The poems of Kelli Russell Agodon are layered and nuanced, and these often take shape in multitude dimensions. The juxtaposition of silence and transcendence is particularly alluring. I had the opportunity to have an engaging conversation with Kelli Russell Agodon about collaborative projects, poetry, process, interconnectedness, social media, the fantastic Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women, her forthcoming book of poems to be published by Copper Canyon Press, advice for writers, and more.
SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA
I’d like to begin by saying how much I adore The Daily Poet. It is particularly refreshing because it is brought to us by you and Martha Silano, two poets that ensure a constant, interactive engagement. I arrived at the book during my search for resources that poets without access to MFA programs or support in their immediate environments may utilize. I am drawn towards the manner in which these prompts bring us to a place of keen observance to the dailiness of our lives and diverse paraphernalia. How did this exciting project take shape, and how was your experience of putting together this collaborative genius?
KELLI RUSSELL AGODON
Martha Silano is one of my best friends and for years we’ve been getting together to write. These writing dates would happen in coffee shops or wherever we could find a space. We realized early on, our writing improved if we each took some time before to create writing prompts for our time, that way when we arrived together we wouldn’t just say, “Okay, what should we write?”
So for several years, we arrived with different prompts; some worked and some didn’t work as well. I can’t remember exactly when, but there was a moment at which we said to each other—maybe others would benefit from these prompts as well. Two Sylvias Press had just been created and had only one book, Fire On Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry and a deck of tarot cards created from dead poets, The Poet Tarot & Guidebook, but we thought a book of poetry prompts would be a good fit.
I’m not 100% sure how either of us had the time and energy to put this together (we were both raising young children at the time), but we were dedicated because we knew if the prompts had generated so much new material for us, they could do the same for other poets. I usually take summer off from writing, but we wanted The Daily Poet out for the Seattle 2014 AWP, so I pressed on despite exhaustion and it was worth it.
We have been working on The Daily Poet 2 for the last three years, though not as vigorously. We’re both at a time in our lives when we each have new manuscripts we’re working on, full-time jobs, and families—but we are dedicated to getting it out. I know Marty is much farther along than I am, so I’m going to step it up in 2020 for both her and the people who have been asking for The Daily Poet 2 for several years now.
The myriad intersections in your poem “String Theory Relationships” is of much intrigue and bewilder. The poem presents an offering to the readers in the sense that there is so much going on around us— much with what we may resonate and experience in our everyday lives. Especially the lines: “The essential idea is this — all objects are composed of vibrating anxieties / — everyone wants a window or aisle seat and no one wants to sit // in the middle. Call it deniability. Call it the flashlight you keep / by the door never works in emergencies.” There is a juxtaposition of what we’ve come to simply describe as realism, with an element of transcendentalism. What were the ideas that brought together the culmination of this poem?
This poem was inspired by poet Mary Peelen’s “String Theory” poem and a prompt created by poet Susan Rich for us to try to write our own. Because it was a writing exercise, we set a timer while writing the poem, so some of what I write in the poem is absolutely true—you have ten minutes to understand quantum physics (I was literally googling “string theory” and “quantum physics” while writing this poem just to have the poem a little more informed by science).
But to your question of what ideas brought this together—I think for me it was the concept of connectedness and how we exist on several levels at once. For example, we have an interaction with a cashier, but we may be thinking about a partner, or the world may be happening, but our mind is offering different perspectives and opinions about it, many that might be a bit off. You might see a child playing in a city playground and think “What fun! What a joy to be young! What a beautiful day!” and I might be right next to you thinking, “He is way too close to the street; I hope he doesn’t run out. Who’s that man at the picnic table—a parent or a lurker?” We arrive into the world with our filters. We are all connected by events and people, and just by being human on this planet. And while we may be coming at everything from different viewpoints, ultimately, I believe humans have more in common than not.
There is a poem of yours I have been continually reengaging with since the first time I read it, “The Broken Column”, from Hourglass Museum. The lines “Look at our lives. / We’re lost in a web / of logins, in photos / of a friend’s family vacation.” are the closest I’ve ever read a description of what holds true for me in engaging as a reader. As an extremely private person, it remains more than a tad disconcerting to me that we’re able to view another person’s life chronicles online with as much ease— and the idea that people participate in these spaces. I suppose it often speaks to a posthumanist idea of existing beyond, in multitudes of spaces. The poem further traverses to a realm of constant shifting, and the manifestations and influences of these on our lives.
The poem is a gift of innate tenderness that explores pain in a subliminal way. In what ways does an exploration of our lives, both; in a material as well as spiritual sense influence your work?
