Kelli Russell Agodon: Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room

The beautiful and talented Kelli Russell Agodon agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (Woo hoo!).

Kelli is the winner of the 2009 White Pine Press Poetry Prize judged by Carl Dennis for her manuscript, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room. A Seattle native, she was educated at the University of Washington and Pacific Lutheran University's Rainier Writing Workshop where she received her MFA in creative writing. She's also the author of Small Knots (2004) and Geography, winner of the 2003 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Currently, Kelli lives in the Northwest with her family. She is the co-editor of the literary journal, Crab Creek Review.

1. I know you’ve talked about the process for publishing Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, but would you mind briefly talking about it here. I think your story is an inspiring one.

Yes I’d be happy to as I think it’s important for poets to realize that sometimes getting your manuscript published is not always an easy thing to do.

I started submitting the manuscript in 2005 under the title, An Alphabet Between Us. Looking back now, I realize the manuscript wasn’t complete, but at the time, I was anxious to find a publisher for my second book, so off I sent it into the world, ready or not.

I worked on it for about two years, then noticed in about 2007 that I was receiving more positive comments and feedback from editors and my manuscript was beginning to be a finalist or semi-finalists in poetry book contests. Still, it wasn’t being chosen and I wasn’t really sure why or what the book was missing.

A friend of mine from my MFA program who had read all the of poems said to me that she really “liked the poems that felt more vulnerable and not just my wordplay poems. It was then I realized that in an effort to protect myself from vulnerability, I had removed much of the gravitas from the manuscript, and what remained was pretty good writing, but nothing was at stake in my poems.

When I realized this and that the core of my manuscript was actually about dealing with anxiety and trying to find calmness in what I saw as a chaotic world, I was able to revise the manuscript and bring it to a place where I felt the poems and the manuscript carried some weight and wasn’t just a slight of hand with words. So during a writing retreat with some good friends, I focused on the book and rewrote it into Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room.

From there, I submitted the poems for another year and half until it was accepted. When I look back over my records, I can see I sent it out a total of 76 times, (about 19 times each year). The first two years, the book really could have stayed out of the hands of editors, but I couldn’t see that.

I am definitely not one of those writers in the interview section of Poets and Writers who says, “Oh, I submitted my manuscript to two publishers, and the first one took it.” Quite honestly, I don’t believe those kind of stories are helpful to anyone except the individual writer who is saying it. If I look at my friends who are submitting today (very stellar poets), my experience of submitting a manuscript to many places before an acceptance is probably more the norm. It’s a competitive market for poetry books, that’s not make anyone feel discouraged, but to say: When you are discouraged, don’t give up.

2. I’m fascinated by the artwork. Tell me what inspired the beautiful cover artwork.
I knew when the book was accepted that I wanted to help in finding the artwork, which is a polite way of saying I wanted to choose the artwork myself. I had a very clear vision of what I was trying to do with the book as a whole and knew when I saw the “right” artwork, I’d just know in my gut.

Finding the artwork was very synchronistic. When I published my first book, there was a Seattle artist I really liked, but she wanted over a thousand dollars for me to use her image on my book and I couldn’t afford her. Still, her work inspired me and I wanted to maybe ask her again, but hope her price had dropped but I couldn’t remember her name, so I googled something like “House bird painting” hoping one of her images would come up or something similar for my book.

It was pretty optimistic to think that this artist might show up or that I’d find any usable artwork with this phrase, but those were two of the images that kept coming into my mind when I thought about the book. When I googled that phrase, what did come up was a blog about new artists that had some surreal images. I was taken by one of the images and went to the artist’s website. Her name was Catrin Welz-Stein and at the time she lived in Switzerland.

As I looked through her work, I saw the image “Her Garden.” This image, which is now on the cover of book, as a Victorian looking woman with a white scarf (think Emily Dickinson) and a large taffeta skirt pulled away to the sides like stage curtains. Underneath her skirt, there is a lush and wild garden revealed.

The image doesn’t show the woman’s face, so for me, this image represented Emily, myself, or any woman and what we keep hidden inside us. The fact that the woman was holding a bird, only made this artwork more endearing and appropriate for my book as Emily’s poems, “Hope is a thing with feathers” was a touchstone for me throughout writing this book.

I contacted Catrin (whose second language is English) and asked her I could use her artwork and she was thrilled. I learned she was also the mother of two kids and having to balance art and regular life, and it felt good to support another artist who was in a similar place as I am.

3. What was your process for assembling the book?
Since I knew much of this book had to do with letters (both true correspondence as well as the alphabet), I got the idea into my stubborn head that I wanted it alphabetical. As I wrote the poems for the book, I put them in alphabetically to see what happened.

