To Gleam at the Periphery: Talking with Kendra DeColo
I first heard Kendra DeColo read her poetry in 2019 at AWP in Portland, Oregon and found myself, along with a wildly thrilled audience, clapping away when she read her poem, “I Hope Hillary Is Having Good Sex.” When her latest collection, I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World, was released, I read my copy overnight. Then, I revisited the book poem by poem, devouring the explosions of joy in these words. Humor, desire, musicality: Kendra’s voice is electrifying, a speaker that never shies from wanting.
In addition to I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World, published this past April by BOA Editions, she is the author of My Dinner with Ron Jeremy (Third Man Books, 2016) and Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014). She has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, Split this Rock, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Magazine, Waxwing, Los Angeles Review, Bitch Magazine, VIDA, and elsewhere. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Vanderbilt University, and the Tennessee Prison for Women. She currently teaches at the Hugo House and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
In May, I spoke with Kendra about the new collection, how motherhood impacted her writing, pop culture, and unapologetic joy.
The Rumpus: You continue your powerful streak of writing into female desire, body, and sexuality, this time also interrogating narratives around mothering. How did the lens of motherhood change the way you approach the body? What texts did you turn to as you wrote into motherhood?
Kendra DeColo: Before I became a mother, I wondered (panicked) about how my writing might change. I’ve heard from other women who similarly feared that having children would make their work tame/domesticated/boring, or whatever associations we place onto motherhood. Then, after my daughter was born, I had no time or energy to worry about this, which was a blessing. I didn’t write for a while and then, when I did, I felt so hungry to arrive at the page that everything would come pouring out—writing itself became the desire, to have that precious, life-sustaining connection with myself. I stopped being self-conscious about what I wanted to say and was able to write from a truly wild place.
There’s a quote I love by Sarah Ruhl in her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me… and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.” I had to go through a grieving process for my old self—including the ways in which my old self wrote and explored desire. I no longer had the same abundance of time to go deeply into my internal life, but it ended up leading to something richer. After flailing and feeling lost I arrived at the freeing notion of “fuck it”—I am not who I was and that is more than okay. In this way I felt like I was starting from scratch, as if by having a child I had cleared the slate and could say whatever I wanted. There was a feeling that no one cared about what I had to say, in the sense that motherhood can make one feel invisible, and so I could really just write for my own joy and need, without having to be good or prove myself. I could play.
During that period of floundering there were so many texts that helped me stay centered in joy and trust my own experiences—books that affirmed it’s okay to feel like you’re failing and to keep trying anyway: Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Revolutionary Mothering edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and poetry collections by Erika Meitner, Aracelis Girmay, and Alicia Jo Rabins. I turned to a lot of comic artists, like Keiler Roberts and Eleanor Davis, who allowed another entry point into writing about motherhood with irreverence and self-forgiveness and play. I also read a lot of Italo Calvino, who I adore, and whose short stories helped me to find a form for brevity and humor in my work.
I think at the heart of writing desire is the belief that you have the right to feel what you feel and to claim your joy unapologetically. Feeling invisible and like a failure (the way that postpartum depression affected me) can have the incredible side effect of pushing you into the opposite extreme.
Rumpus: How, over the course of your three books, has your voice changed when writing about desire and longing?
DeColo: While writing my first book I was so hungry to create—every poem felt urgent, like I was digging into the earth trying to excavate something rough and luminescent. I lived transiently, spent six months couch surfing and basically living out of my car and everything I did was about writing. I read Yusef Komunyakaa religiously, studying how desire erupts from syntax, how music leads to epiphany. I spent a lot of time in Provincetown during this time as well, where I grew up, and experienced it again as an adult queer woman, which gave me a lens for the way I wanted to write about my sexuality.
Then life changed and became more stable and, in some ways, I think desire started to become more about nostalgia, missing the era of my life where everything was fought for. I do feel like writing is a way of returning to that feral self, remembering who I was without anything but my car, my dog Gracie, and my poems. Stanley Kunitz said that writing comes from homesickness and that feels very true for me.
