Choices and Traumas, the Single-Stanza Poem, and the Ghosts We Carry: Joanna C. Valente on Her Poem "Marys of the Sea"
“People aren’t comfortable with being proven wrong, or realizing that a great person can say things that aren’t always right,” Joanna C. Valente said to me during a warm-up Google chat prior to our interview. The topic of our conversation: the idea of “safe spaces” for marginalized groups or victims of trauma. Such spaces are great in theory but practically impossible, she argued, because they negate the possibility that victims can also make mistakes. I’d found this judicious view of human nature rare, but there it was. “I’m in favor of neutral spaces over safe ones,” Joanna said. “Put people in a room together and allow them to respectfully disagree. The result won’t always be ‘safe,’ but at least people are talking.” I’d like to think of poetry as this kind of room for important conversations, and here is a writer who’s using hers. – HLJ
As someone who loves the idea of a life before and after this one, I found a lot to appreciate about this section of Marys of the Sea. But because it's a long/book-length work, could you give us a bit of context, maybe tell us more about the work as a whole?
The book is based on my sexual assault and subsequent abortion (I became pregnant after it happened). I began writing it about two years afterwards, and so the experience was still fresh in my memory though I’d managed to gain some perspective on it. I wrote it through the personae of Mary, mother of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene -- partly because I wanted to explore the idea that women are rarely seen both as maternal figures and as sexual beings. But because I’d attended a Catholic school for 14 years, the two women were characters I’d been obsessed with and kept returning to.
The story of mother Mary is strange in that she becomes pregnant without her knowledge or consent, which always troubled me. After going through my experience with the assault, I couldn't help thinking back to the creation story of Jesus, what it says about the denial of women’s ownership over their bodies throughout history. These poems became a way of reclaiming my body and mind through that season of hopelessness and powerlessness. And I should add that the persona helped me write about my experience more objectively, which then made it more enjoyable because I wasn't simply myself, and easier because I didn’t have to be me, if that makes sense.
MARYS OF THE SEA, PART V
Looking for voices on paper
feel red all over his gummy mouth
starts to take form in my belly
hunger stops when grief replaces
my stomach lining two bodies
in one body sprouting brambles
& birds in my ears becoming deaf
to one history becoming two
histories two souls repeating
the lives of all the souls before this
one there was poetry before this
life lodged between both of us
without the dead I would lonely
be in eastern standard time
when I didn't change my name
two bodies need two names
& how does abandon form
in building how does a human
form in another human give
away another human to no one
sorceress tongue spews
spells for dead hands to throttle
what I could not inverting
empty on its head X-ray of terror
there were no repeated lives
I love this reclamation of not only your life and body but of the Mary story itself, and how the mask a poet puts on can lend necessary distance while having a transfiguring effect on such a painful experience. So tell us a bit more about this particular section of the poem: the poem’s speaker, and what I understand as this relationship between two entities, two souls. I’m particularly intrigued by the part about “one history becoming two // histories two souls repeating // the lives of all the souls before this.”
Ah, yes. So this poem is the title poem of the book, where a lot of the different threads come together. The speaker here is mother Mary – not the one who gives birth to Christ, but a different Mary, a Mary who’s a woman reflecting on her abortion, what it means to be pregnant, to not simply be an individual any longer, but a host to a soul or entity that is not you and yet is part of you. The idea to me of having a family has always been objectively strange, because historically, people have had families with goals of legacy in mind, of continuing their name and history -- values which always been important in patriarchal societies.
The central obsession of this work is the idea that Mary’s personal and family history is now fusing with that of another. What does it mean to be part of a history? Can you really break free of a history you no longer embrace or identify with, or do those histories insist on just repeating themselves?
Some of the recent science has suggested the possibility that trauma can be passed down in our DNA, and that also made me wonder about all of the pain our ancestors suffered – whether we somehow instinctively remember it.
I think that we do remember those things. I think that ghosts, whether they inhabit human forms or memories that haunt us, are all around us and affect us at every moment. We’re never truly alone; can never quite get away from what identifies us. For me, that's being a woman who grew up in New York City during a time when it was uncomfortable to come out as queer, when the default mode of living was to please everyone around me. I grew up in a very repressed culture (being Greek Orthodox and having been taught to fear God, sex, or just about anything related to sexuality). My parents were from the Bronx, both of them having been raised by immigrant parents who were very fearful and superstitious. Those superstitions impacted my childhood a whole two generations after my family arrived in this country. I really believed I would go to hell if I lied to my parents, for instance.
What you just said suddenly explains the line, "without the dead I would be lonely."
Yes. I think humans have always been obsessed with the dead. My family comes from the Mediterranean, and death and ghosts are everywhere in Greek and Italian culture and myth. When I was growing up my grandmother would tell me about her dreams, and her dreams often involved her dead relatives. Eventually, such dreams began occurring to me.
As humans we’re also often obsessed with what we don't have, whether those things are dead or simply beyond our attaining them. It's comforting, in a weird way, to dream of what you don't have, or of those people whom you cannot "have."
Death not just in the literal but also in the metaphorical sense has a strong hold over our lives, I’d agree.
And that circles back to the abortion, when I began romanticizing my unborn child, to mourn that child. And in doing that I began to imagine him or her as being in a sense godly, a creature that was and is a part of me, even in death.
The child to me was and is genderless, which is also why the child is referenced using both gendered pronouns throughout the book.
In this section, the child is a "he." And it strikes me that someone coming to this poem without foreknowledge or context could read it as a love poem – which in a way, it is.
