Sunday, February 16, 2014

Interview With Kelli Russell Agodon - author of Hourglass Museum

Interview of Kelli Russell Agodon by Michael Allyn Wells – February 14, 2014

I’d like to welcome poet Kelli Russell Agodon the author of Hourglass Museum. This is Kelli’s third poetry book and second published by White Pine Press.  Kelli has been gracious enough to answer some questions about her latest book.

 I have to say for me this book was a trifecta First, It was solid as a book, a cohesive unit; secondly, the individual poems resonated; lastly, for the countless gemstones that dot the landscape of this book.

MAW:   Kelli, I have to confess that I never saw the word Muse in Museum until I finished this book. Can you tell us a little about how the name Hourglass Museum developed?

KRA:  Yes, “muse” is definitely in the title and a theme throughout the book.
The “museum” part of the title came immediately to me. I knew when I began writing this book that what I was creating was an “invented museum” or “paper museum” and for a long time, Her Invented Museum, was the working title. If I look back in my notes I see this rough jotted-down thought, dated February 11, 2011:  Manuscript Idea—walking from the parking lot (parking lot dream) to the museum door—through the museum and back home (or some place else) the manuscript as a trail through a museum—an imagined museum . . . an invented museum where I can see whatever I want by artists living or dead. how we interpret our lives through art and the struggle of living a creative existence.

I lived with the title Her Invented Museum for a long time knowing it wasn’t exactly right. I tried other words in front of museum, Cloud Museum, Paper Museum; I switched words around and came up with Museum Confidante, Museum Key, but none of those felt right. There was an element missing: time. 

I chose the word “hourglass” to represent time as well as an image of the feminine. I also liked  when you say “Hourglass Museum” out loud, it sounds like “Our Glass Museum” –and that is life.  We are in this fragile place constantly and on any given day someone we love can die, or we can die, or there can be a number of tragic events, and yet, we live our lives as if we’ll be trotting this planet forever. We complain about the weather, get annoyed because Whole Foods is out of our favorite guacamole. It’s our humanness that interests me here and our belief or forgetfulness that all of this is temporary. I wanted to write how we have this gift (myself included), that we are in this incredible museum, this incredible life, which is happening now, and it could shatter at any time.  It’s something I struggle with myself. I am wishing time away and wishing it back more than I want to admit.

Plus, “hourglass” felt like the right word because while writing the book I had many connections with glass, clay, and ceramic items (many breaking) such as while at the writing residency where I wrote most of this book, I shattered at least three (if not more) wine glasses trying to catch various wasps in my bedroom (that image is included in the book).  And Susan Rich lost the crystal to her father’s watch at one of readings in an art museum.  I was also having magical experiences with chalices, so glass and this idea of “being broken” comes into play a lot.

When I finally chose the word and typed HOURGLASS MUSEUM on my manuscript, I knew I was set.  There just comes a time when there’s an inner gut feeling at work and it says, yes, this is it.

MAW:  There were words I picked up on that so often become themes in poems today… joy, suffering, loss, and lonely. But what you wrote was fresh and unique. Did you ever worry about being able to say something new about these things, and making them fit into a bigger picture?

KRA:  That’s a really good question because I don’t really have an answer for it!

When I wrote these poems, most which were written on intense writing residencies, I was squirreled away from the world for one to two weeks and was completely out of touch with real life, the news, my family, etc. In a certain way while working on this manuscript, there felt as if there was a spiritual element at play—many of these poems just came out, almost as if they were writing their first drafts by themselves. Poems were typed entirely whole and I would think, Where did that come from?  But I didn’t question the poem or theme itself.

Now, looking back at them from a more separate and less mystical perspective, I guess I could have worried more about that, making sure I said something in a fresh way or worried about some of the common themes. But I think when I’m writing at my best, I am not living in (or writing from) a place of ego.  “The ego place” would have a much more judgmental questioning to the drafts. The ego worries: Are you doing this well?” Are you doing this right? Should you be writing about this?  In my creating-new-work mode, I just write and allow whatever needs to happen to just happen, without worry or question.  I guess because I realize not every poem has to go out into the world. There will be many poems I will write just to get to the next poem, but they aren’t “keepers,” so to speak.

