salmon poetry

April 30, 2022

This is a guest post by Rena Priest.

Greetings Poets! Happy National Poetry Month!

As the month winds down and I head into my second year as Washington State Poet Laureate, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to share a few words with you. It has been a fantastic year full of new faces and reconnecting with old friends in the poetry community. I’ve shared poetry with many organizations, libraries, schools, and institutions, and I’ve written several new poems for special occasions. I have even collected a new manuscript!

Now I want to read your poems, specifically your salmon poems. Over the summer and early fall, I will be offering a traveling workshop called How to Catch a Salmon Poem. In this workshop, we’ll respond to a series of prompts to cultivate poems for a salmon-themed anthology. By the end of our time together, attendees will have a fresh catch of ideas to help them reel in new poems.

Why salmon? Salmon are the unsung heroes of our region. Adventurous and brave, they swim from their natal rivers out into the perils of the open ocean, where their bodies soak up the rich nutrients of the sea. Persistent, resilient, and strong, they swim upstream against swift currents for hundreds of miles to return home to spawn and complete the cycle of life. A keystone species, after spawning, they die and transfer all the marine-derived nutrients carried in their bodies to the animals, insects, soil, and plants in and around their natal stream.

Salmon are sacred to my tribe, the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. We celebrate them in ceremony and song, and they have long been central to our Sche’le’ngen, our way of life. By celebrating salmon through poetry in every corner of the state, I hope to raise goodwill and a feeling of reverence for the salmon, a feeling that my people have felt since time immemorial.

Seattle-based writer Timothy Egan writes, “The Pacific Northwest is simply this: wherever the salmon can get to.” Before dams were installed, salmon inhabited streams throughout Washington state, even as far inland as Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and beyond. They have been a massive part of our regional identity, and with many species struggling, it’s time to love them enough to save them.

Saving salmon and acknowledging our shared humanity through poetry is at the heart of my motivation to create an anthology celebrating our state’s salmon runs as well as our poets. I hope you will join us in one of these generative workshop offerings and be inspired to submit a poem or two about our iconic wild salmon of Washington state. I will be sharing workshop dates as they are set.

In the meantime, if you happen to have salmon poems in your repertoire, you can submit 1-3 poems via email to poet [AT] humanities.org. The open call deadline is June 1, 2022.

In your email, please affirm that

  • you currently live in Washington State
  • your poems are previously unpublished, or
  • your poems are published, but you retain the right to republish

If your poem is previously published

  • give the places and dates of all previous publications
  • affirm that you retain all rights to the work, and
  • include links to websites where available

If you’d like to have me offer a workshop in your community, you can send a message through my website (www.renapriest.com) and we can talk about scheduling a date. Stay tuned for more info! I look forward to reading your poems!!

Yours,
Rena Priest
Washington State Poet Laureate (2021-2023)

. . . . .

Rena Priest is a poet and an enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. She has been appointed to serve as the Washington State Poet Laureate from April 2021 to 2023. She is the 2022 Maxine Cushing Gray Distinguished Writing Fellow, an Indigenous Nations Poets Fellow, a Jack Straw Writer (2019), and a Vadon Foundation Fellow. She is also the recipient of an Allied Arts Foundation Professional Poets Award. Her debut collection, Patriarchy Blues, received an American Book Award, and her second collection, Sublime Subliminal, was published as the finalist for the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Priest holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

. . . . .
author photo by Savanna Estey
salmon photo from Salmon Need Water

This is a guest post by Susan Rich

I’ve recently returned to the joyous quiet of my home after attending the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Philadelphia. Once again, I was made acutely aware of my discomfort at sojourning with 7,000 of my peers. And I would bet I am not alone in this uneasiness. Those of us who enjoy a well-lit stanza or the swagger of an em dash may not be equally at ease at a cocktail party or karaoke bar. However, over time, I’ve adopted several strategies for managing my shyness because honestly, I do want to connect with other poets. I hope you find some of these ideas helpful.

  1. Write notes of appreciation to poets you admire. Don’t be afraid to be a fan girl. Poets are not like John Legend or Taylor Swift; they do not sell out stadiums (okay, Edna St. Vincent Millay did). I believe even a “big” name poet wants to hear how their words were important to you. Anytime I’ve written to a “famous” poet, I’ve always received a generous reply.
  2. Invite a poet to lunch! Perhaps this is pushing you out of your comfort zone but it might also be the best way to get to know someone whose work you admire. Twenty years ago I wrote a “brave” email to Kelli Russell Agodon asking her out to lunch to talk about publishing in this new way — on the internet. I’m so glad I did. Kelli is now one of my closest friends.
  3. Thank poets who approach you: someone who comes up to you after a reading or an elementary school student who needs to write a report due tomorrow or a poet who saw your work on-line. They are reaching out to you, why not reach right back?
  4. Post poems you admire on social media or on a blog. This is a very easy way to make friends! It’s a great surprise and an honor. This can be done in whatever way that you would enjoy; match a poem with a photograph or a color. Make it fun!
  5. Find a couple of close poet friends that you can share work with, and laughter. These are the people that will keep you going: attending readings together, sharing favorite poems and lots of laughter. Keep them close. One of my closest poetry friends is Geraldine Mills whom I met in Ireland when our first books had just come out.
  6. Be generous. Push yourself to approach a poet at AWP (the writing conference comes to Seattle next year). This year, I went to a couple of different poets’ book signings as I know how awkward it feels to sit at a table and watch people walk right by.
  7. Know other poets are probably as shy as you are. Broadly speaking, we poets are not extroverts. And yet, we want our poems to touch the lives of other people. We want to connect.

. . . . .

Susan Rich is the author of five books of poetry; most recently GALLERY OF POSTCARDS AND MAPS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Salmon Poetry, 2022). Until it launches more widely in July, you can find her new book at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company. Visit Susan at http://poetsusanrich.com.

Author photo by Kristie McLean.

. . . . .
NOTE: Raven Talk, Raven’s online podcast, will present Harold Taw in conversation with Susan Rich this Wednesday, April 27, 2022, at 7:00pm, discussing Susan’s new book, Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Selected Poems. Details and registration link here.

Where we look

April 3, 2022

tidepool with mussels and crab shell

This is a guest post by Kathryn Smith

I grew up close to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, an arm of ocean that divides Washington from British Columbia. Some would say I grew up near the ocean, and I sometimes say that, too, but when I visit the Pacific coast, I am reminded of how different the two are. I am so much smaller at the actual ocean, the expanse of it, no land between water and horizon, the other shore like an act of faith.

Now I live inland, and I go to the ocean for the roar in my ears. To feel my skin plump with sea air. To feel small against its vastness.

I also go to look at tidepools. This has been a fascination of mine since childhood, and my enthusiasm for them has only grown. These pools teem with strange life — and by strange, I mean unlike me. Exoskeletal creatures and creatures with no skeletons at all. I watch barnacles extend their feathery limbs into the water and retract them again. I watch anemone tentacles sway with the tidal pulse. I look for flashes of movement — hermit crabs, small fishes. I look for less-common creatures — sea stars, urchins — those exposed only when the tide is at its lowest.

And then I look up. Wave upon wave upon wave. The ocean is constantly in motion. The ocean’s state of rest is motion. Water upon water, its unfathomable fathoms extending beyond my field of vision, and therefore, to my limited human brain, forever. I turn around, and the beach reaches back toward unscalable cliffs. I feel the vastness of this place in its enormity.* And in the tidepools, the vastness of the microscopic.

Poetry is like this. A space where the infinite and the infinitesimal co-exist. The universal jammed right up against the particular, and me somewhere in between. I extend my small appendages into the salt of it, sometimes feeling a little lost, grasping at the invisible, but knowing at some point I’ll latch onto something that sustains me.

*Yes, enormity. I know it’s not the same as enormousness, but there’s something sinister in the sense of scale here, something threatening to me in my small and small-minded humanness.

. . . . .

Kathryn Smith is the author of the poetry collections Self-Portrait with Cephalopod (Milkweed Editions, 2021), winner of the 2019 Jake Adam York Prize, and Book of Exodus (Scablands Books, 2017), as well as the chapbook Chosen Companions of the Goblin, winner of the 2018 Open Country Press Chapbook Contest. Her poems and visual poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Copper Nickel, Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, Willow Springs, Fugue, Brink, and elsewhere. She lives in Spokane. Find her online at kathrynsmithpoetry.com.

Author photo by Dean Davis.

