The Poem as Lightvessel: A Dialogue on Poetry and Community with Kelli Russell Agodon
AN: You are such an accomplished poet, and I have so much I want to talk to you about, but first I want to begin by acknowledging your dedication to the poetry community. You and Annette Spaulding-Convy are the Cofounders and Editors of Two Sylvias Press, which sponsors an annual chapbook prize, coordinates retreats and online poetry salons, and publishes The Weekly Muse newsletter, which is always packed with incredibly detailed writing tips and prompts, Q&A, and interviews. You really are building community—and when I think of you, one of the first words that comes to mind is “generous.” Can you talk a little about the importance of community, as well as your vision for Two Sylvias?
KRA: Amanda, thank you so much for your kind words. When Annette and I created Two Sylvias Press in 2010, we weren’t planning on creating a press and weren’t really sure what we were doing—in fact, we used to say, Anything is possible when you don’t know what you’re talking about!—a sentence that still makes me smile. Though from the beginning, we always believed in the importance of sharing others’ voices—our motto is because great writing is good for the world. But as we’ve grown as a press, we’ve also learned how creating spaces where poets could come together, support each another, share their work and successes, and find inspiration through each other’s creative journeys is also very much needed.
I think right now, our vision for Two Sylvias Press is to continue to publish books but also help poets on their own individual journeys in various ways (the Weekly Muse, online retreats, our Poetry Prompt Advent Calendar). With the Weekly Muse, we hope to inspire poets to write and publish more poems, while also offering Zoom poetry classes to cultivate a deeper sense of connection and belonging within the poetry community. As for publishing books, we continue to work on publishing a diverse array of voices and see ourselves as a platform for both emerging and established poets.
Annette and I are poets ourselves, so we understand how solitary it can feel and how sometimes you can feel like a lone star in this glimmering universe of poets—so there are times where we may not feel as if we are shining, but instead feel a little lost and out on our own. It’s something we think about—how to be useful. Despite my own “introvertness,” I try to cultivate community, as it can be so beneficial.
Annette and I were part of an early poetry group that goes back to 1998, so we understand how keeping good people around us can help us become better ourselves and achieve our goals. And as creative humans in the world, we believe success lies not just in the publication of books but the sense of belonging, so we work to create that within our community. Plus, for me, it makes it more fun to have a larger community—it’ s a big world out there, and as a more-sensitive human, knowing there are good friends and poets creates a kind of beautiful security blanket for me, or a perhaps, a bit of a buffer or protection when things feel harder than they should.
AN: So much of the writing community, especially in the wake of Covid, exists online via social media. Certainly, this is one way of cultivating that deeper sense of connection and belonging that you mention, but we’ve all seen how divisive and destructive the online community can be, even in poetry circles. You are someone with a robust presence online, and it’s a topic that shows up in your poems.
In one of the poems in your latest collection, Dialogues with Rising Tides (Copper Canyon 2021), the speaker reflects, ” . . . I wish I didn’t/say how much I hurt on social media/but sometimes I just want to believe I’m not alone . . .”. I’m interested in your thoughts about this—how do you manage to navigate this terrain? How has social media transformed poetry, in particular?
KRA: In response to your question about social media and how I manage to navigate this terrain, my immediate gut reaction is “not well.” Social media and I have a very dysfunctional relationship. It turns me into the bad girlfriend as I’m always telling social media that it takes up too much of my time and how annoying it is. But there are good aspects to it, such as discovering new poets and poems.
I’m not sure if social media has transformed poetry—though there are definitely poets writing smaller, more “sharable” poems—but it has brought poetry in front of the eyes of people who might not historically be “poetry readers.” This goes hand in hand with the sharing aspect—if you’re a poet and you share a poem on your Facebook feed, not only do your poet friends see it, but also your Aunt Margaret and your neighbor down the street. In that sense, I think it’s beneficial because it expands the poetry readership. Consider how viral Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” became because of social media; that wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago.
