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Tin House Live Destiny O Birdsong & Donika Kelly Conversation

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by the Tin House workshop, which will once again be offering Online Winter Workshops and YA Workshops in 2022. Taking place in late January and February, these five-day workshops include craft lectures and conversations, generative exercises, manuscript evaluations, and world-class karaoke. A variety of scholarships are available as are application fee waivers. Applications open October 4th and the deadline to apply to both the YA Workshop and the Winter Workshops is October 24th. More information can be found at For the second Tin House live episode of 2021 recorded at this summer’s Tin House Writers Workshop, we have a conversation between poets Destiny O. Birdsong and Donika Kelly called Negotiating the Love and Renouncing the Rest. Destiny O. Birdsong is a poet, novelist, and essayist whose debut poetry collection, Negotiations, was published in 2020 by Tin House and long listed for the 2021 PEN/Voelcker Award. Elizabeth Acevedo said of Birdsong’s collection, “Reading Negotiations is like walking into a boxing match with an indefatigable fighter; you will be struck, and it will hurt. But for all of its ferocity in how it grapples with womanhood, sexuality, assault, and race, this collection is also full of wonder. Of forgiveness. Of tenderness, the like of which, ultimately, delivers the most powerful sucker punch.” Destiny Birdsong’s debut novel Nobody’s Magic is forthcoming in February 2022 from Grand Central Publishing. Donika Kelly is the author of Bestiary from Graywolf, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for poetry, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. The collection was also long listed for the National Book Award and was a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. Most recently, she’s the author of the poetry collection The Renunciations out this year from Graywolf. A collection Poet Ellen Bass describes as follows. “In her vital new poetry collection, Donika Kelly harnesses ‘the air, the earth, and flame’ to renounce the old gods: child abuse, violence, racial injustice, generational trauma. . . . The Renunciations is a work of stunning power, alive with haunting images, complex metaphor. And while Kelly looks unsparingly at pain and suffering―her own and others’―with transformation comes joy.” Before we begin today’s conversation, one that asks among other things what it means to center oneself in your own work, in your own story. Near the end of this conversation, you’ll hear the voice of a third person, Lance Cleland, the director of the Tin House workshops. We left this in because he asks a great final question to both of them and he also expresses something everyone will feel by the end of this conversation: A special gratitude to be able to witness a conversation between not only two remarkable artists but two remarkable artists who are also close friends. A dynamic that reminds me of a previous Tin House live episode with Garth Greenwell and Brandon Taylor in that regard where in both cases, you are not only getting to witness a conversation that can only go places because of where they have gone together before this hour but also as the hour progresses, step by step, you feel not only that you’re witnessing this closeness between them but also being let into the circle with them. Now, without further ado, here are Destiny O. Birdsong, Donika Kelly, Negotiating the Love and Renouncing the Rest.

Destiny Birdsong: Hi, friend. How are you?

Donika Kelly: I’m good. I’m good. It’s good to see you, Destiny. 

DB: It’s good to see you too.

DK: I’m so happy to be with you.

DB: Me too. I’m excited. My only concern is how do we fit a conversation into one hour because we don’t really do that. [laughs]

DK: It’s two hours minimum but we’re going to observe the limit today. [laughs]

DB: We will, absolutely. We decided that we were going to just start out with some poems. You’ll read one and I’ll read one. I’m going to let you go first.

DK: Thank you. I thought fitting in with the theme of our conversation today, I would read The Moon Rose over the Bay. I had a Lot of Feelings.

[Donika Kelly reads a poem called The Moon Rose over the Bay. I had a Lot of Feelings]

DB: Thank you so much. I just read that poem a few days ago and it’s so much better when I hear you read it. I love it. I love it. I’m going to read a poem I don’t read often and it’s called Pickle Goddess. It’s written after ASMRTheChew. If you’ve ever watched any of her YouTube videos, you’ll understand how captivating she is and why this poem is about her, and what she makes me feel when I watch her. [laughs]

[Destiny O. Birdsong reads a poem called Pickle Goddess]

DB: Thank you

DK: Hey, Birdsong, it’s so good. I love that line, “I’m so glad my mama don’t pay for nothing.” [laughter]

DB: Right. Because it’s never free. [laughter]

DK: It’s never free. It’s never free. 

DB: Shall we begin?

DK: Yes.

