Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

What is your relationship to the natural world? And do you bring the natural world into your writing?

As I answer this, I’m looking out my window at a madrona tree with its peeling bark, huge areas of blackberry bramble, and low-growing ferns, all while listening to a crow and eagle have it out somewhere near this cabin on a hill.

Because I live in the Northwest, and particularly in a small rural town where you have to commute by ferry to visit, my relationship with the natural world is intimate. We are more than dating, we are significant others. We see each other regularly. As a mountain biker, I ride deep into the trails of our forests. I never know what I’ll see when I pedal off into nature: some days deer, some days owls, occasionally a black bear. As a paddleboarder, I see the world from atop the water—blue heron and kingfisher above me, flounder and moonsnails below.

In the last year, several writing conferences have asked me to teach classes on “nature writing,” which seemed odd to me because I never considered myself a nature writer. Though looking over my work, it does appear that the landscape has slipped into my writing quite frequently. I guess just as the city writer writes about her urban landscape, I write about mine, which tends to be lush and green and growing.

 

Sketch of a Fig Tree
(forthcoming in Hourglass Museum, published by White Pine Press in 2014)

Halfway through the day with the sun like a halo
over my neighbor’s house, I think about God
and time and if it’s possible to feed my soul with a pen
and ink drawing I saw at a museum by an artist
whose name I didn’t recognize.

Somewhere across the country my house is falling apart,
or maybe it did years ago, returning to my old neighborhood
to realize the streets were never as big as I thought
and the house I lived in was not as nice
as the house down the road, but I was never allowed
to walk that far.

I’m older now and what’s falling apart is the sunset
I try to watch from my office window
where I’m surrounded by books
and it doesn’t matter how much the fog moves in
or if there’s a neighborhood where kids fight

about the color of poppies. I think back to the fig tree

that grew in my yard and how the leaves always reminded me
of being somewhere else or in the middle of a Rousseau painting
where the jungle was a prayer and everything I needed
was above me and all I had to do was reach up,
all I had to do was open my hands.

 

What aspect of human nature are you finding peace with? What are you cultivating?

Instead of “finding peace,” I’ve made peace with people’s belief that being busy is important and that money is worth more than one’s time. These are areas I’ve struggled with and when I see others caught up in a life they aren’t happy with (but not making any changes to improve their lives) I try to find understanding instead of trying to fix everything.

I feel the same way about people who have a lot of promise and talent; it pains me to see writers and artists not taking risks with their art out of fear, or worse, they may even be self-sabotaging possible opportunities. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to stretch myself and do things that make me feel uncomfortable—that is where growth occurs. I want other writers and artists to push themselves as well, but I realize we each make our own decisions and while I may offer suggestions or advice, I know ultimately, we each create our own path and are responsible for our own lives, so I do my best to respect and understand others’ choices.

I’m cultivating creativity, imagination, bravery, and authenticity as best I can.

 

 

What is your understanding of why violence against women is “naturalized” in our culture?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m not sure “naturalized” is the word I’d use. Overlooked? Ignored? Forgotten? Not spoken of? Disregarded? For me, “naturalized” implies acceptance and that violence against women has adapted to all conditions in our culture, which I don’t think it has. Our culture has become and is becoming more aware of violence against women and there is outrage. There are pockets in our culture where it happens more and where it happens less, but in all areas there will always be people who speak out against it and there will also be denial or disregard.

As for understanding why violence against women or why it still happens in our culture, that I cannot comprehend.

 

What is your nature’s candy? And why?

The sweet smell of lilacs in early spring because they remind me of Walt Whitman.

Plucking off a blossom of the honeysuckle that winds itself around the treehouse and tasting the nectar.

Strawberries that have stretched from my neighbor’s yard into my yard because it’s always a surprise even though it’s somewhat expected.

Figs picked off the tree in my backyard in August; a luxury in every way.

