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Meet Imani Tolliver

Today we’d like to introduce you to Imani Tolliver.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Imani. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
My journey into the world of poetry began with a diary. As a preteen, the pages were filled with everyday occurrences; crushes and laments, mainly. As I grew older, the entries became more complex and also held visions of what I wanted my life to be.

As much as I wrote poetry, I didn’t identify as a poet yet. My poems didn’t rhyme. They didn’t have a prescribed form. They were free verse, personal, and told stories; unlike anything that I studied in school. Cautiously, I read from the pages of my journals to a few close friends but I hadn’t gone to a poetry reading, an open mic, or folded into a writing community. It would take years before I felt comfortable calling myself a poet.

Reading a collection of poems by Alice Walker was a breakthrough; finally, I saw myself and my voice reflected. She also wrote about social justice, women, and herself in a narrative style, without rhyme. Her poems were bridges, constructed to create paths of understanding between her and her readers. Ultimately, that became the intention of every word I wrote, then and now.

My quantum leap into the poetry community happened when I attended Howard University. Thousands of miles from home, I was in a new environment where I was encouraged to express myself freely and without censor. Asleep in my dorm room one night, I woke up suddenly, grabbed my journal and pen, and wrote the first line of a poem that would change my life, “I have been writing about all of the wrong things until now.”

In those early years, I wrote mainly about the trauma that I endured. That one line confirmed the work that had to be done; I would do that work through poetry. I wrote voraciously, read my work at open mics, and learned how to craft my poems at workshops. I wrote about myself, but my poems also had a feminist focus, exploring themes of social justice, human rights, and the environment. By the time I graduated from college, I was published, a WritersCorps creative writing instructor was awarded literary fellowships with the Folger Shakespeare Library and Cave Canem Foundation, and won the John J. Wright Literary Award. In the years following college, upon my return home to Los Angeles, my work has been published internationally, I served as the Poet Laureate for the Watts Towers Arts Center, received the Avest Award For Literary Arts, and was recognized by the City of Los Angeles for my work as a promoter, host, and publicist in support of the literary arts in Southern California. I have shared my work on countless stages. I curate and produce poetry performances. Recently, my book, Runaway: A Memoir in Verse was published by World Stage Press. I am currently working on a new book of poems, based on my experiences of growing up in Los Angeles.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It’s been hard-won, this journey. During my college years in the 90s, my topics weren’t commonly heard at open mics or poetry slams. But I had a voice that I kept silent for too long. In the words of Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you.” Encouraged by the words of Lorde, Michelle T. Clinton, and Sapphire, I kept writing and sharing my work. When I looked into the eyes of audience members who cried as I read or when I was pulled aside by someone who thanked me for writing a poem that spoke of their experiences too, I knew that despite my discomfort, I was on the right track. Even though I was often shaking as I read my poems — always grateful for a podium to hold onto, masking my quivering hands — I knew that my strength was in those pages.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I am known for writing transformative, courageous, and healing poems. The best way to illustrate my writing style is to share an excerpt from a poem that I wrote in celebration of Frida Kahlo;

Frida (excerpt)
“…you must speak
cough the ribbons of your tongue free
lick the flesh that calls you
ink fingertips when you cannot find a brush
walls when canvas is not nearby
put flowers in your hair
the big, gorgeous ones from your garden
wear the colors of your own flag
create when baffled
create when sorrowful
abandon the prickle of fear
and be of your own making
begin from deep, deep
feel the tremor
the push, the work root
the quaking blossom
of who you really are

let light
let you
be free”

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I believe in listening rather than luck; heeding the voices of Spirit and my ancestors, guiding me. As a descendant of Harriet Tubman, I know that our blood shares the same intention; an unwavering commitment to justice for our people, family, and all those we love. I am committed to the big work, taking the big chances, and telling the big truths. My voice, through poetry, creates a path of authenticity that I stand firmly upon every day. It anchors me. And for this, I am grateful.


Contact Info:

  • Website:
  • Email:
  • Instagram: @imanitolliver
  • Facebook: @ImaniTolliverPoet
  • Twitter: @imanitolliver

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