The Brandeis Creative Writing program will hold a reading with renowned poet and professor Donika Kelly on Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 5:30 pm. The event serves as the latest installment of this year's Brandeis Readings, a series officiated by the Creative Writing program that brings published authors to the University for conversations with the community on their work. In keeping with the format of previous events, the event will be held virtually on Zoom. 

Kelly's appearance follows that of previous authors who partook in last semester’s Brandeis Readings. In February, Brandeis hosted novelist and editor Angie Cruz, who read from her 2019 novel “Dominicana,” and poet Lynn Emanuel in March. The program's readings are funded by the Grossbardt Memorial Fund.

“The Renunciations,” Kelly’s latest published collection of semi-autobiographical poems, tells stories of both her experiences in childhood and the ways her adult relationships shifted and struggled due to a history of abuse in her early years. Kelly reflects both on trauma and the idea of one’s legacy. The collection culminates with a larger exploration of the possibilities of the future both for Kelly herself and others.

Kelly published “The Renunciations” this year through Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publishing company working out of Minnesota. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to publish authors of all ages and experiences who they believe bring a diverse and dynamic point of view to the greater culture of literary arts. They strive for the work they publish to be accessible to those of differing backgrounds and abilities. The blurb given on the Graywolf Press website describes Kelly’s collection as “A book of resilience, survival, and the journey to radically shift one’s sense of self in the face of trauma.” 

Prior to “The Renunciations,” Kelly published “Bestiary,” which won the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, an award dedicated to "the discovery of exceptional manuscripts by Black poets of African descent," according to the Cave Canem website. The first book to receive this award was Natasha Thretheway's “Domestic Work,” selected by American poet and essayist Rita Dove. The awards given by Cave Canem are funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the U.S. government which funds the creative endeavors and projects of artists. Kelly currently serves as a graduate fellow of Cave Canem. 

Along with the Cave Canem accolade, “Bestiary” won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry, which has honored Black writers based in the United States since 2001, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award through Claremont Graduate University. Additionally, the book was long-listed for the National Book Award. 

Kelly's appearance at Brandeis follows a series of previous engagements for “The Renunciations” such as a spring event through Charis Circle, the nonprofit social justice initiative of Charis Books. The event, held on May 4, hosted Kelly in conversation with professor and poet Nikky Finney. Charis Books called Kelly’s latest work “gorgeous and heartrending” in their description

In a review published by the LA Review of Books, author and LARB contributor Victoria Chang said the collection feels "like diary entries to the self," and further mentions Kelly’s methods of communication as possibly a way to reach her father. Dean Reader, the second contributor to the review, spoke admirably of Kelly's ability to weave mythological intertext into the work, an aspect he called "cool and perhaps overlooked." Overall, they ultimately appreciate that reading the book almost feels like a process, and that the book’s pieces culminate as a greater renunciation of violence and victimhood. 

“The Renunciations” received additional positive acclaim from writer Asa Drake for the Kenyon Review, who was struck by the way that Kelly “engenders her speaker with her own authority of present feeling.” Overall, reviews of “The Renunciations” speak most highly on Kelly’s incorporation of mythical elements and metaphors along with her ability to address the self and her own past in her work.

Along with her career as a poet, Kelly teaches at the University of Iowa as an assistant professor of creative writing, according to her website. She is a member of the Poets at the End of the World Collective along with fellow writers Ama Codjoe​, Nicole Sealey, Evie Shockley and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. As a collective, their page on the Costura Creative website says they are dedicated to service and social justice through initiatives that work to uplift Black women and provide poetry readings, workshops and panels which “contribute to making the world safer, just, & equitable for all.” 

The Brandeis Creative Writing program, headed by Co-Directors Prof. Elizabeth Bradfield (ENG) and Prof. Stephen McCauley (ENG), will also host author Torrey Peters on Oct. 6 via Zoom. Peters wrote the bestselling novel “Detransition, Baby,” nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The readings are listed on their website as one of the opportunities offered to students which make the major “unusually active.” 

While the events held within the reading series are open to the general public, they cater mainly to students studying Creative Writing at Brandeis. Along with events such as Kelly’s reading, students have access to “panel discussions, workshops on publishing, and journal and performance opportunities,” as stated on the Creative Writing program’s website.