Poetry Circles Back: An Interview with Kelli Russell Agodon

Kelli Russell Agodon’s newest book is “Dialogues with Rising Tides,” from Copper Canyon Press: previous books include “Small Knots,” “Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room,” and “Hourglass Museum,” among others.

Kelli is the co-founder of Two Sylvias Press, where she works as an editor and book-cover designer, and co-directs Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Retreat for Women.

She lives in a sleepy seaside town in the Pacific Northwest where she is an avid paddleboarder and hiker. Discover more at www.agodon.com


Jordan Hartt: Kelli, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Kahini about your work, and your life in poetry. Let’s start with the poem that featured in Kahini: “If You Stop for a Moment, You’ll Realize You Can’t Hear the Singing.” How did this poem come about?

Kelli Russell Agodon: So much of my work is in response to the environment. We’re in a time where we’re losing so many species of birds every year. I consider that a lot—how we keep spreading more and more into the natural world and how the natural world responds with extinction and more endangered species.

As humans, we take up so much room. During the pandemic, things changed a bit: black bears returned to empty spaces that were once human-occupied, wolverines returned to Mount Rainier for the first time in a hundred years, a snowy owl has roosted quite happily on the roof of a house in Seattle.

I think the pandemic has been good in making our human footprint a little smaller—many people aren’t traveling like they used to, for work or vacations, many are telecommuting and aren’t necessarily out in the world on a daily basis and these small changes have helped improve the environment. We’re seeing some species flourishing and it’s been one of the silver linings of this past year.

As a birder, I’m always very interested in the seasonal cycles of birds: I mark the start of summer when the cliff swallows return, though I’m very aware I’m seeing that they are returning to our neighborhood in fewer numbers.

I’m interested in the patterns of waxwings and kingfishers, both of which make appearances in the poem—there has been a strong decline especially of North American birds that many are unaware of.

The poem came out of that fear of loss. I had read an article that we’ve lost three billion birds in the last fifty years and twenty-nine percent of the North American bird population since 1970.

So when I’m outside, I listen a lot—realizing that there are certain times that you can and cannot hear birds. I’m always paying attention to that and what it might mean.

For example, on July fifth, in my area, there’s hardly any birdsong due to all the fireworks the night before, and I was thinking about that and other human activities that cause damage to birds; the poem is me responding to the landscape, and the waxwings, and the kingfishers.

I live near a floating bridge, near the Bangor naval base that houses one-fourth of the world’s nuclear armament, so while I gaze at the world appreciating the natural part of it, but also always understanding and aware of the impact that the human-built aspects have on it.

The poem lives in that space—a planet of heartbreak—which is a way to describe the way that so much of the planet disappoints, but the natural world keeps on showing up and satisfying me.

JH: Your work has been heavily involved with nature since you began publishing: does poetry help us understand our planet, and our roles on it?  

KRA: I’m not sure if it helps us understand as much as it allows me to celebrate it and share what inspires me in the natural world.

I think that as someone who was pegged as a “nature poet” early in my writing life (a term that seemed to come as more as a slight than a compliment) I can see how we’ve changed over these last fifteen years as readers and humans. Now I’m known as an environmentalist poet, an eco-poet, or an eco-feminist poet, but I’m not sure if my writing about the natural world has changed or if really, others have changed and the world is caring more and paying more attention.

Poems about our natural world and the environment matter to me. I’m very much an outdoor person; I’m constantly aware of the weather, or as I mentioned the migration patterns of birds, the natural surroundings, what’s blooming and what’s not…but I’m not one hundred percent sure if my poems are making any kind of a different for people’s awareness. But it’s something I believe in. And if I’m highlighting something for readers they didn’t know about in the natural world, then I’m glad I’m able to.

For me, writing about the natural world, and our human place within it makes me feel connected to the whole; makes me understand more my own place in the universe as a very small being. And now that I think about it more, maybe poetry does help remind us or helps us understand our roles as stewards for the planet by recognizing what has already been lost.

