By Claire Torregiano
Dr. Donika Kelly is the author of the award-winning poetry collection, Bestiary (Graywolf Press, 2016), which won the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for poetry, and the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. As a former student of Dr. Kelly, I conducted this interview through email in September 2020. We discussed her drafting process and advice for students who are looking to publish collections of their own.
CT: What was your drafting process like for Bestiary?
DK: I went through several drafts of Bestiary over the course of four years or so (the timing is a bit murky in my head). In the penultimate draft, I had a sequence of zombie love poems at the center of the book, which worked, but more as a turning away instead of a turning toward the thematic concerns of the book. The poet Mark Jarman offered to take a look at the manuscript, and his main feedback, as I recall it, was to take those poems out. While I disagreed with his particular reasons, I knew he was correct, and I replaced the zombies with “How to be Alone.”
CT: How did you decide on the structure of the collection, in terms of how the poems are in conversation with each other?
DK: The task then became how to get from “Out West” to “How to be Alone,” and then how to transition out of that sequence toward “Back East.” Those three poems functioned as a kind of scaffold for the book. I printed out all the poems I thought belonged in the book and spread them out on the floor. I tried to listen to how poems were speaking to one another, [both] imagistically and thematically. Some poems fell away; others came into the rotation, and eventually I had a draft I felt good about. Finally, my editor suggested some sequencing edits after the book was accepted for publication, and I did move a few poems around.
CT: Do you have any advice for students who are looking to publish a collection or chapbook, in in terms of the drafting process?
DK: My big take-aways in that process were several-fold. First, having a vision for a project is great, but it helps to be open to feedback from mentors and friends. Second, printing out the poems and putting them next to each other is so helpful. Looking at a Word doc can’t approximate the tangible experience of moving the poems around. Finally, figuring out the first poem in sequence—whether that’s a chapbook, a full-length collection, or a short series of poems—is clutch. But! It’s also helpful to figure out the poems that can function as transitions, poems that can bear the weight of a significant turn in the collection.