I’ve known Valerie (or V) since graduate school. We both got our MFAs at Florida State University. She entered the year after me, so we spent just two years together and often had the same workshops and courses. I’ve admired her work for quite some time and enjoyed getting the chance to ask about her work and her thoughts on various issues facing the poetry world. I hope you will enjoy our conversation.
S: You have lived in many different places and climates. You are currently out in Utah working on your PhD, which is quite different from Florida, which is where you were before. Do you find that location influences or changes the work that you write?
V: Definitely. I’m originally from Iowa, and I went to college in Vermont and studied abroad in Paris, so I truly have been all over the place. I am very inspired by my surroundings, and have written poems about a lot of those places. I was drawn to Florida initially because the landscape and climate were so different from anywhere else I’d lived, as is Utah. Growing up in a rural area that I find incredibly beautiful and spending a lot of time outside in my youth really tied me to the land. I think I am also drawn to extremes in landscape, like the hot summers and bitingly cold winters of Utah or Vermont, the high mountains versus the beach in Florida. All of these things have made their way into my poetry. And, actually, I find my interest in the body connected with landscape. Maybe that’s my Whitmanic legacy, but the way society disregards queer bodies like we disregard taking care of the planet…I see a definite connection between our bodies and the landscapes we inhabit and that definitely influences the work I do and changes depending on the landscape I’m in. It’s not that I’m exactly and eco-poet, but I’m very interested in the idea of poetry being and doing something greater than itself. I think John Clare is my model for this.
S: Your work often focuses on lesbian themes and, as you just stated, the female body. Do you feel that lesbian poetry is viewed the same way that gay male poetry is? Or is there a difference in reception to the two from your perspective and experience?
V: I feel a kinship with my gay male poet brethren, so maybe the differences don’t stand out as much because of that kinship? I didn’t read contemporary poetry until I started writing it my senior year of college, and I was working with Mark Wunderlich, an astoundingly wonderful gay male poet who introduced me to Mark Bibbins, Spencer Reece, Mark Doty and many others. Gay male poets were the first ones who literally (and literarily) welcomed me into the poetry fold. And when I first began writing poetry, I was really just coming out to the world after a year studying abroad in Paris and being with a gay community for the first time in my life. I was writing a lot about sex and drugs and other sorts of things we do to and with our bodies and I found a lot of inspiration in gay male poetry. I feel like there must be a difference between lesbian and gay poetry, but I feel such a connection between the two. I see them both as my legacy. This year I have been trying to read more lesbian poets and obviously the experience of being a woman and female-bodied has always been more marginalized, not being endowed (pun intended) with male privilege, and there’s a lot of butch/femme dynamics that are interesting, but the way many gay male poets write about the body is revolutionizing our ideas of masculinity, and that fascinates me. I do think there is a difference in reception, because I feel like there are more mainstream gay male poets—Mark Doty, Carl Phillips, etc—but I don’t think that’s because the public is more comfortable with male homosexuality, just because these poets are men and the public is more comfortable with men than women, regardless of sexuality. The recent VIDA count that shows a vast disparity between the number of men and the number of women published (while a problematic cis-gender binary) proves that there is a difference. Because it didn’t measure gay male poets vs lesbian poets, it measured all men vs all women, and the simple fact is that, overall, men are published and reviewed more widely than women. I have to believe that’s true in the gay community as well. As Eileen Myles wrote for The Awl recently: “Because a woman is someone who grew up observing that a whole lot more was being imagined by everyone for her brother and the boys around her in school.” I think gay men understand and work against this disparity more than most straight men, but at the same time, some gay men are more misogynistic than straight men, and that does leak into the poetry. But I don’t want to go too far down that road, because playing the “who’s more oppressed” game doesn’t get anyone anywhere and it’s beside the point. I like to see all queer poets as part of the same family regardless of gender, even though the disparities exist. I still feel that kinship.
S: That’s a very thoughtful and careful examination of a complex issue. I do agree that I can name a lot more “mainstream” gay poets than lesbian ones, but, as you said, I don’t think that’s because male homosexuality is more widely accepted. I also think the AIDS crisis ended up giving gay male poets more recognition, but that’s an even bigger discussion to have and one full of its own thorny issues and questions.
