It's been more than five years since we last talked with Donte Collins, at that time the Youth Poet Laureate of St. Paul. Throughout 2022, Collins' name kept showing up on lists of awards and honors, and it felt like time to talk again. Those five years, as it turns out, have been a time of sorrow, and then of lightness.
After their first collection of poetry, "Autopsy," was published in 2017, Collins (who uses they/them pronouns) was deeply mourning. The book, published by Minneapolis' Button Poetry, centered on the death of Collins' mother, but that grief was complicated by memories of her anger.
Each minute since her death had contained a "godless storm," Collins wrote. But mourning her also meant mourning "the belt & the hands that held the belt."
Collins was only 19 when they wrote those words, already the recipient of the Most Promising Young Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets.
And yet, success — even that early, resounding success — did not keep the darkness away.
"I wrote the book very much in grief," said Collins, now 26, who still lives and writes in St. Paul.
"Went on tour for about a year and a half. And after the tour is when the grieving started. To be very honest, I had to first write myself out of this dark state. The thing about depression is, you don't always know it's happening until it's over. So much of it just normalizes itself."
Journaling helped. Poetry helped more, always.
"I started to have these breakthroughs," Collins said, "these moments within journaling when I could start to hear my own voice.
"The first poem that I published after that dark period was a poem called 'Prayer Severing the Cycle,' for my sister Tomica."
Since then, the depression has lifted, mostly, and many good things have followed. In January Collins was named a Jerome Hill Artist Fellow in spoken word, a grant that will help them devote as much time as possible to writing.
Poetry, as we all know, is not a field to go into if you want to make a lot of money. Collins has worked as an optician, a barista, an editor. Grant money and poetry prizes have made a difference. Last year, Collins won three significant awards — the Bomb Magazine Poetry Prize, the Indiana Review Poetry Prize and the New Voices Poetry Prize. The awards together totaled about $5,000, not enough to live on but enough to keep them going.
More than the money, though, it was the words of the judges that Collins valued. "In a very practical way the reason I submit for grants and awards — I need funding. I need food. I need to eat." But to know that Graywolf Press poet Solmaz Sharif read their work and loved it was worth more to Collins than the money.
"It's an honor that Solmaz read my work and she gave me that nod," Collins said. "I studied her work for the last two years. The idea that I get to be part of a tradition is exciting. That's what these publications mean for me — to be a part of the tradition of Bomb Magazine, that feels great. It's like, 'Oh, look what happens when you follow your wonder.'"
Collins identifies as a "neurodivergent Afro-surrealist blues poet, playwright and movement artist." Along with most of their siblings, as a child Collins was diagnosed with ADHD. "I think my ADHD gives me access to the kind of poetry I write," Collins said. Rather than fight it, "I'm trying to make use of my ADHD — I'm trying to understand how it works for me."
At present, Collins is working on a new draft of "Mercy," a choreopoem (a combination of poetry, dance, music and song), although "Mercy" might not be the final title. "Even last night, I think that title is shedding," Collins said. The piece is about home, the need of children for a safe space to call their own and return to.
Growing up adopted, with 10 siblings, Collins found home to be a fraught space. Mercy "was a word I was curious about as it related to my childhood. And I started to write into the holes, the absent spaces of that."
For a while, Collins thought the poem was done. "But no, now it's just transforming."
Collins talks about poems and titles and words as though they are sentient creatures. Poems rename themselves. They disobey. "It's about listening to it," they said. "Let the poem sort of live outside of you. I've had to learn that. As a young writer you want to have answers. You want to say everything you know or have this grand answer, and I think I've learned that wonder is really the engine."
Hard at work on poems, a lavender candle burning nearby, soft music playing, hours pass. Collins sometimes sets a timer to remember to eat.
"The fact that I wrote myself out of that depression, I felt like I can do anything," Collins said. "And that's kind of been true so far."
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org