Kelli Russell Agodon (www.agodon.com) stopped by the other day at Blue Positive to talk about her brand spanking new poetry collection, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. Kelli's previous books are Small Knots (2004), and the chapbook, Geography, winner of the Floating Bridge Chapbook Award. She lives in the Northwest, where she is an avid mountain biker and the editor of Seattle’s literary journal, Crab Creek Review. Here she reveals process and product secrets, including how a black bra and a black hole collided, resulting in a poem titled "What the Universe Thinks of Lingerie."
When and how did you first start writing poetry? Who were your early teachers? What kept/keeps you writing it?
I wrote really bad poetry as a child, but at least it was creative. It involved dogs and spoons and rainbows. I moved on to terrible teenage poems, which involved too many broken heart themes. Finally at the University of Washington, I took a class with Linda Bierds and I started writing better, a little better.
I kept writing because it was the one thing that had always been a constant in my life. No matter what phase I was going through, I always wrote whether it be fiction, poetry, or essays. I wrote a lot less when I got a corporate job in my mid-twenties, but my writing was still important to me. I finally realized that I missed writing so much, I had to make some huge changes in my life from quitting my job to moving to the small rural seaside community with a population under 2,500 I live in now.
I keep writing because I know it is a part of me that has to be fulfilled. I have sacrificed the “secure” paycheck and what others see as a more regular way of life to pursue it. I definitely had to make choices to follow my path. These choices weren't always easy to make and many times, it was kind of frightening to be doing my own thing, but it's been worth it to me.
Not only are the poems in Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room well-crafted, musical, and full of unexpected turns and twists, but they're also very funny. Did you grow up in a humor-filled home? To whom or what do you attribute your wicked sense of humor?
Yes, my father was incredibly funny, but in a very dry and witty way. He was always saying clever things and finding the wit and humor in a moment.
It was definitely an odd sense of humor. I think he was very interested in how people responded to his humor as it was often something that took awhile to play out or for someone to figure out the joke.
One thing which he always found amusing to do was to introduce himself to employees at his company as "Fred Wiggins." He was the VP of a technology company and obviously, Fred Wiggins was not his name, but he told people it was because I guess he liked to see how they reacted when they found out he was actually the VP there and not named Fred. I never asked why he did it. I was just amused that he did things like this throughout my childhood.
I also remember when he was older and having a lot of health issues, he used humor to get through them. When he had to have his leg amputated, I remember many jokes about his fake leg going through the family and it being hidden in people's suitcases when they visited.
My father never learned to walk on his prosthesis and instead used crutches (which is why his fake leg was always being moved about the house). Once when he was at Sears, the cashier behind the counter saw him on crutches and assumed he had broken his leg. She said, "You got a boo-boo on your leg" and my dad responded by kicking up his now amputated leg and pointing to it while commenting, "Ya, and they cut the dang thing off."
Not everyone got his humor, but I loved it. And I think that's why when I write, I like mixing humor with sadness or humor with darker material because I think my family has always used humor to get through tough times.
If my dad could still make jokes at the end of his life given all he had to go through (he was also on dialysis in his final 3 or 4 years), then there's always a way to add a little humor into my life and in my case, my writing, even when (and most importantly to me) when writing about the difficult subjects.
While many of these poems are full of laughs, what is most memorable to me about this collection is its high seriousness on subjects such the loss of a father, the near-drowning of a sister, Vincent Van Gogh's suicide, and the fact that "misery and sorrow wait / like the dead in the closets." Do you write poetry to lessen your anxiety in a chaotic and unpredictable world, or does writing poetry nourish some other part of you?
I think I write poetry to understand things and yes, to get through them. I may always be writing poems about the death of my father as I’m not sure that is a loss I will ever truly get over.
I do find that when I have a feeling that is uncomfortable--anxiety, fear, sadness, etc--I can either let that feeling take me over, which honestly, makes me pretty useless, or I can take the energy of that feeling and use it for something. Most times, I try to use it.
I think there are many poems that were created because I had an uncomfortable feeling or thought and I wanted to explore it deeper. For me, the best use of this emotional energy is to make art. Otherwise, I will just run around in circles in my mind and get nowhere. I figure if I have to feel these emotions that I don't like, I better at least get a poem from them.
Some of my favorite poems in the book, including "What the Universe Thinks of Lingerie" and "Universe Viewing from Home" reference astronomical terms. Did you conduct research to write these poems? If so, do you research to get inspired to write a poem, or do you research after you've begun writing and want to add in specific details about the planets, stars, etc?
Both. The "What the Universe Thinks of Lingerie" poem was inspired because I was reading an article about black holes and had a Victoria's Secret catalog on my desk and wondered what would happen if I put the two together. I had all my black hole facts first and went from there.
"Universe Viewing from Home" came about after trying to see the Hale-Bopp comet and being completely underwhelmed, as well as constantly missing scheduled meteors showers. Writing that poem, I tried to discover how poetry and space were connected and started doing research. This was how I discovered the minor planet named Neruda as well as the crater on Mercury, which at the time when I wrote the poem still wasn't official. I believe Pablo Neruda’s crater was finally approved in 2008.
I just love that there’s a planet named Neruda! Speaking of lucky accidents, your anagram poem "Fragments of a Dissected Word" is miraculous to me—that you found so many ways to dance around the speaker’s "actual" feelings. What is your process on poems such as this one?
When there is an important topic or subject I want to deal with or explore, sometimes writing anagram poems give me the side entrance into that topic so it doesn't feel so large. With "Fragments of a Dissected Word," I knew I wanted to deal with certain types of feelings--depression, anxiety, sadness, etc-- so I started finding anagrams for different words. When I began finding anagrams for the word "depression" they made my mind go into high gear--a good sign for me when writing poems--as I began making connection after connection.