Now, was I a more “productive” poet before social media? Probably. In the early to mid-2000s, I belonged to this incredible blogger community that truly grounded me—Oliver de la Paz, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Eduardo Corral, C. Dale Young, Victoria Chang, Paul Guest, and so many others—all of whom I met online. I sometimes wish I could return to that era when the world felt a touch smaller. However, I also enjoy meeting new poets and sharing others’ poems, so there are both pros and cons, right? Maybe I don’t need to judge—maybe it just is. For me, I have learned that the best approach is to see technology and social media as a tool. I always remember, “Make sure I’m using technology rather than technology is using me.” And as a poet, I try to remember that my best self—in both writing and living—it happiest when she is offline and outdoors.
AN: And after all, it’s offline and outdoors where so much of life happens, right? It becomes the well of experience from which we all draw—I’m remembering how one of your prompts from The Weekly Muse encouraged writers to craft poems based on odd things they found during a walk outdoors. It was a reminder to let the world in, as you do in so much of your work.
Take “Hunger,” for example, the first poem in Dialogues with Rising Tides:
There is a woman on our block who thinks she is feeding bunnies,
but they are large rats without tails. Remember the farmer’s wife?
Remember the carving knife? We are all trying to change
what we fear into something beautiful.
Then, in the very next poem, “String Theory Relationships,” we’re introduced to the woman “down the street with the small dog that barks at the lilacs,/and she’s connected to the cashier at the market . . .”. Could you speak to the role of community and the communal in your own work? I mean, even the title of your collection suggests a kind of conversation with the world, with ourselves. In your Notes—which is its own dialogue with literary community, both past present—you explain how the book’s title is taken from Galileo’s essay, “Discourse on Tides” (1616) and his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo was, as you point out, trying “to explain the motion of Earth’s tides.”
KRA: Yes, my work and life is very much a handshake with the world. I don’t see myself on a pedestal with a loudspeaker addressing my thoughts and moving through the world without observing and listening. When I interact with both the reader and the world at large, it’s me reaching my hand towards others to say, Hi, good to meet you—how are you doing today?
I so believe in the connection between us, actually all living creatures. It’s why when I’m out in the world, I try to interact positively in it with little things—hold the door open for others, offer a kind word, a smile, mention to someone I like something they are wearing, pick up litter off the ground, or just say, Hello as I pass by. Tiny tiny moments of life, but they add up.
We are all in conversation with each other daily with our words and actions. Life is so distracting with its 24-hour news cycle focusing on the negative, we can feel separate from each other, but there are scientific articles on how we are emotionally wired to connect and how important it is to us—like food and water.
For me, it naturally comes out in poems. I know some poets say they just write for themselves and don’t think about the reader much—I think about the reader all the time! Is this interesting for her? Will they be satisfied when this poem ends? Is this poem useful or engaging? When I write for myself, it’s not my best writing, but when I write for a reader, for a community, for a larger audience—it makes me elevate my writing game. As I said, I see my poem as my handshake to the reader; it’s me reaching out to find you—and maybe sometimes, I’m here to help pull you from life’s challenges and into a magic of a poem. Maybe I’m just creating a little moment you can focus on that isn’t the laundry needing folding or a tragic news story, maybe I’m just sliding a poem in front of you and saying—breathe.
AN: You also explain in your Notes how each of your section titles is named after lightvessels, or lightships, which are “equipped with a brilliant light and moored at a place dangerous to navigation.” Your collection navigates similarly dangerous psychic terrain, and I really view it as a reckoning with the aftermath of both personal trauma and intergenerational trauma. In “Hesitation Waltz,” for example, the speaker asks, “You know how I always seem to be struggling,/even when the situation doesn’t call for it?” Or, as the speaker notes in “SOS,”
Sometimes we want to cut ourselves
out of the world, but we laugh because
none of our knives are sharp enough
nor our dedication to leaving.
There’s lightness here, in part because the speaker is giving us permission to laugh along with her, but there is also an element of surprise, as with so many of your poems, where you manage to turn the world—or at least the situation of the moment—on its head. The effect is often surreal. In the opening lines of “Near-Death Experience,” the speaker admits,
I left heaven because the pillows were filled
with grief and the bedsheets had a thread count
of longing. None of the angels wanted to talk
about moisturizer, my recipe for vegan pizza [ . . . ]
Can you talk about how the surreal informs your work, and the work you think it does?
