Kendra Allen’s debut poetry collection, The Collection Plate, was released by Ecco earlier this year and the restless mind, playful sense of language, and concerns with form and structure seen in her first book, the essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet, has grown and changed in interesting ways. In her poems, she crafts a world where her personal life and familial history, patriarchy and religion, sex and death, Super Soakers and the reality show Naked & Afraid intersect and build upon each other in unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways. We spoke recently about music and religion, our grandmothers, and what it meant to call oneself a poet.
The Millions: I came across an old interview from when When You Learn the Alphabet was released, and you were talking about the essay form and being intimidated by poetry because “in poetry everything has a name.” I wonder if you could talk about what poetry meant and writing the poems that became the book.
Kendra Allen: Like I said in that quote, I always feared saying that I’m a poet because I didn’t really know the names of those forms and I felt constricted by them. Fearful to even dive into poetry because I’m not trained in this the way. I’ve spent the past years learning the art of essay writing, and narrative essays, in particular. What’s ironic really is that when I started writing the poetry, that fear I had of feeling stuck and strained because of my ignorance of form ended up being the thing that freed me. It made me fearless in terms of form and content—and how form and content coincide with each other. When I sat down and started to actually see these poems go together—these poems could be a collection—it really was freeing because I wrote what I wanted to and how I wanted to. I didn’t have second thoughts about form. I’m studying form now because I want to know, but at that moment of my life, writing The Collection Plate was a moment to be free and figure out my own form in a way that expresses what goes on in my head in the clearest way.
TM: I understand. You’re busy trying to write and can’t be thinking about counting syllables while you’re doing that.
KA: Yes! I don’t have time for all these rules! I have a story I’m trying to tell. It’s not even rules, but suggestions of what makes something good craft wise, which I think can lead to same-old same-old if you think about writing in a strictly craft way.
TM: Form is important to you, though. In your acknowledgements you mention L. Lamar Wilson, who told you that the poems needed to be “put in somebody’s mouth.” Which is such an interesting bit of advice. Where did you take that?
KA: Lamar single handedly made this collection a collection. I had most of the poems, but they weren’t that good. They were in the first-draft stage. Lamar read them and he said, these are good but you need to put them in somebody’s mouth. I spent a few weeks trying to process what that meant and I sat down on the floor one day and I was looking at the poems and I was listening to a song about how a father was a doctor and all the impatience of this person probably stemmed from their father. I saw that I was talking about religion and church and family and fatherhood, and I just changed the first line of the first poem from whatever it was to “We say Our Father.” I capitalized the O and F and it became like a character and a thread and a recurring character throughout the collection. It can be symbolism but also it can be duality between our father in heaven, which is what I was taught, and my literal father and patriarchy in general. I can talk about all three in conjunction with each other just by creating this character. Once I did that, the collection just started falling into place like puzzle pieces. If Lamar didn’t tell me that, I would have never thought of that. I’m very, very grateful.
TM: And the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father,” is one of the first, if not the first, prayers we ever learn.
KA: It’s the first thing I learned. Before I learned to tie my shoes, I learned the Lord’s Prayer.
TM: As you were rewriting the poems and thinking about how they fit together, how did that idea shape them?
KA: The short “Our Father’s house” poems were initially one very long trash poem. [Laughs.] It was not good at all. I was so tied to it. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t let it go, but it just didn’t fit. I started breaking it apart and making couplets from it and once I broke that poem down, I was able to make better transitions. I’m very big on transitioning. I think my favorite albums are as good as I think they are because of how each song flows into the next. I think when I broke the “Our Father’s house” poems up they provided the through line and thread that helped me connect them.
TM: You have two sets of poems that are paired together, though in different ways. One is “Naked & afraid” and “Afraid & naked.” Were they always two poems and was that idea there from the beginning?
KA: I was taking a documentary poetics course at the time, and I was writing about the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. I started thinking about water in my life. Also, one of the shows that me and my father watched together was Naked and Afraid. [Laughs.] It’s a wild show if you haven’t seen it. I was trying to figure out how to bring journalism into poetry. I thought about how you cannot survive without clean water. A lot of the contestants on the show have to leave because they didn’t pick the right weapon, which is a pot to clean water, and then they get sick and have to leave the show. I started thinking of Flint, Mich. It was a mirroring in terms of capitalism, race, class, and all these factors. I wanted this mirror of how we see this reality show with these mostly white contestants who are able to get help when they run out of clean water. But in actual reality, we see these poor black people who are denied the human right of water for no other reason than they’re poor and black. I really wanted to show that mirroring in a very clear way. Reality show and actual reality. Being seen as human is very different if we’re talking about something that is scripted to an extent, versus something that is lived out and is still going on.
