I was listening to an On Being interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer on my way to work Wednesday. She says:

Children recognize 100 corporate logos and fewer than 10 plants. That means they aren’t paying attention.

But, (as she points out earlier in the discussion) children always pay attention, and I think they pay close enough attention to intuit the difference between what we say is important and what is truly important to us. The problem is not with the children.

I’ve been thinking about my role as a teacher. My role as a student. And that something, in between the two: a facilitator.

Since I see poetry as a form of facilitation, I’ve been thinking about why I write. For whom, and then again, why? To communicate, to preach, or to gain approval?

In an interview with Maria Shriver, Mary Oliver talks about not getting the mother-love she needed; the resulting “neediness” she had in terms of her relationship with her life partner. She doesn’t say whether this neediness influenced her poetry. She does say she tries to focus on the positive while writing. She explains that poetry is, for her, not therapy.

But this could also be question of the definition of “therapy”. Oliver’s focus on the positive is a deliberate choice. And, arguably, a choice that has had benefits in terms of her work, and her personal life. Her life’s story has not been swallowed by the difficulties of her childhood. Or her more recent bout with cancer. She gestures towards them in her poems, and we see the wisdom of her moving on, in the larger narrative.

At least that is how I read her work, and admire it.

But am I still writing letters to my own mother? Is my neediness what has me in a bind regarding submissions and publishing? My need for approval? For mother-love?

After not having thought about poetry-as-business, the poetry “community”, about submissions or publishing for over 5 years, returning is odd. After having published (soon) 6 collections and earning a doctorate, the idea of paying a reading fee is something I can’t really get my head around. Having had my poems published in journals before, I can’t see that it led to sales in my books. This means I am considering, after having paid for my education, my computer, I can now pay to have the opportunity for people to consider whether they will present my work to an audience who might read it.

This is why I need to answer the question of why I write, and for whom. I already paid a shrink – for years – to give me the mother-love I’ve lacked.

I do know I’m still looking for a replacement for the childhood God I lost when I discovered He was too into irony to worship. In my less self-conscious moments of writing, that is where the poetry takes me. This search.

I’ve been thinking about what Kelli Russell Agodon said about the way she weaves the details of our daily lives into poems about our common concerns.

Spanx and angst, I guess.

The first time I wrote about this, I misspelled Spanx. I am actually more than okay with that. My daily life is more often filled with words like togforsinkelser and boblejakke. But that is another challenge all together.

Angst. Yes. The question is where to focus. Angst or answers. And yet, if I am looking for answers, will I need to articulate questions? Or isn’t that exactly what poetry is? Unarticulated questions.

snowbellI may not learn to identify all of the plants along my running route by name, but I can begin with the goal of knowing more than ten. I can begin to be honest with myself about what I am making important in my life.

The snowdrops are resurrecting now. I can begin here. And I will write for anyone with same, unarticulated questions that I have.

I would love to hear your thoughts on who you write for, what your approach to publishing is…

 

This Choice is Who You Are has been my mantra these past years: a mantra for becoming the person I want to be.

In the Podcasts, I look to other artists to learn from their experiences.

I ask poets how their work with poetry influences the choices they make in their daily lives, and how these, in turn, affect their sense of self and their relationships.

How are they using the experience of art to shape The Good Life for themselves?


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Kelli Russell Agodon is an award-winning poet, writer, editor, and essayist from the Pacific Northwest.

Her most recent books are a third collection of poems, Hourglass Museum, a Finalist for the Washington State Book Awards and short-listed for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize honoring the best book of poems published by a small press and The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice , which she co-authored with Martha Silano.

Kelli is also the author the award-winning collection of poems, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (2010) Winner of the White Pine Poetry Prize chosen by Carl Dennis, Winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Prize in Poetry and a Finalist for the Washington State Book Award.  Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room was also chosen as one of the 20 best books of poetry for the GoodRead’s Readers’ Choice Awards.

Kelli is also the author of Small Knots (2004), Geography (2003), and co-editor of Fire On Her Tongue: An  Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry.

