Donika Kelly is the author of the chapbook Aviarium (fivehundred places) and the full-length collections The Renunciations (Graywolf 2021) and Bestiary (Graywolf). Bestiary is the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The collection was also long-listed for the National Book Award and was a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award and a Lambda Literary Award. A Cave Canem graduate fellow and member of the collective Poets at the End of the World, Donika has also received a Lannan Residency Fellowship and a summer workshop fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic online, The Paris Review, and Foglifter. She currently lives in Iowa City and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches creative writing.
Robin Gow: The first poem in the collection feels equal parts invocation and portal to a myth, can you talk about how you approach situating first poems and where this poem emerged in the process of writing the collection? Then, also what’s your relationship with ordering collections?
Donika Kelly: My partner and I always make fun of the title of that poem, [“House of Air, House of Fire”], because it’s a little clunky with astrology references or what have you. That poem came relatively late in the process of putting the book together. I had most of the poems for the book written by summer 2018. I got really lucky and was offered a residency through the Lannan Foundation. I wrote a number of poems there that rounded out the book and this was one of those poems. I didn’t sit down and say “I need a poem that does this,” but this poem actually feels like it’s setting the dynamic of the two strands of the book: what does it mean to have a father who has dominion over his children and what does it mean to carry in one’s self that sort of dynamic into a romantic relationship where one is used to being subject?
The sequencing of this book was a little bit different from Bestiary in that with Bestiary it was very much, “Oh I have enough poems to make a book, let me see if I can make a book,” and just doing that for three or four years until I made something that felt really good. With The Renunciations, I’d started writing about childhood sexual abuse and being abused by my dad. At the same time, my marriage was very clearly ending, and I thought maybe these two things go together in some way—maybe there’s a way these two things make sense.
At first, I thought it would be more closely interwoven and then I realized that it made more sense to have sections.
RG: That’s interesting, I was curious about the naming of the book’s sections. There are section titles “now,” “then,” “now,” “now then,” and “after.” Could you speak a little to that process and those words as markers in the collection?
DK: I did not want the book to have sections. The poems were ordered in the way they are now and I did not want sections but my editor was like, “Sections might be helpful,” and I was like, “No,” and he was like, “I think they might be helpful for the reader.”
He was really affected by the book and I think he needed some room moving between the two strands. I added blank pages between the sections and he said, “What if you number them?” I had such a visceral reaction to numbering sections, and I was like, “No, that’s unacceptable.”
RG: Is it more like a visceral feeling or is there also a reason behind disliking numbering?
DK: It was honestly a visceral reaction. The numbers suggested a chronology or something sequential in a way, but the way the book is organized, we are moving back and forth in time. When I got to the “now” and the “then” I thought that they suggested something about where the speaker is. Sometimes those traumatic memories can really feel like falling back in time but the speaker is present and is an adult and is safe. That distinction felt important once I came around to the idea of sections and I’m really happy with the space now. There’s a lot of space in the physical copy of the book—there’s a lot of room and I’ve come to appreciate why that’s useful and helpful and maybe a kindness I was not ready to extend initially. It’s nice to be pushed towards kindness.
RG: It is interesting to hear you reflect on those specific words because for me they do invoke an idea of like landscape and physical location. In your response, you talked a little bit about speakers in the poem and I’m curious what your relationship is to your speakers? How do you negotiate the distance between yourself and your poem speakers?
DK: In Bestiary, I knew there was a lot of distance between the speakers but that wasn’t as apparent to me until I was reading from the book and I was talking to people about the book. My use of the second person felt really deliberate even though it was not. I was trying to figure out something new for myself, and that accounted for a lot of the distance in that book. When I finished writing the book, I remember thinking to myself that I would like to be more of a person in my poems as opposed to a griffon or a pegasus or a monster with many heads. What if I was just a human with one head?
One of the things that’s been really helpful is teaching because when we workshop we talk about “the speaker.” We don’t say, “This is your experience,” we say, “The speaker is articulating this.” Even if the veil between the speaker and the poet is very thin, which it is in many cases for The Renunciations, there’s still that artifice. I feel a lot of tenderness towards this speaker in The Renunciations who is trying to figure out how to be kind and how to be thoughtful to these two people, one of whom is a regular person, the ex-wife, and then the dad, where it’s much more complicated. He is not a perfectly fine person. That distinction to me is really important. The speaker is trying to navigate these two relationships that are really different in meaningful ways but one is impacting the other.
RG: I echo what you say about teaching helping negotiate the role of “the speaker.” In my classes, I’ve found it kind of blows people’s minds initially.
DK: I love the plausible deniability of the speaker. Who is she? I don’t know.
RG: That makes me think about the epistolary form in the book. Could you speak a little to how that form emerged and the role of the em-dash in those poems?
