Fast Five with Kelli Russell Agodon

Because five questions can lead to endless insight, I'm happy to introduce you to Kelli Russell Agodon. Her poetry collection, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, is easily my favorite book of 2010.

Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of two poetry books, and is editor of Crab Creek Review. Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room was published this month and is dedicated to "those who write letters to the world."

You can win a free copy of this book. Simply post your name in the comments section below. The drawing will be held on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2010.  

I was delighted to see that many of these poems — and the book title — were influenced by your stay at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, which is very near where I live. Which came first, the poem-letters, or the Emily Dickinson Room?

The poem-letters. I had been working on the collection for about two years when I stayed in the Emily Dickinson Room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel on a writing retreat with friends. It was in that room where I realized what I was writing about and was able to focus my collection and begin to write the poems that were missing. The title poem, “Letter from the Emily Dickinson Room” was written in that corner hotel room looking out at the Oregon coast realizing how much I craved calmness.

How would you describe your writing style?

If you’re asking about my style as in my method or process then my writing style is to write as many poems as I can and revise the ones I like best.  (And to try not to over-revise, something I’m quite good at.  I have killed many a poem by over-revising it and sucking out all of its energy and every spark.)

If you’re asking about my writing style as in characteristics or what is my voice or distinct form and/traits, then my writing style is conversational, sometimes surreal, sometimes narrative, sometimes humorous, usually accessible and with a dash of darkness for kicks.

Or maybe my writing style is glasses plus casual Fridays and black boots.

What is your favorite poem in this collection? Why?

Great question!  I like having to think about this as my easy answer would be, “They are all my favorites…”  But if I have to narrow it down to one, I’d say, Questions at Heaven’s Gate is probably my favorite because it was an underdog poem that I stood up for.  When my manuscript was accepted, I received some great advice on edits and suggestions on what poems to take out to make the collection stronger. This was one of the poems that was on the suggested “remove list.”

I remember feeling a deep gut instinct inside me that said: This poems needs to be in the collection.  On a personal level, this is very deeply an autobiographical poem about my father’s death and who he was, and in a certain way, how I’ve dealt with it (imagining him speaking with God, etc.). I love that I had to speak up for this poem and was glad I did.  I think it’s my favorite because it was almost not included.

Questions at Heaven's Gate (an excerpt)

When my father meets God
he says, Let me introduce myself . . .

When my father meets God
he says, Am I too early? Too late?

When my father meets God
he says, Do you serve drinks here?

When my father meets God
he says, It was easier not to believe.

When my father meets God
he says, I can see my house from up here.

When my father meets God
there is only the sound of my father

When my father meets God
he says, I can breathe again.

When my father meets God
rain returns to the city.

As an editor of a literary journal choosing from hundreds of poems to publish, what do you love? What do you loathe? 

I love poems that surprise me (and not in that shocking, swearing, taboo words/subjects way), but in fresh language, new images and putting the extraordinary into the ordinary. Anyone can write a poem about a shocking topic and have it stand out because it’s about a tragic occurrence or because of the nature of the subject, but I’m interested in writers who can write about a shopping trip, the forest, an experience in a way that connects me and makes me stop and pay attention.

There’s little I loathe beside people being unkind or poor manners. There’s more to love in poetry than to dislike.

I’m a collector of words and have my students collect words, too. What are your favorite words?

Hipsway, lollygagging, inky, salsa, penlight, oaf, shenanigans, tangle, moth, humdrum, hipbones, madronas, whiplash, bamboozle, numbskull, foxtrot, and prayer (though not necessarily in that order).

My least favorite word is filibuster

To win Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, add your name and contact info in the comments section below by Friday, Oct. 22nd. Feeling shy? Email me!:

Your name will be entered in a random drawing. The winner will be announced on Saturday, October 23, 2010.