Photo: Clara Lee Allen. Photo and cover courtesy of Ecco.
Kendra Allen told me that when she feels stuck writing, she starts hitting the space bar to get things going again. This refusal to get bogged down by hesitancy or fear translates into her writing, which has a sonorous and raw vulnerability. Allen sees herself less as a capital-W Writer and more as a person in the world, using language to work out how she feels about family, death, and pop music. Our conversation took place on a phone call between New York City and Dallas on a July afternoon. Allen’s energy is infectious even from a distance, rigorously turning over ideas with me about everything from lyrics to reincarnation.
Fittingly, the word essay—to try, to ascertain, to weigh—originates not with formal constraints of prose but with experiments in ideas. Kendra Allen’s 2019 essay collection, When You Learn the Alphabet, is a fearless attempt by Allen to weigh her themes—family, inheritance, identity. Her debut poetry collection, The Collection Plate, published earlier this month by Ecco, revisits much from the essay collection but also moves into territory farther afield. Some of the most ambitious and captivating poems in the book are from a series based on Lonnie Johnson and the invention of the Super Soaker. Sometimes a poem, with its title politely positioned in the header position, won’t get started until the very bottom of the page. Rereading those poems now, I feel the weight of that space and am right there with Allen, mind whirring brightly as she taps the space bar, waiting for the words to come.
You recently wrote a recommendation of theMIND’s album Don’t Let It Go to Your Head for The Paris Review Daily. In the recommendation, you mention that you had just met a deadline for your manuscript, and then you listened to the album and had a moment of thinking, Now I need to rewrite everything. How often is music this essential to your writing?
I literally would not be writing anything if I was not obsessed with reading lyrics. I think that’s what sparked my interest in creative writing. So many of my greatest memories are me in the car listening to a specific song or me buying a CD and just replaying it over and over and over. The artist I wrote about, theMIND, has a song called “Atlas Complex,” and I was thinking about the line where he says, “I told you everything, gave you everything, you always wanted me naked, and now I’m telling everything, I’m changing everything, I hope this honesty saves us.” I would hear something like that, and I would want to write it. I would create prompts out of song lyrics. So music has sustained me with something to write about. I can always find a line in any song and make a prompt out of it and apply it to my own life.
The recommendation also mentions that you finished your manuscript at 2 A.M. Are you a procrastinator?
Oh, a hundred percent. I’m procrastinating as we speak. As soon as you called, I was procrastinating. I’m not a writer who can set a certain time every single day when I’m going to sit down and write ten pages. That’s just not how I’m wired. I need pressure or I won’t do anything. I will sit at the computer and have intentions of opening up the document, but then I will look at emails. I’ll get on YouTube. I’ll try to read a book. I procrastinate on reading, too. I’ll try to read, and I’ll just get distracted. I’m not the kind of person who has to go outside and clear their mind to do things. I’m more likely to sit in a room and drive myself crazy until I’m stressed out to the point where I’m like hours away from my deadline. And then I just pump it out. I need stress. That’s weird. I need to work on that. I don’t know why I need stress.
Do you do a lot of revision, or does what comes out feel like the finished product?
Oh no. Never the finished product. I’m a big, big revisor. My revision process is more eliminating than adding things. I think with my first drafts it’s kind of just whatever comes out of my head. It’s not supposed to be good. When I get to that fourth or fifth draft, I can sort of see whatever I’m working on shaping itself and revealing itself to me. A lot of times when it reveals itself, I’m taking things out instead of adding in because I don’t need to say everything I’ve ever thought about what I’m writing. I’m learning that as I go. So when I’m revising, I’m saying, Is this necessary? Is this three essays in one essay, and what do I need to take out? Or is this poem just trying to sound cooler or smarter than what it is? When I see the bare bones of the piece, I’m like, I could have said this in maybe three or four sentences instead of three pages.
I have a better time revising poetry than I do with essays. I feel like having fun when I’m writing poems. Not in the first draft, but when it reveals itself, poetry gets to be fun. But with an essay, I put so much pressure on myself because it’s so many words and it kind of throws me off. And so I just have to strip everything away.
Do you work from notes?
When I have something good, yeah. I realized there’s a pattern. Like, all of my stuff that I think is good—not good to the public but good to me—has been the product of me waking up at 2 A.M., writing a sentence down, going back to sleep, waking up forty-five minutes later, writing a hundred sentences down, going back to sleep, and then sort of copying and pasting it all into a Word document at a later date. Like, a way later date. And it’s been like that since I started taking writing seriously. That has been my main process.
The Collection Plate is a perfect title for a collection of poetry. I want to hear you talk a little bit about what the image of a collection plate means to you.
I grew up in my great-uncle’s Baptist church, so I was thinking about the things that we are given and that we give away. I’ve seen people take things out of actual collection plates in church. [Laughs] With this collection I also wanted to think about water and what it takes away from us. So I was just thinking about things that water has taken out of and from me, whether that’s tears or sweat or spit.
