The undeniable truths in literature

Four Colorado writers discuss empathy, systems of oppression and ‘the moment.’


As demonstrations continue across the country in support of Black lives and against police brutality, national bestseller lists have seen an increase of titles on anti-racism and white privilege. The Western United States, meanwhile, has no shortage of writers with much to contribute to ongoing conversations on race, inequality and other issues of national concern. Denver, for example, saw some of the earliest Black Lives Matter protests against the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, underscoring the nationwide problem of police violence and racism. High Country News recently caught up with four Front Range writers through the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a nonprofit that supports Denver’s writing community. Each of them contributes to literature from the West in distinct, important ways.

Khadijah Queen is a poet and critic who grew up in Los Angeles and now teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Regis University. Her work, which includes I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On and Black Peculiar, explores issues of power, history, culture, sex and gender, among many other themes, with sophisticated nuance and detail.

R. Alan Brooks is a Denver-based writer who teaches at Regis University. His graphic novel, The Burning Metronome, imagines the moral failings of humans and mythical beings alike, while exploring the conflict between love and malice. He also writes a weekly comic strip for the Colorado Sun, called What’d I Miss?, in which an elderly white woman wakes from a coma and must rely on her Black neighbor to explain the changing city and world.

Suzi Q. Smith is an award-winning artist, activist and educator who lives in Denver. Her forthcoming poetry collection, A Gospel of Bones, will be published in December. Smith has also worked extensively as an activist with civil rights organizations, victim advocacy groups, arts organizations and more. She was the founding Slammaster of Denver’s Slam Nuba and spent 12 years in the poetry slam arena as a coach, organizer and performer.

Steven Dunn moved to Denver after his service in the Navy brought him to Colorado. His debut novel, Potted Meat, is set in West Virginia, where Dunn grew up, but it’s deeper themes of violence, poverty, friendship, love and familial duty universally resonate. He teaches at Regis University.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

From left to right is Khadijah Queen, Steven Dunn, Suzi Q. Smith and R. Alan Brooks.

High Country News: How can we think about the power of story and poetry in terms of creating empathy in this current environment?

Khadijah Queen: Some of my research is around how important feeling is to thinking, and how feeling and thinking aren’t necessarily separate. The importance of story to that is that — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or poetry or a play — the feeling is underneath it, giving it the truth that impacts us in the most human ways. If we have that connection with the truth of the feeling, then we are empowered to share it viscerally with someone else and can perhaps begin to understand an experience that we may not know anything about.

R. Alan Brooks: There’s this thing that I have been saying, which is whenever you encounter an -ism, like racism, sexism, ableism, whatever it is, it comes from either a failure, or a refusal to see the humanity of the other party. For somebody who’s refused, then I don’t even worry about them; they made a choice. But for people who have just failed to see the humanity, art is a very powerful way to illustrate, to build a bridge between our understanding. It’s a powerful way to be in someone else’s shoes, to see things from their perspective.

“I think that’s why art is so powerful when it comes to fueling revolution — when it comes to creating people who are revolutionary thinkers. There’s a reason why dictators outlaw art immediately.”

Suzi Q. Smith: Writing is definitely part of my way of acknowledging how I feel. And that is my usual first exploration of my own emotional body — the writing process. So that’s probably the first thing that really drew me to writing poetry. And in that process, being able to invite other people with me through that journey is incredibly valuable. The pieces that I think are the most isolating to create are often the ones that people connect the most to. And I think the more that we do that, the more we learn that we’re actually much more the same than we are different. And that’s powerful.

Brooks: Rod Serling, who created The Twilight Zone, is a big influence on the way that I write. And one of the things that he said was that when he wrote about Democrats or Republicans, he would get censored, but when he wrote about Martians, he didn’t. If I can create a story that illustrates the dynamics of how we are wrong to each other, how we’re missing each other, then we are a lot more open to receiving it. I feel like, at its core, often art is taking something that is intangible and making it tangible — like, if you ask any of us what our favorite song is, it’s usually something that communicated an emotion or experience that we didn’t have the words for. I think that’s why art is so powerful when it comes to fueling revolution — when it comes to creating people who are revolutionary thinkers. There’s a reason why dictators outlaw art immediately.

Queen: Black poets have been in a revolution from the beginning. That’s why we write, because we have things to say. If something gets distilled into a poem or a book or a piece of art, a piece of music, folks can often connect to that more immediately and more personally than they can with a historical text. Stories, however fictional they are, make the truth undeniable, if they’re clear and well-made enough.

Smith: When I think about the work that I offer to people, I do show up in a lot of different spaces that are largely white audiences — frequently people who don’t think of themselves as having racist attitudes or racist ideologies — and helping them see themselves as maybe not the hero for the first time. It’s very likely that they’ve never had to listen to a voice like mine, that they’ve never had to like actually just be in my audience. I have to enter it with a lot of truth. I don’t necessarily need you to agree with me. But I do want to make you think about something, I do want to make you feel something, I hope it makes you move different in the world. Maybe you rethink what you say before you say it, or maybe actually have a deeper expression of love for people who are not like you.

HCN: There is the work of truth and the undeniability of truth, but you also have to imagine who any given piece of work is for. What’s the challenge in that right now?

Smith: I always push back on that, because my first audience is me. Other people might like it. It might serve other people; I hope that it serves other people. But it begins with me. I need to say a thing, or I will explode. And then, hopefully, there’s an audience for it; then, whoever rocks with it, it’s for them. I know that’s the first rule of writing, is know your audience. And I’m just like, well, I’m trying not to die.

