A Mother’s Duty: An Interview with Caribbean Poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor by Mercy Tullis-Bukhari
Towards the end of a New York summer, I met with poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor for some conversation about womanhood, motherhood, and poetry. I had known Cheryl for several years. When I entered the poetry world professionally, her name was already floating in my consciousness of poets I knew I needed to meet. We had mutual friends, and her courageousness in writing and reading, her poetry with Trini flavor enlightened my Caribbean roots, wanting to grow toward all that was Cheryl. We first met three years ago in Brooklyn, through a mutual sister-poet, for a reading and discussion about being poets of the Caribbean diaspora. At that moment, I knew I could say that I shared the mic with award-winning poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. I appreciated the points added to my resume by sharing the space with her.
A year after Cheryl and I met, Malik Izaak Taylor, also known as “Phife Dawg” from the hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, passed away. I recall posting on Facebook (as many of us forty-plus year olds who remember the club scene, Timbs, and baggy jeans of the 1990s), “You will always be on point, Phife.” Unbeknownst to me at the time, which I later learned in the poetry circles, Cheryl was Malik’s mother. I was, of course, intensely sad for my friend. Then, everything began to make sense to me, how an intelligent architect of words would be born from and raised by the poet, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor.
Throughout this conversation, my sadness for her loss was always present but with the added level of admiration. We love, we experience loss, we mourn. Our mourning throws us in a space of disbelief, then we transition into acceptance. In that acceptance, we plant seeds of our pain for sprouts of creativity, for our own healing and duty to keep our loved one alive. Cheryl—Caribbean poet, Black lesbian writer, and the mother of the late Malik Izaak Taylor—brought me into her duty to keep her son alive.
Mercy Tullis-Bukhari: “I like them brown, yellow, Puerto Rican or Haitian.” Do you know how important that line was to me? On my block, we were mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids, and I had my own issues with my own skin color, my mother and sister were light-skinned with “good hair,” and I, dark-skinned, with the wide nose, and the kinky hair. When I heard that line, I thought, someone will like me, because I am somewhere in between brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, and Haitian, so I knew everything would be all right.
Poetic-wise, he was brilliant, the way he used to bend images, and still be quick, witty, and humorous. What influence did you have on Malik’s skills?
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: I definitely had a strong influence in his career. For example, as a theater major at York College, I had ongoing rehearsals, sometimes into the night. The theater program was my life. I used to take Malik with me, and often there was a little girl there, as well, whom he played with while I was rehearsing. She actually remained his best friend until he died. When they played for a long time, I would tell him to take a break from playing so that he could write a poem. He would do it cheerfully, probably so that he could go run around again with the little girl. But he would always do it cheerfully.
I also used to put him in a summer camp. One summer, when I was about to put him in the camp, he told me, “I hate that place. Those children cuss like you wouldn’t believe.” I think Phife was born that first summer he did not go to camp.
MTB: That summer, when Malik chose not to go to that camp, Phife was born? How old was he?
CBT: He was nine. My mother worked nights, so she watched him during the day while I was working. I made him a journal with notepaper for him, and I wrote his initials on the cover. I told him that I wanted him to stop playing at some point throughout the day, to write in his journal about what he was doing during the day.
But I did not force his journaling. I told him I just wanted him to tell me what he did all day, to tell me what his day was like.
MTB: What were your thoughts when he told you he wanted to be a rapper? How did you react to that?
CBT: “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang comes into the picture. He was so taken by that song. He had wanted to be an actor, since he used to go to the theater program with me, but “Rapper’s Delight” really got to him.
By the end of his 10th grade, he said he was going to be a rapper, and said he was going on tour with A Tribe Called Quest. I did not pay it any mind when he said he wanted to be a rapper, but he told my family that he was going to be on the Apollo stage with Chaka Khan, and he listed all the different famous people he was going to meet.
In our household we had a rule, that if you don’t want to be in school, you have to work.
MTB: Right. Just like in my home.
CBT: He came to me and told me, “Mom you are always telling me that I have to be in school or work. I am not ready for school and I don’t want college. I can always get to college.” When he decided to go on tour with A Tribe Called Quest, I saw how beamed up he was, and happy about the tour. For a while, after my divorce, he lost his light. The divorce had affected him because it was bitter. He was an only child, and he had a good relationship with both his father and me. When he said he wanted to rap, I saw his light return. He had found his sweet spot. He knew rapping was his sweet spot, so I did not dare say no.
When he told me he was going on tour in Europe, I asked if I could go with him. Malik was always outspoken. He said, “C’mon, Mom, it doesn’t look good for mothers to be there.” So, I said “OK, Malik, I trust you on this one.” He went off and never returned home.
MTB: It’s interesting that in his music, he always understood who he was. He called himself “The Five-Footer,” the “funky diabetic.” There were even moments when he threw in the Trini accent whenever he was rapping. He understood what he needed to bring realness to the mic.