DB: I’m just going to go in the order that I frantically sent to you yesterday. [laughs] By literary standards, our first books came late, which I think is a fiction but it’s definitely safe to say we spend a lot of time writing in a certain degree of solitude, like pre-book. Let’s start with the book where the book questions. What does it mean to write in the spaces before publication or in other words, what does it mean to renounce what it means to be a successful writer beyond the ambition for a book? We talked a little bit about why that’s important to both of us.

DK: I think there’s that narrative that pushes people or that it feels like there’s so much pressure to publish, publish, publish, publish, publish, publish. It’s so intense and that pressure moves us away from the work or it can move us away from the work. It can move us away from connecting deeply from following our own interests. It seems to me—from what I know about your process and also what I understand about my own process—that the work is the thing. It’s number one. I was actually really happy. I wasn’t happy at the time I was grumpy [laughs] but I graduated from my MFA program in 2008, my first book came out in 2016, so I had all of this time to really figure out what keeps me writing because people were not scooping up the poems. The poems were not getting scooped. The poems are not being solicited. I had to know what it meant to be a writer just by myself. I feel like that time has served me really, really well because even after the success of the first book, and I was really, really, really fortunate, incredibly fortunate, I had all of that time in practice before to just do what I wanted to do to follow my interest, to cement or engage that habit or practice separate from the machine of publication. What about you?

DB: Yes to all of that of course. [laughs] I do my best work when nobody’s looking for it. We talked about this but I talked about your poem in Bestiary, What Gay Porn Has Done for Me, like the last lines “and I come on anything I like,” I see that as both like a practice, like a sexual practice, a practice of desire but also an artistic practice that what happens in the intimate spaces of my writing desk—or my writing couch because I always write on the couch—but that’s just for me, anything can happen there. I could skid anywhere. [laughs] It might get out to the rest of the world but it might not and that’s okay. It gives me a certain degree of freedom and lust for innovation, and willingness to try new things. People have been asking about the novel like, “When did you decide?” I was like, “It was really just some experimentation at first.” Of course, once I realized where I was going, I was giving it everything I had, which I do for every book but it really began as just an idea that I gave myself time to play around with. I think that for me, that is only possible when I am not thinking about publishing, the expectations of publishing, and those things because I was working on the novel and not writing poems. That had to be okay. It was okay for me internally but I think if I had been thinking career-wise, I would have been anxious about it. It would have affected what I did.

DK: I think that’s one of the things that I love the most about you as a writer and as an artist is that you really do follow what you’re interested in. I remember, it was like years ago, you were like, “I’m working on short stories.” I was like, “What?” You were like, “I’m just doing.” I was like, “Okay. What about the poems?” I thought to myself, and I thought that’s like you just do what you want to do. I wish more people did what they wanted. In terms of making art, it’s like we could just do whatever we want to do. I think there’s that alternate pressure too for folks to be writing other things that they might not want to write. People are always like, “Well, you write an essay.” Not always. It happens sometimes. Like, “Do you have an essay? Do you have a memoir?” I’m like, “I just write poems.” Then I never hear from them again. There’s no reply to that email. [laughter] They’re just like, “Oh poems, what’s that?”

DB: The indignation, it’s real.

DK: Yeah. 

DB: I know I love that. We talked a little bit too about how we spread out on the page or choose not to spread out. Genre wise, those are deliberate decisions but even within the poems themselves, within the books themselves, how we show up structurally on a page is a way that we both talked about is like the centering of oneself in one’s work, which is really important. I want to talk about that because you said some really beautiful things in our last conversation about—and I think we’re similar in this way—but growing up in environments where men are centered no matter how terrible they are. You’re like on the fringes and sometimes on the fringes of your own life, trying to make space or trying to teach them how to give you space. The work can become, for some of us, a way to re-center ourselves and our own lives. But I just want you to talk a little bit about that because you said some dope stuff that I cannot quote. [laughs] Talk to us, Donika.

