Interviews

Strap-ons, Strippers, and Poet-Selves: In Conversation with Kendra DeColo

In Kendra DeColo’s Thieves in the Afterlife (winner of Saturnalia’s Poetry Prize, selected by Yusef Komunyakaa), our speaker encounters Gary Coleman’s face tattooed on an ass cheek, “I Heart Pussy” carved into a bench, and a misogynist who inspires the speaker’s “clit [to] grow / seven throbbing inches.” There are odes to one-liners and odes to peeing standing up. There’s a dude in a car yelling, “Don’t worry, no one wants that flat ass!” at a blonde walking down the street. And there is, of course, vajazzling—the “trend of accessorizing/adorning one’s vagina with gems.”

Strap-ons, strippers, and prisoners are in this collection’s DNA, and what’s so refreshing about DeColo’s treatment of these subjects is how she’s able to see and transform them without it feeling at all like an academic or ironic endeavor. She fights and fucks and bleeds to see the people in her poems, no matter how painful or profane, no matter how it “rips [her] goddamned heart out, watching it unfold as it must / every night, the story of our naked life.” To delve into that grime, to suffer the unlikelihood of redemption and to keep digging—this, I think, is an uncompromised act of love.

T.J. SANDELLA: In “Something to Vaporize Inside of,” you write about the “dirty work” of “collecting the beauty / we waste.” Is this what you do—pick up beauty, brush off the dirt, plead the five-second rule, and put it back onto our plates?

KENDRA DeCOLO: For this collection I was trying to explore messiness in all sorts of modes and forms, tapping into spaces where bodies are in close proximity and forced to negotiate (wanted or unwanted) intimacy. My poet-self is fed by messiness, tumult, uncleanliness… I like a body to smell like a body. The sound of a singer’s voice ravaged with use. The smear of cum on a bus seat on a spring day. I’m interested in the kind of beauty that doesn’t apologize for itself, that has the courage to be sloppy and take up space. Similarly, I admire a poem that has the courage to be imperfect. And by “imperfect” I mean maybe allowing room for something other than technique and form to be the main attraction.

Tim Seibles has an incredible open letter in his collection Buffalo Head Solos, in which he writes, “Why not a rambunctious and reckless poetry, when the ascendant social order permits nearly every type of corruption and related hypocrisy? Why not risk everything, at least more often if not always? So much is at stake.” I want to quote the whole damn thing, it’s so beautiful. It gets to the core of what I love about some of my favorite poets: Nazim Hikmet, Lynda Hull, Jeffrey McDaniel, Ross Gay, Patrick Rosal, Aracelis Girmay. They are masters of their craft and yet it’s in service of something braver and more vulnerable (empathy? truth? connection?). I love how so much of the beauty in their work is counterintuitive, created through tension, subverted expectations, counterpoint… It’s why I love seeing the flaws in any made thing, the seams and cracks that allow us to enter and have our own experience.

TS: What’s at stake? And for whom? Do you (or does Seibles) mean this in an unacknowledged-legislators-of-the-world sort of way?

KD: For me, I can register the difference in my body when I read or write a poem that is made from resistance, the impulse to push against tropes and limitations. Encountering language that is steeped in questions, committed to reframing/reshaping toxic thought, keeps me whole. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I had never read James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, if I had never found artists that validated real, complicated experience and annihilated my impulse to stay small.

When I hear So much is at stake, I think about the terrible shit I see on the news and the profound lack of empathy it must require. I think about how so many women I meet don’t have a language for their own bodies. When I hear Why not be reckless, I also hear: Why not praise, why not express joy, why not be epic? Why not be a bold cunt and take it by force?

TS: Speaking of vaginas… Well, you do. A lot. I’m often reminded how little I know about the female experience, and this is where your collection really shines, I think: It engages me in a holistic, unifying way, summoning the daughter, sister, or stripper I could’ve been. I feel like a more complete person, and never the other: the man, the peeping tom, the enemy. How much thought, if any, do you give to inclusion? Should writers even consider it? (I think of Tony Hoagland telling Claudia Rankine that his poem “The Change” is for white people.)