CBT: I think he learned that from me. When you get to the mic, you are doing work. You are not there to be cute. You are there to do a job, and if you are going to be half-ass about it, you might as well sit down. You have to be prepared for the stage.
MTB: He definitely brought all of who he was to the stage.
CBT: And he spent many summers in Trinidad as well. His father was also from Trinidad. His father’s family lived on the same street as my family, so he would spend time at both homes. He was very much into the accent; he loved that we were talking it.
MTB: Let’s talk about your last book, Arrival. I was at your book launch at The Langston Hughes House. On the cover of the book, I see a beach, a palm tree, your mom, and a letter from her. What is the “arrival” here, with this book and this cover?
CBT: Poetry was big for my mother even though my mother did not write her own poetry. She planted the poetry seed in me by her reading poetry to me at bedtime. When my mother died, I wanted to do something for my mother that had to do with poetry. I knew my mother had to be on the cover of Arrival. In the Caribbean, poetry was a very large part of the school curriculum. When she was a student, she had to memorize long, European poems, then perform them for different school programs. The schools also had contests, and my mother always brought home the trophy.
That “arrival” has so many layers. It’s the arrival in the US, the arrival into teenage years, womanhood, and parenthood. It is the arrival as a divorced woman. It is the arrival as a lesbian woman. It is the arrival of the poet in me because of the poetry seed my mother planted.
I also wanted to show the stations I arrived at, at the time Arrival came out as a 65 year old woman, having a real arc, an up and down, mountains and valleys, with oceans going out into the sea.
I want to kiss Malik again and again at the
New Jersey ferry terminal where I last held his hand end memorized every holy road in the country of his beautiful face
MTB: What is Trinidad to you now?
CBT: It is the largest piece of my heart. I left there when I was thirteen years old, and the only way to keep Trinidad with me is to keep it in my heart and in my work. I always kept it in my son. I am so shocked that Trinidad is in my blood this way. After 55 years? It is all over me.
I remember sending my work out, and having the editors say that my work was too hard to publish. So, I published my work myself, because my dialect is not going away. And people want my dialect. When I read in dialect, people always tell me they love the other poems, but they are always taken by the dialect. You can’t let go of what’s you.
MTB: When did you know for sure you needed to do your poetry full-time?
CBT: I had already been doing poetry for many years in Queens. I had the Voice Taylor Theatrical Company. A few Queens poets were a part of it. I also did a lot poetry at the Langston Hughes Branch in Corona. I took poets into prisons and women shelters to do shows for them. I was always writing while raising my child. Then, I had the opportunity to study with Audre Lorde.
At a reception, she came over to me to ask who I was. I said, “I am Cheryl. I am from Trinidad. And I write poetry.” She said she was offering a small class for only women poets of color, and she invited to attend the class. I was in awe of her, so I was immediately intimidated.
MTB: Audre Lorde saw something in you that she just walked over to you and invited you to her class?
CBT: I did not feel ready to go to her class. I had been writing a long time, but not as strongly as I wanted. I later found out that Audre Lorde liked I was Trinidadian. When we first met, I may have mentioned I wrote in dialect.
The same year I met Audre Lorde, I was breaking up with my husband. I was feeling that my work was “hiding work” because I hid I was a lesbian. I would only hint at being a lesbian. My work did not equal my life experience.
I attended the first night of class with a woman I was dating. That woman was hiding from her mother that she was dating a woman. All of that hiding was just ugly, but, at the time, I thought she was a catch. On the first day of class, Audre Lorde asked, “What is stopping you from doing the writing you really want to do? Who is holding a gun to your head? And if you write what you really have to say, what’s going to happen?” I just started crying, because I knew that gun holder was me. I was the one holding the gun to my head.
Before meeting Lorde, I was satisfied with my life and my work, with how my life was at the time. The class wasn’t just poetry; the class was who Audre Lorde was as a woman. She had fears and pain from life experiences, but she was still going to write. She came from Staten Island to Hunter College to teach this class, and she would tell students that they could leave class if they came without their assignments done. You wouldn’t go to a nursing class unprepared, right? Or a pre-med class? She was serious about poetry, and she taught me the serious nuances about writing. By the end of that class, I knew I wanted to be a poet more than I wanted to be a mother, a wife, or a daughter. Poetry was all I wanted to do.
I raised my son the same way, to take his art seriously. I told him that if he was going to do a reading with me, he had to study his lines, learn, and be ready.
MTB: At the Association for Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, we shared the panel on Writing a New Identity: Caribbean Women Writers from Beach & Carnival Culture to Political & Survival Text. You spent time telling the audience on how important it is to hold on to you, to who you are, your history, and your identity.
CBT: If you don’t, what are you holding on to? I love living in the US, but I would not have lived here without my culture near me. My work was accepted by The Nuyorican Poets Café, Bar 13, in the New York Lower East Side scene. I loved that it was accepted by that scene. I read everywhere. I was one of the first poets to represent the Caribbean for the Nuyorican Slam team and I slammed with a dialect poem. I have always wanted people to know what my grandmother sounded like in her backyard in Trinidad.