DK: I’m always happy to talk about this one. My beloved’s going to walk by in the background. There’s Melissa Febos everyone. [laughs] It took me a long time to figure out and I would say most of my life, to figure out first, that I was not at the center of my own life but then also what were the stories in my family of origin that were keeping me from being anywhere near the center of my own life. It’s patriarchy. It’s a super basic answer to that question. It’s a very old story but in my family, it is very much like what do the men want, what do the men need. If the men are meeting this very minimum bar, great. They’re wonderful. They’re excellent. Meanwhile, everyone else in the family is working to strategize how to be safe in those spaces and sometimes committing harm in trying to make sure the men are okay. There are plenty of folks in my family who are willing to harm themselves or to bear harm instead of pushing back against that. Poetry really gave me a way into inquiry, into exploration and gave me space to write into, and against my family narratives. To think about just in terms of content, even before form in some ways, in terms of content, what does it mean to love someone who wants to leave? How to practice loving when someone wants to go? What does it mean if I want to go? The poems then become a place to contain or manage or shape the feeling. For me, I like little poems because my feelings are big. I need a little container to work with a little piece of the feeling. But in the new book, some of the poems are longer. They’re much longer than I’m used to writing but that’s because I was writing about things that I had not explored before. Writing about childhood, sexual abuse, writing about suicidality and suicide attempts, I needed more space for that. Those poems took up more space than I wanted them to. There’s something too in yielding to what I need instead of what I think I should do that has been really transformative. I don’t know that it would have been possible without poetry. I know you have some similar stuff too, Destiny.

DB: Yeah, I agree. I always get a little nervous when people say writing is healing because it’s not that clear-cut, it’s not that straight of a line but it’s a tool by which I have completed some of my healing because it becomes a space where like you, I can explore feelings that I am still processing and also deconstructing some of those really toxic narratives about who should be at the center of my life. I had to restructure my faith because the God I was taught was just as patriarchal and problematic as the men who were teaching it, who were teaching him to me. [laughs] I had to get to a point where I was like, “I don’t think we are talking about the same person.” [laughs] Writing helped that, and being able to get messy with that stuff. Even more so than things like prayer and meditation, being able to say, “I don’t understand this. I don’t agree with this. These things that I have been asked to do are not possible for me.” Also, I ain’t straight. [laughs] I was in my early 30s like, “Oh okay, d*mn. I didn’t know.” Because everybody was telling me that I couldn’t be. The page does that for me. I think for me, my poems are big and long for the same reason that yours are short. For me, it’s the audacity to put those things down, to put them everywhere, and to turn them over and closely examine them, and examine them alongside other things or put them in a container of a poem and shake it, and see what comes out. [laughs] I like those eight balls we had as kids. You shake it and see what it tells you. [laughs] In that way, it can be healing. But the writing practice for me—and this goes back to what we were talking about in terms of not necessarily always writing for publication—I started doing my morning pages because it was something my therapist told me. They’re like, “Oh, if you wake up early and you write these three pages, you might feel less anxious during the day or you might be able to sort out some of your feelings in the really quiet space of the early morning before all of the day’s requirements and obligations crowd out an opportunity for solitude, self-reflection, and self-care.” Being able to hold the practice of writing as that too, in addition to a profession, a career, a calling is so necessary. I find myself retreating sometimes from the professional word to go back to these little safe spaces of writing. I did that last night. I thought I was doing something yesterday, that I am doing something emotionally dangerous that I should not be doing and I’m like, because I was in prep work for today’s workshop and I was like, “Finish your task, go sit on your bean bag chair, and write about what you’re doing right now.” [laughs] It’s my time out. That’s so helpful. It’s such a necessary part of my practice even though that stuff will never be seen. It’ll never be in the archive because I’m burning it because you all don’t need to know everything. [laughs] You don’t.

DK: Folks don’t need to know everything. That is absolutely true. There was something in what you said. It’s like the things that I’ve discovered about myself in writing where what I’m doing is centering what I’m interested in, I’m centering the questions that I have, I’m centering my own inquiry in my artistic practice. Hearing that reflected in what you do just makes so much sense. I think that’s why we’re buds. We’re like, “We’re just going to do what we want to do.” But I remember, I was giving a reading and I don’t remember what the question was but I remember the answer I gave was, “Well, I’m interested in my own thinking.” People laughed. I was like, “But what’s funny about that?” I’m actually interested in the way that I think. I’m interested in where these ideas are about, who gets to do what, who has access to what, where I am situated inside a larger cultural context. I’m interested in where that comes from, where those stories come from. But I think it’s like being a black queer person standing up in front of a room of mostly white people and saying that I think folks were, they were like, “What?” Because my work does seem so, and is, so personal. I sometimes suspect people believe they are getting everything and they are getting so little. They’re getting the inquiry. I’m not writing about the experience. There’s a recounting of an experience so that I can conduct the inquiry but I think people are like, “No, it’s the experience. That’s the only thing that matters.” It’s like, “No, no, no.” It’s the experience to figure out the “why” or also, not “no” and “also.”