JH: I first met you in 2009, at a weekend Poetry of Witness workshop with Carolyn Forché I hosted in Port Townsend, that attracted a roster of really good poets. Would you talk a little bit about the experience of working with her, and also a little bit about workshops in general? Are they beneficial to poets?

KRA: Working with Carolyn Forché was an absolute dream. She is such a generous poet and teacher. When you sign up for a workshop like that, you have to trust that the right people will appear (kind of like “Field of Dreams”—”if you build it, they will come.”)

I always try to keep judgment away from these kinds of gatherings and trust that the “right” people were the ones who showed up.

Not to sound too woo-woo, but I believe when you write with others, the group creates a creative energy that sometimes makes it easier to write and brings ideas or images into your mind that you may not have had if you were writing in solitude.

When people are writing, together, in groups, we often end up writing about similar things, and pick up on one another’s energy in a good way. They’ll read their poem, and you’ll hear what they say, and it’ll surprise you, and your next poem will be better than it would have been had you not heard their work. Anyway, that’s been my own experience.

It’s one of the reasons Susan Rich and I created Poets on the Coast and offer online poetry writing classes—we want to foster community and create a space that is safe for writing and sharing.

The benefit is not only having a dedicated time and space to write, but to find the people you connect with. Hearing others share their poems makes you a better poet by listening to different voices and topics.

Plus, it’s a lot of fun, which is really how writing poetry should be.

JH: In addition to finding community with other poets both in-person and online, so much for your work engages in conversation with the poetic community of the past, with poets like Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop, and many others. Would you speak to your sense of connection with poets from different eras?

KRA: For a long time, poets were arriving in my dreams. Sometimes they told me things like Pablo Neruda appearing into a dream where I was playing volleyball and saying, I keep poems in the band of my hat, tell them about it, which inspired a poem, “Neruda’s Hat.” Other times they are doing the unexpected, like the time I dreamt of Sylvia Plath doing an open mike at a rodeo.

In my work, I love to engage with other artists, and other poets—when we do that as poets and writers, we become part of a larger conversation.

So many poets of the past inspire my work; the term Susan Rich uses is “dead mentors,” which is what they are—we learn from reading their work, but also through their biographies or letters. So many poets, from Elizabeth Bishop to Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell left behind a riches in personal letters, and by reading them, I gain so much insight into their lives and work.

I’m currently listening to the audiobook “Red Comet, the new biography about Sylvia Plath. It’s forty-five hours. You can go deep with these biographies and I’m learning so many details of her history—like Plath’s family connections to the Pacific Northwest. So much I hadn’t known about.

So yes, I do feel very connected to poets of the past. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Frank O’Hara, and I just received Lucille Clifton’s “How to Carry Water: New and Selected” so I’ve done a deep dive into her work and reading her poems, makes both my life and my poems better.

JH: Your work focuses on the importance of conversation with these poets, almost literally writing letters back to them in response, in poetic form.

KRA: Even outside of poetry, I am a letter writer. I handwrite letters to people, sometimes use my typewriter, and send them out with a stamp by snail mail; it’s so old school, but so satisfying. Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room had many poems where I felt as if I was writing to poets such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, but also artists like Vincent van Gogh.

Poems are a wonderful place to write to dead poets and artists—for me, it’s a dreamlike space where I can exist with all the people who have left the planet.

It’s why I write so many poems about my father, who died when I was twenty-three. By writing to him, I feel as if I am keeping him alive a little longer. It’s the same with writing to poets and artists who came before us.

As poets, I hope we find places to engage with the past through our work. Personally, I always love it when poets go back to pull a line from another poet and to use it in their work or respond to it. I’m interested in how that language takes on new resonances and echoes both back and forth to different generations.

JH: I feel like I really know what you mean. I think I’ve read every biography of Katherine Mansfield, and visited her house in New Zealand, and re-traced some of her journeys, and there’s something about being in their landscape, as well as their mental and emotional spaces, that really makes their works resonate for me.

KRA: Yes, it helps you feel connected to something larger. Last year, pre-pandemic, I was in London on January first and I thought, How do you want to start the decade? I decided I wanted to sit on the steps of Sylvia Plath’s apartment, or flat, I should say, which she had rented only because Yeats had lived there before her.

