“To be a Mother, Writer, and Unapologetic: An Interview with Kendra DeColo on I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World” by Zakiya Cowan

In April of 2021, I gave birth to my first child–a beautiful, bright-eyed little boy–and I thought I would never write again. I arrived at this conclusion not because I now had little to no time to write anymore, but because my mind simply couldn’t unscramble itself enough post-birth, in the midst of Postpartum Depression, to put words onto a page. I had no words to describe how I felt that my old body, my old self, was still lying in the hospital bed. I had no words to describe the euphoria of finally seeing and holding the thing I created, while simultaneously drowning in the depths of isolation, fear, and anxiety. Everything I experienced was seemingly absent of language, that is until I read I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World by Kendra DeColo. 

From the opening poem, “I Pump Milk Like a Boss” where “bodily fluids [are] spattered / like haikus and I pump as if my milk is propaganda,” to “Love Letter with The Beatles, Lana Del Rey, and Julio Cortázar” when the speaker states they are “most like a mother/ wanting to hide [their] big ass and thighs/ wanting to celebrate their big ass and thighs,” DeColo’s collection showcases the knotted, complex, and gritty experience of motherhood. I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World is also linguistically and imagistically exquisite with lines such as “Consider the perineum/ stretched like cheap nylons” and “…pulls velvety hooves/ from gaping maws like psalms.” DeColor’s pieces truly attest to the magic of language, especially when the person wielding the pen is unafraid of where it can take them.

I had the pleasure of interviewing DeColo via Zoom–funnily enough while my then 7-month restlessly slept in the other room. During our conversation, we discuss being big on the page, writing as an act of defiance, the possibilities that arise from collaboration, and so much more:

I would just love to begin by asking you just how this book came to be. And at what point did you realize you were working towards a fuller, larger body of work?

So the project really began right after my daughter was born. I had this really intense desire to start writing again. I think to understand the intense shit that I was going through. I had really bad postpartum anxiety and depression that was undiagnosed, and part of how I got myself out of it was returning to writing. I didn’t have childcare for the first 18 months either, so it was really like writing felt like this kind of elusive thing–I don’t know if I’ll ever return to it. So any time I had a few moments I started writing on my phone and that was kind of my anchor in the beginning. And then once we got consistent childcare, and I could have two days a week of writing, it felt like this really joyful thing, like coming home to myself and feeling like this kind of natural play. And I don’t know why it is because normally when first writing a new project, I’m really hard on myself. I’m like, “you need to write a really good poem right away” and that never works. And this time around I just like let myself play because I was just so happy to be writing again. That play eventually turned into these poems. I remember the first time, one of my first writing sessions was just sitting down and making a list of all of the things that I love, and Nicolas Cage was on that list and that turned into “I am Thinking About the Movie Con Air” poem. And just really following, not even following my obsessions but really following things that delighted me. And that was my entry point into the book.

I love that it’s the things that delighted you that moved you into the book. I feel like as poets, people may often assume that it’s our pain or traumas that constantly motivate us.

Yeah, there were a few times where I tried to write directly about postpartum anxiety, and it just created a spiral where I just felt like I wasn’t ready to go that deeply into it. So, having Nicolas Cage there, having Courtney Love of felt almost like these guardians holding me up while I wrote about things that were a little bit hard. And, writing about pop culture for me is a way of also writing about things that are difficult in my life, but giving me a buffer. My favorite poems to read are the ones that start with joy and then go into those really hard places. Have you read Ross Gay’s [The] Book of Delights? He has this amazing quote, and this is paraphrased, but “What if joy is putting our sorrows next to one another?” and I really love that that joy can be both embracing what’s hard because someone else is feeling it or that the two can just exist side by side.

One of the things that I picked up in the collection is there are many references to creatives like Lana Del Rey, Tyler the Creator, Aerosmith, The Beatles, and I know that you mentioned Courtney Love and Nicolas Cage. I’m wondering, specifically in regards to music, how does it influence your work?

My favorite thing in the world is to just like write about the music I was listening to when I was 14. For some reason, that period of my life is so rich, like listening to a Radiohead album or listening to Courtney Love, or any artist I was obsessed with at that age, it brings me back to both that insane kind of confidence that I had. I wouldn’t call it confidence, but this unearned swagger–like I just felt like a boss for no reason and then so much insecurity at the same time. That combination of confidence and then deep self-criticism feels really rich for me. So just emotionally, the music can be a compass to get back to that. And I really love thinking about certain artists in my life as being patron saints or being archetypes. So Courtney Love for me, she’s someone I kept going back to after I became a mother, which is so funny because she has been such a pariah and especially for the mistakes that she made as a mother. And I think that I needed to see someone who really didn’t care about what society thought and, and so many ways, Courtney Love existed in a way that was really upsetting to people and she owned it and she didn’t apologize for herself. And so I got a specific kind of energy from that. I need to live in that same way because right now I’m still full of doubts as a mother and caring too much about what other people think and getting unsolicited advice all the time. And I feel like it wore me down until I’m like, well, I don’t even know what my values are. Just constantly hearing what other people think is important. And so really trying to channel her and that specific way felt really empowering.

I know you mentioned being unapologetic and I think that’s one of the many things I loved about your book and just the way you talk about motherhood, the body, and sex in a way that is unapologetic.  I was so captivated by it because like, I felt like you were so brave to write in this way. Why did you decide to approach your writing this way?

Thank you, I think because so much in my day-to-day life, it’s been such a struggle for me to really own my power and situations, or to feel like I can be big. I think I spent a lot of my 20s and part of my 30s feeling that kind of smallness and the way that we try and accommodate other people as women. And feeling like so much of my energy was always going into making other people feel comfortable, and my poems became that place where I could just really be that full self that I always feel, is there, but that’s hard to actually live it out. And the self that is vibrant and takes up space, I just always knew that for me writing has to come from that place of bigness. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll start writing about something and I just could feel myself getting small as I’m writing it and that’s the sign: Okay, you’re trying to please someone else; you’re trying to fit into what you think this journal is going to like. And then in a bodily way saying, “Okay, I’m not going to go down that road,” and then writing something that again delights me and then feeling that opening up, I feel big again and almost like it’s just a pleasure thing. It feels really pleasurable for me to write that way, and so I want to keep doing it and to keep exploring it. And I want to read things that make me feel that way, and I think it’s just such a gift to read work that makes me like the world is full of possibility. And so I want to write that way as well. 

I’d love for you to talk about the title of the collection. There’s the poem in the book, “I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World Anymore.” Why did you decide to make that the title of the collection?

Well, for a few different reasons. One is that poem in the collection was a moment where I really felt that the poems started to have connective tissue. Before that, I’d written the “I Pump Milk like a Boss” poem–like the earlier ones in the book, and so I knew at that point, I had ten poems written, that really felt like these are about postpartum and motherhood and the postpartum body. But that poem felt to me like a healing or about kind of leaving the postpartum phase and healing through the difficulties of that. I loved taking that title because it felt like such a healing and right. And then another just really basic reason is that there are a lot of poems start with “I” in the collection, and it’s pushing back against advice is so much advice I was given an in my MFA program and in writing workshops in general. I remember someone saying, “You should never write in first person,” and it was obviously a man who said that like “Don’t write about your own personal life, that’s not literature.” And so I think ever since hearing things like that I’m going to always use “I.” I’m going to always speak from experience because it’s so clear that if that’s a woman’s “I” is not as valued, in certain environments. So that was part of claiming bigness, [really] getting into that first person.

How do you come up with your titles? Do they come before the poem, or after the poem? What is that process like? 

They come early on and I love thinking about the title as a punchline, and  I’ve learned so much about craft from stand-up comedians. Like I used to obsessively, watch Rodney Dangerfield, just to learn precision because he has these really short, two-line jokes that for me a like an aphorism, or a couplet, and it’s about the tension in those two short lines. I love how a title can act as the first line of the joke, and then the poem itself would like the unraveled punchline that you’re getting to.  I think that the I think titles right now or at least, you know in the last ten years have gotten into a really amazing place, and it almost feels like the index or the table of contents of the collection is a poem in itself a lot of times. I think about poets I love who write amazing titles and that’s always something that I’m really excited about. I feel like Hanif Abdurraqib writes incredible titles.

