Joanna C. Valente and Margo Berdeshevsky: Two Writers In Conversation
Margo Berdeshevsky: Joanna C. Valente and I share an obsession with body and whatever its opposite might be, I believe. Warning: Soul food must be devoured in minute bites when it comes from the human, in Joanna C. Valente’s Marys of the Sea. One wants to savor, but one needs to beware of overload, spiritual and fleshly, beware of heartbreak. The pages begin with a warning from the Gospel of Mary: “Have pity on those who are separated from someone they love. Have pity on the loneliness of our hearts.” This is from the Gospel that predates the Council of Nicea—those were the men who owned the Bible because Mary could never be accepted. Only her Son.
In only a few bites later, Valente’s own first words assault in a first poem: “All mothers eat their children. All children drink their mothers.” Later: “not baby but parasite / as in tapeworm as in / flesh eating bacteria…” Or soon, “No one likes children but that doesn’t mean you don’t have them.” And soon, soon: “I smelled my cunt souring, / something gone wrong—violence never / far from the hands of men.” Then, the heart is seized with “a fear that she loved a void.” Startle with this harsh fact:
Valente’s words dig through sex, and waters, and extinction, and the daily of subways and pipes and blood: “New York Times reports people cutting/ their veins:
And eventually, these poems will ask, no, will state: “There must be a way out.” This is, too, a book of rages: “Inside me: a cat post where your penis kept clawing.” A book that haunts:
A book that wants, maybe, to suggest ways toward survival. That’s how I read it. A book that faces gender—in the half-light. In white space(s). And in the dark. And in the spoken glare.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Marys of the Sea. A thing to ponder. And one thing more, we’re told: “I used to pray for a new body by moonlight, a return to being human.” We must therefore ponder the nature of being human, and a soul, and prayer, and judgment, ponder the assault, on the soul, on the body, and eventually on ourselves. This is a book that confronts the body. Confront what a (woman)-body does. Confront that it makes babies. Or not. Confront that it has sex, that it can be violated sexually. (As Rachel Eliza Griffiths writes of the book: “Marys of the Sea speaks of wounds, wombs, regeneration, and how experiences, particularly for women, undulate against a mythos of loneliness that can, without mastery and witnessing, devour.”)
Margo Berdeshevsky: What is the harshest bargain of the soul? When did you begin to make bargains, Joanna, soul bargains, spiritual bargains, profane bargains? And when did your poetry begin to agree to any bargains?
Joanna C. Valente: The harshest bargain of the soul is bargaining your heart, which is your authenticity, your identity, your true self, your love. Why we would ever bargain and part with that is beyond me, but people do it all the time, for money, for sex, for fame, for survival even (although, are we really surviving if we give up the most intrinsic and real part of ourselves?).
I probably started bargaining, like most people, as a child. In many religious households, regardless of faith, we’re often taught that praying is bargaining—like if you do really well on a test, you’ll no longer lie to your parents, or if you get the cute boy to dance with you, you’ll always be good, or if your biopsy comes back negative, you’ll stop smoking or being mean to your partner, etc., etc. We do these things all the time, even without realizing it.
I stopped bargaining when I realized our selves, and our hearts and spirituality and bodies, are not exchanges. I believe in putting out energy we want, and if we do that, we’ll eventually end up on the right side of things. Of course, this is not to say if you “work hard,” you will never be poor—I mean, on an emotional level—if you are loving and kind and generous, you’ll attract like-minded folks. And hopefully be resilient enough to cut the toxic vampires out.
Of course, we all bargain sometimes, especially in traumatic moments, which is what I was capturing in the book when it comes to the speaker bargaining for their “old body” post-rape. But after that initial shock, you stop bargaining, and you begin rebuilding and living again. Not just surviving. At least, that’s how I try to approach it.
Berdeshevsky: Is (your) poetry a bargain, or a savior?
Valente: It is definitely a savior. Poetry is the place in the world, for me, where I can be my true, authentic self. Where I can express my inner thoughts and feelings and dreams and nightmares and magic and spells. Maybe my poems aren’t always in my “voice” or perspective, but I am birthing them into the world. And of course, whatever you birth has a little part of you in it somewhere. Poetry has been therapeutic for me—and while I know not all writers and artists believe that art is, I can’t believe otherwise.
