The Argotist Online
Studdard and Kelli Russell Agodon in Conversation
Melissa Studdard is the author of the poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and the young adult novel Six Weeks to Yehidah. Her work has appeared or been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, POETRY, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, New Ohio Review, Psychology Today, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere, and has received awards such as The Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, and the REEL Poetry Festival Audience Choice Award. As well, her work has been noted in many best of lists, including Cutthroat’s Best Books of the Year, January Magazine’s Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bustle’s “8 Feminist Poems To Inspire You When The World Is Just Too Much,” and Amazon’s Most Gifted Books. Here website can be found here.
Russell Agodon is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press where she works as an
editor and book cover designer. Her most recent book, Hourglass Museum,
was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards and shortlisted for the
Julie Suk Poetry Prize. Her second book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson
Room was the winner of the Foreword Indies Book of the Year for poetry and
was also a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. She has received
awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg
Foundation, James Hearst Poetry Prize, Artist Trust, and the Puffin Foundation.
She coauthored The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice,
with poet Martha Silano and is the Co-Director of Poets on the Coast. Her next
collection of poems will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2021. Here website can be found
KRA: Melissa, as someone who has written with you at a residency, as well as evening Skype sessions, I'm always impressed with how your mind works and with your first drafts of poems. I'd love for you to share your process and things you do while writing a poem. (Also, for extra credit points—what would you recommend someone who is stuck on a poem do and if your process had a name, what would you title it?)
MS: Ah. Yes! I love our writing sessions! I would call my whole process, at every stage, The Cultivation and Wildly Grateful Acceptance of Flow. My writing mind works best when it’s loose, agile, flexible, and open. When I get stuck, it’s usually because I’ve become rigid or have started to feel too formal about what I’m working on, and I need to open myself back up.
My main go-tos for staying loose are dancing and freewriting. Sometimes I dance through a whole poem—either by having my notepad with me and literally writing the words as I bounce and sway and glide across the floor, or by alternating between the desk and the “dance floor,” which is my office floor, where I do hip hop, flamenco, and bellydancing. Sometimes I dance in my chair as I write. Sometimes I dance before I write. Sometimes I dance after I write. It all helps and keeps me inspired.
I use freewriting similarly... Much of what school and textbooks teach as pre-writing can and should be done through the entire process, not just at the beginning: Question asking, lists, outlines, freewriting—all of it (and more). I keep scrap paper, just like in a math test, and use it all through the composition process. I will freewrite a whole page sometimes to come up with a title, for instance. I can do this in 2-5 minutes, whereas if I stare at the screen to try to think of a title I could be there for a half an hour or more.
Some other things that keep me writing are going back and forth from the computer to paper (each medium generates differently, and that stimulates flow as well), and doing other things that inspire me, like going on walks and going to museums. I would advise writers to figure out what inspires them into thought and action and to cultivate it both in non-writing and writing moments. Go jogging, do yoga, learn to scuba dive, listen to music—whatever ignites you. And, yes, stop right in the middle of a poem to look at a painting if that breaks the poem open for you.
Kelli, I’m always surprised by how quickly you write and how prolific you are. What creates flow for you? You’ve mentioned muscle memory as part of your process, which intrigues me. And I also know you can be a very social writer. How does writing with others compare to writing alone? Do you recommend one over the other? Both? And a fun bonus question for you too—if you could write with any poet who’s ever lived, who would it be, and what would you do during that writing session?
KRA: While you are dancing, I am using music (through a Spotify playlist and skullcandy earbuds) to help me “get in the mood” to write. I am not sure how this process came about for me, but what is does is allow me to enter into flow faster than anything else I’ve tried. And yes, you mention “muscle memory”—now what happens when I hear a certain song is my brain kicks in with “oh, it’s time to write.”
