“Sometimes my loneliness can get so big I don't even know what it is.”


Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar

It seems like Bestiary is very much an account of a poet chronicling a process of reorientation toward self-love and toward gratitude. And the work of that is so touchable in the poems. It seems to me that the value of having written a book like this is in having a document that recorded the process of it.

That makes a lot of sense to me. I think you're right—what I was recording was this process of figuring out how to love myself and how to center myself. In my family, and I think this is true for a lot of families, a lot of Black families, men were at the center of our lives. Men, what they wanted and what they were able to bring to the table, were the most important things.

Right about the time that I started writing the poems in Bestiary, once I first started on that—I don't want to say the word "journey."

Yeah, use it.

It sounds a little hokey.

There's no shame here.

Well, right around that time, my mom died, and her doctors brought her back to life. She coded. She was dead for around eleven minutes.

Oh wow.

It was really scary. My immediate family—my brother, my sister, and my parents all lived in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I’d just moved to Nashville, which was six hours away, and my mom coded the weekend before classes started. My mom was in a coma. And when she came out of the coma she wasn't the same person.

When she came back, she didn't have speech. She didn't seem to recognize any of us for a little bit. After a couple of days she seemed to recognize my dad. Then she recognized my sister, who she sometimes thought was her sister because they kind of look alike. She recognized my brother, who kind of looks like one of her brothers. But she did not recognize me for kind of a long time.


It was maybe a couple of weeks before she could kind of fit me into things, which was really emotionally difficult.

She is not the same person that she was before. She seems much happier to me. I was really resistant to that until her brother, who is just a couple of years older than I am, was like, "She seems happy." And then I was like, "Oh, you're right. She actually does seem happy. So I'm going to stop wishing that the person who used to be my mom was still my mom because that person was really miserable in substantive ways."

A lot changed for me after that in terms of how I related to my family and how I understood my place in the world. I had been sort of cut loose. I no longer had this person with whom I shared a lot of trauma. It was not a particularly healthy relationship before, but it was loving. It was very loving. I love my mom. She was very difficult because she’d been through a lot of trauma. She'd also been abused as a child. That seems to be something that the women in my family all have in common.

Later on that year, in 2008, my dad and I just stopped talking to each other, which was amazing. I suspect that he stopped talking to me because I didn't need him in the way that everyone else in my family needed him. I was in the PhD program at Vanderbilt and the stipend there was more than enough to live on, so I didn't rely on him for financial support. I didn't fit into how he expected his kids to relate to him, I didn’t need him in the way he needed me to need him, and he just stopped talking to me.

The loss of those two relationships—my mom and I losing our history and my father checking out of our relationship—meant that I was cut loose in the world, free to try and figure out things that I think would have been really, really difficult otherwise. I wasn't beholden to my parents in the same way that I had been before.

You see some of that coming out in the collection, but I haven’t been able to articulate that that was the root—I mean, really until just now. Like, "Oh, it was those two things happening at the same time." Obviously, that was huge.


Fortunately, and as I've said many, many times, I had a really amazing therapist.

Isn't the book dedicated to your therapist?

It's dedicated to all the therapists I've had up until the point at which the book was published.

Right, that's awesome. That's great.

They were just really wonderful women who kept asking me, again and again, to have compassion for myself. To put myself first. I don't know if you've been to therapy, but if you have, I imagine you've had a therapist who has brought up the oxygen mask metaphor. You know, if you're on the plane, you put your oxygen mask on first.

Haha. Yeah, totally.

I've said that to my mom and my sister so many times. I'm just like, "You need to take care of yourself. It's not selfish, because if you don't put on your oxygen mask—" You know? It's really wonderful advice.

That's salient advice for any relationship.

The other thing that my therapists repeatedly asked me to do was to be more vulnerable. To open myself up to other people. I was really resistant to that for a long time. My first three therapists often asked, "What if you open yourself up to other people?" I was like, "That would be terrible because other people just hurt you, that's what they do."


  Haha. I had lots of conversations about vulnerability.   But once I got the courage to start practicing it—it has been so amazing living in a vulnerable space and trying out trust with other people. Vulnerability is hard. People do hurt other people—that is also the truth of things. But as a practice, being vulnerable has been really amazing.

They're good therapists. They're good women.

It sounds like it. And there are a million directions that I want to go from what you just said, because it all seems like it has ripples in the book. You were talking about how it took your mom longer to remember you than it took her to remember your siblings, and about how you cut off ties with a father who you had this very complicated relationship with, who had deposited a lot of trauma into your experience.