So that’s what I did—I put on a warm coat and walked to 23 Fitzroy Road and sat on the steps on New Year’s Day.

I was thinking, When will I ever have the chance to ring in a new decade like this?

As I sat there, I tried to imagine her life when she lived there—what she saw as she left her flat, what groceries and books she carried through that same door.

It made me think about how much “greatness”—greatness in quotes, right—had lived and written there. I thought about the significance of the work and how Plath finished (and left) “Ariel” in this flat; this was the very last place on the planet she had been before she left us on February 11, 1963. It was quite emotional for me, and I remember feeling not ready to leave.

You’re right, there is something otherworldly about putting yourself in the landscape of people whose work you admire, following in the footsteps of poets or artists, to return to the places they were and feeling part of something larger than ourselves.

JH: In your work, it seems like there’s a direct line from those poets you’ve mentioned to your own poems. You pay them direct homage, as in Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, but I also feel like I feel their influences in the lines themselves. What was your journey like, as a poet? How did these influences help in creating your voice?

KRA: I’m not sure if I “created” my voice, or if it became more “in tune” the more I kept writing.

It reminds of when teachers say, You need to find your voice. I always think—Well, you don’t need to find your voice because everyone has a voice, it’s not as if it’s hiding from us, but you can work to refine your voice.

That’s just practice. Reading poems. Writing poems. Trying something new in your work.

My journey as a poet has been surprising, fulfilling, and I remind myself I’m still on this journey because I didn’t stop writing or submitting. Jeannine Hall Gailey told me a while ago that poetry is a marathon, not a sprint, and many times the people we are still reading are the persistent ones, the ones who didn’t get beaten down by rejections or who lost interest or couldn’t find the time.

I have never really known what I’m doing as a poet. I follow instinct a lot, even when it seems like I’m taking a strange path in an overgrown forest—but maybe I see snowberries ahead or a shadow that looks like a deer. I just keep moving forward.

It’s the same when I’m writing—I’m never one-hundred-percent sure what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m not even sure what I’m writing about when I’m writing a poem, I let the images and words lead me.

And when I’m writing, I try to make sure I’m not censoring myself in any way. I try to risk it all on the page, every time, and take risks—artistic risks—that make me uncomfortable or feel vulnerable.

Because a lot of times that’s where my work connects with people—they see themselves in the poem, and it resonates with them. That has always been my goal with readers—to connect with them and hope after reading my poem, they feel less alone.

JH: In terms of that resonance, you move so fluidly from the abstract to the specific. From abstract meditations on the nature of concepts like God, death, family, relationships, physical health to getting very specific, like, the “white picket fence/I like to call my ribcage,” where the reader can immediately feel in their body the abstract terms on which you’re meditating.

KRA: I believe the more poets and writers go deep into detail, into the specifics of sensory detail, they add a more universal connection.

I think sometimes new poets don’t understand this when they start out. They write abstractly about their lives, the universe, the world, and maybe their soul connects to someone they love or their soul hurts—there’s not a lot of memorable images in those words. It’s hard to connect with vague and the abstract.

Imagine, though, if they wrote: Standing on the edge of a roadway with the Pacific Ocean at my back, I look up and see Orion’s Belt while my lover makes me a ham sandwich in the back of the van then slices it diagonally because he knows I dislike rectangles.

It shows the scene and we remember specifics and maybe we think about a time someone we love made us a sandwich and how good that sandwich tasted. We connect with the particulars; it’s the old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.”

JH: Another thing you’re well-known for is the sense of wordplay in your work. You do a lot with anagrams (for example, how “pray for poets,” becomes “the story of paper”), with the roots of words, with putting words in difference contexts to reveal them more deeply—or sometimes, just to make the reader laugh! How did you get interested in the words themselves?

KRA: I’ve always been interested in wordplay. Since I was young, I’ve continually found delight in language.

