Interview with Joanna C. Valente { poet, editor, mermaid }

You are the Founder and Chief-editor of Yes, Poetry, Managing Editor at Luna Luna Magazine, you work full-time, and you have two collections coming out in 2016, what a busy time for you! How do you manage with the stress and burden that may arise from time to time?

I'm just really good at making lists. And, of course, sticking to them. Maybe it's neurotic (I mean, it is), but it works. It's really all about prioritizing and scheduling yourself. I try to do a few things each day, so over the course of one week, it's actually not that bad. I'm also the kind of person who prefers to be busy--it makes me more productive and feel more fulfilled. I also tend to set aside a few hours during the weekend to work on writing, besides jotting down notes on the subway.

And really, writing is therapeutic for me. It helps me dig through my problems and stresses, and feel like I have some perspective and control. Maybe I can't control hat happens to me, but I can control how I react.

 

You consider yourself a half-mermaid, half-human. When did you come to this realization? And why a mermaid?

I love the ocean--I've always loved the ocean. Whenever I'm around the sea, I feel so much more at home. Perhaps it's because I've been raised on the east coast and always had access to some kind of beach or body of water, but I love the duality of it as well--being both maternal and dangerous at the same time. I'm drawn to both, as I think most people are. We crave mystery--what we don't understand, while also seeking security and comfort.

I can't pinpoint an exact age, since I always felt this way, and my parents often took me to Montauk, Long Island; which, in some ways, could also be a sense of nostalgia. Mermaids, too, are mythological creatures--they are unreal, and thus, not truly part of this world. Like many writers and artists, and women in particular, I felt as though I didn't belong. So it was comforting to identify with something that doesn't actually exist. In some ways, identifying with something unreal makes whatever weirdness and otherness more bearable to deal with--since in some way, you're making fun of yourself.

Different cultures have ascribed different meanings to mermaids. In Eastern European cultures, they are usually the ghosts of young women who died violent deaths, usually by murder or suicide or drowning. As such, they can be seen at night, dancing together under the moon and calling out to young men by name, luring them to the water and drowning them. I like this subversive idea of power over men, as a feminist. Not that I dislike men or feel revengeful, but it is interesting to reverse the power dynamic.

 

I am very impressed with and inspired by the way you bring life, color, and depth to situations that are often overlooked as mundane and routine. How do you find the inspiration to 'read between the lines' and perceive meaning and profoundness in what's before you? Does inspiration come from observations of situations on the street or even from your immediate milieu?

I would say inspiration comes from both--both myself and my observations. I grew up shy, so I became an observer at a young age, and often listened to other people's problems. So, I think because of that, it's a natural way for me to go about my day-to-day activities. Most of the 'small stuff' is what forms us as people--how people treat you at your job, what your commute is like, what you enjoy eating, if you prefer affection in your friendships. I think everything is profound--like that quintessential scene from American Beauty where the last shot is the plastic bag swaying in the wind.

Of course, a lot of my own conversations become fodder for my poems--I really love the nuance of a conversation, because a lot of it depends on body language and tone and history. I think the use of active language in poetry is fascinating, since poems are mini-universes, and I think conversations are too. They live in our bodies and minds and define our relationships, which in a large way, makes us who we are. We also tend to replay conversations in our head over and over, trying to find new meanings, which I think lend themselves to poetry very well.

 

I admire your avant-garde experimentation with form in your poems. Would you say that when it comes to poetry, anything goes? Or do even free-verse poems have rules? Are rules meant to be broken?

I'm a rebel, so yes, rules can always be broken. Fuck rules. Although, I suppose I'm slightly more of a formalist in the sense that I think the rules can only be brok once you've mastered them. It's lazy writing to just break rules without studying what poetry is--from Beowulf to Andre Breton to Bernadette Mayer. Our contemporaries define us just as much as the classics--and while defining canon is also problematic in many ways (as is history, because you have to take into account who is writing history or defining the canon), it's important to know what a sestina is. It's important to try your hand at everything. Like Henry James said, writers are sponges. So be a good sponge.

