Interview with Donika Kelly

by Z.D. Harrod

  Photo by Justin N. Lane


I admire that in your poem, “A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things,” we aren’t quite sure who—or, I suppose “what”—the you is until the sixth line. I’m curious about why you structured the poem this way—why the “you” is examined before the reader is even sure what we are looking at?

I’ve been having lots of spontaneous conversations about octopuses (octopi? the octopus?) in the last few weeks, probably because when anyone mentions an octopus, I, like a 2nd grader armed with some facts, am eager to put what I know on the table. At any rate, a number of people have articulated an idea that the octopus is the closest thing we’ll get to an alien consciousness on Earth because they are so different from humans. This strikes me as odd—that a species native to the planet would be considered alien because its intelligence developed along a different line than our species, because it is so different from us. In a Western, Judeo-Christian framework, the world is scaled to the human as ideal, and that’s strange to me.

I suspect I organized the poem in this way because I wanted to think, for a tiny moment, about the octopus as it related to me. I wanted to think about how close or not I was to it, but without hierarchy. Instead, I wanted to think about how we, with our many minds, might occupy a space.  

I was struck too, and perhaps you’ve seen one of the videos of an octopus in a jar, by the very fact of the octopus in the jar, the why of it. The movement, to put an octopus in a jar, strikes me as so small, even though the point, I think, is to prove the octopus’s problem solving skills. I think humans, especially Western humans, like to put other beings in containers, in cages, and I also find that strange.

I suspect I organized the poem in this way because I wanted to think, for a tiny moment, about the octopus as it related to me. I wanted to think about how close or not I was to it, but without hierarchy.

The poem begins with “You are of a mind” and then ends with “our several minds,” while moving between a sense of foreignness and perhaps something close to sameness. Could you talk about this move, the delightfully surprising arrival of the speaker at a sense of camaraderie with an octopus?

The eager 2nd grader is raising her hand here. As I understand it, the octopus brain has an arrangement of sorts with its tentacles. The tentacles do mostly as they are asked, but they have their own compunction, their own motivations, and so sometimes do not comply. Yet on the whole, the octopus reads to us as coherent. This arrangement, invisible to us, perhaps even unimaginable for most of us, works. I’m heartened by the notion that on the whole, we as a species might live in some relation to the rest of the life, ambulatory and less so, on this planet. That we need not bend it—or try to bend it—all to our will. 

Obviously, the reality is that in the West especially because capitalism especially—and we affect the whole system, the whole planet—we can’t. But it’s is line along which I find some small hope.

I want to be in that space, where the body I have, the skin I’m in, the animal I am is enough for the other animals, human and non-, around me, which sometimes means imagining how I might matter, or not, to them.

Many of your poems examine their topic through creatures—in your book, Bestiary, for example, there is a series of love poems that examine the topic of relationships through mythical creature metaphors. What is it about non-human animals that helps you access the poems in a way you might not otherwise?

I find being a part of the human species dreadful, to be honest. And I’m not sure how articulate I can be here, but I’ll say that I occupy small number of identities that shift me outside the dominant group and sometimes outside the category of human, of person. As do my friends and family. As do people who are much more vulnerable than I am in this country. To be sure, I hold some dominant identities, which help me navigate the spaces that were not imagined for some parts of me and that’s important to note, that the whole of me is not completely jettisoned from civic life. 

I never stop being human or a person in this body, but I know that I’m less legible as both to structures of power and the people who benefit from those structures most, and that has affected how I understand myself. That realization, internalized as it was, affected what I thought I was entitled to.

I don’t think I’m romanticizing animals here when I say that I suspect they aren’t dealing with that shit. My small dogs, the squirrel, the bald eagle, the octopus—I imagine this is a less of an issue for them. The calculus seems more basic with my dogs, the animals I see most often, who are less bound by human social constructs. Can I feed them? Hold them? Protect them? Give them adequate pettings? Like the octopus tentacles, they do mostly what I ask, which is a lot. They don’t care about the fact of me being a person. We just…go together.

I want to be in that space, where the body I have, the skin I’m in, the animal I am is enough for the other animals, human and non-, around me, which sometimes means imagining how I might matter, or not, to them. How we might sit in proximity, if not understanding, in the work.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished teaching Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic, which is so so stunning. I’ve also read and enjoyed recently Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster, J. Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Be Flowers, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic. I’m really looking forward to Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.


DONIKA KELLY's poem "A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things" can be read in the Spring 2018 issue. She is the author of Bestiary (Graywolf 2016) and the chapbook Aviarium (500 Places 2017). Donika is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, and a finalist for the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. She is an assistant professor at St. Bonaventure University, where she teaches creative writing.

Z.D. HARROD is the poetry editor for The Arkansas International. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in PleiadesCimarron ReviewBirmingham Poetry Review, and Southwest Review. He lives in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas.