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.
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.
Yes, I think that is what I appreciate about our friendship—it is built on a meadow of similarities and differences. When I first met you, I remember thinking, “She has been everywhere. She’s done important work!” Here I was, a native Northwest girl who has lived in only three houses her entire life, and you, whose abodes mapped across a world neighborhood. You had been in Peace Corps, you had existed in countries at war—you have an activist heart and a poet’s hand, how could I not want to be friends with you?
As our friendship grew over the years, I found much more of how we were the similar—our love for good chocolate and coffee, our belief that walks and conversation should be the part of any perfect day, our trust in solitude and yet, a knowing of the importance in friendships that connect on a deeper level, friendships that skip the small talk and go directly to what is on our minds. There is a blessing in knowing that we can immediately get to the greater details or vision in life without having to comment on the weather first.
So I ask you, is our friendship or these greater friendships a result of time, or can women cultivate what we have, a significant friendship, without having to have the grace of so many years behind of us?
Is our friendship inextricably linked with being women? I’m not so sure. That you and I are of the same gender seems important, but aren’t men also capable of profound friendship? Some men are, I’m certain. I think the grace of our friendship arrives from so many directions. A shared love for desserts and long talks – that’s certainly central, but there is also a shared sensibility in terms of our work that I value beyond words — although it is made of words. Sometimes when I read my own work I hear echoes of your voice. I don’t mean that I’m stealing your words – though I am often tempted to do that, too — but rather that our focus on sound, on mixing the surreal with the real, of bringing in play wherever we can — that these touchstones seem as true of your work as they do of my own.
When we have our writing dates – days that we’ve crafted into a rhythm of their own — coffee, a walk, lunch, poetry, more food — I’m so often struck by how quickly the hours fly by. And now, the years, amble on, too. So to answer your question: I believe friendship does need time to stretch out and get comfortable, to sit on the sofa with large mugs of good coffee and travel on to a thousand varied subjects.
I think what we often do is ask each other questions. Tough questions. Am I living an authentic life? How do I change what needs changing?
We move from the largest questions in life to the simple ones like – who are you reading right now? And underneath it all is the trust we’ve built I don’t know any shortcuts for that. Lately, we’ve also taken our friendship on the road, to writers’ retreats and conferences. We’ve set-up readings together and now we have a new project in the works for next fall. I love bringing our friendship further out into the world. Knowing there’s two of us trying something new makes projects exciting.
I know I’ve told you in the past that our friendship feeds me as a writer. Does that seem true for you as well? How do you see our friendship in terms of your writing life.
In terms of my writing life, I think our friendship offers me a poetic confidante and our writing dates, a mini-retreat where I travel two hours by feet, ferry, and car, arriving at your home and to your writing studio, House of Sky. Together, we talk, write, eat and walk. The day is a literary buffet as we sample many topics as well as the dessert of writing in your studio where we create new work.
I’ve read that Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton installed second phones lines in their home so their families could have access to the phone as these poets’ conversations could last for hours. There is an image of have of both of them writing with the phone on their desk, knowing that at anytime during their process, they could pick up the handset and they were connected, the other was there on the other end.
When I am home, a ferry ride away, our friendship offers me what Anne and Maxine had—a line between us where at anytime I can reach out to ask for help, advice, or support. While we tend to use email more, I know you are there for me.
On our recent writing retreat, each in our respective studios, I loved how we were connected by text messaging. When all the lights flickered in my studio, then immediately died, I had you to reach out to—“Did you just lose power?” I typed. A moment later, a resounding, “Yes!”
To me, these are what my deepest friendships are built on, the knowing that there is someone I can reach out to and depend on. And I know I can email, call or text at you at anytime, and this reminds me that while I am alone in my own writing studio, I am never really alone. Writing is such a solitary act, but knowing that you and other poets I hold a deep friendship with are there for me, keeps me secure and helps me stay protected from a dark loneliness; I might be secluded but I am not isolated.
Do you find this true for you, too?
Did you know Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin met in 1957 in a poetry class at the Boston Center for Adult Education where I once worked? I love the randomness of how friendships can begin, it’s an accident and then it’s not, to quote Pam Alexander, a poet friend from Boston. And yes, our texting together and daily emails seem the equivalent of Kumin and Sexton’s famous telephone line. I look forward to our messages back and forth across the ether.
I’ve just been reading Bill Kittredge’s essay on his friend and fellow Oregonian, Richard Hugo. I think if we look close enough, we’ll find that every serious poet who produces work over a lifetime, has poets whom they can rely on. We need poets to drink with (coffee, in our case) to talk craft with (your anagrams to my villanelles) and finally (when it’s almost too late) to repeat favorite stories of past and future lovers. Maybe it’s because poetry is so far from the mainstream of American life that we need reminders that hours, weeks, spent in seclusion is okay. More than okay. I think we both find seclusion to be deeply nurturing.
Yes, I know that you’re there in your writing studio or residency or driving around in your car thinking about poems or what to have for dinner. I can ask you to look at a poem or buy me a certain shade of lipstick, I can tell you about my latest publication — or rejection and know that you know how it feels. I know that I will send you details of a contest or a conference and that you will do the same for me. I know that we will raise up each other’s level of work because we want to keep pushing boundaries and finding new ways of saying the ineffable.
It’s been almost ten years of friendship between us. I wonder what the next decade of poetry and friendship might hold?
Hmmm, our next ten years?
I’m guessing there will be more poems and books in the next decade, more chocolate, more walks past constellations in cement, Thai food and a day or two lost in art museums with journals and pencils in hand. I see our two writing studios—House of Sky and House of Sea—continuing to be an important part of our future, many hours spent in the contentment of writing, creating something new and yes, that invisible line still between us—your Alki Point to my Apple Tree Cove.
In my life, ten years would mean my daughter would be grown and perhaps, this could equal longer stays at writing retreats for me than just a week. Where could we go? I’d like to envision a six-week stay at Hedgebrook with mason jars of homemade granola, an adopted basket, a cottage in the woods. Or a sea town in Portugal, some place where a bread cart rolls in fresh croissants every morning, the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Pacific, somewhere warm and calm.
You have said a few times that after moving around so much in your younger years that you want to stay in your current home in West Seattle, but maybe I’d become the younger you, traveling to far away places, having many addresses, moving from place to place to place. Maybe in ten years, my new motto would be, this fine morning, please come flying…It worked well for two other poets, maybe it’s the line for you and me?
Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room. Her other books include Small Knots and the chapbook, Geography, winner of the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Prize. She is an avid mountain biker, a lover of good chocolate & lives in the Pacific Northwest where she is the editor of Seattle’s 28-year-old literary journal, Crab Creek Review. Visit her website at: www.agodon.com and her blog, Book of Kells at: www.ofkells.blogspot.com. She will be teaching afternoon workshops as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.
Susan Rich is the author of The Alchemist’s Kitchen, Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue, winner of the PEN West Award. She has been a Fulbright Fellow in South Africa, an electoral supervisor in Bosnia Herzegovina, and a human rights worker in Gaza. Recent poems appear in The Antioch Review, Harvard Review, and Poetry International. She is the 2011 curator of the Jack Straw Writers Program and lives in Seattle where she teaches English and Film Studies at Highline Community College. Visit her at her website: www.susanrich.net and her blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen: www.thealchemistskitchen.blogspot.com. She will be teaching afternoon workshops as part of the 2011 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.