MAD. BLACK. BIRD.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill,
of things unknown,
but longed for still.
—Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”
A woman walked up; told me I was
beautiful. Eyes stark and mesmerized,
started to lift her hand and lean in to touch
my feather, the crest of my head.
she called her other friends over to pet
and view my exotic, my natural.
And if I had swatted her hand away,
screamed and pushed her, I would have
been called beast, wild animal,
How do you cope?
Can I touch it?
So wide. Look.
So big, so full.
Can I keep her?
When everyone tells you to hide your true self,
but wearing the features they made you
hate, your body does not know whether to
change its stripes or break the bars and run.
It’s hard to look in the mirror; to not hear their
voices: You’d be prettier if you bleached,
snipped a wing or two,
trimmed the fat,
if your squawk wasn’t so riotous.
I am losing myself.
Been here so long, this cage feels more
like a home, More like a place to rest
under, than escape. The more they tell me
the harder it is to remember what I loved
about myself—my long neck, full beak,
plumage like ink. This beautiful
mahogany tail that spans majestic,
crooked appendix that keeps waving.
BEGGING THE GROUND FOR FLAMES
Newton says molecules
placed over fire expand,
start to separate and divide
They leave and let go.
I search for fire. Look for it
in wooden things, thinking if I keep
striking against arbor, maybe it
catch me a release; burn
my hands until they let go.
I’ve been contracting muscles,
huddled around past kindling
and split choking a confession
from these ashes
and nothing has spoken. I
begged the ground for flames,
begged the earth
to burst into bright glowing orbs,
so I could hurl myself, thrust my
entire self at it for expansion.
Me, swelling, unfolding like
origami— a paper crane taking
A common name of different species of
pelagic fish, including bonito, shark, tuna, and
When I was twelve or thirteen,
my mother caught me and a girl
friend bouncing our vaginas
off the end of the bedpost
like live bait. Our bodies rubbing
against the maple wood, trying
to catch a spark on the cold,
between our legs,
was an awakening.
The mesquite of our innocence rising to
where my mother and her friend sat
And we were just at the point
of falling off the bone,
the moment when the pink of the
salmon is so tender,
when my mother opened the door,
doused our flames with holy water
and scripture, made us forget
the sweet communion
Years after she scrubbed the cedar
from our clothes,
I learned that my body is only alive
when it is free to choose
when and where it starts a fire,
how long it allows itself to be
wet and waiting.
The power in knowing
that my body is no tadpole,
no fish to roast over hot coals.
It is the flame itself, the blue and red
ghost that survives, even after
the smoke clears.
Khalisa Rae is an award-winning multi-hyphenate poet, educator, and journalist based in Durham, NC. She is best known for her community activism and nonprofit management as the co-founder of Poet.she (Greensboro), the Invisibility Project, and Athenian Press- QPOC writer’s collective, resource center, and bookstore in Wilmington, NC.
As a former English professor and public school teaching artist, Khalisa’s passion lies in uplifting women and youth through community engagement. She has served as an outreach and program director for various nonprofits, as well as a teaching artist, and is always looking for a way to give back and serve as a mentor.
Her first chapbook, Real Girls Have Real Problems, was published in 2012 by Jacar Press and later adapted into a sold-out play called, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Being a Woman” which was accompanied by a podcast. Her early work with stage performance and slam poetry landed her on stage at the National Poetry Slam, Women of the World Poetry Slam, Individual World Poetry Slam, and Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam, among others.
During her time as Outreach Director of the YWCA, Khalisa completed her MFA at Queens University of Charlotte where she studied under renowned authors, Claudia Rankine and Ada Limon. There she wrote Outside the Canon– a thesis dissertation on the history of spoken word and its isolation from the literary canon as a result of systematic racism.
Currently, Khalisa is a 4-time Best of the Net nominee, multi-Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of the 2021 debut collection, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, from Red Hen Press. Khalisa’s performance poetry has led her to speak in front of thousands over the course of her career. She is a seasoned conference panelist and speaker, and the founder and creator of #PublishingPaidMe BIPOC Writers/Editors Panel at the AWP conference, as well as annual speaker at the SEWSA Women’s Conference. Notably, she is the former Gen Z Culture Editor of Blavity News and former Managing Equity and Inclusion Editor of Carve Magazine.
As a champion for Black queer narratives, Khalisa’s articles appear in Fodor’s, Autostraddle, Vogue, Catapult, LitHub, Bitch Media, Black Femme Collective, Body.com, NBC-BLK, and others. Her work also appears in Electric Lit, Southern Humanities Review, Pinch, Tishman Review, Frontier Poetry, Rust & Moth, PANK, HOBART, among countless others.
Poetry has led Khalisa to be a Watering Hole Fellow, Frost Place Fellow, Winter Tangerine Fellow, among other residencies and fellowships. Currently, Khalisa serves as Senior Writer at Jezebel, Assistant Editor of Glass Poetry, and co-founder of Think in Ink and the WOC Speak reading series. You can also find her teaching Spring 2022 at Catapult Classes.
Her YA novel in verse, Unlearning Eden, is forthcoming in 2023.