Friday, September 13, 2013

Do Poets Still Write Letters? Some Do!

The Beauty of the Letter
One very cold and wet December, Jordan Hart asked Kelli Russell Agodon and me to write a series of letters about poetry, friendship, and the writing life. The idea was that perhaps our experiences would be of use to other poets and writers. It was one of our favorite assignments and took place the same week we decided to start Poets on the Coast.

What the letters don't mention is that we are both writing from separate cottages at a northwest artist residency as we wrote. This gave us the space to reflect on our 10+ years of friendship.

I am a great fan of literary letters from Elizabeth Bishop and Paul Celan, to Denise Levertov and Rainier Maria Rilke. If you have a dear poet friend you might try doing this with her (or him).


A few months ago we asked two of the most popular writing teachers at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference–Kelli Russell Agodon and Susan Rich–to let us "eavesdrop" on their musings of their friendship, their poetic passions, and their lives as writers in the Pacific Northwest. What follows is a conversation held over email on the nature of their friendship and what it has come to mean to them–and to their work–over the past ten years.

Dear Kelli,

Here is the secret nobody knows: poets need friends. OK. You know it, I know it, and so did Elizabeth Bishop. From Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge this fine morning please come flying. In “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore,” Elizabeth Bishop celebrates her deep friendship with another woman poet: her mentor and lifelong friend, Marianne Moore.

I know that Bishop and Moore shared poems, went on outings to the zoo together, and when Bishop moved to Brazil in 1951, wrote long letters. Our friendship, now almost a decade old, impacts my writing life in important and magical ways. Do you remember when we first met? We both had poems for the Poetry on the Busses anthology and were reading at the Seattle Art Museum. Your daughter, an infant at the time, let out an enormous cry when you took the podium. “That’s my daughter,” you said without missing a beat.

I liked you right from the start, but it probably took your organizing a reading for Poets for Peace for us to see each other again. I didn’t realize until right now that our friendship was connected to the aftermath of September 11th — and the need for poets to come together and speak out against the witch-hunt mentality of that moment. That you brought so many poets together — anyone in Seattle who wanted to join us, it seemed — at such an uncertain time gave me a strong sense that you were someone I needed to know better.

I’m pretty sure that I was the one who asked you out first. We met at Elliott Bay Books, the old location. You had on a cream-colored rain coat, tied at the waist and looked every bit the stylish writer. I remember asking you about whether poets should publish in online journals. This was an actual question at the time. Yes, you know you were in favor. From the beginning of our friendship you have been my technology guru. I don’t know if this is due to the age difference between us or the fact that you are more willing to dive into the unknown. Of course, I’ve flown off to live in Africa or to do human rights work in Bosnia and Gaza, while you’ve lived your entire life in the Northwest. Our life experiences have been very different and yet there’s some core substance that connects us together. I can’t say exactly what it is but I know it has to do with ideas about friendship and poetry.

To continue reading our literary letters click here!

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