DB: Yeah. I think the presumption is that for black people, for black women, for black queer people, for black queer women, that our experiences are really all that matters because sometimes, I feel this vicarity that like, “Oh, I get to step into your life for a few minutes.” It’s like this fetishizing presumption that I am stepping into this life, seeing everything and knowing everything. I was talking about this with a friend. I was like, “People don’t even understand.” I can’t speak for all black people but there are certain conversations that non-black people will never experience with black people because as soon as they enter the room, what is possible in the room changes. I think to a certain degree, that can also be true about the work. We were workshopping one of the workshop attendees’ poems yesterday and I was talking to him about how sometimes, we should not have to do this but sometimes, as black poets, we have to be mindful of the willful presumptions that white people might make when they’re reading our work. That makes it tricky to say to write a poem about a black person in the gorilla because people are going to connect those dots even if there are other dots on the page telling them to go in a different direction. [laughs]

DK: They’re like, “They’re two dots.”

DB: “There are two dots. There’s black person gorilla. That’s all I know.” I think the audacity to make clear that “No, you will never know everything. You are getting what I’m giving you. That is my agency in my work” is a really powerful articulation and is so true. 

DK: I feel that when I come to other artists’ work who are from communities that I’m not a part of and I think, “Oh, there’s something happening.” I don’t quite get it but I’m not going to ask, I’m not going to be like. “Oh writer, tell me what this is. Explain this to me.” I’m just going to be like, “I’m going to get the parts I get. I’m going to try not to bring in a bunch of weird stuff.” [laughter] That’s the other side of that practice is also being outside of things sometimes. I think there’s centering oneself in one’s work, which I’m a fan of and that also means that sometimes, the reader is de-centered. I think this happens often with younger writers, writers who are earlier in their writing practice and career. They’re like, “When do you start thinking about the audience?” I’m like, “I’m thinking about me.” [laughter] It’s like 95% of that process is what is this poem doing for me, what am I getting out  of this practicing process. When I’m thinking about the reader, what I’m thinking about is, “Is this poem potentially harmful because of what I’ve been writing about recently? Is there a way I can extend kindness to people who have had similar experiences to mine, the kindness I would want to have extended?” But I’m not worried necessarily that the reader needs to get all my references or even has to have the same cultural references because to some degree, that’s not my business. [laughs] I don’t like worrying about things that aren’t my business.

DB: Yes, yes. You told me that we only have two jobs. [laughter]

DK: That’s right, we got two jobs.

DB: We got two jobs.

DK: We got two two things that we got to do.

DB: If you know what those two jobs are, you know what those two jobs are. [laughter] Oh my goodness. I’m looking at the chat. [laughter] You said something that made me think about something you talked a little bit with Nikky Finney about at your book launch and I find myself talking about this too with my own work, like particularly writing about sexual violence, writing about the perpetrators of sexual violence, and dealing with them in sometimes unexpected ways. I think people are always curious about that. While I try to come up with my response to this, I’m going to ask you. [laughs] 

DK: Okay.

DB: I feel like every day has a different response but I want to ask you about that because I was rereading their renunciations earlier last week and I was like, “Wow. That really happens in this book in ways that strike me in a different way every time.” It really does something in terms of complicating our narratives about sexual violence and our narratives about how we talk about it. I’m just so grateful for that. Talk to me about that.

DK: I’m going to talk for a second about my dissertation. I’m so sorry this is happening to everyone. I wrote a dissertation about representations of white manhood, masculinity, and contemporary American Westerns. That’s where I wrote my dissertation on. Why? Who knows? But what I was interested in was that there was a script about white manhood and white men that did not match my experiences of interacting with white men. The script was like white men don’t have feelings or friends and they never talk about whatever, I don’t know, it’s nonsense but the point was not reparative necessarily. The point was not to rehabilitate white men. That was not the point. The point was if we just say that they are not a part of community interaction, they aren’t responsible to the community, then their actions sit outside of that. I was like, “No, we got to put them in a community so that we can just more accurately and more ethically understand the harms of white manhood, and masculinity, both as they are enacted on white men but also folks who aren’t white men.” That helped me think about my dad who is a very complicated man, who had a lot of power, and who sat in some ways a little bit outside the family, like whenever anyone talked about him, they were like, “He goes to work. He brings home his check. He comes home.” That was the bar but my dad’s childhood was really fraught. It was very complicated. I was worried that I was flattening him out in the way that I thought about the harm that he had committed against me. I wanted to think about him as a person because he is a person with his own trauma history. I didn’t get anywhere new on the other side of that. It’s not like I looked at my dad’s background in the little bits that I know and I thought, “Oh well, that explains everything.” [laughs] I was like, “Nah, he’s still really awful.” As it turns out, he’s like a bad dude. But he’s a bad dude who’s also been hurt. This isn’t like I heard people comment but just like what does it mean to think about somebody as a person, to think about them being responsible, not as a monster but as another person who chose to commit harm. That to me feels more devastating.

