profiles in poetics: Khadijah Queen

kq by hfung originalKhadijah Queen

Websites: khadijahqueen.com

inpossereview.com

www.dzancbooks.org

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 AufgabeIn Posse ReviewjubilatTuesday; An Art ProjectMandorlanew ohio reviewPMS: 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.

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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?

Writer.

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.

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profiles in poetics: Amy Gerstler

Amy G. waving in S. MonicaAmy Gerstler

Website: poetryfoundation.org/bio

How we meditate self is much our relationship and trust in the encounter of texts. Amy Gerstler is a poet of, “obsession … delightful, limber, punning lyrics of old musical comedies recordings.” Those which “[her] mother owned [and] made [her] want to become a writer.” She is a student of, “fiction, nonfiction, hybrid texts and antique writings … neurology and psychology … diagrams and maps, and ghost photos … an equal opportunity thief … without prejudice.” She dreams to better learn, “writer,” “teacher and person.” And to also to, “Spanish,” “zoo,” “[lift] weights,” and “write more standing up.”

In this interview we talk to trees, “about mortality, and what happens after death.” She states, “All sentient beings might need courage to talk about, think about and/or face the idea of their eventual non existence.” This is tensioned to the “semi immortal …. (incorrect) blithe perception that … mortality has nothing to do with [us].” We confront, “pride, the dominance of ego, how hard one’s sense of self importance dies, and how we are all the center of our own universe(s), no matter how others may see us, or even be blind to our “personhood” and sense of self.”

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature, Ghost Girl, Medicine, and Crown of Weeds. Her book of poems Bitter Angelreceived a National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1991. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. These include The New Yorker, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, several volumes of Best American Poetry, and The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.

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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?

Obsession with books and the delightful, limber, punning lyrics of of old musical comedies recordings my mother owned made me want to become a writer. Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Sei Shonagon, Lucia Perillo, James Tate, Wislawa Szymborska, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Elaine Equi, Henri Cole, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Matthea Harvey, Walt Whitman, Terrance Hayes, Denis Johnson, Eileen Myles, Albert Goldbarth, Benjamin Weissman, Charles Simic, George Saunders, Jeffrey McDaniel, Temple Grandin, Dickens, Sarah Shun Lien Bynum, John Berryman, Doestoyevski, Maggie Nelson, MFK Fisher, Philip Larkin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Russell Edson, Cate Marvin, and Rilke are just a few of my favorite writers. The list changes constantly but usually additively, rarely subtractively.

2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

One way people have really helped/mentored me in my life as a writer is by giving me jobs! I just wanted to mention that at the outset, and blow a kiss to anyone who has given or helped get me employment. Dennis Cooper is a literary mentor who changed my life early on in amazing, radical and permanent ways, and I will be processing his intellectual and artistic influence for the rest of my life, I hope. I was very fortunate to have met him at a formative time. David Lehman has been incredibly helpful and generous to me and taught me a huge amount about poetry, much by example. The late Judith Moore was fantastically kind to me as an editor. The playwright Brighde Mullins has been super supportive and an is an inspiration as writer and person. The writers Bernard Cooper, Dinah Lenney and David Trinidad have been among a few valuable writer-friends who teach me important things about writing, reading and being a teacher all the time. The poet Michael Ryan has been ultra generous and I am lucky to be able to learn from him currently. The late Liam Rector gave me the opportunity to teach in the Bennington Writing Seminars, for which I will always be grateful. Benjamin Weissman sets a great example as fierce fiction writer and artist. Brian Tucker opened my mind to the world of comics and graphic novels, no small thing.

3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?

Don’t know if I am the best judge of this currently or ever. Now especially I might not have enough distance to weigh in on this with an accuracy because I’m at a juncture in life when I desperately want my work to change and change substantially. I think maybe the work has gotten more obsessed with the concrete, the earthly, and with loss, or with different kinds of loss than earlier and I have become more interested in sound effects and working with elements of hybrid genres.

4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

YES! Fiction, nonfiction, hybrid texts and antique writings of all sorts are source material for me. I love the so called “lyric essay” and essays generally. I love writing on science, especially neurology and psychology, animals, foreign language dictionaries, and old reference and classification books of all sorts, diagrams and maps, and ghost photos, which in their own ways seep into the writing. A collagist at heart, I am an equal opportunity thief, and steal lines without prejudice from across genres.

5.) What are your plans for the future?