The key to me is finding a song that inspires me to write, but to listen to it long enough that I am no longer hearing (or listening to) the lyrics. My top songs right now are “She Moves In Her Own Way” by the Kooks, “Big Black Car” by Gregory Alan Isakov, “Harmony Hill” by Vampire Weekend, “Girls” by Girl in Red and if all else fails, there’s always “I.G.Y.” by Don Fagan—one of my fallback songs.
I am happy writing both alone or with friends, but if I had to choose, I’d say I prefer writing with others. I think because I feel an extra creative energy boost from the interaction and it’s just more fun. I’m not sure if I recommend one over the other because many times we don’t have the choice. But it’s definitely more enjoyable for me to write with others, and there’s usually food and drink, reading poems out loud, interesting conversation, and sharing—all things that inspire me.
In regards to who I would write with if given the chance—my first thought was Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin because they had a second line added to their homes so they could have each other on the phone while they wrote—so I know they’d be open to writing with others and I always love that story. But my answer wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t say Sylvia Plath and Frank O’Hara just due having a chance to meet them—Frank, I’d definitely have a Coke with and Sylvia, well, we’d probably talk about our writing goals and maybe we’d submit poems together. Or maybe I’d bake gingerbread with Emily Dickinson and we’d lower it down in a basket to the neighborhood children while a fly buzzed... I realize as I write this, there is absolutely no way for me to pick just one poet.
So Melissa, what is the biggest struggle/challenge in your poetry life or being a poet? If you were to describe this struggle or challenge as an image, what would it look like? If you could sit this struggle/challenge down and talk to it, what would you say?
MS: By far the biggest challenge is finding time to write. Between single-parenting, working a full-time teaching job, editing jobs, and all the extra-curricular responsibilities that come with poeting (such as sending out work, giving readings, doing interviews, etc.), it’s difficult to find a few hours to sit down and write. Also, I love doing all those other things, so it doesn’t make it easy to say “no” to them. I think most creative people have this problem—we want long stretches of time to brood and think and pace and all sorts of other things that may not look like working, but which are in fact working to feed the art. How many times have you been composing a poem in your head or reading a book and had someone come up and say, “Oh--since you’re not doing anything, can you help me with …”
The image in my mind is of me hunched over and trying to walk to my computer with a huge pile of to-dos weighing down my back—there would be dissertations to review, papers to grade, contests to judge, housework to be done, phone and email messages piled up. The pile would be like one of those Rorschach Tests—one minute it would look like a pile of everything that it was and another minute it would look like a herd of unruly and many-armed tricksters, slapping my hand down any time I tried to reach for a pen or paper or computer. If I could talk to the pile/herd, I would ask it to keep its hands to itself and get off my back. I would ask it to wait quietly in the other room and only send its tricksters in one at a time as I called them. I would ask each trickster if there was anything it could do for me, anything I could learn from it, and in what ways it could fuel my creativity instead of detracting from it.
In essence, this is what I do now, to the best of my ability. Sometimes the tricksters still climb on all at once, and I forget to focus on my writing, but much less frequently than in the past, I make time to write. Sometimes that means giving up sleep or food or being late on a deadline for something else, but I write every day. I have to.
And now you have me thinking about the power of imagery and metaphor, which are two of your great strengths as a poet. You’re equally as gifted with short, leaping metaphors that rise and fall in a single line, as with extended metaphors that can stretch even across an entire poem. How do you consistently write such fresh images and figurative imaginings? Forgive me for this—I know you don’t like to talk about Christmas off-season, but I picture you almost like an elf in Santa’s workshop, delighting in the play of creating.
What does your metaphor workshop look like in your mind?
KRA: I’m laughing because I hate holiday stuff when it’s not the holidays. I can’t even eat Whoppers when it’s not Easter because they are so a part of my memories of childhood and spring. You know me so well.
I think for me, I see the world in images, in metaphor. Because I have never been in touch with my feelings, to say, “I feel sad, I feel happy, I feel…” it is much easier for me to use metaphor and image to explain my thoughts.
