“We Need To Be Able To Exist in our Fullness and Wholeness”: An Interview with Mariah M.

The “Not Abandon, but Abide” interview series is dedicated to Southern poets abiding by hope in the South. Their poetry actively resists the notion that we all co-sign the actions of the monoculture.

Though I edit things and gather writers and celebrate books, I’m not an organizer in the way that Mariah M. is an organizer. I wanted to share the project they co-founded, SaltWater Sojourn, with those who don’t know of the collective or its artist-activists, and to celebrate this work with those who do. In a broader sense, I also needed to begin this interview series of women and genderqueer poets of the South with Mariah M.’s insights.

Mariah M. resides in North Carolina by way of the second Great Migration. They are a 2017 Emergent Poet Fellow of the National Poetry Foundation and Crescendo Literary as well as a Watering Hole Fellow (c. 2017, 2019). They are the founder and former Program Director of BlackSpace Poetry, a youth poetry program based in Durham and Chapel Hill from 2016 to 2019. Mariah M. shows up in community as a creative, a cultural and political organizer, and as a teaching artist in poetry, the spoken word and performance. This interview took place over Zoom in September 2022.

What would you want someone who’s just meeting you to know about you as an artist and a practicing poet?

As Audre Lorde said, “poetry is not a luxury.” That’s what comes to me in terms of how I see myself as an artist who is also an organizer, who is striving to incorporate being an abolitionist in all that I do. So if I’m talking with someone, I hope they might say, “this person understands and knows the importance of art and its contribution to shifting culture and movements, and believes in its power to do so.”

How did you get to that place where you started organizing alongside your creative work?

Those two worlds were separate for me for a long time. I’ve been organizing for upwards of 10 years now. But I’ve been an artist since I realized that what I was doing was “creative writing.” It’s been a process of figuring out how to balance – no, not even balance, but infuse – those two worlds. When I started the poetry program at this Black maker space in Durham called BlackSpace, I was creating the space I wanted for myself when I was younger in terms of being a creative and wanting to write and create without expectation, or perception of the white gaze or any capitalist gaze, but to create for creation’s sake. And then again, being rendered as an organizer, it’s like, well, of course everybody should be able to create for creation’s sake, but also, what is your role as an artist and in terms of the collective? To be an artist is not an individualistic thing. I don’t know if that’s understood to people who consider themselves artists, or wholly understood.

I agree with that, I think the largely patriarchal and white idea of the artist as individual continues to infuse how creatives think of themselves in a really damaging way. You have written that you started SaltWater Sojourn with artists who are in community with you, but how did you meet them? Was it through the programming you were doing at BlackSpace or was it just around your local area in the Carolinas?

Destiny Hemphill [a former member] was on the Duke spoken word team, and I co-founded a spoken word and service organization on the UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus called The Rejects, now dissolved into the UNC Wordsmiths. I’m super fortunate to be able to call Toshi Reagon a collaborator and to be able to create with them. We were invited to participate in some programming that they was doing in Durham in 2019. Later, the three other members of SaltWater Sojourn came into view. I met Brianna Daniels in an organizing space, at Emergent Strategies II, in Durham. I met another current member, kiki nicole, at the Watering Hole, a writing retreat and space exclusively for BIPOC writers based in the South. I’ve known adé [oni] because we both lived in Durham and I’ve deeply admired their work in soundscapes, noisemaking, and textile creation. 

I don’t mean to invite myself or anyone into that space, but for those who weren’t at this year’s event, Revival of the Seers, what would they see? Was it mostly just talking about poetry? Working on collaborative projects together? Was there an organizing focus to it?

Yeah, literally, none of that! The purpose of Revival of the Seers was to gather artists and cultural organizers to practice our divine right to rest! Part of the reason why I wanted to hold this space was because cultural organizers often just go unrecognized. A difficult part of the organizing landscape – the way I like to refer to it to have people understand – is that political organizing’s goal is to build power that is required for the change we want to see, while cultural organizers are responsible for curating our communities, and fortifying and cultivating them to be able to shape change. Both are necessary and essential to creating the future we want for ourselves. How I move as a cultural organizer focuses on the people who are creating the spaces that we need to be able to exist in our fullness and wholeness.

Since this series is about women and genderqueer poets living in the South, I was wondering if you could speak to the role that place has in your work, if it has one?

For context, I’m a queer, nonbinary, Black woman writer based in the South. My work is that because that’s who I am, there’s no other no other qualifiers or requirements necessary, outside of being who I am and creating what and where I do. And yet to exist in a Black queer body is already a radical act, but to do so in the South is defiant and dangerous. For me it’s like, what is our responsibility as artists when creating for creation’s sake is what everybody should be able to do? There’s just a responsibility. I particularly believe that creating is something all artists have to do and something that Black creatives and Black queer creatives have never had the luxury to not be able to consider.