KRA: I love this question, Amanda! I have always joked that I was born in the wrong era as I have a deep desire to be one of those surreal women like artist Leonor Fini living in 1920s Paris. I love their openness, creative expression, and wildness. I can’t remember when, but several years ago, I decided to allow all my weirdness (and a little wildness) into my poems and many times, that’s where my mind goes—to the magical and the surreal.
Several years ago before the pandemic, my friends Marty (Martha) Silano and Ronda Broatch began writing surreal questions to each other. We called ourselves “The New Surrealists” and what we’d do is fold a piece of paper accordion-style and write strange questions on them to inform our poems. These questions can be about anything such as: Why is your heart holding a dandelion? Who enters your window holding a nebula? Why do you put a lock on the candle’s flame? What god is climbing a skyscraper? How many manatees are needed to make a banana? Ridiculous stuff. We would write them quickly, set the timer for twenty minutes, then hand them to each other to inspire a poem. Once the pandemic hit, we did this over Zoom even Thursday evening from 5 – 7 pm; this is how our “Thursday Night Poets” group was born. We met every week throughout the pandemic.
The beauty of these surrealist questions lies in the simplicity of answering them in a poem. It’s not about overthinking, but rather about playing and letting the subconscious enter onto the page. Surrealism has a unique role in poetry—it stretches the boundaries of imagery and metaphor, giving us the freedom to explore complex emotions without being tied to reality.
For me, surrealism helps me unlock hidden doors to my poetry by lifting me from the everyday to the sun clouds of my imagination. In this space, I can create without constraints. If I want a woman with a cat’s face to jitterbug into my poem holding a cricket in a fedora, I can do that. If I want to carry waxwings beneath my ribcage to signify grief, I can do that too. Surrealism turns poems into little paintings, sparking them with surprise—a quality I deeply value in poetry.
AN: I love those questions, Kelli—I may use them myself! You know, talking about the surreal, I can’t help thinking of Dickinson and the notion of revealing truth by “tell[ing] it slant.” Sometimes that’s easier to do when we give ourselves the freedom, as you say, to approach difficult subjects a little sideways. Finally, I wonder if you might share what you’re working on now. And I always love to know what’s on other poets’ bookshelves, so: What are you reading?
KRA: I am working on my fifth manuscript of poems which in some ways marks my return to spiritual themes from earlier collections, but I believe in a more complex way as it brings in modern life, technology, devotion, desire, mortality, bisexuality, longing, even baby owls—all while exploring the quest for connection and greater meaning in life that many of us are seeking. The last word in my last book, Dialogues with Rising Tides, was the word “light,” and I am using that word to inform this collection, even while addressing tougher subjects like climate change and mental health. I hope these poems are infused with a bit of hope or at least, a little less sadness. For each book, I try to risk something new and for this book, it’s a new slant finding beauty in the chaos and bringing back a lost spirituality to my work. My hope is that book feels like trusting the stars even while acknowledging the dark.
As for what I’m reading, this is always a hard question as I continually have a stack of books by my reading chair. Some of my new and favorite poetry books I’m reading are Oliver de la Paz’s Diaspora Sonnets which was just longlisted for the 2023 National Book Award and Glitter Road by January Gill O’Neil which comes out in February 2024. I was lucky enough to get a pre-pub copy of Glitter Road, and it’s probably January’s best work yet; she is such a stellar poet and this is one powerful book—I highly recommend everyone gets a copy when it comes out in February and it’s got one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen with gold embossing on it, just beautiful inside and out.
I’m also reading Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir by Julia Cameron (who wrote The Artist’s Way); Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer; Gretchen Rubin’s Life in Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and into the World, and Jane Wong’s incredible memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City. All of these books are either memoir or nonfiction. I usually only read novels in the summer and I am such a picky reader when it comes to fiction—I am currently on the hunt for something good, which as someone who loves to read, is an ongoing quest. But one I’m always up for!
Today sadness is an ordinary girl.
A long understanding of how darkness
fastens you into its black
car and keeps driving. This when I need
the soft help of sheets, when the down
comforter becomes more than a cloud
but an accidental address marked
by bedroom slippers, a closed door.
Outside the world is a hangover
of yesterday’s news, a rainstorm
reminding me to stay inside, slip
the tenderness of my body into a universe
of resting, or maybe to reach
into the nightstand to find the novel
I didn’t finish because I couldn’t
bear for it to end.