It saved me from going crazy and self-isolating post-assault, and constantly saves me when I need to let out all of my intense emotions and feelings. It’s ink blood, a different kind of life blood. Of course, this is not to say that art or poetry takes the place of actual therapy, but it can help, just as all art helps and soothes us, just as tea or massages or baths soothe us.
Berdeshevsky: You dare to question the sanctity of motherhood. The sanctity of the child. (As a woman who chose to not be a mother in this life, I have also dared to question this sanctity.) Is bloodline, or tribe, or descendant any solution for humanity, in this book, or in your world view?
Valente: I don’t think having kids is a solution for anything, other than creating a family. And I understand the need and want to create a world and magical place for yourself in the universe, a family to call your own—a people who love you and share parts of you. But I also think we can find family in people who don’t share our blood or aren’t part of our immediate biological makeup—and for me, that’s always been more important—to create families within my friends, within a community, and to treat everyone like family. Because that’s what love is, and that’s how we transcend boundaries and borders.
This of course is not to disparage people who have children (biologically or by adoption). I think having children is beautiful, and one of the most amazing things a human can do. I just personally don’t want or need to have my own children right now (and don’t plan on having them in the future). Nor do I think that having children makes the world a better place. I think people, regardless of blood or tie or parenthood, can make the world a better place and form a more global community that isn’t just about having factories overseas and Skyping with friends and family in other countries.
Women in particular are pressured to become mothers—and aren’t seen as loving or kind if they don’t, but that’s simply an untrue stereotype. There are many ways to love and to give back to the world.
Berdeshevsky: I began by saying that we share an obsession with body and whatever its opposite might be, I believe. Could you speak to that, perhaps?
Valente: How can any human not be obsessed with the body? Our entire existences rely on having a body (as far as I know!) regardless of what that body looks like or functions as. We aren’t creatures that can shape-shift or exist in an ethereal realm, like ghosts (even if you believe in ghosts, aren’t they then something else?). In a time where gender and sexual politics and dynamics are thankfully changing in more positive and progressive ways (transgender/LGBTQ awareness is growing, although of course, within the current climate of Trump it’s definitely been stalled and threatened), it’s even harder not to be preoccupied with the body and how we perceive it and why we perceive it in certain ways.
Personally, I’ve come out in the past year as a non-binary queer femme, which for some, is a lot to unpack, but for me, is freeing. And honestly, quite simple. I hate labels and definitions in general; and so, words that allow me illustrate this, and finding ways to articulate how I feel and identify within my own body, is something I think about quite often. While I don’t necessarily feel the need to have others understand me, it’s important to understand yourself—which helps you understand why you make the mistakes you do, how to grow, be a better person for yourself and others. Our bodies do matter, and the words we use for them matter, and that’s an obsession I probably won’t stop having anytime soon.
Berdeshevsky: You write of being born and not, of being dead and not—as I often do. How do these subjects change us/how do we survive them, in ourselves?
Valente: We are constantly negotiating. These negotiations include how to survive, how to live, how to stop ourselves from being numbed and beaten down. Because we are often beaten down and numbed by our jobs, and our family and friends—even when they all have the best of intentions. It’s just how life is—we are all unintentionally hurting each other all the time. And because of that, we often experience little deaths and traumas that force us further into the caverns of ourselves—and that’s a lot to negotiate all the time, that back and forth. I think any self-aware person realizes this, and comes to terms with it—and how to survive. It’s why we go to the beach and travel and find foods we enjoy eating for dinner and talk on the phone and watch movies. We feel alive in these moments—but there are also moments, like when someone dies or breaks up with you, where you feel dead.
When I was assaulted, I felt like I died. I had to rebirth myself. I changed. And that’s okay, any trauma does that to us—and dying emotionally isn’t always a bad thing. Yes, the trauma is terrible and painful (whether it was done to you by someone/an institution or is the result of a natural disaster that isn’t anyone’s fault), but sometimes, we find our perspectives altered in a way that forces us to be more alive, to find ways to be more fulfilled versions of ourselves. I choose to take that approach, mostly because I don’t know how else to live. How else to negotiate.