So when I first read “I Pump Milk like a Boss,” I was captivated by the book from that poem onwards. And I think prior to reading your book and because I wasn’t really seeking out books about motherhood until I had my baby, I feel like there’s this perception that as moms we have to put out into the world the beautiful parts of motherhood–that motherhood is all just cradling the baby and looking at them lovingly. And not to say it isn’t those things, it is very beautiful. But, it can also be isolating, dark, and draining. What I most admire about your collection is that you capture how magical and sublime motherhood can be, but also, you capture the less than beautiful moments. What motivated you to approach the topic of motherhood in this way?

Yeah. I think in some ways that’s what I’ve always really been interested in–even before writing about motherhood–taking something that’s beautiful and making it profane or writing about something that’s seen as profane. One of my first poems in graduate school was about a strap-on, and I think it’s the most beautiful poem I’ve ever written. I mean, it depends on what audience I’m reading it to but just really enjoying the kind of the tension between subject and language. I love artists like John Waters or people who are really into Camp and profanity, but at the center is something that is so holy and beautiful. I think in some ways it’s just the way that I write, and I have no choice. I’m always going to be writing in a way–I don’t know what the next project will be like–but writing graphically and using raunch is just one of my favorite tools. With motherhood, it’s wanting to be defiant. And I think because of exactly what you said, that expectation that we’re going to write poems that are docile and sweet and domestic, or whatever domestic means to people and just wanting to do the opposite of that. It’s a way of pushing back on this culture that pretends to value motherhood but only if it fits into this capitalist version of what a mother is, we get no support. What’s happening with maternity leave right now, I feel physically just enraged. I think it’s a crime to hold mothers to this impossible standard–to keep perpetuating this image of the perfect mother and then giving no support to mothers at all. In my poems, wanting to push back against that by showing that grittier side of mothers, showing that motherhood is punk rock, and that mothers are not gentle creatures. We’re strong and badass and are in the trenches doing really difficult work, and that if we show that side of mothering, maybe the more truthful we are, maybe the easier it will be for other women and parents who enter into this. And also maybe we’ll start having more honest conversations publicly about what our real needs are.

I really appreciate that. Reading your book, I felt validated in how I was feeling at the beginning of my postpartum journey. How do you think your writing if at all has changed pre-motherhood versus post-motherhood?

I think that there’s such a gift and in not having time to linger. I think having such a short amount of time to both generate and revise poems has made me braver, and I feel that kind of the heat of knowing I have exactly one hour this week to write, it makes me work in a more intense way. So that part is really wonderful. This book of essays that I love by Sarah Ruhl called 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write and one thing is about the grief of letting go of your former writer self. In some ways, it hasn’t changed, like I said. I feel like my interests are still the same, but I feel less concerned with trying to please editors or trying to create a poem that I think is going to get published. And I think that really freed me up because I think in the beginning, when I first started writing after my daughter was born, I really felt invisible. I think because of the way motherhood poems were talked about when I was in graduate school and even outside of graduate school. I had this feeling [that] no one’s going to be interested in these poems I’m going to write–this is my life, I want to write about what’s happening to me, and no one’s going to care. Then I get to a point where that’s ok. I can write and if no one wants to read these that’s ok, I need to write these for myself right now. And I think that gave me permission to not write for an audience and to really just write what I needed to say and that brought me into places that felt really wild and free. So, that’s been a gift.

I’d love to discuss collaboration. I know that you collaborate with Tyler Mills and I was curious about what interests you about the collaborative process?