I have never been able to explain it except to say my mind is a spider web—we start in the center talking about love, then there’s a diversion and we’re talking about ham sandwiches, how people shouldn’t jaywalk, then I see a comet coming to hit the planet and missing, or being in a busy underground tunnel in Seattle and thinking about an earthquake, and how sad it would be to die underground without my family, but maybe I make it through an emergency exit and see blue sky, and ultimately, reunited and it feels so good, ultimately love.
It’s how my brain works, everything is connected. I see the world as both beehive and thunderstorm. I could never find the words to describe my feelings because they don’t exist. I was from a generation of not understanding how I felt, the positive of that is I see the world in shapes and colors, I see my feelings in the mourning dove that fell asleep on my deck chair this afternoon—oh, I think, this is what calmness looks like.
The metaphor workshop never turns off. It’s building an etch-a-sketch of lines that are actually my emotions, it’s a Jack-in-the-Box of anxiety. I work better with using something else to show what I’m thinking. I don’t have the resources (or self-knowledge) to say “I feel sad because,” but I can say, “I don’t understand why the rain doesn’t stop” and “I can’t sleep because the lightning and the thunder keeps waking the bees in my mind.”
So tell me, how do you walk into the world that is a poem? How does being a poet change what you see? Sometimes I think we are breathing and walking through a living poem, do you think so? Or how does poetry (and being a poet) inform your life, your creativity, your inspiration?
MS: I don’t walk much when entering a poem. I shimmy and skip and twirl. I think you’re right that we’re living the poem already. Everything is the poem. We just decide to pull part of it out of the ether and call it “poem.” Really though, it’s like Plato’s Theory of Forms, where the chair we sit on is just a portrayal of a chair because the real chair exists in the realm of forms.
Or even better, it’s like cutting a slice of pie and saying you’re eating pie. We’re cutting slices of lemon meringue poem from the huge, never-ending poem and calling it “poem.” All of this is to say that from my perspective, being a poet means perceiving and expressing the poetry that’s already there. I can look at a sunset with two other people, and the arts administrator will say, "it’s gorgeous,” and the artist will say, “look at those colors,” and I will say, “wow—the sky’s telling us the story of the origin of color.”
If you were there, you would say something like, “I’m so sad that Kate Spade died, but look, isn’t it nice that she dropped her scarf across the horizon tonight?” (I know you!) And I would say, “Do you think it feels like tulle or silk or the inside of a calf’s ear?” And you would say, “Let’s climb on top of your house and see if we can reach it.” And then we’d go sit on top of my house and write poems about Kate Spade dyeing the horizon origin-of-the-universe pink” and that would lead to a whole new discussion about which baby animals have the pinkest paw pads and softest ears and whether or not having soft ears means they can hear ghosts, and—BOOM—we’d be writing a second poem. That’s how being a poet informs my life, and that’s how knowing I’m living in a poem informs my poetry, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I might add, too, that finding and bantering with someone who sees like you is a great generator. You kindle and assist each other’s perception.
As you can tell from this answer, I’m sure, like you I think best in metaphor. If I don’t understand what you’re saying about something, give me a good metaphor, and I’ll understand it instantly. So what I want to ask you now is if you had to come up with a metaphor for the contemporary poetry scene, what would it be?
KRA: I think the contemporary poetry scene is like this universe of constellations and stars you know the names of—sometimes we’re like, “Omg, Polaris is just nailing it these days!” or “Did you see Vega, Betelgeuse, and Sirius last night? They were just shining!,” but there are all these other stars around them doing their jobs too, shining into the world, that may go unnoticed yet are still incredibly valuable. I mean, look up into the night sky, imagine if we only had the major constellations or the stars we know the names of, it wouldn’t be as beautiful or as rich. It’d just be a few dots of light and a lot extra space.
I think I see our poetry scene as a universe where I keep finding new stars to love. And while sometimes it may feel as if your work is going unnoticed (you feel like a star in some back galaxy), someone has or will discover you—if you're writing poetry, I believe you are adding light to a dark sky, which makes a difference. I would rather live in a world with more stars/poets than less.