Some fell perfectly into place, but others were not where I wanted them. Because of that, once I realize what the book was about, I began retitling quite a few poems so they would be in the position I wanted. Sometimes, the new title would open up the poem even more and create something that worked on even more levels. Other times, I struggled and moved the poem with various titles all around my book.

With each poem though, I would ask myself if it should be part of the collection and had to do with struggling with anxiety, finding calmness in a chaotic world, or worked with the greater idea of this book. If it didn’t, it was pulled. By the end of putting my book together, I think my motto was, “When in doubt, take it out,” but I feel that remained were only the poems that represented my larger vision and hopefully if read from front to back, the poems will tell a story to the reader and offer a satisfaction of completeness.

4. What is your favorite poem in the collection?
Currently, it’s “Said Prayer,” which can be read at Escape into Life.

I think this poem is currently my favorite because so much of myself is in that poem—my fears, my faith. And it ends with a positive line, “Still, I sip and gather.” For me, I find this line touches deeply on the human spirit—that even during the hardest or most hopeless times, we can still find ourselves alive and moving forward, sipping life’s nectar and gathering what we need.

5. What was it like to hold the first book in your hands? What was that day like?

Incredible. I wasn’t home when the box of books arrived and I remember telling my husband on the phone that it wasn’t a package and not to open it, as I so wanted that satisfaction. I remember loving the cover and immediately after opening the box, my twenty-pound cat hand crawled into the open box of books and went to sleep. I took a photo of myself with the book just to remind myself of the good feeling, then I took a photo of my cat.

6. What’s the question I should have asked you?
Were these written poems really written in Emily Dickinson’s Room and how did you gain that special access?

Actually, many of these poems were written at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Nye Beach, Oregon (right by Cannon Beach) on the Pacific Coast, across the country from the home Emily grew up in. Sylvia Beach Hotel (named after Sylvia Beach, the founder of the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. in Paris) is a fantastic literary-themed hotel where each room is decorated for a specific author. As the name of my book states, I was in the Emily Dickinson Room and it was there where I felt the book really came together.

I haven’t been there since 2007, but Susan Rich and I are leading a writing retreat there the weekend of September 9-11, 2011 called Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Retreat for Women. We’re just starting to sign up participants, but we’ll be getting out more information about it on our blogs shortly. I’m really looking forward to this weekend as it’s a magical place for writers.

Thanks for the great interview questions, January!

*Thank you, Kelli. Looking forward to finally meeting you at AWP!*


Kathleen said…
Oh, my! Thank you for doing this wonderful interview, and I am a bit overly excited to hear about the women's retreat!

Loved reading about the writing, assembling, submitting process for this book--such care taken, such insight! I have read the book and very much appreciated the vulnerability in it, along with those startling and brilliant wordplay pieces! The two-ness of that is a wonderful aspect of the book--to be this brilliant means to be this open to what the world offers! To notice so much, to be so aware, ah!

Thank you both!
Jessie Carty said…
Terrific interview! Strange coincidence that my 2nd full length manuscript seems to revolve around the alphabet as well and I've just recently begun to realize that the poems themselves may not need to appear alphabetically. It is hard, however, to let that theme go!
Anonymous said…
I liked reading the back-story about that great cover-image. Since it creates first impressions, I think good cover art is often undervalued (in personal collections and literary journals). So it's great to see shining examples and I doubt it's any coincidence to learn that the author was the one responsible for seeking it out.
Terrific post. So wonderful that you are doing the retreat in the Fall.
Love to hear about different “takes” on the writing retreat.
We are 2 women who believe all writers deserve a retreat from the “real world” to get creative.
May I introduce us here? and perhaps we can share links??

Affordable Coastal Retreats for Women by Women
WRITE BY THE WATER offers 5 day retreats for aspiring and
published writers in all genres. Work w/In–house author,
Skype w/NYC agent/editor, meet like-minded women.
We provide bed, breakfast & lunch, plus time, space and
motivation to write. Don’t put it off any longer.
Apply now for 2011 coastal retreats:
Feb 18-22, NC. June 3-7, NJ. Oct 7-11 Vancouver
5 days for $899, 3 day wkend $599, Early Bird discounts
call 678-777-9618 Or online:
thanks, Linda
Fantastic interview--I really enjoyed hearing about the development of the body of work.
January said…
Thanks, everyone, for the feedback. And, special thanks to Kelli for her honest and thoughtful answers.

I'm interested in Kelli and Susan Rich's retreat in September. Would love to attend ... hmmm ...
Maureen said…
Great interview. I have Kelli's book and enjoy it immensely. How wonderful that she found the cover artist as she did. The background to the book is wonderful to know.
Kells said…
Thank you all. I'm gladmso manynof you enjoyed the interview and/or the book.

Happy 2011!

Popular Posts