Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You Are Invited! Virtual Release Party: Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room with Kelli Russell Agodon

Welcome to the book release party of 
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.



Believing Anagrams

                        —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
                               poetry,

have hated
   death.

 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.


30 comments:

  1. Thanks for hosting the party, Susan! It's lovely! And thank you for that wonderful toast! xo

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  2. Hi Kelli:

    I love the ending two lines of this poem. This of course makes it harder to wait for the book.

    From following your blog I of course know the story of the Sylvia Beach Hotel - The Emily Dickinson Room and how many of these poems were written on your retreat there. Knowing now about the your anxiety and wanting to retreat into your house of course adds a whole new dimension to the book. I'm wondering if after all this time and work and now realizing the beautiful book at last in your own hands, is there a cathartic aspect to this or just too much excitement?

    Oh, and Susan... great way to help Kelli celebrate the kick off of her book!

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  3. Hi Kelli,

    I, too, happen to know a little bit about your experience of the retreat from reading your blog. I have been really intrigued by this desire to retreat into your house that you talk about here. I was thinking, most women have this complicated relationship to home, domesticity. On the one hand, it's a safe space. On the other, it's also the normative space where women are socially expected to find happiness, bliss, satisfaction etc. I am curious, did you ever struggle with this complexity/contradiction while writing these poems? If yes, how do you think they have been reflected in the actual poems you wrote (and finally included in the book)?

    Can't wait to read your book, Kelli!
    ~Nandini Dhar

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  4. Wow, two very thoughtful questions- thank you both! I'll go in order and start with Michael's then answer Nandini's.


    Hi Michael,

    Your question first--

    RE: I'm wondering if after all this time and work and now realizing the beautiful book at last in your own hands, is there a cathartic aspect to this or just too much excitement?


    Kel:
    Oh Michael, such a good question and yes, there is a lot of excitement and many good feelings surrounding this book. I mention this because I so wish I could say yes to the cathartic aspect of it, but actually it brings out some interesting insecurities in me as it goes out into the world.

    There is definitely a feeling of relief, the ahh-it's-done, but then there is also the fear and worry of my second child--will she be accepted? Will others see her beauty? Will she teased? Will the other kids like her? As I grow more comfortable with this new baby in my life, much of this concern will pass and I will feel more at ease.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am joyous, but I find other feelings working themselves into my world, whether I want them there or not. It is a beautiful book, but until I get more feedback that others have found some beauty in the words inside, part of me is in my own special purgatory. I guess it’s still just all sinking in right now and I am awash in it all. Mostly good, but a few worries (which is nothing new for me).

    Ask me this question after my release party in October, then I’ll most likely be feeling fine! ;-)

    Thanks, Michael!

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  5. Hello Nandini—

    Wonderful question. Yes, I have definitely struggled with this, though I think I have less of complicated relationship with “home” because I have never incorporated the characteristics that one might think of when they hear the word, “wife,” “stay-at-home mom,” “homemaker,” etc. I have always put writing before any sort of house chore.

    My husband (thankfully) does about 98% of all the cooking because I never really learned how to cook. In fact, at my baby shower many years ago, a couple friends were so concerned I didn’t know how to cook they gave me recipes and tried to teach me how to make simple meals at the shower. I remember my mum being so concerned I would learn, she said to my friends, “Don’t teach her, once she learns it will always be her job.”

    But I guess thankfully, I have never been the domestic goddess or felt my value derived from what was once called “woman’s work.” I was always much more interested in what were the “male roles” of a household when I was growing up. I spent many hours in my dad’s office helping him with bills and investments. In fact, I remember asking my mum if she would teach me how to do laundry and she said no, that it wasn’t anything I should learn how to do.

    So while I do know how to do laundry now, my favorite tasks are paying bills, balancing the checkbook, and managing our family’s finances. Though I do love to sweep the hardwood floors.

