Interview with Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano

KRA: As one of your best friends and someone who has always admired your work from the time I discovered it through your first book, What the Truth Tastes Like in 1999, I have always been in awe of your poems–from the music to the unique images. Tell us something about your process or writing life that we’d be surprised to learn?

MS: Thanks for being such a huge fan of my work all these years, Kelli. I honestly don’t know if I would have kept writing if not for friends like you on the sidelines cheering me on. Honestly, my writing process is pretty boring. I write my first drafts in sloppy longhand, completely lowering my standards, a trick I picked up from William Stafford. Days, weeks, months, or even years might go by before I type the draft into a Word document and begin to revise/edit it. But okay, there is something that’s started happening more recently that might surprise people: When a first line pops into my head, instead of saying to myself “I need to get home and write that down,” I begin drafting the poem on the trail (into the Notes area on my phone). In the past six months, I have written several long first drafts while jogging (I slow down a little but don’t stop). Kinda dangerous, I guess, but there’s this urgency–I simply can’t put it off.

Okay, I have to ask you the same question: are there any bewildering aspects to your writing process?

KRA: Marty, if I really think about it, part of my daily inspiration is muscle memory and a soundtrack of poems to write to.

I have taught my mind and body to write when they hear certain sounds or music. Some of these songs “The Hamptons” by Transviolet, “I.G.Y” by Donald Fagen, “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin, “Hero” by Family of the Year, and sometimes “Wondering Where the Lions Are” by Bruce Cockburn. My current song is “Harmony Hill” by Vampire Weekend. It doesn’t make much sense to me (especially where or how these songs became a soundtrack to my writing life), but sometimes I slip in the earbuds, hear the music, and the next thing a poem is at my fingertips. For a long time, I listened to The Fray, and in the fall, Everything But the Girl.

I don’t understand exactly how it works, but when I know hear certain songs I disconnect with the world and reconnect with that part of me connected to something larger, where poems are. But there it is. My earbuds playing Al Green or the din of French cafe, it doesn’t matter much, but I find sound takes me out of everyday life and into something larger.

But if you ask me what bewilders me in my own process, it’s how I show up to write one day and magic! There’s a draft of a poem on the page. Then other days I show up and I feel I don’t even know how to write a poem or how to begin. Such separate feelings, magic vs. non-magic, spark vs. extinguish. So I’m bewildered by my own ability/inability to write.

So I guess that makes me want to ask you–how do you see poetry playing into the larger conversation of life, love, friendship, connection, and anything greater? How does writing a poem change the world, or does it? I’m interested why you continue to write poems and what they add to your life and how they expand outward to others…

MS: I didn’t know you use music to get yourself disconnected from everyday life and into something larger. I just spent the last half hour sampling your poetry-writing soundtrack – and now I can’t stop listening to “Everything But the Girl.” Also, I’d forgotten “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a favorite. I totally ‘get’ how it would pull you away from the dishes/crumbs on the floor and into a draft that takes you from one side of the galaxy to the other — “together in eternity, some kind of ecstasy.”  Listening to these tunes, I wonder why I don’t write with my favorite songs blasting. It’s a great way to clear the mind and let the busy, brooding, or anxiety-ridden mind take a rest.

Okee, in answer to your question! In the ideal scenario, there would be no separation between the larger conversation of being in the world and the smaller conversation about making and sharing poems. Each time I lead a poetry workshop, whether it’s’ with 6-year-olds or 96-year-olds, I always leave feeling like poetry is for everyone–it’s one of the fundamental ways humans have been sharing their most intimate, important, and necessary feelings with the world: Sappho, Li Po, Rumi, Basho: it’s been going on for centuries. I am utterly convinced poems do change the world, especially during times when inequality, cruelty, oppression, racism, sexism, disenfranchisement, and lack of empathy and compassion rise up among world leaders. We are living in a moment in history when poetry is speaking out toward the injustice and making a difference. As recently as twenty years ago, poetry didn’t seem necessary. After 9/11, a need for poetry arose because poems can comfort, help us grieve, and point the way toward a more just and compassionate way of living. They also can bring people to active resistance. They inspire as they soothe. They pump us up, and they calm us down.

You asked why  I continue to write poems. Because poetry chose me. I don’t write for a reason; write because it’s what I’ve been given to do. I care about my poems being the best they can be–I thrive on knowing I am reaching others, eliciting a response in others, but even if my poems were ineffective (terrible) I would still be writing. It is not something I can turn off.

