Khadijah Queen, PhD, is the author of six books, most recently Anodyne (Tin House 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes 2017). In fall 2021, she will join the creative writing faculty at Virginia Tech as an associate professor.
Noor Ibn Najam: I’m gonna start with a broader question about making art and writing. So, what is the last surprising thing that happened while you were making art or writing?
Khadijah Queen: Hmmm. The last surprising thing… The last drawing I made was just a hand holding an ice cream cone (laughs).
So, I think the surprising thing was…the lightness that I was craving, rather than seriousness. It was just like, I drew a picture of the last time we were traveling—I had this big cone of gelato. And I feel like that was the last time I had really deep joy, was being out and experiencing new things. Now that we can’t do that.
NIN: I’m sorry. Where were you?
KQ: That’s okay. I was in Florence.
NIN: Oh wow. Was that with…? You said “we.”
KQ: My son and I went to Europe for six weeks in summer 2019.
NIN: Oh wow. That feels so far away.
KQ: It does (laughs).
NIN: I’m interested: when you started to draw, did you have a blank slate in your mind, or did you go in with an intention, and then the ice cream thwarted your intention?
KQ: I felt like drawing something from a photograph, but I thought I was gonna draw one of the sites we saw, you know. Something majestic. But then I saw the ice cream cone. It had this neon green sleeve and I was like “I’m drawing this muthafuckin’ ice cream cone.” (laughter)
And it made me so happy.
NIN: Aw! I love that. So, I guess I’ll pivot a little bit towards your poems. I wanted to ask about the spacious-seeming quality a lot of these poems have, in Anodyne. You use white space in a lot of them, literally, on the page. Some of them are also double-spaced, I noticed, compared to others. I think, also, the way that you progress in your logic seemed kind of expansive—consistently. Does anything in particular draw you to write that way?
KQ: I think it probably is a habit. My first book [Conduit] was very much like that. Much more open space, staggered spacing, more abstracted narrative. But you could still follow it on a feeling. I have always been interested in that. I find that folks are more attracted to the straightforward narratives, but I can’t seem to escape the desire to open it up a little bit, to be invitational in terms of imagination. And that’s how I think about that blank space.
NIN: Mmm. So you would see that as a way of being more invitational, and less…assertive.
KQ: Less, like, definitional. So I feel like space invites you to imagine, to put your own thoughts into those spaces. Your own memories. Instead of me just telling you everything that I think. Which I find boring.
NIN: So would you say that’s a thread that links a lot of your work together? Does other work of yours have a translation of that tendency?
KQ: So first book, yes. Black Peculiar, not as much. I use more abstraction in a play: absurdity, things like that. I guess there was blank space in the couplings, with those analogies. There was a little bit of that in that book. I’m thinking of Fearful Beloved. Plenty of that work going on in Beloved. And with I’m So Fine, I don’t know that there was really room for blank space there. I was trying to smash it all, so folks didn’t have a space to breathe, actually. So I took away that space in that book.
NIN: In that book, there’s kind of a lot of small blocks. And then the space after felt like a breath to me. I’ve heard you read from I’m So Fine, there’s a lot of breathlessness. Would you say any of that has to do with this idea of expansion?
KQ: You know, I actually love that. I think that sounds great to me, I’ll go with that. (laughs) You gotta breathe after you finish reading all that I guess.
NIN: I’m really interested in how much work diction is doing in Anodyne. I think there’s a very broad use of vocabulary in that some things felt very ordinary to say…I think there were a couple of points of dialogue that felt very familiar, and then they’d be paired with not just bigger words, but seemingly very specific words, especially the nouns. I’m thinking, for example, of the poem that ends with “a sea of ocelots.” I wanted to ask, what do you think is the role of so much attention to individual word choice? What does that do to serve the content of the poems you write in particular?
KQ: I think, especially when you have fragmented stuff, specific, precise word choices can help ground and anchor the poem. They have clear meaning, and a clear image associated with them. So that’s the underlying reasoning.
