In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Donika Kelly discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to The Guest Editor Q&A hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy. And I’m here today with our Guest Editor for August’s Poem-a-Day, Donika Kelly. Donika is the author of Bestiary and The Renunciations. Welcome, Donika. And thank you for joining me.
Donika Kelly: Oh, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to talk to you today, Mary.
Poets.org: Likewise. All right, let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Kelly: When I got the invitation, I was so excited. Which also felt unexpected because I tend not to want to do, like, this kind of work. But, I love Poem-a-Day and I get so excited about the poems in my inbox. And I was so excited for the opportunity. And, so, there were a ton of names that came to mind and it was hard to kind of figure out, like, what my approach might be.
But, eventually, I decided to focus primarily on poets who were kind of like me: a bit more at the earlier end of their careers; folks with maybe two books or one book or a chapbook; or poets whose work I had seen who maybe didn’t have a collection yet. This is work that I’m excited by. Usually they’re dealing with similar kinds of themes that I feel really connected to. They’re thinking about nature; they’re queer folks; they’re folks of color; they’re strange, wonderful people. And their work is strange and wonderful.
And so, I was thinking about those folks. And then I also wanted to reach out to poets who are more established and whose work has been important to me. And that felt like a really wonderful opportunity to just highlight work by poets who, I think, are just like really, really wonderful folks. And that balance feels like the right mood for August. It‘s like, we’re coming out of summer, like things are blooming, heading into the fall and the harvest. I don’t know. For me, like, that was a little bit of the thinking. And, again, like, these are poets whose work I feel in conversation with, and I’m so excited that so many of them said yes. That part was scary. So, I was like, “Will they say yes?” And then, so many of them did.
Poets.org: Well, that’s uplifting when they do say yes.
Kelly: It is, it is.
Poets.org: Now, if you could direct readers to one poem—or several, because I realize this question can be challenging for some people—in our collection at poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it or, they, be and why?
Kelly: How do people answer this question? Like, the archive is so, so huge. And there were a few options that I was thinking of, but the one that stuck with me, I think, it came out towards the end of last year. And it’s Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, “I was a Good Wife.” It’s one of my favorite poems. I remember I read it and I was like, “Woo! Okay.” I felt, like, a little bowled over by it. Like, the energy of it is so big. And under that energy is such grief and, maybe, longing to have been different. And, I don’t know, I’ve definitely felt that. I felt that at the end of my marriage. So, I don’t know.
I connected so much with that work and, really, I love her work just broadly, anyway. And so, this is one of the poems that recently I was really, really excited by. The title, “I Was a Good Wife,” it’s like, it uses the past tense and… it’s like, it feels really grounded: I was a good wife. And then, the next two lines are just like, “Ohhh!” It’s like, the poem moves in directions that are so unexpected. That was maybe... I’m just like trying to go with, like, what comes first to mind. I’m just, like, moving in that because, otherwise, we’ll spend years in the poets.org archive. Because there’s so many wonderful, wonderful poems there.
Poets.org: And we encourage people to spend as much time there as they want to spend, certainly. But I’m so glad that you mentioned that Villarreal poem. And those who aren’t familiar, please go and check that out. I, too, am really struck by the final lines of that poem, which engage so much, so deeply, and so succinctly with feminism, with the migrant crisis. That poem really doesn’t shy away from the ways in which imposed social demarcations define our characters and our lives, for better and for worse.
Kelly: That's right.
Poets.org: Okay. So, what are you reading right now off of our website?
Kelly: I have just, like, piles of books, like all over the place. I’m trying to get ready for the fall. I’m teaching two classes. So, what has been in my stack? Ama Codjoe’s Bluest Nude, which I have a galley of. And Ada Limón’s, The Hurting Kind. I’ve been very excited to dive into those books. And I have Tamiko Beyer’s, The Last Days, and also ... Oh, what do I have? And also her [Beyer’s], We Come Elemental. That’s one of the books that I’m thinking about using for my class.
And then, I’m just rereading some Vievee Francis. And, in my spare time, just hunting for big sci-fi trilogies written by women of color. Which are my favorite thing to read in the summertime. It feels... I don’t know, I wouldn’t say hopeful; but there’s something about the world-building that’s been really... It’s nice to be lost in that work, given the current climate—political, environmental. It’s nice to be sort of lost in someone else’s problems for a little bit.
