Gentleness is also Beautiful: An Interview with Khadijah Queen

by Lauren K. Alleyne 

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Khadijah Queen’s poems function both as moments of engagement and invitations to engage. The terms of that engagement necessarily differ from poem to poem, collection to collection —there is no “typical” Khadijah Queen poem — and readers are asked to leave their expectations of what the genre is or isn’t, should or shouldn’t be at the proverbial door. Defying the contract of genre, the poems instead offer a contract of mutual presence that invites readers to be — to be open, to be present, to be alert—and to challenge themselves to embrace new modes of understanding.

In return, they offer access to a mind in constant interaction with the world. Voracious in their subjects, modalities, and formal manifestations, the poems are relentless in their observation and questioning of the world at multiple scales and levels, from the internal to the physical to the environmental and political. Sometimes direct, sometimes inscrutable, the poems act as a staging ground upon which we’re invited to witness how these intersecting dimensions co-create the reality of a singular consciousness. At the same time the poems challenge the notion of singularity, and invite us to step in and be a part of the co-creation of meaning.

“Horizon Erasure” from Queen’s collection Anodyne, for example, moves fluidly between internal and external landscapes, offering readers snatches of images that snag the speaker’s attention:

Blue-grey braceleted     Hollow

                               torrent threat

Comes on     cloud shift. What about letting go

                               Ivy clung to passageway ceilings, some grass on

    shoes                  Untied                             

                                                            Blood moon

tried to take my son

Stop refusing to understand

The imperative of the final line is both empowering and insistent—the ability to know and “understand” is ours for the taking if we are open to, and “stop refusing” it.

Khadijah gave a virtual reading at Furious Flower and later dropped by our studio in Harrisonburg where we discussed her practice and poetics. The interview has been edited to ensure concision, cohesion and clarity.

Thank you. I’m so excited to be talking to you.

I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having me. 

I want to just start off by thinking about the poem you just read and the term “experimental,” which is often used to describe your work. How do you think about / own / challenge / resist / embrace that term, “experimental?”

I think I kind of embrace all the things; I don’t feel limited by one aesthetic or another. I just kind of go where the poem wants to go, and listen to that creative impulse. If people want to call it an experiment, that’s cool—whatever helps people understand what they’re looking at, or approach what they’re looking at, I think is okay. I’m not that particular about the labels of it all. I read The Book of Landings by Mark McMorris, and I was watching some stuff about animals and Greek philosophy, and it just converged into this particular poem. I’d never written a grid poem and I just wanted to try it. Some of these phrases are lines that were cut from other pieces, and it’s almost like a collage. I’m interested in how fragments meet one another on the page; I’m interested in visual composition. I’m kind of an art school dropout—some people know that about me—so I do try to make an art out of things and try to approach the making of pieces, without imposition, but just waiting for some kind of a revelation that occurs as I’m doing the alchemy of the arrangements. And the play of it!

I can feel that the visual is really important to you, and that it does do a sort of layering work with the poem. How do you know if something wants to be a grid poem? Or parentheses, etc.? 

That’s a great question: I don’t know until I try it. Sometimes you get to a poem that’s not working, and then you move it around into different shapes until it feels right. I think I work through intuition sometimes. I know that’s probably not a popular thing to say, but why not? For this particular book, I was definitely in the mode of why not? and trying things and saying, since people do say that my work is experimental a lot, can I write a bunch of narrative poems and have like, some long lyrics? Can I do that? I feel just a little bit disobedient in that way and in response to constraints that we hear from outside forces, or constraints that we put on ourselves, or how we perceive the process of making. I wanted it to be less precious. I wanted it to allow for some mystery, some mess even—the opposite of perfection. And I think that might be openness. I’m always curious about openness, and how that looks.

You talked about voices and I feel like there’s always—or often—an addressee in the poem. I feel like whether it’s speaking to the reader or directly, often there’s a “you.” Talk to me about that process, I guess, of writing always toward…

Hmm, that’s a good question. My first response is I’m probably just talking to myself! [Laughs.] But I’m also talking to maybe a world that doesn’t necessarily listen to people like me, and doesn’t listen to folks who may not have a public voice, who are quieter. And so maybe it’s both of those things. And maybe talking myself into speaking to the world in some ways. Those may be some of the layers that you’re intuiting.

