This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Khadijah Queen’s Conduit (Black Goat, 2008).
H. L. Hix: The first poem in the book appears to me to be structured by its first and last lines: “You could drift off” (15) … but … “The whole point is to sink…. To know what runs through” (24). Is this premise/metaphor — that sinking grants the stability to know the transitory (or something like that) — one that informs the whole book, or only this first poem?
Khadijah Queen: I do feel that I was exploring the nature of experience/experiencing – in reference to relationships, self-awareness, and living/reality in general – and finding incredibly poignant contradictions that I didn’t want to alienate from each other. Yes, then, that premise does inform the entire book, which is part of why I chose it to be the first poem – to set the tone, offer a clue into the ones to follow.
HH: If sunken/drifting is a contrast present in Conduit, “rough and holy” (46) seems a conjunction equally present. Am I making too much of that one line, to roughness and holiness conjoined throughout the book?
KQ: I love that you found that conjunction in the book, and notice its significance. Embedded within it is a sense of finding something valuable and praiseworthy, in witnessing and surviving the difficulties we and others experience. Its application ranges from literal to metaphorical; i.e., from actual physical violence to the tactile sensation of running one’s fingers over ancient human-worked stones, from navigating the complexity of relationships to searching one’s own interior for unadorned reconciliations and recognitions of all kinds – especially the thorny ones, the realizations about ourselves we want to hide from but ultimately, if we want to evolve, cannot.
In a more general sense, the process of writing this book was also for me a meditation on how (our own and others’) past histories inform present actions, choices, existences. There’s something sacred in honoring that thread of continuity, but also a kind of vulgarity in the ways histories large and small can brutalize, can infect the present and the future. So, “rough and holy” encompasses that dichotomy.
HH: The last line of the last section of “Ways to Unsettle the Flesh” — “Risk all reason for vigilance” (63) — takes the imperative mood, as do many of the lines in that poem. How particular or how universal is that imperative? I.e. is the imperative spoken to the imagined addressee in the poem, and I the reader overhear it, or is the imperative (also) spoken to me?
KQ: While I shy away from the word “universal,” I definitely worked with the sense that feeling is humanizing in a different way than thinking or knowing. Much of Conduit began as a conversation with the self, an effort at reckoning the difference between reality and expectation on both intuitive and intellectual levels. I think as the writing progressed it opened out into a wider conversation that is at the same time intimate. I definitely wanted to invite the reader to have that dialogue with the text. On a philosophical level, my intention was to metaphorically call out the dangers and consequences of complacency, both on a social and personal scale. We don’t evolve as individuals, artists, humans, families or societies by settling into an unshifting, unquestioning pattern of being – so, in that poem, I was interested in the space or distance between awareness and understanding, and what it feels and looks like to traverse it.
Khadijah Queen is the author of Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic 2008) and Black Peculiar, which won the 2010 Noemi Press book award for poetry. Her work is widely published in journals and anthologies such as jubilat, Villanelles (Random House 2012) and Best American Nonrequired Reading (Houghton Mifflin 2010).