It is, in a large way, because it's both a love and hate poem to the child; and not just to the child, but also to the speaker's body. The speaker could give birth but also bear death. (And the death, however much it’s the product of the woman’s victimization, is still a choice). This child provided both unconditional love (which the speaker longs to feel), and also a scary reality the speaker isn't prepared for.
In this poem, I chose for the child to be masculine in order to mimic the Mother Mary and Jesus narrative. Still, there’s the inescapable fact that Mary, in all senses of the word, did not consent. God chose her, but did she choose God? We don't ever really know. She "accepts" her fate, but did she have a choice?
Reading it again, I see how you're wrestling with that in this poem, especially with the part about abandoning a human form to "no one." It's a crisis of faith, and an immense one.
Tell me more about the poem's form? (Not having read the rest of it). And its lack of punctuation? Did you do much revising of this particular section?
So the poem's form is unusual for me, in that I’m normally a fan of having a lot of breathing room on the page. But in this case I’ve chosen to do the opposite, with one large stanza, partly to invoke the anxiety and intense feeling conveyed by Mary.
I’m going for a similar effect with the lack of punctuation, because these thoughts and hurried and rushed, as if the speaker were thinking them to herself, or trying to justify or rationalize her reasoning to someone else, or to herself. To be honest I didn't revise this section that much – I revised a lot of the other poems in the collection significantly (and straight up just took poems out), but this poem had been with me for a while.
I know that feeling. So, your poems carry a deep sense of that inner life I think every poet seeks to access when we write, even if we're dealing with the external world. You're a student of the Tarot. Its call to look inward, its use of image and archetype – what role do these things play in your poetry?
A huge one, even when I’m not writing about the Tarot. It’s one key way I function, by looking inward as a way to deal with traumas and weaknesses, which are really necessary stops on the path to fulfillment and a better understanding of your life and world.
In my poetry, it's how I understand my world, but also a key part of how I organize a narrative, even if it’s an ambiguous one, because the Tarot is also about the stories we tell ourselves.
And the variable and nuanced interpretations of a given narrative or image that is common to all poems. Have your poems been characterized by others as "dark"? What is your response?
Always! They always are, to the point that I joke about it. I usually take being labeled as dark as a compliment, because it probably means I’m pushing boundaries with some of my ideas and making people uncomfortable in the process. I would hope that reading my poems ignites something in people, helps them evaluate themselves and their viewpoints on subject matter that is dark, but is part of life. In that sense being labeled “dark” is the biggest compliment I can receive.
At the same time, it’s funny because those who’ve read my work and are meeting me for the first time tell me I’m a lot more cheerful than they'd imagined I would be. We poets are not as one-dimensional as our work might make us appear.
Tell us about your poetry education. Also, what advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA?
I have BFAs in literature and creative writing – I double-majored at SUNY Purchase, then went to Sarah Lawrence College for my MFA in poetry, and so in a lot of ways I took the traditional academic route, which on the one hand I don't regret. I made a lot of friends and learned a lot about writing in a short period of time, and the doors that opened then have led me to where I am now, as an editor, writer, and teacher (I’m a mentor and professor with Brooklyn Poets, and the work has been immensely rewarding).
But I also don't think MFAs are necessary to become a successful writer. They're expensive (unless you're fully funded), as well as time-consuming. If you’re already working and supporting yourself, unless you can take time off from your career it either means you have to quit your job and move, or attend a program right out of undergrad like I did, and that’s not possible for everyone. I was lucky in that I didn't have a career or a family, but years later, I’m still saddled with loans for the rest of my life. And I was too young to understand what that meant when I chose that path.
To be completely real, I don't think I made the kinds of connections that thousands of dollars in debt should have afforded me. Like I said, I wouldn't take it back, because I made priceless friends, but I honestly felt like many of my professors weren't invested in me, and for the money they pay young writers deserve more.
I’m not resentful, and I could have probably been a little less shy. But I do think people are getting taken advantage of financially just for "experience" and a line on their resume.
Here’s the MFA alternative: if you read a lot, and set up a workshop group, that's what a MFA is. And that's what Brooklyn Poets does in a lot of ways, which is why it’s such a pleasure for me to be part of their work.
If I lived in Brooklyn I think I’d probably take every class. Jason Koo is doing incredible things with that organization.
It's proving to the world that you don't need a fancy MFA to be considered "real.”
Do you have any “homework” you’d like to assign our readers?
I do! I love Kim Hyesoon's book, All the Garbage of the World Unite.
I tell all of my students to read it, and to mimic her style, especially the poem "Manhole Humanity". I'm all about writing the grotesque, gross moments in our lives, whether it's about sex or the time you did something terrible, or masturbated in the bathroom at your job, or whatever. And that's the writing prompt: write a two-page poem that’s a confession with a barrage of grotesque details in it.
Nice. I'm going and doing that after we're done. What's one poem you love, and why?
I love "The Truth the Dead Know" by Anne Sexton. I love it because it contains both narrative and lyric power to it while also being about death, about how the dead speak to us all the time. It romanticizes death, which a lot of artists do – but the fear of it is present in it, too. With this poem Sexton took some big emotional risks and made herself very vulnerable.
Incredible. I've loved her work for so long, and have also taught her work, and so I felt happy for a lot of reasons, but mostly to hear her read, and to have the honor to read alongside her. It was magical, really.
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) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has led workshops at Brooklyn Poets.