I love that idea—the thought of talking to a world or even talking yourself into talking to the world, because that seems to be also the realm of the lyric. I am thinking of modality, and how the poems are often lyric, but also often narrative, and sometimes simultaneously, persona. 

Yes. 

And anytime you have multiple addresses to the idea of personas, it talks about your relationship to poetic mode…

I think I’m mostly just trying to have fun. [Laughs.] And to say something that feels like it could mean different things at different times when you approach it: different times in your life, different times in the day, different moods. I’m interested in a kind of encompassing, and a kind of multivocality, maybe, that can be interpretable in many different ways, many different times. I don’t know that I necessarily write in one mode or approach in one mode, but I definitely think in terms of multimodality.

You’re like the poetic multiverse. [Laughs.] But there’s also such an attention to, and also a dismissal of time in the poems. There’s the now, there’s a present, there’s the future, there’s the past that gets pulled in, and you play with time a lot, as well. So that multimodality, and multidimensions of time just seem to be really something you play with. Am I intuiting that correctly?

I think that’s just Black stuff, you know, Black time. We are constantly the present, but we are constantly being made aware of our past and thinking forward to our future in the process of living. In The Physics of Blackness [by Michelle M. Wright], she talks about Black time, the concept of Black time, in those parameters; so I think it was just me being like, really, that’s part of who I am. I’ll also add that I recently found out I have ADHD. When you have ADHD, your sense of time is now and not-now, and your interest in doing things is based on urgency, challenge, novelty, and your own personal interest. And also you see things all in one plane — you can see everything at once—so time is happening at once, events are happening at once. And so, you know, maybe my brain is just able to do it that way. That’s the natural way that it works.

You also said that “the world doesn’t listen to people like me.” And so, I’m curious about that, “like me.” When you say “like me,” what is that identity or that sense of self you’re holding?

I mean, I feel like Black women are not listened to. A lot of stuff could have been prevented if we had just listened to Black women. And certainly, disabled folks are not listened to.  Single moms are not listened to. I could go on and on. I grew up poor and nobody listens to poor people. So there are multiple layers of an invalidation of perspective that I have been made aware of. And yet, we speak anyway. Right? So, I think that’s what’s going on.

And circling back to that sense of disability, of non-normativity. How does that play for you as a poetics? Like, how do the poems circle or hold on to that?

Well, I think there is certainly a refusal to be identified as lesser, even though there is disability. I’m just struggling to write through it now — an essay about poetics of disability — as I’m working on a book of criticism about poetics. The disability poetics is the last essay, and is really, really long and spreading out, and I’m thinking about how I want to refine it. So, I’m glad you asked this question. What I wish… what I hope, is that we could exist in a world that makes room for everyone as the default, instead of being so restrictive and having rigor be defined as exclusionary, or excellence being defined as exclusionary, instead of approaching it from the opposite direction. So how can we challenge ourselves to include more people, include more voices, include more care, in the way we interact with each other, in the way we build public space, in the way we make policy. What would happen if we challenged ourselves to do that? Just thinking differently, turning things around from what’s not working, and recognizing that what works for disabled folks actually works for everyone.

How does that translate to poems?

I think it’s a disobedience in there. [Laughs.]

A dope disobedience!

Certainly! A poetics of refusal—no, I don’t want to do it that way. I’m going to do it my way and figure it out for yourself. When you are disabled, you have to figure out how to make public space or environment or relationship or anything you encounter, work for your disabilities, right? Neurotypical folks, non-disabled folks might just say, Well, you got to just fit in or You just conform. But if you’re disabled, you’re not capable of that conformity. You do need those modifications. And so, in poetry, I think that I’ve been attracted to invention. I’m definitely attracted to what may seem inscrutable. And the puzzle of it all, I’m interested in that. Beauty looked at not as something linear, but as maybe what we were talking about earlier with regard to time — simultaneous, expansive.

