Khalisa Rae on Making a Home in the South and Her Debut Collection

Khalisa Rae’s debut collection, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, is a fierce, beautiful, aching collection of poems reflecting the experience of a Black woman moving from the Midwest to make a home in the South. This collection is a reminder of the power of unleashing the truth —

And that’s what they will come
for first — the throat.

They know that be your superpower,
your furnace of rebellion. So, they silence
you before the coal burns, resurrect monuments
of ghosts on your street to keep you from ever
looking up.

It’s also a reminder of the violence of the South, even in the landscape, as in “Southern Foreclosures”:

Long back roads

                   still rattle me.
Make me fear being asked to step out —
the night stick, the gun. Body turned to roadkill,
left on the curb. Forgotten.

These poems are angry, powerful, insistent — they make space for the speaker. 

Rae is a poet, journalist, and educator in North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, an active member of the National Poetry Slam community since 2010, and founder of Think in Ink: A BIPOC Collective as well as the Women of Color Speak Reading Series. She is also the Assistant Editor at Glass Poetry and a workshop facilitator at Catapult.

Her poetry chapbook, Real Girls Have Real Problems was published by Jacar Press in 2012. Her essays are featured in Autostraddle, Catapult, and LitHub. Her poetry appears in Frontier Poetry, Florida Review, Rust & Moth, PANK, Hellebore, Sundog Lit, HOBART, Flypaper Lit, and other places.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with her over Zoom about her new collection and what’s next for her.

What has been the best part of this debut publishing experience so far?

Real Girls Have Real Problems was my first chapbook published by the small indie press Jacar Press and Sable Books in Greensboro, North Carolina, and that was print on demand. I hustled, you know, to get that out there, and I did a lot of it by myself. This has been an extraordinary experience, I feel so blessed to have a whole team working with me — I have a publicist, an assistant, a social media manager. And then of course, Red Hen Press has just been so gracious to land me a lot of amazing opportunities as well.

But really, honestly, the best part and the thing that really has blown me away has been being able to work with artists and authors and bookstores that were my dream. I mean, I would have never guessed in a million years that I would have been reading with Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Mahogany Browne, and Deesha Philyaw! So, for me to get to read with these huge names, that has been humbling.

You’ve mentioned that you worked on this collection during your MFA. Sometimes writers are embarrassed about their MFA thesis or completely rework it before they’re confident sending it out. How much of this book is your thesis? How long did you spend editing and reorganizing before you felt like the book was taking shape?

That’s a good question. You know what’s interesting? I didn’t know that a lot of people are embarrassed by their thesis. I just must have gotten super blessed. Well, not must have. I know that I was super blessed. I think that the gods aligned for me to work with the people that I worked with. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I was pretty much like, not done, but I think [my thesis] was pretty polished. Working with Ada Limón, Claudia Rankine, Cathy Smith Bowers, Morri Creech —  I don’t know how you get a better set of professors for your MFA. But also, I think I was so passionate about my thesis, and I think I put a lot of work and research into my manuscript so I really think that had a lot to do with it too.

I will say though, because I’m a perfectionist, it wasn’t ready to send out [right away], and I got rejected quite a bit before Red Hen picked it up. There was a lot of form and craft that I needed to go back and look at. Having a full-length collection, I think, is different than just having a random collection of poems, so to transition it to a finished book was a completely different set of work. The perfectionist in me wanted a cohesive story to be told in my book and it took from when I graduated in 2000 until end of 2016, beginning of 2017, and then it took those additional couple years to really get it where I wanted it. So I think that’s the thing, getting it to the place that I want; I think that’s an ever-evolving practice.

I love to talk about the process of shaping a book. Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat is organized into three sections: Fire, Wind and Water, Earth and Spirit. Did the poems naturally fall into these categories?

I have been telling this story often about how actually my husband (I’m super lucky to be married to a poet) helped me figure out that it needed to be in elemental sections. He was like, because your story is about things not told, things shut away and silenced and erased, wouldn’t it be really cool if you’re talking about ghosts and spiritual elements in each section?

If you’re talking about spirit, you should talk about all the other elements that go into the idea of a spirit. So what do you have? First, you have body, you have ground, you have earth. We were brainstorming, and it clicked for us. We were like, oh, my God, that’s genius. Yes, we should put it into elemental sections, and that will speak to the whole of this idea of a phoenix rising out of like the ash of something that was built. Those can all be metaphors of erasure and oppression, and what [rises] out of oppression is your voice, and so your voice can be the air. So we kind of built this whole story, this metaphorical rationale behind why we wanted to pick these elements and why each poem should go in its section.

How does your experience with slam poetry impact your poetry on the page?

I think it affects it a lot. I have to study other folks that came up in the spoken, lyrical oration tradition, because it’s a gift and a curse. I think that the gift is that my poems — or anyone who came up in oration or slam or spoken word — our poems are naturally musical. They rely heavily on sound and music and image. I think that is a gift we have and we’re lucky, but I think at the same time, it can be our Achilles’ heel because one of the things about getting better at the craft of poetry is that you have to learn this skill of brevity.