DB: Yes.

DK: I’m just like, “Whoa, okay because that’s not a choice I would have made and that’s not a choice I’m making right now.” 

DB: Oh my gosh, you took the words out of my mouth. I was thinking about that. I guess decentering the monster narrative actually holds them more accountable because monsters are just monsters. You see them, you run. You presume they’re going to do bad things. That’s not how abusers present themselves typically. That’s not how they move through the world. For me, it was about that and understanding the violence I experienced in the larger context of the community, and in the larger context of like in my case, black respectability. There are all these things that come to play in those moments of violence. I think this actually makes me think also about the solitary practice of writing, is that my journey of survival has also been about declassifying myself as a monster. That this didn’t happen to me because I’m bad, I’m horrible, I’ve done stupid things. Putting us side by side and examining us both as people, it uncovers some truth, some facts of realities that really debunk those myths about us both being monstrous somehow. 

DK: I’m just thinking like the poem, I think it’s Fable, where there’s the man inside the monster. There’s a man inside the bear suit running around, scaring people, harming people, knocking people down. What your poem is getting at is that there’s a man and it’s not a bear. Then what comes later in that section—because that opens a really powerful section in the book—it’s like there’s a man there. There’s a person there. It’s not the bear suit. That way, you’re absolutely disrupting the narrative. The narrative is like, “Here’s a monster. Here’s a bear.” I feel like that poem is like, “Nah, it’s a dude.”

DB: No, it’s a dude. It’s a dude but the bear suit and the people’s fear of the suit actually makes it more powerful because nobody’s willing to take the head off, and be like, “Hey, it’s a dude.” [laughs]

DK: We know that dude.

DB: We know that guy. [laughter] He mows my lawn on Saturdays. I feel the same way about your work. I was tracing this arc of what happens in each section and how there is this examination of the father. It’s like what was the childhood moment that made things the way they were, then I love how in the last section is just about you encountering dead objects. [laughter]

DK: There’s so many. I like [0:37:17.0] full of dead things.

DB: The deer, the crow. It’s funny because there’s such gore in those final poems but there’s rebirth happening. There are dead things all around but the way the book ends, “Time to get a hammer and a nail.” Time to build some sh*t. This has happened. I really appreciate that. 

DK: But I think that also happens at the end of your book too. There’s this way that the speaker moves into love, solitude, and care for herself. I think that what you were saying earlier was like there is a way that who we are, just in terms of our identity markers in the US globally to some degree, makes us less than human. We can choose to engage those narratives or we can just write about being people. I don’t think either of us is interested in saying things like, “I’m a person. I matter.” We’re just like, “Either you know that or you don’t know that.” [laughter] If you don’t know that, again, that’s not my business to try to educate you into understanding my speaker’s personhood.  I think both of our work is so grounded in the materiality of just being alive in observing other people crack eggs. [laughter] Their heart is on the side of the road. Whatever we’re doing. Beautiful old ladies in the deli. I think that there’s something about the project of our work that feels to me just so unassailable. We’re just like, “We’re here. We’re still here.” I think that’s the thing that happens in both of our books is that at the end, we’re like, “No, we’re still here.” There’s joy or the potential in my case for joy. The potential is little. [laughter] Again, here’s [00:39:44].

DB: I’m trying to find this poem. I think the last line is like, “I cannot swim and I will not drown.” Oh yes, yes, yes, “I cannot swim and I will not drown.” [laughter]

DK: I really can’t swim.

DB: There’s so much that resonates there with me too, like this fear. After my own experience, I was terrified of things that moved my body, that felt independent of myself, like driving a car. Water. Just terrified of being in bodies of water, finding myself drowning. That line resonates to me because there were times when I felt like that where I was either terrified of drowning or feeling like drowning but like word, like I did. I love what you said about the unassailability of our humanity and how we build that in our work because it’s not a thing I thought I could do but it’s also not a superhuman thing. I’m a human being, so that is a human accomplishment. Survival is a human accomplishment.