Are collaboration and working across disciplines important to you? Your resume includes a lot of different projects in different spaces and a lot of collaborative work. How does collaboration function in your work?

Working as a collaborator is me just practicing how I would like to exist, in community. If part of what I understand my role to be as an artist is to make connections and nurture communities and help fortify communities then, for me, that looks like finding where those people are, working with them, and finding where those spaces exist to be able to be in collaboration. That was a big part of Revival of the Seers, finding like-minded creatives and artists and cultural organizers who understand not only the transformative power of art, but also the implications of art centered in community and what can be the outcome of that reality.

I’m currently working with North Carolina Central [University] to do some data collection where we’re getting feedback from artists and creatives who may or may incorporate advocacy in their work as an artist. We ask, what would that look like? If you have done it, what does it look like? And if you haven’t, what do you think it looks like? And we’re also getting information about how those particular people understand health and health outcomes. Mainly because the way funding works, donors need to verify what the people already in the space already know.

For me, as an abolitionist, I understand health to be pretty much in any facet of our lives, as an example, it’s actually not healthy to try to exist in a capitalistic society and be a creative because nothing about creativity fits a capitalistic mold. There is no job that you can hold at minimum wage and work full time and afford to live by yourself. Part of the goal also for that survey is to ask folks how they understand health outside of a medical industrial complex, with the hopes that once they see it, they will support more creative spaces, healthy spaces for artists, creatives, cultural organizers, and community.

I feel like I’m starting to understand some of what you might mean when you talk about ‘worldbuilding.’ From what I have read of your work, it seems that you do some interrogation of violence. You confront annihilation or conditions that necessitate shapeshifting. How do you handle being in that mental and emotional space? Is this a kind of processing work?

It’s definitely in part processing, or writing myself into life. It’s definitely labor. Honestly, it’s me also naming it too – not necessarily to give it power, but to give other people points of reference, of saying, “I know y’all are experiencing this” and then talking about it. That doesn’t give it power, but it gives us access to more tools to be able to combat violence. Not to reference the proud TERF, but what she did get right in Harry Potter was the idea of not naming something. When we don’t talk about things, that makes the insidiousness stronger. Violence can attack and destroy covertly when not named.

Do you feel like some of the writing you do you are striving for joy that you do is a counteraction to violence? Or, what role does joy play?

Joy is another divine right, I feel, for Black people, and who are not indigenous to this land because were either kidnapped or migrated because U.S. imperialism damaged us elsewhere. The closer you are to violence, the less likely you are to be affected by it. So people migrate to the U.S. so as not to worry about foreign imperialism, just homegrown [imperialism], which isn’t necessarily better. But again, it’s like you have a closer eye to be able to move and work under it.

Could you talk more about the idea of joy as a divine right for Black and queer people? 

When I say something is a divine right, I mean something that was purposely stripped away for the purpose of manipulation and control. The divine right to be able to access joy is not something that that again, any of the systems that we operate under want us to be able to do. Rest is not something that have been afforded to Black folks in this nation. Pretty much anywhere that imperialism and colonial has touched has not been access [joy], so to be able to feed and tap into not only your higher self but to be able to exist in your body and, honestly, do justice to your lineage as a Black person living in the United States. 

Are any messages you want to get out and about creativity or community in the South? I don’t face as many barriers or as much violence, but I do feel like a tightening of control in the South that is very troubling to me.

I can talk about North Carolina in particular. North Carolina has always been like a hotbed for stripping away rights, in part because of the Bible Belt, but also because that’s where a lot of public radicalizing of people [has been]. We have to call it here because it’s historically popped up [here]. [For other regions in the South] it’s like, “oh, North Carolina did that, we’re going to do it, too.” And they may not have the well-publicized traditions of rebelling against systems that do not serve them.

In the South, I feel that the levels of [what you need to do to] survive are a bit more. You can’t NOT be creative living in the South, especially the Bible Belt South.

What are you working on creatively right now? I’ve read that you’re reading, writing, and resting. Do you have a project you’re working on, or are you seeing what happens during this time?

Right now SaltWater is in the process of securing more funding to do more programming. Personally, I’m always trying to bridge the worlds of organizing and art and advocacy, and I’m working on an initiative named The FAE Project, which stands for Freedom through Arts and Education. I’m designing trainings for artists and potential teaching artist to fold political education into their craft workshops, offering them the political foundation to be able to move with social consciousness as an artist moving forward. The overall goal is to be able to have an ecosystem of artists able to teach their crafts with a grounding in the political framework of the Black, queer, feminist, and abolitionist lens, and to have a hub of people to draw upon for programming.

I can’t wait to see that. Thank you, Mariah M. Reader, you can help bring her vision to fruition by funding SaltWater Sojourn.

Author Photo: Love Önwa Photography