It’s about Choices: Talking with Donika Kelly

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“Vulnerable” is a word often used to describe compelling poetry. However, I can honestly say I have not read a collection as vulnerable as The Renunciations by Donika Kelly, who is a pillar in contemporary poetry. It is a book I had to take breaks from, because it recounts childhood sexual abuse. I would then revisit the poems when I regained my strength. And that is the powerful thing: a poet revealing the vulnerabilities of a reader, which can make the reader begin the process of letting go of a painful past. As Donika told me: this book is a reclamation.

In addition to The Renunciations, published by Graywolf in May, she is the author of Bestiary (Graywolf, 2016)— 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 longlisted 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 YorkerThe Atlantic, the Paris Review, Foglifter, and here at The Rumpus. She currently lives in Iowa City and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches creative writing.

In May, I spoke with Donika on the phone for an hour about the new collection, choices granting empowerment, ridiculous love poems, and faith.

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The Rumpus: Words fail me, but this is one of the most incredible collections of poetry I have ever read. How did you practice self-care, and how did you keep yourself safe, while delving into such sensitive material?

Donika Kelly: Once I knew I was going to be writing poems about my memories and childhood sexual abuse, I made sure that I had a therapist. I worked closely with my therapist to talk about the things I remembered and questions I had and underlying emotional concerns that were bringing these memories up. That helped me write the poems. The other thing I did is when it got stressful and I felt scared while writing, I just stopped, or I reminded myself I was safe, and not in any danger. All I was doing was writing a poem, and I could stop at any time. I’ve had experiences where I felt like I was trapped in something, like in writing a poem. But reminding myself that the stakes are quite low and remembering I don’t have to keep writing, those moments gave me the opportunity to think about why I’m writing the poem, and why it feels important to write about the topic or memory. Asking those questions gets me into a different place other than simply recounting the memory. That feels like a safer place to hold the inquiry, to think about what’s different about me now, and what I understand about myself now. That creates space to do some good work through the speaker of the poems.

Rumpus: I really appreciate what you said about a poem just being a poem. I think sometimes as poets, we can fall into the trap of thinking our poems are more than what they are, and so we have to suffer through them. We don’t have to do that.

Kelly: That’s right. And it might be that there is some other space for having that conversation, which would be safer. Again, my therapist was very helpful in that regard. Sometimes I would come up against something and I would say to myself, I actually don’t want to write about this, because I feel like I don’t know what that is. Then, I would talk with my therapist, and we would talk through those bigger questions. One of those questions was, How do I figure out how to put myself in the center of my own life, as opposed to my memories of having been abused? The abuse was such a terrible little nugget at the center of my life, and I wanted to move it. I didn’t want that to be a controlling characteristic in my life anymore. Writing was very helpful with that. I think that’s separate from the book in a lot of ways, but the practice and process of writing gave me distance to think about how I wanted to relate, and how I could relate differently to the memories of those experiences.

Rumpus: I was really curious about the placement of “Now—Then” in your book. Can you talk about why you ordered the poems the way you did? The beginning sections focus heavily on mythology, and the more explicit material comes in the middle and latter portions of the book.

Kelly: My understanding, which is not the same as intention, of how the book is structured is there are two strands. The speaker’s marriage is ending, and she is also wrestling with having survived childhood sexual abuse. The sections move between those two threads. The “Now” sections are about the marriage, and the “Then” sections are about the abuse.

When I was thinking about your question, it occurred to me that there’s something almost labyrinth-like in the approach to the section “Now—Then,” which is section four. Early on in the first poem “House of Air, Hours of Fire,” the speaker says how she remembers when he planted the maze. In some ways, those strands are leading us to the center of the maze, where there is this experience that has been so defining.

It was very deliberate on my part to not put “Now—Then” earlier. I think if it came earlier, it would feel less like an inquiry or investigation. I see this book as an investigation of feelings, and about how one comes from a place where she is not at the center of her own life. At the beginning of the book, she isn’t at the center, but I think by the end of the book she is. But now, what is the quality of that life? What new choices does the speaker now get to make?

