An afternoon with Khadijah Queen, poet, author, associate professor
Queen is an award-winning author and poet and an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech.
You may not know her but you definitely should. Her name is Khadijah Queen.
An associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, Queen is an award-winning author and poet who has written six books. She moved to the New River Valley this past year and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Virginia Tech’s award-winning Master of Fine Arts program, which is ranked among the top 30 in the country in Poets & Writers Magazine annual ranking.
Scroll through Queen’s Twitter and Instagram and you will soak up a wide variety of art, self-expression, and stream of consciousness musings on the state of the world, such as Bayard Rustin quotes, recommendations for the best ribbed organic cotton socks, and snapshots of Queen attending the PEN American Literary Awards hosted by Seth Meyers in New York City earlier this year.
Her work is extremely generative, with stories within stories unfolding into myriad ideas and images. The phrases she constructs are full of depth and curiosity with refreshing joy and humor. Her descriptions are so delicious they may trigger multiple senses.
Recently, we met with Queen to learn more about her life and work. She also read a selection titled “The Rule of Opulence” from her larger work, “Anodyne." Watch her perform it in the video below.
Mark Blane: To start, let's play a little word association game. You respond with as many words and ideas as you want. First word: Movie.
Queen: I watched something recently that was so good, "Philomena."
Blane: Next is: Food.
Queen: I made a really bomb salad the other day.
Blane: What was in it?
Queen: Sesame seeds, raisins, carrots, cucumber, and I always put seasoning in my salad like oregano and salt and pepper and basil. And I make a homemade balsamic vinaigrette with olive oil and all the seasonings.
Blane: Yum. Next word: Shopping.
Queen: I do online shopping. So I picked up my groceries at Target the other day.
Queen: “Magnolia” by Leon Bridges.
Blane: Adding that to my playlist now. So let's jump in. I’ve seen in your work that you are fond of moving between forms of poetry, especially experimental ones. In “Anodyne,” I see erasure poetry, I see a sestina, a monologue even, moving between them all seamlessly. Movement, in general, is important for so many writers and artists. You have moved and lived all over. Last year you were living and teaching in Denver, but you grew up in Los Angeles. You also served in the military for several years. Movement isn’t foreign to you, and now you’re in Blacksburg.
Queen: It’s been an experience. It’s been an adjustment. I’m not adjusted yet. We stay home a lot because, you know, we [my family] all have disabilities. But we get our safety gear on for vacation time, and I’ve been to New York twice. And I love that New York has a lot of safety practices and protocols. I have been to France since I moved here. I was in France in December. I wrote a lot there, and I’m going back this summer for a James Baldwin conference. I’m on a panel with Carmen Gimenez [director of Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing MFA Program] and three of my friends, and we’re just gonna talk about James Baldwin in the south of France. But, yes, in Blacksburg the mountains are pretty. I love the sky, the sunset, and sunrise. I love Eats, the organic food store.
Blane: How does motherhood influence your teaching practice, creatively, and spiritually?
Queen: My son is 22, but because he’s autistic, I’m still his primary person. He needs help with day-to-day tasks. So I provide that now and let him do things he enjoys. I feel it’s just about care, infusing care into how I teach and the way that I construct my classes to be elastic, because I think there’s a lot of shame around disability and particularly mental health disabilities. So a lot of folks don’t make room for that in their classrooms. But because it’s an area of my research and a part of my life as the parent of a disabled child, I find it easier to make room for different ways of approaching assignments. I try constructing assignments in flexible ways. So if someone needs rigid expectations, they can have that, and if someone else needs a little more freedom to change their mind or move things around, they can do that. I try to create rigor around inquiry. Instead of what I like to call “false rigor,” which is checking boxes and following 8 million instructions you can’t keep track of, which can be boring and frustrating. I try to meet the students where they are and ask them what they’re interested in.
Blane: It sounds like a very thoughtful and safe space.
Queen: With my son, it’s been a journey. He was diagnosed with a specific learning disability in the third grade, and then in sixth grade we found out he has hyperlexia. When you have ADHD, it can present as seeing reverse letters or you can’t pay attention, but you also could be super into reading, and your language skills are very high. My son’s are in the 90th percentile, and a lot of people think of autistic folks as people who have difficulty with speech. My son never had that. It’s been a struggle to get institutions to recognize the needs he has, and he’s not alone in that experience. I try to build that awareness into how I structure my classes, and it doesn’t hurt anybody else. In fact, I think it creates a more community-led classroom experience. I teach poetry and creative writing to undergraduates. It's a place where the students can be a bit anarchic. You are encouraged to practice articulating your intuition and your freedom of thought, which is not what we’re always invited to do in this human experience, in this American experience, right?
Blane: I think many creatives and storytellers would resonate with that. I listened to an interview you did with Harper’s Magazine, and you talked about your inspirations while writing at the beginning of the pandemic. You were watching YouTube videos on the 1918 pandemic and disaster movies. Then I read your contribution to Harper’s. A zuihitsu, a Japanese form of poetry. You wrote about your mother, about tragedy, about so much injustice, even the fabric of your day-to-day life being pulled apart. What is your advice for young writers who are exploring trauma in their own work?
Queen: That’s something we discussed in my nonfiction class this past semester. And one thing that’s next to that is your approach to disclosure. Sometimes, if you feel compelled to talk about a traumatic experience, because not everybody wants to share, but if you do feel compelled to do so, you can't get it out unless you're able to let it all out. But then you can go back and revise it. You think about how you want to shape it according to what your intention is with regard to what you want to leave your reader with. I told my students this example: When I was talking to Roxane Gay about her book "Hunger," I asked her how she decided what to leave in and what to take out, and she said if she didn't want a traumatic thing repeated back to her by a troll on Twitter, then it didn't make it into the book.
Blane: That’s excellent advice.
Queen: So you can take those things you don’t want echoed back to you and put it in another shape. You can use metaphor to express it. You can use things that you know, like beauty, whether that’s observed or in language, or use sound or music to help you recognize that your experience consists of more than that trauma, that it doesn’t define you and you're capable of imagining something different.
Blane: Thank you for that. That’s like a mini master class right there. Free of charge for all our readers. I noticed on Instagram you were recently in New York presenting an award.
Queen: I was a panel judge for the Open Book Award at the PEN American Literary Awards. Seth Meyers was the host. He called it "the Oscars of books." My co-editor K. Ibura came with me. We just finished this new speculative, multi-genre anthology that will be out next year.
Blane: I have to mention your book that just turned 5 years old, “I’m So Fine.” It’s all about your encounters with celebrities (some are with close family and friends), along with one more extremely important detail - a description of what you were wearing. It’s so awesome. I’m so grateful I was able to bear witness to your vulnerable testimony. I gasped, I laughed, I teared up. I felt immersed into each experience and memory.
Queen: I'm so happy whenever people tell me they enjoyed that book. It was both the most fun to write and the most difficult to publish. All the #MeToo stuff happened about seven months after it was published, so it didn't gain traction at first. And it got rejected for years. But whenever I'd read it aloud at events, it was such a hit. I knew I had to persist, and what a gift to know that the immersive experience of writing it gets echoed in the reading experience. Thank you for spending time with it.
Blane: My last question: Do you believe in magic?
Queen: That's a complicated question. … I believe in imagination. I believe that we can use our imaginations powerfully, infinitely, in that even in our attempts to meet our imaginations, even if it seems like failures like we're still learning something, and we're pushing our imaginations further.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.