Walidah Imarisha envisioned a full length poetry book, "Scars/Stars", over a decade ago. Since then, she has been all across the country, doing justice work, documenting her experiences.
Much of Imarisha's work is poetic journalism. It's not just about transferring facts and information; she gives her readers visceral images and experiences.
"I think that's what really good journalism does," she says. "It makes you feel it. It's not just imparting information but you feel the emotions."
For example, she based "Wade in the Water" on her Hurricane Katrina documentary, "Finding Common Ground in New Orleans."
"Muddied rings still stain
the waists of houses.
Bodies of rotting dogs
in the stilted Louisiana sun.
In a town an hour outside of New Orleans
corpses were unearthed
from their graves,
set free to float down the street."
The name "Scars/Stars," was inspired by Toni Morrison's "Beloved." Morrison wrote that the scars on a formers slave's back formed a tree.
This image has stuck with Imarisha all of her adult life. It's a reminder that beautiful things can grow from even ravaged earth.
With her book, she hopes to turn our collective scars into northern lights, an allusion to the north stars that slaves used to escape to freedom. She hopes that shining a light on hers will encourage others to do the same.
"We can take these scars and turn them into north stars to help guide others on their path but we can only do that if we're brave enough to show our scars and admit that we have them," says Imarisha. "What I hope that folks take away is that the scars that we carry can be beautiful and they are proof that we survived and that we are still here."
"Scars/Stars" covers a bevy of subjects, including police brutality, graffiti writing, abortion and political prisoners.
"There's no scar that's the same and our scars make us individual and beautiful," says Imarisha.
When she lived in Philadelphia, she would visit political prisoner Sundiata Acoli every month for a period of six years.
She detailed one visit in "Coffee and No Cigarettes."
"Watch the families
Watch the sun rise
as their loved one enters.
Hugs and long stolen kisses
under harsh fluorescent lights,
harsher eyes of guards
who must count in their heads
'One one thousand
two one thousand
three one thousand--
All right, break it up.'
the door opens
and Sundiata walks out,
all 5'7 of him
(which he believes to be 5'9).
His face stern
his eyes drink in the room
in a second,
who is there,
the guards' positions.
Every day survival.
His eyes fall on you,
his wide welcome home smile
splits his face,
a watermelon chopped open
on a hot summer day."
Imarisha and Acoli go on to discuss everything from nicotine to Acoli's life as a NASA mathematician. Acoli purposely avoids discussion of beatings and cold midnight cell bunks out of concern for Imarisha's emotional well-being.
"The process is so routine," says Imarisha. "The horrific is normalized. I realized, talking to people—people had no conception of what it's like even to go through processing just to see someone. Let alone, to go see political prisoners."
Although she is also well known for her creative nonfiction, scholarly essays and science fiction writing, poetry is Imarisha's first love.
Nationally known as the "Bad Sista," she has performed across the country with Turiya Autry in the spoken word duo Good Sista/Bad Sista. Imarisha's work has also been published in a number of chapbooks, websites and publications.
Poetry is her emotional first reaction to everything. It's how she processes the world.
"A lot of the damage folks do to themselves is not having an outlet for the pain and the rage that comes from living, specifically as an oppressed person in this world," says Imarisha.
"For me, poetry is that outlet to externalize the hurt and the pain and to try to organize it in some way that I can pull something beautiful out of something terrible."
For more information on "Scars/Stars," go to the book's Facebook page.