For example, when I saw that anagrams for the word depression were "sin or speed," "piss or need," and "or deep sins," I felt the word was defining itself right in front of me! And I loved the S sounds the words created, this hissing throughout the page, which is how depression feels to me, like having a snake in your garden, but you can't see it.
I know I worked on this poem for quite awhile, but the time spent on it went quickly because the anagrams of the word really helped me to visual depression in new ways. I felt as if I kept poking at the word with a stick. It felt powerful, in a way that this emotion couldn't get the best of me because I could dissect it, take it apart and see what it was made of. I liked the power of that.
I love that notion of poking at a word with a stick! Do you have a certain time each day that you dedicate to poetry writing? What techniques do you have to get you started on a new poem?
If I'm being my best self, I'm writing every day and in the morning or during the day when my daughter is at school. I am out in my writing shed (House of Sea), which is my writing studio and I am not being bothered by domestic chores or commitments. I am focused on my writing and lost in that incredible place called “flow.”
Of course, that life is hard to live all the time, so like many I try to steal moments throughout the day and I never underestimate what can be written in 20 minutes.
To start a new poem, many times I choose a line either from my journal or another's poem to act as a prompt to move me forward. Sometimes I just begin.
And once you’ve got words on the page, how many drafts does a typical poem of yours go through? When do you know a poem is finished?
I really do not know exactly how many revisions a poem goes through, but it's many many many drafts. I have been known to over-revise, to suck the life out of a poem. I revise a lot. I think it's important to really spend a good amount of time with a poem to get the details right and make sure it is saying all it can say and doing all it can do.
I'm not sure I always know when a poem is finished. When I feel as if I can stop messing with it, usually then I know it's done. Of course, sometimes I'll find that poem in my files a few months later, and begin revising again.
Whose poems are you currently reading and enjoying?
Dorothy Barresi - Because she writes poems I wish I had written.
Bob Hicok - Because he amuses me and I'm never quite sure what he'll say.
Alexandra Teague - Because when I found her book at the Elliott Bay Bookstore, I was taken by it and it's always the most satisfying experience to find a new poet.
Do you have any advice for fledgling poets? For those hoping to publish their first poetry collection?
For someone hoping to publish their first poetry collection, I offer - be persistent.
Like that cat on the 70's poster that read, "Hang in there!" getting a book published sometimes takes a while, so don't give up. Also, rejection is not personal and does not mean your work is bad. Continue to read, write, and improve as a poet, but don't stop writing or submitting. It takes time and persistence. I wish I could say there was a secret decoder ring to publishing a book, but I haven’t found it. I guess if I were to find it though, it would probably say either “work harder” or “hard work.”
For fledging poets I offer just enjoy being a fledgling. It's an exciting time when you are taking your first steps into the poetry world. Any publication is a joy and offers evenings of celebration. Each poem you write is changing your world. There are hundreds of new poets and books you keep stumbling upon; it's as if your poetry life is one magic moment after another. Stay there as long as you can and just enjoy the newness of everything. Down the road, you may see the shadows under the tent at the poetry festival or the rust on your favorite poet's halo, but not now. For now, walk down the road with happy fresh eyes, eventually, it may change, but just enjoy this gift of the beginner's mind.
What!? No decoder ring?! Dang! Last but not least, what are you working on these days?
I've been busy with many readings and events for my new book, which is both fun and time consuming. I like the writing part best. Sadly though, my current genre seems to be email, but I do have a couple projects in the works. Mostly some new poems and a memoir I’m working on about leaving real life for a writing retreat (and how hard it was for me to return back into real life after such an experience). I'm interested in how we balance our lives as writers, parents, workers, friends, spouses, etc. etc. and what a retreat offers and what is learned there.
I’m not sure I’ve found the answer to this, which is probably why I’m writing about it. I think for some women it can be hard to find her place as “writer in the world” especially if she has other priorities such as kids or a full-time job. So I keep diving into that subject through the side door of my own understanding of leaving my family to go on a writing retreat and the thoughts, emotions, and events I experienced there.
Hearing about your memoir project brought me right back to thinking about the first poem “Another Empty Window Dipped in Milk” in Letters to the Emily Dickinson Room, where the speaker is trying to find space for herself and her writing.
Yes, that is also a theme in my book, how we balance our lives as writers and artists. It’s something I’m always thinking about. Maybe because I’m currently living that challenge. Maybe because if I could have a superpower, it would be being in two places at once.
I recently heard another woman artist say, “I don’t try to balance anymore, I try to manage.” And maybe that’s what we do during the busier years, maybe we replace “balance” with “manage.” But I think I want more than just to manage. My poems allow to me explore that question too. You are right. It is a theme in my book and one I’ll probably return to again and again.
Finding time for creative work--family time, private time, etc.--is such a huge issue for so many of your readers (including this one!), so it’s great to see this theme reverberating through Letters. When the speaker faces obstacles and ultimately triumphs in her complicated 21st century life, we’re cheering from the sidelines but because the speaker is so forthcoming, so emotionally honest, it almost feels like we’re sharing the balancing-act trophy with you.
Thanks for hanging out with us here at Blue Positive, Kelli. I wish you all the best with your current and future projects.
Signed copies of Kelli’s books can be purchased at her website: www.agodon.com
A link to her blog (Book of Kells) and a list of her upcoming readings can be found here: http://www.agodon.com/blog__upcoming_readings