Anyone who knows Kendra Allen, from her writing work to a chance encounter, quickly learns how pliant language is in her hands. Her first book, When You Learn the Alphabet, changed my relationship with essays. Essays became un-static and full of possibilities in their shape, form, candor, and funny. I bought it for my sisters. I showed it to young people as an example of what can happen when writers let go of “genre” and get out of the way of the work. How language can be a possible map toward liberated Black-girlness.
Kendra expands on obsessions she introduced in her first award-winning book of essays in her debut collection of poems, The Collection Plate, published yesterday by Ecco Press. Kendra is a listener: to music, to history, her people, and her own intuition. That listening becomes a discussion with her reader of what she’s learned, and what she, and we, could unlearn for the betterment of ourselves and community.
We recently discussed her new collection of poems, building context and reference into creative works, and the rebelliousness of “why.”
The Rumpus: No matter the genre you are crafting in, it feels like your work is moved by poetry. Could you talk a bit about your relationship with poetry, and how your poetry and prose coexist.
Kendra Allen: In whatever I’m writing, I feel an urge to break the line. I always was obsessed with the concept, or like the perception, of being an artist when I was a kid. I would watch rappers or Def Poetry Jam a lot on YouTube. I always looked up to people that made art, and the way they performed it. But I never thought of myself as a performer; I always thought of myself as behind the scenes.
But those very unique talents that do both equally well—perform and do the behind the scenes things to create something—they always sort of had this autobiographical nature to what they were producing. I would look at that and when I started taking my writing seriously I was like, Okay, who do I really like? Of course, I was obsessed with Kiese Laymon by that time, and still am, but I’d never read poetry. I only really started reading poetry when I got to Alabama. I would read it and wonder, like with Danez Smith, how are they writing this on the page, but it translates on the stage so seamlessly? Then I was like, how can I write in my own voice? I looked at rappers I love. Isaiah Rashad is a big influence on my poetry.
Rumpus: There are so many moments where I can feel the young person that you are looking at when you are writing. Like in your poem “The Water Cycle,” I can feel the embodiment of a teenager in a high-school class. How are you able to touch that? Is it through an evocation of memory, or is it in listening to craftsmen like Isaiah Rashad or Earl Sweatshirt, who you reference as well?
Allen: I think it’s exactly both those things. I think for me, I don’t feel like an adult. I had a professor tell me, “by the time you’re thirteen you have enough material to write for a lifetime,” and it’s so true. I’ve always been obsessed with coming of age movies. Eve’s Bayou is my favorite movie. Like, that’s not a kid movie, but it is a coming of age story. Seeing, especially, little Black girls being portrayed, and navigating adulthood at an early age, is something I wanna always write about. Of course Toni Morrison, she’s the best. I always want a child to be present in whatever I write, even if that child is myself. If I’m writing creative nonfiction, I dive into that because so much repressed and unlocked memory determines who I am today.
Rumpus: Speaking of that memory space, this book really plays with our relationship of memory and truth, that blurring line. I’m fascinated by the ways your work plays on the idea of like, yes this happened, but also the fiction of our lives. How that becomes revision in your poetry in lines like, “I be lyin.” Could you speak a bit more about how truth and memory feature in your writing?
Allen: I think this book is further exploration of When You Learn the Alphabet. I realized I’m gonna keep talking about these topics as long as I’m gonna write. Even the next thing I’m working on—it’s the exact same topics, but it’s different scenes, sceneries, and scenarios. I think for me, my main goal is to make creative nonfiction fantastic. All these different subgenres of fiction, we can do that with creative nonfiction. I think that’s why I’m always saying stuff like “I be lyin.” I wanna rehearse and revise in the midst of writing.
My favorite essay that I’ve ever written is me writing about walking down the street in New Orleans and rewriting it four different times, making it one essay but with different things happening each time. Poetry helps me with my creative nonfiction when it comes to brevity, too. When it comes to telling the actual story versus all the other elements that are unnecessary to it, but just sound good. Also, rhythm: rhythm is my favorite word when I think of writing. I just want it to be slow; I want it to feel like your favorite song. Like if I’m talking about Earl, or if I’m talking about Isaiah Rashad. Or Beyoncé when she be ballading. I’m thinking about the end of “Resentment”—it’s this little section of the song, but it’s the most prominent thing on the whole album. I’m thinking of people because I need references, and when I have those references I can pull from myself easier.