 

In this episode: Kelli Russell Agodon.

Poems in the podcast:

“Wild Common Prayer” from Earth by Cecilia Woloch (Two Sylvias Press)

“Self Portrait with Reader”, from Hourglass Museum by Kelli Russell Agodon (White Pine Press)


Original music and artwork by Karl R. Powell.

Please subscribe through Soundcloud,  iTunes or your podcast app. Consider liking the Facebook page, to help spread the word. And, lastly, if you want to suggest a writer I should interview, please Get In Touch.

 

Patricia Fargnoli’s poem, “Roofmen” from her award-winning book Necessary Light has long been a favorite of mine. I once read it aloud to a therapist who had helped me through a difficult time. (I don’t often force people to listen to me read poetry.)

When I first decided to do the This Choice podcast series, she was the first poet to come to mind. Patricia Fargnoli is also one of the few American poets I have been able to sit down to lunch with – many years ago in Vermont. After chatting on Facebook, we quickly discovered that a Skype interview wouldn’t work (for reasons that will become clear in the interview). Patricia graciously offered to do a written interview instead, using my standard podcast questions.

So without further ado:


 

Authorphoto2Patricia Fargnoli served as New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate from 2006-2009, and is the author of six collections of poetry. She has been the recipient of The Sheila Mooten Award, The ForeWord Magazine Silver Award for Poetry, the NH Literary Award for Outstanding Poetry, and Mary Oliver selected her book Necessary Light as the winner of The May Swenson Award. A retired clinical social-worker, “Pat” has been a Macdowell Fellow and is a past Associate Editor of The Worcester Review. She has been on the faculty of The Frost Place Poetry Festival and its teaching conference, and has taught at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, for Road Scholars, and in the Lifelong Learning Program (CALL) of Keene State College. She currently teaches privately, and is editing a book a new and selected poems.

When and where did you start writing poetry?

I wrote my first poem when I was six, as a Mother’s Day gift to my mother who had died the previous year. I brought it to my Aunt Nell (who took care of me) and asked her how to get it to my mother.

I don’t remember writing more poems until high school, but Aunt Nell, who was a retired kindergarten teacher, read books and poems to me every night. My favorite books were the children’s poetry books: Silver Pennies, More Silver Pennies, and Peter Patter’s Owl. I read those poems over and over and knew some of them by heart. I also loved One Hundred and One Famous Poems. And asked especially for Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue” and others to be read over and over. So the rhythms and images of poetry were in my head from a very early age.

I began to write poems in high school (very bad poems) which would be published in the school newspaper. And, as a young adult, I took several adult ed poetry courses ….where I learned little. I didn’t begin to seriously write poems though, until my late thirties when I enrolled in a graduate poetry class at Central CT. State College with the Fulbright and Guggenheim-winning poet, Brendan Galvin. I repeated that class over several year, coming to know six other wonderful women poets who became my lifelong workshop-mates and friends.

It was during my time in Brendan’s class that I published my first poems in Tendril and Poet Lore. And I was hooked. I wrote and submitted consistently then but it wasn’t until I was 62 that Mary Oliver chose my first book, Necessary Light, as the May Swenson book award winner.

There is the great myth of the tortured artist. I once read that Anne Sexton was upset because Sylvia Plath beat her to suicide. How do you deal with the “romance” our culture has with the poet-in-pain–in terms of your identity as a poet and as a mother, father, partner, friend, role model?

I was becoming a poet as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell were popular so I was very aware of the popular idea of the poet as a tortured artist.   I do think that, in order to write good poetry, one must have a deep inner-life. And sometimes, not always, that depth comes through painful experiences that both leave scars and open the poet up emotionally. In my case, the early deaths of my mother and father (my father by suicide), and my upbringing by people not my parents, surely left my mind open for poetry. My brother, though, who had the same experiences never turned to poetry. Moreover I have poet-friends who never experienced the losses I did. So perhaps it is some combination of experiences and hard-wiring in the brain and heaven knows what else….pure lucky chance perhaps…that leads one to be a poet. However it happens, poetry has truly blessed my life.

