[re:con]versations :: Mining the Depths with MARY OF THE SEA’s Joanna C. Valente
Who are you?
Joanna C. Valente, a human, alien, sea creature, or ghost.
Why are you a poet?
Because poetry is honest. Because poetry mimics the rhythm of the heart and the fragmented way the brain thinks.
When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I began writing when I was 11, and while I didn’t consider myself a poet, I also took writing seriously even then. I was a pretty serious kid and had been painting and drawing since I could remember, so in many ways, it’s also accurate to generally say I am an artist — and have been for most, if not all, of my life in various ways and forms. Thinking analytically and yearning to find the meaning in the stories I tell, the stories of my life and others’, has always been important to me, because it helps us understand the world around us. And hopefully, that makes us kinder and more compassionate.
What’s a “poet”, anyway?
A poet is a type of prophet, telling us how we feel, what the world is evolving into, what our hidden desires and sadnesses are.
What is the role of the poet today?
I believe poets are activists, and should be advocating for progressive positive change, to create a freer and more inclusive world where everyone is valued — where we are able to build safe lives for ourselves. Where we can openly feel.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)?
For me, I want to be a supportive and compassionate person, an advocate for those around me who are driven by their own beliefs and truths — and connect others through my art and writing. In general, I am always working toward creating more awareness about sexual assault and sexual violence, and want to create a space for survivors to come forward and feel seen — and to feel as if we are creating a world where sexual violence is not tolerated or excused.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
Each poem is like a child to me — they are at once something I birth into the world — but they also take on lives of their own, through the meanings others interpret through them. In general, I also look at each poem as being their own microcosm within the larger collection or world they inhabit. Each poem has a unique POV and persona that speaks to larger issues, like gender and sexual identity.
This particular book, for instance, was a way for me to explore my sexual assault and subsequent abortion I had because of it, as a way to achieve understanding of what happened to me, of what happened to my body — and let it go, like a spell. I began writing the book as my MFA thesis while at Sarah Lawrence College. And while the book was a struggle, to relive these moments and memories, it was also cathartic. I used the trope of Mother Mary/Mary Magadalene to tell the story, but also comment on sexual and gender identity, and what it means to be both in control and powerless over one’s own body — to have multuple identities and dualities.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written? How or how not?
I always envisioned it as being an entire collection, as I wanted to tell a story — and to do that, you need time and space in order to create a narrative that not only makes sense to the reader, but is rich and nuanced enough to hold them. While I wrote in the Marys persona, it was also largely about me — which made it easier to write as I was writing around my experiences.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work?
At the time, I was very interested in using the entire space on the page and experimenting with line breaks, punctuation, and indentation — so I was often taking myself out of my comfort zone and trying to find new ways to use the negative spaces on the page — because poetry is like a painting, as the page is the canvas and the poem is the image.
Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write?
Of course. Everyone I encounter does. I believe every moment influences me. Being in workshops since I was an undergraduate definitely has influenced me, as I was able to understand the difference between what I see on the page and what my reader does — and how to tell a story through poetry. I also believe the workshop environment stressed to me just how much editing is a part of writing. Some influences include Monica Ferrell, Cathy Park Hong, Marie Howe, and many others.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title represents the dualities that exist within one’s own sexual and gender identity — while also implying a disconnect as well. Marys of the Sea encompasses the Mother Mary/Mary Magdalene personas, while also illustrating the many identities (and fluid identities) we have. The title actually is a Tori Amos song as well, and Tori Amos is definitely, and has always been, an influence on me.
What does this particular collection of poems represent to you
…as indicative of your method/creative practice?
…as indicative of your history?
…as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
Historically, the collection is largely about sexual assault and abortion, which represents experiences that have personally shaped my life — and experiences I hope that help other survivors cope with their own experiences. And make them feel less alone, most of all. In general, I like to experiment and push myself, and the structure of these poems definitely reflect that.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
It challenges the status quo, how we see our bodies within society, and how to fight against those boundaries.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I hope it helps others feel less alone if they feel like they don’t fit a mold, if they have experienced traumas, and allow others to write about their traumas and experiences honestly and boldly.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
Right now, we face serious inequalities across race, gender, sexuality, and privilege when it comes to publishing. Often times, I do feel the publishing world is afraid to make bold statements, and often goes with the status-quo, or what is deemed as most sellable, so to speak. I think this is dangerous. In general, it dangerous to attach money to art, and put the most value on what makes the most money — because that doesn’t, of course, necessarily translate to what is actually the most honest, influential, and brave — or diverse. Diversity of voices and experience (for instance, people of color and people with special needs/disabilities) are often left out, because it only appeals to a “certain audience.” There are some presses, big and small, putting out provactive and groundbreaking work, but I do feel like there aren’t enough.
This, in turn, results in smaller indie presses taking the real risks and putting out the type of work that I believe is groundbreaking and authentic — however, this usually means people finding out about these books are within that specific lit community — meaning that the work is isolated to that community. That in itself is dangerous, because it means slower change, slower activism (even if it doesn’t always feel that way because of the internet).
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Sexting the Dead (Unknown Press, 2017) & Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes, Poetry and the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente. Order Marys of the Sea here.