“I Didn’t Live a Manageable Life”: A Conversation with Imani Tolliver




IT’S WEDNESDAY NIGHT at The World Stage, typically set aside for the Anansi Writers Workshop. Tonight, one of its own, Imani Tolliver, takes to the mic instead to promote her debut, RUNAWAY: A Memoir in Verse, published by The World Stage Press, an independent imprint. She’s gotten a few lighter poems in before she reads “Gin & Juice”… 

my father stole my pussy
small, purple and pink
it was mine
he would put his mouth on it and smile
put his fingers in it and sleep
i wondered how he kept from puking some nights
from drink, from himself
so cliché, so stupid
he made it our secret…

A young woman begins to cry.

When Tolliver’s done, there is a heavy exhale from the collective breath held tight throughout the packed house. 

Earlier, over breakfast in Larchmont, Tolliver, discussing the poem, confesses: “I almost never read it at a reading. And sometimes before I get in front of a microphone or a podium there’s a poem that’s calling out to me that tells me it wants me to read it, and I’m like, I don’t want to read it! But so often I find it’s what I’m supposed to do. The poems I’m afraid to read, I must read; the poems I’m afraid to write, I must write, because there’s someone in the audience that may not say anything to me, but I see them looking at me, and I see them sharing, ‘Me, too. Me, too.’”

There were plenty “me, too” moments that night for the award-winning Cave Canem fellow who honed her voice in call-and-response settings like the Stage. RUNAWAY traces her artistic journey, from Degnan Boulevard and the corridors of Los Angeles through her family’s bookshop and the beaches where she rested when she fled her parents’ home. The book is full of sense memories, of loss and victory, of black hair and coming-out, of the artists and places and spaces that make Tolliver who she is.

Reading RUNAWAY is good therapy: heart opened, assumptions challenged, mind blown. You feel a little braver and more connected to your own truth — at least that’s what it did for me. And speaking with her was no different. Here is an excerpt of our two-hour conversation.

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JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Some of the pieces in this collection were previously published, some as far back as a dozen years ago. Were you thinking about a memoir in verse even then?

IMANI TOLLIVER: I’ve been working on this manuscript for probably 15 years. As I matured as a writer during those years, certain poems would go in and others would come out. The challenge for me wasn’t necessarily the poems, it was how to put them together. I thought, “Do I do it chronologically? Do I do it by chakra?” I saw an Erykah Badu concert and she did it by chakra. I thought, “That’s a great idea!”

My wife is a young adult librarian, and she’s been encouraging me to write a memoir in verse and I thought: I don’t know how to do that. Then we were in Skylight Books, one of my favorite places, and we saw Brown Girl Dreaming [by Jacqueline Woodson], and she said, “You’ve gotta read this book!” So I pick up the book and, of course, it’s a memoir in verse.

Her book sat by my bedside for months. I read it quickly. It was almost like a meditation, and it was like the validation I needed, because I hadn’t seen any books like the one I was trying to create. I have so many colleagues and friends who say, “When you’re assembling a book of poetry it’s not just a book of poems that may or may not have a relationship to one another. Your collection of poems needs to tell a story, too!” That was the challenge: what story am I trying to tell?

Jacqueline Woodson has praised your book, calling it “an ode to what’s remembered, what’s left behind, and what moves us forward.” That it’s been published by The World Stage Press is something of an ode to where you began as well. Why did you decide to publish the work on a local independent press?

I remember last year I put together a visual slide on Pinterest and I put a quote from one of my poems, and several people have shared it and liked it — not a million people, but even a handful of people who thought enough to say, “Hey, I like that.” I’m hoping to bring that kind of marketing sense to the journey of this book. It’s sort of exciting to shrink the world.

On my Facebook author page, someone sent a picture of himself holding my first chapbook, which I created when I was in college 25 years ago, and I thought, “I don’t even have a copy of that!” And he wrote: “I can’t wait for your book.” Just to know that I exist in someone’s imagination for all that time — and of course there are people that I have read who exist in my imagination in that way, so why can’t it happen for me, too.

I guess I could have reached out to larger presses. Friends of mine have suggested different presses where they thought my manuscript might be a part of that family. But The World Stage is my family. I have faith in it, so I want to support it.

The book opens with “These Hands,” which is my favorite. I was particularly struck by these lines: “take what shame tried to make / into your hands and turn it into something else / change your color / to your wish into something new / something of your own making.” It almost feels like this one poem encompasses your entire journey.

What kept looping in my mind was this memory of my mother, who kept telling me my hair was like moss. So it starts with the shame of that, of not being manageable. I didn’t live a manageable life. And then I thought about the journeys of my hair, and in the first part of that poem, I talk about how my mother would put my hair in this little bun at the top of my head. Then I thought about the controlling of this hair, this life. That was the metaphor.