And one of the things I noticed about the book is that so much of it is concerned with taxonomy, with naming. And a bestiary is exactly that, like, "This is how to tell that this is this thing, and this is how to tell that this is that thing." The last poem in the book, "Back East," you're learning the difference between the moose, elk, deer, and antelope—the poem has this repeated concern with what a thing is called. I wonder if maybe that psychic obsession with naming, and how what a thing is called matters deeply, might have its experiential referent in the processes that you're talking about. In redefining what it meant to be a daughter, to be an inheritor of a certain kind of trauma.

Yes. That's such a big question. I haven’t really thought about what’s under my preoccupation with naming, but I recognize the impulse. I'm really interested in knowing the differences between things.

There’s that moment, for example, that's referenced in the final poem of the book, where I talk about learning the difference between antelope, elk, moose, and deer. I don't know if you've been out West much at all, but in the Far West there are lots of statues of mostly moose, maybe some elk, that are posted outside gas stations or in front of restaurants. Well in 2012, my then girlfriend and I had driven to California for my grandmother's funeral. On our way back we stopped in Salt Lake City, and we went to Antelope Island. Every summer, if I'm not mistaken, there's a Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival. So already it's weird, right?

There's this island in the middle of the Salt Lake, there’s a Cowboy Poetry Festival, and—there wasn't a lot of poetry while we were there, and there weren't really any cowboys while we were there—I'm not exactly sure what we'd walked into in that moment. She and I had been walking around and trying to figure out the differences between the horned animals. I was like, "Maybe we should just ask somebody." We asked a photographer, whose name I didn't get or don’t remember, who had a booth with lots of photographs of horned animals. I asked, "Can you tell us the difference between these animals?" He told us, via some hand gestures, how we could recognize the different horns, which I filed away because I was actually, at that point, really curious. This is all a digression. A circular way of answering your question.

No, it's interesting. I like hearing the backstories, like the "behind the music" of the poems themselves.

I love asking people questions.   If I'd been any good at all at chemistry in college, I might have been a biologist. I like to think that, going further down that road, I probably would have been a zoologist of some kind—most likely an ornithologist. I feel like that's what that other path would have been, had it not been for that large barrier that was chemistry.

That makes sense. I mean, it's obvious from the title of the book that it's going to have some sort of concern with the zoological realm, but there's a real intelligence—I mean, are you just reading zoological journals, or watching a lot of Planet Earth? Where does this come from?

When I was a kid, my dad and I watched a lot of wildlife documentaries together. That is one of my favorite memories from being a little kid. I spent a lot of time with my dad, and not all of it was terrible. I mean, we did a lot of fun, constructive things together, and then there was the other part of our relationship that was terrible and traumatic. But he and I were both interested in these ways of being that were really different from where we were in Compton.

  Both of my parents grew up in the South Central Los Angeles, and there's not a lot of wildlife there. I went hiking a couple of times in middle school because I had a middle school science teacher, Ms. Balter, who took a bunch of us out to the mountains on a few Sierra Club trips. Otherwise, you have to go pretty far afield to get into some kind of wilderness, and my parents weren't particularly interested in hiking. They weren't like, "Everyone in the car, we're going for a hike this weekend!" That wasn't what we did as a family.

My dad and I were interested in PBS documentaries and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and we’d spend a good part of our Saturday watching them. That habit extended into my adulthood, and I do enjoy documentaries about animals. The older I get, though, the more difficult it is to spend time with those documentaries because we often aren't taking the animals at their own terms. We're imposing our terms on them in order to translate what we're seeing into something that's more digestible for humans.

Yeah. That's interesting.

I think that actually does humans a disservice—it says that we can't understand anything outside of our narrative. Everything has to be transported into our own narrative in order for it to make sense. I'm trying not to do that in the book.

Yeah, I was just thinking about how you're sort of inverting that algorithm. Like, in "Love Poem: Donika," when you say, "Love, I am lonely as a bear," you're saying, "What the bear's lived experience is like is what I'm feeling now."

In that line, "I am lonely as a bear," I’m thinking about what a bear's loneliness is and how my loneliness might move in a bearish way. I don't think my understanding of loneliness is a bear's understanding of loneliness. I imagine that bears can be lonely; I think that's probably a thing. That loneliness also might not be. The simile makes my own loneliness alien to me. What does it even mean to try to approximate something, or to make equivalent something that I don't really understand? That isn’t really noble.

Sometimes my loneliness can get so big I don't even know what it is. I can't quite grasp all the edges of my loneliness because it's wide-ranging and it feels ignoble at times. Sometimes I'm around a lot of people I love, and the loneliness is so deep, so big. It's not about being alone, it's about the feeling of disconnect. And I don't know if bears have that!

