In perhaps the most oft-quoted line of American poetry, Walt Whitman proclaims, “I contain multitudes.” For Whitman, this declaration is joyous, maybe even a bit boastful; he is large and heterogenous enough to speak for all of America. Whitman, however, is less concerned with the construction of the self and more interested in its capacity. Don’t worry about how I came to be this way, just be assured that I am qualified to preach the secular bible of this nation.
In her debut collection of poems, BESTIARY, Donika Kelly works backward from Whitman. She, too, contains multitudes, but she is far less interested in using this ambiguous vastness to preach for the masses and far more interested in exploring the root causes of the multitudinous self. Familial strife, cultural projection, brain chemistry, even the American landscape itself all conspire to shape her into different selves and, rather than remain content to be shaped, Kelly scrutinizes each of these informing principles in an effort to reclaim her agency. The result is a breathtaking amalgamation of abstract philosophizing and triumphant soul searching. Early on in the collection, she suggests that “you are a 19th century poem. / All of America is inside you” and ultimately comes to the conclusion that her work is “not song but description.” She is not singing for us but merely describing—in stark and affecting verse—a process of self-preservation.
BESTIARY was released in October of 2016 by Graywolf Press and has garnered a great deal of praise, including being longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award in Poetry. Kelly was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email regarding the notion of self in poetry, how trauma and grief can manifest in art, and how her critical work informs (or fails to inform) her poetry.
I’m curious about the title and the conceit it implies. In a sense, a bestiary is a form of mythologizing that relies upon static symbols arranged to communicate some kind of moral lesson. Your poems, however, resist stasis in nearly every way: the speaker’s point of view shifts between and within poems; subjects are defined and then re-defined (often multiple times); even individual poem titles are recycled in order to re-contextualize our understanding of them. I guess what I’m asking is: did the conceit come first and then the individual poems later, as exercises in complicating our received understanding of a bestiary OR did individual poems—replete with their multiplicity—come first and then, in arranging them, you impressed the conceit upon them? Or am I reducing your composition process to some false dichotomy in order to more clearly understand it?
I’d say the title definitely came later, as a way of corralling the beasts that populated the poems and book into some kind of coherence. But let’s resist the dichotomy—as a rule they make me nervous in that they can, as you suggest, reduce our possibilities for interpreting, well, anything. I wanted a title that could handle the catalogue of beasts and animals and humans that populate the book, and to that end a bestiary suited. I was less concerned with the moral lessons because I’m not particularly invested in imposing my moral vision on people. I think, though, that the book hints at a moral universe that hinges on the centering of the self, not selfishly but as a means of survival and as a path to peace.
The self is such a vexed question in poetry. Should we foreground it, dissolve it, fragment it, do away with it entirely, etc...
The first poem of the collection (which comes prior to the epigraph even) begins with the tercet: “Refuse the old means of measurement. / Rely instead on the thrumming / wilderness of self. Listen.” In one sense—and there seem to be many possible ways in which to interpret the addressee here—these lines function as instructions for the reader engaging the text. That is, to trace the permutations of self is one way to understand these poems. I’m interested in what is being measured though. In moving inwards and embracing the protean self, what (perhaps negative or, at least, antiquated) thing is being displaced? Or, to paraphrase you, how can a re-examination or re-alignment of the self (particularly through poetry) serve as a means of survival or a path to peace?
I think the notion of self is potentially fraught, and I wrestle with it throughout the book. I feel as if I’m trying to figure out how to be a human self in this collection by seeking permission in myth to acknowledge the parts of me that are most monstrous and damaged but that hold, I hope, some value.
I wrote “Out West” after traveling through Utah on our way back home to Nashville. We’d driven out for my grandmother’s funeral in Los Angeles and were taking a northern, less direct route home. Utah disoriented me. I found that I couldn’t tell how large or small anything was because the landscape disrupted my sense of scale. Were we looking at a tree or a bush? A squirrel or dog or a buffalo in the distance? What was distance in that space? I couldn’t track it.
