I had the honor of interviewing Karisma Price, a New Orleanian poet and assistant professor at Tulane University. I interviewed her about her poem "My Phone Autocorrects 'Nigga' to 'Night'" and to learn more about her life and journey into poetry. We had a blast on Zoom and talked for well over an hour; however, I wanted to include the most important things we discussed. I love her energy and her creativity. Hopefully, this interview gives you a glimpse of how lovely she is. Check it out!
Interviewee: Kharisma Price
Interviewer: Janay Major
Date of Interview: March 18, 2021
Location of Interview: Zoom
List of Acronyms: JM= Janay Major, KP= Kharisma Price
UHC graduate student Janay Major is interviewing Kharisma Price, a poet and assistant professor at Tulane University. The interview takes place in a Zoom meeting.
[Begins Transcript 00:00:02]
JM: Okay, awesome. Okay, so I do have a couple of questions. I came prepared.
[JM and KP share a laugh.]
Kharisma Price: Throw them out then!
JM: So, who is Kharisma Price?
KP: Ouu, that’s a good question. Well, I’m a New Orleanian, for one. A lot of my identity, I feel like, comes from me being a southerner but particularly, a New Orleanian. I think growing up here is such a unique place. I didn’t realize how unique it was until I when away for college, and I had to try to explain to my friends what a king cake was, and they were confused. They were like “Oh, so it’s like a giant cinnamon roll?” and I’m like “Hm yeah, no, but yeah, no.”
KP: Cause my mom sent me, instead of a birthday cake, a king cake for my 18th birthday when I was a freshman in college, and my friend were like “What is this?” And I’m like, “I don’t even know how to explain it to you.”
JM: It’s greatness!
KP: It’s a king cake! So, I’ll say I’m a New Orleanian, for one. Um, that’s a good question. I’m a writer. I try to do my best everyday as a person in this world. I feel like I’m much more articulate on page, but yeah, I’m someone that really like observations. I was a really shy child growing up, so I feel like that’s one of the reasons why I’m a poet now, but also my parents. They met when they were like kids, teenagers, like young adults; they weren’t eighteen yet. They grew up near each other.
KP: So a lot growing up hearing all these stories about the friends and like, family and friends, and they felt like these epic tales, but they were just talking about someone they grew up with, someone they always use to walk home from school with. And I feel like, one of the reasons I’m a writer is probably because of them and just listening to all these family stories. So, I say that’s a big part of who I am, a listener, but maybe when we get to the specific things, but I don’t know. I’m sort of boring. I don’t know.
JM: Does the embodiment of who you are reflects in your works?
KP: I think so. I think when [inaudible], I don’t know if this is a term, I don’t know, but Ima say it. It’s this thing called a “responsible empathy.” I feel like I should portray people in the most honest way, so that you can see all sides of them. It’s an honest approach, but also, there’s so much nuisance in everything, us as human beings, just the world in general. Everything isn’t in black and white. I feel like in my writing, I try to show compassion and honesty and also kinship, not just people who are blood-related but within this idea that we are all connected. I feel that people don’t really understand how necessary being kind to one another is. We are literally sort of all we have, and I feel like a lot of people take that for granted. So, I feel like in my work, I try to address a lot of that, but also, you know, I talk about my upbringing, the South. I’ve been writing these poems about these black male musicians, cause I had taken a class on writing the “diva”, and when people think about a diva, they think of women. So, I sort of flipped that and was like, “I’m going to write some poems from male perspectives.”
KP: So, I wrote poems about Teddy Pendergrass. There was a New Orleans musician; he died in the eighties. His name was James Booker.
KP: He was called the best gay one-eyed piano player out of New Orleans. He had an eye patch with a star on it, and there was always this mystery about how he lost his eye, and he would never tell anybody. He had this flamboyance about him where he would switch up wigs on stage. He had this afro wig, but he would switch it up, and he called himself the “Black Liberace.” So, I feel like I try to talk a lot about blackness, southerness, New Orleans as its own character, but also, I don’t know anything that interest me. A lot of times kinship interest me and also exploring how masculinity works.
JM: Oh yeah, I love that. I love to have that type of conversation.
JM: I’m really excited about those poems, can’t wait to read them. I totally agree that when you hear diva, you automatically, a lot of people automatically think about a woman, but if we really break out the personality and how you embody a diva, I feel like that opens up to a whole lot of different people. Lil Richard [laughs] that’s a diva right there.
KP: I feel like men are more divas than women to be honest.
KP: Yeah. Hold on, I think my mom is coming through the door. Let me just put my headphones in, so it won’t be too loud. Wait, can you hear me now?
JM: Yeah, I can hear you.
JM: What got you into poetry?
KP: I remember writing the first poem I really like was in the seventh grade taking a creative writing class at school, but I feel like I always liked story telling and writing in general. Poetry, I just found it in a way. They are shorter than fiction and novels, to quickly say something in a succinct way.
[KP’s mom walks in.]