Blackberries in late summer because the vines that take over my yard, each year, apologize with fresh fruit and I make a wicked blackberry crumble.

 

When do you leave a wall intact, when do you knock it down? 

Most of my walls are down until I lose trust in someone, then I build amazing forty-story creations that can’t be scaled by any amount of words or actions.

I leave walls intact when I can see the benefit of privacy or security.

I knock them down when they are no longer fun to climb.

 

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Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

On Mountain Climbing and Mount Analogue: A Conversation with Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson

HER KIND: In Eleanor Lerman’s poem “Starfish“, the speaker ponders over an encounter with a fisherman, which leads to her to examine her past. What has challenged your perceptions or beliefs— perhaps a chance encounter?

 

 

SIOLO THOMPSON: One poem that has affected the course of my life is Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”. That poem seeded me with the notion that an object, a single, freestanding work of visual art, could be imbued with the power to make viewers examine their lives. I found that idea very seductive, so much so that I eventually gave up writing in favor of painting.

 

 

CHARLOTTE AUSTIN: The piece of writing that changed my world was written by Rene Daumal. In Mount Analogue, he wrote:

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”

When that piece of writing fell into my lap, I was working both of my dream jobs: an academically-slanted writer and an international mountain guide. In my heart of hearts, however, I was struggling to reconcile the two professions into my one little life. As writers, the ultimate goal is to create those fleeting single instances of clarity — the feeling that someone, somewhere in the world has felt the same thing as your reader does.  (Isn’t that one of the reasons we seek out narrative? To feel less alone?)

The first time I read Daumal’s passage, I thought: Holy shit.  If this man can explain my whole life in one paragraph, why shouldn’t I try to reconcile my two passions in a way that sheds light on both?  Why shouldn’t I look for those instances of clarity in my two worlds, and use them to reflect on another?

 

ST: That Daumal quote is beautiful, Charlotte, and how apt for you at that point in your life! The power of the written word often lies exactly in that, unveiling the private experience and bringing it into the public realm where others can then participate in both the described experience and the universalizing of their own, individual narrative.

The beauty of this process is that everyone, the writer and reader both, are left slightly less alone for having seen themselves reflected in the experiences of others. Having one or more voices address an idea or issue that concerns them both or the communities that they are part of gives rise to new social narratives and new ways of seeing the experiences of others. Much like we are doing here. After reading the Daumal quote, I suddenly feel like I may need to climb a mountain!

 

CA: That’s exactly right.  I’m sitting alone in my living room, but I found myself nodding my head as I read that.

When two artists collaborate, it’s a chance for each to bring their thoughts to the drawing board, then (often shyly) reveal them to their co-conspirator. It’s valuable for the artists, of course, but it’s also immeasurably valuable for the reader— because the finished product of the collaboration has twice (or more) of the resonance. Secret moments are revealed most clearly when the person doing the revealing feels less alone. This may sound trite, but I’d never known that visual art could contain the same kind of narrative that’s woven into the written word.  People find the same moments of shared experience in paintings as they do in novels, which is fascinating.

 

ST: Your own work and the books you have lent me from some of our other project collaborators (Craig Childs and Rick Bass, for example) have broadened my own literary and artistic horizons. I think we are seeing a wonderful developing trend of multidisciplinary collaboration. There are new kinds of publications coming out, for example Poets/Artists magazine, or our book The Better Bombshell, which explore the various way of addressing narrative or theme investigation through different mediums. As humans we record and memorialize our experiences in various ways, some people cherish letters while others hold on to photos, for some people music or film is as much a pert of their internal landscape as the written word. I love the idea of writers and artists exploring together the intersection of our various ways of remembering, discussing and exploring ideas. I also think that audience aside, these artistic multi genre experiments are very valuable for us, the writers and artists and give us the potential to learn more about our own craft as well as opening the door to the emergence of new art forms.

 

CA: That’s so interesting, Siolo, and so true.  There’s so much depth to be found in multi-genre collaborations, and it adds a level of depth to the inquiry that’s valuable to everybody involved.

