The poems in Joanna Valente’s new chapbook, Xenos, (link: http://www.sundresspublications.com/agape/xenos.pdf) somehow feel like home and new territory, all at once. These senses manifest themselves on a literal level, in the geographic migration and dispersion of a family, and a more figurative level, through the narrator’s longing to better know herself and her life’s path.
In Xenos, one feels commanded to consult history in order to view the present through a clearer lens, and Valente is a natural storyteller who weaves people and places and histories into one narrative. The connection between a family’s immigration and the narrator’s approach to relationships and self-discovery is subtle but ubiquitous in poems like “When I Was A Koutoulakos,” where the narrator runs away, falls in love, and instead of getting married, “ate his stomach from the inside,” then rides the subway in Brooklyn with someone who, “told the same stories / about the old country that left us / dead parents, a missing sister, a step / father who drank himself to asphalt.” “Rigor Mortis” is a brilliant short poem that illustrates the similarities and differences the narrator experiences when moving from Maine to Brooklyn. Even inanimate objects have history breathing through them, like a wedding dress, “with a long / lifespan / worn twice: / first in 1950 / then 1975 / when it became / my daughter’s.”
The body is also a force driving many poems in Xenos, whether revolving around illness and death in “My Dead” or around life and motherhood in “Changing Names.” It is often dissected into its parts – throat, heart, lungs, bones – all of which deliver meaning to the whole, and to the larger narrative of family, relationships, migration, and self-discovery.
Xenos is a tiny book in which there is much to unpack, historically and thematically. Joanna Valente’s poems demand to be read and reread, with an unspoken promise to deliver some new insight through their stories, each time.
SD: I love that you weave so many prominent themes (migration, family, the body) into such a small book. Can you talk about how the collection came together?
JV: It actually came together while I was studying for my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. I took a nonfiction class with Stephen O’Connor, who had us do some kind of creative nonfiction project, so I decided to write a nonfiction poetry collection based off my grandmother’s experiences during her early childhood and early adulthood.
I initially intended for it to be a book-length project, but realized soon after I started that I like the micro-focus it had. Her life is completely fascinating, so I may continue with this idea later, of course, especially since these themes are so intrinsic to me. I grew up listening to her stories, being enthralled by them, and have always admired her as a strong figure – which also made her narrative part of my own identity.
It’s especially relevant right now, more than ever, which definitely affected how I edited the collection about a year ago. I always take time between projects to let things settle, so while I wrote the poems several years prior, years went by between the writing and editing process, which I think is necessary, so you aren’t as emotionally attached. In this way, it also takes on new themes and meanings, since different things come out when you edit.
SD: There’s some dichotomy throughout these poems – being alone and being with others, certainty and uncertainty, and history and the present. Does that come out of this family’s geographical migration or something else?
JV: I think a lot of it, funnily enough, comes from me. I’ve had psychics, astrologers, and therapists tell me that I’m full of duality – and I really believe that, I feel it every day, all these pulls in so many different directions – so it’s impossible for me not to be obsessed with how dualities mold us, and mold our choices and desires. I do also think it’s part of being raised in a very religious family, when you yourself are very liberal and artistic – and when that artistry isn’t exactly encouraged. And of course, I’m sure part of this is just who I am – to appreciate different points of view and things in the world, which makes me diplomatic, but also full of turmoil too. It makes me me.
That being said, I do also think it’s intrinsic to being an immigrant – the need to want to stay true to yourself and to also assimilate to the culture around you. I saw it in my grandmother’s account of her own life – the want to marry outside of her culture, but being forbidden, the want to travel and explore, but also being afraid. In general, I do think it’s part of American culture to want what you don’t have, because we’re so used to advertising telling us all the things we’re supposed to want – versus what we have, so we all have that “green is greener on the other side” syndrome.
SD: Some of the poems have tabs and line breaks that create a lot of white space. What do the white space and shape of these poems represent in the context of the book?
JV: In general, I tend to use negative space (as I refer to white space, just because poems can be on anything, not just a white page) as a way to create silence, tension, and suspense in a poem. I tend to like to slow down the timing in the poem as a way to create double meanings with the enjambing of the lines. Everything has meaning in poems, and I really try to see the form of a poem as a challenge, a way to use each part of the structure to tell the story in a compelling way.
More is said in the silences, I believe. When we pause in conversation, what we don’t say in a letter, are often what we really think about. Of course we remember what is said, and the use of language is obviously important, but it’s also about what is missing. What isn’t told. For people who aren’t white men, this silence is especially important. The world has always been silent, has always omitted the facts for everyone who isn’t a white dude. I don’t say this to demean white men, but I also think we’ve notoriously had to look outside of the heart of history and literature for the stories of everyone else.
SD: Can you talk about the illness theme and recurring mention of the heart and lungs, and perhaps the role they play in the narrator’s present day life?
JV: The illness theme is, of course, both metaphorical and literal. My grandmother’s parents both died of tuberculosis before she was ten. Her husband died of heart failure, while her sister died of cancer. Illness has played a huge role in her life, in that it’s taken away so many people she’s loved prematurely, and because of that, I think she was terrified of being alone. Because she was alone in so many ways growing up, even though her adoptive family were amazing and so devoted.
So while the illnesses are literal, in that a lung and heart disease took her family away from her, it’s also a metaphorical theme – symbolizing the frailty of being human, both physically and emotionally. Do we ever really know what we want, are we ever truly grounded? Are we all just strange anomalies?
SD: In addition to a geographical journey through this family, Xenos involves a quest for self-discovery. Do you feel the narrator achieves any closure or answers, or at least an increased sense of self, by the end of the book?
JV: I don’t think she does, and that’s sort of the beauty not only of the collection, but life itself. We hardly ever get concrete answers in life, especially since we’re always changing – the world around us is always changing (technology is a good indication of that). My grandmother is still alive – she’s 93 years old. And she’s tough as nails and sensitive and wise and innocent all at the same time.
Look at it this way, she was born before women could vote, before TV’s existed, and she’s never even used a computer. So clearly, she carries a lot of wisdom about what’s important to her, what’s bullshit, who she is – but she’s also the first to admit that there’s a million things she doesn’t know or understand. And I think, hopefully, the more self-aware you become, the more you realize that.
Samantha Duncan is the author of four poetry chapbooks, including Playing One on TV (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017) and The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), and her fiction has appeared in Meridian, The Pinch, The Conium Review, and Flapperhouse. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Editions and reads for Gigantic Sequins, and she lives in Houston.
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), Marys of the Sea (ELJ Publications, 2016), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and 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 Joanna’s writing has appeared in Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.