The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Malcolm Tariq about his poetry collection Heed the Hollow (Graywolf Press, November 2019), Bible jokes, the American South, and finding food far from home.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Cameron Awkward-Rich, Danez Smith, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Ariel Francisco, and more!
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This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I know I mentioned this in the piece I wrote announcing Heed the Hollow as a Poetry Book Club selection, but the opening lines of the first poem in the book just killed me. I mean, I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, which meant church three days a week and knocking on people’s doors trying to convert them and yet when I saw “Satan, get thee behind” I cracked up because even though it wasn’t the same joke we told as kids, it was similar. So, can you talk some about how church experiences fed this book?
Malcolm Tariq: Haha! I didn’t expect people to know what I was talking about, but there is usually some reaction when I read that line to an audience.
I didn’t have the same experience, but I grew up going to church with my mom’s family and going to the mosque with my dad. So, religion seemed formulaic to me at a young age, which made it hard for me to buy into so easily.
But, going to church almost every week did make me think about language a lot. I grew up hearing phrases and then later tried hard to think about what they really meant.
Brian S: Our version, for what it’s worth, was “get behind me Satan, and push.”
Malcolm Tariq: Ahhhhh. We did not have the push. The Baptists!
Brian S: Different Bible translations mess with the potential jokes.
Malcolm Tariq: But with poems like “Slave Play,” I was also interested in how people’s relationship with a Christian god can be likened to desire.
Liz: Were you alluding to the play currently on Broadway with the title?
Malcolm Tariq: No, that poem was written before Slave Play premiered off-Broadway.
Liz: Desire has always been a tricky metaphor in Christianity. Ecstasy of Saint Theresa certainly looks more like something physical than only a spiritual transformation.
My mind must be on the play. Hoping to see it. Can you talk a little bit about how being a playwright and being a poet are related? Do you work in both of genres at the same time? Do they call on different parts of you?
Brian S: John Donne does that a lot in his Holy Sonnets as well. “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” and so on.
Malcolm Tariq: I first learned about John Donne in high school when I read the play Wit. I read him a lot my senior year. So maybe that can answer Liz’s question. They are related so far as the uses and play of language. Playwriting take more time for me because there is plot and characterization involved. Both genres have dramatic turns, but with poetry it’s just easier. But I do approach both as a writer in the same way. Lots of study, research, and many, many drafts.
Because of how much theater relies on a collaboration, I have learned to share more of my poetry with people in ways I had not before. Playwriting has taught me more about process, I would say. I tend to work on different things at once. I wrote one or two plays while also working on Heed the Hollow.
Brian S: Is that because you know from the beginning that you won’t have complete control over the final product?
Liz: Hope they get produced/published. I’d love to see your dramatic work.
Malcolm Tariq: For playwriting or poetry, Brian?
Thanks, Liz. Me, too!
Brian S: Like, in a poem you can exert complete control over the product, though not over the reception to it. But in a play, you’re writing knowing that a director is going to make some choices you can’t countermand, and actors will portray the characters with their own experiences coming into play, and so on.
Liz: I appreciated the research behind Heed the Hollow, the history you generously taught the reader. For example, I knew nothing about tabby. What a powerful and protean metaphor, as well as a complex historical reality.
Malcolm Tariq: Exactly. There is a certain amount of room that must be left for interpretation in both genres, but with plays it really helps to get a reading with actors before a production. That way I can gauge how they are receiving the work as carriers of it. I have to work with people I trust, because plays live on in print and in performances.
So glad to hear that, Liz. I think the historical aspect of the book was really a way for me to learn about the place I spent most of my life. Savannah is a very historical city, but there is also some history that is not shared publicly. I learned that history is what we make it and how we make it.
Brian S: Same with New Orleans, which is the nearest city to where I grew up. Much of that history I didn’t learn until after I’d moved away, some of it until relatively recently. Like when Mayor Landrieu pushed to get rid of those Confederate statues. And since I’ve lived outside the Deep South for sixteen years now, I find I have an even stranger relationship with it. Like, I wouldn’t say I’m ready to defend the South, but I am quick to point out that the Midwest and other places have some pretty fucked-up histories as well.
Malcolm Tariq: Yes! I think that the South gets branded as the harbor of racial violence and white supremacy in a way that makes people who live outside of it feel removed. And that’s not the case at all.
Liz: Older white lady from the NE—it came as quite a shock years ago as I began to realize We weren’t the “good guys.”
Brian S: Like, I’ve lived in Iowa for the last eight years, blocks away from a cemetery full of Civil War veterans in a neighborhood named for General Sherman’s little brother, but it’s also the sixth-whitest state and it has one of the highest disparities for black males going to prison over white males for the same crimes. Also, Iowa is the state that keeps sending Steve King to Congress.
