Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Kelli Russell Agodon is a poet, writer, editor and book cover designer from the Northwest USA. Her third collection of poems, Hourglass Museum, was a Finalist in the Washington State Book awards and short-listed for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize honoring the best book of poems published by a small press. She is the author of three other books of poems, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year in Poetry), Small Knots, and Geography, as well as The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice. Kelli also edited Fire on Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry.
Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, O, The Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, on “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor, and in Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times anthology. Kelli is the Cofounder of Two Sylvias Press and is also Co-Director of Poets on the Coast: A Retreat for Women Poets. She is an avid paddleboarder and hiker who lives and writes in a small seaside town a ferry ride away from Seattle.
Book of Kells Blog (notes on writing and creativity)
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I started as a fiction writer at the University of Washington, but in the spring of my junior year, I took a poetry class by Linda Bierds and that changed everything. My first “break” came when Linda suggested I submit a poem to our university literary journal. I did and it was accepted.
In the early 2000s, I was really struggling as a writer. I had a young daughter and was feeling as if I’d never really “make it”. I was kind of aching for some exterior validation and worried I would never have a book and was basically wasting my time. Around 2003-2004, several things happened that gave me hope—my chapbook won a prestigious state competition, my first book was accepted for publication, and I started the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.
I believe as poets and writers, we have to keep making our own breaks by stretching ourselves as artists. I think the best writers have the same qualities in the end—a mix of talent and a large dash of stubbornness to keep writing and going through rejections and dry spells. I’ve also learned that writing isn’t a “waste of time” whether I’m published or not. It’s the writing that fulfills me. There isn’t an ending place, just a journey.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My current book, Hourglass Museum, is my newest book of poems and was just named a Finalist in the Washington State Book Awards. This book was created from a place of vulnerability and deals with being a woman/mother/wife/person as well as an artist. It explores a yearning to create through artwork, other artists, and my own struggle of self.
I think many women, or poets in general, question their own work (and worth even) and may feel self-conscious about what they put out into the world. After Hourglass Museum was published I thought, “What have I done?! How will this book be received?” It was good to feel someone “got it” and that my vision for the entire book was coming across at least to a few people.
With poet Martha Silano I co-authored The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for your Writing Practice. It’s basically a poetry prompt a day for every day of the year including Leap Year. It was inspired from our writing dates where we made each other bring prompts so we’d have a place to begin.
I’m now starting a fourth collection of poems, but it’s so new, I’m still learning where it wants to go.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
At home, it’s a writing shed. It is where I do all my creative work such as writing poems, revising my memoir, working on my fourth manuscript. It’s a short commute that leaves my brain miles from home. It also has a metal sign that says “Welcome” or “Go Away” (I usually keep it on “Go Away.”)
My office inside my home has a bed for my cat, Belle, a ton of books and papers scattered around… This is where I do more administrative jobs like submitting my work, answering emails, etc. It’s always messier than I’d like and things pile up on my desk. BUT it has a door when needed.
My workspace as an editor and one of the cofounders of Two Sylvias Press is a clean, well-lit space above a crepe shop and with a view of our small town’s ferry. It’s within walking distance of two bakeries and a candy shop too. If I look into the distance I can also see Seattle and Mt. Rainier across the water. It’s calm and clean and the perfect place to create books and get them out into the world.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I work Monday–Thursday at Two Sylvias Press and my day there can be anything from editing a manuscript and designing a book cover to answering emails and tweeting on social media.
My creative life now happens after work, on Fridays, or in the morning. Some weekends I get some writing in as well. On my best days, I wake at 5 or 6 to get an hour of writing or research in before the real world starts to pull me away with demands on my time.
Lately, I’ve been ending my day by eating dill pickle sunflower seeds and watching a documentary. I’m not sure what this says about me.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
To make dates with writer friends to write.
To make dates with myself to write.
To have “writing retreat days” with other writers where we basically tuck in for 12 hours to write.
To write in the morning.
To take a week off to go to a spooky Victorian town on a writing residency to write.
To kick the less important things out of my life—aka stupid TV shows, Facebook, etc—to make time to write.
I write and write and write and then I revise as much as I can at a later date.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Because I know no other way to exist. Because I tried corporate work and it drained and saddened me. Because I believe art and poetry and writing are important. Because I don’t judge success by a business suit. Because I believe in helping others get their voices out into the world. Because time is more important than money. Because time to write is more important than money. Because art matters. Because I want to be the role model for my daughter to live her best life. Because life is temporary and why wouldn’t you live the life you want to live? We only get one shot at this.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Everything and anything. I am very intrigued about the world and my surroundings. I constantly look at details and notice things others may not see. I love being an observer in daily life. I love finding surprises in something I felt I knew well.
Other poets inspire me too. My artistic friends inspire me. Reading poetry or good writing inspires me.
I think inspiration is just the act of being and staying curious.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Keeping everything organized. I really dislike multi-tasking, but I have many interests. The most important thing for me is being able to find something I’ve saved or an idea I’ve had.
Also, keeping time open for myself is something I’m really working at. I have a bad habit of overscheduling. Apparently, I’m very optimistic about my future self and that she will want to do these things I schedule—turns out, not so much. Mostly, she’s an introvert and just wants to stay home and write.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
I wish I understood that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. And to always choose quality over quantity. Keep it smart, keep it simple.
Also, have high expectations. Believe you can get published by the best press or win the best prize, then revise your manuscript until it’s up to that level. Don’t become so excited to have a book out that you rush through things. Take your time, know that you have many years to accomplish what you want and enjoy the journey.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
Mostly, I would love to see more people reading (and writing!) poetry. I would love for the media to be more interested in our literary world and I’d like our literary world to make sure there are always doors open for non-writers/readers to come in and feel welcome.
Personally, my own artistic goals are to be continually stretching myself and taking risks as a poet and writer. Also, making sure I always work hard, be kind, and give back.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
I’d have to say my all-time favorite poet is Sylvia Plath. Her work always inspires and impresses me every time I read it.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Martha Silano, Susan Rich, January Gill O’Neil, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Natasha Moni, Ada Limón, Annette Spaulding-Convy, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Diane Seuss, Jenifer Browne Lawrence, Michelle Penaloza, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Ronda Broatch, Lana Hechtman Ayers, Kelly Davio, Elizabeth Austen, Nin Andrews.
Thank you, Kelli Russell Agodon!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Susan Rich
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