A chat with activist and poet Tariq Touré

On April 27, in front of the CVS Pharmacy at Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue, poet/writer/activist (and City Paper contributor) Tariq Touré read his poem, 'April 27th.' With its sobering refrain of, "I looked Freddie in the eyes today," and a series of novelistic details building up a character sketch of Gray and references to others activists say are victims of police brutality (Tyrone West, Abdul Salaam, and Keith Davis Jr.), the poem has become something of a local hit—Touré first performed it at a legal defense fundraiser for Keith Davis Jr. and has read it a few times since then, and it was published in the City Paper last week. Following the reading, Touré told me that after May he would probably stop performing the poem and let it just live on the page, possibly in his next collection of poetry, because what does it mean to have a local "hit" poem on police brutality? It seems important to keep things in perspective and moving forward, what with the cottage industry of social justice-oriented panels, conferences, documentaries and the like since the Baltimore Uprising—and especially because Touré is one of those voices that has been raised since last April.

Along with his activism and essay-writing, late last year Touré offered up an online challenge in the form of a hashtag (#NoJusticeNoLebron) to Lebron James, asking the Cleveland Cavaliers star to refuse to play in response to the non-indictment of the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice. It garnered Touré plenty of criticism and praise (radical sportswriter Dave Zirin, in particular, was effusive with his praise) and kicked off another element of the ongoing conversation about black athletes and their role in the protest movement. And in February, Touré published his first book of poetry, "Black Seeds," a robust collection of political poems that mix hypnotic, ruminating diction with a lived-in sense of how regular-ass people talk and feel and echoes of the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, Sufi poetry, and, every once in a while, hip-hop. The book is another addition to what seems like a black books renaissance in Baltimore.

I sat down with Touré at Red Emma's and talked process, influence, the importance of sports, and the nature of activist art. As if I needed more evidence of the ways in which art, literature, and activism intertwine in this city, our chat was interrupted by author D. Watkins who happened to stop through Red Emma's while we spoke and then, not longer after that, activist/cook/artist Duane "Shorty" Davis happened to show up.

City Paper: When did you start writing?

Tariq Touré: My mother is a third-grade teacher and a writer. And my father is a former imam, for 28 years, so right there is the writing and the oratory, you know? It make sense. But I used to write about the drug addicts that my mom and I used to see when I'd drive down the street with her on Edmondson Avenue. This was the late '90s so Edmondson Avenue was crazy. It was like a ghost town. I'd write poems about it being a ghost town and people being skeletons of themselves—dark, dark poems and I was like, 12. That's where I kind of started. Then in high school I never wrote for myself but I got into college, at Bowie, which is like an HBCU—so it's like blackity black black black—and they had this forum, like some dude singing negro spirituals and readings. Some people asked me to write a speech and my speech became a poem. So, I go to the forum and there's like tons of people. And next thing you know, I started reading it, and people were clapping. I got out of there immediately, it was weird. Like social anxiety. But that moment right then and there I was like, I could possibly have something to say to the world and after that I started writing poems and performing at events. Then within the last two years, with me meeting D. [Watkins] and other people being like, "you should publish," I've been writing more.

CP: How do your poems come together? What's the process?

TT: Nine times out of ten, I'm driving home from somewhere and it like hits me in the car and I'll hurry up and I'll put my phone on Notes and I'll talk text the lines. And then when I get out of the car, I'm obsessive about it. If I get like an epiphany, I think I have great ideas but I know there are people with ten times better ideas and I don't want to lose mine so my process is like, fast: OK, epiphany, light bulb, and then I'm driving, talking into the phone, I get home, I write the poem and then after that it's trying to really make sense of it. I ask, what am I saying to myself with this? If I picked this up, how would I feel about this particular piece? What does it still need?

CP: Which poets would you cite as influences then and now?

TT: Now, it would be Saul Williams and Audre Lorde. Before, Maya Angelou. I used to read a lot of Shel Silverstein, stuff my mother would put in front of me. Paul Lawrence Dunbar. And I read a lot of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's heavy as hell. The way he could create characters. Those four people as far as my poetry: Maya Angelou, Shel Silverstein, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and William Shakespeare. Not to say I try to write like them, but just their meanings. I'm big on the meaning. Like OK you wrote it, what does it mean? What can I pack in my bag and walk away with from this? I don't care what it is. Even if it's Chief Keef I can come away with, "he's in pain." Sometimes we get so into writing for the hell of writing but all of those poets I mentioned? They were writing for something.