And I want to share something. I was at the Well Read Black Girl Festival this weekend and Nikki Giovanni was speaking. They chose my question, which was “What is one aspect of your vision for a future of literature?” and she said “Words.” And so to me, that meant really understanding why you’re using particular words and really knowing what those words mean and what they evoke. I think words are not throwaways. We have to be really careful and considerate about the words that we choose—we’re seeing that in every aspect of our lives. We have to be precise about how we address and discuss one another. And be willing to be corrected if we’re wrong, and not take it personally, but as a learning process.
NIN: Yeah! Kind of in a similar vein, I wanted to ask about the way you use intertextuality in Anodyne. There are some writers called into the room with various epigraphs. You also opened the book with three epigraphs from three very different people—Kendrick Lamar, Édouard Glissant, and Anne Carson. What were some of the processes behind decisions to bring people, who sometimes seem to contradict, into the room? Or, when did you choose to put an epigraph vs. not?
KQ: My brain is in eighteen million different places at once, usually. (laughs)
So I wanted to respect that, and have it not be seen as something I had to narrow down and focus. In some ways it was a reaction against what I was going through at the time, which was being in a PhD program where you’re supposed to narrow everything down. I’m more interested in expansiveness, so that’s partly what that’s about. We’re taught, a lot of times, in our MFA programs—or at least when I was in an MFA program ages ago: “You can’t write an Ars Poetica.” Or, “Don’t write work after other poets’ work,” and so I had never really done either. But I was reading so much, and being affected so much by what I was reading, that I was like fuck it. I wanted to include my reading life and honor the work that had influenced me in the book.
NIN: That really resonates, thank you. Actually, I was gonna ask about your PhD process: was there a specific desire that pushed you through all the work that goes into getting a PhD?
KQ: You know, for a long time I worked outside of academia. I had never taught as a full-time professor before. I was always doing visiting things, and I’ve been writing for twenty years. It was because it felt like—I don’t know, from the people I knew it didn’t seem like it was a welcoming place. And it did seem a little unstable, and it seemed really fuckin’ stressful. I had a kid to raise, and I have disabilities. But I came across this desire to write criticism. I couldn’t do it at my regular job because they collapsed our duties and I had no more time to write. My job was taking over my whole life and I was like, this ain’t it. So I only applied to the one program in my town that I was already in. Luckily they let my ass in there. (laughs)
That desire to write this book of criticism is one thing that powered me through. The other thing was feeling like I belong there. I had four books at the time, almost five and I was like, “Why wouldn’t I be able to do this work? This is what I do, this is part of my work.” So I was trying to streamline my life instead of setting writing to the side, like I had been doing, as this other career while having a jobby-job. My son was old enough, he was sixteen at the time. I didn’t have to stay at home and be there for him, go through the daycare thing, because I was working at home. So all those factors converged. And I had a great cohort. My cohort was amazing. Brian Laidlaw was in my cohort; he dubbed us “The Golden Cohort.”
KQ: So when we came across BS—gender, race stuff—we stuck together and helped each other through it. That was amazing; it was a wonderful gift. And my professor and advisor, we had one Black woman professor in the program—she powered us through.
NIN: Wait, how many years at the program again?
KQ: It’s technically four; I finished in three and a half.
NIN: So, if you just applied to the one school, what were you gonna do if you didn’t get in? Was it kind of a decision making?
I ain’t have no Plan B! I didn’t have a Plan B at allll. I was just like, “I gotta do it, or I’ll lose my mind.”
NIN: Did some of your fears about…when you were no longer looking from the outside into this academic world, did some of your fears dissipate? Or change shape a little bit? Does it feel like some of your fears were warranted?
KQ: I think because of my age I stopped giving a fuck.
NIN: Fair enough!
Shifting gears a bit: how would you characterize your process of structuring a poetry manuscript? How does it feel, to you, to do that?
KQ: It’s different for every book. I respect what the book needs in order to become itself.
NIN: What did this book need?
KQ: For Anodyne, it needed a little time and space. I wrote a lot of those poems in the months following the 2016 election. So probably the tone is pretty gloom and doom. (laughs)
I literally felt like we were all gonna die. And here the fuck we are in a pandemic! Sorry I keep cursing.