One thing I’ve always admired about your work is your devotion to a central theme and story. I’m obviously basing this on the project you were working on while we were at FSU together. What drew you to writing that particular manuscript?
V: I don’t know if it’s my early beginnings as a fiction writer, which I fancied myself until my senior year of college, but I like to think of my work in terms of a project. I enjoy working on pieces of a larger whole, rather than individual unconnected poems. The project you’re referring to is my manuscript Call Me By My Other Name, and it began as one poem, “Helpmate” (which was published in Ink Node). The poem was based on a newspaper clipping about two women who lived as man and wife for fifteen years in late 19th-century Wisconsin. I found the clipping in Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, and I was intrigued by what this couple’s lives must have been like. Connected with my fiction roots is my drive to tell stories, even though my poems aren’t strictly narrative, they are more lyric-narrative, there is always a story behind the poem. After writing “Helpmate,” I started doing research into lesbianism in the 19th century, though that’s sort of anachronistic. The more research I did, the more poems I wrote. I wanted to know what it was like to be a queer woman during a different time in the same place I grew up (though I’m not from Wisconsin, Iowa is not far). I have always done so much research for my writing, and maybe part of the reason I keep writing books that are part of a large project is because I want to get more than just one or two poems out of all that hard work.
S: I’ve been moving more in this direction with my work and have found it very rewarding. What do you consider to be your greatest poetry accomplishment or moment so far?
V: This has been the hardest question to answer! I have been extremely fortunate with my writing thus far, and I have worked very hard to get to where I am now. I think that my greatest accomplishment was finishing my manuscript and getting it to the point it’s at now. I’m so happy with it, and it has been through so many revisions. It might still go through more before it gets published, but shaping that book and all the time and hard work I put into it is what really made me a poet. The rest is nice, but if the writing itself doesn’t sustain you, then there’s no reason to keep doing this.
S: Very true. If someone came up to you who hasn’t read much poetry, what is the one book you would tell them they have to read?
V: It would depend on who it was. I really love Dorothea Lasky’s book Awe, and I think that might appeal to even the reader who isn’t in love with poetry, because it is accessible, but not in a creepy/crappy Billy Collins way. It’s deceptively simple. But my favorite book of poetry is A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it continues to inspire me.
S: You and I have both written on our blogs about the divide or debate between “academic poets” and “non-academic poets.” We both chose to get an MFA and you are currently getting your PhD. What made you pick this path and what do you make of this supposed divide?
V: I once heard someone accuse non-academic poets of a “democracy of taste” and that phrase really bothered me, as it was used pejoratively. The longer I do this, the more I find my taste in poetry expanding and the notion that some poetry is more worthy than others is quite problematic and usually rooted in racism, classism, other isms. I chose the academic path simply because I love school. It is always the thing I have loved most, and I’ve been in school non-stop since I entered preschool at age 4. Learning and teaching feed my work so much, so aside from practical considerations, I really am doing this because I love it. It is certainly not the only path or the only correct path, though it does seem true that the PhD gives you a leg up in the job market. I would never presume to tell someone else that the only way to be a poet is to go into academia. For me, that’s what works because I thrive in a school setting. Though I will say, after 24 years of it, I’m ready to be the teacher full-time, instead of a student. I think the divide comes from an assumed lack of rigor on the part of non-academic poets, and while I do think the best way to be a poet is to read and study poetry (whether you’re studying on your own or in an academic program is up to you), there are stifling aspects to academia and the so-called rigor. I think a certain myopia can develop where we’re all writing the same kinds of poems. I don’t think that happened to you and I don’t think it happened to me, but I’m sure we can both think of people who just wrote poems like their professors’ poems and never expanded their scope. Whether you’re in academia or not, you eventually have to step back and learn how to be a reader of your own work and know how to make choices regardless of the advice you’re getting from outside.
S: That is a fair analysis. I always say the same thing. I believe reading and studying poetry is key to being a good poet, but you can do that inside or outside of school.
What is your advice for young gay poets just starting out in MFA programs?
