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Imani Tolliver

Years: 1997, 1999, 2003


Imani Tolliver is a poet, artist, and educator. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and served as Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center. Tolliver is a recipient of the Avest Award for Literary Arts, the Howard University John J. Wright Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has also been recognized by the City of Los Angeles for her work as a promoter, host, and publicist in support of the literary arts in Southern California.  Her collection of poetry is entitled Runaway: A Memoir in Verse.


these hands


my mother said my hair was like moss

difficult to comb into the pillow

at the crown of my head

she melted it fine

and pulled, pulled it free from itself

thousands of nooses without the knots


i cut the nooses free

gathered and twisted and curled and colored the knots

the forbidden, the embarrassing

the backdoor, the kitchen

into sun, agate, dark rum, fizzy mexican coca-cola

and north african oil with herbs at the bottom of wide

dolloped vases of warm glass,

beginning as teardrops

fallen now


i took the stories that made me

out of the scream of my arrival

the vinyl and chrome couch of 1977

in front of the six million dollar man

and the bad news bears

the girl, the mushroom, tiny, hiding

hooded thing that i was

touched i was, in the worst ways

eating tears, eating doughnuts,

eating anything that would fill me


into someone larger than i could imagine

into someone strong

into backbone and healer

into the visitor who would tell you

all about yourself and herself too

into this body without children

except the one i hold close between my breasts

that i screamed into making

scream from between the lips that suffered

from between the lips that would not speak

the lips tasted by the lips

that would taste hers


scream, scream, scream


now, these lips curved, plentiful

tell and tell and tell

they were told to shut up long ago


the voice box

the brown and red voice box

that came from two brown necks

and two before that

was called a white girl

an oreo


who you tryin’ to be, anyway?


they told me the color of my voice

before i knew the language to fight back

they told me i wasn’t one of them

far from who i thought i was


white girl

white girl

you tryin’ to be a white girl


but all i knew was my mother’s tongue

all i knew came from the alice in wonderland records

that taught me how to read


i tried to abandon

national geographics and dictionaries

pippi and the mysteries and the magazines

for a language that was more acceptable

my mother tongue was a tattoo that i modified

but never abandoned


i read aloud

listening to the nuances i’ve created

the resonance that burnishes the girl voice

with tobacco and time

rum and crying

into this voice you hear now

that sings when no one’s looking

to jesus and lovers i trust


i am looking below my knees now

and there are scars

i have decided

to turn the clusters and stripes

into constellations

i will have the scars

no, the stars make an order

something larger than me or my shins

into orion, zeus, mars and leo


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


perhaps you will be as proud as i

when a new friend remarks to your mother


you gave birth to imani?


no, she gave birth to herself.