Wired for Wordplay: A Conversation with Kelli Russell Agodon
Kelli Russell Agodon is an award-winning poet, writer, educator, and editor. She received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop, where she has recently returned to join the faculty. She is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press and co-director of Poets on the Coast, a retreat for women poets.
Agodon is an avid paddleboarder and hiker with lifetime roots in the Pacific Northwest. She is a nature poet, in the way that those living in the Pacific Northwest know is a sublime complement. People who know Agodon as a poet and teacher know her tendency to be playful, to wear hats to celebrate all sorts of occasions, and to be a very generous and caring mentor. Her fourth poetry collection, Dialogues with Rising Tides, was released last month by Copper Canyon Press.
I contacted Kelli by email to ask her a few questions about the new book and her writing process, and to find out how she finds time to write among the myriad of poetry projects she is involved with.
The Rumpus: First, I want to congratulate you on your recent appointment to the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop’s low-residency MFA program! In your role working with poets at the Poets on the Coast workshops that you run every year, I sense that you want to be gentle and positive with criticism. In planning to work with MFA-seeking students, how will you hold on to that gentle side while also spurring students to write better poems? In other words, how do you plan to teach craft?
Kelli Russel Agodon: As someone who does not learn well from highly critical teachers, mentors, and professors, my goal is to help each poet see what they are doing well and then learn how to do it even better, and yes, I definitely fall on the side of “do no harm” when it comes to teaching.
Carolyn Kizer wrote, in the foreword of On Poetry & Craft by Theodore Roethke, that when another student was critical of something eccentric she had tried in her poem, Roethke said to the student: ”You want to be very careful when you criticize something like that, because it may be the hallmark of an emerging style.” Kizer wrote, ”He knew that our eccentricities are our true voice.”
As a poet myself, this is something I keep in mind while teaching—I must strive to help each poet grow by welcoming risk, experimentation, and by insisting they stretch themselves as writers, but I am careful not to let my own predispositions or penchants change the heart of who they are as a poet. We each come to writing with our own unique gifts, talents, and styles—I want to honor that, while also helping them work to write stronger poems.
Rumpus: You wear many hats, both figuratively and actually. (I’ve seen you wear quite a few of each myself.) You run a press, collaborate with other poets, run the Poets on the Coast annual workshops—along with many other workshops—you volunteer, write a blog, are now faculty at PLU, along with publishing your own poetry. I know how important community is to you; you even like to write in the company of other poets. Still, I know you have an introvert hidden in there somewhere, and I wonder how you manage to find solitary space and time to nourish your inner life.
Agodon: It’s interesting; I have always called myself an introvert with extrovert tendencies. I like people, but I adore solitude, quiet, and my own space. The pandemic has helped me to find that solitude. I remember when it began last year, three months of an overbooked calendar were wiped clean. I felt so relieved. But it also made me appreciate my friends and family after not being able to see them, a year of no birthday parties, holiday gatherings. My biggest takeaway from the pandemic was, Don’t mistake the gift for the burden. Sometimes I would find myself feeling put-upon if I had to do too many things; now I look back and think how lucky I was (am) that friends and family want to spend time with me.
Still, with regard to finding the time for myself, my writing, and my solitude, I do two things: 1) block out days on the calendar that are just for writing or a down day, and 2) only say “yes” when it’s a “hell, yes!” I’m much more guarded about my time especially in regards to collaborations or things I am only half-hearted about. I’ve gotten a lot better about saying no. For me, I have always valued my time more than money, and try my best to create a life that reflects that.
Rumpus: An early poem of yours that drew me to your work is “Believing Anagrams,” in Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, which was published by White Pine Press in 2010. It seems instinctual to you to “anagram” words, that is, to form words from words, language from language. I also think of this poem title, “In the 70s I Confused Macramé with Macabre” or this line, “to alphabetize is to baptize and heal.” Can you remember how early this instinct arose? I can’t help wondering if it was one of the forces that led you to writing poetry, or if writing poetry brought out this instinct in you. Which came first?
Agodon: It definitely was there before poetry. I have continually had a love for language, from nursery rhymes to mondegreens to oxymorons and so on. It’s why The Phantom Tollbooth was my favorite book growing up—all those puns and wordplay. And I think because of how my brain is wired, there is an instinct (and also a desire) for that wordplay. Much of my life I have struggled with dyslexia—it’s something I haven’t shared much about until recently. As a teenager, I felt very embarrassed or shameful about it; I was terrified to be asked to read something aloud in school even in college because of the fear I wouldn’t recognize a word I know, or I would say it incorrectly. Like the word, “scarcity”—every time I come to that word I want to say “scar city” or when I see “extraordinary” I want to say “extra ordinary.” It drives me slightly nutty how my mind thinks—and yet, it has been a benefit to my poems and there is a part of me that appreciates that I have this sort of weird superpower of seeing words inside words. I mean, it’s not invisibility or X-ray vision, but as a poet, it works!
Rumpus: I think of your poems as being “dense,” and by dense I mean tight and even crowded at times as you fly from one image to another. The imagery is always surprising, line after line. I wonder how you do that?
Agodon: I wonder how I do that, too. Could this mean I’m a word/image hoarder? Maybe my poems are the rooms you go into where everything is stacked to the ceiling? Like those antique shops that have a fascinator balancing on a Mickey Mouse phone on a blue Fiestaware plate toppling above a purple suitcase with a sticker that reads: London. Maybe it’s that I’ve always been a very visual person who notices the small strange details, and they stick with me. Like yesterday when I went for a walk, I saw a toothpaste cap under a tulip and I kept thinking—why is that there? There was a robin there and I started thinking, “What if that toothpaste cap was actually the robin’s bandleader hat.” Kooky stuff, but maybe because while I have six sisters, they were all much older than me, so much of my life felt like being an only child so I was always looking for ways to entertain myself, and I still am.