Free-verse is tricky, because while there are no defined rules, I believe the poet should create a specific framework for each poem. This way, when the reader begins to read the poem, they get a map, and then can follow this map as a guideline to unlock the rest of the poem. It's kind of like a treasure hunt. Without this framework, the reader will get lost. And that's what makes confusing poetry.

 

Have you ever had bouts of writer's block? How would you advise for writers to deal with it?

Of course--any writer who says no is a liar. I'm actually totally OK with writer's block. For me, I look at it as a time of reinvention. If you can't write, it's probably because you're either not emotionally ready to yet, which is OK. It means you need to do more research, introspection, and bad writing. Because bad writing leads to good writing and to working out the thoughts in your head.

It also means that perhaps whatever you're working on, as a topic or obsession, is done. Sometimes, I overwork an idea. And that's fine, but then I need to move on. So, really, there shouldn't be guilt associated with writing. While I think setting aside time to do it is important, I also think you shouldn't guilt yourself for not writing brilliantly every time. That's impossible, and it will only lead to a guilt complex which will make it harder to be productive.

 

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming collections--Xenos and Marys of the Sea?

Xenos is a nonfiction/poetry chapbook written through the perspective of my grandmother, who is a World War II veteran. Her life, as you can imagine, is fascinating--so I wanted to encapsulate her world, partially as a way to make some sense of her many stories, but partially, to give her a voice. The speaker reflects on her childhood, family, marriage, and motherhood. It tackles relevant issues surrounding ideas of feminism and motherhood in America, particularly through the lens of loss. Many women in her generation didn't have an outlet to talk about their emotions, so I wanted to do that for her.

Marys of the Sea, on the other hand, is a full-length poetry collection that deals with rape and abortion and the idea of lost motherhood. It is written through the lens of a woman who has had an abortion and/or been sexually assaulted, as well as through the perspective of the unborn fetus. As a survivor of rape myself, I based much of the material off of my own experiences, while also creating the persona of Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene as one person with multiple identities (as we all do). Particularly, I wanted to highlight how we often have to stereotype women by either being the mother or the slut, but not both. As a feminist, I seek to explore these themes in my work to show how destructive they are to everyone.

 

And lastly, Sundays--at least for me--are days of rest and laziness. How do you like to spend your Sunday mornings?

I enjoy sleeping in until about 9am, making breakfast, and then working on writing/editing for a few hours. I really enjoy going to coffee shops to work, so usually I make a trip of it, which allows me to get in the "zone." I don't necessarily have to be in a certain physical space, but I typically get distracted by being in my apartment, partially because I think I have loads of time, and partially because I'll find other things to do. And then, I usually enjoy seeing friends or just hanging out at home and watching a movie with my partner. We enjoy watching movies, which I draw a lot of inspiration from, since I'm a visually-oriented person. I enjoy the narrative poetics of film, which I try to infuse lyrically and narratively in my poems.

 

How long did it take you to get here?
I’d like to cash my days in now

When was the first time you made love?
Man holds gun to my stomach

What will you say to your children?
I say take it, there’s so much for you
to take

What have you lost?
The moon has a red glare
encircling my legs

I haven’t been able to move
for 5 yrs

Who do you miss most?
Red tentacles killing flies
between my legs

gulping salt to sleep on water
see brother cover my face in purple

Would you have anyone killed?
It has been years

- Joanna C. Valente, Daughter

 

Joanna C. Valente is the Managing Editor for Luna Luna Magazine. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014) and The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), and received her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. Her second full-length collection Marys of the Sea is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in 2016. She also has a chapbook, Xenos, forthcoming from Imaginary Friend Press. Some of her work appears in The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, BORT Quarterly, among others. She founded Yes, Poetry in 2010. Her ghost resides at her website: joannavalente.com.
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