Poets.org: Even though there’s some sci-fi, and I’m thinking particularly of Octavia Butler, that roots you very much in the world, as we know it. And in history, especially African American history.
Kelly: I stay away from the Parables [The Parable Series] because it’s too hard. It’s, like, it feels too close. Like, I tried to reread Parable of the Sower and I was like, “Oh, that’s not happening anytime soon.” I’m more of a, The Dawn [sic], Imago. The Xenogenesis trilogy is one of my favorites to reread in the summer. I do need like a little bit of distance because history is really circling back around right now. It’s rebounding; it’s a little bit despairing. Maybe that’s all I’ll say about that.
[Laughter] Poets.org: Yes, to say the least. Yeah, despairing. You talked briefly about work and getting together a syllabus for this fall. What are you currently working on in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Kelly: So much of my work right now is I’m thinking through boundaries. And that’s come out of having the opportunity at the University of Iowa to really teach advanced creative writing classes to undergrads. I don’t work with grad students. And, in those classes, what has come up as like the big craft questions for me are like, what are the boundaries? And how do we manipulate those boundaries between us and our speakers? Between our speakers and our readers? The shape of the poem. And, so, that’s been something that I’ve been really interested in.
And that thinking is coming through pretty clearly in the two courses that I’m teaching this fall. One of them is on persona; one of them is on nature poetry. And both are exploring how we ground the poem and the relationship between the poet and the speaker. I don’t want my students at this juncture, because they are very young in their practice, to think too much about the reader. Just, like, what’s happening between the poet and the speaker? What are they asking their speakers to do?
And, in my own writing, I’m doing what I love to do. Which is writing whatever comes. I have a research trip out to Seattle in the next week, which will involve looking for and at, hopefully... Yeah, looking for and at Orca. I don’t want to be too close, though. I want that boundary to be very clear. So, that feels really important to me. So, I want to do some shore watching. I don’t need to be out in the water, really enjoy watching from the shore, feel safe. I’m a land animal; that’s a sea animal. Keep the boundary tight.
Poets.org: Love to look at the water from a safe distance. I’m exactly the same, the same way. So, you mentioned that, at this stage, you don’t want your students to be thinking too much about the reader. But, I’m curious, when you write, do you imagine an audience?
Kelly: When I’m drafting, I don’t really. When I’m drafting, I’m mostly thinking about or working on what is, in the broadest sense possible, pleasurable to me. So, like, if I’m working with difficult material, difficult memories, sensitive memories… It’s like, how can I create something where the shape and the sound feels good to me, it feels pleasing to me?
But, when I get to the stage of the work, where I’m looking at it and thinking of it as something to share, then that’s when I start thinking about the audience. And, so, some slightly different considerations come into play there. I can’t share everything, and I don’t, because it’s not all art. So, it’s like, what rises to the category of art? What feels like it could be shared and have some of that offering to the reader of an experience? And, hopefully, a shared experience. That’s kind of what I’m thinking about then. But, maybe also, I would... So many digressions here… But, I also think about... I like to write the kinds of poems that I like to read. So, I’m often thinking about myself as the first reader. It’s like, I know what I like. And, so, can the poem do the things that I like? Sometimes. Occasionally.
Poets.org: That reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison, who said once, to paraphrase, that she wrote the novels that she wanted to read. I mean, if there’s something out there... Or, rather, if there’s something you want to read that isn’t out there, then you, as an artist, have an obligation to create it.
Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. I wouldn’t dare…
[Laughter] Poets.org: Oh, I know. I’m not trying to go there with you.
Kelly: But, I think I want to be in conversation with the poets whose work is meaningful and pleasurable to me. I want to, like, be writing in that lineage and in that tradition. And so, that ends up being, actually, a little bit of a high bar for, like, what I end up sharing. It’s like, does this poem clear the bar of work that I have loved written by other poets? And sometimes it does. So, that feels nice.
Poets.org: Indeed. Indeed. Thank you so much for joining me for this podcast. And thank you for taking the time to curate for August.
Kelly: Thank you. Thank you, Mary. This is wonderful. Wonderful.