Joanna C. Valente: Before the Drought, by Margo Berdeshevsky, is a book I couldn’t put down. It begins provocatively with the lines “Clitoris, belly, nape, / taste bud, body- / beloved-bully, / how surprisingly you strut, / how unexpectedly you age,” and I was instantly hooked. The book is completely obsessed with the body—not just the human body, but places, people, poems, ghosts, and everything in the earthly world. The book is equally as obsessed with womanhood and femininity and the idea of what womanhood is supposed to be, how the world sees women.
In many ways, the book is as equally about death as it is about a live body, and bodies, often questioning what the actual difference is. For instance, in “Whose Sky, Between,” the poet asks this:
Girl who asked me once if her God
would kill her if she loved orgasm, unfastened her veil, exposed her thighs to a star.
I send her burned love from an island, whispers through veils of ironwood needles, their
spill on a shore I share with a darker sun, with a man weary of quest or prayer.
Our hands take no longer to renew than light of a silvered solstice.
The girl is at once full of desire, but also full of shame, and this very duality kills her in a symbolic way, as their “hands no longer to renew,” as if to say there is a death in this love and desire, that women are often told to kill parts of themselves in order to survive in a world that doesn’t care to nurture or understand women.
Then, later in the book, in the poem “Born by Knife,” Berdeshevsky writes about birth—and how birth is at once a death for the mother and the female child all at once: “Surgeon, when you opened the redhead’s belly to deliver me, / did I look like I belonged? She taught me passages to mourn: / the good, the merciful, the meek, peace making.” It’s as if the world is too violent and dangerous for anyone to survive, which is told through the lens of the Paris massacres and of seemingly ordinary moments that are nuanced at best.
In another poem, the poet asks aptly, “Which of us must listen / when the breath stops— you or I?” And that is a question almost unanswerable, but so necessary to ask—and encompasses the entire collection perfectly. Carolyn Forché echoed this when she said of the book, “It is a world in peril, now and in the time to come, on the night of the Paris massacres and in a poisoned future. In the City of Light, Berdeshevsky writes poems commensurate with her vision, poems that know to ask ‘how close is death, how near is God?’ Hers is a book to read at the precipice on which we stand.”
Valente: What is your writing process like? So many of your poems are so deeply embedded in images, that are cut up and spliced. How do you do that?
Berdeshevsky: Imagery is as you suggest, vitally important to me. I’m a visual artist and a collagist as well as a poet, so my approach to writing a poem includes my sense of metaphor and translating the visual into language that communicates, and yes, rattles the cage. When you ask about images being “cut up,” I could ascribe that to what appeals to me about collage, the layering of image, the contradiction of images, but also the overlaying of idea and lyric.
To speak of “writing process” is really an abstraction for me. How to get from point “a” to point “b,” or “z,” is rarely a straight line. Not as a writer. Sometimes, I must begin at the end with a single line, and find how a poem arrives at that line. Sometimes, there is only one good line in what I have, and I cut everything else and begin with only that—again. Sometimes, I write a poem, and reverse it completely, use the final line first, and work backwards. But that might happen in the time of rewriting. Sometimes, I live with a single word or line for days or years and it lives scribbled in my notebooks, and repeated…and one morning I know why. Sometimes, there’s an inspiration or an impulse, or an emotional cyclone in me and I go for very long walks to ask and ask what the hell to do with it, until a poem wants to explode. Sometimes, the poem needs me to let it out of its cage. And sometimes, yes, it’s very simple and very fast, a word that leads to the next, until I look and say omg, that’s honestly a new poem.
And—and this is important for me—I rewrite. What I start with may need a good blue pencil and it gets sliced and shaved and sculpted. I like a quote attributed to Michelangelo, which says that he cut and cut and cut to find the angel hidden inside the marble.
I am also a hunter gatherer, as a poet and as a photographer. I hunt for images that arouse me, shapes, shadows, portraits, ambiguities, pieces of things and people—and sometimes those images want to go beyond the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, they want to be transmuted. And so that’s also process, like going into a darkroom and dodging and burning certain parts of an image as it bathes in the developer.
Bottom line, metaphor—the transformation of an image into another one that continues to sound the initial bell, but altered, lighting it differently—that’s interesting to me in all of the art forms I’m drawn to.
Valente: You write a lot about bodies. Why? Why the obsession?
