Donika Kelly

2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Poetry Award Winner;
2016 National Book Award Finalist; 

New York Times Book Review Best Books of 2016;
BuzzFeed Best Poetry Book of 2016;The Root Best Books of 2016 by Black Authors; One of The Undefeated‘s Freshest Books of 2016; A Quivering Pen Best Poetry Collection of 2016; A Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe Best Book of 2016

 Photo credit: Ladan Osman

Photo credit: Ladan Osman


My primary mode of thinking hinges on unmasking what we perceive as normal—whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, humanness, and so on—as deeply strange. Only through this unmasking can we begin to have ethical conversations about structural inequality in both creative and critical spaces. As a poet and educator, I prioritize the conversations that can happen at the intersection of race, class, ability, gender, sexuality and other axes of identification. I question the formation and  impact of the normative, the naturalized, and the reified, how those categories shape my existence as a queer black woman. I am invested in the practice of radical empathy rooted not in its imposition on others but as a personal praxis. Reading and thinking, as bell hooks puts it, “against the grain” enables identification without sacrificing a critical examination of dominant American culture.

Striking. . . . Kelly is a descendant of Sylvia Plath by way of the wintry Louise Glück ― her poems are animated by roiling, mostly dark emotion, but they’re spare, composed and often quite short. . . . The fantastical creatures in Bestiary are almost all hybrids― mermaids, minotaurs, griffins ― as opposed to mere monsters, and their in-betweenness calls attention equally to the danger of dissolution and the possibility of unity. Kelly is drawn to both outcomes, and her uncertainty gives her writing its peculiar magnetism.―The New York Times Book Review

[An] astounding debut. . . . The poems employ language that sinks its teeth in at vulnerable moments. . . . Kelly’s creatures howl and whimper as she imparts emotional truths.―Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Magic possesses this book, the kind that transforms objects and ideas and the knowledge we thought we knew, so thoroughly that Kelly seems to speak a new language.”―Ploughshares

“Spend only a minute or two in Donika Kelly’s poetry, and you’ll almost begin to feel your body moving along with the rhythm of her writing. Her lines pound, and declare, and expose and challenge ― and often explore the gendered experiences of our world.”―Bustle



Donika Kelly is the author of the chapbook AVIARIUM (fivehundred places), and the full-length collection BESTIARY (Graywolf 2016), winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for poetry, and the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. BESTIARY was long listed for the National Book Award (2016) and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and a Publishing Triangle Award (2017). A Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, she received her MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers and a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University. She is an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, where she teaches creative writing.