V: I got really caught up with readership—who was and wasn’t a good reader for my work—when I was in my MFA, and it affected the writing I did. My best advice would be to write the poems you want to write and don’t let who is in the workshop or who is teaching the workshop keep you from doing that work. Of course I’m speaking mostly about content. I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t take any advice from your professors or peers, but that you shouldn’t let others determine your project for you. Lots of people told me not to pursue Call Me By My Other Name, or just generally cautioned me away from “identity poems.” To this I have the response Eileen Myles did at the 3 Dollar Bill reading when someone called the work that had already been read “identity poems;” “What the fuck’s an identity poem?” In other words, no one ever tells straight people that they shouldn’t write about themselves, their friends, their lives, because those things are concerned with identity, but when queer writers focus on such things in their work, they are accused of being mired in identity politics. Bullshit. Write what you want. Believe in yourself.
S: Excellent advice. You participated in the Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices last year. What was that experience like and did it influence your work?
V: When I think of the Lambda Retreat, I remember the first night, when we were all going around introducing ourselves and talking about why we were there. Each of us mentioned a desire to be in a workshop with writers who just “got us,” or, as one woman put it, where no one in the room asked if “topping” referred to a dessert. I love my colleagues at Utah, and my professors are consummately supportive, but it can be frustrating to be in a classroom with people who you know don’t support you as a human being (there are a lot of Mormons here, after all) or who accuse you of being “explicit” whenever you have any queer content at all. It was so nice to be in a workshop that focused on more than just the content of my work, but on its quality. Usually workshops slip easily away from formalist critiques when it comes to gay work and can only discuss the queer content, so that you come away from the workshop knowing only that straight readers don’t know what a stone butch is, and that scares them, so they want you to change it. At Lambda we all just understood and it allowed us to focus on other aspects of the craft, while at the same time allowing us the space to be vulnerable and write the poems we’d always been afraid to write. Plus, I found many new readers for my work and good friends. To be honest, my fellow fellas from Lambda are my family. When I got to reconnect with some of them at AWP, I didn’t expect to be as emotional as I was, but it feels like coming home to be with them. Everyone deserves a space like that for their work, and I encourage people to apply for this year’s retreat. Applications are open now, and you can get them through lambdaliterary.org
S: I am considering applying this year. It sounds like an amazing experience. I am sure most gay writers can relate to what you described. I remember many times in workshop where I felt the whole discussion was about the content or about understanding the content and discussing if it was too “shocking.” It would be a completely different experience in a workshop of that nature. From that experience and your others, how would you classify the state of gay and lesbian poetry in America?
V: This month at the AWP conference, I participated in the queer reading 3 Dollar Bill, organized by a fellow Lambda retreat alum Ilse Bendorf. We had 30 queer writers read in many different genres, and it was outstanding to see the variety, talent, humor, diversity and fierceness in their work. While there are certainly still roadblocks and difficulties to being a queer poet, there are also so many fantastic lit journals and the Lambda organization and retreat and the internet provides so many opportunities for connection. I think all of this community-building improves the state of gay and lesbian poetry, because it is difficult to feel as if you’re writing in a vacuum. I know I crave connection and feedback from others, and reassurance that it’s okay to write what Reginald Harris calls “the uncalled-for poem.” At a panel on Building LGBT Literary Traditions at AWP, he shared an anecdote of a gay male writer reading a poem in a not-queer venue and having someone approach him afterward, telling him the poem was “uncalled for.” Reginald said that we needed more not less of the “uncalled for” because queer literature would never be “called for.” I love that and I think it’s so true.
We are lucky, though, that there are so many resources these days for queer work like the queer lit journal Bloom (artsinbloom.org) and Gertrude Press (gertrudepress.org). At the same time a lot of journals which are not exclusively queer are beginning to understand the importance of being explicit in their willingness to publish queer work. PANK Magazine has been phenomenal about this, for example.
S: I love the notion of the “uncalled-for poem.” That’s great. I’ve also been very pleased to see many magazines more willing to include gay themed poems.
We, I believe, both have the same goal of teaching creative writing at a college or university. There are some out there who claim if you want to do that you shouldn’t have a blog. We both have a blog, so I am interested in your views on that advice and on how you view or use your blog.
V: I worry about this a lot, actually. And before I write anything, I always consider what a hiring committee might think about it. For awhile this kept me from taking a stand on anything, even going so far as being afraid to say whether I liked or disliked a particular book. I do view my blog as an extension of my public writer persona, and I try never to say anything on the blog I wouldn’t say in person. I also try to stay positive and keep in mind how my posts might reflect on my current academic program.
