Donika Kelly
In Conversation With
Tom Simpson


Poet Donika Kelly's debut collection, Bestiary (Graywolf, 2016) won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry, and was named one of the New York Times Book Review's best poetry collections of 2016. The Times Book Review called it "a testament to poetry's ability to capture and refine emotion." We caught up to talk about Bestiary, her new chapbook (Aviarium, published by fivehundred places), and her new teaching gig at Baruch College.

Tom Simpson: Does your new chapbook, Aviarium, embody particular evolutions—of form, voice, and subject matter—that you've undergone since Bestiary?

Donika Kelly: Aviarium holds the birds who couldn’t live in Bestiary. My vision for Bestiary was to write a fairly short book, which meant, obviously, that I couldn’t include all of my darlings. Instead of killing them or leaving them to languish, I found another home for them. The poems in the chapbook echo one of the major themes of the bird poems in Bestiary of courtship and failure, of circumscribed and arrested desire. But they are also doing some slightly other work. There’s a poem in there that I love, which might not a be a good poem, about the crowned eagle, about which I heard a radio story (this might be a kind of learning though it feels foggy, the knowledge, at this moment)—at any rate, crowned eagles eat primates, including, rarely and in the past, humans. That’s a different kind of human vulnerability than dating, but not entirely dissimilar.

TS: What connections do you see between beauty and resistance, between mythology and creativity?

DK: In “Myth and Fable: Their Place in Poetry,” Carl Phillips writes, “Myth is a verbal mapping of what is known but not understood.” As I’ve come recently to the end of a recent project, I find that the same is true, for me, of poetry—that I’m trying to map what I know but don’t understand, and that in mapping—which is to say, taking the measure of an experience, setting it down—I come to know the subject differently. Mapping requires a looseness in my mind, a softening of how I apprehend, and perhaps there is beauty or resistance in that process, I don’t know. I do know that I am doing my work and doing my best to stay alive, and the process of coming to know differently is vital.

TS: Is there a love poem you'd write for black girls born in the 21st century? Is there advice you'd give them about love, or about creating a series of self-portraits?

DK: What I want for black women and girls and femmes is for us to center ourselves in our lives because no one else will. I have had to cultivate that impulse in myself, and I seem always to be both resisting and embracing it. Centering of myself is work I do in the self-portraits and the love poems—naming and claiming what I see in myself, what my practices of love are. To see myself more clearly each year that I am alive feels like a gift, like rigorous practice, and its model is one I hope resonates with young black women.

TS: What kind of courses are you getting to teach at Baruch, and what special opportunities have emerged with that particular faculty and student body?

DK: I’m in my first year at Baruch and I feel super jazzed. I’m teaching poetry workshops and literature classes. Next fall I’ll be teaching a course on studies in American poetry and I’m planning to focus on confessional poetics and how that term is applied. There are lots of wonderful opportunities that come out of being located in such a vibrant space. I took a class to the American Museum of Natural History to find new materials for metaphors, and am planning to take classes to MOMA in the spring. I’m just getting acquainted with what’s possible.

TS: In "Love Letter," the speaker says, "I wake each morning. / And am disappointed in the waking." What's getting you up in the morning these days? What fresh poetic voices, what literary forms, what artistic collaborations are calling?

DK: I’m happy to be somewhat removed from the feeling in the above-mentioned poem, to feel more often than not joy in the waking. I feel really excited about J. Jennifer Espinoza’s Outside Of The Body There Is Something Like Hope (Big Lucks, 2018) and am looking forward to Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Dispatch (Persea, 2019). I recently reread Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall, and felt unsettled and disquieted. Her work makes me want to evince that feeling in others.

In the next year or so, I’m starting a collaboration with the Seattle-based painter Thuy-Van Vu. I don’t know what we’ll make, what the object(s) will look like, but I’m jazzed at the prospect of working with a visual artist whose work I adore.