Poet Of The Week

Khadijah Queen

     February 18–24, 2013

Khadijah Queen is the author of Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic 2008) and Black Peculiar, winner of the 2010 Noemi Press book award for poetry and finalist for the Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books. Her work appears widely in journals and anthologies, including Best American Nonrequired Reading, Eleven Eleven, Memoir, Tuesday, An Art Project and jubilat. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony, her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times. She works full-time as an editor for a finance company.

La Katrina

 
Unravel your hurts at night.
     Unfurl them, sacred flags,
     And hoist them
     Above your body, of course

You are alone.
     Even when another’s breath
     Guides yours, glides
     Airily into you, you are alone.

Believe there is only one.
     Accept it as the most
     Forgotten of all truths.
     Even in the arms

Of marigolds, one. Of course
     You are alone. Unravel
     Your hurts at night.
     Hoist them, little postcards

Against a blooming sky.
     Count them
     As they float back down,
     Cover you,

Fold them and tuck them
     Like kisses under your skin,
     Like masks of afternoon,
     Tender as the leaves of limes.

Of course you are alone.
     There is no mercy
     Except that which you grant yourself.
     Even alone, even at night,

Your body covered in cempoalxochitl,
     In the thriving pain
     That has unpacked you,
     Tricked you, turned you

Inside out, there is no mercy
     Except that which you grant
     Yourself. Unravel your hurts at night,
     Your body singing black corridos.

 
–From Conduit, Black Goat/Akashic, 2008.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“La Katrina” is that rare poem which came to me almost exactly as it stands word-wise; in revising, the form took shape, the way it looks on the page. I wrote it not long after Hurricane Katrina; I was living in Atlanta at the time and volunteering at a shelter for some of the people who were displaced by the storm, listening to their stories; so many wanted someone to just listen. One woman described bodies floating away in the toxic floodwaters, and people stranded on roofs as we all saw on the news, left to their deaths. It was just devastating, how deeply alone they felt, and then I felt alone myself in a different way – had just had my heart broken, shattered really. I was also studying the Spanish language and Mayan and pre/colonial Mexican history at the time, and all of those subjects and stories and thoughts and feelings converged to become that poem. The whole book is rather melancholy, but there’s a sense as well of moving through devastation with tenacity in order to survive.

What are you working on right now?

Revising book number three, deciding if it should be expanded or left as it is. I’m also working on some essays and memoir pieces, mostly about the body – disability/illness, trauma, beauty, similar complexities – but some on poetics, and random poems as they come.

So you live close to, but not in Brooklyn. Explain yourself. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

I don’t live in Brooklyn because I can’t afford to live in Brooklyn the way I want to. I am but a poor Brooklyn-taster.

I live in a hundred-year-old treehouse of sorts. It’s retreat-like, quiet, with a gorgeous view of Manhattan, the GW Bridge and the Hudson River. I write poems on my balcony when the weather is nice; NYC by visual osmosis. But most days I get up early, before my son gets up, make some tea or cocoa, sit at my kitchen table – I have a huge, yet cozy kitchen – and write, rain, shine, snow or wintry mix (although I admit I can’t stand a wintry mix, and stay in bed with my fluffy covers and a notebook then if I can help it). I do write better/more when the sun is out. It’s the California in me. I grew up in Los Angeles. Right now the sun is bearing down on the snow-covered trees outside my kitchen where I write this, and the ice is melting. I feel like an indoor Mary Oliver. Haha.

How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you visit? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

Lately I’m there once a week leading a workshop at Cave Canem HQ in DUMBO. It’s freezing out, so I see lots of fashionably bundled pedestrians, smokers in dark alcoves, iced cobblestone and eateries ranging from slick to homey. Back in 2008 I stayed in a friend of a friend’s railroad apartment in Williamsburg, where my fellow poets had sticky pig balls and other delicacies at an Australian restaurant called Wombat; I had a burger which ranked in the top 5 tastiest of burgers ever. Today (2/4) I went into a gallery next to the CC building and saw an exhibition of photographs of kids smoking. It was disturbing yet spectacular, hard to look long at and hard to turn away from, gritty and gorgeous, hyperreal and surreal. Maybe a little like Brooklyn?

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore?

powerHouse.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?

I haven’t done much of that yet. I work a regular job during the day and have a son, so I go straight to class and then right back home on the day I teach at Cave Canem. I am also kind of a hermit by nature. I did go to a poetry festival in Fort Greene a couple of years ago, with kids and their mentors reading poetry. I remember being so impressed with the children’s work, their enthusiasm, their inventiveness and presence. I wrote some myself that day, sitting in the audience.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I don’t think I’ve discovered a favorite place yet, although Fort Greene and Clinton Hill are pretty awesome. There is so much more I need to explore. I have not had a chance to visit any coffee shops or thrift stores or anything. A tragedy. Next stop is the Brooklyn Museum. I’m sure I’ll fall in love with it.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Whitman forever. Favorite Brooklyn artist: Lorna Simpson.

Last awesome book(s) you read?

Just re-read Habibi, a graphic novel by Craig Thompson. Ancient, Ancient, short stories by Brooklynite Kiini Ibura SalaamFando y Lis, a chapbook by Natasha Marin. Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, The Joy of Cooking by Tan Lin. The Vital System by CM Burroughs. Re-reading Milosz’s collected and Ann Lauterbach’s The Night Sky. Looking forward to R. Erica Doyle’s proxy and TwERK by LaTasha Diggs.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Brooklyn,
And what I do you should do,
For every street conceit belongs to me as good kids with
     cigarettes 
belong to you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Not sure I’ll call it a poem; maybe an awkward draft.

Self-Portrait with Brooklyn Envy

 
If I am a self or a portrait with verse for a father
I am a picture of bridges and Dodgers,
brown limbs and black jack,
filth-shoed and robbed
and dying to eat biryani, a sin
I have to lassi-coat my pen,
my hair double-braided with love,
twisting a gullet trying to look at Brooklyn
the way it looks at me when I listen to Biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

I think your Instagram photos answer that question.