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Full of life and the desire to help others, Ekere Tallie is truly a find. Read how she is using her life to help others and heal herself along the way. (This interview appears in the print edition of the May 2006 Conversations.)
Ekere, we appreciate your taking out the time to talk with us. I first heard about you a few years ago by reading SPOKEN VIZIONS magazine, published by Floyd Boykin Jr., and I knew then that you were one person that was involved with the arts that I wanted to talk to. Tell us about how your journey as an artist began.
I enjoyed creating things from when I was a very young child. I used to sit at a little desk my parents bought for me and draw and dream. The first time I declared what I was going to do with my life, I was about four, I said, “Daddy, I’m going to be an artist.” My Father, a practical man who like any good parent didn’t want his child to grow up and starve, said “No, artists don’t make any money.” I decided to put that on the shelf and become an architect, like my Father.
I spent lots of time writing and reading. Those were my twin passions. I used to type poems on a simple orange typewriter my parents bought me. As I got older, I wrote all the time: short stories, poetry, articles for the school newspaper, I created a magazine out of loose leaf where I wrote crazy stories about celebrities, I had been winning awards for my writing since elementary school, but it didn’t dawn on me that I could or would be a writer. At 16 I took an architecture class that made me realize that architecture was as much a science as it was an art. I just wanted to deal with art.
I was deeply inspired by the honesty of the writing of Alice Walker. I was reading Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and lots of Black Arts Movement poets. I think it was like a light turned on when I realized that I should pursue what I loved as a career.
One thing I have always found with those who are good with words and their hands is that they were not always understood or appreciated growing up. Did you have that problem? Who was part of your support system?
I think that I was supported and understood for the most part. I always had a lot of friends at school. I went after my dream with ardour. I was very determined so it would have been difficult to stop me from pursuing my vision. My parents supported my writing and they came to every poetry reading I had that told them about. Like I said, my Father was always worried about me making money so he always lectured me about getting a PhD and teaching as a secure gig, but he was and is very proud of me. I also had an amazing mentor, a counsellor at Talent Search, Tanya Steele, who encouraged my writing and my reading. In fact, everyone at Talent Search, Johnathen who gave me a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Carla Beckford, who took over after Tanya left, Glenn, the director, encouraged my curiosity and my writing. They made me feel that I could succeed at anything I put my mind to.
Being creative is one thing. Knowing you can support yourself doing it is something else. When did it sink in for you that this was going to be your life?
The funny things is that with all that confidence and with the belief that you can do anything you don’t necessarily realize that there is a system set up that makes it more difficult than you could have ever imagined to swim against the tide. I don’t support myself as a poet or a writer. I never have. I’ve worked in a book store, sold my friend’s hand made jewellery in the street, I worked at a television network, I usually just worked long enough to save enough money to get my freedom back! But the truth is, I need some kind of structure and thankfully, I’ve found another passion that allows me to combine my love of words and people with a pay check: teaching. I enjoy teaching so much that I used to do it for free, but some opportunities have come my way to teach and be paid for it.
In my reading about you, it seems as though you are always reinventing yourself. Tell us the meaning of your name.
I got the name Ekere when I was 23. I went through a year long rite of passage program at Clark Atlanta University and we all received new names as part of the program. The name is Igbo and it has to do with God and creation.
Though a New Yorker by birth, you are a world traveller. How did that all come about?
Curiosity. I liked the music coming out of London in the early nineties and I thought they were doing something creative and interesting there, so I wanted to go. I also wanted to go to Paris because I’d taken French classes when I was younger. What ended up happening instead is that I was accepted to a two week fiction writing workshop in the Netherlands. I had no clue where the Netherlands were, I had applied because it sounded like a good opportunity to learn about the craft of writing and because the classes were in a castle in Europe. When I was accepted, I was thrilled. I paid my tuition, used the last of my savings for the ticket and went. Life has never been the same since. I have been blessed to live my dream of travel. I have travelled to London, Spain, France Belgium, Cuba, Mexico, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tunisia and Zambia. Sometimes for work, sometimes for play, but I always learn a lot on these journeys. And the thing I want to say is that I always thought it cost an arm and a leg to go somewhere, but it doesn’t have to. If you want to go somewhere, find a creative way to get there and move cheap once you arrive. I stay with friends or friends of friends. I’ve had residencies and worked abroad. That’s how I’ve seen lots of the places I have been to.
I know with my life, Ekere, I feel driven by a purpose, that being to make someone else's life better with each day of mine. What do you feel like your purpose is?
To help people see their beauty, their light and tap their capacities to heal any traumas they’ve experienced.
Poetry has so much power, yet with so many flooding the market it seems to lose some of its strength. Where do you see poetry as a craft going?
I think poetry as a tool for self-aggrandizement is going to stop at some point, but poetry created for the good of people will continue as it always has.
What about for yourself. What has poetry meant and done for you?
Poetry has helped me hear myself, see myself and heal myself. There are poets whose work I love because of the courage, craft, conviction, fire and sincerity of their poetry: Ntozake Shange, Willie Perdomo, Sonia Sanchez, Nikky Finney, Alice Walker, Nizar Qabbani, Pablo Neruda, Louis Reyes Rivera, Toi Derricott, Sharrif Simmons, Ruth Foreman, and Chrystos. Writing and performing poetry has given me opportunities to see places in the world and within people, that I would not have seen otherwise.
