It all started with a talking giraffe for Kelli Russell Agodon. Kelli was bit by the writing bug way back in second grade and hasn’t looked back since that fateful writing assignment about a chatty animal. Just as her teachers nurtured her talent in the past, Kelli is now doing that and more for other writers through her press called Two Sylvias Press. Kelli takes us through what it’s like to live the life of a writer and how to make money doing it, all while having a bit of fun.
Talentedly: Can you share what drove you to become a writer? Did you always want to be one?
Kelli Agodon: I knew I always wanted to do something creative. I always read and wrote stories. In second grade, I remember a teacher telling me she loved what I wrote about a talking giraffe. I have always loved the arts and while I’ve done other things, writing was always the one thing that was a constant. It was something I always yearned to do and when I didn’t have time to write, I felt cranky and restless.
TLY: Not many people can pull off writing full time. What was that process like?
KA: The process is like a bag of gumballs—every day is a different flavor. As a Capricorn with artistic tendencies, I find staying organized helps me feel good when it comes to work. Every night before bed, I take ten minutes to I make a list of things I need to do in the morning. I know myself; the morning is not my best time to figure out a plan. The night before each workday, I make a list of my 5 top priorities and number them so when I wake up, I will know where to begin.
When I am working on a creative project that requires writing, I schedule full days and with as little interruption as possible. I have a writing shed in my yard and I try to do much of my creative work out there. There’s a different feel to that room besides my home office inside the house, which can be used for different things such as editing, designing book covers, research, correspondence, tasks for Two Sylvias Press, or submitting work. My writing shed is strictly for creative work such as poems, essays, and a memoir I’ve been finishing up.
TLY: You’re the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press. What pushed you to start your own press? Was there a specific audience you were looking to cater to? Genres or writers you thought weren’t being exposed?
KA: The other “Sylvia” of Two Sylvias Press, Annette Spaulding-Convy and I always joke that we accidentally started this press. We had wanted to create the first eBook anthology of women’s poetry. We had both received eReaders for Christmas in 2010 (her: a Nook, me: an iPad) and we were disappointed that there were no good books of poems available. We decided to edit an eBook anthology of poems by women, which ended up being Fire On Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry. It was the first eBook of its kind; however, with eBooks being so new, no press would take it on to publish it because formatting for poems was such an issue at the time. So, we decided we’d just start our own press to publish it (with the half-joking motto: Anything is possible if you don’t know what you’re doing). From there, we just kept finding artful projects we wanted to give a voice to and our press began to grow.
As poets ourselves, we started Two Sylvias Press as a poetry press, but have also published creativity tools such as The Poet Tarot and Guidebook: An Exploration in Creativity and The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice. We have a yearly poetry chapbook going on now and we also give money to new poets starting out each fall. Since then, we’ve moved into nonfiction and have two new memoirs coming out, Natalie Serber’s short memoir about breast cancer called Community Chest and another memoir called Phantom Son about a woman’s journey to find her child after surrendering him for adoption in the 1960’s. We will also be starting a poetry series for women poets over 50, as we feel that is a neglected community in the poetry world.
Our goal has always been to take care of our writers and give them a larger audience. We have gone on to revise our motto and mission statement to: Created with the belief that great writing is good for the world, Two Sylvias Press mixes modern technology, classic style, and literary intellect with an eco-friendly heart. We draw our inspiration from the poetic literary talent of Sylvia Plath and the editorial business sense of Sylvia Beach. We publish both women and men, and believe a lot in luck and synchronicity. We were featured in O, The Oprah Magazine for National Poetry Month last month, so you can see how luck and synchronicity come into play.
TLY: Who is your audience?
KA: Our audience is made of people who believe that art should be a part of their daily lives, who love great stories, strong poems, and who are always trying to better themselves and/or their writing. We have a smart audience with good hearts. My personal audience for my poetry is smart readers who have a fondness for wordplay, humor (sometimes dark), and surprising images in poems. They may also like to walk in the rain and feel they were born in the wrong decade–or perhaps that could be me.
