Malcolm Tariq's poetry book, "Heed the Hollow," examines blackness, queerness, and the South


Malcom Tariq and his book Heed the Hollow

Author photo by Karisma Price.

To say that Heed the Hollow by Malcolm Tariq is about the queer black experience is both true and also too simple. The poetry collection engages with the American South, the history of slavery, and sexuality and eroticism in candid, unexpected ways.

In the introduction, Chris Albani, who selected the book for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, aptly illuminates what this book does, writing, “This is where we find Malcolm Tariq’s work, on the cusp of a new south, a new Black, a new self-love, a new history. He is one of a new emerging crop of writers that is redefining Blackness in the United States….” The collection shares perspectives on this history and lineage in relation to today.

One of the poems -- a cento that borrows lines from other places -- states, “We give narrative to experience every day. Being born and living lawfully in my / humanness, I live a reality denied to the enslaved and formerly enslaved.” This contrast between today’s way of life and the not-too-distant past offers insight into how this country’s history still shadows the experience of the present.

Tariq’s poems also tell of individual and erotic interactions. In the poem, “The Road to Chocolate Plantation,” the speaker and a brother walk on paths covered in pieces from tabby walls made of shells by slaves. At the end, the speaker makes an observation about a younger brother:

           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.

Through this book, Tariq himself takes the narrative into his hands. Lessons abound in all of the relations – an experience is not without reflection on what it may mean in Heed the Hollow. 

Not only does Heed the Hollow delve into those topics but it also contains a variety of poetic forms, including an erasure, long poems, and a nocturne. The poems possess a strong rhythm, which is noticeable even just reading them silently on the page. The range of styles, distinct rhythm, and deliberate word choice show Tariq’s skill and play with the ideas that his poems investigate.

Originally from Savannah, Georgia, Tariq has degrees from Emory University and the University of Michigan, and he now lives in New York. He will read with Jonah Mixon-Webster at Literati Bookstore on Monday, November 18, at 7 pm. I interviewed him before his return to Ann Arbor.

Q: You earned your PhD at the University of Michigan. How was your time in Ann Arbor?
A: Ann Arbor and I have a complex relationship. My friends and I were able to help cultivate an inclusive queer community. Cab drivers thought our house on South First and Williams was a bar because of all the requests they received to and from there. At the same time, Ann Arbor is often difficult for graduate students of color, particularly queer students of color. From my friends, I gained knowledge about therapy and mental health. Some of us had to leave once we passed our exams and achieved candidacy. Three of us relocated to Atlanta, Georgia to write our dissertations. As young scholars, it was nice to be around thriving black people again. I do look forward to returning to Ann Arbor when I can because I still have friends there. I’m reminded of walking downtown when I was 23 and spending three years battling relationships and academic training. I’m glad I had poetry to help with that. It was also a lesson in creating supportive networks and learning about self-preservation. Our house was a bit dusty, but I do miss hosting parties and my huge room.

Q: Given that you just had a book of poetry published, I am curious about your educational path. How did you decide to pursue a PhD in English? Did you consider an MFA?
A: I wanted to get a terminal degree in the humanities because it would provide me with more professional options. Having that training helps my creative pursuits in countless ways. I think I was able to get through that process by remaining a poet first, which I think was difficult for some faculty to understand. The University of Michigan had excellent funding for doctoral students, which made it possible for me to concentrate on my studies, professional skill-building, and creative writing. I was really able to curate a unique experience. Most of the writing and research for Heed the Hollow was essentially funded by the University of Michigan.

Fortunately, the university also has a great MFA program that is housed in the Department of English Language and Literature, where I was a student. When visiting writers came to the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, the very generous and supportive Airea D. Matthews, who was a graduate of and an administrator in the program, would let me sign up for personal critique sessions and author dinners once the MFA students had their pick. Because I had taken a playwriting workshop, I was eligible to compete in the Hopwood Awards, and I won in the Graduate Poetry category. The administrator for the Hopwood Program actually thought I was an MFA student.

Q: You also won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for your new book. What have you learned from Cave Canem? Did you go to its retreat?
A: Craft and community. The year I was selected to attend the retreat, I knew no one else there. While that normally makes me nervous, as soon as I stepped into the opening circle that first night, all reservations went away. That week, Cave Canem became my first retreat, workshop, and public reading. Because I had written mostly in isolation, was not in an MFA program, and only had one or two poems published, being selected to attend the retreat was validation in itself. Cave Canem is an intense intellectual experience because there is passion, there is legacy, and, most importantly, there is a profound rigor to interrogate one’s own relationship with their craft. Every time I leave, I need another week to process and work on poems that I started during the week. There are other ways to gain an education that MFA programs provide, and Cave Canem (its retreat as well as its suite of lectures, events, and workshops in New York City) offered that to me.

Q: Let’s talk more about your book. Tell us about the title of Heed the Hollow.
A: The book was originally named something else. Jeff Shots (my editor at Graywolf), Chris Abani (who selected the book), and Nicole Sealey (then the executive director of Cave Canem), all agreed that I should change the title to something more provocative and accessible to readers. “Heed the Hollow” was a poem that I had worked on that summer at the 2018 Cave Canem retreat, coincidentally with Chris, who was on the faculty. By then he probably had my manuscript in the pile of finalists for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, but I had forgotten that he was the judge that year. Jeff and Nicole offered title suggestions, but then I remembered this poem and showed it to Jeff, who then suggested I add it to the manuscript. I didn’t know how perfectly it fit until I was reading over the collection and noticed how many times the word “hollow” already appeared in it. It echoes themes of the bottom in interesting ways, mostly in starting with matters of birth and family history while ending in issues related to sex and intimacy. The speaker is present throughout, but as observer and witness. Even in stating their intentions and desires, they are nonetheless defined by someone else at the end of the poem as “almost” powerful. This is one tension throughout the book -- internal grappling with inherited pasts and presents to find a future.

