In late 2011, I began a series of interviews that resituate the questions asked of male writers by interviewers at The Paris Review. Some question sets are archival and some are recent, but each interview I conducted is an inquiry into the gender dynamics of the literary interview. The setup is conceptual, but as the conversation progresses it can shed new light on the interview form or uncover surprising information about the subject—like in this interview, when I learn about Khadijah Queen’s experience dropping out of art school quite by accident.
I should note that I was an editor for Noemi Press at the time that Khadijah’s book Black Peculiar was published.
This interview borrows questions asked by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah of Samuel R. Delany in The Art of Fiction No. 210 from the Summer 2011 issue of The Paris Review, Issue No. 197.
Krystal Languell as Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Was being a prodigy important to you?
Khadijah Queen: I think it was more important to my parents. I learned to read when I was 3 years old. I was supposed to have been skipped from the 1st to the 3rd grade but I didn’t want to, for a lot of reasons, and I think they had to let me develop at my own pace.
KL-RKG: What was your daily routine like in those days?
KQ: When I was 3 or when I was in the first grade?
KL: That’s up to you.
KQ: I’m gonna say first grade because I don’t remember much from being three, besides reading and crying and playing with my sisters. I would get up and have breakfast and my mother usually made something hot like malt-o-meal, I don’t know if anybody remembers malt-o-meal, and some toast and juice or some milk. Then we would walk to school together, my younger sister and I; she’s a year younger. Then we would be in school and then we would play after school. Then we would have our baths and go to bed after we ate dinner.
KL-RKG: Do you think of yourself as a genre writer?
KQ: No, not at all. I think I’m anti-genre, though I respect the demarcation lines to some degree. I enjoy the subversiveness of playing with the boundaries of genre.
KL-RKG: When did you decide that sex was important to your work?
KQ: I don’t think I ever decided that. [laughs] I didn’t decide that. But I’ll decide it right now. For the next book.
KL-RKG: Do you still feel that tug between the urge to put something into language and the urge to fend off writing?
KQ: A few of my writer friends and I talk about existential crises pretty regularly. We get sick of writing and feel we have to do something else, anything but writing. I’m coming off a period like that where I wasn’t writing for a couple of months, and this month I’m doing poem-a-day.
But what interferes with the instinct to write is sometimes the business of writing. Sometimes it can be tainted to some degree and one has to get back to the purity of the actual creation of the thing.
KL-RKG: In your writing, you seem fascinated with cities and the contact they provide. Where does that come from?
KQ: I wouldn’t say that I’m fascinated with cities so much, but I am interested in cities. That might come from moving around a lot. I went to 16 different schools and so place has always been a thing that I struggle to define and had to sort of make within my own self in terms of a home. But I am interested in the way that cities, that place influences people.
KL-RKG: You were an adult and a published writer when you first came upon the word dyslexia and realized it described some of the difficulties you experienced with writing. Did having or not having a word for it make a great difference?
KL-RKG: But you were already serious about writing?
KQ: The first day I learned how to write.
KL-RKG: That’s something else you read when you were 13. How did it affect you?
KQ: It affected me deeply. I turned away from everything I knew previously.
KL-RKG: Did college not excite you in the same way? Why did you drop out?
KQ: I dropped out of art school because I wasn’t having any fun, number one. It felt like a prison. Creativity was a thing to be boxed up and marketed. It felt like creativity by force and concentrated on production and not necessarily exploration. The idea that you should make stuff for purposes of packaging yourself and limiting yourself to one thing that is marketable made me drop out.
KL-RKG: What would they [teachers] have said?
KQ: They might have said that I was whiny or I had too much other stuff going on or that I was lazy. But they would be all the way wrong. One did say: Clearly, Khadijah reads.
KL: And that was it?
KQ: It was a lot more, but I would like it to be mysterious.
KL-RKG: You’ve said you don’t do research . . .
KQ: No, I didn’t say that.
KL: What is the role of research in your work?
KQ: I think in my first book research was especially important; it was the catalyst for some of the poems. I was really interested in pre-Colonial Mexico, and I was studying the Spanish language as well as the history of women and resistance and coming to terms with the things that were going on with the Katrina situation and a long-distance relationship I was in—it was this convergence of research and present time. I’m very interested in that idea, and I continue to do that in my writing.