TLY: How has the rise of self-publishing and eBooks affected your work? Does it make publishing easier or harder?
KA: The rise of the eBook has made publishing easier. Because we learned how to format poetry books early on, it has only become easier for us. Poetry eBooks used to be a huge pain, especially if there was odd spacing, now technology has caught up and we know what we’re doing. The most difficult part of a book for us is making sure it is beautiful—the cover, the language, the design. Also, marketing the book is harder because we are small. We believe our books will get into the hands of the right readers though and we try our best to get the word out and hope for small miracles (like being featured in O Magazine!).
We love that there are more books out there for people. Self-publishing and eBooks are just more ways for people to have a wide variety of choices. We know we publish books that people fall in love with, so we don’t mind that other authors have chosen to self-publish, we respect that.
TLY: You’re currently looking for a faculty position. Has teaching always appealed to you? How do you juggle writing with your other ventures?
KA: I am the co-director of Poets on the Coast with Susan Rich, which is where I probably do most of my teaching. I would be open to a faculty position at a low-residency program, but not a full-time position at a university. I value my time more than money. I don’t juggle anything well and I never try to hide that. I think sometimes people see successful people and think, oh, they have it under control, they seem good at everything, but honestly, I think most of us struggle with balance and doing many things at once.
Mostly, I keep lists which remind me of my top three projects. I let things fall through the cracks—usually that’s responding to emails. I always want to be a writer and poet before any of my other job titles, so I make sure to always give that time. Some weeks I just block off a full day on the calendar for writing poems. Other times, I get together with two other poets and we have a quasi-writing retreat at home. I say yes to things that have to do with 1) family 2) writing 3) friends and usually in that order.
TLY: There are people who say you don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer. Do you agree or disagree? What did you take away from your program?
KA: I think it was Naomi Shihab Nye who said, “Life is the program” and I always liked that. Of course, I have an MFA and believe my time spent in my MFA program (Pacific Luther University Rainier Writing Workshop) was the absolute best thing I ever did for myself as a writer, but I would disagree in the belief that you have to have an MFA to be a successful writer as there are a ridiculous number of poets who can prove that false.
I think the three things I took away from my MFA program are:
1) An incredible writing community that I’m still in touch with today. I’m still very close to the friends I made and the teachers at the program. We all went through it together and there is something very intimate about that shared experience with one’s art. We are all very much there for each other.
2) Focused reading and writing time. For three years, I basically ate, breathed, read, wrote, and bled poetry. This much focus on craft, reading, and writing can only make one be a stronger writer. My creative thesis basically became my second book, Letters From the Emily Dickinson Room, which won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize in 2010. Dedicated time to any pursuit can only make you more successful, I believe.
3) It made others take me and my writing more seriously. I started my graduate program with a young daughter. I could feel my life as a mom basically sucking up and blurring the rest of my life. I was okay with losing the things that weren’t important to me, but I wasn’t going to lose my writing life.
At the time I began, I had a chapbook out and my first book was coming out, but my friends and family weren’t truly taking me (or the time needed for me to write) seriously. What better way to make people take you seriously than I find something you love to do and throw a lot of money at it. When you are enrolled in a graduate program, people leave you alone and let you have your time to write and study.
TLY: What advice would you give someone looking to write as a career?
KA: Read. Read. Read. Dedicate time every day to write something, even if it’s just a few lines, or notes to an essay. Find ways to be part of the literary conversation—attend writing conferences, book festivals, poetry readings in your community. Revise. Revise. Revise. Be satisfied enough and finish what you start. One way to self-sabotage yourself is to never finish anything because it’s not perfect. (Note: nothing is perfect, it’s okay.) Submit your work. Rejection just means you’re doing your job. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Sometimes that’s where our best writing comes from. Celebrate small successes whenever you have them.
TLY: Quote or mantra to live by?
KA: Be kind. Make art. Enjoy dessert (in that order).
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