An interview with our July Poet in Residence, Kelli Russell Agodon

Kelli Russell Agodon was the first poet we published on the Seattle Review of Books, and it was readily apparent that she was the right choice. Not only was her poem a note-perfect benediction for the site — it could be read as a meditation about the distance between storytellers and audience — but Agodon is such a significant figure in the Seattle-area poetry scene that her poem provided the site with instant credibility. Agodon has so many fans — of her poetry, of her publishing company, Two Sylvias Press, of her outspoken politics — and those fans pay close attention to everything she does. Agodon talked with me about all of this and much more. This interview has been lightly edited.

First I wanted to start by thanking you. When we were looking for a poet to kick off the site with that first week, Martin suggested you, and you were, I think, exactly the right poet to launch with, because you are such a terrific member of the community, you have an amazing group of friends and associates who listen to what you say and so really helped lead people to us, and so I just wanted to thank you for that.

Oh, good. That's really good to hear. Thank you. I was honored to be chosen.

I wanted to ask you about that community. You're so active on social media and people really care about what you say. Which is noteworthy because laypeople don't often associate poets with being social. Do you have to work at being social, or are you just naturally a people person?

I am so not a people person. I’m not an extrovert and I don’t like to be at parties. That's why I write — because I'm not so good at talking or socially interacting. People always say they're surprised to hear I'm an introvert, so I tend to be an introvert with extrovert tendencies, maybe.

I always try to just interact with the belief that everyone's just trying their best. It's nice to hear I do it well, because I don't necessarily feel that way.

I think you do, I think people really listen to what you have to say.

Oh, well thank you.

So you're a poet and a publisher. Are those two jobs related? Are you a publisher because you're a poet?

You know, I'm a publisher for a really strange reason. We accidentally started this press, Annette Spaulding-Convy and I. Back in — gosh, maybe 2008? — we were coming from an event in Seattle on the ferry and we had glasses of wine and we started talking about wanting to publish an anthology of women in poetry, but in ebook form.

She had just gotten a Kindle and I had gotten an iPad. At that time, there was no poetry on there — nothing contemporary. The poetry publishers were lagging behind, so we said, "Well, let's just do this and see what happens." We couldn't find anyone that could do an ebook, so we just did it ourselves.

And then another project came along. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s book went out of print, so now that we're a press we put her book back into print. And then, the next thing you know, we had a press.

It's completely different sides of my brain. I always told myself I had to be a poet first and then editor second. This year especially, I’ve had to make some balance changes to put more focus on my writing.

What does putting more focus on your writing look like? Is it just taking the time, or do you behave differently when you're thinking more of the writing?

Yes, I behave very differently. I'm in my head a lot more, running poems through my head, thinking about my manuscript. I see the world very differently when I'm in the space of a poet. But also taking time for like writing residencies. I'm applying for more things and also just reading more, waking up and instead of checking my email, I’ll go outside with a book of poems and start to read. Even if it's a busy day and I can only read three poems, that’s still three poems more than I would have read.

It's being more mindful, I think. Sometimes a job can take away from who you are as a writer. I had to quit a corporate job early on just because I had completely lost my poet self.

What is the story of you and poetry? Is it a love story, or a comedy, or a horror movie?

All of the above. I think in every poet's life you can have scenes like in horror movies. We used to get paper rejections in the mail and, like, the double-team rejection came in.

But I think I'm happiest when I'm writing and when I'm in that creative space. I would say right now it's probably a pretty boring Lifetime drama that nobody's watching. But I hope eventually it turns into something good — maybe an Oscar winner.

I love how you ran with that! So, have you always been a poet or is that something that you realized you can be later on in life?

Well, I've always been a writer, even as a kid. We got to do little electives as a second-grader, and I remember choosing creative writing and I remember [my teacher] liking my story about a purple giraffe, or something like that.

I was always a reader and I was always a writer. Then I went to UW and I was actually focusing on fiction, and then I took a class by Linda Bierds, a poetry class, and completely got turned on to poetry.

Are the poems that we're running on the site this month more recent poems, or are we in the back catalog while you come up with new poems?

No, you're running really recent poems. It was really nice that you were able to choose the ones that you felt worked best for you, because as a poet, probably my worst skill is I'm never sure what poems are the best, or that people respond best to.

I'm always shocked when a poem kinda goes viral or gets shared a lot, it's never the poem I think will take off.

I wanted to ask you about your poem “Downpour.” Martin and Dawn and I decided to run it on the 4th of July because we thought it felt like a political poem. I mean, first of all, running a poem titled “Downpour” on the 4th of July is kind of a statement too. But it feels very political to me. Is that an accurate read of it, you think?

Yeah, definitely. There's been a lot of new poems since November that have that edge or that slant. I think I, like many, just was kind of complacent. I was so active in the Bush years with Poets Against the War, and just ... and then, well, I don't know. A lot of those newer poems do tend to have more of a political or an activist leaning. You know what they say, every poem is political in some way.

As you said, you were active in the Bush years as a poet. Do you feel like there's a difference in the way that writers are responding now than they were during the Bush years?