As a corollary, I’ve actually been thinking a lot recently about how writing and art are seen and digested by modern viewers.  Both mediums have changed drastically in the last century — shit, in the last decade — in almost every way. Consumers of art and literature have shorter attention spans; they may or may not realize the level of media literacy required to sift through the chatter to find creative work of real value; they might even feel pressure to be writers or artists themselves, since we all have blogs and digital cameras these days. (Side note: there’s a fascinating documentary called PressPausePlay about this very subject.)

For us— the writers and artists— I think there’s an increasingly vital challenge intrinsic to our work.  We not only need to create something engaging and thought-provoking, but we’re also at a point in the collective history of art where we need to find new ways and mediums of engaging with our audiences.  As self-publishers, Siolo, we’re doing exactly this in our weekly conversations about the relationship between our book and our website and blog.  As an individual writer, I’m constantly thinking about how to embed my work with a clarity that will let it rise about the chatter.

 

ST: That brings up a really interesting subject, Charlotte. I think many of us who are content creators had or have some sense of aversion or panic about all of the emerging technology and the way it is attempting to replace the revered objects of our crafts. The decreased attention span, the ever-increasing demand for immediate delivery and gratification, the gadgets and games and social media – all of these things could be seen as the nemesis of the traditional literary experience. We could rage at the machines all day but that won’t change the fact that the world is changing and that for art to remain dynamic and relevant, it also has to change.

Personally I find emerging media and machines incredibly exciting and I believe that they will give rise to new art forms and new ways for individuals to connect and build community. I think that the secret to remaining relevant and reaching people lies in embracing new media and participating in multi-disciplinary collaboration and community based projects. Like you pointed out Charlotte, almost everyone is creating content these days via YouTube or flicker or blogging. Literary or artistic projects that encourage participation are inevitably more dynamic and popular.

 

HK: I’m still curious— Are there any chance encounters that have led you to reexamine your life? Why? Please spill with juicy, specific details…

 

CA: I’ve been thinking about whether there have been chance encounters that have led me to reexamine my life.  I’m sure there have been many — and I absolutely don’t want to minimize their importance — but to be perfectly honest, I try to make it a practice to reexamine my life daily.  Maybe it’s the writer in me, but every encounter I have with the world gives me pause while I reflect.

That’s actually something I’ve been thinking about recently, as I’ve been working with more visual artists.  Photographers, for example, seem to be fully present in a moment, capture it in their lens, and move on.  (I’ve always been jealous of that skill.)  Writers, on the other hand, collect moments like marbles, and then later privately obsess about how to find patterns within them.  I can sit at my desk for hours  — days! — organizing my marbles to find the threads.

What am I grateful for?  I’m grateful that the world taught me to always know that there’s something happening below the veneer — that’s probably why I sort the marbles, rather than polish them.  I’m grateful for love and for maple syrup and for eggs from my father’s chickens and for my family.  I’m grateful for my mother’s cancer, if only for what it’s done for my relationship with the world, and I’m even more grateful that she’s still around to fight it.  I’m grateful for the strength that heartbreak brings.  I’m grateful for the way my dog’s ears smell after I give him a bath.  I’m grateful for the people who have shown me who I don’t want to be.  I’m grateful for freshly sharpened pencils.  I’m grateful for the times the mountains have beaten the living shit out of me, because it’s refreshing not to have any of my own shit left inside.

I should talk about some poetry, shouldn’t I?  Well, I’d love to quote Mary Oliver, but so we would all.  So I think the best I can do is this:

Hafiz said: “One regret, dear world/that I am determined not to have/when I am lying on my deathbed/is that/I did not kiss you enough.”

