Khalisa Rae is one of those electrifying speakers you hear about. There’s just something riveting about her work on and off the page.
MM: A lot of your work deals with the tensions of Black life in the South, and that confrontation with history. What role do you feel the South plays in your work? Is it mostly a setting, or is it more of a character? What aspects of the writing tradition in the American South, Black or white, are you hoping to connect to with your work?
KR: For me, the South is a character that I love and hate at the same time. We have a very toxic relationship. I often use the South in my work as not only a place but an animate object. It is living and breathing. Doing harm, but also causing so much joy. The source of pain and pleasure. So at all times, I want to show the dichotomy because that’s what for so long the South was presented as: such a beautiful pastoral place, but also as the birthplace of so much trauma and pain for black folks. So that’s what I try to exemplify in my work.
The Southern writing tradition-specifically, the Black-Southern writing tradition-has used place and placemaking as one of the key aspects of how it establishes a contextual concreteness. For so long, the Southern writing tradition has also worked to speak to the marriage of religious tradition and identity and desire. I try to emulate this relationship, the stream between those two warring ideals. The South is constantly at odds with itself. So much rich, textured history of Black life, but at the same time a place of so much pain. There is writing for centuries about Black culture, family, love, home, yet all around people were trying to steal and rob us Black folks of things we held dear. Currently, so much activism and social justice work is being done through writing and speaking on ground that is stolen and the birthplace of genocide, and that shows up so much in my work and the work of other prominent Southern writers. My work calls back and is in conversation with Toni Morrison and Zora Neale, Gwendolyn, James Baldwin. Those that speak of generational curses, trauma, body, home/matriarchs, Blackness, tradition, and religion. My work speaks to Go Tell It on the Mountain, Beloved, the Bluest Eye, the Color Purple, and even my grandmother’s poetry and storytelling. My ancestors come from the deep south and so I have stories of pain and pleasure buried deep in the DNA of my lineage. The South in my work is a breathing person that wants to speak but is riddled with shame and guilt. At the same time it is alive, dancing, twirling, and swaying in the sun.
MM: You often invoke fantastical imagery: the mermaid, the ghost, the witch. What does the fantastical allow your poetry to do? What does it offer you as a poet, and specifically as a Black poet?
KR: First, it allows me to call back to my roots and ancestry. Traditionally, magical realism in Latin America was often used by writers like Garcia Marquez to tell the stories of those on the fringes of society, which inherently became a critique of political power and influential people. Magical realism in African American literature and the African griot tradition was used to tell the stories of people that were seen as lower-class, outcasts, and marginalized, and to call back to hoodoo, voodoo, and ancient traditions. In my work, I try to reimagine the Black woman and the Black male as something entirely new to create new narratives. For me, I am able to change the perception of what people think of Black people by making them an animal or spirit. At the same time, I use magic and the fantastical as a metaphor. The Black woman can be a mad blackbird and that allows me to use words like plumage and crown and helps the reader see a more vivid picture than if I said, body or head. The magic is a vehicle in which I can drive anywhere I want.
Oftentimes, the supernatural and the fantastical leans towards gothic, which is used to exhibit the discomfort and pain that Black people carry, or that haunting feeling that the South has. For me, magic and fantasy is escapism and allows me to move around in liminal spaces where the possibilities are endless. It adds whimsy to dark subject matters, and darkness to light. Many people see Black people as monolithic, but with fantasy or horror, I can paint those Black characters as multi-dimensional and spellbound entities that capture the reader’s attention. Other times Black women achieve otherwordly things and there is no other way to describe it but with magic. Lastly, our magic is far too often exploited, so for me, incorporating it into my work is a form of reclamation and preservation. We are appropriated, copied, and imitated, and it’s a way of making us shape-shifters- ever-moving, ever-evolving, so fast you can’t imitate. Today we are a white-wing dove, tomorrow we are a spirit or spell-bound wizard. Who knows what we will be next.
