UI English professor Donika Kelly receives Anisfield-Wolf Award for poetry book ‘The Renunciations’

Donika Kelly is an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa. On April 5, she received the Anisfield-Wolf Award for her poetry collection “The Renunciations,” and was recently longlisted for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards.


Grace Smith

Author and Assistant Professor Donika Kelly poses for a portrait in the English Philosophy Building at the University of Iowa on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

Ariana Lessard, Arts Reporter

Poet and University of Iowa assistant professor of English Donika Kelly has received the 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Award.

One half of the literary power couple that has made national news multiple times this year, Kelly was recently longlisted for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards for her poetry collection The Renunciations, along with her wife, Melissa Febos, another University of Iowa professor, for her work, Girlhood.

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Kelly said she began writing her senior year of high school and was immediately drawn to poetry.

“I was a young person with a lot of feelings,” Kelly said.

After high school, she attended Southern Arkansas University, which did not offer an undergraduate creative writing program. However, that did not stop her, Kelly said — she wrote in her free time during college and sought out additional assistance from her professors for her writing.

She went on to earn an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers in 2008 and a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University in 2013.

Even with her Ph.D., Kelly said it was her undergraduate years that were a crucial time in developing her style and craft. She explained that, when writing poetry, she focuses on the clarity and sound of her work. Additionally, she accredits writers Natasha Trethewey, Carl Phillips, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, and Gwendolyn Brooks as major influences on her work.

Thematically, Kelly often focuses on interpersonal relationships in her poetry.

“I’m often thinking about interpersonal relationships, connections between family, friends, partners,” she said. “I’m thinking about how to move from sort of a hierarchical understanding of what it means to be in a relationship, and what it means to be alongside someone as more companion than dominion.”

These themes are also present in her award-winning book, The Renunciations. She wrote the book during a trying period of her life, when she was “stranded in the cold of western New York” soon after getting a divorce.

Kelly said that, between the divorce and her abusive father, she became fascinated with exploring the ways in which people interact with one another.

“My hope is that people who read The Renunciations feel less alone,” Kelly said. “There are poets whose work I’ve read who have done that for me, and I just wanted to add my voice to those voices. I think there’s something important about having like queer people, Black people, just like being alive, just trying to figure out how to do it.”

Kelly said she now finds herself at a much better point in her life and is currently living in Iowa City with Febos, who she married in July 2021.

RELATED: Two UI professors recognized as finalists for national book award

Kelly stated that it was their writing, a mutual passion for the art, and their respect for each other’s work that brought her and Febos together.

“I think the other thing that’s really important is that both of us know that we don’t have control over what happens after a book comes out,” Kelly said. “That all we can do is do our best work.”

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