UI English professor releases second poetry collection

Donika Kelly, an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa, released her second collection of poetry this week through Graywolf Press. The collection follows its narrator through life’s hardships.


Brianna Brown

Donika Kelly, an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa, is seen outside of the English Philosophy Building on Friday, April 30, 2021. Kelly is also the author of an upcoming poetry collection, titled “The Renunciations.”

Delaney Orewiler, Arts Reporter

In the words of author Donika Kelly, the publication of her second poetry collection, The Renunciations, has been “a long time coming.”

The University of Iowa assistant professor of English released her collection this past Tuesday, May 4. Published through Graywolf Press, the poetry book covers heavy topics including childhood abuse and adult divorce.

“Between 2015 and 2018 I was writing newer poems that ended up in the new book, but there are poems in the book from 2013. I was writing and eventually I realized I had a book which I had the time, space, and opportunity to put together,” Kelly said. “I kept a draft of the manuscript for about 4 months, and in January 2019 I sent it to my editor, Jeff Shotts, and asked if they would be interested in it, and they were.”

Kelly said that the long period between January 2019 and the publication date gave her ample time to receive notes from Graywolf Press editors. She also added that the two years she had was the perfect amount of time to write the collection, especially when the time that goes into her role as a professor is taken into account.

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Kelly described her creative process as something that she actively plans out. She writes in concentrated intervals for one to three weeks at a time and is most productive in the late-night hours, between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. During the school year, Kelly is unable to stay up late, so in between those planned out intervals, she keeps track of memories and elements of the natural world that she is interested in writing about.

She said that even though she doesn’t schedule time for writing poetry during the academic year, if inspiration strikes her, she will make time.

“When I write during the semester, it’s because I’m feeling compelled, like I have some things that are more urgent to say. Being a poet is all the time, and I try to show up for my poetry when it calls,” Kelly stated. “It’s a very soft relationship I think, when I don’t have anything to write about, I don’t have anything to write about and that’s okay, and when I do, I make time.”

Kelly writes about a variety of things, but her most common theme involves the natural world. She said that it makes her feel in scale to her responsibility; she is small in comparison to the universe. She also pulls influence from the poets she enjoys reading, including Natasha Trethewey, Carl Phillips, Mary Oliver, and Richard Siken.

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Kelly described her style of poetry as lyrical, a style that is less concerned with form and more about getting feelings down on a page. She began this style, and her career as a poet, when she was a senior in high school and overflowing with emotions.

“I had a lot of feelings, and I needed to put them somewhere,” Kelly said. “I came to poetry because I was full up and the feelings needed to go into something else that was not me.”

In addition to using her poetry as a mechanism to deal with her own feelings, Kelly said she hopes that she can connect to readers and make them feel at home within the pages of her poetry.

“I hope that readers feel welcomed into the space of the book, that they feel safe,” Kelly said. “The book is dealing with some difficult subjects, and I hope that it resonates with folks that have had similar experiences.”

Next Tuesday, May 11, Kelly will conduct a virtual reading on Zoom, hosted by Prairie Lights.