DK: The em-dash is a nod towards the 19th, 18th century convention of “dear—M” where the name of the person addressed is withheld. They do the thing I like in other people’s work, which is they give the feeling of knowing someone else’s business. Through the title “Dear—” I’m trying to remind the reader that I’m withholding information. The speaker is withholding information. The reader does not have access to everything, which I think is important to know. There’s a way that that is echoed in the kind of searching the speaker is doing into the father’s history where there’s just so much that the speaker doesn’t actually know about her father. That’s an important reminder for readers when reading work that feels this personal: it’s still art—it’s not a diary even if it gives the feeling it is.
There’s one other element too. Have you ever had a therapist tell you to write a letter to the person and don’t send the letter? In some ways, this is an exercise in that therapeutic kind of letter because therapy has been something that’s been important for me. Whenever I had a therapist tell me to do it, I would always think, “That’s stupid. I’m not doing that.”
RG: It’s funny then it shows up in the book so you did do it.
DK: It’s embarrassing, they’re so right sometimes. It’s super annoying how right they are sometimes.
RG: Totally. Going back to what you were saying with the letters, that makes me think even more about those erasure letters that head each section. How do you negotiate what the reader does and doesn’t get access to? How do you decide what is withheld?
DK: My relationship to that is something that evolved over the course of writing these poems and it became really visible as I was putting the book together. There are redactions and erasures. The “Dear—” poems that head each section are redacted. Those are from letters that I wrote. It was interesting to find these little aphorisms. They felt moody and tonal more than sensical. I have a number of them and not all of them went into the book but it was nice to go back to that text and see if there was anything in there that could help me figure out how to make sense of an experience.
Going back to your question about what I’m comfortable sharing, it really does come down to my comfort and my care. One of the things I tried to do writing the poems is to take care of myself and be kind to myself. Sometimes that meant there were things I could write and things I could not write. There are poems where I wrote things that I don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing with other people so those poems aren’t in the book. Then there were poems where it felt important to say something really hard in the poem because I know that I’m not alone in a lot of those experiences. There is a way that the erasures are me taking care of myself and the speaker. The speaker doesn’t have to say this thing. And if I decide to read those poems there are things I don’t have to say. I know what’s been taken out and I know what’s been erased and it’s a way of holding on to myself and taking care of myself.
There is a great desire for other people’s pain and other people’s trauma and some of that desire is commodifying and some of it is “am I alone in this?” I’ve read poems by people who’ve experienced childhood sexual abuse and those poems made me feel less alone. I also know they’re poems and I’m not going to say I know this poet’s life. It was another way of indicating to the reader that not everything is for everyone’s consumption but here are some things I feel comfortable sharing.
RG: I think that’s a powerful and important boundary not just in this book but for writers to keep thinking about.
It’s a bit of a pivot but another thing I wanted to ask you about is the theme of the elements and nature in the book. Especially fire and water feel very present. What’s your relationship to the idea of the elements?
DK: That’s a great question. We moved to California in 2015 and California was in a very severe drought, which it often is, but it was bad. There wasn’t any groundwater [in some places], they had pumped up all the groundwater. I was hearing that on the news and also watching my neighbors water their lawn.
RG: Oh no!
DK: And that fire season was not as bad as the most recent fire season but of course it was the worst fire season to date. I was there for around a year but I remember driving home from work one day and there was a fire on the side of the freeway.
RG: Oh God!
DK: California is such a state of extremes, which forced me to think about water and fire in a way that I did not when I lived in the South. When I left California I moved to western New York and it’s very different. It was a very snowy place, and that didn’t make any sense either. None of it was regular to me.
There’s something about remembering myself or understanding myself in relation to the land and the landscape and the climate in that I’m very small. At some point, one just has to yield. At some point, I have to go to work in the snow or it’s been in the triple digits for two weeks. Are we concerned about fire or are we not concerned about fire? Is there enough water? I feel like those are questions most people in the US are not asking. There certainly are folks asking those questions, but a lot of people who aren’t.
RG: I’m curious if there’s a connection with the elements in the cover of the book? When I’m looking at the cover, I get a sense of a mixing of elements and a sort of fragmentation of water?
DK: A few years ago I got to see Lorna Simpson’s show “Darkening.” I lived in New York for a couple of years and so my partner went over to Chelsea and Hauser & Wirth to see the exhibit. We walked into the gallery and the first thing we saw was an excerpt from a poem by Robin Coste Lewis, which was great vibes. The paintings are huge and the ones that I was drawn the most to were ones where there was images of icebergs—older images of polar and arctic landscapes—with ribbons of text blown up and stretched down the side, covered in this dark blue ink. [Being next to the paintings] felt like being in contact with the sublime, like being next to the ocean, but I was in a building in Chelsea. Part of that for me was the scale of the work. It felt magnificent. My mind boggled trying to make sense. There’s such depth to the paintings. Part of that is the layering of the images but also the layering of the ink across the surface of the paintings. It felt correct. I looked at those painting, and this was after I had the book finished. I saw the painting, and I thought this is like my book. Graywolf asked and Lorna Simpson’s folks said yes and I was so happy. It was such a good thing.
