Kendra Allen is the author of essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet (University of Iowa Press), winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, she's an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on her thesis and leading students astray. You can find some of her work in brevity, december, and The Rumpus among others. She tweets @KendraCanYou.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book changed my idea of success. I want to be a professional writer and I went through a phase of being obsessed with finding an agent, thinking that’ll transform me into one and I’ll get book deals and finally have a real career. I take a lot of pride in having vision but I have absolutely no concept of the importance of timing. All these factors made it impossible to really appreciate the successes of When You Learn the Alphabet. Looking so far ahead wasn’t allowing me to be grateful for all the opportunities and the genuine kindness I’ve been shown from people who’ve identified with those essays, taught those essays, showed up to a reading, etc. The amount of support I’ve received is success within itself. I had to redirect my worth. I’m still redirecting my worth because I don’t write for those things I want. And I still write without those things. So it made no sense for me to keep dwelling on something that ain’t really a sure thing.
I think the most consistent aspect of anything I work on is its point is undisputable. You don’t really have to imagine or assume that I meant something. It’s pretty cut and dry. What I’m figuring out on my current work is if it needs to be written in the present tense or not—which means I have to remember things differently. I can’t be so far removed from it. That’s the biggest difference. It’s different because it’s narrative and in order for it to really work—it has to be all about me, and I’m a person who feels anxious and guilty when things are all about me. With my previous work I knew the memories, the references, the thesis, like the back of my hand. With what I’m working on now, I have to sit still and find them. Or book more therapy sessions. Either way. You see my dilemma.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or fiction?
I think I came to hip-hop first. I gravitated towards the spotlight on the sort of self-made aspect of it all, the importance of—and the pride in—writing your own shit. And yea, it’s about skill, but it’s also about story and different ways to shift its presentation. And because of this, when you’re a kid, you think everything a rapper is saying in their songs is 100% factual. I was a kid in sometimes-desperate need and search of absolute truth— so I listened religiously to what I perceived was rapper’s own version of that. And I did that with song lyrics in general, but really leaning into my favorite rapper’s words helped me figure out what emotion was being blurred and to what extent they went to in order to protect the mask. I never want to pretend ever again in life (which is still a work in progress) and when I decided what I wanted to accomplish as a writer, writing the personal and cultural essay was the best way for me to strip off my burned skin. And if you just listen to the grit and vulnerability in songs like “The Book of Soul” by Ab-Soul, “That’z Who I Am” by Z-Ro, or even “Drinking Sessions,” by Big K.R.I.T., you finna burn up, and that’s the feeling I’m talking about.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
If I’m writing an essay, however long it takes me to convince myself I’m not an imposter is how long it takes me to start really writing. It’s very slow even in it’s constant movement. Words are on my mind in my sleep, but when it’s time to piece it all together, I’m a slug. So I turn to the notes app on my phone to just get a sentence out. It’s a barrier, but when I break it, I tend to knock out a draft pretty quickly. It does have a shape, but this is not to say it isn’t completely trash. It most definitely is. I just mean the story is there after the first draft usually. The main points I want to hit are there. What’s always missing is how I feel about whatever is happening. That’s the hard part, trying to write so that even if I lose the vision in the process, whatever is left still holds up. If I’m writing a poem, things move way faster. I don’t put as much pressure on myself with the same intensity as I would an essay. I feel freer, and I think it’s because I’m turning into the poet I should’ve been off top.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I say this a lot, but almost everything I’ve ever written that I was willing to let anyone see, all started with anger. This applies to both poetry and prose. Anger is always prevalent to my work and I don’t mind that being the base, because the more I write into that anger, I can see it grow into fear. Then sprout into aimlessness. Then blossom into another thing I wasn’t aware of at the start. And when I can see all the branches— I start to trust my hand more. It feels alright to put these paragraphs together and try to seal in the middles later. All the branches grew out of writing in spurts. 3 sentences here then 6 here then let me start over and add three words there, etc and this attributes to how form works in my essays.
I don’t know how to just write a book on purpose, and some days it feels borderline impossible. I don’t know how authors pump out books year after year but I’m waiting for my adrenaline to kick in.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Ok so let me be real. I’m not a big fan of attending readings of prose writers. My brain can’t keep up. I’m a slow reader and an even slower listener so I always feel as if, during readings, I don’t get the chance to really digest a sentence I love before the next one comes. And if I’m missing sentences, I just get lost. But I completely understand the importance of seeing the performance aspect of it all and I’ve been to some that blew me away as well. Kiese Laymon gives a damn near perfect reading. The timing is so natural. As well as sung yim, who’s pacing literally transforms you into an emotional response. On the other hand, poetry readings are amazing for me. The reader encourages your engagement, your laughs, and the room doesn’t feel as stuffy. I’ve seen some fire readers who have me hooked, such as Douglas Kearney, who—whew—gives you an EXPERIENCE. And I’m not being biased, but the writers—who I just happen to know—such as Nabila Lovelace or Ashley Jones, does amazing things.
Personally, I haven’t done many readings, less than 10 probably, but I notice that each time, I understand it more and more. It’s practice, at least to me—like a comedian trying out a new set. You hear how your words sound and that absolutely changes the way you navigate the page once you go back.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Just all the normal things mostly: fear, race, gender, fear, why Beyonce will never fail, significance, repressed memory, the pointlessness of loyalty which always turns into the pointlessness of the martyr, the importance of the tracklist, etc
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the role of a writer is to have a voice. To go into things with intention and to trust your instinct. To understand that words have the most power and be cognizant of it. To not be lazy with that responsibility because readers can always tell, and understand that somethings need to end way before they die— which means there’s no reason something you can accomplish in less than 250 pages has to extend to 400 pages.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
With When You Learn the Alphabet, the editing process wasn’t extensive at all –it had already been through years of drafting and after winning the contest, things just went by really fast (assuming things are on a different timeline than they would be normally.) But in general, I think working with editors is both difficult and needed for me. It’s difficult because you might have an editor not understand your AAVE and then you have to explain what it means and explain your grammar choices and blah blah blah because they don’t know and left a weird comment on it. Having outside eyes is also essential because sometimes I just be talking, and it’s good to have someone direct you into cutting out all the fluff and honing in on the sincerity of the piece and being ok with saying “Girl, these first six pages had nothing to do with this essay at all. Cut it.”
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
1. You don’t have to write everything you know about a subject in one essay/poem/book/etc.
2. Productivity doesn’t make you a better person.
3. This Baldwin quote: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (memoir to personal essay to academic prose to poetry)? What do you see as the appeal?
Moving through genre—or even writing within genre, makes the most sense for me. I find if I’m working within something nameless, I can be more honest, and that’s the appeal for me. When you categorize the text—rules follow. And you find yourself working so hard not to break them. I know we use the excuse that it’s easier to decipher, but we gotta stop acting like humans won’t ‘get’ something that blurs the line. If they want to, they will.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Right now, a typical day is listening to way too much Masego and dancing around until I have something to say. After so many people telling me that I need to have a daily writing routine, the more I don’t wanna formulate one. I’m not really a big fan of commitment or consistency, and I feel shame about it but it’ll pass. I’ll find any excuse in the book not to write and convince myself that I did something. Like answering these amazing questions for instance, I’ll tell myself, Kendra, you worked so hard today. Come back tomorrow.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It’s stalled right now and because I don’t know what to do, I’m turning to family sized bags of chips. It’s inspiring me to make a sandwich… to put the chips in.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Rudy’s chicken. But also, Williams chicken.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Film scores. The right music in a mediocre scene can take it from a 7 to an 11. Think about Moonlight for instance (sorry, I will literally bring up a connection to Moonlight just to talk about it), although already perfect on its own—the score amplifies every other amazing aspect of it. The movie would not be as good without the score. The score ironically heightens the silence of the characters, and therefore builds that emotional connection to the viewer. It sets a tone without verbalizing it. There’s a lot of breathing in that movie—and that too is a form of communication. This is a great example of it, but a lot of movies flop on building trust like that with their audience. I want the balance of sound and silence to come through in book form.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This can be all day. I pay attention to writers at a sentence level more than a story level. A good sentence or phrasing is literally all it takes to make me a fan of you, so I can pretty much find something I love from any artist. I love all the writers we all love and study and respect. But I think what’s been most important to my work is some of the first things I stayed up all night reading—urban fiction. I’m talking those urban novels that are sold in Wal-Mart for $4.89 with the hood ass covers that you get embarrassed by when you go to the check out line. I’m telling you, I really should get sponsored by somebody with the way I support the movement. All of them aren’t good and can sometimes be very predictable, but I appreciate them. They’re important to me and my work because most times, those authors allow their characters to be—to exist— without the mask on. Nothing about it is performative or attempting to be more than what it is. And I always go back to them because yea, I find myself in so many writers, but I can see myself here. And although I don’t write fiction, I want to be this authentic in what I do write.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Sleep through an entire night, be the music supervisor on a TV show I actually like, and—this one is most important— live in a tiny house.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would be making documentaries— which is what I still plan to do even if I am a writer. Whenever I’ve had school projects, I’ve made it a point to make a small one just to see if I can really do it and one of my goals is to make a mini-doc for each essay in my book. I think I have good ideas and endless questions and can tell a good story that doesn’t involve the exploitation of the people I interview, because I’m a responsible editor. Anyway I can assist in someone getting their truths and stories told, while still meeting my own creative needs, that’s what I wanna do.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A mix of the Dallas Public School System, church, needing to avoid group work/group think by any means, and being afraid of people.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, a short story collection by Alice Walker. I read it in the summer and I’m still thinking about it.
Film: Fast Color
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a memoir, a poetry collection, and a very dark children’s book. And by working, I mean watching YouTube videos of tiny houses.