Bold tonic centers language in the body as emblems coalesce and decenter being. This statement elucidates poet Khadijah Queen’s need to “push to see what can be done” with “the implicit right-or-wrong-ness” of our everyday lives. In her every day, she reads and lives more, “evolving as a poet and writer and lover and mother and human being.” Originating from a background in the visual arts, language for Queen invariably attests to “redefinition or defining [multiplicity], or ways of defying definition.” Our interview sketches and reconfigures identity as it is deconstructed through Jungian archetypes, disruption, and contradiction.
Queen’s book, Black Peculiar, out from Noemi Press, expresses the “conflation of disparate ideas/objects and contradiction.” They refuse an exact statement or choice of sides. Instead we are asked to acknowledge, “perceived realities, and to make visible what might be invisible in the course of everyday living.” Perspective alternately establishes our ulterior and exterior experience as we encounter reality. The admonishment of the linear perceived sequence is centered in the body, which is often used to undermine patriarchal accents and archetypes.
Disruption, she notes in music becomes an “off-note that changes the perception of the note it riffs on, drawing attention to the meaning under the sound, or in this case the meaning under the words and of the words simultaneously.” So while we may encounter archetypes, the music of disruption simultaneously dissolves the judgment often ascribed by definition, singularity, and violence. We need this to happen in the body of the real. In Black Peculiar, we recognize the ultimate power of the body is in action.
photo credit: Han Fung
Khadijah Queen is the author of Black Peculiar, which won the 2010 Noemi Press Book Award for poetry and was a finalist for the Gatewood Prize at Switchback Books. Her first book is Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic Books, 2008) and a chapbook, no isla encanta,appeared from dancing girl press in 2007. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Idyllwild Summer Poetry, Squaw Valley Community of Writers and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony, her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times and won a Best of the Net award in 2011. Poems appear in the anthologies A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (University of Akron Press 2012), Villanelles (Random House 2012), Best American Nonrequired Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing (University of Arizona Press, 2009), Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq (Kore Press, 2008) and Women Write Resistance (Hyacinth Girl 2013). Journal publications include Aufgabe, In Posse Review, jubilat, Tuesday; An Art Project, Mandorla, new ohio review, PMS: poemmemoirstory, and Spillway. Prose appears or is forthcoming in Memoir, Cutthroat, Rattle, and The Force of What’s Possible (Nightboat 2014). She curates the literary reading series Courting Risk is currently working on an illustrated mixed genre project.
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
My parents – they are both avid readers and books, newspapers, and magazines were everywhere growing up. My favorite writers list is SO LONG. When I first started writing, I would go into the poetry section at the bookstore and start with A. I went to online databases and went backwards from Z. I still read randomly and love finding writers I have never heard of, or found through recommendations. So I will just name 10 off the top of my head. Fernando Pessoa, Claudia Rankine, Lucille Clifton, Shakespeare, Thylias Moss, Jeannette Winterson, Bhanu Kapil, TS Eliot, Marge Piercy, Jan Beatty, Walt Whitman, Bob Kaufman, Lynn Nottage. Okay, that’s 13. I am reading a translation of Solitudes by Luis de Gongora right now, which I love. It is a 16th century epic lyric, pre-Miltonian AND post-Miltonian. I’m enthralled. I would never have read something like that 15 years ago, so I suppose I’ve gained more appreciation of the substantial pastoral, the slow unfolding of an epic.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
I have been fortunate enough to have many, far too many to name here. But early on in graduate school, Chris Abani brought me out of my quiet corner in a very no-nonsense way. He saw something in my work and pushed me to develop it beyond what I could have imagined. Attending Antioch University Los Angeles for my MFA also introduced me to colleagues who have become my best friends, readers, and collaborators. I’m most grateful for that.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
It’s been hard to answer this question because my work is in the middle of an evolution now that I find I am alternately resisting and expanding into. Before I was ever serious about poetry, I did write some – I made up games based on words from the dictionary, did inverted acrostics and things like that in high school. They weren’t for sharing necessarily; it was just fun to play with language. Then some years later, in my mid-twenties, I was in the military and finishing my degree in English and took a Modern Poetry class which stoked an obsession that has ebbed and flowed since, and I began to write in earnest. My work was in a very narrative, confessional, structured vein. I used lots and lots of couplets. Haha.