I think we forget how new all this technology is. The first iPhone was released in 2007. I remember my first job was working for a company in the 90s and we weren’t even sure the internet was going to be around (and so few of our clients were connected to it, they had no idea how their websites were progressing unless we informed them). It can feel disconcerting how much we can see of others and how much of our own privacy we lose—but I remind myself, it’s a snapshot and what one sees online is again, not full. It’s just a moment.
So while it feels as if we may be viewing someone’s life, we actually have no idea of their complex humanity. Online is a (mostly) curated place. I can post the photo of me smiling with my family and leave out the one where I’m fighting with my partner over who needs to take out the garbage. There could be parallel lives of myself online—happiness, grief, depression, anxiety, inspiration—it all depends on what I share. I guess as a human in the world, I try to give everyone a pass at their online experience and what they are sharing because honestly, I don’t think anyone really knows what they are doing or what perspectives/opinions people have of them based on what they share. We have to be easy on each other. This is such a new space for us, we are going to make mistakes.
But to your question—it all influences my work. The material and how we move through the world, plus the idea of something greater (to return to connectedness), the idea that we are all energy and while we want to feel as if we are independent beings (which we are as well), we are also deeply connected and our actions affect each other greatly, much more than I think we give them credit for. So when I write, I try to take from both—this idea that there is something greater at work, perhaps a belief there’s a reason we’re here and to trust the magic of art and poetry, but also, there are knotted shoelaces, text messages, annoying ads from companies and politicians. Good and not so good. Pain and beauty. Tenderness and someone using a razor to cut the inside of her thigh. We don’t know what anyone is going through, even if we think we can view their lives online. But there is always more to the story than we think—I think, as I grow older, this is what I’ve learned.
There is a dual force of haunting and being brave in your poem “Self-Portrait with Reader” from Hourglass Museum. The poem has one of the best opening lines: “To create is not enough. // We must live with our hearts / in our hands—like Mary.” There are intriguing analogies in your poems that read like rosaries of exploring gender, a synecdoche of self-awareness with landscape. I’m sure there is not one answer to this question, though I’d be delighted to engage with your ideas exploring gender through poems.
As a woman in the world, my poems come with that perspective and experience. When I write, I try to explore the lesser-talked-about parts of being a woman. For a long time, there was a bias against some of the topics women may write about. I remember hearing a panel of editors use the term “Mommy poems.” I heard another male poet joke, “There should be a genre of poetry called Middle Age Women Looking Out Their Window at Their Birdfeeder and Writing.” The audience laughed. Now, we revisit what he said and we see it’s sexist and ageist. It diminishes women’s experience. I could be looking at a birdfeeder writing an ecofeminist poem or a political poem. But when I hear belittling words about topics women write about, it’s upsetting because it’s from a patriarchic belief that there are only important subjects to write about (and the majority of them come from the male experience)—I don’t buy it and I won’t.
I write from the woman’s experience but hope to hit on the human experience. I want my poems to inspire all poets to take more risks in their work and write about things they feel vulnerable about. I hope all of us take more risks in our art, but I especially hope women continue to take the lead in this area.
The writing retreat for women, Poets on the Coast is a space that fosters community, sharing, and creative work. Congratulations for facilitating this fascinating retreat for women writers. Could you tell us a little about how the roots of this project first burgeoned to take shape into a concrete project?
Poets on the Coast was created when Susan Rich and I were at a writing residency and we were having a glass of wine together. We were trying to come up with a way to create community and to support women. We started talking about things—Wouldn’t it be great if there was a weekend for women to go away and write? What if we created that space? Would anyone come? We started talking about it and realized there really wasn’t this place. What if we created it? The next thing I knew we were googling the name “Poets on the Coast” and coming up with an outline of what we were going to do. Nine months later it began…that was 2010.
That this year will be our tenth year, I really can’t believe. It’s so much work throughout the whole year, but I have seen so much success come from the women who have joined us—MFAs, published collections of books, prizes, poet laureateships. It’s been truly fulfilling to see so many dedicating their lives to poetry, art, and their creative selves.
Your poem “Magpies Recognize Themselves in a Mirror” is a meditation on empathy and leaves the reader with a lingering sense of resurrection. The lines “I watched a woman have a breakdown in the mall / today and when the security guard tried to help her / what I could see was all of us / peeking from her purse as she threw it …” embody the conscious recognition of the world around us sometimes disintegrate. The observation that “we were her / flock in our black coats and white sweaters, / some of us reaching our wings to her / and some of us flying away.” reminds me of Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet and his words about the world, being “filled with happening, which you can take part in.” Could you tell us about how the everyday becomes an amalgamation of narrative and the work that finds its way into the poem?