But there are so many things that spark my desires/hungers/longings in the present moment—listening to Big K.R.I.T. while I wash the dishes wearing an unnecessarily fancy outfit, or walking through Nashville at night past the Lipstick Lounge where a drag show spills out into the street and it feels like a small sanctuary shimmering in this Bible Belt/bachelorette party city. I am a very introverted and solitary person, and so in some ways my longing and desire manifests as a hunger to connect, to be seen, to not hide. To gleam at the periphery.
Rumpus: You wrote a lot of this book while your daughter was very young. How did you do it all?
DeColo: Last spring, I saw an incredible panel on writing and motherhood with Tina Chang, Camille Dungy, Erika Meitner, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil (true to the subject matter, I watched it intermittently while my daughter napped). Aimee Nezhukumatathil said something that has stayed with me since, changing the way I look at the balance between mothering and writing:
If there is balance it means that there is no person or things needing me, wanting me. I want to be pulled by my writing, my children, my husband… this mysterious balance, to me it doesn’t exist. I’m always going to be messing up, I’m always not going to be spending enough time with my children, my students… There is always going to be an imbalance and I am grateful for that.
How incredible to let go of that seductive idea that there will be a time when I have it figured out! How beautiful to think of imbalance as actually the thing to strive for, being pulled as a sign of being loved by what calls for you, and what you feel pulled toward.
Rumpus: Your writing style is unabashedly give-no-fucks. Who are all the artists who’ve taught you to give no fucks? To write freely and deeply?
DeColo: I was lucky to study with Jeffrey McDaniel at Sarah Lawrence, who has a ridiculous internal compass for metaphor, hyperbole, and humor. The first poem I ever heard him read aloud was about having crack rock lodged into his rectum. His poems are tender and hilarious, and so is he, as a person and teacher. He modeled both the way that I want to write and be in the classroom—to create a space that is wild and full of possibility while at the same time studying that wilderness so you know what to forage, what mushrooms not to eat.
The jazz, hip hop, punk, and grunge artists I listened to as a teenager still reside in my body—the way I felt pressed up against a speaker at the Middle East listening to Mark Sandman of Morphine seduce the audience while murdering a bass line on his two string slide bass, watching drummers play until their knuckles bled, or getting tossed out of an Immortal Technique show, clumsily rolled joint still smoldering on my lips. I have always wanted to write the way Coltrane incinerated and then salvaged a note on his tenor, or the way Courtney Love punctured her voice into a divine gash (I could write a whole essay about the genius of her snarl). I will listen to Kendrick Lamar, the Stooges, Velvet Underground, or Bikini Kill when I want to internalize a virtuosic, hardcore theology of no fucks. Or I’ll read an interview with Kim Gordon, or watch Billy Hough, a punk-vaudeville lounge performer, play at the Grotto bar in Provincetown and listen to him weave together narratives about the origins of punk, politics, and recovery.
I also turn to artists who embody and explore the archetype of the fool or jester in their work, who know how to prod open the absurd in a way that is brutal and joyous—Jeffrey McDaniel, Diane Seuss, Joe Wenderoth, The Silver Jews, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Matthew Olzmann, Paul Guest, Chen Chen, Jenny Zhang, Jillian Weise. I love watching Ja Morant play, as well as old clips of Allen Iverson—true craftsmen of no fucks.
Then there is also the kind of no-fucks-giving that is rooted in something earnest and heartfelt—thinking of Ross Gay, Patrick Rosal, Aracelis Girmay, Nazim Hikmet, Ani DiFranco, and Agnes Varda, who are all anchors for me when I want to write from the body and unite my aches with my joys—which, as Ross Gay says, cannot live without each another.
Rumpus: I am thinking about the Julio Cortazar quote that opens the book, “and let the pleasure we invent together be one more sign of freedom.” And also, outrage: how it is so central to many of these poems. How did pleasure find its way into your thinking, in contrast to anger?