MM: In your work, one encounters very vivid descriptions and explorations of historical trauma on Black bodies. What are you trying to accomplish by these explorations? Is there healing that comes through poetry?
KR: Nic Stone recently talked about the dangers and trauma of bleeding on the page for the masses. Like her, I try to limit poems about Black pain just for the hell of it. I think that stories of our pain, sorrow, and brutalization are important, but they must be done with careful intention and with systems of support because it can be very triggering to relive those incidents of violence. However, because our country does such an awful job at educating us about our history, much of my work and many other Black poets use explorations of historical trauma as a curriculum, preservation of our history, a lesson, and education in the ways that the traditional educational system failed us. Because so many false narratives are being told about Black bodies, it is so crucial to tell the truth about what happens to us and the crimes that are committed against us. I think the true art is sharing the horror in a way that isn’t just trauma porn, but it’s art for a purpose. Written with Black folks in mind. I think the craft is still very important, and the execution as well.
Because oftentimes it is white readers that read my work, I hope to encourage my reader to contend and grapple with the vivid images, because I think it can serve as a conversation starter and a change motivator. These stories are change agents, but also are very cathartic. For me, it feels like freedom to purge the images and stories that haunt me. To release the things that make me angry and frustrated. I think about the authors that I respect, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neal, Chinua Achebe, James, so many others that spoke about violence but did it in a way that made me feel seen and made me feel less alone. I felt more connected to them through their careful depiction of violence and pain. That’s what I aim to do. To make Black folks feel seen, to validate the pain and horror we experience. To set free the demons that haunt us every day.
MM: You have a background as a spoken word poet, doing slams. What for you are the important differences between performing a poem and writing it? What are the important differences between performing a poem and publishing it?
KR: Performing a poem at a slam is instant high-gratification. You get the crowd’s immediate reaction, that rush of adrenaline, and the praise after. Lots of endorphins go into slam poetry. The anxiety of hearing the scores after you perform and the rush of excitement and validation when you receive the praise you think you deserved. With page poetry/ publishing… not so much. Haha. Page poetry is a waiting game. You really have no idea what the editor’s reaction to the piece was or what their feedback/critiques were, unless you pay extra for that, or specifically ask, and many of them are too busy to give each piece attention. So often it’s a crapshoot and a shot in the dark, in a different way than slam is a crapshoot, gambling game. Page poetry is really up to interpretation and when you publish, you are not getting instant praise or a slew of people cheering unless you market to wide audiences, win awards or prizes. In the same respect, the best slam poet doesn’t always win because the object of the game is entertainment. You are there to make 5 judges fall in love with you in 3 min. It’s about seduction and strategy to choose the piece that fits with what the audience craves at the moment. Page poetry is about drawing the reader in, sustaining their interest, keeping them engaged, and oftentimes showing off your technique and skill. Similar to slam in that you have to impress the reader and move them. The unfortunate thing about page poetry and publishing is that often isn’t enough. Similar to the chess game strategy of slam, in page poetry, you must be crafty with selection, research previous poems published by that magazine, and also write or select pieces that fit well with the aesthetic and brand of the location you are sending it to. Which oftentimes encourages a lot of readers to write for their audience and write with the location in mind. As for writing the tactics are different- page poetry is all about brevity, space, breath, openness, movement, fluidity. A lot of this comes from the notion that page poetry is about the things left “unsaid”, whereas slam is all about what you say and how you say it. In slam, your instrument is your voice. In page poetry, your instrument is the line. Both about breath, but in different ways. The line isn’t there in slam, so when writing your job is to entertain, there is room for call and response, for audience engagement, and conversation in a way that page poetry doesn’t allow. You also have 3 min, so there is much more room to capture the listener’s attention, and then of course you have body language, facial expression, and inflection/tone/mood/tamber to convey your message as well. So many things get lost in translation on the page, but I could listen to Franny Choi, Elizabeth Acevedo, Ross Gay, or Ada Limon read all day.
