Cheryl Boyce Taylor: The Mother Tongue
Finding your place in a new society is always jarring. For poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor, staying connected to her native culture kept her grounded.
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is a celebrated poet who writes narrative verse in her native Trinidadian dialect.
Boyce-Taylor moved from Trinidad to Queens, NY, at age 13. She earned a masters in social work from Fordham University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Southern Maine. She released her debut collection of poetry, Raw Air, in 2000; her fourth collection, Arrival (2017), was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize. She also wrote the text for Water (1999), a dance piece by Ronald K. Brown Evidence.
The founder and curator of Calypso Muse and the Glitter Pomegranate Performance Series, Boyce-Taylor is also a poetry judge for the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. She won the 2015 Barnes Noble Writers For Writers Award.
In 2021 Boyce-Taylor published the verse memoir Mama Phife Represents, a tribute to her late son, rapper Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest. Her papers are stored at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
A long white space
with blue dots and orange lines
a wide winter space
for hummingbird sounds
and steel pan pounds.
a wide space turned out
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor has been a pillar of the New York poetry scene since the 1970s, when, as an ambitious twenty-something, she first took the stage at legendary venues such as The Nuyorican Poets Café. In the half-century since, she’s carried the torch for dialectic poetry in four books and countless workshops. And despite being oft overlooked in the mainstream, Boyce Taylor has had a truly profound impact on poetry.
But when a 13-year-old Cheryl Boyce-Taylor arrived at her aunt’s house in Queens, New York from the island of Trinidad, it was not as the powerful writer she is today, but as a child with a lot of changes to adapt to all at once.
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: I’m seeing this sunshine outside and I’m saying, “That’s not true. I don’t have to wear a coat.” And I get outside without a coat, and it is very cold. So that’s the first physical shock to my body. And I realize I’m without my mother—this woman who kept me so close and cuddled me. Although my aunt was the most wonderful person, she didn’t know that cuddling. She didn’t know what to do with a young teenaged daughter. In the meantime, right before I left Trinidad, two boys had kissed me, the night before I was leaving, as to say goodbye. They were 14. And so here was all of this new transformation happening, and I didn’t know how to process those things. Being a Caribbean family, they really don’t talk to you about anything sexual to prepare you. And here I am, budding. I had just gotten this new bra. I had just gotten these new heels and stockings to come to New York. Literally, my life was transforming, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to. So I wrote my mother letters every day, wanting to come back home, and I couldn’t tell my aunt. I believed that, in my 13-year-old mind, that she was doing us a big favor. I knew that she was. She was buying clothing, and she was doing us a big favor and how ungrateful I would be to be telling her, “I don’t want to be here. I want to go back to my mother.” So I had to hold all those things inside. So it was a physical transformation, as well as emotional—and spiritual, too.
AJC: The fact that you had to go through that, do you think that is what gave you your power? Gave you your energy?
Boyce-Taylor: I think that that is what gave me my power, knowing that I did not want to let my mother down. I did not want to hurt my aunt’s feelings. I had to paddle through this somehow.
Boyce-Taylor put everything she couldn’t say at home into writing, first finding a place in the flourishing New York poetry scene, and then reconnecting with home.
Boyce-Taylor: My poetry was really welcomed in the New York community, with the Nuyorican Poets Café, and all of those things. Now, I’m in my early twenties and I’m doing this reading here, giving this workshop there. But what I’m missing is the Caribbean voice. And I’m saying to myself, “I’m loving this, but where’s my Caribbean people?” And so I form an organization called Calypso Muse, in search of Caribbean voices, because that was so missing in my life. And I think that that was the thing that drove me to create family, and I was always looking for the comfort of my Caribbean people.
Boyce-Taylor: Because I love that dialect. I love that history. Being taken away… When I was in Trinidad, I took so much for granted. Coming to New York, and looking at television, and not seeing myself represented, I began to love the Calypso and appreciate it. It was something I took for granted. The Carnival and the costumes, my grandmother cooking on a coal stove, you know, on rocks outside. All of those things became important to me, and I knew I had to document that for my survival.
ah say ah have a yearning
for nite tepid breeze
big fat moon dat eh fraid yu
big moon shining
like meh neighbor Merle face
oh god ah yearning
for mango dou douce
sticky and sweet
for melongen curry cabbage
and blue dasheen
AJC: Have you thought about legacy at all? Is it important to you? Do you ever think about how people will regard you when you’re no longer here? Or does it matter to you?
Boyce-Taylor: Yes, I mean, a lot of times when I write, I think about legacy. I don’t know if we will have poets reading in Trinidadian dialect in 20 years, but you will have my work.
AJC: Will Trinidadians care about your work, even, in 20 years?
Boyce-Taylor: (nods) But not a lot of poets are doing work in dialect. Now, one of the things that made me want that so much is because there’s a whole Canadian group of poets that write in dialect. In England, too.
Boyce-Taylor: The Black-British or the Caribbean-British poets. It’s very common, but it’s not as common here in the U.S. and that’s what made me start Calypso Muse. Because I felt that that was something we could not lose. And so I’ve spent the last 20 years talking to poets about keeping their dialect in their work. So my legacy is to keep that culture and that language alive. And those family stories. I’m a narrative poet, and so I write those narratives of my childhood. And my son has grown up to do the same thing.
Her son, Malik Izaak Taylor, was Phife Dawg of the genre-defining hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. He passed away in March of 2016 from diabetes-related complications. Through the heartache of grieving, Boyce-Taylor has continued moving forward, creating beautiful work for the future while never being afraid to examine the past.
AJC: Give your 20-year-old self the best piece of life advice you can.
Boyce-Taylor: Keep writing. Don’t be ashamed of some of the experiences that you’ve had. Put them out there. It may be embarrassing. It may cause people to move away from you. But that is your life. You cannot stay away from it. You cannot steer away from it. There’s so many gifts in being who you are and speaking your truth.
A yearning for voices ringing shrill, from B-flat to High C.
Bam! C roll in.
One hand on left hip,
The other flying, leaping in my face.
Oh gosh, a yearning.
Yearning, yearning, yearning.
Hungry, for my people.
For my people.
Hungry, for my people. For my people, for my people.