“Moth-breath” and “wedding-cake face”
April 08, 2007
You know who she is, that angsty girl who stayed up late and cried a lot and lived a deep inner life all through high school. She kept journals and never showed them to anyone. She wrote lines like “i am the moon in the water/stillness surrounded by skim milk…” Okay, maybe you didn’t write stuff like that but I know one teenage girl who did. On second thought–if you say you didn’t write stuff like that, you’re fooling yourself. But here’s the good news. You’re not alone.
My writer profiles on this blog are starting to look like a Gallery of Hotties, which believe me, is not intentional. I just happen to know a bunch of writers who are talented and hot, and they would probably hate me for saying that, but it’s my blog, so there. And stay tuned, because there are more where these came from. In some ways, Kelli reminds me of Garth, in that she is accomplished as well as gorgeous and talented, and yet instead of wanting to set her hair on fire, you find yourself liking her. A lot. And wishing you could meet her. (Which you can.)
The original interview with Kelli was done by Jeannine Hall Gailey, a Seattle-area writer whose first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books. Poems from the book were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and will be included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Evansville Review, and The Columbia Poetry Journal. She’s currently helping edit Crab Creek Review. This interview was previously published in Rock Salt Plum. I’m reprinting Kelli’s comments in their entirety because it’s all just so good. Enjoy!
Kelli Russell Agodon was born and raised in Seattle and educated at the University of Washington and Pacific Lutheran University where she’s recently completed her Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing. She is the author of two books of poems, Small Knots (Cherry Grove Collections) and Geography, winner of the 2003 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. She is the recipient of two Artist Trust GAP grants, the William Stafford Award, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, as well as a Puffin Foundation Grant for her work towards peace with her international poetry broadside series: The Making of Peace. Her poems have appeared or will soon be appearing in places such as The Atlantic Monthly, Prairie Schooner, Meridian, North American Review, the print version of Poets Against the War edited by Sam Hamill and on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor. Kelli’s work is also featured in Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times anthology. She has been a featured poet on the ABC News website for National Poetry Month and awarded a Soapstone Writer’s Residency in Oregon. Currently, she lives in a small seaside community. Visit her website at: www.agodon.com
Small Knots originally started out to be what my chapbook Geography became—a book about one woman’s experience with breast cancer. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that I couldn’t condense a life to only a disease because there was so much more I wanted to explore as a poet and as a woman. I wanted the book to have a greater complexity to it. The subjects I wanted to write about and add to the collection also reflected many of the same themes I had written about in Geography, the idea of loss and the events that happen in our life that slow us down, make us pause and consider the philosophical questions, the basic “why am I here?” When I began to explore the other ideas on my mind, I saw them falling into three categories: generations, love and illness. Those became the three sections of the book and from there, it was just a matter of choosing the best poems to tell the story I wanted to tell….The first section, “Tangle,” focuses on generations, both in our histories and stories, as well as having a daughter and losing a father. The second section “Interweave,” focuses on love and relationships. I wanted to show younger love and also consider the idea of retirement and growing old together. The last section “Stitch,” is the diagnosis of breast cancer and the story of living with the disease. Once I understood my sections, then it just came to be a matter of choosing the best poems to complete the stories.
There were a lot of favorite poems that I didn’t use. Mostly in the first two sections, I had to make choices on which poems helped the reader move forward and gain a better understanding of the book/narrative as a whole, and which poems took the reader out of the story or sent them in other directions. I actually have two other manuscripts in process because for me, theme, coherence and a larger vision for a book is very important. I wish I could just pack all my favorite poems in a book and say, “Here you go!” But my mind doesn’t work that way. I think at heart I’m a storyteller and so I’m constantly trying to weave a narrative thread through my work. The positive of all this is that I have some great poems ready for my second collection.
Many of what I consider the “Northwest writers” have had a strong influence on my work, Richard Hugo, in making me rethink my sentences and deleting words like “but” and “then.” I always remember his suggestion that the reader will put two ideas together without us holding his or her hand. William Stafford, in the simplicity of language, and using words not to show our own intelligence or appear perhaps wiser than we actually are, but to convey an idea to another. Also, I’m influenced by Stafford’s dedication to peace as well as writing political poems. I was definitely influenced by Sylvia Plath’s wordplay, creating words and images like “moth-breath” “wedding-cake face.” I like the noun-noun combos in her poems very much. I’m influenced by [Edna St. Vincent] Millay, less by her individual poems, more in the way she chose to live her life as a poet. Her confidence, her activism─she was ahead of her times in what she was writing. More recent poets I’ve been influenced by are Li-Young Lee, for the spiritual aspects that layer his poems, Olena Kalytiak Davis for her edginess (of which I have none), Naomi Shihab Nye for how to tell a story and write with a larger vision, Aimee Nezhukumatathil for her playfulness, Martha Silano for her incredible use of language, Susan Rich for her strong narrative poems, and Bob Hicok for being able to go from image to image and somehow make it all work out.
My first poetry mentor in college was Linda Bierds at the University of Washington. She was incredibly supportive to me as a poet and many of things I learned from her twelve years ago, I still return to today. In the mid-nineties, I met another poet named Paula Gardiner, who was the person I turned to for support when I left my 60-hour-a-week corporate America life to move to a small rural village and focus on my writing. Currently, I have a couple of writing groups I turn to when I need feedback on poems, as well as a few other poets I can email poems to if I need to work through something….I’m a perfectionist myself and I revise poems extensively, but the feedback from others helps me understand what isn’t coming across in the poem and where I may be losing people.