With page poetry, you are limited to the line, word choice, form, space, punctuation. Your toolbox is much different and you must wield it accordingly. I love slam because of the conversational nature of the poems and the beautiful wordplay, gut-punch metaphors, and gritty tones. I think page poetry so often is caught up in the formality and poets feel pressured to write FOR someone, instead of writing TO or WITH that they lose the magic. I have honestly been the most blown away by slam poetry. To listen to someone live in person, and the soul and fire in which they read just take it to another level. There’s freedom there, in a way that I think page poets like me have felt constrained. Both gorgeous genres with beautiful contrast. I love looking at the way someone stressed a word on the page by leaving it on a single line or at the end of the line, juxtaposed with a performance poet’s pause and inflection. It’s a really cool comparison to watch. The way short lines make you read faster. All the cool techniques page poets have designed to get the audience to read the way they need them to. Page is almost a marionette in a way, whereas slam is the actual theater/musical.
MM: In your poem, Reclaiming Our Phenomenal Bodies (or Bones? There are different titles on your website and the website it’s published on) you write about the power of women in their bodies, in their sex. It’s a celebration of women quite literally down to their bones. The sexual joy on display is very different from your poem on girlhood, “Tea Party At The Cemetery,” where you seem to be working out complicated feelings about gender roles. How did these two poems come to be, what’s their relationship to each other? Why is girlhood more fraught and problematic than womanhood? Or is it?
KR: The two poems have no obvious relationship at first glance. The first poem, Reclaiming our Phenomenal Bones is written in response to Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Women about the power Black women hold and not apologizing for how powerful we are. The poem calls out for us to remember who we are because it is a world that constantly tried to hold us down, oppress, silence, and erase us. It is really easy to forget.
“Tea Party at the Cemetery” is about childhood sexual trauma and me being a teen dying to go to college to move away from the trauma I was experiencing, but also the shame-filled, sheltered, smothering environment. I was ready to escape and the poem talks about all the horrific memories I left back in my room in Indiana. When you look at these two pieces side by side though, they are almost the great aunt talking to the young adult that just became a woman. Becoming a woman is scary and “Phenomenal Bones” speaks to the young girl in “Tea Party” about knowing our worth and value and rising from that pain and trauma. “Phenomenal” also speaks to what was lost- the power, the voice, the dignity, worth, autonomy, and ways to reclaim it. “Phenomenal” is like: in case you forgot, let me talk my shit. I wanted to mimic the same confidence and pride that “Phenomenal Woman” had.
“Tea Party” is about the fact that we silence sexual assault and abuse far too often in the Black community and we need to voice it and discuss it far more. We also teach women to play nice and be proper, and not get angry, yet so much violence and crimes are committed against us, how could we not be angry? So all of that silence that was trapped in that room somehow explodes through “Phenomenal”. “Phenomenal” gives the little girl permission to leave that pain behind and walk into a new place of boldness and freedom.
Khalisa Rae is a poet and journalist in Durham, NC that speaks with furious rebellion. She is the author of Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat (Red Hen Press 2021). Her essays are featured in Autostraddle, Catapult, LitHub, as well as articles in B*tch Media, NBC-BLK, and others. Her poetry appears in Frontier Poetry, Florida Review, Rust & Moth, PANK, Hellebore, Sundog Lit, HOBART, among countless others. She is the winner of the Bright Wings Poetry contest, the Furious Flower Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and the White Stag Publishing Contest, among other prizes. Currently, she serves as Assistant Editor for Glass Poetry and founder of Think in Ink and Women Speak. Her second collection Unlearning Eden is forthcoming from White Stage Publishing January 2022.
Mordecai Martin is a writer who has lived in Mexico City, Jerusalem, and New York who currently resides in Philadelphia with his wife and an orange cat. He conducts interviews for the Poetry Question and his work has appeared in Gone Lawn, X-Ray and Funicular. He’s got plans, oh yes. Has he got plans.