Rumpus: That makes a lot of sense. I was thinking, too, that if that section were in the front of the book, that would just be a lot.

Kelly: I know that section is a lot. I wanted to build up to it, and I wanted those poems to be contained in a section where if someone felt the need to stop because they couldn’t read it, they could just skip the whole section. I didn’t want to spread those poems out such that the reader would be encountering them again and again without warning.

Rumpus: I certainly appreciate that.

You incorporate these transcendent, otherworldly forces into the book with the oracle poems, “Portrait of My Father as a Winged Boar” and “Sighting: Tarot.” Specifically with the oracle poems, the Oracle figure felt like an omniscient narrative device, as an intermediary between the speaker and the poem. How can in-between spaces help us to renounce what has harmed us?

Kelly: I did something I didn’t intend to do with the Oracle figure. After Bestiary, I wanted to write poems where the speaker was more like me as a person, as opposed to a mythological animal. There’s this thing that happens unintentionally in Bestiary where the first person appears mostly in persona. I wanted to try to shed persona poems after that book. That’s a much more vulnerable “I.” But when I was writing the Oracle poems, the things I was writing about were too hard to have an “I” that looked like me. I turned to the figure of the Oracle that could see the future, remember the past, and understand things in a way I couldn’t. The Oracle comes in early when there’s the imagining of the speaker’s father’s history.

With my father, I’m not privy to his history; I only know a handful of things about him. And, we don’t talk. When I was writing those poems, we hadn’t talked for over ten years. The question then arose, How do I make a practice of inquiry into someone else’s history when what I know are fragments? The Oracle gave me permission to have a more telescopic view and to have the kind of distance where a speaker who was a person might not otherwise have. That made it possible to deal with the material in a different way. Also, so she could ask the questions, Was this inevitable? Did this have to happen? 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.

Jericho Brown taught a master class when I was a graduate student. He said that there are things we can say from the persona that we might not be able to say as ourselves. That made so much sense to me. So much of my work is navigating the distance the speaker has to the feeling that’s being expressed in the poem and her thoughts on how to modulate that distance. Sometimes it’s easier to get closer to the feeling from behind the mask. But the mask or veil is thinner when the poem is written through the lyric “I” that looks like me. I might need a little distance, so that it can push me farther away from the feeling.

Rumpus: I was thinking, too, that an oracle or tarot gives information that is uncannily specific but there is always that little nugget hanging out that they can’t answer. There’s always that bit where you have to reach, and exercise a certain amount of faith. I was thinking about that when I was reading the oracle poems and also “In the Chapel of St. Mary’s.” That poem questions what a god is and being able to put faith in something that’s visible. Yet, the speaker acknowledges that the poem is falling short in what she wants it to say, but she’s choosing to put implicit trust in the process because it’s the best she can do. There is a constant reaching present.

Kelly: I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household. And I lost whatever I might call “faith” some time ago. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to make sense of things. I don’t have a sense of there being something larger at play, or something looking out for me. It feels strange and lonely sometimes. I’m open to time being a higher power. There’s an ability to look back at something to identify a pattern and find what you can trust in that pattern. And to ask, Do I want to keep participating in this pattern, or can I disrupt it? That looking back has been a grounding experience. Taking together memory and experience has allowed me to make decisions about how I would like to go forward. I think when I wrote “In the Chapel of St. Mary’s,” I was in a state where I really felt, I don’t know how to have faith in what I can’t see. That was the first time I ever articulated that to myself. I had to ask myself, How does one trust other people? How does one practice friendship or love without faith?

Rumpus: I looked up “renunciation” to make sure I knew what it meant. I love how I was able to sense in the book lyrical definitions of the word renunciation, as opposed to the denotative definition. The first instance is in the last quatrain of the opening poem “House of Air, Hours of Fire,” which reads, “I house the air, the earth, and flame—though nearly anything / can be overwritten, and what can be left behind / is no more or no less a matter of will.” In “Sanctuary,” you write “How to understand, then, what deserves rescue / and what deserves to suffer.” I love those passages, because when we renounce something, we have to let that thing go. I felt like those sentiments related to the decisions you made with the form and function of the poems. Could you talk about that, and how it relates to the collection’s title?