During the month of March we are celebrating strong women who are making strides. You are one of those women, Ekere, but who do you look to for encouragement and strength in your life personally and professionally?
This is a difficult question. My mentor, Zoe Anglesay, passed away a few years ago. To be honest, in some ways I have felt adrift in this world of poetry since then. Not in writing poetry, but in the world of poetry where you go to readings and make the important contacts…the political stuff that moves a career forward. I haven’t been part of any poetry scene for a long time but I think that is part of my evolution. When “our” scene ended, it was because it was time for folks to grow and move on in their lives and their writing. The poetry scene was where I used to draw a lot of strength from. Then from my mentor. Now personally and professionally I am inspired by my husband, my daughter, and my students. They give me the fuel I need to keep writing and growing. The nature of these relationships demands that I grow. I also believe in a Higher Power and I get a lot of strength from that relationship. That and faith in my ancestors.
Can you tell us what has been a career high for you?
Yes! Being part of the Inner- London Teenage Poetry Slam in 2003. I met a man named Peter Kahn at a poetry reading in Amsterdam. At the time, Peter was living in London for a year but he is from the United States. When we met, Peter told me that he uses my work to teach English to high school students. I was thrilled. We talked and he said that he would be organizing a project with youth in London that would involve gathering a group of poets to give classes in London schools and choosing a team of students to prepare for a poetry slam. He asked me if I would be interested in being one of the poets. I was excited about it, but I have never been into the concept of poetry slams. Peter assured me that this was not going to be some cutthroat thing, this would be about community and poetry. It was!
I was assigned to a school in Hackney. I fell head over heels for my students. It was difficult to choose the seven who would make up the team because so many of the students came to the table with good material and a lot of excitement about being in the project. In the end, the team that Karla Theodore, their teacher, and I chose, amazed me every day with their creativity, beauty, courage and dedication. One of my team members, Aaron, lost a close friend to violence during the preparation process and somehow, he stuck with us, and wrote what I think were some of the most memorable lines of the slam.
Before the actual slam there was a community building day where all the students mixed for a day full of workshops, poetry, and fun. The day of the slam, all of the students cheered each other on with genuine enthusiasm. I knew that the day of the slam would probably be the last day I ever saw my students. At the end of it, when saying good-bye to them, I just started to cry. It was an amazing experience, to watch those students blossom on paper and stage.
Peter Kahn and I have been friends ever since. He is a brilliant, passionate teacher who loves youth and poetry. I have learned a lot about teaching and trusting myself in the classroom through Peter. He is working his magic in a high school in Chicago these days.
If possible, can you think of something you would like to have the chance to do differently?
Oh! I would have invested money in some solid mutual funds when I had the chance. (laughs)
Most of your life is spent working with others. Do you feel as though today's popular music does its part to help the image of women?
I love all music, but what about your view of hiphop? Is it going too far in its depiction of women and the gangster life?
Yes, I recently finished an essay for a book that Kenji Jasper and Ytasha Womack are editing about this very subject. I think the title of the book will be, “Verbal Intercourse.” It has saddened me to see the disintegration of one of our most potent art forms, and for what? Money. There is underground hip-hop though, and that continues to be thought-provoking and sincere. Unfortunately, a lot of pop music is empty. Nothing really inspiring comes over the radio anymore.
Who are your favorites in the music industry and why?
Cyrus, my musical tastes are all over the map. I spend a lot of time listening to folks who ain’t on the planet anymore: John Coltrane, Fela, Lazaro Ros, Nina Simone, Maria Callas, and Cameron De la Isla for example. As for those who are still with us: Me’shell Ndegeocello, Sade, Joi, Outkast, Alice Coltrane. I have also been listening to a lot of Gnawa music lately (Moroccan spiritual music). And two weeks before I gave birth to my daughter, my husband and I went to see John Legend in concert. I dug the heck out of that concert. The brother sat down and did two songs with just he and his piano and they were lovely, the rest of the numbers he was joined by some bad ass musicians who rocked out. They made the smooth stuff jagged and I like that! I like who I like because they make beautiful music, take risks and do what they do from the heart and/or the gut.
Ekere, we lost Octavia Butler recently. Did she have an effect on your life or creative expressions?
I read “Wild Seed” and was blown away, but it was an actual meeting with Ms. Butler at the Yari Yari conference that made an impact on me. Here was this mega talent and she was humble and funny and very, very approachable. I know it is healthy to have some kind of ego, but I am always moved by graceful, humble geniuses. I think Octavia Butler was on that vibe.
For those who read this and may not know much about you, Ekere, what would you like to say to them about pursuing their own goals and dreams?
Just think that when you die, you want to look back with satisfaction. You don’t want to be full of longing or regret. I sometimes ask myself, “what would I regret not having done or said if I died tomorrow?”
When I used to be afraid to use my voice, I read and reread Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” She says, “your silence will not protect you.” She is so right.
What can we look forward to from Ekere Tallie in the future?
Books, finally! I am determined that my books will go into print even if I have to be the one to publish them. I’m not going to put a deadline on it though, because that has seemed to work like a jinx in the past. (laughs)
Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk with us. How can our readers keep up with your activities and support your published work?
The only place anyone can find me consistently is www.ekeretallie.com. So please come by and visit. Cyrus, thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. It has been a pleasure. Best of luck with your writing and all your fabulous endeavors. One love.