KP: Hey. I’m doing an interview. Somebody wanted to interview me about my poetry.
[KP’s mom says something.]
KP: Yeah, it’s okay.
[KP continues the interview]
KP: But yeah, in the seventh grade, I took a creative writing class. I always really liked poetry because it’s short little fragments, and especially because you can focus on an image and it can symbolize the whole thing. I am interested in poetry and film. I think it would be really cool to write for television, things like that. So, I learned how to write scripts too. What I like about poetry is that you don’t have to tell it in a certain way. You can skip around in poetry, especially time, you don’t have to stay in a linear thing. You don’t have to be like “I woke up and ate breakfast. I got in the car, went to work.” You can talk about eating breakfast, then randomly talk about something else that happened three years ago and move around. So, I like that you don’t have to stay in linear time, you get to move around a bit.
JM: Nice. I definitely agree. From the poetry I’ve been reading since I started grad school, to be honest, it’s been a lot of different things being put together in a poem, but there’s still some type of background. There’s still some type of storytelling that’s going on. Even if the first stanza is from two years ago, and the second stanza flashes into the future, there is still a common goal that the poet is trying to share with the readers. So yeah, I agree.
KP: What kind of poetry have y’all been reading?
JM: Right now, we have been reading Joy Harjo.
KP: Oh yeah. Isn’t she the poet laureate right now?
JM: Yes. She’s phenomenal. We read so many different poems, I don’t remember all of them, but Joy Harjo definitely stuck out the most.
KP: To add on to your question, I like to move through tangents a lot in my thinking and in my mind. So, poetry lets me do that and it’s not weird. It’s expected of you to do that in a poem. Sometimes I’ll say something, and my friend would say “How did we get to this part?” I’m like “I don’t know”, so poetry lets me do that. It lets me go off and jump around.
JM: Before this poetry class, the last poetry class I took was the semester before last called “Metaphysical Poetry”. So, that was pretty interesting. Very stressful a little bit, because we were reading old white men poetry.
KP: I don’t like that. So, I teach “Intro to Writing” and also an advanced poetry workshop. With the intro class during the first part of the semester, I teach poetry and I try to throw in some essays. Now, we are on the fixture part. I tell them when they get into this class most of the works we will be reading are by contemporary writers who are queer, people of color, most of them are alive. They have some kind of struggle. If they are white, they are probably queer or talk about disability. I like to have that variety because when a lot of people don’t think they like poetry, it’s because they have been taught old dead white men poetry. I feel like they [her students] understand and appreciate poetry more because they are still people are writing poems. It wasn’t until college or my senior year of high school that I was able to access more contemporary poets that were not old white men.
JM: When you write, do you write to a specific audience? Or are you just writing?
KP: It depends. I usually start with an energy or something that I keep thinking about, and I try to writer around that. One of my audience is myself, it also depends on what I’m writing like if it’s something about childhood. It’s always never just me. I feel like as far as the audience, particularly maybe black people and Southerners, and black Southern people. I appreciate anyone who reads my work and understand it if it moves them. Since I write a lot about the South, I’m writing to a lot of Southern black people.
JM: What moment did you decide to fully embrace your talent for poetry?
KP: Like I said, I really like poetry and film. I never felt like I had to choose either one. After that writing class in the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to do it in some capacity. I went to Lusher during middle school and high school, it’s like an art school. So, when you are in high school, there’s a thing called a certificate of artistry, where you get to pick a particular art. Even though I chose the media arts program because they had all of the camera equipment and stuff, I knew that once I go to college, I would want to do a combination of writing and film. I was interested in the film part for the screenplay part, the writing of it not necessarily the camera work of it. So I feel like in high school and when I went to college, I knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s what I wanted to actively pursue. When I was looking at colleges, I made sure to look at colleges that would have nice scholarship offers. You know, college is expensive. Hold on one second.
KP: Okay, back. So, it was in high school and college that I decided to major in something that will help me become a better writer. You don’t need a degree to be a writer, but it is helpful if you want to learn more, and you have access to instructors, classes, and workshops. Workshops were very beneficial as well because you have all these other eyes on your work and can give you feedback and see things you don’t see. So, I feel high school and college made me think “You know what? I’m going to do this. It’s hard, but I’m going to try.” In middle school, the only poet I knew was Maya Angelou. I don’t know how poets live and make money, but I’m going to do it anyway. This is what I want to do.
JM: Okay, so let’s get into this poem.
KP: Which poem is it?
JM: Would you like to guess which one?
KP: Is it the autocorrect one?
JM: You already know!
KP: I knew it was going to be that one.
KP: It started when my phone actually did autocorrect “night” to “n*gga”. I was talking to my friends, and I was like “You know what? This would be a funny poem”, and I was joking at first. And then I was like, “No I’ma do it”. I was in grad school, so I needed to turn in something for workshop for next week. So, I did it. I wrote it while I was in a coffee shop with some friends.