Sometimes I’m walking around and feeling the whole world is a poem—it is, actually. The other night, we were waiting for the table and the hostess was so busy, she kept not recognizing us and asking, “Do you have a reservation?” I thought—wouldn’t that be an interesting poem—where each section answers that question? I don’t know if it will be or won’t as I haven’t written it, but that is how my mind works. Like what Naomi Shihab Nye says in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann”:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
So mostly, I try to be present. I take notes, I listen, I watch the world happening. I’m interested in the details, not the big picture, but the small sign on the hostess’s podium that says, “Dream Big.”
I eagerly look forward to your book with Copper Canyon Press. Could you give us a little glimpse about what is in store with reference to future projects?
Right now, this book, which is currently titled Dialogues With Rising Tides, has most of my attention. The book explores the temporariness of this lifetime and how to find hope in a ravaged world.
I started this book in 2014 when I had a terrible bout of anxiety. I lost my footing in the world a bit—but I realize, that was when some of these poems were born as I use poetry to help me process things. But the book became more than that, as I wrote it over the last five years, hitting on themes such as relationships, suicide, the environment, the #MeToo movement, secrets, even the apocalypse. Mostly though, I hope my writing helps others feel less alone. It’s why I try to move into vulnerable territory.
The world is so photoshopped right now; I want my poems to come from that place of genuineness and openness. It will probably be a little uncomfortable when this book comes out just because a lot of my experiences and myself are in the pages, but I believe we need to show up for art and stretch ourselves and take risks. And if a reader is going to show up to read my work, I am going to give them my best and everything I have—I mean, to read someone’s book is offering your time, and what greater gift is there than that?
As I mentioned a little earlier, I’m also working on The Daily Poet 2: More Prompts for Your Writing Practice with Martha Silano, as well as a book about putting a book of poems together, tentatively titled, Demystifying the Manuscript, which I’m coauthoring with Susan Rich. We are always creating something new at Two Sylvias Press. Right now, my life is a bit more hectic than I would like, but I can’t complain—I am thankful for all I have going on.
What advice would you give to poets writing from across the world? I’m sure our readers from outside the USA, UK, Europe, Canada, and Australia would look forward to reading your thoughts. As international poets, one does not always have the privilege of purchasing or accessibility to recently published overseas books in their country. As a publisher at Two Sylvias Press, I’m certain you understand that accessibility can be a factor: international shipping costs, currency conversion, and so forth. [I have been thankful for the generosity of some wonderful poets and readers posting new poetry on social media— and that is one way of engagement.] What more would you say would be beneficial to their writing process? I’m sure your perspective would be beneficial to all our international readers here right now—
I think it’s beneficial for poets and writers to read and the best part about this is that the internet connects us all. While we may not have access to some printed books (though Print-on-Demand books do help that issue a bit), we have the internet to connect with our fellow poets around the world.
One of my favorite things is to connect with poets in other countries on social media, it’s really expanded my reading list. But as a poet in the world, I think there are a few things you can do to help your writing life:
1) Set aside time to write, dedicated time that’s just for your personal projects
2) Give back to the literary community (this can be buying books or sharing someone’s work online).
3) Find and highlight the good over the bad (in all communities there will things that make you cringe or you find upsetting, but focus on what’s going right—don’t focus on the rejection, focus that you sent out your work).
4) Focus on what you can control (I touched on this above, but we cannot control who publishes us, but we can control if we write and send out our work).
5) Keep good people around you (and I don’t mean successful; I mean supporting, loving individuals, whomever they are to you).
6) Be kind (it takes a lot less effort than being awful).
Thank you for your generosity in agreeing to participate— this exchange truly means the world to me
Thank you so much for your interest in my work and your thoughtful questions. I am truly grateful for your time.
Kelli Russell Agodon is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press where she works as an editor and book cover designer. Her most recent book, Hourglass Museum, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards and shortlisted for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize. Her second book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room was the winner of the Foreword Indies Book of the Year for poetry and also a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. She’s received awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, James Hearst Poetry Prize, Artist Trust, and the Puffin Foundation. She co-authored The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice, with poet Martha Silano and is the Co-Director of Poets on the Coast. She is an avid hiker and paddleboarder. Her next collection, Dialogues with Rising Tides, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2021. www.agodon.com / www.twosylviaspress.com