The 2017 1/2 K Prize is open June 15 through August 1! In this interview, prize judge Donika Kelly discusses bowerbirds and black bears, favorite authors, and what she might be looking for in a prize-winning submission.
Donika Kelly’s debut collection, Bestiary (Graywolf Press 2016), was selected by Nikky Finney for the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and long listed for the National Book Award. 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 Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University, where she specialized in American literature and film studies. Donika is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and a June Fellow of the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals including Tin House, Indiana Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Donika is an Assistant Professor at St. Bonaventure University, where she teaches creative writing.
1) Congratulations on the enormous success of your first collection! Bestiary is bookended with the poems “Out West” and “Back East,” framing the collection as a kind of migration. Can you speak to this sense of movement?
I am coming to appreciate my need for a home, by which I mean a rootedness in a place over time. The movement in the collection is one undergirded by that desire. How could I begin to articulate for myself that Nashville, the place I’d lived in for the longest as an adult, the farthest east I’d ever been at the time, had become home? I had to start in California, in Los Angeles. I had to think about the ways my family loved me and broke me and, perhaps unintentionally, set me free. This movement, more an excavation, revealed how I’d ended up there, in that space I understood as home. I no longer live in Nashville, but the collection charts a need I’d been unable to see or speak.
2) Beasts real and mythical fill the pages of Bestiary. What inspired you to use animals as embodiments of self-love, healing, and transformation in the face of trauma? What is the significance of the bowerbird, which appears in several different poems?
I’ve been interested for sometime not in a hierarchy of the animal and human, where humans sit at the top, but in something more like a constellation, where the connections between us and other animals exist in relation and proximity to one another. We can learn something about ourselves from that proximity if we are still enough, if we can loosen our gaze. I can’t know for certain that this is true, but I imagine a black bear does not awaken each morning comparing itself to all other bears and finding itself lacking. It simply does what a black bear do: forage and hibernate and mate and wander for as long as it’s living. Couldn’t I do that in my human way? Couldn’t you?
The bowerbird speaks to that wondering in relation to dating, to mating, to figuring out how to manage expectations. As a lesbian who is neither butch nor femme, I found comfort, for a time, in watching bird courtship rituals. I was fascinated, in particular, by the male bowerbird’s attention to space, to nesting, and the female’s discerning eye. The male shows the female the space it knows to make, and she passes judgment based on his ability to make nesting space. It’s so simple, so clear, and so heartbreaking.
3) Among Bestiary’s many accolades, it was recently named a finalist for the 29th Lambda Literary Awards. How does an awareness of gender and sexuality inform your poetry?
Over a two-year period, I taught in a few gender studies programs, and while that’s not a long time, it was enough to complicate my understanding of my own gender, to help me understand it as more fluid and unnameable than I’d previously recognized. While I comfortably identify as a cis-woman, I feel less bound by cultural expectations of either femininity or masculinity. I now understand myself to be much more neutral when it comes to those particular poles of gender affect. But I wrote the poems before I understood and accepted, happily, this thing about myself. Looking at the collection, I see shy male centaurs and satyrs that respect the boundaries of an ending. I see in the poems articulating some more elastic iteration of myself than I could name at the time.
4) Who are the authors you find yourself returning to again and again?
I return again and again—and I teach as often as possible—Natasha Trethewey’s collections. I’ve taught nearly all of her books, but I love Bellocq’s Ophelia for its complexities, its complicity in both constructing and erasing the voices of those mixed-race prostitutes in Storyville, Louisiana. I’m also routinely drawn to Gwendolyn Brooks, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Claudia Rankine, Maurice Manning, Audre Lorde, and, at the start of every summer as if she’s a harbinger of the season, Octavia Butler.
5) What might you be looking for while judging the 1/2 K Prize?
I’m looking for strangeness, for clarity, for intensity and vulnerability. I’m excited to see work where there’s something at stake for the writer, some urgency, quiet or loud, communicated to the reader.
Don’t forget to submit your best work under 500 words to the 1/2 K Prize by August 1!