    And some of the complexity of home that I struggled with for awhile (especially after having a child when it can feel as if the best thing I could offer the world was homemade cupcakes) was that I was not especially good in cooking, baking, chores, you name it. And I despised scrapbooking. So the part of me that wanted to be seen as “a good mom” had to realize that while I don’t offer my daughter the traditional role as mother (which I’ve grown proud of), I offer other skills and characteristics that will help her find her path as a woman in the world.

    But I do love being at home. I think this is the introverted part of me that gains its energy from solitude. And I think I have always been someone who loves comfort and who has always been slow to change. For me, in the best sense, home offers me warmth and comfort. In the worst sense, it can take away time to write and one’s passion.

    In fact, the very first poem in my book is about your very question. It’s entitled, “Another Empty Window Dipped in Milk” and it deals with my absolute fear of being too comfortable being a housewife or a woman who doesn’t follow her creative passion and instead relies on security and domesticity.

    Another poem “Ghosts” deals with trying to balance my life as a writer and my family. It is based on the fear of neglect whether it be neglecting my family for writing or vice versa.

    Nandini, I hope this answers your question. It’s a bit wordy, but as you suggest, this is a complex issue that each woman deals with individuality based on our own beliefs, biases, and habits.

    Thank you for asking that.

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  6. I can hardly wait to read this book, and I'm REALLY looking forward to whatever you write and share about the experience of going on retreat and the difficulty (and joy?) of returning. I've always been lucky to be able to get away on artistic retreat, but I spend the time between retreats haunted by the yearning to be back in retreat time.

    Now that I know to expect that yearning, it's easier, but as I first wrestled with it, I would often wonder whether it was even worth it to go on retreat, if it would trigger such sadness on my return.

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  7. Hi Kelli:
    Congratulations on your book publication! After I write this note, I'm going to order one!

    I guess I would chime right in with Kristin, and ask you to elaborate a little on your experiences as a writer at a retreat and the aspects of "car-crash" after the retreat.

    I'm very lucky to be at a retreat right now (with wi-fi, obviously). It's quiet and remote, but contains people not as focused on their work as I am. I think our identities become somewhat distilled in these situations.

    Cheers on your book! Kathy

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  8. Hi Kelli,
    Congratulations on your book! I very much look forward to reading it. And I loved your Believing Anagrams.
    I was also interested in your “the introverted part of me that gains its energy from solitude … home offers me warmth and comfort.” I often think of the difference between the capacity to be alone, and to draw energy/comfort/creativity from this state, and simply feeling/being lonely. The former leads to creativity and fruition and it sounds like your book arose from that kind of “retreat”.
    I don’t know about Emily Dickinson’s angle on this distinction, but I read in wikipedia “she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life”. And “She stressed her solitary nature …” I hope I will have a better feeling about her “room” after reading your poems.
    So from another perspective, I am also reminded of the question how much, as writers, we are influenced by the subject of our work… What happens when we write about an extroverted poet, for instance!
    Susan, thank you very much for this party. May I have a piece of that wonderful cake, please?

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  9. Ma'am,
    congratulations on the book!

    Poetry has become a very inclusive field of study. Readership has dropped, literary magazines are disappearing (see Triquarterly), it is often "taught" with the same denseness as algebra. All this despite the best efforts of the Poet Laureate, Poets in the Schools, Poets Out Loud, festivals, blogs, etc. And some of the smartest people in the world are writing it well!

    With this, what do you see is the poet's role regarding social responsibility, social change? Emily Dickinson's isolation is one answer. Do you see poetry re-establishing itself as an engine for social change? And if not, should we be content with the isolation, the internal sharing of ideas within the dwindling pool of poets and their "fans?"

    --Paul David Adkins

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  10. Congratulations, Kelli! What a fabulous party~*

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  11. Congratulations, Kelli -- I am so eager to read your book! To follow up on what Kristin and Kathy mentioned, I too would love to hear what you have to say about dealing with the "car wreck" of coming home after a retreat. And do you have any advice on 1) what you believe makes an ideal retreat, and 2) how to best create a retreat environment at home when you can't get away?
    Thanks, Kelli! And congrats again!