NIN: It’s okay. I cuss all the time. (mutual laughter)
KQ: (deep breath)
Oh my gosh, it’s so nice to breathe again. But that book, I didn’t even think of as a book, really. I just was writing some poems. And because in my PhD program we had to do a poetry workshop, I ended up writing poems. But I knew I wanted to write a critical manuscript, so I was writing that alongside those poems. And then I got asked if I had a manuscript by Tin House and I was like, “I got a manuscript, I got like two hundred poems so maybe I could just make it into something.” And I just went through the process of weeding out which ones were strong, which ones were not ready… Printing them all out, moving them around on the floor in the living room, that whole thing. Then sending it to the editor, getting feedback, and then writing a few new ones. So the more hopeful ones are newer, like “Double Life,” although I don’t know if you’d call that hopeful, I guess. That one is definitely newer. And then, also, knowing where to sprinkle in some of the older pieces, like the odes, like the “sea of ocelots,” the one you mentioned—those are ekphrastic.
What else is older? Oh yeah, all the odes. “New Jersey Transit Passenger Ode,” and the other one that has New Jersey stuff in it. It feels like—I think visually, composition-wise. When I’m making a poem and when I’m making a manuscript. It’s both how it flows thematically and how they look together. I have to physically move them around. I can’t just end it on a page. That doesn’t work for me. Multiple printings. I’m sorry, trees. But I try to use the backs of paper.
NIN: Mood. (loud noise from outside)
Hold on a second…. They really love dirtbikes in Philly.
KQ: Oh, you’re in Philly! Thank you, Philly.
NIN: I am. I’m right on the corner so it’s really loud!
I love what you said about wanting them to be compositionally sound—visually, as well. What do you look for when you’re looking for poems that look good together?
KQ: I don’t yet know how to articulate that. It’s like intuition, a feeling, a recognition of pattern, I guess you could say, and knowing where to vary that pattern. If they all look the same, what am I even doing? Unless it’s like I’m So Fine, where they all look the same and the content is sparkly enough to add the variation.
NIN: We kind of touched on this earlier, but is there anything important that all your books have in common? You talked about how each one feels different to make, but is there some sort of essential thing you find is always there when you’re making a poetry book? Or, if not, why do you think that might be?
KQ: I feel like the voice is the same. I feel like you can recognize a sort of…I guess it is quiet. I am a quiet person, but I’m also a strong person. So there’s this quiet strength of voice through all of them. There can be like a flat, deadpan humor in some of it. (laughs)
So that’s that. I think those two things.
NIN: In the time that you’re not writing, do you find that other creative impulses come up? Or do you tend to work on things at once?
KQ: I tend to work on multiple things at once. But it’s sort of changing. When you have a deadline, it can change. Before I worked on deadline, I was usually working on multiple things. I mean I guess I kind of am now. Working on editing the memoir again. I’m on the third draft of a memoir about my time in the Navy and adding some more essays to it, rethinking the order. But I also have three other projects on the backburner. If I feel like working one of the other ones, I will do that. I just made myself a little area to make some art, cause I miss doing that. Just for me, not for any show or anything. Just because I like making stuff. So I’m trying to make more room for pleasure. But for sure, I’m working on multiple things. And I did write a standalone essay about the pandemic. That was also a zuihitsu…the editor at Harper’s was like “Well, we can make it more an essay….” (laughs)
So, it became less a poem, more an essay. I wrote that in May.
NIN: I did catch that, it was beautiful.
KQ: Thank you.
NIN: When you’re working multiple things, do you find they bleed into each other, or talk to each other? Or is multitasking more of a way for you to compartmentalize different concepts?
KQ: I feel like, as I’ve gotten older, there’s less compartmentalization. But I will go back to the unity of voice that I think is there. I rely on that. And then I’m free to do whatever I want, shapewise.
NIN: Your security, when we were talking about academia, and about letting that voice be enough—just trusting that completely—is really admirable.
