Donika Kelly’s debut collection, Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2016), was selected by Nikky Finney for the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She holds an MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, and in 2013, she received a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University, where she specialized in American literature and film studies. Donika is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and a 2004 June Fellow of the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. Her poems have appeared in various journals, including West Branch, Indiana Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and others. Donika is an assistant professor at St. Bonaventure University, where she teaches creative writing.
In early October, Nikky Finney interviewed Donika Kelly about her debut collection, Bestiary. The collection was recently long-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry.
NIKKY FINNEY: Los Angeles is one of the poetic landscapes in your book. Can you talk a little bit about L.A. and you? Can you also talk about Nashville and you? What about the place you now live? How do these places figure into your work?
DONIKA KELLY: I was born in L.A. in the early 1980s, and we mostly lived in South Central or Compton. I associate the space with a kind of personal and social constriction, with pain and helplessness. Violence was quotidian. Fear was quotidian.
I witnessed, sometimes firsthand, sometimes second, police brutality against my family, particularly my father. I witnessed, from our little kitchen window, the L.A. riots in the early ’90s. We lived in a Blood neighborhood when I was in middle school, but my grandmother lived in a Crip neighborhood, so we were always navigating between those spaces. Some colors were off limits to us. Some gestures. My aunt’s boyfriend, who’d taken us often to the beach and played volleyball with us, was murdered in a gang- related drive-by that my brother, who was six or seven at the time, witnessed. I witnessed grown men fighting in my grandma’s tiny apartment, wrecking her glassware and her furniture. I knew, as a child living at the juncture of tectonic plates, that even the ground was unstable. In an environment saturated in violence and fear and persistent sunshine and good weather, I was also afraid at home. My father abused me, sexually, from the time I was eight until we left Los Angeles when I was 13.
We moved to Arkansas in the late 1990s, and my family still lives there. I went to college there, and moved to Texas for my MFA before moving to Nashville to get my PhD at Vanderbilt University.
Nashville was where I learned to love myself and to have compassion for the little girl in Compton who feared her father and who blamed herself for his actions, which might be a way of saying Nashville was a healing space. I had a tremendous therapist who helped facilitate that process. I wrote nearly all of the poems in Bestiary there, because, I think, I’d finally found the quiet and the resources, financial and psychological, to do some of the hard work of processing trauma.
I’m currently living in western New York, teaching at St. Bonaventure University. I’m not sure what this space is, as I’ve only been here a few months, but I’m hopeful.
This is your debut collection. For Bestiary to be long-listed for the National Book Award is a stunning achievement. How long have you been at the desk wrestling with words? When did you know that this was what you wanted to devote life and limb to?
I’m a bit overwhelmed at the reception of the book, if only because I’ve been so close to it for so long. I find it hard to track the moment I started to conceptualize the book as a project, but I’ll say it never felt like wrestling, more like finding the patience to watch something, in chrysalis, in hibernation emerge from the earth.
In the process of writing several sequences about birds — so many birds — and mythological beasts, I figured I was making something and maybe that thing was a book. I kept shuffling and shuffling the poems I’d made together, rather like a deck of cards, to see what new things and themes surfaced. Many of those poems, written at Cave Canem or shared with friends in little handmade chapbooks, didn’t make it into the collection, but I kept writing and shuffling.
At one point there was a sequence of zombie poems in the center of the book, but Mark Jarman suggested I take them out. I realized, in conversation with him, that the persona poems gave me a way to say what I was too afraid to say as a black lesbian, a black woman. To admit need and pain, desire and trauma, and claim my humanity at the same time was often daunting, but the collection needed that moment. I included “How to be alone,” a sequence I’d never planned to share, because the book demanded I claim my personhood, and even there, there’s the hedge with the second person, the “I” slipping in in moments of fracture. That was the pivotal moment of devotion to the work, of being an artist and being a person.
Yesterday, I gave my MFA students James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process.” We talked at length about the “state of being alone” that is at the heart of Baldwin’s thoughts and the artist’s critical “conquest of the great wilderness of himself.” I feel you doing this kind of brave necessary work in Bestiary.
I have been lost in the wilderness of myself for some time, but for most of my life, I couldn’t have imagined such underbrush and canopy. When I was in the fifth grade, for example, I cried so much, all the time, and there were valid reasons for crying. I was a child crumbling under the weight of my father’s desire while also starting at a magnet program where suddenly I wasn’t one of the smartest kids in the room. My teacher at the time knew something was wrong, and she arranged for me to see a school counselor, which my parents signed off on. I knew that I had to perform in that space as a normal child: I couldn’t betray my father because it would ruin our family, and that would be my fault.
So I learned not to cry. Crying made me visible, and being visible meant being a danger. I shut down so as not to upset the adults around me.