The project with Tyler started when I was pregnant, and I knew I was pregnant at the time. Part of my interest in writing with her was just she’s one of my favorite poets, we were roommates together at Bread Loaf, and just have this amazing friendship.  But I knew that I was going to need kind of a motivation to keep writing and stay in it. So, knowing that I owed her a line was such a great way to write stakes-free and to be playful with her. What I love about collaboration is that you can just really toss something ridiculous out there and then trust that the other person’s going to catch it and move it forward. Or to feel like, okay, I’ve written this line, I have no idea what to do with it, but I can’t wait to see what Tyler is going to do because I know that she’ll have some angle that I haven’t discovered because she has this other perspective. Then, just the fun of trying to challenge someone like  I’m going to write something that I know is going to be really hard for them to [respond to] and just kind of being a jerk that way is really fun. But really anything low-stakes, that is the most important thing in writing. That’s how I teach when I’m working with a group of students. It’s never like we need to imitate this perfect poem. It’s all about starting from our questions, and starting from even our criticisms–taking a poem that is kind of a mess and like what are the possibilities? So I have a low-stakes project right now with another friend, Keith Leonard, and we were doing it for a while during the pandemic where I would send him a music video from the early aughts and he would have to write a poem about it. And then he would send me a video and I would have to write about that.

What I find really amazing about being writers is that it’s practically impossible to write inside of a vacuum. We’re always in conversation with other people whether we know it or not. I’m wondering if there are any writers, visual artists, musicians, or creatives you feel like your work is in conversation with?

That’s such a good question. And I love what you said that we’re always in conversation because I think that’s so true, like every book that we have ever read in a way is kind of what we’re writing within. I don’t know if I have a good answer for that right now. There were a few years when I was working with a record label in Nashville, Third Man Records, and that was a really rich time for me because I was wanting to write specifically for this kind of group of people. I feel like being in Nashville is really this like a beautiful thing because there are so many musicians here and so many great poets. There was kind of a period of time where I felt like I was part of this scene, and we were constantly doing readings together and Third Man Records would host these amazing readings in this place called The Blue Room where they would have an artist from Nashville or a local poet. I would have situations where I knew I was going to be opening up for this particular musician and their audience is not necessarily like coming to see me, and so I would write poems that I feel like would demand attention and be like, “I’m not going to let you ignore me.” I don’t think I’m writing in conversation with her, but I was recently reading Ani DiFranco’s memoir and she writes about being a singer-songwriter and being in situations where she’s at a bar performing and everyone’s ignoring her and how it kind of pushed her craft to be confrontational and so to write songs that were difficult not to listen to. In some ways, I’m writing in conversation with people who want to ignore me. That’s my ideal audience: like the one bored person at the bar who’s about to leave. Terrance Hayes was my first poet love, and I think  I’m always in a way writing a poem that I want him to love or to look at and say, “This is good.” Jeffrey McDaniel was one of my first teachers, and I think I’m always kind of writing in response to his work and he just writes such incredible, surreal metaphors. They’re just there are so many people. Rachel McKibbens is a poet who I always like secretly hoping she’ll read something I wrote. Then on a real level, Camille Dungy and Erika Meitner [are who I see as] like midwives for this book. They read really early poems in the collection and they are two people who really pushed me forward. Camille actually asked me to send her a manuscript when it was ready and that lit a fire under me. Like I probably had five poems in the book written and I was like, “I’m going to write I’m going to finish this manuscript so that I can send it to Camille.” When Camille asks for a manuscript, you send it. Then Erika Meitner who’s a poet I love as well, and I find my correspondence with her really enriching.

About Kendra DeColo

Author photo of Kendra DeColo

Kendra DeColo is the author of three poetry collections, I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World (BOA Editions, 2021), My Dinner with Ron Jeremy (Third Man Books, 2016) and Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. She is also co-author of Low Budget Movie (Diode, 2021), a collaborative chapbook written with Tyler Mills. She has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, Split this Rock, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. Her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Magazine, Waxwing, Los Angeles Review, Bitch Magazine, VIDA, and elsewhere. She has performed her work in comedy clubs and music venues including the Newport Folk Festival, and she has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Vanderbilt University, and the Tennessee Prison for Women. She currently teaches at The Hugo House and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.