At the same time, I was still in the process of adjusting to my antidepressants, adjusting to the fact that I needed antidepressants, that my coping mechanisms had failed me, and I needed the chemical floor. Without meds, I couldn’t bear my feelings; with meds, I couldn’t feel my feelings. Adequate mental health care in this country is a luxury, which is absurd, and that’s beyond the stigma it carries in communities of color.
To inhabit this particular body is to carry trauma and grief and the dehumanization that comes with being a black person, a black woman, a black lesbian in the U.S. Without the small fleet of therapists I’ve seen over the last fourteen years, I wouldn’t be alive, and I wouldn’t have been able to process the multiple traumas you see throughout the book.
Which is to say, the unexamined, traumatized self, who I’d only seen askance, is the self that is displaced in “Out West.” In her place, an action, an imperative. For me to foreground, as best I knew how, myself was, is still, a radical move toward self-care.
Perhaps the opening means to invoke in some way the above sentiments as a way of granting permission to myself and the reader to put ourselves first. The instruction to the reader here is an instruction to myself. The imperative to listen, to look, to let go of how I understood myself. To chart my own wilds.
Could you discuss the collection’s relationship to trauma a bit more? Trauma can be the impetus for a poem and/or it can be the subject of one, but negotiating the relationship between the two can be extremely difficult. “How to be Alone”—the book’s longest poem and, in some regards, its centerpiece—seems to do so with remarkable restraint, and I’m curious how conscious you were of that distinction (between the impulse for and the gesture of a poem) during the composition process.
This is a difficult question for me on a few levels. I find “How to be Alone” too much to bear most of the time, and I can’t really read it. I hesitated to put it in the book even though I knew it belonged at the heart of the collection.
I wrote the sequence in the midst of a breakup that, in hindsight, should not have been as devastating as it was. In the moment of writing the poem, I felt that having survived sexual abuse and trauma, and my entrenched suicidality, were the cause of the breakup. Instead of taking a hard look at why the relationship ended, I collapsed inward to find fault in myself, if that makes sense.
The entire poem, then, is a pivot away from the catalyst of sadness, and toward a familiar, if unprocessed, source of grief. Writing the poem was the first time I really got in touch with my anger about what my father had done to me, and that anger scared me. Because so much of that trauma was unprocessed at that time, I could only make declarative or descriptive statement. I couldn’t bear to look more than askance at that time in my life where I was at the mercy of someone who should have protected me.
The poem also touches on my mother’s resurrection, as it were. Two or three years before, she’d gone into cardiac arrest and coded. After eleven minutes, they were able to bring her back, but she returned a different person. In the early months of her recovery, her short-term memory was shattered, her long-term memory missing large pieces. She didn’t always know who I was, but that’s gotten much better with time. Still, the grief of losing my mother, of being forgotten, slipped into the poem as yet another example of being unimportant or disposable.
The feeling of not being enough or not mattering animates large parts of the book. If I couldn’t be loved as a person, perhaps I wasn’t a person. Perhaps I was some other kind of animal, something lower in the order of things.
Art, in general, and poetry, specifically, are often discussed in terms of their ability to afford catharsis. What you’re describing here though seems something much more profound: the poem as a place to evaluate and improve the self, perhaps (when necessary) even construct new selves, as opposed to merely a platform for purging and releasing. Given the stakes you were dealing with here, I’m curious how long it took you to compose these poems? How many revisions they went through?
And how did you know you were finished? This is your debut collection, and I’ve heard writers discuss their feelings of inadequacy while composing their first book, the feeling of needing to be equal to the task. Given your relationship to these poems, I imagine the notion of closure was even more complicated for you.
I wrote all but one of the poems that comprise the manuscript in the five years after I completed my MFA. I’m not a perfectionist and I have a terrible memory for the kind of granular thinking about the history of the book, so I can’t speak to the revision process too much. Generally, my process was to worry the poems until they felt done, but even then, my definition of done was, and continues to be, a bit loose. Did the poem feel right? Did the poem say what I wanted to say in the best way I knew how? If the answer was no, I poked at it until it did.
