Dr. Donika Kelly, assistant professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, was named to the 2016 National Book Award longlist for poetry.
Her poetry collection, “Bestiary,” was selected by some of the most distinguished poets and publishers in the field through the nonprofit National Book Foundation. Since 1950, the foundation has awarded literary prizes to the most highly regarded writers in the United States, including William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Allen Ginsberg.
“Bestiary” contains poems on moving between the southern and western United States, how to be identified, and what it means to be oneself. These themes, among others, are woven into the poems through the use of hybrid monster characters from Greek mythology and pop culture.
“Broadly speaking, it’s about what it means to be a person, how to articulate what it means to be a queer-identified woman, to be a lesbian, to be black in spaces that are mixed,” Kelly said.
Kelly thinks “Bestiary” most appeals to “people trying to be people in the world” and general fans of poetry or Greek mythology.
“I was writing toward other people as a way of saying, ‘these are my experiences, do some of them resonate?’”
Although Kelly did not have a project in mind when starting, she realized she had many poems with overlapping themes. Composing the poems was a relatively organic process, allowing for easy inclusion as a collection.
Kelly has been writing poetry since her senior year in high school, later going on for her M.F.A. at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, which she credits as the place where her writing became serious.
“I wasn’t sure what it would mean to be a poet,” Kelly said. “I was able to put art in the center of my life. I discovered I can reach out to other people and build connections that I might otherwise have difficulty forging.”
Kelly also received instrumental support as a writer from Cave Canem, an organization that has fostered and encouraged African-American poets for two decades. She was awarded its 2015 Poetry Prize for “Bestiary.” Cave Canem was also honored this year by the National Book Foundation as the recipient of its Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
Kelly is now at work on a new poetry collection, tentatively titled, “Bear God.”
“I’m thinking more explicitly about the effect of Greek mythology on the way I make meaning in the world and the way I made meaning of a particular set of childhood traumas,” she said.
Having begun her tenure at Bonaventure this fall, Kelly now teaches creative writing and 20th century American literature.
More information on Kelly can be found at her website, donikakelly.com. “Bestiary” is available for purchase online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.org. Learn more about the National Book Awards at nationalbook.org.
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