Rumpus: Many of these poems have been published online, and while reading Dialogues with Rising Tides, I get to greet them again, but now as a community, rather than a lone character; as a conversation, rather than a query letter to the universe. The impact is far greater. The structure you’ve used for the book is very much tied into that impact. How did you decide on the ordering of these poems?
Agodon: Order is very important to me when crafting a manuscript of poems. I wanted Dialogues with Rising Tides to tell a greater story through its emotional arc if you read it front to back. I was struggling, though; I had an idea of what I wanted to do—I knew I wanted sections and I knew I wanted to move the reader from one place to another—but I couldn’t find the best order.
Late one night at a writing residency, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “All right universe, help me out here…” then shuffled a copy of my manuscript I had printed out and randomly put poems face down on the floor in seven sections. I picked up the first section to see how the poems were arranged, then the second. While I didn’t use the exact arrangement of that experiment, reordering them randomly like I did allowed me to get out of my own way and to physically see my book in a different order. Because it was random, poems I never thought would work near the beginning ended up there and it allowed me to see things with fresh eyes.
From there, I used the section titles to generally connect poems on different themes—for example, my section head “Shambles” were poems about America during 45’s administration while “Breaksea” deals with some personal struggles that had me feeling broken. In the end, it was multiple readings and revisions to make sure the sections worked well on their own but also as a whole. When I am writing the poems, I’m not really thinking about the reader, just what’s best for the poem. When I am creating a book, I think of the reader quite a bit, hoping to create an experience for them. My biggest concern is that someone will be bored. I’d rather have you hate my work than be bored; at least hate comes from energy and passion.
Rumpus: You’ve described the themes developed in Dialogues with Rising Tides to include: environmental collapse, suicide, relationships, love/desire, melancholy, anxiety, and cruel politics. I would like to add to this list a deep relationship with the natural world and a sacred appreciation of beauty. But in “Natural History on a Hike to God’s Point” in Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, you said, “today I would much rather be indoors / shopping Saks for a long woolen dress.” I love the authentic ambivalence in this poem, but on the whole, you seem to love being outdoors. When and how did your relationship with nature arise?
Agodon: I do love being outdoors except when I love being indoors! Growing up, I was the girl who didn’t want to come inside at the end of the day, I was called a tomboy, a treehugger, a nature girl; I was the girl who wanted to be Tom Sawyer, paddling a raft down some river to a new adventure—I realize as I say this that I guess I shouldn’t be surprised I grew up to be a devoted paddleboarder.
But I have always felt my two churches were nature and museums—they both fill me. Nature reminds me that I (like all humans) am not the most important thing on this planet and that there is so much beauty and life happening all around us. It kind of returns to your question about my poems being dense with images—that’s what hiking a trail is like, surrounded by sky and ferns and you never know what you will see around each corner or when you arrive at the top of the trail or the mountain. It also calms me from what the media is serving, which is usually more than my nerves can bear.
Rumpus: The associative leaps in some contemporary poetry leave me scratching my head. On the other hand, your continual, at times enormous, leaps almost always hit home for me in the sense of a distinctly creative act with strong emotional resonance. When you are writing or revising, how do these leaps come to you?
Agodon: The leaps are another way of how my mind works. I’ve used the term “spiderweb” to describe my brain—everything is attached and nothing is separate. Because of this, I can be writing about orchids then mention a gun because in my mind, the two are connected by a thread (my father’s first wife committed suicide in my dad’s greenhouse where he grew orchids).
My mind connects everything. Nothing is separate from anything else. I was criticized in grad school for “a lack of transition” by one of my teachers, but I couldn’t see what she was saying because I felt all things are connected and pushed back against that. I felt I could be talking about Mars and then about eating frozen Junior Mints at a movie theater and that was not a leap (they could be connected because I had just seen Mars as I walked into the theatre or perhaps The Martian with Matt Damon was on the screen or maybe I bought a Mars bar at the candy counter). Things can be connected in thousands of ways. But I never felt it was a big deal to be talking about one thing then move another—it’s spiderwebbing and I know many other creative people whose brains move on similar threads.
For me, our minds and our poems do not have limitations on time and subjects—they are more like gumball machines where temporary tattoos exist with bouncy balls that exist with quarters and nuts and bolts that hold the machines together and the hands of strangers turning the knob. Our minds and poems are unlimited punch bowls that we can keep filling up and always have room for more. So, my leaps have never felt like leaps to me; they have felt like I was talking about this one thing, now I’m talking about something else.
Rumpus: There is a resonant “you” in so many of these poems. It is such a change from the “I” that permeates so many poems that strive for the same level of deep intimacy. As a reader, I feel that the “you’ is also your reader (that would be me!), but it seems obvious that some of these poems are written about (if not to) your partner. I’m looking at the poem, “After Discovering My Husband Bought a Handgun.” I also notice that in Dialogues with Rising Tides, your daughter makes a cameo appearance (I think for the first time in one of your books). How does the need to protect your family life feel as you reveal these intimate glances?
Agodon: It feels hilarious to say “I am a private person” while also writing about the experience of my husband buying a handgun, hiding it in our house, and not telling me about it, but both things are true. Yes, I am fiercely protective of my family but sometimes they overflow unintentionally into my art. I think, Your chocolate is in my peanut butter! Your peanut butter is on my chocolate! Nothing is uncontaminated; my shirt has a wine stain on the front of it despite me wishing I could keep all my wine in a glass. Life bumps into things, and sometimes you’re living your life and you end up in my poem. (Though in the case of the gun poem, I did talk to my partner about it—I mean, do no harm, right?).
Photograph of Kelli Russell Agodon by Ronda Broatch.