JM: Wait, you turned this in for class? [laughs] You put my poems to shame, oh my gosh.
JM: Why the shape?
KP: Oh yeah, that’s an interesting question. Like I said, I was in my MFA program when I wrote that, and one of my classes was a workshop class. I wrote it, and I realized that when I draft poems I tend to, my drafts tend to be in couplets. So, I always start with just the two- line stanzas, and I was like “Hmm, let’s switch it up. Let’s do something different.” I just wanted to know how much space I can take on a page, and I also wanted to experiment more with form. I realized my poems; the forms were very formal. I was like “Hmm, how can I do this?” Because the poem has repetition “my nights,” “my nights”, “my nights”, I wanted it to feel like it was snowballing. Each line gets bigger and bigger until we get to the giant one, and it sort of recedes, but also the longest one is “my nights are ordinary”, and I thought that was an interesting place to have that be the longest part of the poem, to be like “We’re ordinary.” There’s nothing demonizing or magical, you know, how people try to dehumanize us. So, it’s just like “We’re ordinary”. So, it [the poem] sort of retreads, so it was me trying to see how much space I can take on the page, but also I just wanted to experiment differently with forms. I tend to write in couplets sometimes.
JM: You the shit.
[KP and JM share a laugh.]
KP: I will have that as my ringtone. Thank you, thanks. Like I said, my writing is not just about Southerners, but you know, when I think about kinship, I think the phrase “the pot calling the kettle black”. I’m from New Orleans, so I have Louis Armstrong in there [the poem]. Pop culture references, like Bruce Leeroy, just other things I feel like other black people will relate or catch on a little bit. So, I sort of threw all of that in there, and I wanted it to be serious yet playful. You know there’s repetition and all these references and the form.
JM: I do just want to point out, towards the end you started naming different areas: Brazil, Botswana, the Congo, Cuba. When I replaced “nights” to “n*gga”, I was like “Yeah, we’re everywhere!”
KP: We are! A lot of people don’t realize that. Blackness exists, obviously in Africa, America, and the Caribbean, and a lot of us are here because of the slave trade. But, there are black people everywhere. I googled it, there are a few black people in Lithuania.
[KP and JM share a laugh.]
KP: I don’t know how they got there, but they’re there.
JM: There are black people in Russia! Like, what are you doing over there?
KP: Yes, we are everywhere, and people don’t understand that. We’re just a giant diaspora. I wanted to show that; I wanted them to feel surrounded. We are everywhere.
KP: I was also thinking about my class. I felt comfortable bringing that poem to class because my teacher was black. In the MFA program sometimes, it can be very white, but for some reason we had a whole bunch of black people in that class, so that’s one of the reason why I felt comfortable. I’m a black American; I’m here because of slavery. But, one of my classmates was Cuban. Then, I had another black person in the class whose her mom was from Nigeria, and her dad was from Trinidad. There was another black girl in the class; her parents were from Costa Rica. I had a friend in that class who was from the Bahamas. We were literally the diaspora up in that class. Everyone was either from a different country or their parents were from a different country, and we were all black. There is so much diversity.
JM: So, my last question: Do you have any advice for inspiring black writers? What would you tell them that you wish you would have known before starting your journey?
KP: For one, I tell any writer, you have to read more than you write. I feel like in order to find, I like to call it your literary family, like who’s your poet mother, who’s your poet father or cousin. You know, who are you writing in conversation with, or maybe who are writing against as well. That’s always something, too. So, I say read, read, read so you find influences. When I have trouble writing a poem, I’ll google a Jericho Brown poem; I really love his work. He’s from Shreveport, Louisiana. Find poets to be in conversation with; read poems that you like and don’t like. Read widely. I’m a poet, but I read fiction and nonfiction because you can be inspired by any genre. So, for one read a lot. For two, I would say it is okay for black writers to just be completely you on the page, in person, everywhere you go. You don’t have to change the way you talk, the way you describe things on a page. I’m thinking about this interview Toni Morrison did, there was this white reporter that asked her a racist question, I’m paraphrasing because I don’t fully remember, but she was like “You’re bringing black people to the center of this. Have you ever thought writing about white people or other people?” And she [Morrison] was like that’s a very racist question. You don’t even realize it, but white people are not the default; white people are not the center. When I [Morrison] am writing about someone that’s not white, I’m not writing about the “other”. White people think they are the default. And she was like when white people or anyone who is not black reads her work, it’s like when a Russian writer writes in Russian and then later on it gets translated to multiple languages, so people in other countries can understand and read it. It’s like that. I [Morrison] am writing for my people, it’s a pleasure if you do get to read it as well. I would say for black writers, it’s okay to come to the page as your full self. You don’t have to make it sound “proper” or put on a fake voice. You have more inside of you than you think. So, I say just bring your whole self. People who need to hear your voice will find you and you don’t need to cater to any other type of canon. You can create your own literary canon.
JM: I couldn’t have said it better myself. That was a wonderful way to end the interview.