One thing I haven’t shared much with people until recently is how much I struggled with dyslexia growing up. I felt embarrassed being an English major at the University of Washington, with something that I felt was perceived as a flaw in my learning ability. I never talked about it and I worried I would be asked to read something in class that I hadn’t had the chance to look over first so I could write out words phonetically so when I came to them, I wouldn’t stumble.

But one of the gifts of dyslexia, is how my mind “sees” written words and it turns out on the page and misreads them, breaks them open—this is a bonus for me as a poet.

I remember as a little girl, seeing the sign that read LADIES for the public restroom. I remembering thinking—What does that mean, LA dies??! I couldn’t “see” the word ladies as my mind sometimes breaks words apart. And I’ve learned, this is just how my brain functions when it looks at words, even now.

When I’m reading, I see words inside other words. I see the fun in funeral, the over in lover, so that is where a lot of the wordplay comes from. So yes, I’ve always loved playing with words. I even love autocorrect on our phones and how they can make a text so much funnier!

JH: I totally ducking believe you.

KRA: Yes! That’s a favorite. Or What the fox?! Martha Silano was texting me that she was O’Hare Airport and it changed it to “O hate,” which inspired her poem “Ode to Autocorrect” I love how playing with words can open up possibilities in poems that weren’t there. They can take our work in new directions.

JH: My children attend a school called Olympia Regional Learning Academy, or, ORLA, for short, which once autocorrected to “oral.” What I’d meant to text: “I’m on my way to drop off some packages for ORLA.” Good times! In another of your poems, “Writing Studio in D: A Retrospective in Spring,” you explore the difficulty for women and non-binary folk to be able to sometimes have their writing needs—for time, for space—to be taken seriously. Would you talk a little bit about that?

KRA: Oh, definitely: that’s actually how I ended up going back to school for my MFA degree. I felt like people—meaning my family, and some friends—saw the writing I was doing as a hobby, and I saw it was much more than that. It was my passion and I was trying to find my place in the world.

They weren’t giving me the space and I wasn’t claiming it. I was a young mother, at the time, and felt as if I was being seen only as that, and unfortunately in our culture I realized that sometimes people only see something as valuable if you throw a lot of money at it. Returning to school to get my MFA helped them see how serious my writing was to me. And it wasn’t just the tuition, but they could see that there was homework, and tasks, and going to readings, and that there was a broad community that was just as passionate about words as I was. And they were able to stop believing that was just a mother’s hobby.

I do think, in terms of women, that every generation is getting better—

JH: Interesting!

KRA: I think about the life of my mother, very domestic with cooking and cleaning and caring for the family while my father was more the Ward Cleaver-type with a 9-5 job who took care of the money, paid the bills, and came home to dinner on the table. Very gender specific roles. My life in a marriage was different than that, I did about 5% of the cooking (if that!), but I took care of all the finances and bills. My daughter (who is non-binary), their life will be different than mine. They understand their worth and there is no set path for them.

But it was different for me as a new mother. For example, in the early 2000s when my husband would carry our daughter into a Starbucks in a Baby Björn everyone would be like, Oh, what a great father!, but I never got recognition for carrying our baby into a Starbucks or anyplace as a mom carrying a baby was the expectation or the norm. I guessing other mothers my age understand what I’m talking about. But when I was a young mom, I felt like dads got points just for showing up, whereas mothers, there was plenty of our work that culturally went unrecognized.

But I do think things are progressing as a society in the right direction.

But yes, for me the MFA helped my family take my writing more seriously though I don’t think an MFA is necessary for anyone as a writer; as Naomi Shihab Nye says, life is the program. But the MFA program does create a structure to write and was a great experience for me, especially in finding community while I was there.

JH: Why poetry for you, as opposed to fiction?

KRA: I actually started out at UW as a fiction writer. It was after I took a class with Linda Bierds that I was really introduced to poetry. I loved the preciseness of it.

And if prose is always looking for the ending, looking to create tension and story, poetry just continually swaying in the wind concerned with the rhythm and the music.

Poetry doesn’t allow for extra words and I love the challenge of trying to make something powerful, memorable, and engaging in such a small space. Poetry circles back, whereas fiction moves forward, I think, and I like the circling back.