DK: That’s right.

DB: I love Black Girl Magic but I’m like, “I’m a human being performing that.” [laughs] Let it never be forgotten. I love that about your work.

DK: I will say I’m not sure that we could talk as much as we talk without some really fundamental, I mean I’m talking about the eight-hour conversation but there sure was one. [laughter]

DB: I try to think back and like, “What day was that? We were on the phone for that long?” But the thing about not remembering means that the time must have gone by so quickly that it did not feel like eight hours.

DK: It didn’t but it sure was. [laughter]

DB: Talking to my homie in Western New York.

DK: That’s right. I was like, “Man, I wish I’d say oh, it’s non-negotiable,” whatever. It’s nice to be clever from time to time. It’s nice to be clever. That’s the other element of still being here is having community, having friends, having chosen family who show up and who are willing to just spend quality time. I think both of us, that’s one of our big love languages. It’s just that quality time of just like we’re just going to show up, be ourselves, and be together for a long time for hours and hours, and hours.

DB: A big long time.

DK: As Melissa said, a big long time.

DB: A big long time. [laughter] 

DK: There’s comfort in time and there’s comfort in friendship. I know that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you and my other friends. By here, I just mean like alive actually materially. That happens both through the work and outside of the work apart from the work. It matters. 

DB: Yes, yes, yes. Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t be able to write what I write without my community. I was thinking about this the other day because we’ve talked a little bit about familial relationships, blood family relationships, and how complicated they can be. It’s heartbreaking for me to say this but I’m also so grateful that I am able to say this but there are people in my life that I could not love if I had not been shown love by my chosen family, like queer love or at least queer in my own upbringing. I remember the feeling I had the first time you said, “I love you” when I was just like, “Aaah.” [laughs] Like all the feelings, I mean not free in the sense that I could be a jerk but free in the sense that I didn’t have to be anyone other than myself to get that love. That makes it possible for me then to go back to people who are not necessarily trying to be their best selves. [laughs] You can be you and I will still love you, I might not be able to be around you…

DK: But in fact, the best way to practice love, a loving kindness is to not be around them. That’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to treat anybody way out of my pocket, who I love.” Sometimes, that means we can’t talk at all. It’s great. It’s great to have found that route instead of like, “Oh, I need to be close, I need to be close, I need to be interacting, I need to be interacting.” 

DB: And potentially be harmed, which I’ve also learned. I think that is also closely related to writing. Like learning from my chosen community, there are moments when you can choose not to be harmed. When I get the chance to do that sh*t, I take it. I’m like, “Listen, we ain’t gotta talk to each other. I love you. I can pray for you all the things but you cannot talk to me the way you’re talking to me. You cannot do to me what you were trying to do to me.” I think in relation to the work, it also for me then becomes a choice about what gets out of the private writing space. I talk to people all the time about their stories that you should not tell until you’re ready. Go on by yourself. 

DK: This book came out of therapy and also just my relationship with my chosen family. It’s a lot of kind people who are kind to me. They love me but they’re also kind to me. They think of me. They consider me. There’s something about being considered that is relatively new. Being thought of as holy is relatively new. It took me a long time to figure out how to do that for myself, like how to be kind to myself, how to extend the kindness that I had for my friends to myself. That took so long. It wasn’t until I figured out how to do that, that I could really write the poems about my experience with my dad because I needed to be kind to myself in that writing process. I needed to be kind to the reader. That actually felt important. I needed to be kind to my speaker, like creating a figure through the lyric eye who was going to recount experiences that were really hard, that were really painful. Sometimes, just instinctively, I was like, “I’m actually not going to write that down. I’m not going to write down what this word is. I’m not going to write down this phrase. Because it’s too hard for me to say, so I’m not going to ask my speaker to say it. I’m not going to ask the reader to read it.” It’s too hard. I think of that as kindness. I think of that as care. I think that’s what makes these poems feel bearable for me, that they’re in the world, that there was care taken at all of these different levels and that was not something that I learned from my family of origin. I really wish there was more emphasis on just being kind and taking care of themselves—my mom taking care of herself, my sister taking care of herself—instead of putting other people first. It feels complicated.

DB: Tenderness. Love in the absence of tenderness. It makes such a difficult decision for the recipient. It’s like, “How do I process this love that is happening in the absence of tenderness and in the absence of consideration for me? What I need and what helps me bloom, and grow. I was going to say I do think that’s an important part of my writing practice. You make me think about some of the poems in the collection where there are these bracketed blank spaces. The reader is left to fill in what’s there. I didn’t realize that’s why. I hadn’t thought about that but that’s real.