A little bit differently. I mean, so many people feel under threat these days, so, just the poems that have been being written by so many people are just incredible. When you're writing poetry — just in writing in general — when there is tension in your work, it ups the game. Some amazing works of art have come out in the last, what is it been, in like eight months?

My God, I can’t even think of it…

Yeah, have we only been in this presidency for six months?

What do you think poems can contribute, politically speaking?

Well, they can help other people understand, or heal. I always think of Maggie Smith's "Good Bones." I wrote the little article for you guys about that poem going viral. I think a lot of people go to poetry in times of crisis, even though they may not realize that they're doing it.

I think just adding art anytime is a good thing. I think it's useful to people, When big things happen, and then you read a poem that completely states what you're feeling, even though you didn't know those were the words or the images or the metaphor for it, that’s powerful.

I do think that's why they're shared and why it is important. It does connect us. I go to books and poetry when I'm down.

Do you think of yourself as part of a tradition of Northwestern poetry?

I do. I was born in Seattle and I grew up in Seattle. In my corporate job, I was working in Redmond and then I realized it was killing my soul. So I quit and geographically changed my location to across the water. I ended up in Kingston, Washington, so I was a ferry ride away from my old life.

Yes, I do really feel like a Seattle poet. I mean, it's funny, I still consider myself a Seattle poet even though I don't live in the city. I think because I'm always there. I'm always on that ferry.

I do believe there’s a Seattle Renaissance. There's such a large poetry community that is so strong. I do feel like this is a really good place to be a writer.

Who, locally, do you like these days?

Well, Susan Rich and Martha Silano, and Jeannine Hall Gailey, Elizabeth Austen are definitely four favorites. Erin Malone, too. Jeannine Hall Gailey hasn't written a lot but she's always been one of my favorite poets. Of course Kathleen Flennniken, who is working on a book.

Is there anything about them that makes them Seattle poets, you think? Is there common thread?

Well, Susan, Martha, and Elizabeth and even Kathleen, they all have place. Seattle is all through their poems. If you read their books of poems, Martha's got a poem with Pagliacci Pizza, and you know, Susan Rich has poems on Alki. I feel like we're represented ... And Claudia Castro Luna did that beautiful thing where she was documenting poems in places, did you see that?

The Poetic Grid? Yeah.

Yeah. I love how poems are just woven in into our landscape, it's so Richard Hugo-esque.

It seems like you're pretty prolific, so far as poetry goes. You write a fair amount. Is that a correct assessment, do you think?

That's very correct.

Do you wind up publishing most things that you write or do you —

No. I write a lot, but I would say that 90 percent, 95 percent of my poems never make it out into the world — either because I'm continually revising them, or I decide I don't like them, or they just disappear. I have one Word file that's called "New Work," which has got a bazillion poems in it, and then I have one called "Completed Poems" and a document can move into completed but then I might think it's not completed and move it back.

I'm constantly writing, but I am a terrible submitter. I tell people to submit their work, I wrote a little essay that went viral: "Submit Like a Man," which is something that I noticed when I was working at Crab Creek Review — that we would ask poets to submit, and the majority of men responded within like a month or two months with work, and then women, we sometimes would hear from them six months later and a lot of times you'd never hear from them.

It's funny, 'cause I wrote that article, and I am absolutely terrible at submitting my work. I love to write, I don't like to submit. It's not even the rejections — it's just I get the joy in the writing, not in the publishing. It's always fun to get feedback and to hear what people think — you know, if they like your poem — but it's kind of a pain to submit your work.

Yeah, which to me, that's interesting because I think that it's pretty common for writers to hate to hustle their own works and to promote it, but as publisher, you've gotta hustle other people's work. Is that difficult for you?

It's really easy to hustle and promote other people's work. It's so much easier, because all the books at Two Sylvias Press that we have published and are publishing, we absolutely love. We love our poets and our writers, and we love their work, so it's really easy for us, for me, to share a poem.

It's a thousand times easier for me to contact Oprah Magazine with somebody else's book than for me to ever send my own book there. When you're trying to get somebody else's work into the world, you have no reservations.

But with my own work, I never contact reviewers and say, "Would you like to review my book?" And I don't know if it's a weird self-consciousness where you don't wanna feel like the used car salesman. But sharing my friends' work and poets I love, I do all the time without hesitation.

But it is interesting thinking about just the title of your essay: "Submit Like a Man." I wonder if there's a better system out there. Like, what would successfully submitting like a woman look like, you know? I don't know if there's an answer to that or if it's even a question, but it seems like mimicking mediocre men has not worked out that well for us as a society. I wonder if there's a way to go about it.

I don't know. I mean, I'm a perfect example of how not to submit. I have a 16-, almost 17-year-old daughter who doesn't seem to have a problem asking if she needs something, or for what she wants.

But I was a kid of the 70s, and I always knew that when if I came home and complained, "So-and-so was mean to me," the first question [from parents] was, "what did you do?" Like, "what did you do to cause that?" So, it always came back to: the problem is with yourself, as opposed to, you know, "hey, that guy's just a jerk."

I do think it's changing. The young women in my daughter's class, they're all go-getters and they're much more aware. In that respect, the internet has been excellent in helping young women see their worth.