KL-RKG: Was it fun to write?
KL-RKG: You have described previously a moment of transition. Has that transition continued?
KQ: I think there are cycles, and there are always transitions between those cycles. So I wouldn’t say continuous but intermittent.
KL-RKG: Did you intentionally want to make something the reader can only speculate about rather than be certain of?
KL: How do you mean?
KQ: Sometimes it’s interesting to see what different people will come up with. I’m indirectly influenced by jazz because my parents made me listen to it. Both of them; my mom was a singer and my dad played the drums, so they—it was a very musical family, although I didn’t really like jazz so much when I was a kid growing up. It could be interpreted in many different ways, and even if you didn’t want to listen, it affected you in some way; whether that’s negative or positive or remains to be seen. But I think the idea of creating something that can be individualized is fun. It’s nerd-fun for me.
KL-RKG: Do you revise every day?
KQ: Not really, but often.
KL-RKG: Is it a difficult regimen?
KQ: To write every day? Yes. It’s a constant challenge to make the time to write. I try to do it every morning, but I recently started working full-time after working part-time for years. I’m struggling to get up that extra hour early and just put it down. So it’s hard.
KL-RKG: Does your teaching get in the way of your writing?
KQ: No because I’m not teaching. I work from home as an editor for a finance company, and I have a son. It works out. I don’t have to put him in after-school care or anything like that. I’m there for him when he gets home from school and that’s important to me.
KL: What are you working on now?
KQ: I’m working on a book-length project that is much, much longer than my other two books so it’s difficult to wrap my arms around right now. I’m just continuing to write and I feel like I’ll know when it’s done. It’s a big project and it encompasses some issues I’ve had around my health—I have fibromyalgia. And my time in the US Navy. Recently, in fact just last week, I found out that my grandfather who I never met is from the Virgin Islands. My father was adopted so he didn’t know who his father was, and he recently found out. So I’m writing a lot of poems around my father’s conception and starting to dig into the history of the Virgin Islands, doing research.
It’s a big, wide-ranging behemoth that I hope I can put together.
KL: Do you know about the research and the collages that Harryette Mullen is doing about her genealogy?
KQ: No, is that out?
KL: It’s something she’s in the process of right now. She did some events with the Belladonna book Looking Up Harryette Mullen last summer  and at the event at Poets House she showed some slides of collages she’s made from old-old, great-greats, photos she’s acquired, and told some stories both about her process in doing that research and stuff that she’s discovered.
KL: She used one of those websites and just found huge amounts of information right away.
KQ: Yeah, Ancestry.com. I know a lot about my mother’s side of the family because one of my aunts did that. There’s some stuff on Ancestry.com. I haven’t paid for it yet. I’m kind of freaked out so I haven’t dug all the way in there yet, and I’m kind of waiting for information to sink in, and for my dad to be ok with knowing. It’s a little crazy right now but we’ll definitely get on that after we talk to the family because it’s a giant branch of the family.
KL: So will that be a hybrid genre book when it comes to fruition?
KQ: It’s definitely a mix of everything I can throw in it.
KL: How is a poem-a-day going for you?
KQ: I usually start out with notes I already have, and that way it’s easier to get in there because you’re revising notes. Once you get into the middle it starts to get harder. But since I found out this information about my grandfather, they’re just pouring out. I have to write it out until I figure it out. So I’m not having any issues this month.
KL: What are you reading?
KQ: I am rereading Mosquito by Alex Lemon, which I really adore and Orphan Fire by Alissa Valles and Coming to Writing by Hélène Cixous. And I’m reading The Hobbit to my kid.
Khadijah Queen is the author of two poetry collections: Conduit (Black Goat / Akashic Books 2008) and Black Peculiar, winner of the 2010 Noemi Press book award and finalist for the Gatewood Prize at Switchback Books. Her work, four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, appears widely in such anthologies and journals as jubilat, Memoir, Eleven Eleven, Villanelles, Best American Nonrequired Reading and Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing. Her visual and sound work has been presented at the Seattle Art Museum, EYEDRUM Gallery in Atlanta, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, the Norman Mailer Center and Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she works as an independent writer, artist and editor.