poetry potluck finale: kelli russell agodon’s lucky pea soup

#20 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2011.

Emily: “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”

She enters, and a hush falls upon the room.

Our final Potluck Poet is here!

No better way to top off a poetry feast than with a tasty soup poem cooked up by the lovely and supremely talented Kelli Russell Agodon! I first learned about Kelli through Susan Rich, who was a surprise guest at last year’s potluck. After reading Kelli’s latest book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room (White Pine Press, 2010), I knew I just had to offer it as a prize in this year’s Big Poetry Giveaway.

The Emily Dickinson Room of the title refers to a guest room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel (“truly a hotel for book lovers”), located at Nye Beach, Oregon. All the rooms are named after famous authors such as Shakespeare, Austen, Tolkien, even Dr. Seuss! Kelli apparently wrote some of her poems at the hotel, which looks like the perfect sanctuary for writers with its gorgeous views of the ocean, quaint old buildings and interesting cross-section of guests. And I love that the name of their restaurant is “Tables of Content.” Would that I could set a table where fabulous food and lasting contentment were the order of the day!

Today’s poem comes from the second section of the book, How shall I pull through? Thoughts about a father’s death, love, loss, self doubt, marital angst, searching for life’s meaning — all turned over with prismatic precision in poems that are elegant, moving, whimsical, evocative, surprising. The soup poem tastes of a painful reckoning. What trouble bubbles beneath the surface? Nothing to do but carry on.

Kelli: Rarely in my life has a television show inspired a poem, and yet, as I walked into the house one evening, my husband was watching the cooking channel, and Rachael Ray was on making something interesting. I’m not much of a cook, so these shows really never offer me much, but as I walked to the kitchen I heard Rachael say, ” . . . and add a dash of cumin because it keeps the chickens and lovers from straying.” That one line was the back door into my poem about aging, about being a woman turning forty.

by Kelli Russell Agodon

She dices the peppers. Forty
degrees and falling. Last night,
her birthday and the woman she was

raised her pen to the moon,
crossed out another year, wrote loss.

She sees her body in the curve
of letters and not the words.

She sees the letters
she never wrote in the chili powder.

She places bacon in the skillet
and the pop of grease
surprises her, a celebration of heat.

She cannot tell you why she cried
in the spice aisle of the grocery store,

why she turned away
when she saw a friend she knew.

It’s easier to suffer alone,
with a cold night and diced tomatoes.

It’s easier to suffer when the moon
is your best lighting, when fine lines
appear near an open window.

She cannot imagine her life
without black-eyed peas, without

someone to share them.
She knows her husband

will return soon. She knows
she cannot push away what’s already lost.

She adds a dash of cumin
because it keeps the chickens
and lovers from straying.

All of this, she stirs.

© 2010 Kelli Russell Agodon. All rights reserved.

Emily: “I tasted life . . . We turn not older with years, but newer every day.”

Kelli says this is a classic Lucky Pea Soup recipe, “except for the part in the directions that says, ‘Make a Wish’ — that is probably from the French side of my family, the women who believe in magic.” What secret thoughts will cross your mind as you make this soup? What will you wish for?



4 slices bacon
1 green pepper, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 (15 ounce) cans black-eyed peas, undrained
2 (14.5 ounce) cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1 cup water
1-1/2 tsp salt
1-1/4 tsp cumin
1-1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp sugar


Place the bacon in a skillet and cook over medium-high heat until crisp and evenly brown. Drain on paper towels. When cool, crumble into small pieces. Using the same skillet, add the peppers and onion; stir and cook over medium-high heat until transparent and tender, about 5 minutes. Pour the black beans, tomatoes, and water into a large pot. Stir in the peppers, onion, salt, cumin, dry mustard, chili powder, curry powder, pepper and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, cover, and simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Make a wish. Serve hot sprinkled with bacon and other toppings of your choice.

*This recipe is included in the book!

I made this soup and loved it. The savory blend of spices really wakes up the taste buds. It’s filling, hearty comfort food with interesting textures, and using canned black-eyed peas couldn’t be easier. I always knew of black-eyed peas as a Southern tradition, but never realized the good luck tradition of eating them for Rosh Hashanah dates back to the Talmud. Still, there’s no need to wait for New Year’s to eat this soup. The way I see it, all of us could use a little extra luck now and then. Thanks so much, Kelli!

Kelli Russell Agodon is the author of Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and currently a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in Poetry. She is also the author of Small Knots (2004) and the chapbook, Geography.

Her work has appeared in magazines and journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Notre Dame Review, North American Review, Image, 5 a.m, Meridian, Bellevue Literary Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Seattle Woman, Calyx, The Seattle Review, and Literary Mama, as well as in many anthologies, including Good Poems for Hard Times edited by Garrison Keillor and Poets Against the War edited by Sam Hamill. Honors include the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Rosenberg Poetry Prize, the William Stafford Award, and the Carlin Aden Award for formal verse.

This is the second year Kelli is hosting the Big Poetry Giveaway for National Poetry Month, and with Susan Rich she is hosting Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writer’s Retreat for Women Writers at the aforementioned Sylvia Beach Hotel, September 9-11, 2011 (details here).

Kelli lives in Washington State with her family, where she is an avid mountain biker as well as the co-editor of Seattle’s 28-year-old print literary journal, Crab Creek Review, and the co-founder of Two Sylvias Press. You can find her online at Book of Kells, where she writes about living and writing creatively, and at her official website. She canceled her family’s cable plan last June so they no longer get the cooking channel.

Kelli at Open Books, Seattle

Emily: “I hope your rambles have been sweet, and your reveries spacious . . . The poet lights the light and fades away. But the light goes on and on.”

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


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