Kelly: I can try! One of the things I love about poetry is that in many ways it reminds me of documentaries, especially the poems where I feel like I’m learning someone’s business, the stuff that I’m not supposed to know. I feel like I know the person’s business, but I also know I don’t. I love documentaries because so many choices have been made by the director. Documentaries are presented pretty seamlessly, whether it’s a narration or interview. But I know there are hours of footage left on the ground. That’s what I love about poetry. It can feel like I’m learning somebody’s business, but I also know because they’re poems, there’s so much that’s been left out. Each poem is giving me a tiny part of an experience. What I’m getting may not even be an experience; it could be a feeling the writer is navigating or investigating.

That’s what I was trying to do with my book. I didn’t include everything, because it would be boring to do so. People think they want everything, but no one wants everything. Everything is boring. In terms of content and form, I made a lot of choices in what’s in the poem, and what’s left out. I think that comes through in the erasures and redactions in the “Dear—” poems. The quotes you pulled include binaries, like “more or less.” The speaker has to decide what to choose between and that sets up tension. It’s a matter of will. Something is going to be rescued, and something is going to suffer. It’s about choices. I’m very invested in my own accountability. There are so many choices I can make in poetry, and they’re all mine. Even if I don’t understand them, I’m making them.

Rumpus: I’ve never looked at poetry through the lens of a documentary before! It’s interesting to think about, too, with a renunciation—the footage on the cutting room floor doesn’t necessarily comprise things that were renounced; it’s just what didn’t make the final cut. That doesn’t mean those things were let go of. What’s cool about documentaries is that there are deep cuts. Granted, not everybody is entitled to what’s in the archive.

Kelly: Exactly. I came to the title The Renunciations after the manuscript was accepted. The editors wanted a different title, which I knew would happen. I asked myself what the project of the book was, and it was about making the choice to renounce a way of knowing or being that puts other people at the center of my life/the speaker’s life. What would happen if I, or the speaker, were at the center of her own life? I think that’s so much different. To get to that point: you have to let go or remove the old stories to figure out how to go forward.

Rumpus: I want to ask about love, and the speaker’s relationship to love, when comparing “Love Poem” to “Love Poem: Centaur” and “Love Poem: Satyr,” which appeared in your first book. I now know persona is a big difference.

Kelly: Yes, it is. Writing love poems is one of my favorite things to do. My ex-partner did not like metaphors; she would say “I am a person, and you are a person.” Even though “Love Poem” uses metaphors, it is much less intense (ocean and coast). By the time we get to “Dear—” on page forty two, the speaker realizes she and her partner aren’t metaphors. We’re two people trying to share space. What “Love Poem” has in common with my two poems from Bestiary is it uses metaphors. And in “Dear—” the metaphor is moved out of the way. I had to be more present in the poem, thanks to my ex-partner. It was very grounding as the relationship was ending.

Rumpus: Again, I think about faith. On page forty two, the line “We called the showing/knowing instead of practice.” It’s a question of faith and tactility. I would like to ask about the “Dear—” poems that begin each section. As a reader, they didn’t feel like erasure poems; they felt like redactions. Were the “Dear—” poems originally full poems that you then used the erasure method for, or were these poems as short as they appear in the book, and the black strips were added later?

Kelly: They are redactions of letters that I wrote. They were therapeutic in nature, where you write it, but don’t send it. It was very good for me. Gabrielle Calvocoressi taught a workshop about redactions and seeing what they could reveal. I decided to use my letters. I found that they felt like epigraphs, and I liked how they looked. Again, it’s about choice: choosing what’s revealed and what isn’t.

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Photograph of Donika Kelly by Ladan Osman.


Sarah Kersey is an assistant features editor for The Rumpus. Her work has appeared in The Langston Hughes Review, The Hellebore, Columbia Journal (online), and elsewhere. Kersey is a finalist for the 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship, and will be attending the 2021 Tin House Summer Workshop. She tweets @sk__poet. More from this author →