Finding Light Together

December 21, 2021

This is a guest post by Holly J. Hughes

To share stories during dark times has long been a necessary, radical act.
~ from the Introduction to
Keep a Green Bough: Voices from the Heart of Cascadia

As I write this, we’re losing just four seconds of light each day as we approach the winter solstice, when the days will begin to stretch longer again. This incremental, daily loss of light is elemental as gravity, our seasonal rhythm, but for the last two years, the darkness has felt darker, deeper. And for the last two months, I’ve had to look hard each day to find the glimmers of light that sustain me. I know they’re there — all I need do is step out my door to see them: rain-slick rhododendron leaves, abandoned apple trees still holding a few apples, bright berries of the madrona, billowing clouds that part for a few stray rays of sun. But some days even those glimpses aren’t enough. For me, one of the enduring lessons of the pandemic is that we’re in this together — and that’s when I turn to other writers to help sustain my spirit.

A year ago, I was invited by the publisher of Empty Bowl Press to edit an issue of The Madrona Project. Responding to the mission of Empty Bowl as a publisher of “literature that reveals human communities in wild places,” I put out a call for submissions, asking my sister writers how living in our Cascadia bioregion has sustained them during the past challenging year. I was hopeful that in these divisive times, this invitation might offer a way to come together around this place and our shared common fate.

My hope was to express the diversity of voices in the Cascadia bioregion, so I reached out to many writers, starting with those who’ve lived here since Time Immemorial, as well as women working the land and the sea. My inbox was soon overflowing with poems, essays, and art reflecting not just the beauty of our place but the resiliency of the human spirit. As the voices came together, the title, too, came: Keep a Green Bough: Voices from the Heart of Cascadia, after the Chinese saying, “Keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come.”

Keep a Green Bough has been out in the world for six months now. From the amazing turnout at our Finnriver farm launch to our last Zoom reading hosted by Peninsula College’s ʔaʔkʷustəŋáw̕txʷ House of Learning, those in the audience have been visibly touched and, I hope, heartened. Each time we read together, I find myself in tears at the end, moved by the beauty and power of words spoken honestly, and the resilience not only of the human spirit but of all our kin.

For me, this collection has become a steady reminder of what was affirmed last year: how essential that we connect with our living Earth and witness her human history, even the painful parts, then join together to do all we can to create a just and sustainable future for all beings.

As Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us, this is the role of the poet:

O tell us, poet, what do you do? — I praise.
But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,
how do you bear them, suffer them? — I praise.

. . . . .

In addition to editing Keep a Green Bough: Voices from the Heart of Cascadia, Holly J. Hughes is the author of Hold Fast and Sailing by Ravens, coauthor of The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, and editor of Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease. Her fine-art chapbook Passings received an American Book Award in 2017. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula, where she leads writing and mindfulness workshops, consults as a writing coach, and directs Flying Squirrel Studio, a writing retreat for women on the aboriginal territory of the Suquamish (suq̀ʷabš), who continue to live on and protect the land and waters of their ancestors for future generations. You can find out more at her website: hollyjhughes.com

author photo by John Pierce

Inspiration takes form

October 18, 2021

This is a guest post by
Caitlin Thomson Jans

Over the last two years, many writers have struggled to find time, space, energy, and inspiration to write. I am not an exception to this rule. For the first time in many years I considered not writing a poem a day in April. However, when I decided that every poem I wrote should be a formal one, I found a way forward.

Even though I have written poetry my whole life, I didn’t consider writing formal poetry till my mid-twenties. Formal poetry struck me as dated, stiff, and predictable. In the last decade I’ve discovered that I was wrong about every one of these statements, and have come to embrace Golden Shovels, Sestinas, Bops, and Pantoums, among others.

However, this April the form I came to embrace the most was the Zuihitsu.

The Zuihitsu is a Japanese form and genre that is often compared to a lyric essay. Zuihitsu are generally on the shorter side of the essay form, often one page in length, sometimes longer. They are made of fragmented ideas that are only tenuously connected; their order is best described as haphazard.

You can read an excellent example of a Zuihitsu here, by Jenny Xie. It should give you a good feeling for the flow and tone of the form.

