening, there were protests that I was participating in in Ann Arbor, trying to date while Black in Ann Arbor … that is how these things like really, I had no choice but to think about them.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And then learning, you know, what slave play was. I’m not doing that with you! Like, no. Just like, if we did want to do stuff like that, like, there would have to be a conversation of, we can do this, but you do realize that there’s this history.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And you do like, there are ways to do this. Like, I need to make sure that your politics are my politics. Like, there’s a very thin line. And I think with people who don’t have that history, like, there’s a lot of things people bring into a space, especially for an intimate encounter, that a lot of white people just don’t think about. And it makes sense that they wouldn’t. Like, this is not their everyday life.


Helena de Groot: Yeah. I have one last question.


Malcolm Tariq: Mm-hmm.


Helena de Groot: Let me grab it, because it’s kind of a mouthful. Okay, so for my last question, there’s a poem titled, “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom.” There are a few poems, or two, maybe‑


Malcolm Tariq: There’s three.


Helena de Groot: Three.


Malcolm Tariq: There’s one in each section.


Helena de Groot: Right, called that. There’s “Power Bottom.” There’s “Learning How to Bottom.” There is your grandmother’s “Black Bottom.” We read that one.


Malcolm Tariq: Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Not sexual.


Malcolm Tariq: (LAUGHS) Yeah.


Helena de Groot: Okay, let’s just put that out there! No confusion here. So, with as much, like, [47:15 INAUDIBLE] as you can muster for this question, like, what is the power of bottoms? You know, like what—(LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: (LAUGHS) Yeah. I love this question. What is the power of bottoms? I think that’s like the question that the—which is why we start on bottom power. I think it’s like, how do you amass power? What is that power, and why do you need it? And I think for … like, the power bottom is a very, it’s a specific identity.


Helena de Groot: Okay. But for people who are not exactly in the know, can you just—


Malcolm Tariq: Okay, so—(LAUGHS)


Helena de Groot: In as family friendly a way as you can—(LAUGHS)


Malcolm Tariq: (LAUGHING) I’m trying to be … the power, okay, so I don’t know how to describe sex in a family-friendly way. So you have the giver and the receiver.


Helena de Groot: Okay, that’s a great way.


Malcolm Tariq: And the receiver would be the bottom.


Helena de Groot: Yeah.


Malcolm Tariq: And so usually the receiver—oh, like in, I feel like in, um, I believe in like European culture. sometimes bottoms are called like, passive.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Malcolm Tariq: And so the bottom probably, you know, when you think about it, like, not doing much work, but just like, taking it. But the power bottom assumes more authority over the situation. And so they’re definitely more active.


Helena de Groot: Okay.


Malcolm Tariq: Even though they’re the ones receiving in a way. So the power bottom is, I think the power of bottoms is knowing … the power is like, getting that control over a situation. But, you know, I feel like everybody has a power bottom in them. For example, “Grandma’s Black Bottom,” that really draws out the nuance of the Black bottom as, well, the Black bottom as a dance. There’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, so, you know the musicality of it and the dance. And then there is the Black bottom like residential space, like neighborhoods are called the bottom. So when my grandma says, “This is the bottom,” our neighborhood was called The Bottom.


Helena de Groot: Oh!


Malcolm Tariq: And the bottom, I think that was in Sula, in Toni Morrison’s Sula, like The Bottom, The Bottom was at the top of the hill. And so no matter, even if it’s at the top of, it’s a place where people don’t want to go, but where Black people live. But there’s so much power in those Black communities that are considered the bottom. Like, there’s all this history, there’s all of these people doing things. Like, you don’t have to leave your community to find that richness, even if it’s not in, like, capital or financial wealth, like, there is something … I don’t like to talk about people and places as valuable, but there is something that is precious and valued by the people who live there. That’s the way I can get to it. And so the power—so when I say that everyone has a power bottom in them, it’s that drive to own yourself in your situation. It’s not only about like surviving, it’s about like, This is who I am. This is what I like. This is what I’m gonna do. And so there’s that part of you that is … I wanna say a lot of people wouldn’t identify … like, you don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to find out what you can do, and that is the power of the bottom.




Helena de Groot: Malcolm Tariq is the author of Heed the Hollow, winner of the 2018 Cave Canem Poetry Prize; a chapbook, Extended Play; and several plays, including Yesterday: Today, Social Work, and Oak. He was a playwriting apprentice at Horizon Theater Company and a finalist for the 2018 Princess Grace Fellowship with New Dramatists. His plays have been developed by Working Title Playwrights. In 2020 and 2021, he was a playwright resident with the Liberation Theater Company in Harlem, New York. He lives in Brooklyn and works as the programs and communications manager at the Cave Canem Foundation, where he was first a fellow. To find out more, check out the Poetry Foundation website. The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose and Eric van der Westen. I’m Helena de Groot and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.

Poet and playwright Malcolm Tariq on listening, field trips with his brother, and the perils of dating while Black.

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