Words stacked on words stacked on bodies stacked on memories stacked on history stacked on truth stacked on realness stacked on you, me, she, we; Mercy L. Tullis-Bukhari carries us to crossroads where we confront identity and construct new ideas about cara y cabello. She speaks sinewy through a boisterous beating heart and a lashing Latina tongue. She is conquering antiquated conventions with her words; she is reconstructing the Latina through her sounds. Smoke, the title of her poetry collection, summons jazz and salsa clubs of New York City, voices and skin color, smoke signals, confusion, misrepresentations, misplacement, magic, caldrons, ceremony, churning and burning, fire-wood-tree-nature. (See the real reason below.)
It’s impossible to take the Latina or the Bronx from Mercy L. Tullis-Bukhari. Don’t even try, it would be like removing her from her. It’s never more prominent than when you hear her speak either through the page or through her charming, girlish smile. Via amalgams, she brews a stew that doesn’t lack sabor nor rhythm, color, stroke, incantation, song, or sun, moon, and star. Her words dance; swirl skirts and twirl on high heels. Accompanied by live music, she provokes her listeners into movement of the mind, of the soul, to the tip of the toe.
She speaks to the female. She speaks about female. She speaks about what she knows-woman-ess, interweaving her stories with first-hand accounts; she is documenting the traces of her, of the multiple her. The hair and skin complex(tion) brought to the forefront, she battles social labels. Compiling a list of comments and questions she’s heard over the years, she confronts the identity others have superimposed upon her; this allows herself to surface among the smoke. A Plathesque phoenix rising; a Clifton homage to body parts. An incarnate of her poetry; she is a model of Honduran-American proportions, she tells the story of her and the hers before her. She is ubiquitous female energy.
Tullis-Bukhari insists we listen. And it’s impossible not to, with drum beats and poignant words, we are invoked. Through well-coifed dreadlocks and radiance, we cannot look away. All the while, a toothy smile. Her words bustle; the buzzing means she has permeated a pore on the body. It is her gift of speaking volumes with little; her staccato style reflects shards of her identity, her experience, her life. If we retrace her steps, her veins, her tendrils we will, no doubt, encounter something both organic and supernatural. It is not just her femaleness or her culture that gives her a fullness, although both play a large part in her art, but her ability to pluck a chord in others. She talks to her by being her. And by being her she shows the multitudes of mother, lover, girl, and woman.
Culture Designers had the pleasure of getting to know her.
CD: Why the title Smoke?
TB: An event happens, and the intensity of that event as it happens feels overwhelming, strong, sometimes poisonous and other times invigorating. That initial emotion eventually reforms into a new entity—still existing in our consciousness but transforming throughout our personality. That event infiltrates how we see ourselves, our surroundings, our universe.
Thus, the title, SMOKE. Like smoke itself, how we see the initial puff, at the moment of its exit, will change in its future moment—always existing in the air, always transforming. This book of poems exudes puffs of honest, raw tales that—in its transformed state—inflict pain, educate survival, and force growth.
CD: What are your favorite sounds of the Bronx?
TB: Open hydrants, and the kids playing with the water. Cars speeding by blasting Hip Hop, or Salsa, or Merengue. Folks talking English with the Bronx accents and Spanish spoken with English influence. Children just playing. Always playing. Always outside just playing, just hangin’.
CD: What are your favorite sounds of Honduras?
TB: “¡PAN DE COCO!” Garifuna women with rags wrapped around their heads and huge baskets that were the size of baby bathtubs, carrying warm bread made with coconut milk wrapped in manteles. Some of these women have a baby wrapped around their waists. They would walk around la playa, el pueblo, through las coloñias, yelling “¡Pan de coco! ¡pan de coco!.”
My grandmother’s friends, sitting on our porch, bonchinchando in their native language, Garifuna. I was never taught the language, so it always sounded so foreign, so African. And my grandmother was always most comfortable speaking Garifuna with her friends. From our porch, I heard laughter, I heard African, I heard Spanish, and I heard more laughter.
We lived by the beach, so I actually heard the palm leaves brushing against each other because of the beach breezes. Hearing the palm leaves and feeling the beach breezes were always meditative.
CD: How do you imagine poetry?
TB: Poetry is a stream of consciousness that even if you don’t get it when you are reading it, you enjoy the release of your present reality. Poetry allows you to get on this out-of-this-world ride of rainbows in hell, and enjoy that ride so much that you want to go back for more.
CD: Where do you get inspiration?
TB: Everywhere. Literally. Television, other people works, orgasms, pop culture, being married, my children, the cute guy I saw mopping the floor at my local Starbucks, my childhood experiences, my friends…
CD: As a female, give one piece of advice to other females.
TB: Love your pussy.
Honor your vulva, clitoris, and vagina.
CD: As a mother, give one piece of advice to other mothers.
TB: My one piece of advice: You will get inundated with advice by everyone, as to what you should do and who you need to be as a mother. Fuck all the advice. Let me explain…
Technology is straying us away from our instincts and people always want to give unsolicited advice. Be in tune with your instincts. You are the expert of your child, more so than your child’s doctor, than your mother/mother-in-law, and definitely more so than that old woman who feels is an expert in child rearing even though she has not raised a child in at least thirty years. You are the end and the beginning. Really, no one will look at all the people who gave you unsolicited advice; everyone will look at you, and you will be the one living with your decisions. Of course, humble yourself and ask for advice, but don’t let unsolicited advice and the internet be the ultimate decisions on what you should do with your child. Be in touch with your instincts and use your instincts as your ultimate guide.
Tullis-Bukhari is a healer. She makes a potion of words and sounds, gently stirs, then flicks her tongue. Perhaps not always so temperate; she shakes up storms in severe situations. Nonetheless, Tullis-Bukhari, albeit young, has the spirit of a thousand grandmothers roaming her bones. The amulet she wears intangible; it is within and around. It is a light. The resolve a shiny piece of saliva dangling from her mouth as she dreams her next poem; listen to the ancestral howl.
Take a deep dive into her work and world here:
WORDS BY Jacklyn Janeksela
FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH BY Marcia Wilson