July 20–26, 2020
Donika Kelly is the author of the chapbook Aviarium and the full-length collections The Renunciations (forthcoming) and Bestiary, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and a member of the collective Poets at the End of the World. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review and Foglifter. On Thursday, July 23, Kelly will read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Xandria Phillips and Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
Portrait of My Father as a Winged Boar
When his mother dies—halved
in a wreck—from her opened
body springs my father,
whose name I refuse
to say as he refuses
his father, the half-known man
who sired him. In the dry L.A. light,
the boy, my father, turns
so that he is caught—
one way: a winged boar—
another: a giant,
a gold blade of a man—
both high skulled, thick maned:
a juvenile without a sounder,
a boy without a mother.
He recognizes himself
only in the man, carves
himself into golden armor—
but the rutting
fact of him, the curved
tooth, the thick neck
and beating wings, trembles
beneath his skin. Whatever sheen
the California sun
burnishes out of his body,
whatever good work
his thickening hand
compels, whatever woman
he touches in the afternoon,
on the roof, he cannot deny
his first born, his red fledgling,
her many heads and hands.
What he makes for her:
a junk bike she loves cattle, red
in the field a mirror
a red wreckage of her body.
—Originally published in Black Warrior Review, Spring/Summer 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I’d written a Pegasus poem many years ago now, in which I imagine my father as Perseus (it’s implied). When I discovered Pegasus had a sibling, either a winged boar or a golden giant, I felt compelled to write this piece, which I see as another way of thinking about my dad.
What are you working on right now?
I’m in a fallow period at the moment, which feels lovely in its way. I’m reading around about lots of things—whales and the octopus in particular—and letting my mind stretch and loosen. I think this would be happening anyway because I’ve been working on edits for my forthcoming collection, The Renunciations, but I think the added pressure of the pandemic and perennial police brutality, and the fact that we moved from Brooklyn to Iowa in the midst of all of that—well, I’m giving myself some space to be gentle with myself and my art.
What’s a good day for you?
I don’t like to be busy, so a good day is a summer one where I have a few things to do, but none of it has to be done in a hurry. I love mooching around, as my grandpa says.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home is a tricky concept. Brooklyn kind of felt like home when I lived there, even though I only lived there for two years, because I had longstanding friends nearby and many of my friends from other parts of the country would come through. I’m in Iowa City now, and we’ve only been a few weeks, but it’s green and quiet, like many other places I’ve lived. I’m curious about its particularities, how I will get to know this new space in the future.
Tell us about your time in Brooklyn.
The two years I spent there were pretty amazing. We lived in Flatbush, and the energy and people! The looks and food! I really enjoyed my time there, even though it could be a challenging place to live. As we were leaving, many of our neighbors said goodbye from the stoop and their windows, and I realized that we’d become a part of the community there. It was sweet.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
For me, community is layered. There’s the community of poetry collections that I can hold and share with my students. There’s the community of readings and readers and being in a space together, which, when it’s good, is magnificent. Then there are my folks, my friends and mentors who hold space for me and feel held, I hope, in return. I carry those layers of community with me, and can dip in and out of them as needed.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The three that come immediately to mind are Ladan Osman, Asiya Wadud and Mahogany Browne.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
When I was twenty, I met Terrance Hayes at the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets, and he told me I should apply to MFA programs. I didn’t even know what an MFA program was! He changed the trajectory of my life.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Traci Brimhall’s Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod was a thrilling read. Nikky Finney’s Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry felt so sweeping and loving and rich. And I’ve been spending some time with Dionne Brand’s heady and smart The Blue Clerk.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’d like to work my way through Gwendolyn Brooks’s collected, Blacks. I think I feel daunted by the size.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I like to read a collection of poetry from front to back, preferably within the same week. I know a book’s got its hooks in me when I bring out my pencil to take notes.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I really like writing with my students in class. I will often ask them to come up with a writing prompt and do it along with the rest of the class. It’s so freeing and loose.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love the Brooklyn Academy of Music—the live theater and movie theater spaces. Also, San Remo Pizzeria on Cortelyou has my favorite slice: the grandma slice.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the river,
And what I bathe you concede,
For every brittle me as good delivers you.