What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?
Life is upsetting and intense, so why shouldn’t writing be? I write about what is unsettling and uncomfortable to me—as a way to understand trauma, to parse through the events of my life (and others’) in order to come out a better, more empathetic person. Yes, humans do actually need entertainment and relaxation, but for me, poetry is not about this. While poetry can bring joy and relaxation, it is also art, and the point of art is to ask the hard questions, to dig deep, to show the truths about the time in which we live. And often times, those truths are hard.
For me especially, I write about trauma relating to sex and gender, because that is what I’ve dealt with in my life. My writing would feel inauthentic otherwise—and while I do think there is a line between exploitation, especially when it comes to trauma narratives—I also think we live in a world that already wants the sugar-coated version. I’m tired of that version. I’m tired of being told to keep my “knees together” by judges, for instance.
I also firmly believe that it is largely through our traumas and pain that we truly learn who we are, form our identities, and have the strength to move forward with grace and love. It’s easy to love others when you are ignoring the hard and ugly parts of yourself and others—it’s easy to love when that love doesn’t go very deep. But real love, for yourself and others, takes courage and strength—because it means you know what’s at stake. And to know that, you have to go through hell.
This question reminds me, too, of when Toni Morrison told The Guardian: ” I want to feel what I feel. What’s mine. Even if it’s not happiness, whatever that means. Because you’re all you’ve got.” Real feelings are not always pretty, but at least they’re real.
What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?
I would say my assault and subsequent abortion were my real earliest experiences of realizing that I need to own my experiences, to be OK with my identity, and just roll with it. I was 20 at the time—which is really young in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t an easy road for me, as I was raised in a conservative (and superstitious) religious household. My family often stuck by the belief “you hold yourself up with your bootstraps” type of New Yorker immigrant narrative, which is obviously just not true for a lot of people. I rebelled in a lot of ways—but even so, it was hard for me to accept myself, and my differences from my family.
For the longest time, I wanted to please my family, not get in arguments anymore. And honestly, sometimes I still do. Do we ever truly get away from our families? Maybe some do. I feel like for me, it’s been the eternal struggle of letting myself go free, while still loving them.
I did come out to my friends as queer by the time I was in college, but it wasn’t until the past few years that I really felt comfortable with myself as a whole being—one that identifies as queer, non-binary femme who writes about assault and abortion and all those feelings in between. I am still trying to define myself while also not defining myself. I really despise labels, but ironically, using language makes us label ourselves and identify what we “are” within words—which are only metaphors for what we actually feel. Isn’t that crazy to think that words are merely painting of our inner feelings, but not actually all that precise at all?
It also is ironic, but not surprising, that what has helped me own myself is that trauma I’ve experienced. This, I think, is true for mostly everyone. Pain is easier to remember than happiness.
How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?
I don’t force myself to write about trauma on “a deadline.” I write it when I write it. So many writers always say you need a schedule. While this is true in many ways, I also break that rule. I do think you should try to write something every day, but I don’t think you should push yourself to write about difficult subjects if your body isn’t ready. For me, I have to stew on something for awhile—both as a way to allow myself to reflect in a healthy, slow way, but to also prevent myself from exploiting my experiences—and thus, write about something before I’m ready.
Writing, in many ways for me, is a healing spell. It can’t be healing if I make it a job though. So I make it cathartic and pleasurable just simply for the fact that I do it on my own time. I also make sure to just have fun and find ways to relax at some point everyday. I let myself watch TV everyday, listen to music, get coffee/drinks/dinner with friends often. I don’t punish myself—or only let myself enjoy something once I’ve written enough or worked enough. It feels much more fluid this way.
I also just make sure to talk about what I’m feeling with my friends/confidants. I find that support endlessly helpful—having a community in any capacity is priceless. And it’s really the only way I feel sane after awhile. As much as I love being alone and burning incense and reading my Tarot (which is also helpful for clarity and meditative purposes), I need that human interaction and support, even if it’s just a Facebook message from someone.
We’re currently living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?
It makes it feel much more urgent for me, which is why I look at poetry and art as necessary spaces—as part of who I am. It’s all the more reason to say our truths and not just bow down to what our jobs want us to say, for instance. In the past, I was often faced with this, as I used to be a high school English teacher—and for a time, I had to keep all my social media sites private. I had to censor myself, because of surveillance from my bosses, literally. Eventually, I made the choice not to teach anymore because of this. Because I don’t believe in censorship, in my personal life or my art.
For me personally, I try to be as present as possible offline. While I’m not always successful (it’s hard not to check FB on my phone), if I’m hanging out with someone, I’m fully present. I’m with you. I think that’s important to be aware of, because many of us aren’t. We’re too caught up in a weird machine world, which scares me.
It’s not that I think “the internet” isn’t real, but why should we constantly always perform ourselves on a medium that tracks our every movement? Why do we need to show all our friends we just ate sushi and went to a poetry reading with so-and-so? I want my private life to be my own, to be something that is mine and only mine. This is not to say I don’t share, but I don’t feel obligated to. I reject that need to have an online persona. My persona is just me. Sometimes different parts of it come out at different times, but I’m not trying to be someone else. It’s hard enough to be myself.
That being said, I do write in persona within my poetry, but even in that persona, I’m merely exploring different facets of people I know, of myself, that are not dominantly mine—as a way to learn about the universe around me.
Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?
So much. It’s actually harder for me to say how it doesn’t. Being born in this body has affected so much of my life—from being assaulted to having an abortion to being cat-called, etc. There’s no way I can separate myself from it. And the idea of having to perform it, which I felt all of my life—having to appear to be something that I’m not. All of my poetry deals with this, or with the fluidity of gender, and the desire for it to be fluid.
I often identify as a rebel—and have since I could remember. I think I’ve always been rebelling against gender and gender performance—and we especially live in a time where it’s finally at the forefront of people’s minds in the mainstream. This awareness, while of course positive in the long run, also means we’re in midst of trying to figure it all out.
JOANNA C VALENTE is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) & Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine.
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.