TM: So you had the idea of two poems that would begin and end much the same, but reframing certain aspects.
KA: I was writing them both simultaneously while also working on an essay where a portion of it was where I would write about the same thing but from a different point of view. I was like, let me try to do it like this. It wasn’t in the front of my head at first to be the same poem but use different words, but once I did it, I saw it was the poem. It was one of the easiest poems for me to write. I didn’t have to do much revision on it. It’s clear.
TM: Water is one of the themes of the book, and I’m curious why.
KA: It’s definitely that class. I was getting my MFA and in my last semester and I was taking that class because there was nothing else to take. You picked a subject and they wanted it to be about where you were. I was in Tuscaloosa, and I picked the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. Of course, as I was doing my research and trying to write poems, I was getting mad. I didn’t want to read about it because it would just make me angry. So, I pivoted and changed my topic to documenting Lonnie Johnson, who invented the Super Soaker. A lot of the “Super Sadness!” poems were originally about the invention of the Super Soaker. I ended up shifting those and making it more about myself and my mental health issues, but I still wanted water to be a metaphor throughout the collection. I wanted it to not just be about other people. I wanted it to be about what I was going through in my head and blend cultural commentary with personal narrative. I kept changing my topics, but water was always there. Baptism. Getting my hair washed. Learning to swim. All these ways water was in my life.
TM: The two “Super Sadness!” poems are very different poems and are paired in a very different way.
KA: That first one was really about Lonnie Johnson inventing the Super Soaker and gatekeeping and racism. I didn’t change that poem a lot to make it fit my life. I just shifted a few words around and I think once I changed the title from “Super Soaker” to “Super Sadness!”, it aligned in a way that made me feel like this is what I’m supposed to be writing. When I was talking about Lonnie Johnson, they felt empty. His story is amazing, and I would love to document it, but I couldn’t just make it work. I wrote the second one because I didn’t want to finish the first one. It was a poem about what I was going through at that very moment. I’m not a writer who can write in the moment. I need time to assess what I actually felt, but when I was writing those “Super Sadness!” poems, I was able to write about what I was feeling in the moment, which was brand new for me.
TM: There were a few poems that really got to me. I’m sure you’ve heard some of this, but “I’m the note held towards the end,” which was a good poem is also brutal and I would imagine not easy to write.
KA: It’s actually my favorite poem in the collection, along with the last poem. Just because I like how that one looks. [Laughs.] But yes, that poem was brutal, but extremely necessary for me to write. I got to get that out of me through the lens of this song that I love, but I’m writing about something very, very difficult. Also, during this time, I had started therapy and was dealing with repressed memories that I had never talked about. Writing that poem was a brutal and beautiful experience. It also made me realize that I could listen to music and get so many different takeaways from it. On the surface this song is about sex but also the way that she holds the note, it feels like pain and release and banishment. It was very quick to write this poem. I did it in one take. Over time I edited it, but the meat of that poem came out very quickly. I’m learning to trust when that happens. The content made me think, I can’t share this, but also: you have to share this. So yeah, it’s a very special poem to me.
TM: You said before that you need time and distance to process things and write about them, and there are a few poems like this one that are about the process of stepping back from things.
KA: And being able to see it clearly for what it is.
TM: Some of that distance and clarity comes from having the language to understand what happened.
KA: What you said. Having the language. I wouldn’t have been able to write it without that time where I could access the language. I literally did not have words for these things. Giving yourself time and space to form the language is so, so important.
TM: I really wanted to talk about “Happy 100th birthday.” My grandmother had dementia for years before she died, but there are lines especially—for example—“All yo history / in rooms with none of you / in it”—that resonated in beautiful and brutal ways.
KA: Thank you. I came home to Dallas and it was my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday and my granny wanted to go to the gravesite. My family is not the type of family who goes to visit gravesites except after the funeral. So I went with my aunt, my mama, my uncle, and my granny and I realized that we had a lot of dead family members in this graveyard. [Laughs.] I had a realization that I was so thankful to have been able to spend time with my great-grandmother, because she lived into her 90s. She died of Alzheimer’s and one of my biggest fears is forgetting my life or losing myself, because I saw that happen to her. When I started writing that poem, I wanted to document the times I remembered her on the decline of her memory. I felt like I had to write it for my granny, as well. She never really talked about losing her mother. It had to be hard to see the way that she went. I really just wanted to show those memories in the midst of her losing her memories. Because it is terrifying.