CP: I know that sports, especially football, were formative for you. Did sports influence your poetry?

TT: Hell yeah. I grew up in West Baltimore and not everybody there has structure. Most of my friends were living hard, rough lives and one of the ways I always connected with them was through sports. That connected me to so many different people in the city: football and basketball. With football, you spend so much time with each other. Saturday you're gone from daybreak until dusk. It's over. So I'm hearing stories. I've always been like the thinker, so these kids might be like, "Man, Dashonda trying to get with me and I'm not trying to mess with her unless she give me head" and saying stuff like that. For me, I would be ten years old like, "Damn, has he been abused before? Why's he having sex this early?" because I'm listening to my parents and the conversations they're having. My father was also a foster care worker so I saw the other side. I used to ride around with him in Latrobe projects. So constantly hearing stories about kids and you get to know so many people, they personify the environment. Like when [Ta-Nehisi] Coates wrote about how the boys were scared. They were scared, that's why they did everything they did. That hit me so hard. That was you know, everything I couldn't articulate that young but I knew it. Without football, I would've just been that sheltered kid who never dealt with anybody like that. Football put me around so many different people.

CP: One of the things that really stands out in your work is how you capture how people talk. Characters pop out of the poems. It seems like some of those voices are probably some of these kids you were playing sports with and kids like them.

TT: Absolutely. Those voices are me dealing with the people in my life. All these different people I met and meet and then trying to give them voice and how they talk. Bringing different languages and being able to put that into poetry. And then a kid picks that book up and he's got all these voices, even if that kid's never left his block, he's looking at the world through a peephole because of language and with poetry he can see it's a whole world out here. Like my best friend is a die hard hooper. We talk about stuff you know, but I can't run up on him like, "Oh, this Howard Zinn" and he might get into it but it's not the same. I'm not forcing that conversation, if we go there we go there. Poetry doesn't force the conversation.

CP: How has your religion influenced your poetry?

TT: There's another like super super orthodox side of me and my family and my community, and I've tried my hardest to merge that to be who I am. In writing, I'm always trying to provide some kind of moral compass. I hope that whatever I write, it helps people think differently about the world. Like that might be religious tenet for me, but for you that might just be a principle you have. I try not to press it that hard because I feel like we're in a day and age in which there's so much information available for everybody that it's really going to come down to the dealings with people. If you want to know about Islam, you can look on the Internet and find everything, but the best way for people to find out about Muslims, and all the different types of Muslims there are, is through communication and writing. It's tough, too, because I write a lot of revolutionary stuff and that's scary as well because the kickback from that puts you in the box of being a problem. That's a whole other issue, and I'm going to say what I'm going to say regardless.

CP: The anti-Muslim sentiment that courses through American discourse, on the left and the right, creates real-world or maybe real-er world consequences for you. It's not just the Internet trolls or critics but it jumps real quick to concerns of national security.

TT: Right. So like, my wife's family. They stayed in Yemen for a while which is like a regular place, they're just there to pray and worship and keep it moving. But you get that on your passport and it's a wrap. So my wife has that and then things I may say about the state. I think me being Muslim, I have to be very careful of how I'm critical. Like I went to a rally and I talked about the state of things and I asked, "What are you gonna do about it?" and I left them with that and a brother there was like, "You can't just say that." Basically like, suggesting extremism. Like the things that are ascribed to Islam, just asking, "what are you gonna do" easily reads as inciting people. But Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, he was a truth-teller so how can I not tell you exactly what's up? They're gonna kick down your door for nothing.

CP: How has having a family informed your poetry?

TT: So it feels like cliché right, to say you suffer from depression? I don't know what to call it, but whatever I suffer from, whatever melancholic moments that happen, but even then I cannot be apathetic with my wife and child. It just doesn't work. I go home to a wife and a child and I can't have my daughter turn 18 like "Dad what you been doing?" What grounds me in my writing and a lot of like emotions is my family. I can't be apathetic. Some people like, crack the world, some people put a dent in it, but it's your job to be kicking it. To put a boot in it. I look at how hard my wife is grinding and I look at myself and there's no way I cannot match her hard work and I couldn't not put forth some sort of effort. It's a blessing because for those who don't have children, it's so easy to be apathetic. My friends are like, "Yo you're trapped," and I'm like, "Yo you have no idea." The pianist is who he is because of discipline.

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