Rumpus: In The Collection Plate, there is tension between referents: the collective voice of the church and its expectations versus the individual references that show the speaker possibilities of being. This includes Tiffany Pollard, Granny, Mama, and so many others. How do you build those references, that context, into the worlds that you make?
Allen: I think the main thing is, I didn’t start writing poetry thinking I’m finna have a poetry book. I was just doing my homework for a Documentary Poetics course at UA. My topic for the semester was gonna be the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. Researching that I, of course, got mad. I started writing poems about the inventor of The Super Soaker, Lonnie Johnson. He went to UA. Of course they weren’t trying to let him in, and he invented this toy that we still use today. I started documenting his history. Then I started thinking about water in a larger sense—water as a human right, water as learning to swim, water as rain, etc.—and wrote a poem for each of those things.
I was also going through a lot emotionally and mentally with When You Learn the Alphabet coming into the world. I started thinking about fathers in terms of how we refer to God as a “him.” Also, how we live in a man-worshiping society. I started thinking about growing up in the church, the women in my life, and how some of my favorite women have always been perceived as mean. I think about how the women in the church were some of those mean women. I started thinking about my great-grandmother; she was one of the first women I’d ever seen be mean and just not care. She wasn’t gonna apologize. She was gonna say what she wanted to say, and do what she wanted to do. She was very tall, very lean. I was scared of her; I was afraid to talk over her house. I used to go there after school, and while walking I would just be like dang, why I gotta go over there. She’s gonna have me sitting in the corner watching Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s hot. We live in Texas and she got this heater blowing. We didn’t really talk that much, but I learned so much in the silence.
And I was thinking about how my granny is considered mean. My granny will slam the door in your face, she will not care. Then I think about how that transitioned to my mama, and how my mom is very, very friendly. Everybody love her. And I’m thinking about me. I’m thinking about all these generations, and thinking about how my mom is so religious, my granny is so religious, my great-grandmother was not, and I’m not really religious. I’m thinking about those reference points, and my uncle owning a church with all these women around him. How much I didn’t want to be under the gaze of a man, whether that’s God or this dude in this pulpit who is telling me how to dress. Or telling me how to think. Or telling me to get baptized. What am I getting baptized at eight for when I did nothing?!
Rumpus: That context in the first poem, “Evening Service,” of the eight-year-old baptism and the “pretty please him dress” lets us know that we are of course thinking about church, but also the parts of the translation that Black folks inherit of Christianity and pass down that encourages an unhealthy worshiping of men.
Allen: And it’s so hard to unlearn that. I think this book is my conversation with trying to unlearn this internalized misogyny that we all deal with. It just comes to beat your ass in the most unexpected moments. It’s hard to unlearn that in the presence of people who taught you, and still preach it to you, as you try to unlearn it.
Rumpus: I’m thinking about these women who are seen as mean, and also stuck up to have their own personality when so much culture was trying to tame them into meekness—but they are still in the church. It’s almost a bit of an oxymoron, like it doesn’t seem like that would make sense all the way.
Allen: Yes! And you see how they’re in the church, but also don’t care about it enough to not bring it on the next generation of girls coming up in the church. It’s just like, well I had to do it so what makes you think you don’t have to do it? Why would you want me to do it? My great-grandmother was born in 1919; she got the right to be mean. I’d be walking around looking at people crazy, too. I grew up wanting people to leave me and think, I had a good time; she’s fun. I’ve always been like that cause my mama was like that. I also saw my family tear her apart whenever she said no to them. My mama really lacked boundaries when it came to what a family unit meant, which is something she learned in church. She would go above and beyond because she thought that made her a good person who would go to heaven. Instead of like, considering her own tiredness and as soon as she say no they cussin’ her out on the internet.