Are you consciously trying to shape the story of your life? When did you begin that conscious journey, and how does poetry play a part?

In my early adult years, I had no concept of having the power to shape my life. I fell into a marriage at 19 with a much older man who had a severe drinking problem. He had custody of his two children a previous marriage, we quickly had three children and I was much too busy and overwhelmed to consider “shaping my life.” It wasn’t until I got in Al-Anon in my thirties that I began to understand that I had choices. I chose divorce and from then on chose my life, working as a social worker with troubled teens, taking poetry classes, and finally going back to school for a Master’s in Social Work. I worked as a therapist for ten years until, again fate took over and illness forced me to retire. I chose, then, and continue to choose, to focus on poetry.

As poets we are continually exploring our sensual experience of the world. How does your relationship with your body, with your body in the world (interacting socially, with nature, through pain/change) affect your writing?

In that way, my poetry is inseparable from the influences of my body. In these later years (I am now 78), I have been challenged by a number of chronic illnesses: diabetes, fibromyalgia, for instance among others, as well as winter-depressions. Some of my work responds to these directly, but most often my poems search for consolations in the face of the diminishment due to aging. In the past several years, I’ve struggled with a severe loss of hearing. Even with hearing aids, I live in a world of muffled sound and missed conversations. This too affects my personal life and the poems I write. In addition, I find that, with age, my access to language, especially verbs and nouns, has decreased. I think that I am not alone in this. A close friend, in her 80’s is no longer able to write poems, Donald Hall, also in his 80’s says that poems no longer come, another friend compensates by writing haiku. I still write poetry, often struggling to do so, and perhaps not as well. But then I think of poets like Stanley Kunitz who wrote stunning poems at a late age and am encouraged to keep writing.

And vice versa. In other words, does the practice of your writing, your poet’s attention to the word, affect how you physically feel and interact with other people, with nature, through pain/changes in your body.

Yes, absolutely. A friend one said: “poetry is the spiritual center of my world.” and that perfectly captures its importance to me. Poetry fills my days, it is the vehicle by which I deal with and express pain and sorrow and also joy. Even sad poems bring me joy, the process of writing, while frustrating, also brings me joy. The connections I’ve made with other poets across the country even across the world sustain me. I’ve been lucky enough to be a mentor to a number of others; I have a thick folder of loving fan mails. My poems and my connections to poets and to poetry have given meaning to my life. I believe that we are here to find out what we are supposed to be doing with our lives. For years, for me, that meant helping people through psychotherapy. When illness made that no longer possible, I turned full-time (through writing and through teaching) to poetry. It is my primary reason for being.

What is your favorite poem? Can you quote a bit of it for me?

I have many favorites and it is hard to choose just one. But my favorites always seem to give me some sustaining lesson or some moment of beauty.

Here’s part of “A Blessing” by James Wright about two Indian ponies:

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Also [Rainer Maria] Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo:”, especially these lines:

And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

[…]

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

How has it (the poem, not the poet) influenced your writing, and your life in general?

“A Blessing” reminds me to look for and find joy in beauty wherever it is to be found. That to pay close attention to the world and the things in it is of utmost importance not only to writing poems, but to fully experiencing one’s life.

“The Archaic Torso of Apollo”   especially the line “You must change your life” has been the guidepost for the life I have created in poetry. It is my constant reminder to keep poetry at the center of my life.

What poem of your own would you hope might influence someone else?

“Duties of the Spirit” from my book of the same name. It is about the loss, and grief and the importance of joy.

Thank you, Ren, for these interesting, thought-provoking questions and the opportunity to answer them.


I am grateful to Patricia for taking the time to answer the questions, and am looking forward to her new book! If you aren’t familiar with her work, do treat yourself: Necessary Light, Duties of the Spirit, Then, Something and Winter are all available through Amazon.