TM: You mentioned loving the last poem, “Gifting back bread & barren land,” which is a very ominous title, especially as a final poem.
KA: That wasn’t the last poem at first. It was the opening poem. I had a few people tell me, no, but I couldn’t let it go. I was just so married to this poem. I think because I felt like a poet for the first time when I wrote it.
TM: What did it mean for you to feel like a poet?
KA: It was scary! [Laughs.] It was a happy scared. I was excited but also, oh shit. You work towards something and you’re happy that its done but also, you’re fearful because you’ve got to do it again. [Laughs.] It was the first poem I wrote that I was super proud of. Before I wasn’t sure if my poems were poems, if that makes sense? But with that one I knew, this is it. I wanted it to open the book. I feel like it encompasses a lot of those underlying messages. I’m not 100 percent happy with it at the end, but I know it makes more sense at the end than at the beginning.
TM: Was part of feeling like a poet is just feeling out this structure and the voice and the themes—and making it feel like you?
KA: It was that. I really took my time on it. I felt like a poet because I felt like myself. I didn’t feel like I was trying to mimic the poets I love and am inspired by. I took time to figure out the language. I always think about rhythm. I felt victorious writing that poem. That’s dramatic to say. [Laughs.] I felt like myself and that made me say, you are a poet. There’s not one way to be a poet. Poets don’t all fit the same aesthetic or idea. Writing that poem felt like me and the way that I talk and how my mind shifts from subject to subject in the middle of a sentence. It felt peaceful.
TM: In your poetry and essays your language has this musicality, and there is this restlessness in terms of moving from one topic to another and making connections between them.
KA: You’re saying the perfect words. Restlessness. And recklessness! [Laughs.] And rhythm. All R words! That’s something I don’t want to lose. I think that’s why I feared saying I’m a poet. I felt like I might lose that urgency that makes me want to keep writing. Which is crazy, because poetry is the greatest genre of writing ever.
TM: Music is so important for you. Was finding a way to bring musicality to your language, and finding a way for that to work on the page, the big challenge for you as a poet?
KA: My biggest writing inspirations are people who write songs. I’ve always been a person who studies lyrics. When I listen to a new album, I’m going to listen to it the first time and read the lyrics alongside. If I don’t like what you’re saying, it’s hard for me to care about the music. When I first started taking writing seriously, I really just wanted to mirror songwriters that I like. I wanted to write like Amy Winehouse, who is an amazing songwriter with an amazing voice. I think about people I obsess over and how can I insert myself into the conversation. I hear certain phrases from certain songs, and I will want to write around those phrases. I’ll create prompts like that. Musicality has always been the thing that I feel like I’m reaching toward in my work and I want to honor how much music in my life has saved me.
TM: Do you enjoy giving readings?
KA: I’m learning to. I’m learning to love reading poetry aloud because I’m learning my own flow and my own rhythm of how I want it to come out versus how it looks. That’s why I like points like Danez Smith because Danez is one of those rare talents who is just as effective on the page as they are on the stage. You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes something will hit when you read it, but when you hear it, it’s all right. I’m learning to like reading, but I’m one of those people who can’t concentrate at readings ‘cause I get stuck on some punctuation. [Laughs.] So yes and no.
Pause is the thing I want in my work. In music something can hit so hard and so viciously because there’s silence between the words and that’s where the music comes in. I want to be able, as a reader, to honor those pauses and that silence because that’s what I do with my line breaks. To explore those pauses. I’m learning. But I’m getting better.
TM: Now that you think of yourself as a poet, are you writing more poems? What are you writing now or thinking about next?
KA: I haven’t really been writing poetry, but I know it’s coming. I’ve been working on essays and I’m working on how to make the essay as imaginative as possible. I don’t like being bored when I’m reading or writing. I’m taking a lot of the things that I learned from writing this collection and trying to bring it to essay writing. I’m trying to figure out how we can bring lies into creative nonfiction—and how it can still be the truth. [Laughs.] So I’m experimenting with that in terms of form and content.
—Into the Liner Notes with Kendra Allen