Strong Words

In Regis professor’s searing poetry, social issues become personal.

With her sixth book, Anodyne, released in August to wide acclaim, the summer of 2020 should have been a time of savoring success — and flying around the country meeting fans and signing books — for poet Khadijah Queen. Instead, the hot months were for her, like many others, a time of reckoning.

As the country around her burned both literally and with the heat of racial injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic continued its rampage, the acclaimed poet and Regis assistant professor of creative writing put poetry aside.

“I feel like I need beauty to write poetry, and I haven’t been able to do the things I normally do to access beauty,” she said. Those things include experiencing nature, visiting the Denver Botanic Gardens, and even traveling, she said.

“Poetry is a place to stop and feel the meaning of what we say. It’s a way to find a language for what we feel,” she said. But this summer, “Grief is the feeling that settled over me.” So Queen, who has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Balcones Poetry Prize, turned to what she calls “practical prose.” “It seemed to me there is an absence of that now. Nobody’s doing anything about all these problems.”

To one anonymous reviewer, the verses in Anodyne are a way of exploring at least one of those problems: “For Queen, the possibility of social justice begins in language, which she frames as the very foundation of the social order,” a reviewer wrote on the website Poets and Writers. An example: “Her mother had vision/ & the power in a Black woman’s name/ saves us all.”

Queen agrees with that assessment, to a point. “Certainly, a part of [social justice] is how we speak to and about and for one another. Being accurate and precise in the words we choose is vitally important.”

Queen’s latest work, like her previous volumes, addresses issues of femininity and race, intertwines violence and beauty, provokes and — as the title implies — soothes. Anodyne juxtaposes, as a Goodreads reviewer put it, “the small moments that enrapture us alongside the daily threats of cataclysm.”

Queen does this in words as lyric as they are bravely personal. The roots of her words and how she chooses them can be traced to an unlikely source: the Navy.

Queen was working two jobs, including one as a Radio Shack assistant manager, and wondering how to finance her college education when a recruiter walked into her store. “He was like, ‘you’re really great. Have you ever thought of joining the military?’” She hadn’t. But that changed when he mentioned that her service would be repaid with $40,000 toward a degree.

Her plan was to major in English and become a teacher, but along the way she discovered poetry. “I had written poetry secretly but hadn’t studied it in any serious way. But then I took a poetry class and it unlocked a whole vocabulary.”

What she calls her “poetry persona” varies, depending on her theme. Her writing persona “is not always me as my current self.”

In one of her previous selves, which appears in her fifth book, I’m so Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, Queen explores feminism and sexism as a parade of celebrities make cameos, or take on major roles.

Many of those encounters were the natural consequence of growing up in the Los Angeles area, she said. “I used to ditch school and go to the Beverly Center,” the quintessential L.A. retail destination, on the border between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. “We’d just see [famous people] at the mall . . . they were all over.”

As she got older, “I worked as an extra in movies, and I started to get invited to parties.”

Now caregiver to her elderly mother, Queen, like many of us, finds herself at home more, and maybe a bit isolated in this pandemic year. She finds hope, though, in future generations: her son, who is 20, her 5-year-old niece, and her students, both at Regis and the University of Colorado, where she also is an assistant professor.

As an instructor and a mentor in Regis’ Mile-High MFA program, Queen’s approach is to make learning a process, one that includes plenty of questioning and diverse opinions, but few absolute, right-or-wrong answers.

Whether, or how soon, she returns to the form of writing that has brought her widespread acclaim remains to be seen. But whoever writes it, poetry will endure, Queen said.

“I don’t think you can kill poetry. It’s the oldest form of telling our stories. People turn to it because it’s a condensed description of feelings we don’t have the time or energy to articulate. That’s never going to stop being important,” she said.

“Poetry is more alive now than ever.”