I’m a person who will pick a title and try to write a complete thing around it just because I don’t want to change it. I feel married to it. It’s so crazy! [Laughs] With The Collection Plate, I started with the title and was like, This encapsulates the whole aura of where I’m at mentally right now, and I just wanted to write around it.
When you say it captures where you were mentally, do you mean that you felt a lot of giving or taking from the poems?
I wrote most of the first drafts of these poems in 2019, and that was just not a good year for me. There was a heaviness on me, and I turned to poetry. I couldn’t write essays. My mind wouldn’t allow me to do it, and so I turned to poetry not thinking that what I was writing was going to be a book. I was just doing it because I couldn’t write essays. Sometimes with essay writing I feel like it’s a lot of overexplaining. Like with detail. Well, that makes no sense—the point of writing is to have detail. But during that specific moment when I was just solely writing poems, I didn’t want to do the essay thing anymore. I was like, Okay, I tried it out, and I tried to take risks, and I’ll come back to it later. What can I do with poetry that I haven’t discovered before? I wouldn’t define myself as a poet because I don’t know enough about poetry. I didn’t take classes on it. I’ve been in poetry workshops, but I don’t know a lot about structure and all the names of the different forms and things like that.
So I was going into writing poetry with a clean slate, and I think that served me because I didn’t have so many rules set in place. I could go to the page and think with my poems. When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking, I want to structure it this way. It just comes up. It does the work for itself if you put the work in, if that makes sense. Like, if I’m talking about a swimming pool, I’m not going into it trying to form a structure where it looks similar to the lanes of an Olympic pool. It just sort of came out like that and I wasn’t really aware of it. But I think now I’m at a point where I don’t want to keep doing things by accident. I want to do them on purpose.
Do you think, in a way, poetry is nonfiction?
I think poetry is fiction and nonfiction. I think we assume it’s nonfiction. But some of the poets I’m obsessed with, a lot of their stuff is not even happening in their lives. It’s just imaginative. It’s blending truth with fiction and creating new worlds. A lot of my poetry is personal, and so I’m like, Oh, everybody’s just writing about what’s happening to them, their lives. But what could happen if we did this, or what shouldn’t have happened, or how can we do it differently?
I think with poetry, it’s easier—it’s not easier—but it’s like, I think that’s when it sort of shifts from truth to like this fantastic imaginative world that doesn’t lend itself to one genre. If that makes sense. And it doesn’t even matter if it’s true or not at that point. It’s just about the feeling of it.
Is intuition a large part of how you like to do things? Like you said, you’re not coming to a poem with a form in mind, a sonnet or whatever, but rather feeling your way as you go?
If I’m assigned an essay to write, it’s very hard for me. That’s when the procrastination comes in and I’m just sitting there for three days straight with three words on the page because it’s just not clicking for me. If it feels forced, that’s what causes me to hit the space bar, that’s what causes me to sort of break a line or a sentence up in a random spot and try to create a double meaning. But music is involved in that, too. I listen to a lot of rap, and I’m always thinking of rappers I love who do double entendres and things like that.
In both When You Learn the Alphabet and The Collection Plate, one of the main themes you like to return to is your family. What keeps drawing you back to them as subject matter?
I think it’s because my family members are like characters. Literally, I’ve always said if my family got a TV show, TV would shut down, and not in a good way. As in, we can’t have nobody on TV no more because this is crazy. This is wild.
My family is just full of stories that nobody got to tell. And you could see that weight of not being heard or not being seen. I didn’t really learn that until I got past twenty-five. A light went on and it was like, Okay, we’re all a part of one another. There’s so much to talk about, and it’s not being talked about, and I always want my family to see themselves in my work. If my auntie reads something, I want her to be like, I’m glad you said that because I’ve been trying to tell people and they weren’t listening. Or my granny, who was like, Thank you for telling a part of my story. It makes me feel like the stuff I reveal about myself is worth it.
Do you think that’s connected to being raised in a religious and spiritual environment, where there’s so much storytelling? I’m thinking of the family superstition about death coming in threes, which comes up in your essays and in your poetry.
I grew up in a very spiritual, religious place, but I didn’t feel that spiritual or religious in it. I think that’s why I lean so much on trying to unpack it now. For example, my mama told me people die in threes, three people at a time, and I would just take it. Then I’ve seen it happen, and then I’ve seen it happen again. I just became very content with the concept of death. Me and my mom always talk about death. We talk about our own deaths. That’s when I feel the most in tune with my spirituality. I think about endings all the time in my work. Like, I could write the ending, but I don’t even know how it’s going to start. I just know how it’s going to end.
I will probably always write about the same thing, a subject, until I figure it out clearly for myself, because I’m not going to want to talk about something else, not when I haven’t even figured this out. I don’t care if it takes me writing three more books about the same thing. I promise I won’t make it boring, but until I can figure something out, that’s always going to be what I go back to and lean on.
Lauren Kane is the assistant editor of The Paris Review.
Read Kendra Allen’s poem “The Super Sadness! Feels Like Anger, Which Feels Like,” which appeared in the Spring 2021 issue.
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