MTB: I see that your new book is about Malik.
CBT: It is a memoir in verse. There are poems and anecdotes about my son, from childhood to adulthood. It has a lot of sorrow, loss, joy, hope, love, and redemption, all tied up in this book.
From the beginning, Malik’s dad and I were committed to being open and loving parents. We wanted to be less critical of our son than our own parents were of us. When Malik had questions for us, I would answer each question as honestly as I could, not forgetting that I had been raised with a strict Caribbean gene. With each answer, he would have his very own personal responses, sometimes judgements, or even hysterical laughter.
I just really lost my mind with the death of my son. For two years, I did not know who I was, really. A lot of my pain and sadness are from my daughter-in-law, though. I can’t believe she has to go through the pain of losing her husband. She and my son were very close; they were together for eighteen years.
MTB: What is the title of the book?
CBT: I am not really giving out the title of the book, as of now. I will give a part of the title, called “Gift.” That is the working title.
MTB: You are keeping Malik alive for yourself and for us. Hearing the stories is adding to the level of respect I already had for him and for Tribe. When I look through your new book, I am seeing Malik. I mean, Phife Dawg will always be Phife. He will always be “The Five-Footer” who likes them brown, yellow, Puerto Rican, or Haitian. But I am seeing Malik now. What do you want Phife’s fans to take from your book?
CBT: I want to share his curiosity, his molding, his rearing. I want his fans to know what made Malik tick. I want them to know the kind of son, husband, friend and father he was. I also want them know how determined he was to get what he needed from his music early in his life. I also want his fans to know what a profound thinker he was. Early in life, he would ask me questions like, “Do you pray?” I don’t know if those type of questions are common for parents to hear now, but I thought he was a deep child, and he had a lot of questions.
MTB: What do you hope the literary community takes from your book about your son?
CBT: I hope that Phife’s fans, and the literary community, learn about loss and suffering, to rise up from the loss and pain, and to continue to do their creative work. Yes, you need to take some time, some down time. But you also have to get up, and do your work. No one is speaking for you and your family. You are the historian in your family.
I know that if I don’t tell my story, no one else will. I also know that Malik has left a legacy for me to continue.
MTB: Among people in my age group, Tribe was big. Tribewas important. Malik’s lines were always so poetic, and very strong. Obviously, his mom was a poet. I am grateful to you. I speak for others who grew up listening to Tribe, that we are all grateful to you.
CBT: My greatest gift to Malik was letting him speak, letting him express himself, and believing in the decisions he made, even at an early age. What I did was free him like a bird.
I used to do poetry programs in people’s yards. One summer, when Malik was nine years old, I told him I wanted him to open a program with a poem. I kept telling to write the poem and learn it. I asked him if he had his poem ready that day we got to the yard, he said he didn’t. I told him that he was still going to open the program. “Mom, I have it in my head!” he said. He went up there, and that boy freestyled a poem! He worked his way up to being the third best freestyle MC in the country. Arsenio Hall gave him that title. I did not know at the time that what he was doing was called “freestyling,” but he was doing his own thing all along.
MTB: How has the new book, this book that is about your son and that is dedicated to your son, been a space of healing for you?
CBT: This new book has been a space of healing for me because I was able to pour out my heart. I am not ashamed of my grief. I am not ashamed of my love for my son, and how I miss him, and how I miss the way he would talk to me. I am also writing this book for my daughter-in-law and my grandson, because they need to have this book to remember Malik. Malik became my teacher and my friend, my guide and my companion. He was such an important and terrific part of my life, that I miss him every day. Writing this book has brought me closer to him and has made me remember the times we had. For example, he would call up and talk to me in Trinidadian and say to me, “Here what, Ma.” “Here what” in Trinidadian means “Here’s the plan for us.” He would say, “Here what, Ma. I am coming to New York, I am going to pick you up, and we are going to go Toronto.” Those kinds of memories make me love him so much more. He was so strong and determined, and knew what he wanted to do. And that’s why, at that early age, when he said he was going on tour with Tribe, I had really always trusted his decision making. So, I am really proud to be putting out this book, and I am hoping it helps other people who are mourning. When you pick up the book, and read the anecdotes, you will just smile.
MTB: I recently saw a black and white picture of you with Malik’s father, at the old nightclub The Copacobana. You two looked very cool and happy. You were carrying Malik in that picture. If you had a chance to speak to the 19-year-old young married woman who was carrying Malik, what would you tell her?
CBT: Girl, you are carrying the world’s gift. You are too young to know what you are in for. That pregnancy will be the best thing in your life.
Mercy Tullis-Bukhari is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who finds inspiration from being a Bronx-bred Afro-Latina American, Honduran and Garifuna, of Jamaican descent. She graduated from New York University with a Bachelor’s in English and American Literature, She received her Master’s from Herbert H. Lehman College in English Literature. She is currently promoting her first anthology of poems titled SMOKE, published by Blind Beggar Press.
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor photo credit: Marcia Wilson, WideVision Photography