I think we are all writers of some sort. Everyone has their own unique, individual story; I guess the key is to know which parts to tell. Picasso said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” I think we’re all creative beings, the challenge is to keep that, whether it is writing, painting, dancing. We need to keep that creativity in a prioritized place in our lives.
I think it’s important for writers and artists in general to have solitude, time strictly for themselves and their art. I think women, mothers in particular, have a harder time of taking or finding that time for themselves. For so many years, women were asked to put their goals and passions to the side so they had enough energy and time to take care of whatever else needed tending. The problem with that attitude is that you can’t care for others if you aren’t taking care of yourself and it’s an easy to way to bring feelings of resentment into your situation. I definitely don’t believe people with families (male or female) can take off for a year and disregard the family part of their life, but there needs to be a balance. It’s a mix supporting the people you love by caring for them as a mother, wife, friend, or daughter, but also making sure you are being supported by them in that you’re allowed the time you need to create.
Balance is the key. For me, Soapstone allowed me a chance to intensely focus on my collection. Don’t get me wrong, it was incredibly hard to leave my family for a week and I had a lot of guilt about leaving my young daughter with my husband while I drove to Oregon to be alone. But the time there was so important to me, I probably wouldn’t have finished Small Knots or learned so much about myself had I not gone. And through the experience, we all gained confidence; my husband in knowing he could take care of my daughter without my help, my daughter in knowing that her father could give her the care she needed and that I would return to her, and I gained confidence in my writing and knowing that what I do is important. And when I returned, I was greeted with the best welcome home hug. By the next day, things were back to their regular routine, as if I hadn’t gone.
[My blog and] the internet definitely keep us better connected to our favorite writers, especially poets and writers who keep a homepage with their reading schedule, blog or new projects. For me, I love to read other poets’ blogs because it reminds me that we are all going through the same things—rejection, self-doubt, and insecurity, mixed in with some success, acceptances, and joy. I forget many times when I’m writing on my blog that others are reading it. I do a lot of it as a sort of free-write meditation, high-tech journaling, I guess. It’s nice when people comment or email me about something I’ve written. It’s also been good for me to return to earlier times in the blog to see where I’ve been, either good or bad, as it reminds me that things pass and that it’s not always about rejections or acceptances, just a lot of everything in between. And a few of these blog entries have gone on to be poems or parts of poems. I think the net is a positive place for poets and poetry lovers because there is an enormous amount of well-written poems out there to consider. Readers and writers can step away from their region and see a much greater variety of poetry. It takes away “regional writing” because we have so many poems from so many places at our fingertips. The diversity of writing is incredible.
I’m not really someone who writes when they’re inspired. If I waited for inspiration, I’d probably have two poems a year. I’m usually inspired by reading other poets, so if I need a jumpstart to my writing, I’ll grab a favorite book of poems and read a few and see if anything comes from it. Mostly, my work begins with me sitting down and starting a poem to see if it goes anywhere. I have a huge number of poems in my “In Process” file that will never see the light of day. But I keep them and occasionally I’ll go through that file and something will get my attention and I’ll start the revision process. Sometimes it works, sometimes not and it returns back to the file until another day. I am always revising. When I can’t write, I open four or five poems on my computer and begin revising them. Sometimes something great comes out of it, sometimes not. I always sort my “In Process” poems by date and I pull up the newest poems first to work on. After awhile I’ll look further back in the file and find some older poems, which is always fun, especially if I don’t remember working on them. Then it’s as if I’m revising someone else’s poem, which seems easier for some reason. I think the distance in time does a lot when I’m revising. A poet I know always says, “We love our newest poems most,” and it reminds me of how a baby can do no wrong. I’ll look at the poem a few months down the road and I’ll start to see its weak points, where the reader could get lost. When a poem is new and so close to us, we just see its beauty and freshness, and it can take awhile to see its flaws. I guess that’s another reason for workshops or critique groups. I take some poems there, though some poems never go. But it’s a good way to see how others are receiving your poems. I use workshops less for the details (though they are always helpful), but more to understand what ideas I’m conveying to the readers and what story they are getting from the poem.
The best advice I can give [to emerging writers], which was given to me as an undergrad from my professor David Wagoner, is to “read, read read.” At the time he gave it to me I thought it was terrible advice, but I’ve learned there is nothing that makes you a better poet than reading a huge amount and large variety of poems. Read as much poetry as you can, old and new. Buy books of poems and subscribe to literary journals. Learn from the poets that are alive today. Learn what works and what doesn’t from their poems. The more you read, the more you will discover your own voice and what you have to say. Read as much poetry as you can, then write. The other advice I’d give to young writers trying to break in is “Don’t fret rejections.” We all get them. They aren’t the best thing in the world, but they aren’t a reason to quit writing or submitting either. If you feel poetry is your path and you need to write, keep going despite the rejections and continue to work to get better. Also, start submitting to local and regional literary journals first. Community colleges have great journals, and if you’re accepted, a lot of times you get to participate in a reading. They are a great place to break into publishing. As you gain a few credits, continue submitting but start to choose more competitive journals. And always be as professional as you can when submitting, clean, easy to read copies, clear cover letter, things like that. I think writers’ conferences and poetry festivals are wonderful and fun places to learn and improve. They are also a great place to meet other poets, hear what’s being written today and discover new poets. I always appreciate hearing the “behind the scenes” stories that poets tell. These are the people future generations will be studying; we have the opportunity to hear and support them now, which I think is wonderful.
Now that I’ve finished my Master of Fine Arts, I feel as if I’ve just come to a new town; I’m just going to have a cup of coffee and look around for awhile. As for writing projects, I’ve just finished a second poetry manuscript and have started submitting it. So right now, I see a lot of open doors in front of me, I may choose one or just sit back for a while and enjoy the view.