If your poetry life was a car, what kind would it be and where would you drive it? Or would it be a car, or maybe a boat, a bike, roller-skates? Where is poetry taking you these days?
MS: Well, first I have to acknowledge your gorgeous answer. Yes Yes Yes to all of it.
My poetry life is probably a hot air balloon. Like in The Wizard of Oz, I fly it home from the faraway lands of my imagination and back to those lands again. Sometimes the balloon might fail just to show me that all I’ve needed the whole time is to click my own heels. When I’m inside the basket, I’m slightly scared but singing and popping champagne and marveling at the beauty of the universe drifting by. When I’m on the ground watching others fly it, I marvel at the beauty of the balloon itself and how brave the poets are to risk losing the ground for beauty.
So, let’s talk the big M—manuscripts! How do you organize them? When do you know you have one rather than a random batch of poems? What differences have you noticed between shaping a manuscript from existing poems and coming up with a concept and writing into it? Are there any other activities in your life (wrangling horses, twisting your body into impossible yoga poses, managing an intimate relationship) that have similar processes or from which you have learned skills or abilities that help you with making a manuscript?
KRA: THE BIG M! I remember Marvin Bell saying in grad school, “You can throw your manuscript up in the air and pick it up poem by poem, and that’s one way…” Here’s the thing about manuscripts—there is no one way, there are just many ways that may or may not be right for your manuscript. My second manuscript was alphabetized... why? Because I happened to have poems that started with Q & X and I had the word letters in the title (Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room), so I thought—let’s do this.
Susan Rich and I will be publishing a book that explores the different ways to organize a manuscript and what I learned from this is just what I said—putting together a book of poems is like decorating a cake (wait, I don’t cook/bake), but you put something in the oven then you decide all the details—pink flowers, rainbow stripes, or should we go simple with white frosting. Or maybe poetry is our bedding—shall we sleep under a down comforter or sheets with flamingos on them, do we want two pillows or one? There are no wrong answers—in art, just opinions.
I guess I just have come to believe (trust) that each poet has a vision for their work and it could be what I may do or very very different. That for me is the magic of reading a book—you get to discover the gift the poet wants to give you—maybe it’s a three-layer cake, a one-layer cake without frosting, or maybe it’s German-chocolate in the shape of a tombstone. We each get to create the art we want others to have, and that’s kind of delicious.
So for you, Melissa—if someone had told you something about poetry manuscripts or first books that would have rocked your world or turned on the light in a ballroom, what would it be? Do you have any advice for poets with books or manuscripts? And if putting together a manuscript was a roadside attraction or a type of dance, what would it be? Please feel free to drop random advice or things you’ve learned as a poet in the world…
MS: Putting together a manuscript should be a roadside attraction!
FEAST YOUR EYES! POET CARNIVAL HERE! SEE POETS:
Over 20 manuscript contortionist acts! Over 7 escapology acts!
Snakes will be charmed! Lions will be tamed! But will the poets complete their drafts?
Seriously, though, I talk about this in greater depth in the essay I wrote for the book you and Susan Rich are putting out, but a few things that come quickly to mind are:
Drawing from your experience as a poet and your editing work for your press, Two Sylvias, do you have helpful advice regarding submitting, the publishing process, entering contests, etc? Also, a bonus, should you choose to accept it—what mistakes have you personally made when submitting your own work? Mistakes you’d like to help others avoid.
KRA: As a poet, my advice to all other poets when submitting is don’t self-select—meaning: don’t decide a magazine is too big, too important, too hard, too prestigious, too ____________, etc. for you to submit your work or manuscript to. Let the editor or the judge make that decision. A good friend told me, It's their job to say no, not yours. I think that’s my best advice for anyone—do your best work and submit it where you want it published, even if you don’t believe you’ll ever be published there. Just submit the work. Period.
