An Interview with Donika Kelly

By J.A. Holm and Tierra L.M. Jones

Donika Kelly is the author of The Renunciations (Graywolf 2021) and Bestiary (Graywolf 2016). 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, 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.

West Branch: In the years between Bestiary and The Renunciations did your process or approach to writing change at all? If so, how? How did you change as a person in that time? 

Donika Kelly: My approach to writing changed a bit after the publication of Bestiary, in part because I received feedback from readers about my writing style. For example, I hadn’t thought consciously about my use of the second person or short declarative and imperative sentences. Those were moves I made instinctively in writing the poems that would end up in Bestiary. In the years after publication, I resolved to be more deliberate in point of view and sentence length, a choice which made sense for the content of the poems that found a home in The Renunciations. In these poems, I was working with a speaker who looked and sounded more like me, and I was working with material that required a more sustained attention, which in turn required slightly different techniques.

WB: We sense the shift in techniques you’ve mentioned in The Renunciations; Greek mythology is also a key thread in both bodies of work. How does mythology add to your understanding and writing of poetry?

DK: Greek mythology was the primary and intuitive way that I understood power within family relationships. The hierarchy is relatively clear: Zeus > major gods > minor gods> humans > animals. The clarity of the hierarchy within my family is as clear, though it made me uneasy. Men held dominion over women and children and animals; adults held dominion over children and animals; and power flowed in a single direction. 

In the poems in both Bestiary and The Renunciations, I turned to the many metaphors of Greek myth, in order to work through the relationship dynamics modeled for me in my family of origin. I wanted to figure out what, if anything, I wanted to keep. I ended up in a place of renunciation, of rejection and refusal of those dynamics as scripts I ought to follow. The myths, their clarity, helped me get there. 

WB: We noticed that the Oracle only appears in the “Then” (and “Now-Then”) sections of The Renunciations but never in the “Now” sections. Why did you make this choice? What function does the Oracle serve? 

DK: Ah yes, the Oracle. Earlier I mentioned an interest in crafting a persona that looked more like me, and there I mostly meant human. I wanted a thinner veil between poet and speaker. However, some of the material I was working with was emotionally hot or I was unsure about the—let’s call them facts, the history of the father and the speaker. Thus emerged a speaker cloaked in the figure of the Oracle. 

The Oracle trafficks in narrative, retelling the stories that shaped both the father and speaker. Some of what the Oracle recounts draws on my and my parents’ real histories, but some are imagined. The Oracle provides a kind of plausible deniability in case I’ve gotten the story wrong, and the Oracle provides room for fabrication and imagination to do the important work of grounding the speaker and the father, and to some extent the mother, in both history and time.

WB: What writers have influenced you most over the trajectory of your career? Who are you reading now?

DK: The writers who have influenced me most are writers whose work I would describe as lucid and in control: Natasha Trethewey, Lucille Clifton, Carl Phillips, Marie Howe, Cameron Awkward-Rich, and Gwendolyn Brooks. These days I’m reading who I’m teaching: Paisley Rekdal, Jake Skeets, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rita Dove, Franny Choi, and Sharon Olds. I’m very excited too for Derrick Austin’s new book Tenderness.

WB: Could you expand on what you mean by “lucid” and “in control”?  Your poem “Brood” (West Branch 97) could be said to feature those traits. What about lucidity and control intrigues you, and how do you integrate these qualities into your own writing?

DK: To some extent, I think about lucidity and control as risk management. That is, what is the risk in being clear right now? Sometimes the risk is being boring—being clear with music is hard! Sometimes the stakes are different, higher. In either case, control—the exertion of the tools and techniques that help shape a reader’s experience of the poem—is vital. 

In the case of “Brood,” the scene of the poem is clear. Still, the couplets group information and put pressure on the images; the punctuation is managing both the sense of the line and that of the sentence; and the lines are short, so little narrative information is conveyed in each one. As a result, the reader perceives the scene as slowed down, zoomed in, on both the cicadas and the speaker’s feeling. The tools and techniques, the control, create and release pressure, heightening the relatively low stakes of the poem. 

There are certainly times when I’m less interested in clarity, resulting in a more opaque poem, but these days, I’m trying to get as clear as I can while still making a pleasurable poem. 

WB: What will the focus of your next body of work be? Is your current work a continuation or departure from themes we’ve seen in Bestiary and The Renunciations

DK: I’m not sure what’s next. I have a lot of ideas floating around (whales and Arkansas and my grandmother and the ocean), and within those ideas are many strands to follow. I assure myself there’s enough time to follow those trails and inevitable digressions.

Donika Kelly’s poems “Brood” and “Offering” appear in West Branch 97, Fall 2021 in the print issue.