By dawn lonsinger, PhD


In Khadijah Queen’s Anodyne, we encounter the irreducible inextricability of point-blank pain and layered love, language threaded on the filament of lines so perfectly that it sings and stings. The poems therein are a warning and a wish, a reckoning and reclamation, ode and erasure. It is a boldly constructed collection about the heartbreaks and body-breaks of life in late-stage capitalism, amid grind culture, war, the endless wake of white supremacy, patriarchy, malady, the everyday losses and consonant sadness, etc., but also about the sharp-yet-sating ache of desire, kinship, herbaria, family, art, and relationships. The gutting and gathering power of the poems often emerges from their ability to hold these many realities at once, showing us how contrasting spheres of being intersect our lives and bodies. Queen indicts our cultural and individual “avoiding / evidence of suffering at all costs” yet also keens for an expansiveness within which she could “stop the false / fight for my humanity, en masse, [is] allowed to share / a history of anything but suffering” (2, 14). Anodyne is full of what I’d like to call a Poetics of Exhaustion and a Poetics of Relationality, wherein the poet is tired of (and tired out by) the unrelenting violence and strains of this, our, world – “what severs / the head of connection in the time of least” – and its attendant losses. Nonetheless, she seeks out cracks in what is through which another way of imagining ourselves and our relationship to each other might emerge (25). It’s an aria of “ands” and caesura, tracing the intractable distances and intimacies of now. These are vibrant-yet-harrowing poems full of touch and terror, abduction and desire, beauty and domination, entrapment and escape.

We enter into a landscape replete with “common miracles” but also “endless / sentences about oppression,” and throughout, we learn how inextricable these are from each other, often contained in the same form or instance as in “chrysanthemums the rust of blood” (Queen 71, 76, 49). It is, in part, these entanglements of beauty and harm that is exhausting to navigate. These poems glow with a devotion to the particularity of lived experience, but this is amplified and unsettled by the elegiac – a brother lost to murder, a mother declining from dementia, the depression and suicidal ideation of a son “whose brilliance / isn’t understood yet,” who wonders “Why can’t I be myself in this world” (68, 3). In these poems, we encounter the human as the perimeter between what roils inside and what roils outside. One’s body is a kind of em dash, mote, hatchet, net, and, when lucky, a site of pleasure, reprieve, and connection. Queen explores the body as a site of contention for all the forces and dogmata of the world, and also as a source of irreverence and imagination, the “body ever in revolt, a red centimeter of a mouth / asking what else” (6).

We learn early in the book that the speaker is tired, but cannot sleep; as we move through the layers of experience and accreting chasms between self and outcome in subsequent poems, that tiredness grows colossal and endless, the speaker ever-calibrated to “what might exhaust this [her] brittle form” (68). Loss haunts and contemporary life threatens, and restlessness ensues and ensues. It’s literal restlessness and figurative restlessness – the restlessness of the unresolved, the revenant, the used, the misused, the used up, the vulnerable.  In a formally startling poem, “Synesthesia,” parentheses mirror the wounds of loss and make space for the ghost of the murdered brother to speak in a language we do not understand but can hear/see:

First, I was twenty-five with no sleep     (                     )

&         my body said   feel this                        And I didn’t

want to            (           )  then              It turned into a constant &      (     )

burned to be felt                      I couldn’t harden

away from it                 couldn’t ease                     (                  )

or sleep            or not-feel        my way away      because (                   )

It was myself & (Queen 30)

The self is riven with sorrow, not distinguishable from what injures it. The space between lines and the many caesuras within the lines, like the faults in logic or sense-making, serve to replicate how grief perforates and how navigating that loss in language might allow for a painful but paradoxically satisfying kind of coherence. Inherent in the wish to sleep, is the wish to reconcile with and transform one’s helplessness by dreaming of alternative endings, wherein the speaker “sang hush to a wounded man // (          ) // (          ) // gunshots, my brother                       (          )            and he lived” (31).