To try to become a better writer, teacher and person. To learn Spanish. To update my research skills. To learn to mediate. To do an internship at the zoo. To start lifting weights so perhaps my arms will look less toothpick-ish. To get a website. To write more standing up.

6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Women from all over the world are writing amazing literature in all genres. It’s a great time to be alive in that way. One example is the fact that lavishly talented African women novelists are getting published right and left lately which is exciting and inspiring and one wants a great deal more reading time to keep up.

7.) The poem ‘Bon Courage,’ is enchanted. Agile wisdom presents a theater of darkness sans melancholy. We read, “Why are the woods so alluring? A forest appears / to a young girl one morning as she combs / the dreams out of her hair. The trees rustle / and whisper, shimmer and hiss. The forest / opens and closes, a door loose on its hinges, / banging in a strong wind.” This fairytale-y drapery presents danger in a simple unthreatening scale, seeming to welcome possibility, expansion, glitter, and exploration. The girl in the poem rests her body on the forest floor listening to the trees post–modern a chaotic discourse. The girl seeems to grace beyond her years: “The girl / feels her hands attach to some distant body. She rises / to leave, relieved these trees are not talking about her.” How do you see the messages of the trees differing from the girl’s self-voice? What is the meaning of this title?

Not that what I was thinking of when writing this is the “correct” interpretation of the poem…hopefully the poem is open to various readers wandering around in it and coming to their own multifarious and idiosyncratic conclusions…SO, that said, in writing this poem, it seemed to me that the trees were talking about mortality, and what happens after death. All sentient beings might need courage to talk about, think about and/or face the idea of their eventual non existence. The three trees in the poem are horizontal, they’ve fallen or been knocked down and so they’re on their way out of this world. But trees break down slowly, more slowly than humans do, so they have plenty of time to experience and think about their passage into nothingness. The girl is young and healthy and still at a stage where she feels relatively sure of her body and semi immortal, so it’s her (incorrect) blithe perception that the trees’ conversation centered on trepidation about mortality has nothing to do with her. She has the blind courage of the young. The title is a French expression which means “take heart” or “buck up” or “be brave,” something consoling like that.

8.) “Womanishness,” is a poem that pokes at lightly powered notions of sexism and how the mind is contextualized in the body. We begin, “The dissonance of women. The shrill frilly silly / drippy prissy pouty fuss of us. And all the while / science was the music of our minds.” Flesh connects extensible to the threatening music of the body. Continuing, “Our sexual / identities glittery as tinsel, we fretted about god’s / difficulties with intimacy, waiting for day’s luster / to fade so we could slip into something less / venerated.” Believe in the head bro GOD here extracts the veneration of body. This excludes music and the sacred. At the end of the poem the speaker says, “Hush, hush my love. All these things happened / a long time ago. You needn’t be afraid of them now.” How do you see these notions evolving? They are ever present, but the speaker has no anger, please elude to this poetic choice? When our identities align with our sexual ones, where does this presently place us? How do you see this aligning differently along gender?

Again, this is just my take…. but to my way of thinking, Womanishness is a slightly arch poem about sexism and gender, and language relating to same, and what gets handed down from generation to generation re: these topics. Hopefully it’s a somewhat playful poem. I wrote it partly out of surprise after several female students at an art school where I used to teach stated that feminism was totally outmoded and unnecessary because men and women are now completely equal. I am still reeling a bit from that conversation, still puzzling over it, and over the gap between these intelligent, likable younger women’s perceptions of the current state of gender equality in the US and mine.

9.) In your poem, “A Terribly Sentimental Fork,” humor is aware of itself. It is not ignorant, purposefully mimicking power structures in thought and syntax to disrupt, present sign / signifier relationships. As evidence, “Human mistreatment / of their best inventions / led this still-handsome fork / (my classic pattern’s / known as Acanthus / or Aegean weave) / to be employed prying up old linoleum. Forks are mentioned / six times in the bible!” The fork admits the mistreatment of invention, inviting us to lay in the grass with the original. In the end the fork dismally states, “Yet my fate / is shame. As if pitched here / by some tantrum-prone / god, I’ve lain for days / in the grass where / I was flung.” Can you please describe why the reconfiguration of the scheme brings us back to the pattern of the grass and how the fork and the self in body have been neglected by the ideology of Western tradition? How does invention participate in this discussion?

For me, this poem deals with pride, the dominance of ego, how hard one’s sense of self importance dies, and how we are all the center of our own universe(s), no matter how others may see us, or even be blind to our “personhood” and sense of self.