Joanna C. Valente is a poet I have admired for some time. I’ve long wished I could absorb a smidgeon of their daring, their bold virtuosity, and their determination. So I was a little in awe when they agreed to sit down and talk to me. And they did not disappoint. Most people know by now that if I get to talk experimental poetics, I’m pretty happy, and Joanna came through, for sure.
Black: What brought Kim Hyesoon to your attention?
Valente: Cathy Park Hong! While I was getting my MFA at Sarah Lawrence, I took a workshop with Cathy my last semester and she had the class read one of Kim’s books (All the Garbage of the World, Unite!) which changed my entire world. I love poetry that is excessive and delves into the grotesque and also explores the female body (and bodies in general)—and it’s what I was trying to do myself (I was writing my thesis, which later became my third book, Marys of the Sea). So, it couldn’t have been better timing. Kim has been such an inspiration and influence on my work; I love her. Ever since, I’ve been reading and teaching her work for my workshops at Brooklyn Poets.
Black: What do you love about these particular poems?
Valente: There is this feeling that the speaker is talking to themselves, and to an extent, the void. Repeating words and images as a kind of chant or spell, or coping mechanism to the world around us, that is both beautiful and destructive. That feeling couldn’t be more real right now, sadly. The repetition is so strong and so emblematic of how humans think and feel in the world. Of course, Kim is also a master at using strange images that stick in your mind, which I’ve always been drawn to in art in general.
Black: In “Driving in a Downpour” there is this impulse that moves away from the declarative and into the interrogative form. There’s something humble in that decision. What is your take on this movement?
Valente: We ask questions often knowing the answer. I think that is what the speaker is doing here, wanting, perhaps, a different answer if they ask enough times. We also come to the truth more, and closer, when we ask questions, even if we do know the answer in the back of our heads. Questions make things, like feelings, real. They make us have to take ownership of what we feel, but also what we’re asking. Why things are the way they are, which Kim is doing in the lines:
“Why am I breathing like a lungfish, opening and closing my mouth, why have I lived so
long in the same body, am I sighing under my heavy dress, are my eyes open or closed,
in a night of a heavy rainfall why does the vast Andes appear in front of me again
How heartbreaking, but so true and real are those lines? Why have I lived so long in the same body? Why am I sighing? Why am I breathing? While the speaker compares breath to a lungfish, the question really is, why am I breathing? Why am I alive? Why is my life like this? It’s so amazing, and so tense, and also so reflective of who we are and what we think. It’s about those thoughts that we would hardly admit to our friends and family because it’s hard to admit weakness or existential terror. Or just some uncomfortable or unsettling feelings in general. That impulse to make everything OK is so dangerous and so common.
Black: Can you talk a little bit about experimental poetry and in particular, what are your thoughts about its role in poetry today?
Valente: I think experimental art, not just poetry, but especially poetry in my case, is so important because it’s often political. When we experiment, we’re questioning ourselves, our positions, our views, and the world we live in. I can’t stress enough how important that is right now when the world seems to be collapsing, when it’s being shipped into a wreck. This is not to say that form poetry can’t be political or experimental, but I do think when we push ourselves beyond the conventional boundaries of language, we are pushing ourselves beyond what we normally do and see, beyond the linguistic worlds our brains are used to and live in. Creating new worlds, new thoughts, in language is how we move into more progressive spaces, in my opinion. Poetry has always been a form of protest for me.
Black: Does this work intersect with your own?
Valente: I’m all about pushing myself out of my own comfort zones in my poetry, often trying to write “ugly poems” or making “ugly” art for the sake of exploring real vulnerability, and not just a crafted vulnerability. This is not to say I don’t love Kim’s images or think they are beautiful in their own ways, but I don’t think the poems are trying to be pastorals for the mind. I think they’re trying to be real, and gritty and uncomfortable. I always strive to do the same in my work, even before I read Kim’s. It’s important for me, also, for every project I work on to be different and explore different themes or obsessions. I also love the use of persona, which Kim explores often as well, especially pertaining to bodies. As a non-binary femme, exploring bodies and gender and sex is definitely at the core of what I’m doing – especially through the use of persona, as a way to get outside my own lens as much as possible.
Balck: Will you tell me a little bit about your own work and current projects?
Valente: Too many things, because I love being busy! Right now, I’m working on a novel told in nonlinear vignettes, a sort of possession and ghost narrative focusing on sexual violence and nonbinary and transgender characters. It’s called “Baby Girl and Other Ghosts.” I’m also working on a poetry collection that is basically done, “White Men Tell Me Things About My Body,” and another called “Werner Catzog,” which will also be illustrated. As if that’s not enough, I’m collaborating with two friends, one on a project called “Metal Poems” (with Chris Antzoulis) and another called “Killer Bob: A Love Story” (with Matthue Roth). Besides all of that, I’ve been writing and drawing a lot, having completed a collage poetry collection this year (called “Too Dumb, Too Stupid”) and started an illustrative poetry/sketchbook project that is currently untitled. And somehow, I recorded an album with a friend, Andrew Ross, under the band name Ghost Mother, although we still have to master it; the release date is tentative. Apparently, I love ghosts being in titles, which is not something I set out to do at all!
Black: Thank you so much, Joanna, for sitting down with me and for shining a little more light on this important poet.
Kim Hyesoon is a South Korean poet with nine books in English (most translated by the poet Don Mee Choi) and many more published in Korean. Hyesoon has received multiple prestigious awards for her poetry including the Daesan Poetry Award and the Midang Poetry Award.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.
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Anna Black was awarded her MFA at Arizona State University and her BA at Western Washington University. She has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.