“our pain doesn’t need to be lonely”: An Interview with Joanna C. Valente

I remember the first time reading Joanna C. Valente’s work. It was last March in the midst of the beginning of COVID-19, trying to figure out how to do work remotely for the first time, and as I was scouring the internet for a literary magazine to present for my Online Literary Journal Editing and Publishing class. I came across Bear Review. As I was scrolling, I stopped at “The End is Never the End.” The poem drew me in instantly. I connected to the lines personally as someone who had struggles with growing into a different version of myself, knowing other versions I didn’t always approve of still existed in someone else’s mind. The writer of that poem was Joanna C. Valente. I searched the internet for more of Valente’s work. Reading Joanna’s poetry gave me the courage to try to submit my own poetry out into the world. 

Not only are they a widely published author, but they speak loudly about important topics through their writing, such as sexual assault, and the demons that haunts us and our past. Joanna C. Valente is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions 2016), Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press 2018), No(body) (Madhouse Press 2019), and A Love Story (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press 2021). Their writing has also been published in Brooklyn Magazine, Them, Prelude, Columbia Journal, Electric Literature, The Huffington Post, F(r)iction, and Bear Review, and many others. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Joanna through a shared Google Document. I had the pleasure of getting their insight on their writing process, how COVID-19 and quarantine has affected their writing, some future projects, as well as their #Survivor photo series and #Survior interviews, both of which can be found on their website. 

So here we are, one year into the pandemic. What is your general mental state, physical location? 

I’m somewhere on earth relaxing right now, post-lunch and listening to the birds outside the window I’m near. I am meditating on this moment, trying to just let it roll over and into me, to remember, to cherish, and to save. 

I see that you have a book coming out sometime this year called A Love Story, from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. Can you tell me a little bit about how the collection came together? What was your favorite part about writing this book? Most difficult? 

I started writing this during my separation and divorce from my ex. A big part of it was meant to be healing, a way for me to just piece together what I was going through in words. It was also inspired by Twin Peaks, and other texts and themes, such as Medea, Paradise Lost, Frankenstein, etc. I have always been fascinated by the unknown, by the ideas of other worlds and times that exist outside of what humans consider reality (whether heaven or hell or an alternate universe in time), as well as what we consider “other” and how we label people as “monsters.” A lot of Twin Peaks deals with these themes, of the spiritual unknown and horrors that happen to us as people. So I originally started from there, especially as Killer Bob was always my favorite character. As I started writing more poems and began editing the manuscript for its final edits, I began to see there were so many threads and themes; the main character in the book is referred to as The Killer; and I left the name vague on purpose. I want the reader to decide who this person is, how they became who they are, the traumas this character experienced and how they repeat the cycle of abuse. 

In some ways, it was easy to write because it was cathartic—and full of a lot of emotion I was grappling with, in terms of isolation, loneliness, rejection, queerness and queer identity, as well as how we as humans exist in the universe. What else is out there that we don’t see or perceive? I’m a spiritual person in that I have my own practice and beliefs, and I often find myself thinking about the greater picture, the different energies, realms, places, and/or beings that exist. 

Living through this pandemic over the past year, among many other events, has quarantine helped or hindered your ability to write? Put another way, after over a year of pandemic life, do you have any thoughts on virtual readings, virtual book fairs, and other aspects of literary life? 

I don’t think the pandemic has changed the way I write, or how often I write. Even before the pandemic, I wanted to slow down—with everything. The pandemic only strengthened this feeling for me, wanting to refocus my attention on other areas of my life and mostly just not feel caught up in the pressure to do. I just want to be. So in a big way: I do less. This choice is intentional, because I want to be more intentional and mindful.

In terms of virtual life, from readings to book fairs, I embrace it. It helps people access these events more, and accessibility is important to me. Sure, we all love a good hang out or time to physically see the people we love, to attend events in physical locations because of the experience—but that isn’t always possible for a myriad of reasons, whether due to health, finances, geography, caregiving, etc. So for me, I say more! 

This isn’t a binary, either. When we can safely have events and book fairs physically, that’s great. But I think virtual options should always exist, and I don’t see it simply as an option because of the pandemic, but a way for us to embrace the technology we have to make all these awesome things accessible for all.

Let’s talk about your poem, “The Ones You Left Behind Are Still With You,” published in Brooklyn Magazine. It has so many powerful lines, like, “You erase your body with the dark. There are no lights in any of your fantasies.” Can you talk about that line, the poem in general? 

That line, to be honest, is quite simple. But perhaps deceptively so is much of my writing. It’s about the lack of hope; when you go through trauma, it lives in your body. For everyone, there’s always moments of doubt or insecurity even long after, no matter how far along you are in the healing process. Dreams can be hard to have when you don’t think you will ever achieve it, that you’re broken, or it’s simply out of grasp.

In another poem, “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” you mention ghosts, like, a lot. “Most people think/ghosts have no feelings” you write. It made me curious: what do you define as a ghost? What makes someone a ghost?

Ghosts can be anything from leftover energy, a lingering yet strong memory of someone, a time that had a particularly significant impact. Ghosts are energies around us that can alter or change our moods, our perceptions, even if for just a moment. It’s that linger, residual feeling you get, a kind of haunting. 

