It was one of those toasting games, where you try to out-toast your friend, making a grand proclamation and having a good drink, and then your friend making a grander proclamation and having a good drink . . . . And so many years ago Denise Duhamel toasted to me, “Let us be earnest in life, but not so much in our poetry.” This is what poets who are really nice and generous and loving and kind say to each other. Her toast was a recognition that we are nice people (honestly, is there anyone nicer than Denise?), but we have an especial duty not to settle for nice poetry–polite poetry, well, who needs that? Putting the poetry thing aside, I have been contemplating on just how many poets are out there being such freaking nice people.
So many of these nice people-poets could very well be the younger sister of Denise or Allison Joseph (who is fierce with niceness). I’m thinking of folks like Jeannine Hall Gailey, January Gill O’Neil, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Kelli Russell Agodon, poets who are just really earnest people, poets who believe that, as Aimee writes, “Something is always worth// cheering for. There is always some cheer/ worth something. Cheer for some worth, always.” These are poets who celebrate their art and other practitioners of it. They understand just how hard of a business it is–and the po biz can be mean and small-minded and insular, especially against women and people of color–and rather than grow callous, they work to enlarge poetry’s scope, to praise other good work without qualification, and to support others fighting the good fight.
I vaguely recall coming across Kelli Russell Agodon for the first time in a posting of “Poetry Against the War,” sometime in 2003, and then her first book Small Knots, published under the same house as my third book. But it was through her “Book of Kells” via blogspot, that I was introduced to this exceptionally earnest poet, through her posting about self-doubt, tiresomeness, revision struggles, and the usual malaise hard working poets contend with. I was struck by how she would ask others about their own struggles, and then in her replies to comments, she deeply and openly engaged with her respondents, taking seriously their own concerns and celebrating their modest successes. It wasn’t like a therapy session or a hermetically-sealed workshop of special poets, what I often found in on-line poetry groups. Here was someone who seemed happy knowing other good folks were writing poetry, of all things, living mundane lives and seeking a little contentment.
She took on the editorship of a magazine I long followed, Crab Creek Review, partnered with Susan Rich to start “Poets on the Coast” writing retreat for women, partnered with Martha Silano to write the invaluable The Daily Poet, and partnered with Annette Spaulding-Convy to found Two Sylvias Press (all this partnering, collaboration, should tell you just how much others seek out Kelli to pursue important projects). Her books of poetry are simply astounding. All the while, Kelli continues to mentor other poets, mostly about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing poetry, exemplified by the invaluable essay, “Submit Like a Man.”
Her effort reminds me so much of William Stafford, the daddy of kind poets, a poet who was exceptionally generous to me when I was an Idaho bumpkin. It’s not a happy, happy mindless random-acts-of-kindness thing, but a kindness that comes from an absolutely firm and tested moral compass–a grown-up, imaginative empathy. I like to think of it being a Northwest thing.
But it’s also very much not a Northwest thing or a William Stafford thing that Kelli lives. It’s also Sylvia Plath and girlhood, word-drunk play and politics. If it were Kelli’s world, every poet would wear a tiara instead of a laurel. We’d be paddle-boarders and really good cooks.
And so, there’s this new poem by Kelli that’s making the rounds, a poem that’s been published by the monstrously amazing Waxwing magazine, “Hunter’s Moon.” There are love poems, and then there are love poems.