You do so much throughout Thieves in the Afterlife. For example, there are some poems that respond to the work of other poets and artists, and others that challenge commonly held beliefs about gender and sexuality. But in the midst of this intricate dialogue, you still manage to craft your poems expertly, layering unique images on top of each other and including intricate sound patterns throughout the collection. Where do you usually begin when writing a new poem–with an image or phrase, or with the underlying meaning or idea?
Right now, I’m reading the Best American Poetry series edited by Terrance Hayes, and he begins his introduction with the line, “What we end up making, whether it’s something we do by ourselves or with others, is always a form of conversation” (from Eugene Gloria’s “Liner Notes for Monk”). His whole essay/interview is incredible. I love the idea that poems are conversations—with our obsessions, shadow selves, the constant negotiation of trying to stay human/decent. My poems usually begin with trying to capture a mood or tone, the desire to embody a feeling, to speak back to what fills me with reverence, rage, or awe. I want to be in my body when I write, so I try to begin with the concrete and then hopefully elevate it through tension and dissonance. The poem is a way to hold the feeling: a vessel for keeping what I love and a prism to reflect complex and simultaneous experience.
Gender is especially important in this collection. Many of the poems throughout Thieves in the Afterlife take instances of female degradation and transform them into moments of empowerment (as in the first poem, “Anthem,” where the phrase “I Heart Pussy” carved into a bench becomes a declaration of praise instead of remaining crude graffiti). How did you become interested in writing about gender in your poetry?
I’ve been interested in writing/talking/making art about gender for as long as I can remember—maybe starting in middle school when it became clear that girls and boys were treated differently, and no one talked about it or seemed to care. Or when I was 20 and realized that the number of women I knew who’d been sexually assaulted couldn’t be counted on both hands. I have always wanted to write what feels urgent and relevant—gender is always there at the forefront of my experience, shaping the way that I see the world. In poems, I’m able to go to another space that I can’t access in daily life or in a Twitter feed—to complicate the experience of being this body and hopefully create space for others to see themselves and respond. My husband has this phrase —“You just have to care about one thing.” I think this is so true—that all you need for a full life is to love the fuck out of one thing and this will be enough to open your heart and help you connect to the world. An obsession/interest in gender is so woven into everything that moves me, and it drives me to create poems that make people feel alive in their bodies. For me, writing about gender is another way of celebrating the body and claiming the right to be who you are.
In addition to gender, you also write poems about female sexuality. Where many people might gloss over the “messier” or “more graphic” parts of this–like orgasms and clitorises and even pleasure, depending on who you ask–you don’t ever seem to shy away from these topics. Did you find it difficult to write about subjects that some people consider to be inappropriate or even taboo? Was censorship ever a problem, whether from yourself or others?
I feel lucky to have grown up in an open and accepting environment. Despite being from Massachusetts, I never had any real shame or Puritanical baggage. I spent a lot of my childhood in Provincetown, Massachusetts where the expression of sexuality is out in the open and celebrated. When I was young, it was clear to me that there were so many ways to exhibit/perform/embody one’s sexuality, and it was a beautiful and liberating thing. So writing about sexuality never felt like a transgression or subversive act, but a natural expression of who I am and the way I am in the world. I want to say that at times, in my poems, the body/sexuality is just a medium, a context for writing about other themes. Why should writing about a clitoris be inappropriate or taboo? But then again, I know that the female body is also a battleground, and it would be naïve to think that writing about it—no matter what my intentions are—isn’t going to trigger or engage with other people’s hang-ups. And the truth is, I want to be provocative in the sense that if someone is uncomfortable with (or threatened by) vaginas or bodily fluids or female sexuality, I would like my poems to challenge them. I’m thinking about the Lars Von Trier movies, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2, which were criticized pretty heavily for trying to be “provocative.” The scenes are graphic and sometimes hard to watch, but ultimately it’s about a person owning and reckoning with her desires—completely on her own terms and excluding the male gaze… I guess that’s what I hope to do, to push against whatever tries to keep us feeling powerless, no matter what ideas or images I’m exploring.
One thing I really liked in this collection is how often you used other creative works as inspiration. For example, you titled one poem, “After Watching The Misfits,” a few others draw on Rodney Dangerfield for material, and there are others still that use a line, style, or form from another author’s poem. Even though some of these references are a bit older, your poems still comment on present attitudes and current events; you weave the past and present together seamlessly in your work. In what ways do you see poetry as being essentially part of a larger dialogue with other artists, poets, and pop culture icons?
I love that as poets we’re always responding, pushing back, digesting, interrogating, collecting information and influences, and finding a new language for our themes. Pop culture feels especially charged and potent to write about because it is alive, performing and mirroring identity. Think of “Mr. T.” by Terrance Hayes, Marcus Wicker’s love letters, poems by Tim Seibles, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Michael Mlekoday and Sally Wen Mao. Going back to the idea about just needing to love one thing, I find that the most compelling poems are sincere in their infatuations, a way of paying tribute, no matter what they’re about. The hope is to take forms/genres and subvert expectations—to create dissonance, bringing together our obsessions and vocabularies, and articulate our jumbled, tumultuous daily lives through an equally rich and complicated mode of lyric and consciousness.
from Thieves in the Afterlife by Kendra DeColo
Let’s get wasted as avocados,
solemn and shapely
in their alligator skins, lucid, sweet-talking
lovers laid bare on rough blankets,
sacked and clutched
in a child’s alleyway
hand. Let’s get foamed, salty-eyed,
dismembered into smoothness,
gilded and glyphed
onto a retired stripper’s back, smoked
and spooled, shucked
to a mineral glow. Let’s get stupid. Opalescent.
God-complexioned. Viscera strangled
to a shimmer. Ghosted, vanquished,
sticky as hashish, lacquered and whispered
into the Guadalquivir’s ear. Let’s get squalid and romantic
in the squid-pink light
roughing up the tulips, then let’s stumble
down the throat of 3 a.m.
to the titty bar
where Magda will stroke our faces
before breaking our jaws
with those ungodly breasts
and we will cry out with a tenderness
that betrays our hunger, our voices
thatched onto a roof
that collapses under her weight,
twinkling like half-formed
her vastness, green and wild as
another country. Bearable
music wincing between moans.
Kendra DeColo has taught creative writing in prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, and middle schools. She is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and residency awards from the Millay Colony and the Virgina Center for Creative Arts. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she is founding poetry editor of Nashville Review and Book Review Editor at Muzzle Magazine.