The poets Kimiko Hahn and Tina Chang have both crafted some powerful and exhilarating Zuihitsu. Hybrida by Tina Chang is one of the most exciting books of poetry I have read in the last year and I highly encourage anyone interested in writing Zuihitsu to pick up a copy. The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn was published in 2008 and it was many Westerners’ first exposure to the form.

I really engage with Zuihitsu because even though they are often chaotic and scattered, that approach interacts well with the way my mind works, particularly during times of anxiety. I find that, unlike a more traditional free-verse approach, the first draft of a Zuihitsu is open to a world of possibilities, where one fragment of thought leads to another in an unexpected and exciting way.

I like to write Zuihitsu with a 30-minute timer, but that might just be a personal quirk. I know some writers like having a collection of quotes from other authors to jump off. I encourage you to experiment and find out what works best for you.

– – – – –

Caitlin Thomson Jans is co-founder of The Poetry Marathon, an international writing event. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals including: The Adroit Journal, The Penn Review, Rust + Moth, and Typehouse. For the last nine years she has run Authors Publish Magazine. You can learn more about her writing at her website or read a Zuihitsu she wrote here.

. . . . .
top image: title page of Ogata Gekko’s Zuihitsu
author photo by Jacob Jans

This is a guest post by
Kelli Russell Agodon

I did not screenshot the one-on-one Meet and Greet with Copper Canyon Press, but I wore a paisley button-down shirt and people arrived, to ask questions and just to talk. I had been a little nervous about that event for two reasons. The first was, I wasn’t exactly sure how it would work: would I be chatting with people via text or would we all arrive on Zoom (Zoom it was)? The second reason was, what if it was just me sitting in a Zoom room by myself because no one showed up? Oh the sad life of a poet!, I thought. But thankfully, people did show up, Zoom worked well, and as usual, my worries were for nothing.

The rest of AWP felt like wandering around an empty virtual game. Since you can’t see other participants unless you go to the tab with a list of attendees, it felt like an AWP of one’s own, which for me is the opposite of why I go to AWP. I go to AWP to walk the bookfair and for the surprise encounters with favorite poets and friends I haven’t seen for a while. I go to AWP to hold books, to flip the pages of poetry books, to sit in an audience and listen to a panel.

In my current world, I am Zoomed out, so clicking on a panel (many pre-recorded) and tuning in seemed like another opportunity for too much screentime. But I discovered that because everyone is just sitting in their offices off screen, I could click on a panel, listen, and clean my office! The panels I listened to were good and if they weren’t, there was no awkward leaving mid-panel, just a click of the pause button or shutting the laptop.

While Two Sylvias Press had a virtual booth, we mostly set it up and answered questions by message. We didn’t sell as many books as a normal AWP, but we didn’t have to carry any books from a van to the conference center either!

While this wasn’t the most inspiring conference, I admire AWP for coming up with something that wasn’t too hard to navigate, had a virtual bookfair, and allowed us a little bit of the AWP feel through panels and readings (even if they were on a screen).

This would have been the AWP my book, Dialogues with Rising Tides, would have been released with Copper Canyon Press, or almost (it’s due to be published April 27, 2021). Do I feel cheated or sad that my book is coming out during a pandemic? Not really. Actually, not at all. Mostly, I am thankful for the new ways we unite online, how we find our way through this difficult time. I’m reminded of the many ways we still have to connect and know we are turning the corner for more in-person time.

Since I’m not doing in-person events right now for my book, the online world has oddly become a stage (one I’m occasionally falling off, due to too much screentime). Virtual AWP was a way to meet some new readers, hear my favorites talk about their poetry lives, and actually sell a few more books. During the pandemic I have learned that things do not need to be perfect; good enough suits me just fine these days.

– – – – –
Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of Dialogues with Rising Tides from Copper Canyon Press (which you can preorder here or on Amazon.) Kelli is also the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press and the Co-Director of Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Retreat for Women. On May 1, 2021, she will be teaching a workshop on The Surrealists Toolkit, writing poems from prompts and play of surrealist artists and writers. Visit her website to read more of her work.

For Whose Eyes and Ears

February 20, 2021

This is a guest post
by Jed Myers

In the lore of therapy, it’s said a person’s emotional state will improve with keeping a journal. The benefit holds even if the journal entries are never shared with another soul. Does that mean we need only ever spell things out for ourselves alone? Or does it mean that the act of writing is so fundamentally relational, no actual other is needed for the experience of being heard and understood by another?