Likewise, in the later poem, “NJ Transit Passenger Ode,” the speaker confesses, “I want to sleep at night” perchance to dream “my family all lived // in the same place / long enough to grow daffodils & safe babies” (66). The final poem of the collection – an anaphoric litany of all the places and ways that the speaker has, in fact, slept – promises to offer some resolve or relief from the earlier disquiet, but the sleep, too, is punctuated by the harsh details of an exacting world – “a steel bunk in Illinois winter next to military / strangers,” “with a view of an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds & drug trash,” “in a bathtub dispossessed,” “with love & treated myself to unkindness,” [listening to] “nameless strays killing what they eat,” “with a man who hated himself,” wrapped “in a crochet blanket & / sorrow,” “in senescent lake muck,” “in my car on the side of Fountain Street at dawn,” “in a world I forgot to love sometimes,” “& more than once I didn’t close my eyes” (81-83). Queen is not interested in suggesting we have reached resolution or solace. There is, however, amid the long lines of troubled sleep, an instance of grace: “I slept inside a song with a Blacker voice than mine which meant I slept good” […] “I slept in a place of brilliant bones & the future of Blackness / I slept in a system outside of every law but one […] I slept in a simple way / I slept in a place just for us / I slept where I could see it” (82-83). Queen ends not on a simplistic note of hope, but on the edge of everything that currently is, where she can glimpse and presage an alternative world where Blackness has its own music and space.

* * *

In calling this book Anodyne, Queen is asking us to think about what might allay or soothe the many pains of contemporary life, which are often lessened or amplified according to the body you inhabit, the betrayals that come from the inside (as with chronic pain), and those that come from the outside (as with the supremacist ideologies and actions that compel Black Americans to “only ask     that you not kill us”) (25). Thanks to Queen’s deft experimentation with and handling of form and recurring motifs, we glimpse the ways these inside and outside betrayals have something to do with each other.

The word “anodyne” also brings to mind all the analgesic forms people use to render painful experiences less so by dulling their senses, as in Kendrick Lamar’s “twilight” used as epigraph; think nightshade, opium, camphor, Vicodin, saffron, wine, consumerism, etc. These poems honor that desire for the absence of pain, but also suggest that a heightening of ones senses, “a spirit of play” (as broadcast in the Anne Carson epigraph), attention, care, and deep engagement might offer a brighter balm, an antidote. So, this book woefully admits the need for constant painkillers and the longing for the anodyne to end anodynes (to be free from “made-up valor or resilience”), but also offers itself up as anodyne (1). To read these poems is to feel as if you have entered the many abysses of modern life and the ways histories of harm enter the body and home and mouth, but also as if you have been offered a amulet of protection in Queen’s conjuring attention and susurrant words, sung “sharp as blades” (2). We are given not just “repositories of beauty,” but the Ariadne-like string that might help to lead us out of the labyrinths of loss and cultural misappropriations, wherein we find that just beyond simple loveliness is the “untidy, untended, loveliness of the forsaken, / of dirt-studded & mold-streaked / treasures that no longer belong to anyone / alive, overrunning” (1). Despite having felt the pain of being made “smooth from pain,” one’s “interior [made] to hold the ruin,” the speaker of these poems is still on the lookout for “a good atonement” and “how to live exuberant with settle,” “stretch[ing her] insides / across pages until [her] pain is upside down” (Queen 51, 20, 17, 13).

* * *

Like the lemon added “to the cool / water in a faceted glass” from the poem, “Declination,” about desire and its acquittals, Queen’s writing is sharply, vividly, refreshingly investigative, arriving in versatile multifaceted forms with unconventional cadences. It pushes language to its limits in order to articulate the intimate specifics of daily defense against onslaught, and how one does this without losing one’s openness to intimacy (43). Queen clearly loves language – its heft and sound, texture and malleability – but also wants us to remember that language is limited and fails us all the time – “the violence of language in every space / I enter & think I am losing everything but my mind” (79). Thus, Queen goes to extreme measures to say the unsayable, using potent imagery, the page as a field of experimentation, surprising syntax, the invention of words, juxtaposition, etc. These poems go to the edges of language, emotion, experience, and artistic tactics, connecting unlike things to get closer to that third interstitial entity. Her poetic techniques multiply the meaning of words to go beyond the literal, giving readers an impression of an idea or feeling, an experience one can’t quite put into words but knows is real. There’s a figurative radiance here, sun-like in that it’s at moments life-giving and illuminating, and, at others, hard to look at, full of risk.