Okay, I have two more questions. I wanted to ask: I was listening to Rachel Zucker interview you (that was a great interview.) One thing you said was (approximately) that imagination is a space of liberation from the outside world. Especially for people that are marginalized, and just deal with a lot because of society. I wanted to ask how that belief affects your relationship to publishing or bringing the work from inside to outside, to show. Is there anything inside that you think should stay there? Or that you would refuse to write, or publish?
KQ: Probably. But I think I wanna say: from the beginning of my writing, I had kept some things for myself, but I was always in conversation and in love with poetry. I always read a lot. When I first started I was a new mother; I was still in the military. I took a poetry class online through University of Maryland. It was a beginning poetry class, and the professor asked us what poetry was. And I was like “It’s what you feel, it’s whatever you want!” and he was like “Okay, we’ll see what happens by the end.” (laughs)
NIN: Love that.
KQ: I don’t know, I just fell in love with it. I’m trying to remember who it was that unlocked that for me. I kind of hated Walt Whitman, and the whole “I” thing. I think it was Sylvia Plath. I was like “Oh, poetry can do this thing.” I went to the Barnes and Noble and started reading everything in there. I started with A. When my son would take a nap I would walk over there, it was like a block away, and I would just read everything I could in there. I got Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats. Changed my life. Changed my whole fuckin’ twenty-five-year-old life. I got this anthology edited by Czesław Miłosz called A Book of Luminous Things with international poetry in it. I got Fernando Pessoa. From the beginning, I was learning how expansive language could be, and that that was a home for what I was thinking and feeling. So, to go back to your actual question (laughs) about power: when you are disempowered, actively, in the world, your imagination is your own power. What you choose to do and make is within your own power. So if I prioritize, center, and nurture that—the outside shit, it won’t matter. I will be sustained by what I have made and what I have allowed for myself.
NIN: That was beautiful, thank you.
Okay, I have one more question. You hold many identities and roles that found their way into Anodyne, either indirectly or directly named. There’s mentions of mothering and your chronic pain that you deal with, visual art, and then academia is mentioned. I think it was in that “Double Life” poem. And then there’s Black womanhood and a lot of other hats…I’m just gonna stop there.
You’ve spoken about leading with your center. What happens when those expectations clash? Do you have to choose a priority, or do you find another way to navigate tensions in what you are expected to do?
KQ: You know, I think it depends on the circumstance. But I usually try to pick the thing that involves the most care. I also lean on my community, my sisters, and my friends. You can’t do this shit by yourself. It’s really impossible. You have to learn how to ask for help, and it’s not necessarily easy to be able to articulate that. So that was a whole process. But once I learned that I could ask for help, and have people that I could really rely on in my life, that was really a game changer as well.
NIN: Wow. I think it’s interesting you’re saying that you do so many things, and that has highlighted a need for other people and community to help you. Like diverse people to come in and do the work with you. Wow.
KQ: And also, Instacart. (laughs)
NIN: Also Instacart.
KQ: And also like, delivery. What’s the other thing? Every now and then, I will get somebody to come bring food to the house. Because I can’t muster the energy to cook—literally my body is like “I don’t know what you thought, but your ass is staying in the bed.” (laughs)
NIN: I love this. There’s been a push for more mutual aid in Philly, since we have a mix of people who have moved here, young Black people, and people who know the area, who talk to neighbors and see who needs help.
What you said kind of makes me think of that. This push to help each other and let that be the practice, instead of trying to figure it out alone and burning out.
KQ: Absolutely. And disability is expensive. People think “Oh, people just want benefits” and all the other BS and myths about faking illness to get assistance…it’s SO HARD to get what you need to live, and benefits ain’t shit! It is not anywhere near enough to live on.
And you spend it on your health. I get acupuncture every other week, I go to the chiropractor every other week, I have to get massage therapy. If I don’t, like in the pandemic when I wasn’t getting it, in the early part, before people knew what to do, I felt that difference. It takes a lot of help just to function at baseline.
NIN: I’m really glad you have that network.
Well, those are all the questions I have for you.
KQ: It was a pleasure.
NIN: Thank you. Your answers were super generous and I really appreciate it.