The cold, rainy conditions on Thursday, November 9th couldn’t keep students, faculty, and fans of poetry from flocking to the EHHP Alumni Center to hear a reading by poet Donika Kelly. A teacher at St. Bonaventure’s College in upstate New York, Kelly recently published her debut book of poetry, Bestiary. The collection won the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was long-listed for the National Book Award.
McKayla Watkins, a student of poetry in the MFA program at the College of Charleston, introduced the visiting writer by providing insight into the nature of Kelly’s work. “Bestiary weaves together tales of trauma and healing, of loss and love, of inbetween-ness, what it means to feel other. Life,” Watkins said, “exists primarily in the intersections.” She reflects that the strength of Kelly’s collection comes from her knowledge that “these crevices of self are what Bestiary craves, pulls up into the light.”
Formally, Kelly’s work appears deceptively simple—made of short lines, short stanzas, and short poems. While her form is precise and original in its own right, her words are the definitive hallmark of her work, the space in which Kelly truly shines. Kelly’s prosody, her attention to sound, and her dedication to finding just the right word, come together to shed light on one of the major themes in Kelly’s work. Bestiary itself is a journey through trauma, and, ultimately, a study in the construction of self. We decide who we become. We choose the words to define and construct ourselves. Cave Canem judge Nikky Finney writes in her introduction to Bestiary, “[Kelly] will not look away, turning her own intimate pandemonium into olive trees. Turning the fires on the edge of town into the mating call of a whistling female thrush.”
Before Kelly began her reading, she described her method as a trauma sandwich, one with love poem bread on the outside and stuffed with hearty trauma in the middle. The first set of love poems came from Bestiary, each dedicated to a different mythological creature. When asked what inspired these poems, Kelly simply responded, “I was going through a really bad breakup.” She continued, “I’m really interested in Greek myth and how power works there.” Before reading each poem in the series, she gave a brief description of the appearance and/or mythological origins of the creature—with a Donika Kelly twist. For instance, because the audience was already familiar with the Griffon—a creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle—Kelly posed the question: “Really big eagle…or teeny-tiny lion?”
During the hearty middle of the sandwich, Kelly shared unpublished work revolving around personal trauma. Broaching the topic with apprehension, Kelly admitted, “This feels a little bit scary. I’m a little terrified, but also I appreciate your attention.” The crowd sat in rapt silence as Kelly shared. When asked how she approaches writing about such challenging personal subjects, she discussed creating an image system to help ground the work. “It’s a lot. Working through the figurative language has been….the most helpful.”
Writing about trauma is one thing—sharing this type of work in a public setting is a different beast entirely. The new work Kelly shared handles this challenge with grace. At the end of this section, she joined the audience in a sigh of relief, saying, “Y’all, we made it through the trauma. Thank you for doing that with me, it felt like a lot. Are we okay?” The answer to her question was yes. We were okay.