When Baltimore poet Mohamed Tall performed his poem, “Invisible Cage” at the 2017 Youth Poet Laureate Competition held at City Hall, he was a little nervous.
The poem is a critique of capitalism and makes reference to the fight to raise minimum wage. It was a fight that Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was in the audience, had backed out of after promising during the election, to raise minimum wage for city workers.
Tall read the poem aloud: “But God himself/ Ain’t never been dollar bill green/ I’ve seen politicians baptized in false dreams/ but I’ve been graced with sight keen/ enough to see past the facade…”
Despite warnings from some at the competition to skip that poem during his reading, he felt something telling him he had to perform it.
“I was thinking about Amiri Baraka in 2003 in New Jersey. He was the poet laureate and he spoke out about 9/11 attacks and the response to it,” he says, referring to the controversy surrounding Baraka reading “Somebody Blew Up America.”
“The New Jersey legislature called for him to either apologize for his statements or step down and he refused to do both,” Tall says. “And as a result they abolished the entire position. I was thinking about all those things. If I really believed that I’m standing in the shoes of these people then I have to stick to my guns.”
Tall, who is 21 and a Political Science major at Morgan State University, won the competition, earning himself the title of Baltimore City Youth Poet Laureate 2017. As part of the win, Dewmore Publishing put out a book of his poetry.
“Too Broke to Die,” his first book of poetry, was just released.
While Tall always wrote raps and poems, he got serious about it his junior year at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County and students and teachers there were encouraging of his work. His teacher introduced him to Baltimore poet Jacob Mayberry, who became a mentor. Mayberry connected him with the Baltimore City Youth Poetry team which put him in the direction of eventually competing in and winning the Youth Poet Laureate Competition.
Tall almost didn’t even compete in the contest. His mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and he didn’t know if he had it in him to perform.
“So when I won it, I just broke into tears,” he says.
Tall’s mother died in March of last year. The book is dedicated to her and opens with a poem about her. In the poem, “Aisha,” he writes about the pain he faced after her death and the obligation he feels to her to make her proud: “Oh mama,/ the girl got sunshine in between her smile/ when she walks the dandelions converge in song/ Am I worth singing about,” he writes. “Oh mama,/ I’m a wide awake nightmare/ Suffering the guilt survivors get/ I fought with you, for you..”
“The book’s title, “Too Broke to Die,” came from a conversation he was having with himself, about how most working people will never be able to afford to retire.
“I was just thinking about all of the people who continue to work and don’t even get to see retirement,” he says. “We are just too broke to die because only poor people are working to live.”
It’s another way Tall’s poetry explores the way money controls all of our lives and the way poverty can consume whole communities.
Another consistent theme in Tall’s book is his religion. The book is interspersed with selections from the Quran. His mother was key to shaping his identity as a Muslim as well. She taught him that Islam was his center, his home, even when the outside world was chaotic and crazy.
Tall says he knew he was Muslim even before he knew he was black.
“That came from my mom instilling those values,” he says. “Yeah, all these things happen in the outside world, but at the end of the day you have to be concerned with trying to preserve yourself and your soul and the good that exists within you. Islam is that thing for me…and the poetry is an extension of that.”
He says that he draws much of his inspiration from Muslim scholar and poet Rumi. “It’s a form of meditation. Poetry that could exist beyond time,” he says, describing Rumi’s work. “I look at a poet like Rumi and I say ‘Wow, if I connected with him I could have taken so much from him.’ Even just through reading his poems, I feel like there’s so much I’ve learned.”
In his poem, “Who will Come to Mohamed?” he writes, “The thorn in my side has been my own judgement,/ The pebble in my shoe is a product of my unforgiving nature./ Will God overlook my benevolence?/ Will I continue to deny the God in me?”
Tall graduates from Morgan this spring. In addition to writing and publicizing the book, he’s been busy learning more about poetry and leadership. In 2018, he was one of eight students accepted into the Benjamin A. Quarles Research Scholars program at Morgan, which gives participants a chance to research various aspects of the African-American legacy. It’s an extension of the kind of work he’s already done through his poetry.
“I’ve been doing research centered around black poets as documentarians and preservationists,” Tall says.
Two years after his performance of “Invisible Cage,” where he challenged Mayor Catherine Pugh, she’s on a leave of absence amid the “Healthy Holly” scandal and this morning, City Hall, her homes, her lawyers’ office, and elsewhere were raided by the FBI.
He once again used his words to comment, joking via Twitter, “idk if this is bad time, but…is city hall hiring?”
A release party for “Too Broke to Die” will be held at Morgan State University on April 26 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the James E. Lewis Museum of Fine Arts. Order the book here.