I wanna be like my mama so bad, but I need boundaries in my life. I think this book, to me, is me trying to jump out of this never-ending cycle of learning. All those “our father” poems, that’s me literally having a conversation with Our Father in Heaven, who I saw my mama get down on her knees and pray to every night. The first thing I ever learned was the Lord’s Prayer, before I ever tied my shoes, but also I was mourning and grieving the decline of the relationship with my actual father. I wanted to couple those together because it was imperative to close a chapter on all these idols that we have—people, entities, and spiritualities. I don’t think it’s wrong; I just wonder, why?
Rumpus: “Why” can come off so rebellious.
Allen: Yeah, people be trippin when you say why.
Rumpus: I also wanted to talk to you a bit about your approach toward given forms and your approach toward your own poetic structures in The Collection Plate.
Allen: When it comes to that book, it was 2019, literally the worst year of my life. I first started thinking this could be a collection after my book release party for When You Learn the Alphabet. When I came back home, I was listening to “Nobody” by Jhene on repeat cause I love that song. That’s when I started writing “our father.” I think Dr. L. Lamar Wilson read my Documentary Poetics poems, and he was like, this needs to be in somebody’s mouth. I was like, oh cool thank you. Ima use that line, put it in a poem.
I’m really big on visuals, and if everything looks blocked and boring I’m not gonna be into it as much. I think you’re a great example of that; all your poems are very different but the form lends to the themes of the poems as well. I started looking at you, to Danez Smith, and to Equilibrium by Tiana Clark. I was finding all these other poets who were telling full and weighted stories in four or five lines. I thought, how can I replicate that, but make it look how I envision my mind moving? I always want to be honest about that connection between my mind, my fingers when they are typing, and my heart. I want all that to exist on the page at once. So, I use form to do that.
Rumpus: Your use of the dedication page feels so unique to me because it engages a nonhuman material as kin. Would you talk about that dedication space, and your relationship to the elements you dedicate the book to?
Allen: I wanted the dedication to sum up the entire book, like, this is what it’s about. I wanted it to read like a poem as well. I started reading through the poems, because those poems changed a whole lot. I was thinking about water, clear water being in pools, and so I started thinking about mirrors. I also started thinking about how my number-one life goal is to learn as much as I can about myself. I never aspired to marriage or romance, or things like that. I always just wanted to be able to show up as myself, be myself, but I have to learn myself in order to be that everywhere else. Mirrors for me will always be a metaphor for that—for everything, for years, for water. I can’t even swim that good, but I love talking about water.
Rumpus: Just as you were talking about earlier, this planet is made mostly of water, but it also is just so complex, the literal violence—
Allen: And history; historically water has wiped out a lot of us.
Rumpus: Exactly, but also it is this thing that we need. This thing that makes our food grow. We literally, especially as Black folk, have such a complex relationship to this resource that keeps us together but also disperses us.
Allen: That’s the metaphor! We need each other, but we just can’t get it right. There’s too much that we have to undo to get right.
Rumpus: I think we get a little closer when we are down to look at the things that we are told to look away from. I’m still thinking about what it means to lead with “why.” It feels like so much of a tool for this book. “Why” is such a shovel; it gets us digging.
Allen: I really was faced with all of that when I moved back home. I moved back into a house with three little girls in it who follow me around everywhere. They want to see what I’m doing and what I’m not doing. My three-year-old cousin, if my stomach is out, will walk up to me and be like, Kendra, pull this down, and she’ll pull my shirt down. She think she my mama, but she wants to be my best friend. I see how much they say the things I say. That makes me hyperaware of like, who did I have that I was looking at like this? ’Cause I know it was a plethora of people. Who did I have that taught me about my body? Because even with them, if I get out of the tub with no shirt on I have to explain.
So, when I started revising for real, I just had them in mind. I don’t ever want to lie about reality, about what they will potentially go through, what they may have already went through at seven, and five, and three. I never want to hide things, but I also want to protect them. I think when I went back to revise, I really wanted it to be for them. That they can read it and be like, we can skip these steps because Kendra is trying to redo it so we don’t have to.
Photograph of Kendra Allen by Carla Lee Allen.