You mentioned beauty, and that’s another thing that I think runs through the work so much. I think there’s a commentary on beauty, which, you know, I linked to aesthetics in a certain kind of way, which of course, and I linked to poetry, right. So how does the critique of beauty and the way that society reveres it, weaponizes it, et cetera, et cetera? How does that then work with the idea of art-making and making language be beautiful?

I love that question because it makes me think about how I think about beauty which is as not possessable. Appreciated, encountered, noted, engaged with, but not owned, not harmed, not possessable, but allowed to exist or be respected in its existence.

We have a hard time with that as a species. 

We do don’t we. We like to own things, to thing-ify the world. It’s a problem.

There’s this critique, but even within the critique, there is beauty in the poetry. So the ask then is, if what I’m hearing is right, is to hold that beauty but not grasp it. Right?

Right, we can pause in it. We can recognize that gentleness is also beautiful — that we can gently receive something. That softness is valuable. And perhaps that it might allow us to understand something better than, you know, somebody hitting you over the head with a hammer, right? We don’t have to have the violence part, do we? Is that how we want to reify our language still? Or are we capable of evolving past that?

If we extract violence from beauty what are we left with? Maybe it’s poetry.

Maybe it is.

I’m interested in the prose poem as a form, and what draws you to it: what effects do you enjoy that makes you return to it so much?

I don’t have prose poems in Anodyne, but certainly in, “I’m So Fine.” It took a long time to get to that place, I think. It started out as just a plain old list — just a list of famous men I met in and the outfits I had on went I met them. As I was writing it, I hadn’t even taken it seriously as a poem, it was just something that I was writing. And then when people read them, they were like, Oh, my God, you have to write more of these. Then I started to lineate them like a regular poem, but that didn’t feel right. So, of course, I had to read them aloud. And in reading them aloud, I recognize the younger voice of me, and how I really used to talk really fast when I grew up in Los Angeles. We would just like talk like this and be like, Omigod!. And so, I made it into a prose poem. And then it still wasn’t quite right. So I took out all the punctuation and put those ampersands in there. And then the pacing, and the voice, and the tone all matched. So I think what I liked about the prose poem for that particular book was how it was able to do all of that simultaneously; to tell the story in this consistent voice, in this consistent form, but still kind of disrupt what we think of as a story or poem.

You have a line that I love from “Erosion” that says, “how we fail is how we continue.” And I read that and it also resonates as a possible poetics. Is it?

I mean, it could be. I think if we allow ourselves to recognize how often we do fail, we would understand that we already do continue, even though we do fail. And that sometimes what we fail at can teach us something valuable about what we might better succeed in or what we might enjoy and to accept faults. I think one of the other poems… “I lived in kinship with my faults,” is one of the lines, and I got that from Alice Notley. She talks a lot about the defect. And that was interesting to me to like, just to recognize it, to call it out, to embrace it, to own it — we’re not perfect. We’re not capable of perfection, even though we’re often told in our production/productivity-driven culture that we need to be perfect. It certainly does cost time and money if things don’t go perfectly, but in a poem, you get to make the world that you want. So if you want to talk about imperfection, and to understand that it’s really okay sometimes to acknowledge that and to be vulnerable, and that that can be powerful. I think that’s valuable information. 

There is such a tenderness for the natural world, but also a sense of crisis, also a sense of justice. Tell me more about how you actively or intuitively integrate that sense of eco-awareness into the poems. How does that play out?

You know, I grew up in a city so I hadn’t really thought about it. But when I was living in Colorado—I lived there for eight years — it kind of just snuck in because the natural world is so beautiful there. It was a very transformative experience to see Maroon Bells in person because it’s so old — like millennia old — and I’ve never been anywhere like that with that kind of awareness. I think it unlocked something in me even though I used to be outside when I was a little kid. I was a tomboy. I used to play with the bugs. I used to be in the dirt. So it kind of helped me remember that part of me. And also, to understand that we’re not taking care of our home. This is our home! Why are we messing it up like this? Why are we allowing it to be harmed for the sake of money? Really? Is that what we’re doing? It doesn’t make sense to me. So, I just thought to make sense of things, or, present in the poem, a space where we can see how it doesn’t make sense. In a gentle way, perhaps, but very precise and clear.