Liz: Steve King. Ugh.
Liz: The idea of sharing what is frequently unsaid was such a strong element of the book, from the historic “unsaid” to the extreme physical intimacy of some poems. The raw physicality, sometimes about sex, sometimes about physical suffering, sometimes both simultaneously—so powerful.
Malcolm Tariq: Liz, that’s a great observation about the unsaid. I wonder if it was because I was writing the book after having some of my first intimate experiences with people and then realizing that I had no training to learn from, as a queer person. I had stories about heterosexual encounters from my older cousins, but nothing that I could relate to what I was going through. Maybe that also relates to me wanting to turn to these historical incidents and uncover what was also possibly unsaid.
Did not know that, Brian! I’m so interested in Sherman. Was Sherman’s brother a veteran in Iowa?
Brian S: He was, but was like a paymaster I believe. Came to Des Moines and started one of the first insurance companies in the area if I remember correctly. Still a major industry here.
Malcolm Tariq: I’m going to have to look into that. I grew up on a street that I assumed was named after Sherman.
Brian S: One of my high school history teachers would almost spit when she said his name. We did not get a well-rounded view of the period.
Liz: Malcolm, my copy of the book is basically one long blur of my underlinings and notes. I don’t even know where to start with a particular poem or line, because over and over again I was challenged and fascinated and smiling at your playful inventiveness. But one of my absolute favorites was “Common Feast.” “Intimacy is not a clean thing.” The way you shifted from food to sex, innards of pigs, and the several meanings of “cheeks”—remarkable…
Malcolm Tariq: Ahhhh, that poem. One of my friends recently asked me why there were so many references to food in the collection. Which I hadn’t really thought about it! Cooking is one of my passions, but I didn’t think about it a lot as I was writing. Kind of funny how that happened.
Liz: Structuring the poem around who you would tell secrets to, including telling the reader what you would tell “no one”—you create such an intimacy with the reader.
Malcolm Tariq: I have also never had chitlins, but the concept has always been intriguing to me.
Liz: I am actually laughing out loud about the chitlins.
Brian S: Eating is also, at least in the part of the South where I grew up, very much a communal experience. The cooking can be as well, though you better know what you’re doing or you’ll get chased out of the kitchen.
What’s the food from home that you can’t get in Brooklyn unless you make it yourself?
Malcolm Tariq: So many things, Brian! The fish here is much smaller. At home, the whitings are of size, but in Brooklyn they are tiny. I found green tomatoes once. Still on the lookout for frog legs. I cooked smothered liver and onions a few weeks ago, but that’s not something I expect to find in restaurants. Crab cakes! I have also only seen shrimp and okra on maybe one menu in my life.
Liz: Oh now I’m hungry, and I don’t even eat frog legs.
Brian S: Every so often I make a muffuletta. It’s a deal because I have to make the bread myself. I tried one here and they made it on focaccia, which inspired a poem.
Malcolm Tariq: And we do an okra soup, which is what I call a low country gumbo.
Liz: That’s dedication, Brian, making the bread too.
Brian S: If you’ve ever had one from New Orleans, you discover that the bread really is key, and you can’t get it in Iowa.
Malcolm Tariq: Didn’t know that was a New Orleans dish.
Brian S: Lots of places claim it, but the ones from the Central Grocery in New Orleans are the gold standard as far as I’m concerned.
Liz: My son will be there soon. I will inform him.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Anything we should have our eyes out for?
Malcolm Tariq: I’ve had so many things going on that I have no energy to read, but I’m slowly working though Derek Walcott’s essay collection, What the Twilight Says, and doing research for a play. I started Rage Hezekiah’s book, Stray Harbor, as well. I should commit to finishing that this week.
Brian S: What’s your play about? Or is it bad luck to ask at this point?
Malcolm Tariq: It’s about slavery in Savannah, queer desire, and time travel (?).
Liz: I’m in for that.
Malcolm Tariq: The research is specific to Savannah, especially slavery in cities. I think we usually get the story from plantations, but there were other sites that were much different.
Liz: [Quiet cheer for time travel lit.]
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, Malcolm, and for this amazing book as well.
Liz: Yes, thank you, Malcolm. A stunning book. And now I need a snack.
Malcolm Tariq: Thank you! This has been fun. My first time using Slack and maybe the second talking to people who have read the book.
Brian S: I hope you get to have lots of those conversations, because it really is a book worth talking about.
Photograph of Malcolm Tariq by Karisma Price.