Volleying back to you, Kelli: I know what you mean about not knowing when you sit down to write whether you’ll even know how to write a poem that day. It’s so incredibly unpredictable, and yet you continue to push through those non-magical writing days, wowing us with each new poem. In fact, you are my #1 poet in terms of keeping me motivated. Where did you learn to be so inspiring, and by way of this trait, so genuinely interested in helping other poets? I am thinking of the work you do as an editor of Two Sylvias Press, your broadside project (asking female poets to submit poems of peace for a broadside series), organizing readings. inviting others to share your space at writing residencies. Where does this tendency come from? I feel like by example and kind a selfless giving gestures you have boosted more writers than I can name. When and how did this evolve?

KRA: First I love this: Each time I lead a poetry workshop, whether it’s’ with 6-year-olds or 96-year-olds, I always leave feeling like poetry is for everyone. And this, Because poetry chose me. It’s so true, I had never seen it said like this, and love that. Maybe we should get matching “Poetry chose me” t-shirts for AWP?

Second, thank you. I think there are a couple answers to your questions. First, I don’t view art as a competitive sport, except with oneself. I have no desire to “outdo” anyone and in fact, while I have always joked that I love a good trophy or medal, I know that recognition is like a good bottle of wine—it feels good in the moment, but a day later, you’re left with glass and a cork, small memories after a wonderful evening, but as B.B. King sang, “the thrill is gone.” Success is fleeting because it’s well, not real. It’s drink, drank, drunk. It’s a couple moments pulled together between starshine and tragedy, but it’s not tangible.

I was in my 20s when I realized the idea of abundance vs. scarcity. My mentor, Paula Gardiner recommended the book The Artist Way—she called it “a 12-step program for creatives.” I learned the idea that success happens in clusters and there is enough for everyone. It obviously gets a little woo-woo at times with talk of “spirit” and “universe,” but I do see my art, my poetry, my writing as a sacred practice, so I kind of just lean into that energy.

I think the whole book is about trying to remove “ego” from your art and the belief that there is enough for everyone. As artists we can live optimistically and usefully, we can help others and know there’s still enough for ourselves. I also want good things for our friends, so I don’t have any problem sharing opportunities, I guess because I never fear I’ll “miss out” by sharing. I also feel I keep the best people around me meaning, my friends are kind, generous, creative, inspiring, so it’s not hard to want to help them out when I can.

I do have healthy boundaries though—I mean, I’ll drop a friendship/relationship if I realize someone doesn’t want the best for me and there are some poets who keep knocking at my door asking for more cookies—Share this, do this, be here, I need this, let’s meet/talk/email so I can get/take information from you—but I never see them baking a batch of cookies for other people. In these cases, I realize I only have so much energy so I’m much less eager to help that kind of person than I am someone I see engaging in the poetry world in a positive way. I’m much more interested in actively trying to promote and help others who aren’t self-centered a-holes. I’m not big on ego, I think it gets in the way.

We can live our lives feeling as there’s only so much, or we can live our lives believing the poetry world will just keep expanding to include everyone. It’s like space, it just keeps expanding and we don’t limit the universe, we don’t say, “Okay, you’ve gone way past Pluto, you better ease up…” No, we let it keep reaching out and I mean, look at all the stars we saw along the journey.

By the way, this all of this just has to do with poetry and art, if we ever play Boggle, Scrabble, or chess, I don’t ease up. I’m like Morris Day’s “Color of Success,” I play to win. 😉 I also get very competitive in half-marathons, but that’s another story…

So this makes me want to talk about this idea about living a poetic existence and this idea of success in all its forms. You have published six books and currently have this beautiful new book out, Gravity Assist, which is out of this world (pun, of course, intended!) But seriously, the poems in this collection are so good! And as I ask about the poet’s life and “success” (in quotes because again, it’s so subjective), two poems come to mind—your poem, “Jealousy,” which is a fascinating exploration in perception and gratitude (I’m thinking of the image we may not be jealous of the fat crickets in the cage, but they also don’t live with the loss and tragedy we experience every day), and also the title “Time for art in the cosmos is very short.” (Again, this title would make an awesome t-shirt.)

So I want to ask you a bit about what it’s like to have a new book in the world and the complexity of feelings that may come with that—the joy and vulnerability, but also, how do you define “success” of a book, or a poet’s life, or do you? Maybe another way to ask this is, Do you have any hopes or expectations for your book and as the poet, is it possible just to publish our book and let it head out into the world to see what it does, or as a poet, do we find feelings attached to it and if yes, what are those feelings? I think about the Elizabeth Stone quote about having children, “It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” What is having a book like for you? Is a book like that for you?