Brooks: In general, I come from that same place as Suzi: This is a thing that I want to talk about, so I’m going to talk about it. I feel like art and commerce are separate. And if I’m trying to calculate commerce while I’m making the art, then I do myself and everybody who reads my stuff a disservice.

 I’m wanting to create the art that I want to create. And then my secondary job after I create it is to get my hustle together, and figure out how to push it and push it and push it and push it. Because, you know, I am not waiting on these motherfuckers to recognize what I can do. I just do it. The Burning Metronome, for example. That is not a book about police brutality, but the first chapter deals with police brutality. And so when I sent out press releases, that is what everybody wanted to focus on. So that’s fine, because that is a true and accurate aspect of the book. It got their interest in it. And it brought people to read all of the rest of the book, you know?

Queen: Do y’all feel like folks pick up on the more sensationalist aspects of your work, and then miss the fuller, complex, human picture of it? Do you feel like you fight against that?

Brooks: Oh, yeah, definitely. I fight against — particularly with journalists — them trying to make me the story, more than my work the story. So if I write about police brutality, then what they want to ask is, “When have you dealt with police brutality?” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about the book that I wrote.

Steven Dunn: With Potted Meat, people do focus on the abuse and stuff like that, and that’s there, but, you know, there’s love and all of that, and friendship, which rarely gets talked about. People just miss it. 

Queen: It’s ridiculous, what we have to do, and it comes from a lot of white people feeling like they have to be the center of the conversation, and that they have to relate to everything that they read or be present in everything that they read, instead of looking at the human parts and connecting through the feeling, versus the people. You have to go beyond the perceptions and go deeper. People are usually skimming the surface of things, because that’s easier. It doesn’t challenge the way they think, doesn’t challenge the way that they behave and ask them to change their belief system. It means that they can just go about their business and not have to stop and say, “Wait a minute, it’s not right that this clerk is telling this Black customer that they have to show their ID and five credit cards in order to prove that they can purchase something.”

“We’re always asked to look at white people’s humanity. It’s just this one-way thing most of the time.”

Dunn: What you were saying about asking and looking at the human parts: That is interesting, because we’ve been asked to do that for white people all our lives. We get it from elementary (school) on. We’re always asked to look at white people’s humanity. It’s just this one-way thing most of the time.

Smith: It’s so important when we consider just the role of literature. It’s very easy for us to humanize white people, because we’ve been receiving white stories in a million different capacities from the time we’re born. It’s so important to be reading as many stories as you can, teaching as many stories as you can. Check your curriculum, check who you’re teaching, check who you’re reading, check who’s on your shelves. Check who you’re recommending, check your book club, all of that. Because the more different types of stories you’re receiving, the broader your perspective is and the more human you become. Save your own life.

HCN: What role do established gatekeepers have now, and do you think currently there is more opportunity to publish?

Smith: I probably quote this poem at least once a week — Cornelius Eady, “Gratitude”: “And to the bullies who need the musty air of the clubhouse all to themselves: I am a brick in a house that is being built around your house.” That’s just how I feel about it. At this point, I feel like that’s where most of my energy has been invested in — what can we build independently — and then maybe we become relevant to people outside of this, or maybe we don’t. I’m focused on primarily meeting our needs, as a collective and as a people first.

Brooks: Suzi, you know, what you said, dope, right? I feel like gatekeeping leads to specific routes, you know, of business and success, and I’m not going to exclude those routes, but I also am not going to wait on these motherfuckers. If I was waiting on people, nobody would know who I was or what I do. I do graphic novels that are a lot of fantasy sci-fi stuff. It has social commentary, it has the experiences of race in it, but it’s so outside of the paradigm — they want me to just write an essay about how a cop was mean to me one day.

Dunn: I’m always managing my bitterness around this, and I need to do better. I didn’t win some awards in a few places because my book is experimental or whatever the case may be, but then white people with the same type of book win it after that, or whatever. It is so frustrating, you know, because awards do help you get jobs and money and more opportunities. They affect tangible lives and shit. I need to work; I need money and stuff. I’m always bitter about it, but I try not to be, trying to keep moving and put my energy where it will really matter.

Queen: Gates are absurd. It’s absurd, and it serves to keep our thinking from expanding and keep us from being empathetic with one another and keep us from having relationships with one another that are authentic. It’s just recycling the same old shit. And you know, the time for that is over.

“I don’t have to create anything new for this moment, because I got plenty left from the last moment. And the moment before that, and the moment before that.” 

Smith: People have been asking and talking a lot about “this moment,” that we’re in this moment, this moment, this moment, and asking me if I have something to say about this moment. I don’t have to create anything new for this moment, because I got plenty left from the last moment. And the moment before that, and the moment before that. I got poems on poems on poems for this moment and the next, because this moment has been stretching this whole time, right, this whole time that I’ve been here. And then before that, for many generations prior, so, yeah, none of this is new, right? It’s just a matter of it’s new to some folks. Right, more people are seeing it. And I appreciate that light. I appreciate that. There’s some exposure. Um, but yeah, been here.

Fix your life. Fix your behavior. Please. Our lives depend on it.”

Queen: We’re over it, and if it seems like we’re mad, it’s because we deserve to be mad. We’re still being harmed, killed, losing our friends and loved ones and livelihoods. And it’s not a scary mad; we’re not gonna get like, pitchforks and do-rags and then march up to your house. We just want to live. So, worry about your own shit. That’s what I gotta say. I guess I shouldn’t be cussing so much. Fix your life. Fix your behavior. Please. Our lives depend on it. To paraphrase June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” — yours might, too.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News.

Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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