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The Spiritual Lives of Poems: A Craft Talk by Malcolm Tariq

This craft talk was originally featured in SER's Writer's Regimen: Your daily does of inspiration for the month of June.

Have I ever believed in writer's block? Even now, having not written anything substantial for quite a while, I say, What a relief. More than ever, I am leaning on the words of Zora Neale Hurston from her seminal 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

I have never been a person who writes every day, at least not in the sense of putting words down. Surely, I am writing in my head so much of the time. I see poetry on the subway platform. I think, That’s a good line. I interrupt a friend mid-sentence, “That’s the title of a poem!” And just as the thought comes, it leaves me. Usually, I am not upset at this.

Not writing, nor standing knee-deep in any specific project, has been a lesson in patience. It’s a lesson in control, of realizing that poems have lives of their own that I am helping to bring into existence. It’s about more than trusting the process; it’s about trusting the poem.

Not long after Emory University acquired the papers of Lucille Clifton, I got a chance to look through some boxes of the collection. Included in that archive, is what Clifton called her “spirit writings.” Studying this aspect of Clifton’s artistry, Marina Magloire says that this practice commenced in 1976 after the poet and her children were playing with an Ouija board that spelled out her deceased mother’s name. These writings are vast and so very interesting. But for any reader of Clifton’s work, her spirit writings should come as no surprise.

Some of these writings are scrawling lines of script on long sheets of paper. From what I remember, it almost looked like a type of calligraphy, with some words clear and others illegible. If they are even words at all. I imagine Clifton sitting at a wide table, allowing spirits to guide her and the pen. I imagine her giving over her authority to this process, calling in her ancestors and anyone else in need of an outlet to the physical world.

I’ve thought about these papers for years, mostly because I am fascinated by such rituals. I have come to realize that Clifton’s practice is a guide for me in abandoning, even briefly, the control I want to have over the process of writing. When I sit to write, I try to be cautious of getting in my own way of what is penned to the page. The goal is not perfection, but to empty the head, to make more tangible that which is trapped inside.

As a writer—as a Black writer—it has become important for me to have a poetic practice that is rooted in spirituality. That means whatever makes sense for me. Sometimes, it means acknowledging that there are ancestors guiding me through the world. Other times, it means connecting with other forms of life—flowers and towering trees. The tiny bird at work outside my window. Whatever it is, listening to the spiritual needs of the poem helps me become more accountable to the world in which I live and the space the poem occupies within it. When I let go and allow myself to be guided to words, I encounter whatever it is I think I have been looking for. If I am constantly looking for answers, I lose sight of the questions they require. I lose sight of the things that really matter.

It’s been said before, which I believe, that the writing is in the editing. But what if the writing is in the interpretation? It’s helpful to think of a first draft as a transcription, from mind to page. Whatever ideas and fragments that come through in that draft begin to shape the poem enough that it begins to speak back, revealing more and more of itself. When a poem responds, I hear what it needs to survive me. If I am successful, I will learn from it constantly. 

When the poem stops speaking long enough, it’s ready to experience the world on its own. But that doesn’t mean the poem is done with me. As of this writing, it’s been three years since my first book, Heed the Hollow, was published. Poems from that collection are still speaking to me. This happens most often when I’m reading from the book publicly. In the same way that we change and evolve as people, so does our relationship to our art darlings. What a gift to find new meaning in words and lines written by a previous version of myself.


MALCOLM TARIQ is a poet and playwright from Savannah, Georgia. He is the author of Heed the Hollow (Graywolf, 2020), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the 2020 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry, and Extended Play (Gertrude Press, 2017). He was a 2016-2017 playwriting apprentice at Horizon Theatre Company and a 2020-2021 resident playwright with Liberation Theatre Company. A graduate of Emory University, Malcolm holds a PhD in English from the University of Michigan. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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