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  12. Kristin--

    RE: "but I spend the time between retreats haunted by the yearning to be back in retreat time."

    Yes, this is so well put!

    And yes, I have felt this too:

    "I would often wonder whether it was even worth it to go on retreat, if it would trigger such sadness on my return."

    These two places (retreat & real life) are such different worlds for many people. I completely understand these feelings. Thanks for sharing that.

    xo
    Kells

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  13. Kathy,

    Thanks for your note! And how lovely to be on retreat!

    RE: I guess I would chime right in with Kristin, and ask you to elaborate a little on your experiences as a writer at a retreat and the aspects of "car-crash" after the retreat.


    ****On the day I was to return from my retreat, I called my husband to let him know what ferry I'd be on and we got into a huge fight (which I started). Looking back, it was sort of a self-sabotage of my part.

    I really think there was a part of me that wasn't ready to go back, that needed more time alone or to write, and maybe I resented my regular life for all its neediness, all the people who counted on me. It's hard for me to write and it's the part in my non-fiction work that I struggle with the most, this idea of how one can both love and despise a "normal" life.

    But my car-crash element basically involved many hours of emotional vulnerability, tears, misunderstandings as I returned to my life already in progress and tried to fit back in.

    I can write about it now because everything turned out okay, but there was a point when my husband said, "I’ve never heard you this emotional.”

    I have always been someone who doesn't understand why they are feeling something when they are in the middle of it, but looking back, I can see myself going through this transition as I came back to my other roles: mother, wife, friend, daughter, etc. and knowing I had to once again balance my role as writer with my other tasks created a sadness as I returned.

    I think the transition back in the world can be described as the part of the road that isn't paved, the bumpy part that moved from this retreat back into the real world, and let's just say, I hit a lot of potholes!

    Thanks for your question, Kathy! Hope you enjoy the book!

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  14. Kelli,
    I followed the link to your Drunken Boat readings. Wow! Your beautiful speaking voice, combined with you moving ideas, creates powerful poems.

    - Drew

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  15. Hi Stella,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    There is definitely a different from being alone and being lonely. I recently heard someone say, “There are so many people in the world, how can anyone be lonely?” And my response was that, “Being alone doesn’t make one lonely, loneliness seems to be caused by lack of connection.”

    Many of my friends see me as extroverted because I’m not necessarily shy and will pretty much talk to anyone at anytime. However, I think that is a mistake in the definition of the words, an introvert gains her energy from being alone, an extrovert gains her energy from being with others. It is not a personality, but a preference in how one best “recharges.”

    Emily had many connections outside her home. She was an devoted letter writer and carried on many relationships that way.

    But you are correct, it was the quiet of my own “retreat,” whether at home or in the Emily Dickinson Room that sparked many of the poems. I tried to create a sort of narrative arc throughout the book where you can see the speaker in the poems evolving from one place to another.

    Thanks for commenting! And enjoy that cake. It’s black forest, Emily’s favorite.

    best,
    Kelli

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  16. Hi Paul,

    RE: With this, what do you see is the poet's role regarding social responsibility, social change? Emily Dickinson's isolation is one answer. Do you see poetry re-establishing itself as an engine for social change? And if not, should we be content with the isolation, the internal sharing of ideas within the dwindling pool of poets and their "fans?"


    An important and intriguing question! I’ll try my best to answer it.

    Mary Pipher has an incredible book, Writing to Change the World, which I absolutely love that deals with this very topic. There is a quote in there from Tobias Wolff that reads, “A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

    I think how I attempt to see “social change” and “social responsibility” of the writer has changed. When I read this quote I realized that I was not writing poems to change the world, but to change myself—which will lead to a small change in the world. (What does Gandhi say: Be the change you to see in the world.”)

    So as a younger poet, I truly believed I was writing poems to change things, to make a difference, now I think I write poems to change myself and in effect, that changes the world. Maybe it’s not the poem, but the act of doing something creative, making something where there was nothing before. It’s kind of miraculous.

    I do want to address this part of your question too:

    RE: And if not, should we be content with the isolation, the internal sharing of ideas within the dwindling pool of poets and their "fans?"

    I actually don’t believe poets and their fans are dwindling. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe we have reached the audience of Lady Gaga, but I believe we are a strong, growing community of people who love words and who seek connection and something deeper. If we feel isolated, then it’s because we haven’t reached out.

    I think if all the poets in the world got together, it would be one large and phenomenal party.

    And thanks for showing up to mine! I am glad you are here. Thanks for the excellent question, Paul!

    best,
    Kel

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  17. Kelli,

    One of the gripes we often hear about digital readers is that they hurt the reader's eyes after a while. Given this, do you think that poetry may become more popular on digital reading platforms, from iPads to phones or is it somehow too obscure for these technologies? I personally enjoy reading my weekly poem from Linebreak on my phone. Quick and convenient for the tiny screen.

    Best,
    Barry N

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  18. Suzanne, Thank you for attending! I think yours was the first virtual book release I had been too! An incredible way to celebrate! Thanks for celebrating with me! xo

    Midge--

    Thanks for being here!

    RE: To follow up on what Kristin and Kathy mentioned, I too would love to hear what you have to say about dealing with the "car wreck" of coming home after a retreat.

    ****Read my response to Kathy, I think you'll definitely see the car-wreck aspect! ;-)


    RE: And do you have any advice on 1) what you believe makes an ideal retreat, and 2) how to best create a retreat environment at home when you can't get away?

    *****Midge, great questions!

    1) For me, an ideal retreat is without internet and cellphone service (and no free wi-fi anywhere!) I know many writers want internet so they can "research," but I would highly suggest against that (research when you are home.)

    I think one of the amazing aspect of a retreat is that it can pull you out of everyday life, the news, the chatter of Facebook & Twitter, your neighbors, the chores in your house and it is absolutely amazing to be in that quiet space where you are just in the world (and not having the world tossed at you from every direction).

    I think it's a space (if you can get away or quiet enough) that we haven't experienced since childhood. Remember there was a time when you didn't know the world news, who was having what for dinner, what parts of your house needed fixing, etc. I think part of the retreat for me is returning to that open quiet mind that just let's me be. It's amazing the ideas and writing that appears when I don't have NPR's News-to-Slit-Your-Wrists-To in my ear every hour on the hour.

    It doesn’t have to be too far from home, but far enough that it’s not convenient to run home to get something. I like my own room or own cottage. I’m happy if other writers are there who we can interact with if needed, but I appreciate being able to set my own schedule of sleep, waking and writing. I also think good chocolate, good food, and maybe a nice bottle of wine helps make the retreat idea. Also slippers!

    2) If you can’t get away, I’d say the best way to create a home retreat is to make a space in your house that is ONLY for your writing. Not for bills or to do lists, but a special and unique space (however big you like it) that is your space to create.

    I think doors are good (so they can be closed), especially if you have other family members in the house. I built a shed so I could physically leave my home, albeit I’m twenty steps away from our front door, but that small shift in geography made a huge difference. It’s been 2 years since I built it and I still feel that sensation of uplift or a “letting go” of the real world when I enter into it.

    Midge, thank you so much for stopping by. You have been a huge support to me over the year and I’m thrilled to see you here.

    cheers!
    Kelli

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  19. Drew-- Thank you! And thank you so much for stopping by. Also-- your book is on its way to you. I so hope you enjoy it!

    all best,
    Kelli

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  20. Hi Barry,

    Good to see you here.

    Great questions!

    RE: One of the gripes we often hear about digital readers is that they hurt the reader's eyes after a while. Given this, do you think that poetry may become more popular on digital reading platforms, from iPads to phones or is it somehow too obscure for these technologies? I personally enjoy reading my weekly poem from Linebreak on my phone. Quick and convenient for the tiny screen.