What does a Dr. Queen poetic practice look like? What are the habits that you’ve cultivated over all of these years of writing?

It’s changed quite a lot over time. I used to try to fit in poems when my son was little. I would write before work, in my car, on my little notepad—just sit in the car before I had to go in and write a lil sumptin’ sumptin’. I write while I’m reading — I would write when I was reading a lot when I was younger. And when I was writing, I’m so fine, I had a joby-job, and so I would just take a weekend and dive into it — order takeout, wouldn’t answer the phone and talk to nobody, I’d just be in it. There was a time, about six years, I used to write every morning. I had enough stability to be able to get up at five. It’d be an hour-and-a-half or two, just writing. I had a surgery in 2015, and that was the end of that. Now, I think I write more when I travel, because my everyday is very, very busy with the professor stuff and po-biz stuff and cooking — I cook a lot now — so I don’t have a daily practice anymore, other than paying attention. But when I travel, I tend to write almost every day.

It’s the evolution of the practice to write: it just has to adjust…

Yes, adjust. I did mourn that daily practice. I certainly did mourn that. I tried to recapture it, but it’s not happening. So now it’s just okay, surrender. When it’s time for deadline, I do that thing, you know, just get it done.

You mentioned the “professor stuff.” What do you find interesting or challenging about trying to teach the craft or the art or the practice of poetry to students? There’s a range of folks who enter our classrooms: what are some of the things you try to make sure they leave with?

I want to make sure that they’re not afraid of poetry. We make sure they know how to read it, that they have the tools. If you can read a poem, you can pretty much read anything. So they have the vocabulary, they have the tools, and they have, you know, I usually teach The Life of Poetry, the first chapter by Muriel Rukeyser that unlocks why are we afraid of poetry, and it has been received well by engineering students, and poets alike. I just try to open it up a little bit because people have been taught… poorly. [Laughs.]  Maybe that’s a mean thing to say, but they’re taught that a poem can only be read one way. And it’s not like that.

I try to just open it up, make it a little fun — let them be wrong and not call it wrong, and just talk about it. We’ll just kind of massage it, you know, and get into what each element is doing. Identify the parts of the poem: this is an image. And one of the cool things about Rukeyser is she talks about action-based images. So if we can identify the verb and the noun, and what kind of noun is this, what kind of verb is this, and see how it’s acting, then they can see that thing that she talks about in that chapter—the transfer of energy, and what makes a good poem. What is a poem? It’s transfer of energy, whether or not we add that qualifier of “good” or not.

You mentioned several times, “I want to have fun,” the element of play. There is definitely a sense of humor in your work. I have not figured out how to write a funny poem yet. What is the craft of writing humor? How do you write humor into a poem?

I mean, that’s how I lived through trauma. If you live with a lot of trauma, if you don’t laugh about it, you don’t make it. So it’s built in. I think it’s also maybe a habit of avoidance of sitting in my trauma; I can escape it by making light of it, or making light of something else. Having those two things play off of each other is interesting to me. And craft wise, what can I say about that? Just look for the place where you are most uncomfortable, and then find something to laugh about, so that you can get through it.

It’s interesting, because it’s not like a ha-ha humor. But definitely it’s the funny that brings a little bit of trauma in its purse.

Bag of trauma is always there. [Laughs.]

I feel as though that idea of voice is really important to the work. You mentioned it earlier in terms of writing the voice. What has been the process of discovering, owning, shaping, especially if, you were saying, a voice that doesn’t want to be heard? How do you think of voice?

I think for folks who are maybe afraid to speak, persona is a good entryway. Because then you can construct a character to say what you want to say. I certainly wrote a lot of persona poems when I first started, you know, so I could get my footing. So I think that’s one approach. There’s also talking about things that you love, doing that first: what are you passionate about? What can you go on and on and on and on about? and starting there. It doesn’t have to be traumatic. You can write a football poem. I don’t care. I used to tell my football players that. What is it like to get a touchdown for the first time? Talk about that feeling. What is it like sensorily? What does it smell, feel, taste like? So just getting into the body, I think is important. We don’t think about that in terms of voice a lot. But it lives in your body and physical form.