DK: Also, I’m like that’s not anybody’s business. [laughs] There’s also that other part. I love talking about business. Is that my business, is it not my business, is that mine, isn’t that mine. [laughter] It feels important.

DB: It is important. 

DK: How has it been for you to have Negotiations in the world? I know that we’ve talked about that a little bit privately but it’s a challenging book. It’s a very present book. The feelings in it are big. How’s it been to have it out in the world?

DB: A couple of things happened shortly before Negotiations came out. In the summer of 2020, I had an essay published in The Paris Review daily called Be Good. It recounts in part my experience with the person who assaulted me, then there was a second essay that came out in Catapult where I talked about the show I May Destroy You, which also came out in the summer 2020. Oh, can I tell you something? I have to say this, Donika, because you’re in France right now and you’re close to Italy. I want you to bring this person back to me. [laughs] 

DK: I’ll do what I can. 

DB: Please, for a friend. [laughter] I made a story, a ton of Emmy nominations I’m really excited about. I love the show. It’s an important show. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it. One of the actors whose name I’m probably not going to say correctly but Marouane Zotti who plays Biagio posted about the nominations in his Instagram stories and I reacted to it, and he replied, he said, “Thank you.” He sent me a kissy face. Donika, I want to marry him and have his children. [laughs] Please bring him back to the stage. I’ll pay for the travel. [laughter] Anyway, sorry. If you’re watching, you’ll be wild. You’re great. Call me. [laughter] Those two essays, oh my gosh, Be Good was so hard. I turned off my phone because I just didn’t want to talk to people about it. Sometimes, as a writer, I’m not presuming other people are reading my work but I’m presuming that there are things about me that people just know, then there’s always a moment when people read something you’ve written and they’re like, “I didn’t know.” I got a taste of that over the summer with those two essays. When the book came out, it was much easier but I think the other reason that it was easier is because I sat with those poems for a long time. I don’t think there was a single poem in that sequence. The sequence starts where every poem starts with my rapist. I don’t think any of them came out before the book was out, I don’t believe because for me, there are some things that need to exist together. It was important for me to hold on to them for as long as I needed to. I knew that they needed to be in the book. The realization of that was a process but it too was a process that I experienced in solitude with my communities. Like talking to my friends, some of whom are also survivors and being able to be held in those really private spaces actually made the publication of the book easier for me. I sometimes wonder what people think about me after they read it for two seconds, then I just let it go because it’s not important. But I am sometimes often shocked that people are so distraught because I’m like. “Oh. I’m well and I’m very fortunate to be well. These things did happen. They are a part of my history but your experience in them for the first time is not my experiencing them for the first time.” I think it’s really helpful that I wrote those poems, I revised them, and I talked about them in spaces where I felt completely safe. That’s the foundation on which that book rests.

DK: It’s great. Beautiful, beautiful. It’s good to hear that. It’s good to know that. I think my reaction often to people who are like, “I’m so sorry,” my experience was so regular as it turns out. That’s the thing that I think is horrifying is that it’s regular. That it’s not uncommon. If it were uncommon, that would be one thing. I’m a bit, “Oh, yes, yes, yes.” I’m like, “I’m not alone.” I think that’s also sometimes shocking for people or jarring for people to hear someone say like, “Actually, nah, it was not great. It totally sucked.” It messed me up for a long time but also very regularly. 

DB: I remember having a conversation with an editor, one of the essay editors. He was trying really hard to make sure I was okay on the cusp of the publication and he said something to the effect, he was like, “Are you safe? Do you feel like you can do this without being harmed?” I was like, “I do. I think that one of the reasons this is important to me is because I am sure I was not my assailant’s first victim and I’m also sure that I was not the last.” I think that he was taken aback by that but I think it’s a reality. I think that’s also one of the things that makes the books being out in the world somewhat manageable because I know that there are other people carrying these stories, carrying these traumas. What I am most hopeful that my work does is that it makes clear that you are not the only one because abuse often happens in isolation. The ways in which an abuser creates this fiction of isolation is that you are the only one or that you’re special or that you are the one who deserves this. I am happy that my book makes it clear that’s a lie.

DK: It was important for me in a similar way to also just feel like there’s something on the other side. My life did not stop with this abuse. My life has continued. In fact, I’m in a period of flourishing. I’m not sure how that happened except that I think it’s me and my folks.