Haha. Yeah. I know that well, this phenomenon where you can be sitting at a table of friends and still feel completely alone. What is that phenomenon? Because the word "lonely" implies a scarcity of mutuality. And the ostensible conceit of sitting at a table full of friends is that you're aggregating that mutuality, like a bear storing fat for the winter. You're hoarding that so that you can then go home and be alone. But there's somewhere where that process breaks down for most everyone at some point in their lives—with different sorts of regularity depending on the person. And I think that a lot of these poems vibrate at that frequency, which is maybe why this book has piqued so many people's interest.


Stevens has the line, "The poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully."


I mean, Stevens was an asshole, but I like that line a lot. I want to be writing what I'm interested in, but what I don't really understand. And I feel like that's kind of what you're talking about when you say you don't know what it is to be a bear.

I also think that I really desperately want to be known. I want to be intelligible to people. There are so many barriers to that intelligibility that are out of my control. For some people—like, I'm Black, so they're just like, "Well, I don't know what you are." I'm a woman, and they're like, "I don't care what that is." I'm a lesbian, and they're like, "Then why the fuck are you here?"

Yeah. Yeah.

I want to connect with other people. I want to matter. Not to everybody, because that's silly. There are a lot of people who I don't care actively about. There are over seven billion people on the planet. I don't need to be known by billions of people. But I want to be intelligible to people who want to know me, and there are just so many things that get in the way of that. Things that, as I said, I don't have a lot of control over, but then there's the barrier of language.  

When I talk to my students about writing poetry, I tell them that what I believe we are in the process of doing is trying to translate our experience into something that other people can connect with. I think there are a number of poets who aren't super interested in saying, "Here's how I see the world, does this make sense to you?" That's fine. I don't have a critique of that, but that's not how I'm going through the world.

I have friends who don't want to be knowable. They don't want to be known. I love those friends because they are amazing wonderful people, but sometimes we operate at cross impulses, especially in moments where I'm just like, "Here are all of my feelings!" and they are like, "Here are three of my feelings." I'm like, "I will take those three feelings and I will cherish them forever."


I'm not asking them for more than they can give, or more than they want to give, because I don't think that's how friendship works.


I really just want to be seen in ways that are healthy, you know? The world we live in makes that really challenging.

Yeah. That's so interesting. I think that you could talk about the book as a catalogue, or as a list. The book opens with the poem, "Catalogue," but I think of the book as a whole as being a catalogue, too. You know, a bestiary is a kind list. My partner talks to me about this phenomenon where a woman writer who writes a list, or writes a catalogue, is in a way pushing back against the idea that the less space a woman takes up, intellectually or physically, the more valuable that woman is. The creation of the list is a way of taking up more space, of being like, "I'm going to draw this out and say what I have to say." Even if it serves the poem formally, there's a real social register in which that resonates, too. I think that structuring Bestiary as a kind of catalogue is working on that social register as well.

It does. I like to think about the poem, "Catalogue." It's one that I really love, but I don't tell it that I love it very often. I don't read it very often. There's that bit in there, "You are large. / You are a 19th century poem."   I think about Whitman a lot. I was obviously thinking about Whitman as I wrote those lines. I think a lot about his long, terrible, messy lines. They're so bad and so amazing and wonderful. That sprawl and how much space he took up and how radical it was for a poet to take up that much space. It's complicated for me, intellectually and emotionally, to put myself in the same tradition or space as Whitman. Whitman was a white dude. He was racist, inevitably so.

Super racist.

I feel like it would've been really difficult to help it. Probably Herculean to help it at that point in American history.


Yet, I feel like it's related, in some ways, to how much space I take up in real life. In my late teens and early twenties, I started taking up a lot of space when I would sit down, especially if I was sitting down around men. I don't sit in a small way. When I sit down at a desk, or if I'm at a table in a classroom, I spread myself out. I'm like, "All of this is mine." Like I'm claiming my territory. It's really different if I'm sitting around women. I don't sit like that around women because I'm thinking more of how much space I'm taking away from them, or how we can share the space. But if I'm sitting around men, I'm like, “Oh, these men are going to take up a lot of space because that is what men do.” I'm also going to take up a lot of space. If that means that both of our arms are on this armrest on the plane, then that's what it means. We're going to be a little bit intimate here.

Haha. That's awesome.

It was conscious. It was deliberate. It's interesting to think about that coming through in the poems. I do want to take up a little bit of space. It's important. So I like thinking about that. I hadn't thought about it before.