Narrative is one of the ways we catalogue or think of or experience our lives. But it is not the only way. Queen’s poems invite us to ask hard questions about how our experience of the world is mediated or transmitted. Do you experience your body as a part of a story? Do you understand “that molten underground we swim the surface of” (5)? Being so brave you almost die? A brother turned into dust? “How to use the word love, mean it” (20)? This is poetry that rearranges how you make contact with the world, is not a lesson or bit of wisdom, but something much more expansive and heterodox.

In this collection, compression and elision create an intensity that does not abbreviate; rather, it moves in the direction of complexity and multiplicity, toward not letting meaning or conclusion or dichotomizing clamp down, kill for the sake of understanding or satisfaction or a clean arc. In this way, it is foundationally deconstructive. While there are narrative threads in these poems, Queen’s poems are discernibly not tethered to narrative. Rather the lyrical provocations and pleasures of these poems are linguistic, imagistic, musical, philosophical, emotional, intellectual, formal, visceral, metaphysical, thematic, contrarian, figurative, and textural. They are sonically gorgeous and unrelenting, “boom[ing] with basalt,” and riveted with resonant insoluble questions like “Can I collect my fragments, / fragile now in the gentleness” (5, 37)? Her poems are plangent and you feel in the many forms – erasure, eclogue, grid, sestina, ode – and the tide-like lines an unruly roving attention, within which language is a depot for discovery and deliverance.

* * *

While the world keeps apprehending the speaker, across poems, through diminishing culturally constructed (but materially consequential) lenses – as woman, as Black, as professor, as ill, etc. – the personae poems in the collection try to disabuse us of this gisting error. Queen reminds us, rather, that she is only “disguised as an I (no direction),” is not a singular easily-diminishable category or self, but is of “disarray,” “flux,” made up of “opposites [that would like to be] allowed to oppose in peace” (9, 80). The personae poems reject essentializing or lessening how multiform and capacious the self, with its miraculous “starlit” and “drunk off sea liquor” origins … “our scatter / Expansion—openness, inexact song” (9, 26). They also call out all the ways that one – especially if relegated by a hierarchical culture to the margins – is abridged by and beholden to a “subaltern superstructure” and its “apparent psychological systems,” where whole populations are socially, politically, psychically, and geographically excluded and oppressed, strung out and along by “merchant discipline,” woefully “used up by the wrong power” (Queen 9-10). The personae poems remind us that we arrived differently than where and what we now find ourselves, not yet divisible and decided upon, but “via unpredictable route / via safer lacuna” to “shell the day-cold / bone-filled, language-less,” full of “varied intensity” (54). Thus the perpetual paradox and tension of living now, when “it feels strange to smile in a fascist era—grief / dammed up, ancient energy held back” (55). We are reminded we are made of greater wider various stuff, how we are drawn toward possibility, even as, when Queen writes in “Epilogue for Personae”:

who can feel the possible
in their bodies & not break
toward it—  (55)

The brilliance of the line break on “break” is that it suggests there is heartbreak and body ache when we come up against all that dilutes or delimits our possibility, but that if we get past that interruption we might “break toward” a further terrain of leeway and imagining.

There’s rage but it’s quiet; there’s hope, but it’s quiet. What’s not quiet is the intensity of interrogating a too common complicity, and the search for seams at the margin of harm that might be opened up into other worlds or possibilities. She calls the mercantile world and individuals out for what they have done to beauty, “trash[ing it], see[ing it] as glut, usable” (56). And in “Antediluvian,” there is a necessary inquisition of white people and their attendant gods:

Where were you when the truth disappeared or
when the truth battered us […]  Where
were you when strongmen told us to die &
blasted us into nothing.    Were you downtown
to witness the smooth mirage    stagnate in sky-
scraper shade & neon glower  (24)