RG: That’s really beautiful for it to come together like that.
DK: Her work is just so stunning in general. She’s so smart and the work is so smart and has such a sense of scale. The painting that I wanted for the cover is called “Blue Dark” and when I stood in front of that one I felt tiny, and I love feeling tiny.
RG: That’s interesting to hear you say that because I feel like poems are small and contained yet they have all that complexity. It’s so awesome you could meet the artwork that would become your cover.
DK: It’s rare to say, “This is something I would love to have happen,” and then have it happen and have it feel as good as I thought it would.
RG: Some good magic. So then thinking about the title and the word “renunciation.” To me, “renunciation” has a kind of spiritual or religious connotation. Could you talk a little bit about what that word means in the context of this collection?
DK: When I started writing these poems and seeing they were connected in a way I had a title and that title was Bear God. I knew I was going to have to change it. The original title, Bear God, captures what I felt like what I was doing [while writing the poems], which was bearing—and not flourishing. The Renunciations captures the work of the book, a practice of trying to come out from under that weight. Some of that weight I imposed and some of that weight I had to carry. I think that spiritual element—that renouncing was a part of that, even though I’m not a religious person.
It also felt important that it be plural—not The Renunciation but The Renunciations. I was renouncing my way of thinking about romantic relationships and my way of carrying into those relationships this trauma, unprocessed or partially processed. Part of that was asking what it would look like to place accountability where it belongs and not take things that are not mine—to say this does not belong to me this belongs to someone else.
RG: Another kind of spiritual-ish term that comes up a lot in the poems is “the oracle” and I’m wondering if those are connected and what the oracle means or signified to you?
DK: I start with my conception of the oracle, which comes out of Greek mythology, which in some ways is a child’s understanding of Greek mythology. I started reading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths when I was in the fourth grade—which was absolutely harrowing. And there’s this way that when the oracle gives a prophecy there’s no way to escape the prophecy. In my mind then I wondered, could the oracle reflect? Could the oracle say, “well yeah I knew that was going to happen” after it happened?
There’s something about that oracle that gives that line of plausible deniability—this had to happen. [In The Renunciations] the oracle is recounting things that already happened. The oracle is not telling the future. In some ways just talking about it now, there’s a comfort in inevitability. Maybe that’s a question then about free will and fate.
RG: A little less about the poems but what you say makes me wonder, do you have an interest in divination? Like tarot or something like that?
DK: I don’t really understand tarot but I do have a deck and I was actually pulling cards when I was writing the last set of poems when I was in Texas. I think of tarot and astrology as ways of doing close readings—imposing a system on things that are not systematic. Poetry is that—let me impose a structure on something that happened and see if there’s a way of fitting them into a larger schema.
RG: I totally see what you mean about poems and divination being related. It makes a lot of sense. Definitely. I want to ask about two poems, one in this collection, The Renunciations, and one from Bestiary. In Bestiary, there’s a poem “Self Portrait As a Door,” and in The Renunciations, there’s a poem “Self Portrait With Door.” Is there a connection or a bridge between these collections there? Are these poems in conversation?
DK: In the collection, there is with my anxiety around doors. When I was a kid, the room in which I was abused had a door but it did not have a doorknob so there was actually no way I could close the door or lock the door. There was a door I had no control over. There are lots of doors in my work and I did not notice it until someone pointed this out to me. Who gets to be in the room and who gets to say, “you can’t be in the room”?
I do think there is a connection the poems are making and the poem “Self Portrait as a Door” comes out of the experience articulated in “Self Portrait with Door.” What if I’m a person and not an object? What does it mean to be situated inside something and what does it mean to be something?
RG: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you want to speak to about the book that we didn’t get a chance to?
DK: When I was making this book it was important to me that I take care of myself in the writing process, especially the older more tender more traumatic parts, and my hope is that that translates to a care for the speaker, which in turn I hope translates into a care for the reader. I hope that the experience of the book is one someone saying this is my experience, and if this is your experience, I’m sorry, and hopefully, we’re both okay. There have been poets and poems that have done that for me, and I would like to hopefully do a little bit of that for other folks. It felt important to me to have care, and I hope that the readers feel that.
RG: I definitely felt that care as a reader.
DK: I’m glad because it’s scary to do this kind of work. I’d much rather be writing love poems.
RG: Do you tell yourself like “oh today I need a joyful poem”?
DK: Maybe less that but more I give myself room to write whatever I want to write so that I don’t feel like I have to go mining in this terrible trauma mountain. I have lots of love poems and lots of poems about my family that aren’t sad. I have really wonderful family members who I love very much. I’ve been writing poems about my great grandma and my great grandpa and my sister and that’s felt really healing and fun. I write lots of love poems for my beloved who is just right across the hall. When it’s time to write a love poem, that’s what I do. I give myself time to do what I want to do, and that’s worked out on the whole as a balanced experience.
RG: Thank you so much for your time talking today! Grateful for your work.
ROBIN GOW is a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG Books for Young Readers. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review.