How to Detonate a Landmine: An Interview with Khadjiah Johnson

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker contributor Khadjiah Johnson chats with Thomas Fucaloro.

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Khadjiah Johnson is a writer and humor advocate reigning from Brooklyn. She is a Louis B Goodman Creative Writing nominee, the runner-up recipient for the 2015 NYC Youth Poet Laureate title, and her work has taken her to various festivals and institutions such as The Brooklyn Book Festival, NYU, Lincoln Center, National Black Writers Conference, plus her Off-Broadway comedy Cozbi’s Kitchen was featured at the New York Live Arts Theater. You can catch her studying, and occasionally teaching writing workshops, at Brooklyn College.

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The first time I had my hand on a slave    I felt their sovereignty collapse    Their crowns colliding with the praise dance of my slave ship.   I came from a lower class    “white privilege”    You understand, right? To have a body    people crave to    but refuse to accept the negative connotations that come with it?

Khadjiah Johnson, extract from "How to Detonate a Landmine"

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TF:  Your poem, "How to Detonate a Landmine" is really powerful. Under the title you have a small dedication, "Inspired by the novel Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner." What's the bridge you are trying to build between these  two poems?

KJ:  The novel Absalom Absalom came as a surprise to me, and so did this poem. It was supposed to be a letter from Thomas Sutpen (a character in the book) to 22nd century Brooklyn. Brooklyn is home for me, and I also categorize it as a Landmine. I figured it as two ways. 1) Brooklyn is home to a bunch of culture and talent that could set off at any moment. 2) Brooklyn is also becoming gentrified, and that’s how you tame a culture, by subjugating it to modern slavery. Therefore, Sutpen is trying to detonate the landmine "trying to stop the culture" by becoming the media. Taking something that POC has been doing for a while and painting it in a negative light. Love, music, hairstyles and perspectives on religion and turning into something that will be tainted as long as it has “black” behind it.

TF:  There are four periods in this poem and a whole lot of question marks. Can you talk a little about the punctuation and formatting of this poem - was it a conscious effort to do this? Why?

KJ:  I wanted the poem to be tiring to read. I believe text painting is a way to enhance your work. The poem when you read it out loud should feel as exhausting as gentrification. The question marks are all rhetorical questions. Throughout the piece Sutpen is not actually questioning "will black progressiveness survive", but he is rather exerting his own belief saying that it won't. It's like seeing a Donald Trump supporter and they are completely convinced that slavery will begin again right after he gets elected. Sutpen is that supporter, so he is going on this rant, trying to bring down everything that was created. Sutpen's lack of periods and obsession with rhetorical questions is his "fallen angel" complex. He sees himself higher than, despite him being born into a poor white family and having a black child because he thought he had sex with a white woman. See how karma works?

TF:  You are a spoken word poet; how do you get the poem to sing on the page? Is it difficult to separate your performance voice from your page voice?

KJ:  To be honest, yes. My performance voice is how I talk, and I also try my best to write my poems the way I speak as well. I often speak in parables, so I will try my best to reflect that on the page so when I perform it I don't feel like I have to step out of myself and "take on another entity." I love playing around with enjambment in my poetry because everything can become a double entendre. You won't believe how quickly a poem gets sexual simply because you put another word on the next line, and I absolutely love it. Nowadays I try to "play with form." I might not have a set organized line. At times I would make an accidental contrapuntal, other times my poem somehow resembles a cross when I am done, I don't want to keep form to a limit. We all come in different body types, so do poems. I never want to get to the place where I feel like poetry can’t look like this, I want to live this earth with open interpretations and putting it into practice with your work is the first step.

TF:   I know you are currently working on a talk show and it is in the beginning phase. What brought that on about? Are there any connections you can make between talk show hosting and poetry? If you have any links you would like to share with us, please do.

KJ:  My show "KiCon" came about after I started studying late night. I recently decided to mesh my appreciation for poetry, my complicated relationship with politics, and my obsession with comedy all together in one bracket. My one of my ultimate career goals is to become a Late Night Writer. Poetry and Talk Show hosting is very similar and people won’t realize it until you are making the script. The discipline poetry gave me really helped me with cultivating my script. Though I am just beginning, I already see where I should be cutting and I am still trying to get the feel for it. Poetry will teach you how powerful metaphors could be if you use it in the right way. Hosting/performance will teach you how to bring these metaphors out differently. I recently completed my second episode. I thought it went pretty cool considering how nervous I was when I released the first one. This time, I did not drop my laptop and run away from it. This time, I nervously walked away and made myself some tea, and pretend that my self-confidence is not hitting an all time low.

TF:  I think poetry, regardless of what scene you are connected to, is going through some big changes. What's your philosophy on the current state of the poetry scene?

KJ:  I can probably say I grew up in the poetry scene. I thought I was crazy for saying that until I realized I was in the poetry scene for about a quarter of my whole life. The poetry scene is becoming more aware and it is helping other people become aware and that is what I always loved about it. Being involved in the scene became like a second church for me. It helped me become more empathetic and understanding of situations, as well as my own privileges. I believe the poetry scene will continue to grow as long as the members make that their main focus. As much as I love to talk about the problems with patriarchy, depression, living life as a black woman who has to go through both the struggle of being black and not being taken seriously because I am a woman, I think I would like to focus on positivity as well. It is a privilege to think about happiness despite my anxiety but at the same time I think life gives these little short bursts of happiness that would be great to hear about every now and then. There’s nothing more beautiful than eternal joy and I wish people would feel this joy more often.

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Submissions for great weather for MEDIA’s anthologies are open October 15  to January 15.

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker is a fearless and dynamic collection of contemporary poetry and short fiction by established and emerging writers. This is essential reading for everyone looking for the innovative, the reflective, and the fearless.  The anthology also contains an interview with musician Thurston Moore.