* * *

But there are other everyday anodynes, which Queen underscores. Throughout the collection, nature, food, and animals are tranquilizing counterforces to cultural degradations. “Breezes peel blush and white petals from her magnolia, / lacing unruly roots in the spring grass,” seasons stretch out of shape amid “the opulence of acres,” the world continuing to make and unmake itself (23). And food is everywhere – “poblano soup & spicy / slaw on bootleg street tacos,” “fresh peaches / simmering in syrup,” “a tuna melt / cut in half,” “vegetarian gumbo,” “snapper & trout blackened on the spit” – climaxing with the grandmother’s cut potato, an old-world magic, used to cauterize injured skin: “Repeat / until it looks like nothing ever happened” (Queen 76, 78, 36, 65). Animals arrive as insight that is immune to rational understanding – “disappearing pattern— / Quarrel of sparrows // Branches beam[ing] full green” – with images that hit us at some subterranean and arterial level (71). But nature – with its ongoing aria of movement and transmutation – is also frequently formally elegiac, full of “falling star[s],” “erosion,” and “cracked bone [stitch]ing itself a whitened scar / over and over” (71, 5). But, for Queen, this natural kind of recursive dissolution or eventual death is what makes the body and mind electrically alive and present to its own inimitable being, like her own “animal glow—sacred rot” (20).

Anodyne mines the apocalypses that have long been underway, and all that might sate or save us amid them, like “resurrect[ing] the excised archive of […] relatives,” acknowledging that merely managing the aftershocks is not sustainable (20). Queen’s writing is so powerfully her own that it reminds us that we cannot replace a poem with our interpretations of it anymore than we can or should do that to others. She unseams the unseeming to figure out how to go on living. Her words make a circle around her coven. At their best, great poems give us new ways of saying, thus new ways of seeing, which ultimately suggest new ways of being. Audre Lorde wrote “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Queen’s Anodyne is one such bridge, a gift from the intersections of everything. We are reminded that “no matter / Sound makes space in the throat”; to peril language is to open oneself to sustenance (68). Therein, we are fortified by the consonance and precision of the inconclusive and multivalent:

Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies
Looped into every surface, looped
Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter  (Queen 28)

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

dawn lonsinger is the author of Whelm, and recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, four Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes, the Utah Prize in Prose and Poetry, the Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and Smartish Pace’s Beullah Rose Prize. Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, Guernica, Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. lonsinger holds a BA in studio art and English as well as an MA in literature from Bucknell University, an MFA in poetry from Cornell University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. She recently finished a creative nonfiction book that tries to navigate the consanguinity and dissonance between erotics and robotics in a Tindering world, and is now working on a book of poems, The Long and Terrible Taming, which explores taming and wildness in all its manifestations. She is an Associate Professor at Muhlenberg College.

by Lauren K. Alleyne 


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. 


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


Formal experimentation is a hallmark of Khadijah Queen’s work. In her latest collection, Anodyne, Queen has several “grid poems.” In her interview, Queen speaks to the value of play and pleasure says simply, “I’d never written a grid poem and I just wanted to try it.” The prompt here is to try one, too!

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Poems

by Khadijah Queen

Les Chartrons, December 2021, after dg nanouk okpik

This horizon’s dawn line makes me curious
enough to wonder if artist-I
could actually exist
sans worry, duty, pain—

Today’s-I makes breakfast for loves—
sweet greens & blackberries, smoked salmon
& sliced baguettes, salted butter & peach jam,
coffee with cardamom & cloves—luxurious

& a never-tiresome river view feast as today’s-I
tidies both table & borrowed kitchen. Loses track
imagining an otherself tracing soft
colors to capture, another life making

mistakes in water media, trapped in practice,
cutting paper the texture of bark, silk,
giddy with ease & industry. In that living
dream I summon the reserve I keep warm
that keeps me warm, fighting
the freeze that’s stalked me since
I first tried to burn myself down.

Refusing what’s aged my insides,
I write down shades to collect—
zaffre, an almost azure, celestial; count prismic
light particles in instant waves, soothing
bitter memories a continent past to lilac
as ships bevel the river surface,
as if holding boldness as quiet—steady.

Today’s-I watches until late fog
makes moonrise over the Garonne lift
light from its own reflection. I pay
specialists to fix me. They can’t.
Somehow I don’t give up.