    ****It's funny, I remember when the Kindle came out and I was so anti-eReader. Now I love them.

    My friend has a Nook (from Barnes & Noble) which doesn't have a backlight, so you can read it out in the sun and it doesn't hurt your eyes at all. I read poems (and books) on my iPad through iBooks and I love it because I can take all my books with me (books have always been a security blanket for me and I never go anywhere without a bag of books, now to be able to keep so many with me--esp. the classics--is magical and less pain on my shoulder from my heavier bag).

    I think one way that poetry and iPhones/technology go together is that these items are portable and used on the go, what better to thing to read when you’re busy than a poem?! It seems the perfect mediation for our busy lives.

    I think the main issue with poetry on these devices is the linebreak and the form of the poem being lost. I think that concerns some poets, and rightly so, but I do believe there are ways around this without sacrificing the integrity of the poem.

    Also, Peter Pereira recently mentioned on his blog that he downloaded Best American Poetry 2010 on his iPad and loved that when a poet included links in his bio to their website and other poems, he could just click on them and connect with the poet online and read more work. I think this is a wonderful aspect of eReaders that could really be used to help readers find new poets to fall in love with. And isn’t that what we all want with poetry, a love affair? ;-)

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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  21. I'm so glad this post has received so many responses. I think the interview is terrific. So, too, is the quoted poem. Congratulations, Kelli. I'll do my best to promote the collection.

    Thank you, Susan, for hosting.

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  22. Thank you, Maureen, Michael, and all our guests. Help yourself to champagne and Emily's favorite cake. Let's keep this party rock'in.

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  23. Maureen - Thank you for stopping by! It's been a lot of fun!

    And Susan, thank you for being such a lovely host! Yes, more of Emily's cake!

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  24. I love a party where I can show up in my PJs! Sorry to be arriving late - is there any cake left? CONGRATULATIONS, Kelli. I can't wait until the mailman brings your beautiful new book to me. I appreciate the conversation, esp since I leave for a short writing retreat on Sunday morning. Thanks for hosting us, Susan!

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  25. Elizabeth, yes, at a virtual book release, no one knows what you wear! (And this solves the problem of arriving to someplace to find someone else has your outfit!)

    Thank you for showing up and I so hope you enjoy the poems. Glad you received them today!

    xo
    Kel

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  26. Congratulations, Kelli! I am looking forward to seeing your book. The Sylvia Beach Hotel is inspiring, isn't it?! I love it there. Your party is delightful and the cake looks delicious. Thank you for telling us so much about yourself and your process. Thank you Susan, for hosting.

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  27. Thanks for a great party, Susan!

    And Kelli, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply to my question (replies, actually - I've been enjoying the entire Q&A!) -- I love what you said about how we haven't really experienced a certain type of quiet since childhood. That is so true, and I can especially relate to the "News-to-Slit-Your-Wrists-To" stress of all the media we're bombarded with daily. (One reason I return happy from vacations is because I usually haven't read the newspaper while away...)

    So many thanks; this was such fun and so informative and helpful -- and CONGRATS again!

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  28. Dear Susan and Kelli,

    I so enjoyed this party! Yummy, that Cardamon cake was so delicious, and I am tipsy from one too many. If "Believing Anagrams" is anything like the rest of the poems in your new book, it is one of the best collections pubbed in 2010!! I absolutely loved that poem, and I know I'm not alone. Thanks for putting this up, Susan, and to Kelli for sharing about the process of writing Letters and what you love about being a poet. I would agree that foodie poets are the best type of poets to hang with. Can't wait till my copy of your book arrives in the mail!! CONGRATS, Kelli!

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  29. Thanks, Midge, thanks, Martha ~

    It's been a great weekend of partying. I think 2010 has been a great year for poetry books -- but then I am a little biased!

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  30. Oh drat. Late to the party and not fashionably so. But I so enjoyed reading all the questions and answers...such a thoughtful discussion. I'm ordering your book now, Kelli. Hopefully you can sign it next week at BookLift.

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