Words have evolved for the conveyance of one being’s experience to another. So even when we speak in our imaginations, talk to ourselves, or write our private entries, we are invoking the presence of another, however invisible.

I do wonder, for whose eyes do we place the words of our reflections on the page? In whose ears do we hope our written words will ring? And whose are the minds and hearts we want to stir with what we’ve written?

I’m sure there’s no simple or single answer to any such questions. But I’m also sure — from tuning in to my own process of writing, if by nothing else — that there is an envisioned other, or a collection of others, that we’ve got a representation of in the wings of the act of writing, to whom, in the writing, we’re speaking.

Maybe this goes against a kind of purist’s notion of writing only for oneself. I don’t know. It could be that an implicit other just like oneself, a mirror twin, so to speak, is such a purist’s other. The writing that would emerge in that spirit might be more idiosyncratic, harder for the rest of us to “get,” but it might be in its own way just right — the words chosen and arranged for the dear twin who will understand perfectly.

Then there’s the writing for a different other, or for a gathering (in the mind’s amphitheater) of others of varied sensibilities. Perhaps these are the presences some of us want to touch with our words. These imagined others might stand in for real expectable readers in the world. We can’t be sure how they’ll hear us, as we don’t know just how they think and feel. How will our poems ring with them?

That question’s at my shoulder while I work out my lines. It can serve to press me, word by word, closer to the marrow, where I’ll find more intuitive sureness of common feeling, even across cultures and times.

I like to invite one odd other to the gathering and to be sure that figure’s listening — a guest from some time in the future, when my life’s been over long enough that those who’ve remembered me are gone. I reach for what might make that other grateful to have stumbled onto my words. I’ll write what I need to say — as if in my journal — that will also close the rift of space and time, so that my guest might feel that a hundred years ago is more or less last week. That’s what I feel sometimes reading Sappho or Du Fu — the intimacy of distant solitudes.

. . . . .

Jed Myers lives in Seattle, where, aside from writing, he’s a psychiatrist with a therapy practice and a Clinical Professor in Psychiatry at the University of Washington. He’s author of Watching the Perseids (Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award), The Marriage of Space and Time (MoonPath Press), and four chapbooks, including Dark’s Channels (Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Award) and Love’s Test (winner, Grayson Books Chapbook Contest). Recognitions include Southern Indiana Review’s Editors’ Award, the Prime Number Magazine Award, The Southeast Review’s Gearhart Prize, and The Tishman Review’s Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize. Poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Poetry Northwest, The American Journal of Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, The Greensboro Review, multiple anthologies, including Two-Countries: US Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents (Red Hen Press) and Take a Stand: Art Against Hate (Raven Chronicles Press), and many other publications. Poems are forthcoming in New York Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, Cutthroat, Sequestrum, and Galleywinter Poetry Series. Two essays on poetry and medicine have appeared in JAMA. Jed is Poetry Editor for the journal Bracken.

Jed Myers will co-feature with Charles Rafferty in the Poets in Conversation reading series on Saturday, May 22, 2021, 4:00pm Pacific. Details and access information will be posted on this site and on The Poetry Department Calendar page.

Author photo by Alina Rios
header image

Poetry Karma

October 7, 2020

This is a guest post by
Dayna Patterson

Do you have a poem or book of poetry you’d like to promote, but feel like doing so in the midst of social injustice, climate catastrophe, and pandemic would shrivel up your soul like a spider on a hot stove? How can you garner attention for something you’ve worked so hard for without feeling like you’ve become one of Voldemort’s horcruxes, or Freddy Krueger’s cousin, or the demogorgon from Stranger Things? Well, let me tell you about Poetry Karma.

First of all, I just made that up. Poetry Karma is not a real thing, except in my head, and maybe soon it will live in your head, too. Poetry Karma is a way I’ve been framing my interactions with the poetry world for going on a decade now, and I’ve found it especially helpful when so much is transpiring in the world.

You already know what karma is. When you do good to others, you acquire good karma, like an angelic nimbus that trails you wherever you go. When you harm others, your karma begins to resemble a storm cloud, heavy with potential lightning that could strike back at you at any given moment.