And since we’re going deep here, l’m also interested in what “success” means to you in the form of living a poetic existence or a “poet’s life?” Feel free to talk about any of this and what intrigues, fascinates, bewilders, challenges, or intrigues you.

MS: Ahh, so much here to respond to! I loved what you said about recognition being fleeting: “it feels good in the moment, but a day later, you’re left with glass and a cork … but as B.B. King sang, ‘the thrill is gone.'” It makes me think of that line by Emily Dickinson: “Success is countest sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed.”  I also loved what you said about there being enough for everyone: “It’s like space, it just keeps expanding and we don’t limit the universe, we don’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve gone way past Pluto, you better ease up…'” Ye ol’ Myth of Scarcity can often backfire. Your generosity, goodwill, and community spirit/inclusivity help to boost not only your immediate friends but writers across the U.S. You are living proof that helping others and being kind/generous is infectious. The existentialists were right: any one person’s actions can make or break a community.

Thanks for your kind words about Gravity Assist. I am grateful it’s out in the world. ! I try not to spend too much time thinking about how it will be received, but I do feel confident I’ve done all I could to make it the strongest book it can be. Honestly, I have never spent more time getting a book of poems “just right.” Its reception, though, is pretty much out of my hands. I want to do right by my amazing publisher (Saturnalia Books), so I have a bunch of readings lined up. But I’m not expecting the book to be noticed because I’d rather be happily surprised than sorely disappointed. As for measuring success, it varies widely depending on my mood! On good days, I am ecstatic to have published some poetry books. Period. No one even has to read them! On bluer days, I might not be quite as rosy. So, yeah, though it’s nothing like birthing or raising a child, Gravity Assist is definitely my heart walking around outside my body.

When it comes to success, I try to bring it down to the level of breathing, of being able to move my body. Success at its most basic level. When I can stop the noise in my head about this prize or that award, I can focus on the success I’ve had with … not getting run over by a semi.

What about you, Kelli? What are your feelings about success? What are you proud of having achieved, and what are you working toward? I’ve heard rumors you’re putting the finishing touches on a new manuscript.

KRA: It’s strange, I don’t think I ever feel proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve felt thankful. I’ve felt surprised, but pride is not one of my seven sins, I’d rather hang out with gluttony, sloth, and lust.

I have always felt like someone who is “never enough” and who bobs around the sea of Just Barely Making It some days.

And I guess, I also question what success looks like. Like someone feeling, “getting married and having a baby” is success—that’s just two bodies doing what bodies do and a governmental license. Or someone thinking having a lot of money is success—that’s just hoarding in a monetary environment. Or someone feeling like having a book is success—that’s just words and paper bound together. So much of all of this is out of our control, luck and timing, is what I always say. So I constantly question, “What really is success?”

I recently heard Sarah Gambito say on Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace podcast, “Just because you win doesn’t mean you matter more…” and that quote really resonated with me. I think because it’s easy to get caught up in the prizes, the publication, the “likes” of social media, and then find our value in who noticed us rather than what we are doing. As a poet and artist, I need to keep my ego in check and focus on doing the work not what I’m winning.

Now, that said, I’m going to say what is kind of the opposite as well: I also think we should celebrate every success—such a writing a poem, publishing a poem, publishing a book, winning a prize—just to add joy to our lives. Like that day we had champagne at two in the afternoon, we said cheers to my birthday, our friendship, your book, to poetry.

I think we can acknowledge all sort of successes—not getting hit by a semi is an awesome success! Making another orbit around the sun, also good. Having a long lasting friendship. Someone saying yes to our poem. But maybe the trick is not letting success steer the boat—really, isn’t success is just the wake behind us, what happened when we weren’t paying attention? I guess for me the success is driving the boat without hitting any manatees or slamming into shore, and these days, I’m just thankful for arriving at the dock safely, not falling in mid-ride.

Kelli Russell Agodon is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press and her most recent book, Hourglass Museum. She is an avid paddleboarder who lives in a sleepy seaside town in the Pacific Northwest. She has kayaked with orca whales, been lost on Tom Sawyer’s Island, and has sung karaoke exactly once in her lifetime. Kelli coauthored The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice with Martha Silano after many years of friendship and writing dates. /

Martha Silano has authored five poetry books, including Gravity Assist (2019), Reckless Lovely (2014), and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (2011), all from Saturnalia Books. She enjoys running, backpacking, cross-country skiing, and identifying birds and wildflowers. An avid vegetable gardener, she teaches at Bellevue College, near her home in Seattle, WA.