I never question content of a poem, just the craft. A poet can write about anything (and anything cliché)—the moon, her grandmother, death, etc.—it just has to be written and crafted well.  So I guess (now that I’ve processed this all out) I didn’t worry about saying something new or fitting into a bigger picture, I just wanted them to work inside the book and story I was trying to share. And knowing myself, anything I don’t love gets tossed in the revision process. I am a tough, unrelenting reviser.

MAW:  There are so many poems in this book I like – it’s hard to settle on a favorite. I think “Self Portrait with Reader” is perhaps a strong contender for favorite,  because the metaphor of Mary holding the sacred heart of Jesus transformed into each of us holding up our art and having the courage to do that knowing some may turn away. And when you wrote, “Reader, I want to tell you/the hearts we hold will continue/beating even after we leave here.” I have to say that it spoke to me personally because I sort of look at poetry as a loop hole to mortality. But I’m interested in your favorite… what poem from this book is your favorite Kelli, and why?  

KRA:  “Self Portrait with Reader” is one of my favorites because I really feel, as a poet and artist,  this is what I do every day—here is my heart (or art, myself, or whatever I think is scary or unlovable about me), and I present it to people, to readers with a sort of underlying hope: here is my heart, still love and accept me. Creating art and being authentic can make us feel terribly vulnerable, but that is also where the beauty comes from. And yes, art is our way of staying alive far after we have left the planet.

Another favorite poem I like right now is “Surrealist Angel.” I think because it’s a sort of life instruction pamphlet for Capricorns, overthinking types, or people who love To Do lists (um, basically myself). It’s a reminder not to plan everything and live in the moment.

MAW:  So much about this book seems like it was a very personal endeavor for you.  All the way from the acknowledgement of your many tribe members to the feeling I get emanating from your strong and honest voice that clearly resonates.  Was this book as much of a journey for you as it feels like to a reader? If so, what did finishing the book mean to you?

KRA:  Yes, this book is deeply personal for me and about a journey I am still on. I think it’s one of the reasons I was so anxious about this book coming out into the world—here is my heart and I’m holding it in my hands—that worry of “what will people think?”  I took a lot of risks in the book where I just hoped the reader would stay with me, that they would continue the journey along with me from poem to poem, having faith we’d both make it out together. 

“Sketchbook of Nudes” comes to mind here.  It’s basically my brokenness in poem format. No punctuation, no capitalization, highly fragmented. It’s all the things that keep me up at night—literally too. . . from my old haunted armoire to the fear someone has died.  But it’s part of my museum, beauty and pain interwoven over and over. As a poet though, I realize the people who read my work are incredibly smart and insightful, so I believed I could stretch myself as a writer and take these risks and they would come along with me and go through this darker area knowing there’d be light at the end.

While I didn’t want to it read like a memoir (though technically, a lot of the things I personally struggle with are throughout the book), I wanted the reader to be able to see himself or herself in the poems and in the lines as well. I think many readers of poetry are either writers or creative people themselves, and if you partake in the creative arts, you’re not unfamiliar with doubt, with questioning, with trying to live your life as an artist and all the challenges that come into play while doing that. I think being a writer or artist involves a lot of trust. And a heck of a lot of vulnerability.

As for finishing the book, well, the book came out a year before it was supposed to. I sent it into Dennis Maloney of White Pine Press knowing it wasn’t fully finished, but hoping if he liked it enough that I could get onto the conveyor belt of to-be-published books and have it published around 2015. To me, this was a perfect date. It was mostly done, but I’d have a year to play with it and revise it, it seemed like a perfect plan on my part. But then AWP in Seattle was considered and my pub date was moved to 2014.