When you put together a manuscript, know why you do the things you do. Do you have section titles? Why or why not? Why is your poem ordered the way it is? Do you have the best title for your manuscript? What about your poems? Ask yourself as many questions as you can as you revise—is this the best word? Do I have a theme here or recurring images? Do all these poems need to be in here? I have a personal motto—when in doubt, leave it out. I think shorter manuscripts do better in book prizes, I think you can find more reasons not to accept a longer manuscript than a shorter one, there’s more opportunity for a few extra clunky poems.
As an editor, my best advice for submitting a manuscript would be—submit your best work (best words, best order, most well-crafted poems, etc.) and then relax back into your life and practice being low-maintenance. For example, if you realize ten minutes after you submit you are missing a period at the end of your poem or a word, don’t write to the editors asking if you can resubmit. Realize manuscripts always have an error or two, calm down, and resist writing the editor about these things.
Also, look on the guidelines and any responses you receive once you submit your work for any questions you may have, don’t email editors with “Have you chosen someone yet?” and “When will I hear back from you?” Reading manuscripts takes awhile. We want to not be rushed through anyone’s work, because of this, it may be 3-6 months after a submission period ends before you hear anything.
You want the editor to remember you for something good. Like if you really love a book from the press, let them know in your cover letter. Research your press before you submit, not after. Buy a book (or books) to see if you like their aesthetic, the printing and binding, the paper, etc. When they choose you, you are going to have a book that is very similar in quality and style, so know if you really want to be published by them before you submit because if you ask them to use a heavier paper for the cover of your book or inside pages, they probably won’t be doing that. They most likely use a certain printer and are limited (either in production or cost) to what that printer offers.
As for mistakes, I’ve made a few… ha! I’ve made a lot! Where should I begin? Here’s a few of my lowlights—
Once when journals took paper submissions, I mailed my VISA bill along with my submission. So some editor received poems and a bill. I kept thinking the editor thought I must have been being avant-garde—ah yes, here is a poem about consumerism. It was rejected, they mailed the poems and unpaid bill back to me (and I also got a late fee too).
When I returned to writing after quitting my corporate job, I submitted some terribly newly written poems to the Paris Review with a personal note—-I’m back writing poetry again and I wanted you to have my first poems! This still makes me cringe. (I’m sure they thought, “oh, thank you for sending your terrible poems to us, Kelli, that’s such a gift.”) ;-)
I have missed deadlines, submitted blank documents, I have misread guidelines sim-subbed when I shouldn’t have. I came very close to submitting a poem that wasn’t mine because I had somehow saved it in a word doc and I was reading thinking—-Wow, this is really good! I am nailing these poems! Then I got to a word I didn’t know then thought—wait, I wouldn’t have used that in a poem. So I googled the phrase and it turned out it was a published poem by poet Olena Kalytiak Davis that I was going to print out for a class I was teaching.
I guess that is why as an editor, I am very forgiving. We say at Two Sylvias Press, we err on the side of the poet, and we do. We never disqualify manuscripts. If we have any questions or something doesn’t come through correctly, we write the poet. It’s something I really love about our press because we’re poets too. We understand there will be mistakes—I mean, we’re human. So we always give our poets a pass and try to take as much care when reading and working with them.
MS: Is there anything you want to close with? Any image or advice or thought?
KRA: I’m just back from a road trip, so I think the thought I want to end with is—if you feel as you don’t have anything else to write about, it’s time to fill up. Take a trip, a day trip, talk to strangers, go to a museum, drive to a town you’ve never been to and take notes, look around, ask questions. And remember, no one is writing from your perspective, so be bold, be vulnerable, and try not to censor yourself.
MS: I love it and totally concur! Let’s go fill up and write! I’m heading out to talk to strangers…
KRA: Thanks for the conversation, Melissa. May we all continue to talk to strangers and write our way into the world…
© Melissa Studdard and Kelli Russell Agodon