The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Khadijah Queen about her new collection I’m So Fine, the importance of including sexual assault as a part of everyday life, and how the poems in the collection found their form.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So I’m curious as to how you found the form for the poems in this book. I really enjoyed the prose, the breathlessness of the run on sentences, the way those run on sentences cause disjunctive moments or double meanings. Can you talk some about how the book came to be?
Khadijah Queen: It started as a top ten list of celebrities I’d met and what I was wearing. I was doing poem-a-day, and actually had nothing to write about, but I had watched Letterman and had been talking to my sister about the time we met Chris Tucker. And it began there. This was in the summer of 2013, I think. I got a few messages saying how funny it was (and people in the group don’t comment usually!) So I kept writing them, kept getting messages about how much they enjoyed the pieces. I read some aloud at a reading and they were a hit.
Brian S: Poem-a-day! I have a manuscript in search of a publisher full of a form I invented for a poem-a-day prompt. I don’t think I could do that again. It’s exhausting.
Khadijah Queen: Oh man! I did it for many years, several times a year. I love poem-a-day. I try now to do it at least once or twice annually. But my son is older, so my brain is less exhausted. 🙂
As far as the form, it didn’t ever exist as lineated poems. I tried to honor the way they came to me, and tighten later when revising
Brian S: Is that how you read them aloud, with pauses only when you absolutely have to breathe?
Khadijah Queen: Sometimes! I try to give the audience room to react, but also keep the momentum. I think I try to keep it more conversational, just a little sped up.
Brian S: Sexual assault comes up in a number of these poems—I was just rereading the David Bowie poem earlier tonight, for example, and shared that experience of learning about his rape of an underage girl only when he died. It’s a hard thing to write about, isn’t it? It is for me.
Khadijah Queen: It is, but if we don’t talk about it, then it stays under this umbrella of shame for the victim, when the shame belongs to the perpetrator. For this book, it was harder NOT to talk about it. In recounting some of the street harassment and sexual assault, it struck me just how rampant that behavior is. When I was young and taking the bus, I experienced some kind of unwanted attention every day, multiple times a day. Something’s wrong with that, and it isn’t what I was wearing. It’s a larger social issue, a safety issue, a serious cultural and human concern.
Brian S: Yeah, it’s something I’m glad to see in books, anywhere really, because when I was very young, sexual assault was something we just didn’t talk about. At all. And then in the early 80s maybe, people did talk about it, whether rape or child molestation, and as a victim who hadn’t told anyone at the time, it meant a lot not to feel alone. I still didn’t tell anyone until after I was grown, but even the knowledge that it wasn’t just me made it bearable in a way. And being a white guy, I don’t have to deal with a fraction of the harassment women get daily. It blows my mind.
Khadijah Queen: Yes, that era—even now, to some extent, as we have seen with the current political climate—was notorious for wanting to cover it up, or to silence or blame victims of sexual assault. And the silencing of men in particular—I think we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of men telling the truth about what happens to them. The veneer of propriety is a thing people seem to want to preserve at all costs. But it’s phony as hell. And we won’t come close to healing or wholeness until we address the difficulties underneath.
Brian S: I think what I appreciated most about its inclusion in this book is the, not mundane way, but the matter-of-factness in the way you talk about it. It’s there, it happens, and you’re not going to pretend otherwise to spare someone’s feelings, even about someone they may idolize.
Khadijah Queen: Yes. We can’t overlook it just because someone we love did it, or just because it was common to that era. We have to see how violence seduces, masquerades, etc.
Brian S: I may have laughed out loud in public the first time I read the one about Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali. Old pictures are never flattering are they?
Khadijah Queen: OMG NO LOL. My sister has the worst blackmail pictures of me. But in this era of carefully staged selfies, which I am of course guilty of participating in, I appreciate having those awful 5×7 prints. Keeps things 100. 😉
Brian S: One thing I’ve realized because of the gap in the ages of my kids is that I already have more pictures of my twins than I do of my older daughter’s entire life. On my phone.
Khadijah Queen: Yes, I have a ton of pictures of my son after age ten, when I got my iPhone. (I think that’s right? 2010?) Access is a thing.