Q: Speaking of “themes of the bottom,” the word “bottom” takes on several meanings in Heed the Hollow. What drew you to this concept?
A: The initial idea for Heed the Hollow was born during a time when “the bottom” was being taken up by academics in gender and sexuality studies. Kathryn Bond Stockton’s Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer” (2006) and Nguyen Tan Hoang’s A View From the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation (2014) are two noticeable texts in this regard. I also had three friends and colleagues -- Cassius Adair, Michael Pascual, and Sony Coráñez Bolton -- who started a reading group in what they were calling “bottom studies” that really influenced my thinking. What I did with Heed the Hollow was center the concept of “the bottom” on black Southern queerness. I was interested in what it would look like to ground the field of Southern Studies, which is often white-concentrated, on black queerness. This opened space for me to talk about intersections of race, sex, and intimacy, but also black residential space, public space, historical markers, and how histories are never as fixed as we believe them to be. I wanted to explore how histories are lived against false constructions.

Q: I have been very curious about poets’ relationships to the speakers in their poems lately. How would you describe your connection to the speaker in the poems in Heed the Hollow?
A: There are several speakers in this collection. In some instances, “1 Yearning” and “Tabby” among them, individual poems also have multiple speakers. I identify with some of the speakers, and some I do not. When I wrote the self-portrait poems, I didn’t have one speaker in mind as much as I did a collection of voices speaking simultaneously. Also, because some of the material is primary resources that I used for erasures, the speakers became a way for the archive to speak, not as matter-of-factly, but as a way to challenging the reader, and myself, to see, imagine, and interpret beyond the written document.

Q: Heed the Hollow processes the difficult history of slavery and the treatment of people of color in the United States, and the speaker is constantly reassessing views and understandings. In the poem “Grandma’s Black Bottom,” the speaker considers, “Perhaps this is the lesson: to say what I have to / when I don’t have to listen to what I’m told.” These lines made me think of those moments in writing in which I pause before writing something because I first think that I can’t write it but then recognize or remind myself that I can if I want. In what ways did you grapple with what “can” be said, what you think you are “supposed to” say, or what is socially supposedly off-limits, when writing these poems? Did you feel like you had to push past that when writing about intense topics, or did you write unreservedly?
A: More specific than people of color, the book is mainly concerned with intersections of blackness, queerness, and the South. Writing what I was “supposed to” say wasn’t really an issue for me because undoing that is one of the purposes of the project. I think what you’re speaking to, about what I felt allowed to say, mostly concerns the experiences of people I love who make appearances and the larger act of writing about black people who lived in or during slavery in the Americas. A lot of what I learned about slavery growing up positioned it as a period that was far removed from me and the contemporary moment. I eventually realized this isn’t the case. How do we talk about people whose existence we are collectively predicated on without ascribing their humanity to how they are written in historic and popular discourse? The word “slave” itself is based on a position within capitalism and power. It says more about what people did than who they were. Rather than historicizing slavery itself, is it possible to use poetry to complicate the telling of that lived experience? Even so, in “Cento in Which the Narrative Precedes the Lyric,” for example, I am also cognizant that there are things I don’t know and possibly will not know. The whole poem is me questioning what I can and cannot say, in spite of the heritage and lineage I have been handed. Though the poem works toward an answer, it’s really meant to start a conversation about ethics and the practice of historical narrativizing.

Q: Your poems refer to specific aspects of the historical narrative. A poem in particular, called “Drapetomania,” refers to a “mental illness said to have caused enslaved blacks to escape captivity. It was later debunked and is now recognized as a type of scientific racism,” according to the notes in the book. What did you find out about this condition in order to write this poem?
A: I can’t remember the specifics of what I discovered in my research, but what drew me to write about the subject was the absurdity of it. But within that absurdity, why did it have to be created? For me, that reason is white fear. Whites had to legitimize why black people would want to run away from bondage in order to live a life divorced from constraint. It was also a way for me to succinctly write about life in the swamp, which has always fascinated me.

Q: On the topic of places like the swamp, place, personhood, and belonging strike a unique relationship in this collection in the context of history, race, and sensuality, as one poem reads:

           And to no one, I confess

           that when I give myself to a man, it is rarely

           the whole self in the way that it is a whole

           body giving into want. …

In Heed the Hollow, do you feel like there is a conclusion on how to be, or are these concerns continuing to swirl?

A: I don’t think the conclusion of the book points to a specific way to be as it does possible ways of living. Even in that, I’m calling for forms of empowerment as opposed to the narratives of disempowerment that have continued to dominate how black people are called to be. And these are things that I’m continuing to think about. I was recently asked if there are moments of joy in the book. My initial response was no, aside from the final poem, “Bottom Power.” Now I see that there are subtle moments of joy even within the violence and trauma that the work illustrates or references. I like that I get to discover these moments in my rereads. It’s how I’m able to gauge my own successes in writing.

Q: What is up next for you?
A: I’m a rather slow creator. I want to spend some time studying the sonnet, persona poetry, and how black women creators use form in preparation for revising (or reworking) a previous manuscript I completed a few years ago. I’m also thinking through a play about questions of freedom and (queer) desire in the contemporary South and 19th century Savannah, Georgia. Of course, there is a tree involved.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Malcolm Tariq reads with Jonah Mixon-Webster at Literati Bookstore on Monday, November 18, at 7 pm.