Poetry Karma, then, is the kinds of energy you draw toward yourself based on your interactions within the literary community of readers, writers, editors, and publishers. Do good to others, and your poetry karma will hold onto that good like a warm coat in winter.

We all know or have heard of folks in the literary community who have bad Poetry Karma: they only promote their own work; they take, take, take; they tear down other writers; they don’t earnestly engage with the work of others; they are attention-seekers; they misappropriate and/or plagiarize, inconsiderate of the harm they inflict; their Poetry Karma is ravaged by ego.

So how can you influence your Poetry Karma for good? To my mind, amassing positive Poetry Karma can involve many different approaches:

  1. Write book reviews. If you want folks to write reviews of your books, start building up your good Poetry Karma right now by setting a book review goal for yourself. How many books can you reasonably review in a year? A month? Alternatively, you could interview another poet for a literary journal about their new book.
  2. Share and promote the work of others on social media. Chelsea Dingman and Nicole Sealey are wonderful examples of poets who strengthen community by encouraging folks to read and share the work of others. When you’re sharing, examine your intentions. If you’re sharing just to be noticed by a prominent poet or poets, that action can actually damage your Poetry Karma rather than enhancing it.
  3. Volunteer your time to read or edit for a literary journal (or start your own!).
  4. Volunteer your time to help run or organize local poetry events, conferences, festivals, etc.
  5. Engage in a collaborative writing project, which will help to suppress that ravenous beast Ego.
  6. Celebrate the achievements of others. Be liberal with your sincere praise.
  7. Start a poetry blog where you share news and submission information (props to J.I. Kleinberg, Trish Hopkinson, Derek Annis, and others who are doing this kind of work!).
  8. Volunteer to teach a poetry workshop (maybe for your kid’s class, or for inmates, or for your neighbors, or . . . ).
  9. Start a writing group and be generous with your feedback and encouragement.
  10. [Fill in your own idea here. I’m sure you’ve got plenty. You’re a poet, after all!]

Will it still feel weird to promote your book or poem or literary event? Yes. But you can engage in activities to strengthen your good Poetry Karma. You can publicize your stuff and balance those look-at-me moments by boosting and uplifting others.

. . . . .

Dayna Patterson’s first collection, If Mother Braids a Waterfall (Signature Books, 2020), was released around the same time COVID struck the U.S. She’s been trying to publicize the book while not feeling like a jerk all of the time. She is also the founding editor of Psaltery & Lyre, an online literary journal dedicated to publishing literature at the intersection of faith and doubt. More at daynapatterson.com.

[Ed. note: Dayna Patterson will read from If Mother Braids a Waterfall as part of the 2020 Utah Humanities Book Festival on Tuesday, October 13, 2020, 7:00pm Mountain / 6:00pm Pacific. The reading is free but registration is required.]

. . . . .

Photo of Jain Temple ceiling ornament, Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India, by Shakti

Author photo by Mariana Patterson

A healthy collaboration

July 15, 2020

This is a guest post by
Kelli Russell Agodon

In early March, Melissa Studdard and I decided we would write a poem every weekday based on news stories just to stay connected and to find new ways to push our creativity. On the day we started, the pandemic became top news and we realized what our focus was going to be — writing poems during the pandemic.

Each day, the news would change, our feelings would change, the world would change — and we would show up to our shared Google document to write about it. We try to document the world, the news, the day — it’s kind of a diary in verse. We have been called “Historians of Emotion” and I think especially with the poems about the pandemic, that is what we’re writing about most of the time.

For each day, one of us would begin with a few lines or images, and then the other shows up later in the day to finish it. Before we share it on social media, we ask the other “anything you want to change?” and once we get the “No, looks good!” response, we post it and consider it “done.” The next day, the person who ended the poem starts the new one and the collaboration continues.

For collaboration to work, both people need to be open to having their words changed and each must focus on the same goal: to write and finish the best poem. Ego needs to be left at the door and instead, a sense of playfulness and openness needs to exist in both writers.