Also from the booksellers themselves:  Duties of the Spirit, and Then, Something, Tupelo Press; Winter; Hobblebush Books.

 

 

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Coming March 1st: Kelli Russell Agodon.

Kelli Russell Agodon’s third collection of poems, Hourglass Museum, was a Finalist in the Washington State Book awards and short-listed for the Julie Suk Poetry Prize honoring the best book of poems published by a small press. She also the coauthor of The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, O, The Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, as well as on “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor’s and in Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times anthology.

Kelli is the Cofounder of Two Sylvias Press where she works as an editor and book cover designer, and is the Co-Director of Poets on the Coast: A Retreat for Women Poets. She lives in the Northwest where she is an avid paddleboarder and hiker. www.agodon.com / www.twosylviaspress.com


March 9th, Molly Gaudry

Later this spring: Richard M. Berlin, Tim Mayo, Cati Porter…

(also an upcoming This Choice: written interview with Patricia Fargnoli).

You can subscribe on Soundcloud or through iTunes.
Please “Like” the facebook page for This Choice: The Podcasts, and help spread the word!

The word poetry can mean many different things. I reach back to the origins of the word, the Greek poeisis: “to make”; and to the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis (the representation of nature).

At an artisan level, poetry is a tool. The lyric poet uses words to  represent and communicate the experience he or she has of being in the world. But the poet also aims towards creating sublime Poetry (poetry with a capital P): The poet aims towards Art. All imaginative writers do.

Aristotle’s concept of Poetry in the form of drama, can be applied to verse, novels, and even flash fiction. Poetry is a “made thing”. But it’s not just a pleasant rhyme, not a pretty little story with tidy conflicts and a reassuring resolution. Poetry demands a representation that somehow conveys living consciousness. It’s transcendent of its own artificialness. Even dance (poetry-in-motion) has to rise above the mundane fact of a body’s movement in space: Movement becomes metaphor. And it is necessarily awesome, in the sense that it is also tinged with fear; if something conveys a true sense of life, it must also convey a sense of mortality. Poetry, as an art form, is not escapism. It is a confrontation with our truths.

Art as Experience

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Kissing Wilde’s Grave, 2012

Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create “a mood”. And if by “mood” Wilde means an experience, I agree with him.

I believe Art is an experience. It is the recognition of one human has when viewing/hearing an artifact created by another human. Simply put: the experience of, “I recognise that aspect of being human, too; I see you, the maker; I feel what you felt when you made this.”

Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God, or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.

However, Wilde also said that art is useless:

“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”

One can read Oscar Wilde’s little note on the uselessness of Art and the metaphor of a flower as his attempt to justify earning money as an artist. With all due respect, I dare say that Mr. Wilde had a limited understanding of a flower’s practical role within its ecosystem.

And although “made things” are not flowers, their potential for Art does not exclude their potential for usefulness. All art forms are tools for communication and discovery, whether or not individual works succeed as Art with a capital A.

Art as a Tool for the Good Life

Before Wilde, Immanual Kant also pointed out the useless of art. Kant said that an artwork is “intrinsically final“, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.

The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools, first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also helps us fulfil our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tool – when we work with devotion – writing may help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognise themselves through our Poetry. Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality.

Poetry, in verse or in prose – spoken or written- takes us out of our selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, be definition, exalts our experience.

Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention

Truth be told, “exalt” is one of those words that tends to put me off.  I’m more comfortable with words like “improves”, “challenges”, even “refines”. We can use the art of writing to refine ourselves, and to redefine ourselves. The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing.  We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity.

Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.” Regardless of his claims of uselessness, Wilde seems to be suggesting here that art can be a tool for reinvention.

Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful”. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be:

We can live deliberately.

We can cultivate attention and gratitude; we can create stronger connections with the earth, and with each other. If we aim towards Art, and if we are very fortunate, we can transcend ourselves.

Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.

– Oscar Wilde

This choice is who we are. Which story are you choosing?


More information about my exprience with Perspective Writing.