Letters from The Emily Dickinson Room
by Kelli Russell Agodon.
Kelli is here this afternoon (also on a 24 hour basis) to read poems, mingle with friends, eat well, and most of all celebrate the release of this important new book. You are invited to party with her. Bring a friend, a poem, and be sure to pick up a copy of her book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room. Kelli has also graciously agreed to answer your questions this week. Just leave a question in comments and she will get back to you. To my mind, this interactive portion of the party is the best. Here is a nationally acclaimed poet ready to answer your questions.
Can you talk a bit about how Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room came about and why you chose this title? Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room is a collection of poems I’ve been working on since about 2004. The manuscript was originally titled, An Alphabet Between Us, but as the work progressed, I realized that this collection had become more than what this title encompassed. The manuscript had evolved from its original subject of “the challenges we face when communicating” into more of quest for spirituality and this inner need I had in finding calmness in what I was viewing as a chaotic world.
In that respect, there was an autobiographical element I was dealing with when writing these poems. After a group retreat to the Oregon Coast where I stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel (literally in “the Emily Dickinson Room,” as the rooms were each decorated after a writer or poet), I realized that these poems were my letters to the world (à la Emily Dickinson). Since many of the poems were written at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and in certain way, my own life was slowly becoming my own version of Emily Dickinson’s Room (anxiety was making me retreat into my house and not want to leave), I knew what my title needed to be.
The whole process, which seems tidy in these two paragraphs, took about six years start to finish though.
Could you read a poem for us and then talk about it a bit? I'm always interested in where poems come from.
—after being asked why I write so many poems about death and poetry
There’s real fun in funeral,
and in the pearly gates—the pages relate.
You know, I fall prey to
All my life,
literature has been my ritual tree—
Shakespeare with his hearse speak,
Pablo Neruda, my adorable pun.
So when I write about death and poetry,
it’s donated therapy
where I converse with
Emily Dickinson, my inky misled icon.
And when my dream songs are demon’s rags,
I dust my manuscript in a manic spurt
hoping the reader will reread
because I want the world
to pray for poets as we are only a story of paper.
I chose this poem to share as I think it represents some of the wordplay and themes that appear in Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room. This poem has quite a few subjects that weave in and out the collection—poetry, poets, death, ritual, books, prayer—plus in contains two cameos from favorite poets of mine, Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda.
It was inspired by wanting to answer the question of why there was always so much reference to death as well as poets/poetry in my work. I’m not sure it fully answers that question, but it was fun writing it.
What is the best part or one of your favorite things about being a poet?
Oh, so many things, where to begin?
I think in the sense of the greater community, a great reward of being a poet is the opportunity to connect with others, both readers and writers. I am always thankful to hear from someone who happened upon one of my poems and connected with it, just as I appreciate being the reader who falls in love with someone’s poem. I so enjoy finding new poets and new work I had never read before.
Personally though, in respect to the creation of poetry, my favorite thing would be that words are free and unlike most artistic endeavors, at any time I can write poems in my head without cost or need for materials—that’s kind of magical to me.
Of course, there’s the social aspect and friendship that can be deeper with other poets because they have so much—how shall I say it—“inside information” to the writing life. Plus, my poet friends also tend to be “foodies” so when we get together, there’s always great food and drink—that’s definitely a favorite part.
More cake anyone?
Any new projects you can tell us about?
I am currently working on a non-fiction project on the experience (and challenges) of being at a writing retreat in this always-connected world. It is very difficult to “get away” in this age of cellphones and internet access. A year ago, I went on such a retreat and I realized how much the outside world (the constant news, the busywork of life, the nonstop flow of the internet and just bad habits we may have, but not even be aware of) can sabotage one’s writing life. I’m exploring the challenges of going off to a writer’s retreat and then the return back into a noisy, busy world. My return to “real life” was truly a small car-wreck emotionally and I’m interested in investigating why this homecoming was so hard.
I also have two other collaborative projects I’m working on, but they are still too early in their process to share with a larger audience, but as they progress, I’ll be mentioning more about them on my blog, Book of Kells (www.ofkells.blogspot.com <http://www.ofkells.blogspot.com> ).
Thank you, Susan. It was so lovely to talk with you.
Thank you, Kelli. Thank you for giving of your time all week to answer readers' questions. And for being a poet of passion, community, heart and wit. May Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room find the wide array of readers it deserves. To hear Kelli read some of her poems aloud, go to Drunken Boat.