When I started therapy my freshman year of college, I began the process of chipping away at what Baldwin calls “the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself.” After about 14 years of talk therapy with some very amazing therapists — to whom the book is dedicated — I’ve started to map me out. There are signposts now, soft trails. I am in the process of learning how not to hurt myself, and this process is predicated on my seeing myself and knowing myself. I am my own preservation project.
I don’t know if you walk, but I’m a walker. I walk five miles every morning. I have to walk, or I don’t think I would be able to open my mouth and speak. I wouldn’t be able to write. My Achilles and femur seem connected to my fingers and my tongue. But the daily and weekly shootings of black people all across the United States have deeply affected the way I walk and move through the world. I used to be able to move right into my head and think about words or images and leave the craziness of my life or the world behind. That doesn't work for me anymore. I now live in a state that flaunts itself as the state where everybody has a gun. The state where a young white man who wanted to start a new civil war walks into a black church and murders nine black people sitting in Bible study. In these Shooting-Black-People-Every-Day days, when I go outside my attention is on who is physically near me. I’m not certified paranoid yet, but I’m not myself. I was wondering about how the daily or weekly shootings of black people in the United States have affected you.
You and I have talked a little about this before, and honestly, I struggle. I struggle to get past the anger, which is a symptom, I think, of the bodily fear I feel as a black, queer woman who could be murdered, and the knowledge nothing would happen to the person who killed me. I carry that feeling of disposability in my chest.
The bodily awareness that you mention reminds me of what my therapist calls hyper-vigilance, and I feel it every day. I live in a town that is over 90 percent white, and I have never felt more visible in my life. You, at least, have some understanding of where you are, the history, which is more than I can say right now. I can’t rely on neighborly recognition when I walk my dogs, a friendly wave or a brief nod. That isn’t to say that people don’t wave or nod, but it feels rare. The space is so unfamiliar to me that I cannot decipher what the coldness means, but I know my colleagues, who are white, do not feel that coldness in the same way. I am afraid that I will be alone somewhere in this new space, and I will need help, and I will be murdered for that need.
To be clear, the feeling is not local to western New York. I carried it in Nashville and in Sacramento, and I imagine I’ll feel it wherever I go.
The trauma and fear sit, unprocessed, in my gut. I’ve incorporated that fear and that anger into how I move through the world, but sometimes it’s dormant. When it’s dormant, I can write and focus on making art. I can find the psychological and emotional space to reach out and connect with my family, chosen and biological. But in the media whirlwind of another black person murdered on camera, and another and another, I find myself paralyzed. Too scared to reach out. Too scared to try to make meaning in the world.
I believe that you believe that poetry is reliable. The way you see and use words tells me this. Do you believe this?
I wonder how you mean reliable here. I would say that I know I can turn to poetry, that I will be able at times to make a competent poem, and, occasionally, a very fine one. I find myself worrying about precision and language even as I understand that language is inherently imprecise and, as such, unreliable. Still, poems — my own and others — have been, for me, a gesture fixed in time. The object exists, reliably, even as the meaning I attribute to it changes as I change.
When I used to play basketball, my coach would scream at me that I should stop thinking about the arc of the ball and where it was going to hit the backboard and which part of the net it was going to make shimmy (I was absolutely thinking this!) and just shoot the ball! The detailed visual journey of things is so important to me. I feel that I see things that other people could see if they took the time. Can you relate to this in any way? I guess I’m looking for my tribe of visual contemplators out in the world.
I wish I had vision, Nikky! I’m frightfully myopic, both in my actual eyes, and conceptually at times. Perhaps this leads to a kind of granularity, a way of focusing on what is right in front of me. Perhaps this way of seeing is a way of being present. Perhaps I’ve circled around to saying yes, I can relate to what you mean — but from another angle. I can’t see what will happen, only that something has happened, and it’s right here and so close to my face. Like you, I want to share what I see, to ask others to sit still and beside me.
We are living in anything but funny days. But I know the power of laughter to light and heal the way sometimes. Where do you look for laughter in your life? How often do you find it?
This is such a good question. My chosen family is pretty exceptional. The folks who have come into my life because of graduate school and teaching, the ones who have stayed in my life because we love each other are warm, amazing, funny human beings. We laugh a lot. The laughing means more because we can also be vulnerable with each other. There’s a depth to my friendships that I was unable to access or cultivate in my early 20s, but I can’t imagine life without it now. We call each other, we share our days, we laugh. We cry, too, and rage. We know we’ll be loved no matter the feeling.
Nikky Finney is the author of four books of poetry: On Wings Made of Gauze, RICE, The World Is Round, and Head Off & Split, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011. She is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.