In 2024, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Kendra DeColo discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work. 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 the Guest Editor for March, Kendra DeColo. Kendra is the author, most recently, of I Am Not Trying To Hide My Hungers from the World. Kendra, welcome and thank you for joining me.

Kendra DeColo: Thank you so much for having me. Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for March, Women’s History Month?

DeColo: I really wanted to follow my excitement and my joy and showcase poets who embody this quote that I really love by Jericho Brown, who said that every love poem is a political poem, and every political poem is a love poem. And I think that if we really think about it, that’s just true across the board. But I wanted to find poets who really write in the mindset that the personal is political and to celebrate that. If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

DeColo: I have always adored the poem “Kissing in Vietnamese” by Ocean Vuong. It’s a poem that I read, I think, when it first came out and Split This Rock maybe in 2010. And it’s a poem that is more minimalist than I’m usually drawn to in terms of the space and the economy of words. But it is a poem that, in that economy, collapses the distance between the personal and political, between the atrocities of history and the atrocities of the current moment. And at its deepest level, it’s a love poem, honoring the speaker’s grandmother and all that she’s survived. And I love the way that grammar becomes this pivotal force, although very discreet, where the imperfect subjunctive is used to show us how what we think is in the past is really living with us in our lives and in our bodies. And what are you reading right now?

DeColo: Oh, I’m reading so many things. I am currently reading The Woman in Me by Britney Spears, which I was reading for an essay that I’m writing on one of her best songs, in my opinion. But I’ve just been completely wrecked by it, and its themes of embodiment really echo what I love about these other collections I’m reading, essays by poets such as Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key, which is a collection of essays about Joni Mitchell, and then Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown. And I love the long, luxurious sentences of the essay collection and the ways that it explores just what it means to be in a human body, in a woman’s body. I’m curious about which of Spears’s songs you think is one of her best. Are you willing to share that or is that a secret for the essay?

DeColo: Oh, I mean, I so want to share it, Mary. Can we talk about it afterwards? [laughs] We can.

DeColo: I will give the hint, though, that it’s a song that I think Britney has even said she thinks of as her best song. Okay. All right.

DeColo: Yeah. Interesting. We’ll talk more later. [laughs] Speaking of Britney Spears and women who are labeled as problematic, which I know you deal with a lot in your poetry, you write very vividly and unsparingly about the female body, you know, calling parts by their medical names, which I so appreciate. No va-jay-jay or “down there” for you. And the body’s secretions, particularly your experiences with both childbirth and lactation, which are described in “I Pump Milk Like a Boss,” a poem of yours that is on

DeColo: Yes. And the poem is stunning for both its violence and its eroticism. I contrast the imagery that you provide in these poems with the images that we have of public women who are also mothers, like Spears, whom it seems the world has not forgiven for reminding us that she doesn’t actually—she didn’t actually come out of a box, and for no longer being this Lolita of old men’s perverse fantasies. So I say all of that to ask you, when did you make the choice to write as brashly and disruptively as you do about women’s bodies and experiences? And are there particular writers, poets even, who tilted you in that direction thematically?

DeColo: Yes. Oh, I love this question so much. I don’t even know how to begin. I think I was really lucky to have artists for parents who kind of rewarded my, kind of, leaning into the shocking. The dinner table was a place for us to try and outdo one another in terms of our language and how we could gross one another out. And so I think that was a joy for me. And also I got a lot of positive reinforcement for being gross and creative with grossness and then just going into adulthood, you know, the parallel trajectories of becoming a poet and becoming a person seen as sexually viable, I mean, they just go … They have just become intertwined. It’s hard to separate them. And at a certain point it felt like not claiming the language that I heard others use about my body, and to try and be demure or respectful, it felt like a violence I was doing to myself.

And it really was in grad school, you know, where I was trying to write these very polite poems. Mark Jarman was one of my professors who is an amazing formalist, but you wouldn’t necessarily think of him as someone who’d be like, “Yes, write that strap-on poem.” But he was! Luckily, thank God. So I had a safe space there. But I was also within the state of Tennessee, and so there were a lot of cultural changes for me, having grown up around Provincetown. And so just coming into the space that was really different, I think I wanted … I had a blank slate, and I wanted to define my gender and my sexuality in my own language. And I kind of pulled from the music that I listened from and the art I loved. And the more ecstatic and maximalist I got, the better it felt. And I kind of decided, if I’m feeling big in my writing, then I know that I’m on the right track. Wonderful. What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?

DeColo: Well, as you mentioned, I’m very interested in writing about problematic women. And so I have … It’s not really a cohesive piece yet, but I keep ending up writing essays about women in pop culture, especially music, who have been vilified or demonized, especially in the nineties. And even though they might be making a comeback now, like Britney Spears or Courtney Love even, that the narratives around them are still really problematic. So it’s been really therapeutic, but also fun, writing about these women’s stories. Ellen Bass and I just collaborated on a conversation chapbook that I’m so excited to put out into the world. So that’s what’s next. Now, you mentioned a moment ago that you lived in Nashville, but I think you’ve relocated.

DeColo: Yes. I’m very curious. Could you talk a bit more about the literary community that nurtured you in Nashville, a place that we wouldn’t readily associate with poetry?

DeColo: Yes. Oh, I’m so grateful for this question because I was thinking today about before Nashville became Nashville, let’s say pre-2012 or pre-New York Times essay, it really was this sweet, sleepy town full of drifters and burnt-out songwriters. And my neighbor in the apartment complex I lived [in], he was a songwriter who worked with Kris Kristofferson and was also friends with the Where the Sidewalk Ends guy … Oh, my goodness, Sylvester … I want to say Sylvester Stallone! What is wrong with me? What is it? Is it Shel Silverstein?

DeColo: Shel Silverstein. Oh, my goodness. Please keep that in. All right. [laughs]

DeColo: Yeah, he was the poet, Sylvester Stallone. [laughs] I feel like that is actually my new “See You Later, Nicholas Cage. It’s time for Sly.” [laughs] So I had all of these characters who lived in this apartment complex. It’s actually the apartment complex where I met my husband. And so it was really this vibrant place because Nashville was affordable back then. It was right by all of these universities. And then from there on I met, within academia, people studying poetry and getting their PhDs in literature, and that was really obviously like an amazing community. But I think where I really cut my teeth was in the dive bars of Nashville on the music scene. I worked with Third Man Records and Third Man Books, which is Jack White’s kind of project. You know, I think it started out as kind of a pet project. It’s become, like, his life there, where they would put together readings and concerts.

So I got to perform at the Newport Folk Festival. I’m sorry … Yeah, the Newport Folk Festival. And what an amazing opportunity. And it was all just because I happened to decide to go to school in Nashville, and it led me there. Then I was thinking today about how the poets who nurtured me were the politicians there—Justin Jones, who’s become this national hero. The work that he does, to me, is poetic. His devotion to decency and doing the right thing and hit the language that he uses to constantly reframe what these kinds of abhorrent politicians are doing to language—to me, that’s poetry. He keeps reclaiming the language and saying, “No, this is what’s true,” and not letting the unrighteous take over and make us forget our own humanity. So important, so important, too, that you complete that essay about Britney Spears’s best song or one of her best songs.

DeColo: One of her best songs. [laughs] I can’t just name one. Thank you so much, Kendra, for joining me.

DeColo: Thank you so much for this conversation, Mary.