 

ST: Hmmm… I have to respectfully take issue with one part of your last statement, Charlotte. You posit that writers ‘privately obsess about how to find patterns’ while visual artists, photographers in particular, capture a moment and move on. There are obviously

different kinds of writers and different kinds of visual artists (some fast and some slow, some thoughtful, others more superficial) but I would say that a very essential part of being a visual artist is exactly what you describe in writers; the obsession with patterns, the relationships between objects and environments, people and places, the depth of veneer, the texture of surfaces…. to say that any visual art is simply about capturing the moment fails to recognize the complexity of the artist and all the experience, discernment and skill that is brought to that moment and the way that it is captured. You are also not seeing all of the post work, the sorting and obsessing over everything from composition to light to palette. A picture often has one shot, one moment to grab you and tell you a whole story, to be good at that requires far more than the ability to record a moment.

Well, I’ll step off my soapbox now.

The similarities between thoughtful, complex writing and thoughtful, complex image making are numerous. It was modernist literature that first led me to begin pondering visual art as an effective means of communicating abstract ideas and socio-philosophical concepts. I developed a profound love of modernist poetry and at the same time, I began to feel this sense of frustrated disillusionment with humanity. Here are these wonderful works of written art and out there are millions of people who would never turn off the television and even consider reading a poem. I felt enraged by this. In this dismal, misanthropic frame of mind I remember reading T.S. Eliot’s Preludes, these lines stayed with me:

 

You had such a vision of the street

As the street hardly understands;

Sitting along the bed’s edge, where

You curled the papers from your hair,

Or clasped the yellow soles of feet

In the palms of both soiled hands.

 

These lines are just images; the world weary woman who understands the street, the token nod to vanity, the tired feet – I saw all of these things with such clarity and it made me wish I could draw (a skill I most certainly did not have at that time). I felt that if I could not convince people to read poetry perhaps someday I could make poetry into images.  I have spent the last five years working toward that goal. I still cannot finish reading the Preludes without choking up. These words always do me in:

 

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.

 

And I am grateful that a poem can move me to tears. I am grateful for art and literature and the value it has brought to my life and I am always grateful to find others who share these passions and for the artistic community that I am proud to be part of. I am grateful for the difficulties I’ve faced, my unusual childhood, the lack of calm certainties, the troubling memories and the adventure filled ones. I am, most of all, grateful to have someone in my life who believes in my work and me even when I am consumed with self-doubt. My partner Andrew keeps me focused, pushes me when I feel like giving up and let’s me fail as gracefully as one can.

 

CA: See?  I’m learning so, so much from collaborating with somebody I respect whose area of expertise is so different than my own.  I feel a little dense, but it’s one of those things where I didn’t know what I didn’t know — and now, at the very least, I know what I don’t know.  I really appreciate that perspective, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

At the end of the day, I can’t tell you how grateful I’ve been for just that — the way our recent process of collaboration has taught me about all the things I don’t know.  I’ve always believed that the smartest people are the ones who have the most respect for the vast amount they’ll never know, but sometimes it’s like counting stars in the sky: you know those things are out there, but if you squint it turns into blackness.  I’m sorry if I’ve squinted, and I am so grateful for the gentle — and not-so-gentle — ways that I’ve been reminded recently of how much I don’t know.

 

Siolo Thompson is a self-taught visual artist who lives and works in Seattle, WA. She uses multiple mediums and techniques in her work with a focus on draftsmanship and narrative development.  Ms. Thompson shows widely in a range of galleries, and her illustrative work often appears in print. Her most recent art features can be seen in PANK,  Lost at E Minor and Juxtopoz. She is represented by Bherd Urban Contemporary Art Gallery in Seattle, WA.

 

Charlotte Austin is a Seattle-based writer and editor.  She studied at the University of Washington and the University of Alaska Anchorage, and her work can be seen in a wide variety of print and online publications.  Her most recent endeavor is acting as Editorial Director for the collaborative book project The Better Bombshell.

On Mountain Climbing and Mount Analogue: A Conversation with Charlotte Austin and Siolo Thompson