Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Donika Kelly, assistant professor in the University of Iowa Department of English, won the 2022 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in poetry for her collection titled The Renunciations.

The collection draws from deep personal challenges Kelly has experienced throughout her life.

“I was shocked and delighted to win the Anisfield-Wolf Award,” Kelly says. “To be in the company of previous winners, like Natasha Trethewey, Toni Morrison, and Lucille Clifton is truly humbling.”

Donika Kelly headshot
Donika Kelly

Kelly joined the faculty at Iowa in fall 2020 after previously teaching at the City University of New York's Baruch College. She earned an MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers and a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University. Kelly’s first poetry collection, Bestiary, was the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for Poetry, and the 2018 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

“I'm fascinated by poetry's power, via the lyric form, to upend or rearrange the narratives of our lives, to make them strange to us. That move toward making the normal strange is a big engine of my writing,” Kelly says. “Poetry is a foundational practice in my life, perhaps the most foundational. As a practice, writing poems helps me organize the world into pieces I can manage a bit more easily. 

Anisfield-Wolf juror and 1977 Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Rita Dove called The Renunciations "poetry of the highest order."

The Renunciations is a marvelously lyric book about some very raw and rough experiences. It is the story of a terrorized childhood, a story of sexual abuse, a story of racial tensions, the differences of sexual orientations," Dove said during the virtual awards presentation. "All of this may seem like a lot to put in one book and yet that is the power of poetry as Donika Kelly proves.”

Established in 1935 by Edith Anisfield Wolf, the book prizes, presented by the Cleveland Foundation, recognize books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and the appreciation of diversity of human cultures. It is the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity. Kelly was one of five recipients in the class of 2022.

The Renunciations also was recently longlisted for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards.