Interview conducted by arkana
transcribed by Kathy Bates
Joined by members of UCA’s Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop, Kendra Allen sat down with Arkana editors to discuss her writing journey and the art of writing nonfiction.
Arkana: To start, we wanted to ask you about your book. How did you choose the title for When You Learn the Alphabet?
Kendra Allen: After my dad and my mom broke up, my dad moved back to Houston. I would go see him in the summer. He would come to pick me up, and there was tension for three and a half hours from Dallas to Houston. There’s only so much music you can listen to and small talk to make. During the ride, we would play a game where we would start at the beginning of the alphabet and look at things outside the car and name them. A is for ambulance, B for billboard, C for Corolla, and go down the alphabet that way. By the time we got to Z, we would be close to home and not really have to talk about anything. I got the title from that game. One day in class, I drafted it out really quickly. It was really bad then, so I worked on it over a couple of years and tried to figure out how those letters of the alphabet answered questions that I had about my life. At the time anyway.
Ark: How is the relationship with your father following this writing?
KA: I haven’t talked to my dad since the week before that book came out. I was supposed to have a release party and he was supposed to come to Alabama. That didn’t happen. The book came, and he read it, and we got into it. It wasn’t surprising though. I was preparing myself even before the book release. I know how my dad is. I know how I am. I was in therapy during that time, which helped. My therapist reminded me that it was my truth, and I try to approach writing like that. Even now when I write about him, it’s about truth and accountability that has to be faced. People don’t really like to be accountable, myself included. But for me, our relationship is kind of over because I’ve been dealing with it for so long. This just feels final. I’ve done so much work to get over it emotionally and heal.
Ark: How did you decide who to include in your book?
KA: I remember this quote: if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they would have behaved better. I forgot who said it, but that’s true. I also think when it came to who I wanted to include, I knew my parents were free game. I don’t know why we feel like our parents belong to us. But if I want to write about them, I’m going to write about them. Because I didn’t ask to be here, so they have to deal with what happened. As far as everybody else, I really have to ask myself, am I included in the narrative? Was I present? If I’m present within our space and time together, then I can write about it because then it’s also my story to share. We will all write about experiences very differently, and that doesn’t mean somebody lied about what happened. We just experienced it differently. I might include everything in the first couple of drafts and then the more I get into it, I realize that’s not important, take them out and push them to the side.
Ark: What about the process and difficulty of selecting what order to put your essays in?
KA: This is a class that needs to be taught: how to sequence an essay collection. Because nobody told me anything about it. I’m very reference-based and inspired by other artists, always looking to them for guidance, because I didn’t have anybody to ask. I probably could have asked somebody, but it was too late. So, I would say don’t procrastinate, ask earlier. I just sat in my apartment for a weekend, printed it out, set every single essay on the floor, and then I started thinking about my favorite albums. Some of the greatest albums are great because of how the songs are tied together, sequenced in a way that tells a full story or goes on a journey. I listen to albums a lot. I was doing that anyway, but I started to really study them. I had my entire floor filled with work, and read the beginning and ending of it, maybe three or four sentences of an ending, and asked what ties, what’s new, what essay after could it tie into like that, and so on. I sort of went about it like that the first time. Then, rereading it for what works and does not work. Building it, taking it apart, and putting it back together is really the fun part of writing. Not like the drafting process; drafting is the hard part. But when you’re putting it together and you really see it. Having the words in front of you, and not just on the computer, but actually having hard copies of your work to look at is important. Then you start realizing what to take out. I can take this paragraph out; it doesn’t even add to the story. This ending that I thought was fire was actually mediocre. Take things out, and find a better way to tie them together, write other things that make transitions more seamless. So, looking at it in hard form really helps with transitioning and sequencing a full collection.
Ark: There is a lot of playfulness in the forms used. Can you talk a little about the forms you used and what inspired those choices? Were you encouraged to play with language, forms, white space, and incorporate elements of poetry?
KA: In undergrad, I wasn’t reading essays that had any brevity. Everything seemed like blocks and blocks of text.
I asked, you know what would be great here?
Sometimes I just needed a moment to digest the sentence or thought. James Baldwin can write some amazingly long and perfect sentences, and I am fine with that. Later, I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine and it incorporated mixed media, like poetry, essays, pictures, storylines, and timelines. It was all over the place, but it worked. Then I found Loving in the War Years by Cherríe Moraga, who also incorporates a hybrid structure, and it opened up what I could do myself. They allowed me to rebel with my form. Playful is a good word for it since I would sit at the keyboard and hit the spacebar, and the tab key became my best friend. I didn’t want my work to reflect all the work we had already read that we call great. I think we could push more with creative nonfiction. Poets teach us how to do everything with language, and they don’t get enough credit. If I was not reading poetry and finding others that incorporated poetry, then my work would look more like long, twenty-five-page essays with no breaks. Instead, the pause is where that motivation comes from. What moments do I want the reader to just take a break and breath to think about the words? Writers who I admire most are the ones that create those pauses for me.
Ark: What inspired the form and content for “Boy is a White Racist Word?”
KA: I think the title came before anything. I grew up watching TV shows like Good Times because my mom liked them. Every now and then on the show the youngest kid, Michael, would say things like, “boy is a white racist word.” It really stuck with me. Sometimes I write titles before I even know what I’m writing about. In this case, I wrote that title, and then I heard this guy when I was an undergrad read his poem using “boy” as a repetitive, literary device. Everything started with “boy” and it went on for almost ten minutes. I wanted to write my own condensed version of that. I can’t read 1,000-page books or even 500-page books. He probably could have done that in fewer pages, but it just went on and on. I kind of approach poetry that same exact way, with this sense of trying to restrain myself. I knew I wanted it to look like a box, a shape that I have in mind when I start playing with form. But most times, it’s me just clicking the spacebar and the tab key in order to create that shape. I knew I wanted it to be boxy, but also have certain words lined up with each other. And I didn’t really know the correct terminology for it, because I didn’t study poetry. I still hesitate to call myself a poet, because I don’t know enough about it. So, it was really trial and error, playing with the form and the structure until it fits into how I saw it in my head. I’m a visual person. For “Boy is a White Racist Word,” the form had to work, but I wanted the pacing and the rhythm to match whenever it was read aloud.
Ark: Looking back now, is there anything you would take out of the book or add?
KA: I would take out a lot, like “Bombs on Fire.” I might not take it out, but I would completely rewrite it. I don’t like the way it’s structured. I would probably rewrite most of the book, take out a lot of those essays that rely on outside references, because I have my own thoughts about those things now. I was just scared to share those thoughts then. I used words and lyrics from other people who said it, but I would probably use more of my own now.
I wasn’t practicing restraint until after When You Learn the Alphabet. It was then that I really had to learn the art of restraint. When writing, maybe in our first drafts, it is okay to have all of our feelings spill out, but restraint allows you to contain a story, allows the story to be translated better. Chaos is good for moments, but not for an extended period of time. I have these ideas of who I want to be as a person and a writer. I don’t want to be one of those writers or persons that feels like everything they have to say is important enough to be included in something I am working on. Sometimes a story is as little as a paragraph, but I can’t figure that out if I am steadily adding to it more conflict, characters, or structure that may not need to be there.
Ark: What was your hardest essay to write?
KA: “Bombs on Fire” because I am just not satisfied with it. I could never figure out how I wanted it to look. But the hardest one for me to be okay with everyone reading was “About American Marriages.” And by everyone, I mainly mean my daddy, because I didn’t know how it would turn out.
Ark: Your lyrical identity and the rebellion and the voice, the strength you have in your voice is really commendable. Nonfiction inherently comes with a level of exposure and vulnerability. How do you gauge when to let go on the page and when to hold back, and why?
KA: If I had to rewrite When You Learn the Alphabet now, a lot of it would not be what it is now. I would completely rewrite it. Half of it, I probably wouldn’t even like anymore. And I think that’s just a natural thing. In undergrad, I had a professor write on my essay. I think it was a draft of “Legs on His Shoulders.” She wrote, “it seems like when you begin to reveal yourself, you start hiding in abstractions.” When she said it, it was so true, but it was true where it hurt. I think I relied a lot on references and wanted to talk about movies, singers, and things I liked, but that’s not the story. The story is my feelings about those things. I struggled with feelings, especially when I was writing that book. I was super young, and I didn’t know how to process a lot of things. So, I used other people’s words to do that. When I look back at essays like “About American Marriages,” or “Bombs on Fire,” I knew when I was ranting, if that makes sense. It clicked for me reading these essays aloud. That made me say, okay, where do I need to restrain myself? Where do I need to pull back? Where do I need to add more? Reading it aloud really provided me the space to strip all those moments where I was just doing too much.
I don’t believe in length being a motivator for something that’s finished. A lot of stuff can be done in half the time and still be just as effective. “About American Marriages,” for instance, was maybe ten pages longer. I had moments where I’m talking about my dad’s girlfriend, and how my mom feels about my dad’s girlfriend. I was like, what are you talking about? That’s gonna hurt somebody’s feelings, or that’s irrelevant. Reading it aloud or seeing it in hardcopy I can figure out what to take away and what it is to add. Sometimes I fail. I think I failed more than I succeeded in When You Learn the Alphabet, but that’s just me. I’m never satisfied with my work.
Ark: How has your MFA experience affected or shaped you as a writer? Where have you found community?
KA: I don’t have good things to say about my MFA. When I left undergrad, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know what an MFA was, if I’m being serious. I just started applying, got into one, and went. I didn’t know I was really already over school. I knew immediately when I got there, I didn’t want to be there. I went back and was in a deep depression. I started realizing maybe I’ve been depressed my whole life and didn’t know the word for it. So that was a weird time. My MFA was three years and the first two years were just very depressing, but within that first year, I won that book competition, which was great, but I couldn’t be really happy about it. Most of the professors I had didn’t really care about me as a student until they found out stuff was happening behind the scenes. I realized it was a political thing, and it wasn’t a good time for me. MFA people are there for very specific reasons, and I didn’t really have a specific reason to be there. I was just there. I don’t want to say it’s all bad. If I needed help, people would help me. But for the most part, I was ready to get up out of there.
As writers, it’s really important advice to know that sometimes you have to find your own communities, and sometimes the communities that people expect you to find aren’t where you expect to find them. You have to think about your goals as a writer and how to approach them. Community is important. When you’re in a workshop, it’s maybe two people whose feedback you really take into consideration. Everybody else barely read it, or maybe discount it before coming to class. Keep those two people close.
Ark: What have you done post-MFA to find community and be motivated, to feel like you’re staying engaged in the writing world?
KA: I graduated in May of 2019. I moved back to Texas and it was hard for a while. The community that I cultivated in Alabama happened in my last year. We try to keep in touch on Zoom and that’s hard to do because the world is blowing up in our faces. I have to really focus and set my own goals for myself as a writer, try to meet them, give myself grace when I don’t meet them. I stopped trying to say I’m gonna write every single day because that’s not gonna happen, especially during these times. I’m not even gonna lie to hold myself accountable for my goals. The world is telling us we need to sit down, sit still, and give ourselves time to heal.
I have a deadline in two weeks to turn into a full draft of a book. Six weeks ago, I was like, I’m gonna start writing every day. Now I have two weeks left and if you ask me, have I been writing every day, the answer is no. I realized I’m figuring myself out as a writer. I don’t think the MFA was for me, but it gave me that space to figure out who I am as a writer. I’m the type of writer where I write a draft in my phone in my note section, and then email it to myself, copy and paste it into a document, and then look at all my old work and try to put a puzzle together. And maybe I’m going to do that for thirty minutes today. I don’t like journaling. I hate journaling, but I use my journal to make lists. I would write down what it is I want to accomplish for the month, not the day because there’s too much pressure. I don’t like that commitment. That’s what I’ve been doing.
Ark: Kiese Layman talks about growing up in a situation where he was being pushed to write from an early age. Your experience seems different.
KA: I am such a Kiese Layman fan. I read his work in undergrad, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. It was literally the first book of essays that I read that sounded like me, southern and country. I didn’t know I could use my own voice, that I could write about very southern things that I thought didn’t exist in the traditional literary canon.
I wouldn’t say my experience growing up was the complete opposite of his. I wasn’t pushed to write, but I was pushed to read more than anything. I was pushed to read love language. I listened to music and read song lyrics. I was always fascinated by words. I didn’t know how to put my own sentences and phrases together before college really because I was using other people’s words to express the way I felt in the moment. I had rappers who I knew I could go to and they were expressing emotions I didn’t know how to put into words. I was always good in English class. I was in sports and had a tennis coach. In order to get us to competitions, we had to write essays. He told me to write an essay on the first black tennis player. I wrote it and we got into the competition. Later, he ran around like the rec-center shouting, “Kendra is a writer. Kendra is a writer.” I was 12 at the time, and I sort of copied and pasted information about the tennis player, but he liked my voice, said I was a good writer. I didn’t really take that seriously until I got to college and changed my major three times and found creative writing. My mother wanted to be a writer growing up but never really got the chance. So, I feel like I’m kind of living her dream.
Ark: Thank you so much for speaking with us. We look forward to upcoming releases, two new books as part of a publishing contract signed with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in March: a poetry collection titled The Collection Plate scheduled for July 2021 and a memoir to follow in 2022. Both books will continue to follow some of the themes from When You Learn the Alphabet.
Kendra Allen was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, and received her MFA at the University of Alabama. Her work has been published in Brevity, December Magazine, and the Rumpus. To learn more about Kendra, follow her on Twitter @kendracanyou.
Image Credit: Image by M. H. from Pixabay