I also tried to remember that the person I was in the initial drafting process was not the person doing the editing months or years later. Attending to that difference mattered to me because the earlier drafts of a poem captured my way of understanding the world at the time the poem was written.
The collection was basically complete once I plugged in “How to be Alone.” Before that sequence, I’d had another, “Zombie Love Poem,” at the center. While I love those poems—they are so gross and full of feeling—and I felt they did good work in the collection, they represented yet another layer of distance via persona in book. The collection needed an approximation of personhood that was more obviously human.
With the central sequence in place, I actually felt pretty good about the book as a book. I felt that I’d made a competent piece of art that I would be happy to hold in my hands and that I hoped would resonate with readers. Maybe I didn’t feel the anxiety you’re describing above because I don’t believe in perfection, only process. The book, the making of it, was a process. The experiences it charts, another process. The person I am now is yet another.
In the five years that followed your M.F.A., you also completed a Ph.D. in English Literature, authoring a dissertation that, to quote your website, deals with “cultural representations of white American manhood.” Both your poetry and your scholarship address—among other things—the ways in which representations of gender, race, and sexuality influence identity formation. I wonder if you could discuss the relationship between the two. How does your poetry inform your scholarship and/or vice versa? What does each medium—poetry and academic prose—offer that the other cannot?
Writing a dissertation reassured me that my heart was in poetry. I balked, often, at the notion that I would need two hundred pages to say anything, let alone that white men are people with feelings, and that, perhaps, we ought not treat them as a monolith. Why were there so many pages and so many words?
One of the challenges of the dissertation was articulating why I spent two years thinking and writing about white men. It’s harder to fathom now, given the outcome of the election, and arguably, there were more pressing texts, topics, and conversations to attend to. I’ll say that a project that denaturalized white manhood reached for reciprocity, and I drew on bell hooks’ and Audre Lorde’s work in framing my project.
As a black lesbian poet and critic, I struggle with being seen. That is, sometimes I am seen as black, sometimes as a black woman or black lesbian, other times as a black poet, still other times as lesbian poet. I could go on. None of the labels are “normative,” yet they all come with their own conventions and assumptions. In writing the dissertation, I realized that the categorizations and labels that I actively claim are limiting, but I cannot be any of them without being all of them without being any of them. By which I mean, I don’t actually know what it means to be, by singular definition, a black, lesbian, poet, critic. The terms are occasionally useful shorthand, but they say little about one’s lived experiences. If I am interested in my own intersectionality, then the challenge in my critical work was to see and attempt to account for the intersectionality of others. To assume a straight white middle-class man always occupies the tiny triangle at the top of the race/gender/sexuality hierarchy is to refuse to see that which makes him a person. To be sure, white men are complicit in and reinforce the dominant, normative construction of their manhood. After all, there is privilege, even if it is only ideological, to be claimed. And often they claim that privilege at the expense of marginalized bodies and persons. But that doesn’t mean we, as thinkers and people in the world, can’t be more nuanced readers.
In a smaller way, I located an affinity for and identity with the West that I’d not recognized in myself before the critical work. I read a lot of new western history, and each historian working on the West claimed ties to place. Because I was working on the western, I wondered if something similar might be happening, that perhaps I was drawn to the cinematography of the West because that was the landscape of my childhood.
The practice of working on the dissertation opened up a new appreciation for expansion in my work, an interest in a longer line. I became more comfortable with writing drafts that were loose and messy. I didn’t need to know why or how a poem might move into the world.
This idea of the West as a site of excavation for you—both personal and historical—is interesting. I suggested earlier that each of the poems that comprise the collection are in dialogue with one another in particularly considered ways, and this is perhaps most apparently evident in the opening and closing poems, “Out West” and “Back East.” You already discussed the former and the multiplicative significance of its point of view. Could you discuss the latter in relation to it? The POV shifts from second person in the opener to first person plural in the closer and that shift feels well-earned. Was this a conscious decision? What was the process of writing “Back East” like? Did you set out to write a “closing poem” or did it occur more organically?
I hadn’t thought about the POV shift in the poems, but looking now, I see a kind of sense. Both “Out West” and “Back East” are about the trip out to California for my grandmother’s funeral, and both were written about return journey, the journey home.
My partner at the time drove me from Nashville to Los Angeles and back, because I didn’t want to go without her, and we couldn’t afford the ticket for both of us to fly. I couldn’t help with the drive because, at the time, I couldn’t drive a standard. Also, I was a mess of grief.
We tried to make the trip mean more than the funeral and grieving, though. This meant camping across the Southwest, including the Grand Canyon, going to Venice Beach—where one could walk in and float out with a prescription for pot—and stopping at Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake. There we learned, at the Cowboy Legends Cowboy Poetry Festival, about the difference between elk and moose and antelope and deer, which is to say we learned a lot about antlers and horns. We drove through Wyoming, the tiptop of Colorado, through Kansas and Missouri—states I’d never been in before—with my hand in hers or resting on her thigh.
I’d never had anyone do something so big as drive me across the country so that I wouldn’t be alone with my family. What she did was so huge and arduous and beautiful, and she did it for me because she loved me. In a way, I wanted to give her something, to make her something that spoke to that moment. That we were a we on our way home.
When it came time to think about the book again—I’d been shuffling things around for a bit there—it made sense to begin and end with those poems, which is another way of saying I began so far away from myself as to not even be an “I” and ended in chosen family.
Earlier this year, the collection was long-listed for The National Book Award (which is a remarkable achievement for any writer, let alone someone penning her debut collection). How has this honor and the increased readership it affords you affected your relationship to these poems? Has this increased visibility—and the conversations regarding your work that accompany it—attuned you to anything new in these poems? Is there anything, in particular, that you’re hoping your reader will take away from them?
In conversations with my friends, I’ve expressed a blunted shock at the book’s reception, especially being long-listed for the National Book Award. Part of the shock is rooted in my positionality in the world—and I think we’ve talked about this a bit, but being and identifying a black lesbian presumes a kind of cultural invisibility, especially in mainstream institutions. When I talked with friends, they were surprised at my surprise, and they often thought I was denigrating the book in some way. I wasn’t. The book is a good and competent piece of art; I wouldn’t have shared it if I thought otherwise. However, I never imagined anyone outside my community would read the book. That’s a failure of imagination on my part, and one, once confronted, that makes me sad.
Still, there’s something freeing in believing a thing will not ever be seen. A different kind of bravery is possible because there’s only what the poem, the book, the art, calls for, with no audience to please. My challenge now, and it’s a humbling one, is to reckon with the reader.
To your question, or some part of it, I’m attuned a bit more to the public-ness of the poems, and that changes them in inchoate ways. I’m surprised at the poems that seem to resonate most with people, and I like that I get to talk with people about the work. I try not to think too hard about the poems, though. They’re these weird feelings time capsules that I enjoy looking at and through. They surprise me, how they recall what I’d sorted and put away.
I think of poetry as an offering, a way of saying, This is how I see the world. Does this make sense to you? Each poem is hand, extended and open. I understand, right now, in this moment, the book as an affirmation of what we already know: it’s hard to be a person. And sometimes, I can’t even get to human in the book because it’s that hard.
I thought a nice way to close would be to give you the opportunity to discuss some other poets you've enjoyed lately. Who are some poets you've been reading and what, in particular, do you take from each?
This is a wonderful question. Because last year was difficult in a range of areas, I often found myself reaching for poets whose work rings with a kind of clarity—Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, and Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, were and are my touchstones. They write with such lucidity and vulnerability, and I want to bring into my work.
Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior, which is such a beautiful book, struck me as a challenge to be more politically engaged, materially and in poetry. I just finished Nicole Sealey’s The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, and I was so angry with her for being so deft with language, for skimming along the surface before grabbing the reader’s ankle and pulling them into unfathomable territory. I’d like to engender that kind of anger in others, if I’m being honest.
Now that my life seems to be leveling out a bit, I’m excited to read new works. On my nightstand are Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Danez Smith’s [insert] Boy, Tiana Clark’s Equilibrium, and, like, a dozen more.