“Joy and Some Flailing and Very Low Stakes”: A Conversation with Donika Kelly

by May 19, 2024Contest, Interviews, News

DONIKA KELLY is the author of The Renunciations, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf book award in poetry, and Bestiary, the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and a Kate Tufts Discovery Award. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and founding member of the collective Poets at the End of the World. Her poems have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor in the English Department at the University of Iowa, where she teaches creative writing.

Donika Kelly, our 2024 Poetry Contest judge, is interviewed by Erika Walsh, our 2024 Poetry Editor. 

ERIKA WALSH: Three of the poems in your most recent collection, The Renunciations, were initially published in issue 44.2 of Black Warrior Review – “Oracle,” “Portrait of My Father as a Winged Boar,” and “The Moon Rose Over the Bay. I Had a Lot of Feelings.” I noticed that these poems seemed to be placed in organizationally significant spots in your book, with “The Moon Rose Over the Bay. I had a Lot of Feelings” being the last poem in your collection, and “Oracle” introducing the character of the Oracle you engage with throughout the collection. When these poems were initially published, did you see them as loosely connected, or as inextricably in conversation with each other? Were you already thinking about the ways these poems may be organized within your collection and mark its progression, or did they transform in any way once they were in the collection?

DONIKA KELLY: When I submitted those poems to BWR, I had some sense they were connected to each other, but no real sense of how they would come to sit inside the collection. My writing practice is one where I write poems. I write whatever comes or into whatever question I might have. I’m not often thinking about how poems are connected to each other in the drafting process. Of course, they are all inextricably connected to each other, poems written during the same period of time, but my work is not to worry too much those connections explicitly until it’s time to put a manuscript together.

ERIKA: You’ve mentioned in various interviews that you have been going on whale watching trips in preparation for your next project, which I thought was so cool, especially as someone who is interested in ecopoetics and nature writing. I love the way you write about nature in “Sanctuary”(from The Renunciations) with lines like ” “this is a prayer like the sea / urchin is a prayer, like the sea / star is a prayer, like the otter and cucumber- // as if i know what prayer means.” How does your current project expand on or depart from your previous collections? Where do you see themes related to nature and animals intersecting with themes you’ve explored in the past?

DONIKA: This is a great question and one that has, for me, a surprising answer. My third book, The Natural Order of Things, which is coming out with Graywolf next year, is not the whale book! In The Natural Order of Things, the speaker is in a healthier, more stable space, but she is still curious, still full of longing. In this book, I try to bring closer to my family’s language, which is one of my favorite things, alongside my love for friends, my beloved, myself, and my questions about art making.

ERIKA: What is one book (or multiple) that you find yourself going back to and rereading again and again, and what is one book (or multiple) you are anticipating the release of, and/or excited to read for the first time?

DONIKA: I find myself rereading Carl Phillips’ Riding Westward and Lucille Clifton’s Good Woman—the poems in those collections are touchstones for me. I am most looking forward to J. Jennifer Espinoza’s I Don’t Want to Be Understood and Brittany Roger’s Good Dress.

ERIKA: What excites you about poetry, and about experimental work in particular? To what new worlds do you wish for poems to transport you, both when you’re reading them and when you’re writing them?

DONIKA: One of the most difficult things to do in a poem is to be clear and have music. When one succeeds, it looks easy. Like watching a master potter throw a pot. Those aren’t the only kinds of poems I love, but they tend to be the poems I return to again and again. With any poem, I want to be brought closer to the feeling of an experience, not a new world but a fully felt one.

ERIKA: Both of your collections, Bestiary and The Renunciations, blur the lines between fact and myth through the use of persona and references to mythology. In a previous interview, you state that “Sometimes we need a mechanism that gives us distance so that we can understand what’s harmed us, and what the nature of that harm is, and what we will carry from that experience.”  How does the meaning-making framework of mythology create the space for you to write about your lived experiences?

DONIKA: I love poetry for the various mechanisms of distance. We have so much control (ostensibly) over how close or far we are to a feeling, over how close or far we want to bring the reader. The shape of a poem, the point-of-view, the relationship between sentence and line, the sounds—these elements create the atmosphere of the poem. Myth has been a useful mechanism for sure, but I’m more interested these days in being grounded in my own lived experiences understood alongside the experiences of other animals in the natural world.

ERIKA: In a conversation with Cindy Juyoung Ok, you mention “desire paths,” which you define as a shortcut, that is taken so often it becomes its own demarcated walking route because “there was something about that path that felt more desirable than the paved path.” What are the desire paths that you’ve been taking in life and/or in writing recently?

DONIKA: I love a desire path! Mostly because I love cutting across the grass instead of walking on concrete. My creative practice is all desire paths. I write what I want and reach for what I might need. These days, I’m trying to sort out the connection between whales (toothed or not) and my mom. It’s deep water but I think some things are coming into focus.

ERIKA: What is one hobby or practice or joy you have outside of writing and reading, and does it influence your writing in any way with regards to your approach to form, technique, or content?

DONIKA: You know, I really love to bowl. Bowling is a practice that is fleeting, its results ephemeral and inconsequential. I’m not a particularly good bowler, but because I have my own ball and shoes, friends presume differently. There’s likely some kind of metaphor in there, but I’ll just say that I try to write poems the way I bowl, with joy and some flailing and very low stakes.

To learn more about Donika Kelly and her work, you can check out her website here. To learn more about BWR’s 2024 contest, you can read the guidelines on our Submittable page, or flip through our most recent contest issue, 50.2, by snagging yourself a copy from our online store.