You illustrated Bukong Tuon’s collection of poems, Dead Tongue. How did this process of illustration differ from your typical writing process? Is this a type of collaboration that you see yourself doing again?

I would definitely love to do this again—and I actually am with Fox Henry Frazier’s book, a second edition of her poetry collection, Exodus in X Minor. It differs because it’s all based in my interpretation of someone else’s art—and how I can bring my interpretation, through my aesthetic, into a union with theirs. It’s a beautiful process because I really try to see outside of myself in that regard, and represent the writer in a way that I feel showcases the work and does it justice through a different lens and medium.

I have to ask at least one “tell me your writing secrets”-type question. I’ll try to keep it simple. Where is your favorite place to write? Do materials like pens or keyboards matter much? How do you overcome periods of writers’ block?

I don’t handwrite often, but when I do, it’s in a notebook of choice with a black ink pen. Normally, I type my poems on my computer or in the notes section on my phone. At this point, I’ve trained myself to write anywhere; I love observing others so I actually enjoy jotting things down while I’m out and about, usually while taking my daily walk (which I have long done). I used to love writing in coffee shops, because it felt like I was “going” somewhere, and in a way, I felt productive because I couldn’t distract myself with other things at home. Of course, now in the pandemic, I haven’t done this, so mostly just at home whenever I can. 

In terms of writer’s block, I try not to force it. I don’t have a set or strict writing schedule; I want to write between the moments in my life—or in my down time. I admire people who sit down to write every day, but I’ve never been that way. I view my moments of writer’s block as times I need to observe and listen, rather than produce. When I was younger, I tried to force myself, and I don’t think that was healthy or productive. 

Your website features your #Survivor photo series. These photos have a haunting beauty to them. Was this series based on the large prevalence of the #MeToo movement or was it ignited by something else?

It was mostly ignited by my own experiences. I was at a residency when the idea came to me, and it was mostly me just attempting to do a portrait series of myself with my trauma in mind, and trying to showcase my body as having survived, as surviving. I ended up opening it up to others in my relative social circle because I wanted it to go beyond me—and have others feel empowered and connected to each other. And to see that these experiences don’t define us, but they can connect us to each other; our pain doesn’t need to be lonely. It can be shared and turned into something powerful.

Of course, the #MeToo movement certainly inspired me and countless others to be more outspoken, and to show that we have agency and voices—and that we have power. 

There is also your #Survivor interview series, where you interview different artists, including yourself. As a well-published writer who typically writes about very real and vulnerable topics, what did you want people to perceive the self-interview as? Was it difficult interviewing yourself compared to other people regarding this topic?

Mostly, I just wanted people to see the self-interview as a way to be vulnerable, besides being the person behind (and in front of) the camera. It was difficult interviewing myself, but not as difficult as sharing some of the photos of myself; the photos are vulnerable because in some ways, I control less of the narrative. People will perceive them as they will, and the photos show me without commentary. Having our bodies on display, no matter what the subject, even as a portrait, can be incredibly vulnerable. On the other hand, for me at least, language can be more controlling in a lot of ways. You can choose what to show, what not to show. 

You’re also the editor of Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault, published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2017, which brought a lot of light to different experiences that people have had with being survivors of these violent situations. Can you talk about your experience putting that collection together? Do you envision doing another anthology in the future? 

It was an intense experience, but one where I felt supported by CCM, and in particular Michael Seidlinger, who worked closely with me on it. I was, and am, incredibly honored to have put it together, and most importantly, honored that people felt comfortable sharing their art and experiences with me. At this point, however, I don’t have plans to do another one yet. I will never say never, and I loved being able to give a space for others, but it was an emotionally intense situation that I can’t quite say I’m ready to approach in that capacity. 

I do regularly publish writing/art of this nature at Yes Poetry or Luna Luna, but it feels more manageable as an ongoing process, rather than a huge endeavor. But we learn what our boundaries and capacities are over time, and of course, those change and evolve. 

As someone who has been a part of different aspects of publishing, being a writer, editor, illustrator, participation in literary journals, which one of these many hats best describes you? Is it hard to be the kind of writer who seems to “have it all” in regard to your skillset? 

It’s funny because I don’t see myself as someone who is necessarily good at all of these things; I mostly just enjoy trying different mediums. Which is what art is all about for me. It’s about evolution, trying, perceiving, and creating. I encourage everyone to go outside of what they feel good at, and try something new! It’s really scary to do, but it’s immensely rewarding.

If I had to choose, I suppose I would just say artist, since I think that can encompass a lot of different meanings and ideas. At the end of the day, I see myself as someone who is hungry to create because it’s how I express myself and understand the world around me.

I read that you attended Sarah Lawrence College for your M.F.A. As someone who was recently accepted there, what advice do you have for me and other people entering an M.F.A. program? 

Try not to be too hard on yourself. When I say that, I mean: Don’t compare yourself to others, don’t feed into your insecurities if/when you can help it, and don’t get swept up in competition or jealousy. Remember you’re there for yourself, for the love of the craft. All the other stuff doesn’t matter. This is true for everything we love, I think, in life. 

Sam Zimmerman is a senior English major at The College of Saint Rose. She loves writing poetry, experimenting with creative nonfiction, crocheting, and cuddling with her pet beagle, Lyric. She looks forward to putting her creative work out there in the world and pursuing an M.A. in order to further her skill set towards a career in English.

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