An Interview with Award-Winning Poet Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Author of “Stepmotherland”

Darrel Alejandro Holnes is an Afro-Panamanian writer, performer, and educator who centers his writings on love, family, race, immigration, and joy. He is the author of several works, including his recently published chapbook, Migrant Psalms. Notre Dame Press recently had the opportunity to speak to him about his newest collection of poems in Stepmotherland.

How did you first get the idea to write this book? 

The Poet Darrel Alejandro Holnes (Panama/USA), New York, New York, August 12, 2021. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

This book came together after years of writing poems about my experiences as someone who migrated to the USA from Panama and reckoning with the duality of my identity as a citizen of both nations; the poems come from an in-between place. It is a middle ground that I was born into. I’ve recently learned the phrase, “bloom in the garden where you’re planted.” I think with these poems I’m trying to thrive in that in-between space, in between two countries, in between a past that brought me here and the future that is supposed to make the distance worth it, in between the men and women I love or have loved and who love or have loved me. Love is that in-between space, isn’t it? It doesn’t leave you even when the romance ends; it all keeps burning.


Your book being published during a pandemic. What can readers find in your poems that will resonate with them during this era? 

I hope readers of my book find the family they’ve longed to hold and the lovers they’ve longed to kiss during the pandemic. In a way, we’ve all felt that homesickness I’ve felt for more than half my life now as the pandemic has turned 100 miles into a million miles, furthering every distance between a person and who they love. There is lots of nostalgia in this book but there’s also lots of hope for what waits on the other side of belonging. If you’ve felt out of place or out of sorts this past year, there’s hope in this book for you to feel at home again as I finally do now in this country.  

What ideas inspired these poems?

Most of the book is inspired by true stories whether mine or of my loved ones. There are lots of ekphrastic poems too; I researched those by going to the museums and staring at the paintings for hours. I’m usually a big research buff; my plays are largely historical, but with my poems the personal is political and it’s a well from which the candid and the historical spring for me in this book. 

What did you hope to learn from writing this book?

I started writing Stepmotherland hoping for answers but by the end of writing the book I realized that the magic came from the unknown and the unknowable. The poems are really questions about intersectionality, identity, and home. The older I get the more I realize that it’s the questions that thrust us through life not the answers. Yes, it’s great to find new bits of information, to absorb new content, and to connect the dots, but life is rarely ever following the line on a map, it’s more like a wild exploration across the unknown. Embrace that and you’ll more quickly feel at home.  

What artists provide the biggest influence on you and your work?

I have so many influences; they range widely. They include world renowned poets like Derek Walcott, a poet to whom I used to resist comparison until I realized origin isn’t the story, it’s the journey that matters. Other poets whose work has influenced me include Lorna Goodison, Richard Siken, Linda Gregerson, Ocean Vuong, Thylias Moss, Mark Doty, Kim Addonizio, Jericho Brown, Audre Lorde, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Suji Kwok Kim, A. Van Jordan, and Alok Vaid-Menon. 

And I’m a musician and huge music fan, so I’m influenced by the pop songs that appear in the book by superstars like Celia Cruz, Shakira, Rihanna, and Beyonce. Some of my Mariah Carey poems didn’t make it into the book but she’s always in my heart too. And my influences include visual artists like Kara Walker, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Kehinde Wiley, to whom I dedicate several ekphrastic poems. I’ve also always been a fan of Glenn Ligon’s work with text, Romare Bearden’s paintings, and recently I’ve started really appreciating the work of Olga Sinclair, a Panamanian visual artist whose work I’ve known about all my life but just recently has really struck me. Fashion is always in my head too, so Etro for sure, and Dries Van Noten. I love all the colors and memorable patterns! I tell my students to bring everything they are and everything they love to the page. I practice what I preach. 

What is your writing schedule like?

It really varies, but I try to write even when I don’t quite “feel it”—I tell my students that writer’s block doesn’t exist if you don’t let it. Writing can be a daily practice even when you think you have nothing to say. It’s a great way to keep the mind nimble. These days with pandemics, school shootings, earth shattering hurricanes, climate change, social and political unrest, it seems like you have to be prepared for anything. Writing keeps me ready and writing regularly can keep your mind ready too.  

What books are you currently reading?

I am re-reading books by Andres Montoya; I’ve really come to appreciate his work even more since winning his namesake poetry prize. And I’m re-reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, and Robert Jones’s The Prophets. I also just finished re-reading Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism; all great books!