Lips, tongue, and breath—that’s how you make voice happen!

Right? Which is one reason why I try to, sometimes — Eleni Sikelianos taught me this— to memorize a poem. Because then you feel how it lives in your body without the aid of the visual, if you are not too afraid to embody that. Some students, you know, you can’t push them there. But at least you planted the idea. 

You refer to theorists — not just other poets—in your work, and this intellectual tradition is in conversation with your poetry. Talk to me about that interplay of what would almost seem to be antithetical.

I think it all goes together. How do we think about what we think about? How do we think about what we write about? I think, if we have more people, again, whose voices have not been paid attention to, who are shaping that conversation, then we can change what the conversation is and what it’s about. If you can change the way people think, then maybe we can change the way they act. And I know that sounds idealistic and ambitious, but guess what, I’m a poet, so I can do that. So that’s my interest in theory, and why I’m diving into that.

I’m also interested in how the theoretical can appear in ways that are not in a philosophical text. My advisor for my dissertation was Tiana Hardin at University of Denver, and when we were talking about this, she gave me a book called Black Women Writers at Work. And she said, this is what you’re talking about: this is theory. It’s just interviews with Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton and into Ntozake Shange. I was mind blown, like, I can’t even talk! It has so many highlight tabs in it because I don’t want to write on it, but I had all these bookmarks in it because it’s just full of wisdom about how we think, about how we make things, and how we think about how we make things, and how we think about what we think about, and what are the influences of that? And how do we change it? How do we shape it? How do we become more intentional and… do I want to say braver?… more skilled in our communication, and more precise in our language? And that’s in some interviews.

Wow. It’s interesting, too, because you said “wisdom”. And I think of how that is almost not part of the conversation around theory and intellectual thought. It’s almost like folksier…

But folks are wise. And I think theory is for everybody. And also, Fred Hampton said, “Theory without practice, ain’t shit.” We have to be able to put the theory into practice, rather than go round and round the loop. I think that’s what kind of turned me off of theory when I was in school. I was like, well, I don’t like this. This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want to just listen to you blow hot air and like, pontificate about stuff you half-know and ask questions about it. Okay, fine, but how am I going to use it? I’m interested in how we can deploy theory.

I was thinking about Non-Sequitur and the play form — which of course, is part of Black Peculiar. Have you written more plays?

I have not. I’m sort of working on something I can’t talk about. But yeah, I loved writing that. And it was not a play at first, it was a poem. And I had a friend, who was in my writing group, and she was a director of a theater company that worked with folks in prisons and stuff. And she was like, Uh, I’m reading this and it feels like a play. And I was like, Hmm. And she was like, Have you ever thought about writing a play? I was like, Never. And so, I just started going down that rabbit hole. I turned these objects into characters. It was so much fun. Some of the little snippets are conversations, some are journal entries, and I was lining them up together in a way that felt both dissonant and kind of hilarious and ridiculous and absurd, and also really cutting. That was fun.

You mentioned embodiment earlier, but I also feel like your work is so much about the thinking, and how the play is almost a space where the embodiment and the thinking are enacted simultaneously. What was it like to see that come to life—was it produced?

Yes it was. Fiona Templeton directed it. She was running a company called The Relationship Theatre Company. And the way she solved the problem of the 54 object-characters, was to have one player read them, so you could identify who was going to speak next. It was six actors, I believe, and they were the different characters, and they would be talking. The venue looked like a long runway and it had these stanchions in the middle that were kind of interrupting the movement, but they [the actors] would use them physically — sliding alongside of them if they needed to be sneaky. And it was so much fun to see how she solved that — really brilliantly —problem of the unperformable play. Because I’d been told before that I can’t perform this, this can’t be put on.

What’s next for KQ?

I’m writing a lot of prose, which takes a lot more time than poetry. I’m writing some stuff I can’t talk about, and I’m working on that memoir that I’ve been sitting on since Valerie Boyd, my nonfiction mentor in MFA school, told me I needed to write about my time in the Navy. It was a long, long time ago, like 2005, but I think I’m almost there. But yeah, that’s the next thing. 

Wonderful. Thank you so much. 

Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

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