KD: Wow, thank you. I love what you say about feeling like a more complete person. For me, inclusion begins in the way language makes us feel. It’s so rarely about subject. I’ve read poems with content I should be able to connect to but instead feel alienated by because the writer has used shortcuts, code words, signifiers—reducing rather than expanding one’s sense of self. I think it always come down to craft and intention—creating spaces for people to make their own meaning. I’m thinking of how Yusef Komuyakaa talks about leaving “open doors” in his poem for the reader to enter. To me this is a beautiful and democratic approach. There is no sign hanging on those doors. He has a respect and trust which allows his audience to participate and have their own experience, one for which he has no agenda or control.

TS: Is it hard to quiet the part of you that wants to control meaning-making?

KD: Yes, especially when I’m beginning a poem or project. I get caught up in the drama of wanting the poem to be a poised, well-behaved extension of myself that makes witty jokes and doesn’t vomit on couches at cocktail parties. I love how this can lead into scary places—the messy wild inner voice has to get clever and mean to be heard. It always feels better to follow the sound/texture of language, but when I’m starting I need a frame, and I like to work within narrative, to be rooted in a concrete world. I love the process of trying to break free from those constraints—the sweet spot that comes after sweating it out. Listening to jazz has been a good teacher. I love the part in a song where it all falls apart—the melodic structure returned to in refrain and fragments.

TS: I keep thinking about your phrase, “my toxic want.” How dangerous is a writer’s desire? Is taming the self a part of your process, specifically in trying to make room for the reader to harmonize?

KD: I think it might be the opposite: letting that toxic want have space to be crawl and clamour up the reader’s leg. The tension between control and messiness is what pushes the poem further, and both are necessary elements. But desire seems so much more compelling/vital than the need to organize or make sense of chaos. I always want writing to feel dangerous. I’m not doing it to understand myself or the world better. I’m doing it because it’s a lifelong compulsion. Because I feel unsafe/wild/groundless and the act of making something is the way I feel home. It gives me boundaries. The work of trying to be a more responsible, reliable adult who pays taxes on time and hosts dinner parties is luckily separate from the work of being a better poet. But then, I also feel that so much of trying to be a better person connects with being a better poet.

I’m thinking about the Tony Hoagland poem you mentioned and how it connects with this essay by Thomas Sayers Ellis where he asks, “Where does the racism go once a racist poet begins to write poetry?” How dangerous a writer’s desire is might be related to their degree of consciousness and skill. Toxic want, I think, creates barriers when it’s unacknowledged, unchecked, rather than untamed. A poet might write something that feels totally honest and brave and yet it will still be offensive if they haven’t taken stock of their demons. If they aren’t willing to go deeper than saying, I wrote about being a racist; deal with it.

TS: We’ve been dancing around an old question about creation, agency, and persona—about the blurry space between selves, and especially between the self who pays taxes and sets the table and the self who sits alone in the middle of the night with a pen or computer or typewriter. In Ellis’ words, “Balance is the ugly private truth of the natural world poets belong to.” He also talks of being “neither shocked or hurt (into or out of poetry).” How do these selves, these seemingly disparate worlds, come together? How does being a better person connect with being a better poet? How can our dinner party selves sustain the experience of a poem—that shock, that hurt, that love, that awe?

KD: Someone in a workshop once gave the advice that our poems are smarter than we are: I interpret this to mean that the poem has its own consciousness that we discover through the music of language. It’s a relief to accept that no matter how much we work to create our vision, the poem has its own mind and our job is to pay attention and follow its tracks. In terms of process, it means that the most important thing we can do is to show up.

But there is so much work to do before that even happens. I’ve had to learn over and over again how to protect my writing time, which also means how to protect the self who sits at her desk and stares out the window, or takes night walks, or watches Con Air until something in her shifts. Similarly, I’ve had to give just as much love and support to my practical self who manages logistics and sets limits so that my writer self can thrive.

Joyce Carol Oates has compared poets to boxers and Mary Oliver wrote that we’re like knights. I like to think of the poet-self as Khaleesi in Game of Thrones. So much of the work is preparation. I know I’m gearing up to write when I feel agitated and full of doubt, as if the next poem I write is the only way to restore order and balance in my world. The preparation is pursuing the person I want to be, shedding illusions and getting closer to an authentic self—one who is okay with being flawed and fucking up but who shows up anyway and spends it all.

T.J. Sandella is the recipient of an Elinor Benedict Prize for Poetry (selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil) and a William Matthews Poetry Prize (selected by Billy Collins). A nominee for Best New Poets 2014, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, Passages North, Asheville Poetry Review, The Tusculum Review, and The Fourth River, among others. For the moment, he lives, works, and wanderlusts in Cleveland, Ohio.