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“I know I was lookin’ good, I had my Kenneth Cole shoes on/ My Gianni Versace blue leather suit/ My nails were done and my hair was fierce.” These words open up the 1984 hit song “The Men All Pause” by Klymaxx, an all-female R&B group from Los Angeles. There’s a particular feminist engine that drives this song. It’s that of a woman in control of her own beauty, who enjoys thinking critically about the limits of that control. Khadijah Queen’s new collection of poems, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, out from YesYes Books, practices this Klymaxx-esque feminism in an intellectually dazzling way.
The book gathers Queen’s firsthand accounts of run-ins with male celebrities, beginning with Eddie Murphy at age eight and ending with spotting John Singleton on the week of her 40th birthday. In many of these meetings, the famous men in question pause upon meeting the poet, asking for her name, her phone number, a dance, a date. The book’s gossip-column quality is irresistible at first take: compelling hooks like “When I met Andre 3000 at the Ralph’s in Burbank” and “When I met LL Cool J I had just quit Fatburger” abound in the 64 meetings Queen recounts. As the title promises, the outfits she wore for each encounter are described with gratifying detail: white platform sandals, Kente cloth bomber jacket, Levi’s 501s, pink silk wrap dress with stilettos.
Integral to the tabloid-gloss of these accounts, however, is the gritty work of cultural critique, along with frank, genuine storytelling. Queen is candid about the fact that she occupies a subject position — that of the beautiful black woman — that is exploited in small and large ways. There’s the story about the time “Ma$e pre-preacher cleared a whole Atlanta dance floor” in order to hit on the poet, or the time Edward Norton complemented her from an escalator at Port Authority. Stories that break from the celebrity-close-encounter format are just as telling as the ones peopled by rappers, actors, and athletes. “I never met Donald Trump but I sure have been grabbed by the you-know-what” begins one poem, which tells the story of being attacked by a strange man on a bus in Los Angeles when she was 15. “I almost didn’t tell this story but sometimes it’s important to name names & / the luxury of fame is that it doesn’t matter what a nobody says if you have / enough money you can buy any kind of truth you want when you’re a star / they let you do it…” In this piece and others, Queen observes men’s attempts to get her feminine attention — whether those attempts are leveraged with money, notoriety, or physical force — with clarity and biting wit.
Some of the most marvelous accounts in the book tell of the poet’s sincere affinity for famous men she’s never met. There’s a story that begins “One day Tiff was sad because it was the tenth anniversary of her mother’s death & she just really wanted to go see Michael Jackson.” Teenaged Queen and her best friend skip school on a 90-degree day, and go on an epic bus ride to the Jackson family compound in Encino. She interrupts the story of the journey to detail her lifelong love for MJ: “I might have to explain how / much I had already walked for him when I was a kid I braved a full mile to / the house of a neighbor I hated just to listen to Thriller.”
The depth of Queen’s reverence expands the figure of the famous man, so that he becomes the carrier of a sacred energy, something universal and infinitely sustaining. Like the poet, however, these famous men are human beings, subject to the devouring hypocrisy of white corporate America. After she and Tiffany turn down a ride home from Encino from a stranger, Queen reflects on the accusations of child abuse faced by Jackson, writing, “to believe white people over MJ seemed like betrayal like here / they go trying to take everything from us again our geniuses our heroes our / talents our loves & if it’s true it hurts it hurts it hurts & anyway the bus came / & we got back to school in time for 6th period.” In this poem and others, Queen places her body and life story within the complex, exoticized spectacle of celebrity. Her stories reveal a paradox at the center of fame: the cultural immortality that accompanies stardom also carries with it enormous vulnerability.
I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen is out now from YesYes Books.