See two more poems from Khadijah Queen debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Better Living”  and  “Choice

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

by Khadijah Queen


When your mother dies, you’ll think about all the poems you’ve read
about mothers dying. You’ll remember your sister telling you
she doesn’t want to be here anymore & all the familiar sayings ring alien,
harsh-lit, an opacity you are forced to accept: I feel like
she’s slipping away. When your mother dies, she’ll have already
grieved too many losses: her parents, her closest-to-heart sisters,
her baby brother Nick. Her son/your brother.
Steven. The echo of grief lasting
as long as the ache in the bones of a long life, longer than cigarettes
and liquor and stress might invite—


In Spring, maybe I’ll be alive again. In the fall of my future
I’ll circle the square
three times in the City of Fools. Three times
they’ve carved out my core, what they call ruined
parts of me removed and nothing
replaced. Stitches stay
unraveling. In between—

the hail, the rain, sun beating
down. In better memories, the Bay of Nice
at my right, I’ll walk far enough
for my left knee to swell. I’ll arrive in yellow
to eat veal & drink an almost-glass of Sancerre,
take the later evening
to rest. In twin dreams I forget logistics,
forget keys in cars and luggage in trunks.
I forget what goes where & as punishment
I’m stuck where I don’t want to be. I believe
a body is home for the time it breathes.
In between, the pain of what we do to it,
what we allow, refuse, endure. No one ever
told me I could allow pleasure
on my own terms. I had to decide.


In a family of madwomen & mean men
I learned how not to fail in public
but knew it would happen again. The world we belonged to
didn’t want us as ourselves, but as bodies as functions. On a map
a place like that has no ridges. It is invisible, almost—
mapped inside the violence mapped by force
inside men and their brick hands and mortared language
shutting us hard into silence. Once, someone told me
Too much smiling gets a girl in trouble.
If I protect my own teeth from the corrupting air
what happens to everyone else’s?

Once I was a sailor. I talk about it
so I can believe it. I wear all my long necklaces
at once & lace my ears with sunstone
& have only one tattoo. I love so much it all falls out,
not unlike blood from deep cuts. My grandmother
sat at the head of her dining table one Labor Day
& in a lull turned to me & said
all the people I knew are dead. Too often now
I wish for low clouds to fill the echo
of absence, to make it visually
& beautifully undefined, as we’re left
on this side of unknowing, without them

Poem copyright 2022 by Khadijah Queen. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Khadijah Queen debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Better Living”  and  “Bordeaux Aubade

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

by Khadijah Queen

According to whatever magazine
trying to sell me ________
gloss rules bounty,
happiness, what’s called tasteful
color, arranged
space, minimal, to me
so abstract even in my new
income bracket. On my ninth
birthday the white friends
I invited home for
my party couldn’t come,
their parents finding
our address in the ghetto
I called a neighborhood, a street
where I sped my tassel-handled bike
streaming pink and lavender and light
blue in the whizzing wake of fast cars,
a home with people eating
greens for breakfast and cereal
for dinner and bean soup
when money got low and
everything still tasted too good
because we knew what it felt like
to go hungry. The ghetto a site of invention
even if you only learn
to invent your means of escape.
Sometimes another view
changes your own. When I describe
a thing as ghetto, I mean invented
from scraps, from polluted air, starved
belly squeeze and small body hiding from
stray gang/cop
bullets or family fists
or the smoke that fills
the lungs of those who made you,
whose care singes
and soothes in the span of minutes,
salve and slap. When I say
my mind has ghetto shapes
I mean the chaos panic
I move through like L.A.
Colors-era streets with danger
and death as ordinary a shade
as trees the city
ripped out in the name of close
surveillance. The urban
planning didn’t account
for busing to preserve what
I already knew.
Who I softened into despite
buckled concrete miles I tripped
and ran over in cheap white shoes,
toes poking through too-big
socks folded into necessary discomfort,
who counts luxury
not as owning or labels or jewels
or even bragging rights. I claim a self
beyond place. You can’t know me
or my hood, your language
too small, too fake.
Let a real one tell it.
A self in a place so safe
it must be and can’t be white
can’t help living better.
No one else gave me this
furniture. I bought it, and yes,
on credit. Obsessed with earning
and proving. On Crenshaw,
I learned to skip red, blue, to love
purple. Black. Tightrope
silence when I could
read what my body made
others think they could do
to it. Fighting
for a center without moving.
Afraid of what. I can’t afford it.

Poem copyright 2022 by Khadijah Queen. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Khadijah Queen debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Choice”  and  “Bordeaux Aubade

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