Grad school opened up more possibilities – Harryette Mullen, Anne Carson, Paul Celan, etc, alongside reading Cixous, Derrida, I could go on. My work became more abstracted but I think still retained the heart/passion behind confessional style; it wasn’t ever really pure conceptualism or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E type stuff, though I definitely learned from it. I just wasn’t as attracted to theory or academicism as I was to messiness, intensity, boldness.
These days it feels like I’m moving back toward my old clear-voiced couplets again (insert gasp of horror), but retaining the series length of my two books. I’m trying to reconcile that now, to decide if I want to keep this new work as straight-up poetry or turn it into prose, or into something in between or what. For now, I’m just writing it all down as it comes, as I have time. I am also, to my own surprise, writing what I can only describe as urban nature poems. I’ve been reading a lot of Lorine Niedecker, and Mary Ruefle’s book of essays/lectures Madness, Rack & Honey is fantastic.
As to why the shift, I think just reading more and living more, evolving as a poet and writer and lover and mother and human being. One thing I can’t stand is being bored. That doesn’t mean my aim is entertaining myself or anyone else, it’s more like a push to see what can be done. I want to know what the best container is for the work, and/or question what a container can be. In that case, it’s been the same throughout my writing journey, so to speak. I’m interested in redefinition or defining multiply, or ways of defying definition.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
Absolutely, yes, with the main genre being visual art. I started out as an artist rather than a writer, studied formally for a while after finishing my first book but then returned to writing more intensely. I will always hold visual art and artmaking as a huge influence, however. I also love nonfiction (memoir, critical work, philosophical texts) and fiction as well, and write both, though poetry I can fit into my life more easily, in smallish bites. Prose and visual art generally take up more time and space than I can usually give, for now. I write it as and when I can, particularly the few times a year when I join The Grind, a writing group where you must write something every day, no excuses.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
For the next few years my main plans involve raising my son, who is 13 now. I work a regular full-time job, so writing is somewhat on the periphery for now. I do have several ongoing projects in all three genres. It’s slow going; I’m learning to be patient. I also plan to travel, lots, and go zip-lining and snowboarding before I get too old to look cool doing it in the eyes of my teenager.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I think writing by women is some of the most exciting work being made, published and unpublished. Women writers are writers; terrible that that must still be asserted, but it must. We make our way in a sometimes hostile environment, even now. But the way we make it is vital to shaping public conversations about everything.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Ashaki Jackson, Anastacia Tolbert, Bettina Judd, Natasha Marin, Sally Wen Mao, Aricka Foreman, Lynne Procope. Ariel Robello (poetry and fiction); Anne Canright, Susan Southard and Anne Liu Kellor (all nonfiction); Sophia Le Fraga…
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
9.) The first section of your book, Black Peculiar, is titled “BLACK PECULIAR :: ENERGY COMPLEX / analogies to imaginary letters to various facets of the self. “ These letters are composited into modules of speech that address meaning by relation and semiotic experiences of perspective. The extraction or exploitative consummation of language in this way allows the mind hierarchical archetype to stretch. The reference instead is circularly stamped simultaneously. Take for example: “Marked upon :: relational dark / diabetic :: aesthetics // Dear Puppets, / I want to make you say things I cannot. But I don’t want your / mouths to move.” Identity is a deconstructive parable. We are hyped up on refined sugars and the aesthetic of plastic. In this pathos we deconstruct language, identity, and archetype. Is this positive or negative, how does aesthetic participate, and how is self-concept reflected in the process?