S: In many ways, what you describe is how more people should be looking at blogging. I think blogs can be great, but this idea of writing anything that pops into your head or writing extremely negative stuff is not really in the best interest of anyone. I have, through my blog, greatly enjoyed the discussions about various important literary or social topics. For me it all comes down to civil discourse. I’m sure many think I share too much, but I always do so in the interest of good discussion and honesty.
Last year and now again this year, you have been writing a poem a day as an exercise. What has this experience taught you and how has it changed your writing process?
V: I’m so far behind this year, so I’m not really sure if I can claim to be doing it this year anymore, but it was fantastic to do it last year. I’ve always said I could never be the kind of writer who writes every day, but I also felt stuck and I was having trouble generating new work, so I just gave myself the freedom to write anything in at least 10 lines. It opened me up to be more playful in my poetry, to gain inspiration from unexpected places (like the news; I had never written poetry grounded in very specific events like the daily newspaper before). The weather really influenced my writing and I proved to myself that I could generate a poem a day, even if it was crap some days. It was incredibly encouraging and I learned to get out of my own way and just write the damn poem and then go back and revise it, instead of constantly revising as I go along. This has led to better poems, I think, because I tend to be a very conservative editor, but if I just get the poem down on paper or on the screen, then come back to revise later, I’m more likely to keep the riskier parts intact.
S: Now for some fun. What poet dead or alive would you most like to have sex with? And what kind of sex would it be?
V: Gertrude Stein. She’s got the butch thing down and reading her love notes to Alice, I get the sense she was a very naughty girl (and, um, reading any of her work, obviously, especially “Lifting Belly”). What kind of sex would it be? Here’s an excerpt:
“Kiss my lips. She did.
Kiss my lips again she did.
Kiss my lips over and over and over again she did.
I have feathers.
Do you think about apricots. We find them very beautiful. It is not alone their color it is their seeds that charm us. We find it a change.
Lifting belly is so strange.
I came to speak about it.”
S: What is one poem you think is so great that you totally wish you had written it?
V: There are so many. I mean, of course I wish I had the genius of Gertrude Stein or Lucie Brock-Broido, but you know what really drives me to my desk to want to write is the work of my friends and colleagues. Rebecca Lehmann, Shira Dentz, Ilse Bendorf and dawn lonsinger are all incredible poets who I’m fortunate to call friends. Whenever I read their work, the top of my head is blown off and that, as Emily Dickinson said, is how I know it’s real poetry. They are all so good, I totally wish I could claim their work as my own.
S: What celebrity should play you in your bio-pic?
V: Hayley Hasselhoff kind of looks like me, but if we’re not going by looks, then I think Jenna Fischer could do a good job. It would have to be someone who could play sweet, sexy and bitchy. Although I am generally bad at answering this kind of question, because I just start thinking of all the actresses I find attractive. And there are quite a few of them.
S: Lastly, what are you currently working on?
V: Right now I’m working on what I hope will eventually become my dissertation and second book. I’m putting together my reading list for my PhD qualifying exams and we have to pick a theme for the list. My theme is Embodied Poetics: Queer Bodies in Literature. I take the most expansive definition of queer for these purposes, so I am reading (and writing) about homosexual bodies, transgender bodies, pregnant bodies, fat bodies, disabled bodies, any sort of bodily alterity. My project is still in its very beginning stages, but it deals a lot with the queer fat female disabled body. I identify as a queer fat femme and I have a disability that is some days invisible and some days prevents me from walking, plus I was diagnosed with a chronic disease last summer, and I also work as a birth doula, so all of these facets of my identity come into play. The writing—which becomes more and more experimental daily—is not autobiographical, but it comes out of my personal and academic research. I guess right now it’s in the disjunctive lyric form. It’s quite a departure from my first manuscript in form, but I’ve always been interested in corporeality and the idea of the Other and how that manifests itself physically. In Call Me By My Other Name, I was mostly dealing with issues of gender—both male and female and butch and femme—so I see this on the same continuum, just with added elements.
S: I personally can’t wait to see where this new project takes you. Thank you so much for being my February poet.
Photo by Molly Bennett.