From my bed, I want the world
to believe I’m kidnapped
but not search for me. Let the stranger
of sleep put her hands over my eyelids,
let me never finish this book.
When a saint said,
Some things are too sacred
to write about:
I remembered the prayer
a baby owl
in the slacktide
facedown & floating.
How to honor this
from the water & bury it
or let waves take it
trusting something else
needed its nourishment?
but feathers formed
a silent altar. And
I wished through waves
that before its soul
left its body,
the baby owl felt safe
as if it were flying
of whitecaps as if
the watery world could
carry it. How can I ever
fully hold its gift—
the loss & beauty of this
small and tender god.
String Theory Relationships
The essential idea is this—the man you love is connected to you
no matter what, but he’s also connected to the woman
down the street with the small dog that barks at the lilacs,
and she’s connected to the cashier at the market who’s a bit rough
with your grapes, but he thinks you’re ten years younger than you are
and he gives you free saltwater taffy while calling you
darling—but he also calls her darling, and her dog
darling, and the man you love along with the grapes.
The essential idea is this—all objects are composed of vibrating anxieties
—everyone wants a window or aisle seat and no one wants to sit
in the middle. Call it deniability. Call it the flashlight you keep
by the door never works in emergencies. We are all connected
by the blast that brought us here, the big bang,
the slam dunk, the heavy petting. We can’t always be pretty.
We can’t always be the eyelash and the wink, sometimes we have to be
the ear, sometimes the mouth. You are and are not the speaker in this story—
you are the bridge connected to the land connected to the man
you love and the woman you dislike who teaches spin class. It’s not
personal. It’s not personal when the universe says it’s complicated
and you have ten minutes to understand quantum physics.
When the man you love says there’s a new connection called supersymmetry
and it exists between two fundamentally different types of particles
called bosons and fermions, you hear bosoms and females.
You hear he’s thinking about the spin teacher with the nice breasts
and burrow deeper. The essential idea is this—someone will always bruise
your grapes and someone will end up in the middle. Someone you love
will break your favorite coffee mug and bring you lilacs. And you
will be connected to people who make your eyes roll.
You’ll be connected to others who stand on the bridge and consider jumping off.
You’ll try to care for them. And you will not look your age, but you will
feel sad when you look in the mirror because we all want to live
a little longer, because the dog will die and the cashier has lost
his job for stealing saltwater taffy from the bin, but he still calls you darling,
calls everyone darling, and today, darling, darling, darling, the flashlight works.
previously published in Dialogues with Rising Tides (Copper Canyon Press, 2021)
I left heaven because the pillows were filled
with grief and the bedsheets had a threadcount
of longing. None of the angels wanted to talk
about moisturizer, my recipe for vegan pizza,
and every morning I’d wake up hoping for sin
with my muesli, but instead they offered me
sugar while the living continued sending
their prayer requests to my mailbox. I decided
I was wrong about desire—that earth while messy,
had the best sex and wi-fi. Maybe I was tired
of trying to explain to saints how it was more fun
to be tempted. And how I missed bandaids
and credit cards, apologies and sad songs.
I left heaven with an unmade bed and enough
light to fill a stairway. Maybe in real life the wound
is misrepresented, mismanaged by its handlers;
pain and loss are D-list celebrities we try to avoid,
but in between the aching, maybe sacred is tangled
in the bed sheets, maybe the rip in the pillowcase
is what helps us recreate clouds.
previously published in Dialogues with Rising Tides (Copper Canyon Press, 2021)
Kelli Russell Agodon is a bi/queer poet and editor from the Pacific Northwest. Her latest collection, Dialogues with Rising Tides (Copper Canyon Press) was a Finalist in the Washington State Book Awards and shortlisted for the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize in Poetry. She also edited Demystifying the Manuscript: Essays & Interviews on Creating a Book of Poems with Susan Rich. Her collection, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, won both the White Pine Poetry Prize and Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Prize in Poetry. Kelli is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press, where she works as an editor and book cover designer and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University’s low-res MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop. Kelli lives in a sleepy seaside town where she’s an avid paddleboarder and hiker. She has a fondness for fedoras, typewriters, and smoked cheese. www.agodon.com / www.twosylviaspress.com