As time went on, as women — and especially as black women — the transformations and the shapes and the colors and what we will allow and what we won’t allow … That was the jumping-off point in thinking what was difficult to manage in my own life — not just what was going on top of my head, but what was going on in my head: What are the ways people attempted to edit me, or how did they misunderstand me? How were they unkind with the way life was shaping me, or how I was shaping myself?

And as the poem goes on, I think about identity and race and how people see me and how they don’t see me — and maybe it’s cliché, but just that projection of who you see is not who you think you see. When I come back to the hands, it’s about having faith in ourselves to shape ourselves and knowing you’ll find community; that you’ll find your tribe and that you can trust the journey of your own hands; that you can trust the love that lives within you — and the more you do that, the more you will find your home.

The poem ends with a wonderful line that someone says to your mother upon meeting her for the first time: “You gave birth to Imani?” And your mom replies, “No, she gave birth to herself.”

Yeah, that really happened. It was after a World Stage reading. I was on Degnan Boulevard when that moment happened. A friend met my mom outside and she said, “You gave birth to Imani?” And she said, “No, she gave birth to herself.” That was real. I never heard her say that before. I didn’t know that she felt that way, but of course that’s what I did and what I’m doing every day.

In essence you did that when you changed your name from Yvette to Imani. What prompted that?

Yvette never felt right to me. People always said it in different ways, like Ya-vette, or they thought I was white. It never felt mine. It never felt right, especially as I got older … And I knew when I went away to Howard that this was a great opportunity to start anew. The reason I chose Imani was that, in my life, faith has always been the bridge to get to the other side, a place of healing, a safe place. A lot of the time, most of the time, faith was the only bridge I had. Sometimes I had to go back home to the place — runaway, right — but faith was my only bridge and I knew I was going to Howard. I’d never gone away before, I’d never been to DC before, but I knew in my gut that that’s where I should be. So I was taking another walk of faith for something I was so afraid to do, but I was absolutely compelled to finish, which was cool.

Since you brought up being a runaway, let’s talk about that poem, and why it became the title piece for the book — and why the strike through?

Because that’s been my identity for so long. I was a runaway for a long time, but I feel like it’s a resistance title. I love the paintings of Basquiat. He does this really cool thing where he has a word and then he crosses it out, and I remember seeing this amazing retrospective here in Los Angeles many years ago, at MOCA. It was such a moving experience, and I saw it a few times, and one of the times I went, I had a tour and I finally asked, “Why does he cross out the words?” And the docent said: “Which are the words you pay most attention to?” And I was like, “That’s so brilliant!”

So in the design of the book, it was always RUNAWAY with a line through it. It’s that I’m not a runaway anymore. I feel that, in so many ways, I still push up against that identity, in order to stand and face something … Whether it’s a conversation, a difficult situation, I show up. I don’t think anyone who knows me now would ever think that I shied away from things, but in a way it honors the girl that I was. I’m sort of embracing her.

[Later, Tolliver would text me this: I forgot to mention that another reason I connected with RUNAWAY as a title is that Harriet Tubman is a cousin on my mother’s side of the family — she’s my first cousin three times removed.]

Let’s talk about your poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and this obsession you have with The Police. In fact, music plays a big role in this work.

Music is such a big part of my life. To me, certain songs are like markers of time, and they bring me right back. It’s almost a visual experience, where I can see moments unfolding before me, and there are so many times in that poem where I had lyrics and I had different things and my editor said, “You don’t need all of that.”

I mean, I love The Police, and when I was a kid listening to them — especially in high school — I had so many feelings, so many emotions. I was still in my parents’ home and in the midst of all of that sickness. The songs were like poems to me. I identified so much with those feelings, and they embraced me when I didn’t have a friend to embrace me, when I wasn’t being rescued in the way that I wanted to be rescued so desperately. But the songs rescued me. The music gave me comfort, and that’s why the songs run like a ribbon through so many of my poems.

Speaking of which, “Kind of Blue,” which plays on the title of the famous Miles Davis tune, is an intriguing piece exploring Miles, who was legendarily abusive, but you connected that to your father and the complexities of forgiveness. You write: “If I don’t forgive daddy, then I miss all of Miles.”