Brian S: It’s the end of that poem that just comes out of nowhere—I’m riding along with the memory and the description of the outfit and then you say “& Oh God there are pictures” Just killed me.
Also, I share your love for KITT. I tried watching the show again a couple of years ago though and it has not aged well. No, it is not a good show I am afraid.
Khadijah Queen: I tried, too! I tried to get my son to watch it with me, but nooooope. I am so glad to hear that you laughed out loud. Despite some of the difficult content, I had a lot of fun writing it. I’m happy that it comes through.
Brian S: There are a lot of great moments like that in the book, moments of joy, and I’m really glad they’re in there, too. And I also think that I appreciate the book because I shared similar experiences—working in retail, working in fast food, that smell that never gets off you, the embarrassment of just being when you’re a teenager sometimes. It’s a very human book.
It was the placement of the sexual assault beside those other moments that made the book so powerful to me. We want to think of sexual assault as something unusual, but it isn’t. It’s as common as working a shit job, and the two often combine.
Khadijah Queen: It was really important to me to show how class, race, and gender interact without it being preachy. It just IS, that intersection exists, and has a voice. The commonness of poverty and violence as well as beauty and humor and friendship—all naturally intertwined, but also make for good drama. 🙂
Brian S: My other favorite moments in the book were where you share your mother’s experiences—the Billy Dee Williams and Harry Belafonte ones in particular. Does your mother know she’s in the book?
Khadijah Queen: She does! I asked her to tell me those stories, so I transcribed from her memory. She read the book over the holidays, often when I was in the room. She loves the book, cracked up laughing often. Her final verdict, spoken low-toned over bifocals: “Y’all were doing a lot more than I thought you were.” Haha.
Brian S: Ha! Do you look at what you got up to and wonder how you got through it all? And has it affected your parenting at all?
Khadijah Queen: I tend to stay present and focus on what’s in front of me, which I think is related to parenting. Kids’ needs are so immediate that you don’t have a lot of time for reflection in the moment. I wrote this book largely in the early morning hours before my son got up and before I had to work, or on weekends when he was at an activity. So I wrote what I needed to write, then started the day. But every now and then, mostly when talking to family, one of us will say—can you believe we lived through that? So yes, I suppose there is occasional marveling. But mostly, we laugh, at ourselves, at circumstances, etc. Humor is so important to survival.
Brian S: It is, especially in these times. I was a little surprised? Maybe that’s not the right word, but when the President’s name popped up in the book, how recently that was in the news (and I can’t believe he’s the president but that’s another story) and there it was in the book. I wish I could say it feels unreal, but it really doesn’t. He’s every powerful man who has never had to face the consequences.
Khadijah Queen: I wrote that not long after the election and was able to sneak it in last-minute! Along with the Hefner poem. Props to YesYes for the flex. And yes he does represent powerful men who brag about assaulting women and get away with characterizing it however they want, but he also represents the virulence of misogyny, the fact that it’s so common as to basically be considered a non-factor in a presidential election. And if that’s the case, then it seems fine for anyone to hurt women.
Brian S: Yeah, I reposted a collage I saw on Twitter of Trump and I think Woody Allen and Polanski and a couple of other famous sexual assaulters which had the caption, “Tell me again how sexual assault charges ruin a man’s career.”
Khadijah Queen: So exhausting to keep saying, no, rapey guy, it’s not about your career. It’s about the damage you’ve done to other human beings (because it’s usually not just one victim). *cough*Casey Affleck*cough*
Brian S: He’s one of the ones I forgot that was on that collage. But there are so many how could anyone keep track?
Real quick before we run out of time—who are you reading right now? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Khadijah Queen: I’m reading In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Spill, Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts, Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, and Jean Baudrillard’s The Vital Illusion. I’m on the lookout for anything by younger poets. They rock my world right now. Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib‘s book of essays this summer is on my list.
Brian S: Younger poets, yes! Thank you so much for joining us tonight, and for this amazing book.
Khadijah Queen: My pleasure! Thank you for having me.