Berdeshevsky: I was born into a body. But as one of my poems in Before the Drought asks: “Why does my skin want me in her / does she know she’s holding a woman in?” That question does intrigue and obsess. Because I continue to ask questions of myself and of the world and the body I inhabit. Because I know, or suspect that I am more than a body. Am body, and mind, and spirit, and soul. My human ignorance has me trying to find what role each plays in my existence, and in the existence of a life on, or off, this planet. When is any one dominant? And when am I able to live as though all are one or capable of being one?
Also, I am a woman. I like being a woman. But I have grown in a time in our history when it is necessary to question what gender means, what “being” a “woman” means, and what a young body, or an aging body, or a healthy body, or a broken body, or a body of desire—what do such things mean to me? My body pleases me, and it frightens me. Are its desires what it is? Or, do its desires control it, or kill it? Is it terrified of its desires, or of its mortality, or of its beauty, or of its changes and decay and limitations. If yes, how to live with such fear?
Many reasons to be obsessed. My body and the bodies around me—these are my initial vulnerabilities. And so I let my vulnerabilities speak, to it, to them.
Valente: You balance a magical, ethereal landscape with violence (like the use of shears), which seems so indicative of how we live life right now, the almost safe landscape of social media and our phones, with the very real violence going on in the world. When did you write the book and how did the outside world influence you?
Berdeshevsky: The outside world has always influenced me. Politically, I cannot be an ostrich. Emotionally, I can’t ignore what I see. I do not find the landscape “almost safe,” or at all safe. But I am seduced by the ethereal. I am lured by beauty and kindness. And I accept that there is no hiding place any longer, if ever there was—from the violence of other humans, or the violence of nature, or the violence, even—the violence most deeply hidden. Will love save me, save us—from such violence? We dare and dare and dare to hope so. But the world we wake in today is not a place of safety. It is chaotic, and often cruel. I don’t only mean the wars and the racism and the unhinged greed, etc., etc. I also mean the chaotic nature of my own passions. And, of those around me.
But I understand more than ever before how profoundly we need one another. And how my work, being in a human body, in a “me,” whoever she is right now—how my work is to learn how to be a human after all. Because obviously, being born does not, did not come with a handbook. I’m here to learn. That’s the best excuse I have. And one of the things I absolutely must learn is to find some peace and safety inside myself, because the madness is in my face. In our faces. And the chaos does not appear to have enough wisdom to be controlled or abated.
Valente: Love is a major theme in Before the Drought, particularly loving before dying. How does this relate to you on a personal level? Do you have a lot of anxiety about not doing this yourself?
Berdeshevsky: I think I partly answered this above. But yes, love and dying are presences to me. And I’m afraid of not having learned to love enough—or well enough, always. I perceive that loving is a lesson as well as an instinct and a blessing. And I do not wish to die without becoming much better at it. Maybe, I dare to hope—if I become better at it—my world will do so also. Maybe.
Valente: Your poems are spatially beautiful. How do you know how to structure them, break lines, etc.?
Berdeshevsky: Thank you. I’d say it’s mostly instinctual for me, how to address the space on a page. But each poem may be different. I don’t belong to a single school of poetry, so design and structure and form are most often guided by the necessity of the poem itself. What it wants and needs in order to speak aloud.
Line breaks are about breath, and I need a poem to breathe in the way that I will read it aloud for an audience, or to myself. And I need it to breathe on the page. I may add extra spaces to allow for that. Extra spaces between words, and between stanzas. Rewriting process, I alter line breaks, and yes, spacing, until my eye (the eye of the visual artist) kicks in. I try to make an object on the page that a reader will discover her way into.
Because once I’ve written a poem, it belongs to the reader, no longer to me. So I try to leave some bread crumbs…to guide how I conceive it. After that, the poem and the reader are on their own. And I hope they find each other well. We live, I believe, in a time when we direly must find one another. Poems and lives and humans. We must.
Margo Berdeshevsky is the author of Between Soul & Stone, But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press), and Beautiful Soon Enough, winner of the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award (FC2/University of Alabama Press), and Before the Drought (Glass Lyre Press). Awarded many honors, her works appear in Poetry International, New Letters, Kenyon Review, Plume, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, among many other journals. She splits her time between Hawaii and Paris, France.