My plan of a year of casual revision was compressed into about four months, four intense months of doing everything I could to make this book better and well-crafted. In regards to writing poetry, I have never worked under a deadline before, and in the end I think this benefited the book because I couldn’t be self-conscious about anything (there was no time for that!) I had to make decisions on what was best for the book and each poem, instead of how I would feel if someone read a poem that dealt with something I was a little self-conscious about.  I think if I had more than a year, some of the rawness and/or honesty in the book may have been edited or revised out for appearance sake. I wouldn’t want to look like someone who can’t handle her stuff, or is cranky about volunteering for field trips, or has issues with anxiety, melancholy, balancing writing and family, ___________________ (insert negative human characteristic here). But I think readers connect when we share our demons more than we say, Isn’t it awesome how my house is always clean, how fantastic my family life is, what a great mom I am, how well I can balance things, how perfect the blossoms on the drapes are as I close them. . . (Much of the most interesting parts of life happens behind closed curtains, we can’t really see what’s happening inside, but that’s what interests me.).

And when I turned the final manuscript in, I had this huge feeling of relief until the anxiety came about three months later then I thought Oh-my-God-this-is-going-to-be-a-real-book! The hard part about finishing a book is not having a something to work on. So there’s this mix of both sadness and satisfaction with completion and this new excitement of starting over on something new. That’s where I am today, thrilled about my book and its physical beauty (I love the cover image!), but also looking forward to starting something new after AWP and all my readings settle down.

MAW:  Kelli, speak to me about Frida Kahlo and what she means to you. Would it be safe to say that she was a muse that influenced this book?

KRA:   Yes, Frida was definitely a muse to me throughout the book. After Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, Frida began appearing in my life in many ways. Even looking back on my New Year’s Resolutions, one of them read: To be more Frida Kahlo. Frida had a strength and belief in herself I admire. When I find myself getting too self-conscious, too over-protective of my feelings and beliefs, too worried, I’d think about her living her life with the challenges she faced (both physical and emotional), and how she presented herself to the world without apologies.

Living one’s life as an artist is difficult if you are really giving it your all—you risk humiliation, rejection, pain, sorrow, personal doubt, not being accepted by others—these are all my least favorite emotions and yet, if I want to create and write the poems I want to write (or felt I had to write), I’d have to put myself on that doorstep. Frida took risks in her art (and life) that I want and wanted to take.

I’ve included a photo of this artwork of her I found at the Habitat for Humanity. I was just driving up to a ten-day writing residency in which many of these poems were written and this portrait of her was hanging on the wall. If you have ever had the feeling that something was placed exactly in the right place for you to find it, that’s how I felt when I saw her in that wooden frame. It now hangs in my office continuing to inspire future poems. 

MAW:  Kelli, I want to thank you for taking time to chat with us about Hourglass Museum.  I have to say it is an extraordinary read.  There are so many unique images crafted from your words that I will take away from this book and always remember. One such line is “I place solitude in a frame on my desk and call it, the one I love.”  When you and solitude are together I suspect great things happen. 

KRA:  Thank you so much, Michael.  And I am so happy to hear that much of the book resonated with you. It’s always my hope that I’m connecting with others.  Solitude and I enjoy each other’s company quite a bit.  I look forward to the future poems solitude and I write together along with what Frida inspires as she watches over my writing space. Thanks again! 

Kelli Russell a prize-winning poet, writer, and editor from the Seattle area. She is the author of three collections of poems, the most recent being Hourglass Museum (White Pine Press, 2014).  Other books include Letters From the Emily Dickinson Room (Winner of the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Prize in Poetry & Finalist for a Washington State Book Prize), Small Knots, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice, Fire On Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry, and the chapbook, Geography.  She is the co-founder of Two Sylvias Press and lives in a small seaside town where she is an avid mountain biker and paddleboarder. She loves desserts, museums, and typewriters. Visit her at her homepage:

Connect with her on Facebook:

Twitter: kelliagodon 

 Hourglass Museum can be purchased at your local bookseller, through  White Pine Press or on

1 comment:

Penelope Scambly Schott said...

That was a fine interview covering some of the questions I might have asked. And of course no book ever finishes a subject --it's just where the poet is at some artificial stopping point like publication. Thanks.