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Khalisa Rae



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? 

They say,    

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

to change,

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.



Newton says molecules

placed over fire expand,

start to separate and divide

stretch out.

             They leave and let go.

I search for fire. Look for it

in wooden things, thinking if I keep

striking against arbor, maybe it

will spark,

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,

hard thing

                         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

of burning. 


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.

-from Ghost In A Black Girl's Throat (Red Hen Press 2021), selected by Fall 2022 Guest Editor, Michael Walsh 

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,, 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. 


Victoria Chang


Victoria Chang

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