Yeah, it's really cool. And it's like what we were talking about—even if these things aren't operating on a one hundred percent conscious level, there's another intelligence right below it that's always at work. I do want to ask about what you're working on now. What do your days look like? Is there something you're excited about?

Haha. The reason I laugh is because I'm back in Olean, where I live now, which is kind of a sad space. It's snowing. Well, it's not actually snowing, but we're in winter, so it's going to be cloudy for like four months, which is emotionally difficult for me. I have not been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I feel like that's probably where I am. I have my Vitamin D set out.

Nice. That's smart. Self-care.

I'm writing. This past year, with all its turmoil, was a really productive one. That's really exciting. It's maybe the most productive year that I've had, in terms of writing, in a long time.

Oh, that's awesome!

I am not exactly sure where the poems are going. It seems that I'm doing a little bit of a deeper examination of some of the themes that are in Bestiary. In particular, with regard to the Greek mythology that runs throughout the book, and the way myth characterizes my understanding of love and family. I'm thinking more explicitly about why that's the cosmology that orders my life and that orders my imagined world.

The way that I understand my trauma is through Greek myth, which I think is really weird. It strikes me as really strange that I turn to myth, that that is where I continue to be. I’m excited to think about the "why." Why Greek mythology? Why Greek mythology and my childhood trauma, sexual trauma? Why do those two things go together in my brain? I think it makes a lot of sense. Zeus is terrible.


I mean, they're all terrible, but Zeus is particularly awful.

Yeah, totally.

That's just a standalone statement. I'm not going to do anything else with that.


I'm working through thinking about why that has been one of the governing sets of images that have dominated my work. That thinking is coming out in the poems in some really exciting ways.

That's awesome.

So that's part of what I'm working on in terms of writing.   The other thing that I'm working on is trying to be okay. The move to western New York was big, and it's been difficult. This is a really different part of the country than I've ever lived in in a lot of ways. I've never lived in a place as white as this. The lack of diversity here is stunning to me. There are just so many things that I don't understand about this part of the country. Not the people so much. I think I have, broadly, a good sense of the people, who I don't think are terrible. Still, I am confused by people who don’t want to live around different kinds of people. What's lost when that doesn't happen?

As importantly, I don't understand why anyone would choose to live in a place as cold as this. That's where I am right now. I'm just like, "It is really cold." Not today, today's fine. But a couple weeks ago, before I left for the holidays, I woke up and it was three degrees.


Why did people decide to settle here? Why is this a place that exists and why could I move to it? Why wouldn't everyone just want to be warm? I really don't understand. That's another digression. I think I'm just working on trying to figure out how to be okay. How to take care of myself. I'm working through some big issues.

The other thing that's coming through in the work, the thing that I've been working on in the last year, in terms of therapy, is just trying to understand why my dad abused me. I don't think there's a "why" for that. There's not a reason that's going to explain it in a satisfactory way. Still, I think it's useful for me to think through. I said something to one of my therapists—because one of my big fears, well this used to be a fear, but it's less of one now because we sorted it out. I used to be afraid that I would do the same thing that my dad did. That I would hurt a child in the same way that he hurt me. Because I didn't understand why he did it, and if there's no reason for it, then it could just happen, like that feeling could just well up. My fear was that I could act on that feeling.

I realized this year, though, in talking with a new therapist, that if I had that feeling about a child, I would go to therapy.

Right. Right. Right.

I'd say, "Look, I'm having this feeling. I don't know where it came from. This is wrong. How do we fix it and make it go away forever?" That is what I would do. I actually felt a lot better around that particular fear. After having that realization, and the accompanying relief, I thought about someone like my dad, who would never go to therapy for any number of reasons, and what would happen if he had that feeling and thought, "Oh, I need to talk to somebody about this." In the early '90s, who would he have talked to? What's the path that he goes down to process and get that feeling out in a way that doesn't hurt anybody? How does he do that? Even though he wasn't trying to access any services that would've helped him to do that, I think that it's also true that those services were not readily available in South Central LA.


I've been trying to think about that, too. I've been trying to understand my dad as a person. And that's a challenge. Because we don't talk, and I'm not going to ask him any questions. I don't want to talk to him, but the question, the interrogation feels important right now because my father is not a monster. He’s a person. Trying to understand the person of him, as much as I can, matters to me and, it seems, to the work.

Interview Posted: March 13, 2017


Poetry Foundation Profile

Bestiary at Graywolf Press

Donika's Personal Webpage

Donika at PBS NewsHour