DB: And you because you’re amazing.

DK: Because we have known each other.

DB: Yeah, sure.

DK: But also,  it took a lot of work. I think this gets back to what we were talking about at the beginning. The work of centering what I need has directly led to the flourishing that I’m experiencing. That I was like I want to be held in loving kindness. I want to be around people who want to be good. I’m around a lot of writers who are writing work that I’m so excited by and that’s deliberate, that’s a choice. It’s a choice to prioritize that and that quality time that we were talking about earlier over many, many other things. When I say flourishing, I don’t really mean professionally, I mean emotionally in terms of my relationships. I feel so fortunate. I feel so loved. I couldn’t have imagined it. I want that also to be in the book. I think there’s a little glimmer of that right at the end but I think even that whole last section is like, “I’m still here in a Sondheim musical.” [laughter] 

DB: “The deer didn’t make it but I did.” 

DK: The deer did not make it but I was there to see the deer. That was wild. We don’t have time to talk about that but that was weird. 

DB: Nature can be weird. 

DK: Are we at our time, Birdsong?

DB: Yeah, it’s 11:30 where I am. [laughter] I was about to say something else but I guess we could end here. Any final thoughts? Anything we didn’t cover?

DK: There’s always more but we’ll talk later. [laughs]

DB: Yes. Thank you. Thank you. In the chat. [laughter]

Lance Cleland: Donika and Destiny, I think just on behalf of everyone listening, that was a privilege. I feel like we’re all going to love better today because of what we heard from both of you. I’m going to go see my daughter after this. I’m going to love her better today because of spending time with all of you. Thank you. One thing we’ve been talking about this week, a question we’ve been posing to everyone—and it feels very appropriate to end maybe on this note—is I was hoping both of you could say what you love about your own work.

DK: Do we even have enough time for that? [laughter] Destiny, I think you ought to go because I’ll get going. [laughter] 

DB: Oh gosh, what do I love about my work, I think first and foremost, I love that I get to do it. I feel so damn lucky to get to wake up every day and put words on paper. It’s been my dream since I was a kid. It’s terrifying. It’s scary. Writing full-time, I am anxious. I am worried about stuff all the time but I still get to wake up every morning and do what I f*cking love. That’s what I love about the work in a general sense. I think in terms of the work and what I do in the work, I love that I am more honest with myself than I’ve ever been. I love that I get to write about black people. I love that I get to write about black women. I love that I get to write about being queer. I love that I get to write about albinism. I love that I get to write about the things that matter to me.  

DK: That’s so beautifully said, Destiny. I’mma be real, just like basic. I just really love my own poems. I just love them. I love reading them. I love writing them. I love the process of writing. Even if there’s the struggle of trying to articulate something really close to the very center of my life alongside me, I’m getting closer, I get to make art. It feels whole cloth in some ways, just make it. I’m like, “Where does it come from? It feels like magic.” It’s like, “How does anybody write a poem?” I like their craft things, the line and there’s a rhyme or whatever. There’s some magic thing that happens. I love just knowing that’s inside of me, there’s like a little piece of something that knows how to make a little sad experience into something golden. That’s dope. [laughs] I like reading my poems too. I love that. I feel so lucky that’s what I get to do. I did not think this would happen when I was a kid because I could not see any way to any kind of future when I was young. That this is what happened just feels like, “All right, cool, bet, let’s go.” [laughs] That’s what I’ll say.

LC: I think that just being here makes me feel like the future is bright. Again, just on behalf of everyone, I really thank you for allowing us to sit in on your friendship. That’s a gift.

DK: This is so wonderful. I’m so glad we were able to do this, Destiny. Thank you for wanting to talk to me. It’s great.

DB: Come on. 

DK: I love you. [laughter]

DB: I love you too, friend.

DK: Thank you, Lance.

DB: Thank you, Lance. Thank you.

DN: Today’s program was recorded at the 2021 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. To find more work by Destiny O. Birdsong and Donika Kelly, head to and respectively. If you enjoy what you’ve heard, consider becoming a listener-supporter of Between The Covers. There are many potential benefits to becoming a supporter from the bonus audio archive with contributions by Douglas Kearney, John Keane, Natalie Diaz, Hanif Abdurraqib, Layli Long Soldier, Garth Greenwell, and many others to the Tin House early readership, receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. These are just a few of many other things. You can find out more about becoming a listener-supporter of Between The Covers at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at