I’d read an essay by Pearl Cleage called “Mad at Miles” and the book [Mad at Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth]. Of course I had some of those thoughts: “Gosh, we should really hold these artists to task.” But until I read that essay about Miles Davis, no one ever broke it down that clearly. She did not let him off the hook. I feel so often that, within the black community, we don’t have as many luminaries as we want to have — and we have a lot of luminaries — but because of what we have to push against in this culture, it’s almost like that pressure we used to feel: “Don’t talk about the brothas. Support the brothas. Lift the brothas. Don’t be like the white people — don’t be like the white feminists and put our brothas down.”

Alice Walker went through that, too, with The Color Purple, and I was always like, “She’s just telling the truth; can’t I tell the truth? That was my journey, too.” And so, I was wrestling with those feelings and I went back and forth reading Pearl’s essay, and I was in a tangle. It wasn’t as simple for me, and I thought, “She must have a great relationship with her father.” I mean, look at James Brown. I’m Black and I’m Proud. He was the daily news. And sometimes, honestly, it’s too much. I can’t even listen to him because I’m tired of negotiating all this energy. Like I told you, music is very visual for me, so I might be listening to Kind of Blue and I see the record cover, and I can see the horn, and then my mind goes to Cicely Tyson — and in my mind I’m playing out all of these things. How could such beauty come out of the same person that created such horrible, heinous experiences for someone? How could the same spirit create beauty but also create that experience for someone?

And I agreed with Pearl, of course, but Reverend Michael at Agape says, “The more you resist something the more it persists.” The more I push up against the memories of my father the more vivid the memories are. But the more I just let them be, let the memories come — the more I can let them go. If I identify him as a monster — and it’s true, there are things he did that were monstrous — but there are also gifts that I got from the marriage of my parents. I have to constantly be in negotiation with the gift that is the curse that is my father.

Many of your recollections that you used to write this memoir are from the journals you’ve kept since childhood — the ones your mother gave you. And she still gives them to you. Do you believe that, maybe even unbeknownst to her, she was helping you to find your own voice?

You know, probably. It’s almost the journey of our relationship, because she has always put things in my hands to make, even back in the day, when we’d go to Thrifty’s, to the little toy aisle and the little crafty aisle — that was before Michael’s. I was an only child until I was 11, so I spent a lot of time by myself. I was always making things out of other things. It feels, in some ways, that that’s part of our journey together as mother and daughter — that she’s always putting something into my hands, and I’m drawn to make something out of this.

On a deeper level, I’m certain that me speaking helps her, too. She tells me that. But the truth is that it’s hard for her to read these poems. I don’t always invite her to readings, because I don’t want her to suffer, I don’t want her to relive those memories. And I’m in a much better place than the poems might suggest. I feel she’s not looking at it as: “This is Imani reading this as a grown woman.” I’m certain she’s remembering: “That’s when she was nine. That’s when she was 12. That’s when she was 13. I remember when she ran away that time.” I don’t want to do that to her. But I do feel like she always encourages me to be brave. By giving me those journals, it’s her way of saying: “I trust you to tell your story — our story. And I believe in you. Keep speaking.”

The book concludes with an ode to the library. In it you write: “perhaps there isn’t a resolution to this life / but I will continue to do what I do best / speak what I claim to know / and hope to be remembered / by the shore has recorded / every transition I’ve lived / the shore of books I mean to say.” It’s the only poem in that chapter. Why?

I’m trying to show that I’m still on this journey. I’m still trying to figure myself out. I’m still trying to face what I have to face, still trying to have the difficult conversations. But that poem really is a summation of so many experiences, and I felt like I want to honor L.A.

The whole book reads like a love song of sorts to L.A. …

It feels that way to me — because where was I when I was running away? I was sleeping on the street. I was sleeping on the beach. I was on the bus, in a movie house. Where do I go now when I want to recalibrate? I go to LACMA. I go see art somewhere. There are places that I go and it’s here. Growing up in L.A., I learned so many things that people who are new to this community don’t know about. They don’t know about Bullocks Wilshire, the magnificence of the L.A. Central Library — looking at the rotunda. When I’m at LACMA, I feel something. It has changed so much over the decades, but even that beautiful assortment of streetlights — I had those street lights on my street growing up. Those were the ones you had to be home before they came on — and they were beautiful.

I feel like some places hold you, and I feel L.A. kept me as safe as she could. L.A. never hurt me. Maybe a few people did — but I was always safe in her parks and read her books at her libraries and went to see her art. And I bumped up against her streets, but throughout she’s been constant … And I wanted to honor her. I wanted to honor who we are as natives. I wanted to honor the realness of here. There’s very little, I feel, that talks about what it’s really like here, what we really care about — those of us with gardens in our backyards, who’ve been eating granola for a long time.

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Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a senior editor for Los Angeles Review of Books and director of the Los Angeles Review of Books / USC Publishing Workshop.


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