DeColo: Pleasure is where I always want to begin, especially when writing about something painful or triggering. The first thing I wrote about seven months after my daughter was born was a list titled “Male Celebrities of My Youth with Exquisite Hair” and on that list was Nicolas Cage, which turned into the poem “I Am Thinking of the Movie Con Air.” The poem is really a reckoning with postpartum depression, but I could write it because I was starting with something that gave me pure joy: Nic Cage.
When I teach a writing workshop, the first thing I do is have everyone make a list of their joys, not necessarily to place at the center of our writing but to have them there as a compass and guide, to acknowledge them so that they know they are invited to flourish and flood into our poems. I know I keep mentioning Patrick Rosal, but I love the way he writes about this: “I have to be prepared to complicate whatever comes out on the page. A love poem couldn’t simply be a love poem or at least a love poem would be more interesting to me if it were also, simultaneously, an interrogation of history and the body and the role of music.” I love the way José Olivarez, Franny Choi, and Hanif Abdurraqib all bring joy to their poems, even when writing about things that invoke outrage.
Rumpus: How did the pandemic alter your relationship to art and writing?
DeColo: Art and writing have always been about connection but now even more so. Every email or text I write is a kind of love letter. Every grocery list feels epic. My friend Ciona Rouse and I send each other descriptions of birds we see that feel like poems. Reading has also been so rich, a way of time-traveling and getting outside of my house and head. Right now I’m reading (slowly) Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño, and Against Memoir by Michelle Tea, and tons of music criticism by writers like Ann Powers and Jessica Hopper. I just finished two projects so I am very much in a place of inquiry and discovery and play, which I love and also struggle with. I am excited to see what all this foraging turns into.
Rumpus: I love what you said once about your pitch in poetry—the pitch of urgency and grandeur (the waggle in the spraggle). It comes through so irreverently in these poems, too, making them feel “of the moment yet immensely beautiful,” as Kazim Ali describes. For instance:
Thinking of Richard Burton
Who described Elizabeth Taylor’s
Asshole with such tenderness
As if it were an injured fawn, tended to it
When it became infected
Enchanted by its geography and hymns
Can you talk about the process of distilling your poems into this pitch? What are some favorite revision strategies?
DeColo: So much of revising poems in this collection was about braiding drafts together. Since I wrote on my phone so much (while breastfeeding) I had a ton of fragments or poems that hadn’t found their shape. It was fun to put drafts together that seemed counterintuitive but then merged into something larger. I had a note in my phone forever about Richard Burton’s love of Elizabeth Taylor’s asshole and was overjoyed when I finally had a place for it when I started revising “Thinking of How I Never Say the Word Cunt.” During revisions, I look for the parts where I feel disconnected and then I try to insert something that feels off the cuff or out of place, to wake the poem up.
Rumpus: How do you build pleasure into your practice?
DeColo: I love collaborative writing. My friend Tyler Mills and I started writing poems together five years ago without any plan or agenda and it ended up being one of the most fulfilling writing experiences. I could come up with something as extravagant or preposterous as I wanted without worrying how to resolve it, and then hand it over to Tyler, who would somehow brilliantly connect it to the next right line.
My friend Keith Leonard and I are currently doing a project where we assign each other terrible early 2000s music videos to watch and write poems about. I keep trying to stump him but it doesn’t work. He sent me a Creed video and I was so mad but then ended up having a blast writing about it. Anything low-stakes is such a wonderful way to let in joy and play.
I am also a big fan of writing while I walk, or drive, or grocery shop. I also love to play ukulele and draw comics (badly) and doing these practices brings playfulness to my writing as well. Really anything that brings me into my body while I write, or think about writing (which to me is writing) is what creates space for joy—dancing to Beyoncé with my daughter has been a necessary part of my process.
Photograph of Kendra DeColo by Kendra DeColo.