The conflation of disparate ideas/objects and contradictions present in many of these analogies don’t mean to assign exact statements or choose sides. Rather they mean to point out truths underneath perceived realities, and to make visible what might be invisible in the course of everyday living. The multiplicity and ambiguity are purposeful, and reflect actual reality, in which many perspectives simultaneously exist.
10.) “Animus,” the second segment of Black Peculiar, specifically addresses the Jungian concept of Animus. Animus is the collective unconscious of the female as prescribed by Jung; her male inner voice as inscribed by the western tradition of masculinity. He wrote much less on the female’s experience of the animus, but briefly represented they are as follows: 1.) mere physical power, 2.) capacity to plan; the romantic man, 3.) word; bearer of the word, [and the most spiritually developed] 4.) incarnation of meaning; messenger or guide. Each poem as dream evolves in a similar fashion to Jung’s schema. The animus can be disassembling and destructive. The first poem, “Mostly to uncover the reality of my destructive hunger” in contrast to the last, “Mostly to uncover the reality that rationalization is a mechanism used to avoid pain,” presents the ways in which aggressive crippling fear evolves to feminine creative power. In the first: “He gave me nothing to eat but photographs of other people eating meat. Cooked / and raw, half-gone and about to be sliced.” And later, “He explained that parts of me have been subjugated in the name of episodic / conjuring and chronic supposition…When you are no longer the main reality / how else / will you obscure the world?” Can you discuss how you accessed this Jungian sequence and how this “reality” dissolves violence in the power of the reader and the writer? What does this say about how we address patriarchal accents in language?
I wrote most of these in a very short period of time that I can only describe as good old-fashioned stream of consciousness. When I came across Jung’s theories on the animus during research – after writing the poems, I should say – I latched quickly onto it as the mode I had entered. I felt the “he” voice so strongly that I knew there had to be something behind it – more than just a poetic conceit. The stories in my head from women I knew, from my own life, and from women whose stories I read about, seemed to share a common thread of male violence and subjugation of their voices, so much so that those voices became the same ones women tend to repeat in our heads to remain under patriarchal control. I find that breaking the sequential qualities of language, and centering it in the body, often undermines patriarchal accents. A disruption, as in music, which turns a note into an off-note that changes the perception of the note it riffs on, drawing attention to the meaning under the sound, or in this case the meaning under the words and of the words simultaneously. Simultaneity is such a natural thing, and easily dissolves, as you say, the implicit right-or-wrong-ness, the judgment that often precedes acts of violence.
11.) The final unit of Black Peculiar is titled “Non-Sequitur / ( a disjointed chorus in three acts )”. A non-sequitur argument is one that does not follow formal logic, whose conclusion could be either both true and false. This is because there is disconnect between the question and the conclusion. The archetypal characters among many include: “THE BROWN VAGINA,” who admits such that she bleeds and would rather be pink, “THE ONLINE PAYMENTS,” whose constant reminders suggest no payment, payment not received, etc., and “THE FONDLED HAIR,” who says “no,” a lot and suggests the reader to fondle her mother’s hair. The voices in the play carry on a three-act play that is at once harmonious and disenfranchised chaos. However communication takes place. In the Epilogue, “ALL PLAYERS,” are seen on their knees scrubbing the floors, two cry, and one dances. What does this say about our ability to communicate? Furthermore what does this say about language’s ability to express self, amidst these maneuvering archetypes? Why do they clean, cry, and dance?
Language isn’t always enough. Action becomes a tool for connection, and once again the body and movement figure into communication in a sublingual, subliminal way. At the time I wrote the play I was studying and making performance art, so that definitely influenced “Non-Sequitur” hugely.
While I would much rather shy away from giving a direct interpretation of the PLAYERS’ actions, one could speculate that those traditionally feminine actions, particularly cleaning and crying, are both ways of starting over and letting go. You can talk through things all you want, but until you take action, the changes you might want to make aren’t real. And dancing – I think that speaks for itself.