In the following email interview, poet Rae White discusses the themes and other aspects of the poems in their debut collection, Milk Teeth (paperback).
To start, how would you describe the poems in Milk Teeth? Are they free verse about your nature, sonnets about your feels, what?
The poems in Milk Teeth are all free verse including ekphratic and cento poems. And the book is divided into six sections, each with a different focus, like intimacy, plants and nature, or family.
Why did you decide to structure Milk Teeth this way?
I decided to divide the book into separate sections, so there was a sense of narrative and connection between the poems. While there isn’t one singular focus in Milk Teeth, I tried to make the collection easily readable from cover to cover.
So did you already have a bunch of poems written, or did you have to write new ones?
A little bit of both. When I entered the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize in 2017, I already had most of the manuscript written, though there were some poems added during the editing process.
In the press materials I based my questions on, it says you’re non-binary, and that some of the poems, “…offer a keen insight on what it is to be non-binary in a binary-centric world.” I am a cisgender heterosexual male. What do you think someone like me will get out of Milk Teeth? Or, more importantly, what do you hope I’ll get out of reading it?
That’s an interesting question. I guess I hope that, firstly, someone reading Milk Teethwho is cisgender doesn’t focus just on that one gender-centric section of the book. I want to show people that while I am a non-binary transgender person, that’s not the only thing about me. I like writing poems about plants and intimacy and any number of topics.
But I also hope people read the trans-focused poems and learn or understand something they hadn’t before. I’ve already had people tell me they didn’t realize some of the discrimination non-binary and gender diverse people face until they read those poems.
Some of the poems in Milk Teethwere previously published in Cordite Poetry Review, Meanjin Quarterly, and Rabbit Poetry Journal. Are the versions in Milk Teeth different from those previous versions?
Some of the previous versions of poems are a bit different but not significantly. Mostly my editor Felicity Plunkett and project editor Cathy Vallance helped me rework poems and massage them into their best possible versions.
Every writer is influenced by the things they read, but are there any writers, or specific poetry collections, that had a big influence on those in Milk Teeth?
I read a lot of poetry before and during writing Milk Teeth, but there were two collections that stuck in my mind. Firstly, Sara Eliza Johnson’s Bone Map, which gave me the confidence to write more gory and haunting poems. And Zenobia Frost’s Salt And Bone, which showed me I could explore place by weaving Brisbane, where I live, and the domestic into my work.
How about other influences, such as song lyrics or visual art; did any of them have an influence on the poems in Milk Teeth?
Definitely! I was influenced by a lot of things when writing the book including such mobile games as Pokémon Go and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, my gardening hobby and love of plants, and works of art and art history. I think in that sense everything I experienced, read, and consumed during the time of writing Milk Teeth leaked a little into the work.
Some poets do readings as a way to workshop their poems. Do you do this as well, and if so, did any of the poems in Milk Teeth ones that got changed because of those readings?
I did a reading at the National Young Writers Festival in Australia at the end of 2016, and what I read then was definitely reworked and polished before I sent in my manuscript. I think it was partially to do with reading my work out loud and also do with me growing as a writer over the next six months.
Now, along with writing poetry, you also write short stories. Are there any plans to put together a similar collection of your fiction?
I’m slowly working on a short story collection, but writing longer narratives is more challenging to me than poetry, so it may be a while before the collection is finished. My other work in progress is my second poetry collection, focusing on non-binary people and space: how non-binary transgender people are allocated or denied spaces in Australian society — including socially, politically, physically, digitally and linguistically — and the way in which our bodies continue to take up space despite marginalization and violence.
Finally, if someone enjoys the poems in Milk Teeth, what poetry collection of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I think if someone enjoys my collection they might also want to read Toby MacNutt’s If Not Skin, a collection exploring bodies through magic, pain, pleasure, and Allison Gallagher’s Parenthetical Bodies, a tender collection about many things, including gender, bodies, and surfing dogs.