I have a whole essay about this, but your breath and your body is the line when you are a slam poet. You have to transition all of those muscles and tools that you use as a performer with your body to the line and the page [with] concision and brevity, and I think that’s hard if you’re used to being verbose and dramatic. I noticed that the poets that do both really well have to work extra hard. So if you’re talking about Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Clint Smith, Elizabeth Acevedo, Patricia Smith, Nate Marshall — all the people that came from slam that are now world-renowned craft poets, they have to work really hard, I think because there is a true art to making a poem that would be excellent out loud on a stage and also read and translate on [the] page. I think people underestimate how hard that is.

You are so much a poet of place and your poetry works to excavate the past and illustrate your experience as a Black woman in the South. To borrow a question from our founding editor in a previous interview, what, if anything, do you think people misunderstand about your corner of the South? 

I think that people think the South isn’t a place of education, a place of craft and a place of intellect. That’s so insulting. But language and English are tools of oppression anyway. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the South — we’re not Ivy League, or we’re not posh. And that’s not true. We were just laughing recently during a reading because someone tweeted about how there are no good Southern writers and we just laugh, like, are you serious? Your favorite poets are all Southern poets — Jericho Brown, Ada Limón, Fayalita Hicks — all these famous poets and writers, even generations of writers that have come before us, are skilled and talented, and deserve to be read. I think that is the miseducation about the South, specifically North Carolina. We are always in the news about things surrounding politics, but I think that’s also a misconception about us, we don’t really get noticed for the amazing art that comes from North Carolina. There’s so much history here, especially when it comes to BIPOC writers in North Carolina. We’re part of a really rich tradition, and that’s what I hope that people would learn about us.

Do you have a favorite poem in the collection or one you think maybe doesn’t get talked about as often as others?

I’m going through this space right now where I’m sending poems out from the book and the ones that get picked up are never the ones I like, and the ones I like are never picked up. I am at the point where I have no idea which poems from this collection are good anymore, but my favorite pieces are “Livestock,” “Full Moon to Monday,” “American Made,” and “Southern Foreclosures.”

I don’t think a lot of folks talk about this poem, but I really love it — I changed the name from “10 Reasons I Would Never Call the South Home” to “Southern Foreclosures.” And that poem means a lot to me, not only because it’s cool to see how much my opinion about living in the South has changed, but also I think that poem is gruesome, and it’s hard to read, but I think is so important when we talk about the history of being a Black person in the South, and specifically as somebody who is not from here. I have yet to get other people to fall in love with that poem as much, and maybe because it’s so hard for people to read. It’s a heavy one, but that one’s really, really near and dear to me.

Is there anything you always wish you could talk about in interviews but never get to?

Sometimes I feel like when we’re so used to doing interviews and doing a press run we are told — or we tell ourselves — that there’s a set of “good poems,” so we just read those same poems over and over again. I think that I’ve almost shunned certain poems, and I never read them.

No one ever talks about the experience of after you birth a book, going into a place of feeling like that work isn’t good anymore. I think that’s important to say to writers and readers out there — I think you can still have confidence and pride in all of your work. When a lot of writers put out a book, they feel like those poems are so old, they’re not their best work. And I know I’m experiencing that right now because I have another book coming out after this. I keep feeling like, oh, well, nobody likes these poems; they don’t showcase my best writing. So I think that’s what I want to say people never talk to me about, that post-book sadness you fall into and also the semi-hatred of your book.

The SRB published an interview with Ada Limón on the 15th anniversary of Lucky Wreck where she talked about how some writers are embarrassed about their first books. She intentionally chose not to be embarrassed: “It may not be a poem I’d write now, but I can praise the poem and that person who wrote it. The person had those skills and that life experience and that heart and that brain and did a good job with the tools she had.”

I love that she said that because that’s how I’ve been feeling lately. I have had felt unsure or distant from my GIABGT poems because my writing has changed so much. I’m learning that you have to appreciate all stages of the journey.

What’s next for you? Tell me about Unlearning Eden, coming out next year from White Stag Publishing.

I got the best advice from someone when I asked them what to do when you have post-book sadness — they said you need to be writing in a different genre. So I have been really leaning into the fact that I love to write essays. I am publishing a bunch of essays, and taking a bunch of classes on fiction writing, because I’m working on my novel. That’s bringing me a lot of joy to write outside the genre of poetry.

And I’m excited about Unlearning Eden because it’s completely different from Ghost In A Black Girl’s Throat in that it’s fun, it’s a lot more lighthearted. It’s a YA art and poetry collection, so each poem has an illustration that is absolutely breathtaking. It’s all about a young BIPOC girl coming into her body and knowing herself, her identity, and her sensuality, and that being a powerful thing. The poems are rich and central and fun. I’m really excited to transition to something a little more lighthearted.

Thanks for talking with me Khalisa — I’m looking forward to reading more from you in any genre. 

Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat
By Khalisa Rae
Red Hen Press
Published April 13, 2021