What I have learned through collaboration:

  1. I have learned that poems can go in so many directions. I may take a poem a few places, but seeing a poem through another’s eyes, you see the many places it can go.
  2. A larger trust for each other as collaborators. There are definitely some people I would not want to collaborate with. Collaboration should be fun, and if it feels like a drag, maybe find a different person to work with.
  3. To know there is always backup help! Sometimes I will show up to a poem and, with hardly enough ideas or vision for what to do, I will jot down a few words or images unclear of what I am trying to do. Later, Melissa will show up and make the poem better. I have done that for her as well. It’s a wonderful experience to see how we each find ways to complete a struggling poem.
  4. Friendships matter. I have become closer to my friend Melissa and have been inspired by her vision of poems and her incredible creativity.

Here is the Houston Media’s NPR story on our collaboration:

Follow Kelli and Melissa’s collaborations on Twitter and Instagram @KelliAgodon and @MelissaStuddard.

. . . . .
Kelli Russell Agodon is a poet, writer, editor, book cover designer, and cofounder of Two Sylvias Press living in the Seattle area. She’s a recipient of Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Prize in Poetry as well as a two-time Finalist for the Washington State Book Awards. Her work has been featured on NPR, ABC News, and appeared in magazines and journals such as The Atlantic, The Nation, APR, Harvard Review, The Rumpus, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her fourth collection of poems, Dialogues with Rising Tides, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2021.

Author photo by Ronda Piszk Broatch


Image credit: Seattle Early Music

This is a guest post by
Jennifer Bullis

In January 2018, out of the blue, I received an email from a composer in Seattle. He wanted to compose a cantata about the mythical Sirens, he explained, and was looking for a librettist. He had an idea: to seek a poet to write the lyrics. Standing in Elliott Bay Book Store, browsing the recently published Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, he flipped to the mythology section, where a poem of mine happened to appear. When he contacted me, I was intrigued by his concept and by the prospect of working with someone in a different artistic medium. Thus began my collaboration with Aaron Grad on “Honey-Sweet We Sing for You.”

Aaron detailed for me his ideas for the cantata and his reasons for choosing the Sirens as his subject. Inspired by the #MeToo movement and Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, he wanted to compose an original piece reimagining the story of the Sirens from their own point of view. Based on his idea, Early Music Seattle was planning a myth-themed concert of short pieces by Baroque-era composers, highlighting women’s stories and voices, for the 2019-2020 season.

This collaboration has been an education and a joy for me at every phase of the process. Aaron asked me to draft the libretto first, and then he composed the music to it, and we worked together to revise the libretto as the whole cantata took shape. Initially, to help me prepare to write, Aaron gave me a fascinating crash course in operatic vocal composition and the cantata form. I learned, for example, about recitative and aria passages, including the good and necessary “rage aria,” a section conveying the character’s fury at being wronged.

Developing the content, I got to research other versions of the Sirens myth, and found useful models for transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It offered Aaron and me a different way into the Sirens narrative, one that de-centers Odysseus and his sailors and focuses instead on the Sirens’ original devotion to, loss of, and search to recover the goddess Persephone after her abduction by Hades. In this new context, the Sirens’ songs of enchantment can be imagined as not only a seductive lure to sailors, but as cries of outrage, grief, and searching. “We sing for her,” sings the soprano voice in the cantata’s final recitative; “We sing for all our sisters.” The program’s title was adapted from this lyric.

Since planning for “For All Our Sisters” began, it expanded to include even more women’s voices and artistic forms. EMS Executive Director Gus Denhard commissioned Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna to narrate the program and perform original poems, and Seattle dancer Milvia Pacheco to choreograph and perform an original dance.

The live performance was scheduled for May 30th, but because of the pandemic is being rescheduled. In the meantime, Early Music Seattle is posting an exciting series of videos in which the program’s musicians and other artistic contributors, filming from home, present excerpts and discuss their visions for amplifying women’s voices through their performances. You can watch these videos on Early Music Seattle, with new videos posted weekly, and enjoy these artistic collaborations highlighting women’s voices and stories.

In addition to the links embedded above, learn more at:

. . . . .
Jennifer Bullis is the author of the chapbook Impossible Lessons (MoonPath Press). Her poems and essays appear in Verse Daily, Cave Wall, Water~Stone Review, Terrain.org, Cherry Tree, Gulf Coast, and Under a Warm Green Linden. She is nominee for Pushcart and Best New Poets awards, and is recipient of an Artsmith Residency fellowship. Her full-length manuscripts have been finalists for the Brittingham & Felix Pollak Prizes for Poetry and the Moon City Poetry Award.

%d bloggers like this: