Poet Spotlight: Joanna C. Valente on spirituality and the drive to communicate

Joanna Valente

Joanna C. Valente is a ghost who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Joanna is the author of five poetry collections — 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), and Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing By Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017), and received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. They are the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and an editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms. Joanna also currently teaches courses at Brooklyn Poets. (Bio from Joanna’s website.)

How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?

I started writing as a child, around age 11. I always made art, always had a strange, ferocious drive to communicate and make something that spoke to others. That made us all feel less alone. I think that still rings true today. I write because I want to understand myself and others, and connect to the world in a more fulfilling way. I think all art is political, the personal is political and especially in such a contentious time, where we need to shed light on inequalities in order to really create a truly better world, making art that sheds light on different perspectives is important to me.

Sexting Ghosts by Joanna ValenteYour most recent collection of poetry is Sexting Ghosts. Can you tell us about the project and how it came into being?

The project is an interesting mashup of different things I started writing immediately after finishing my MFA in writing. I was, and am, so obsessed with spirituality, the universe, and where we sort of fit in. I was raised in a religious household and while I largely rejected a lot of the sort of “status quo” ideas of Eastern Orthodoxy (what I was raised in), I do believe in God/the universe, and it is important to me to explore this. I think, for awhile, I felt like I had to reject religion or spirituality, because it alienated me as a queer person — and because of the rigidity of it.

But now I’m comfortable with it, and a fluidity of traditions and approaches — I largely consider myself a witch with a mashup of Eastern Orthodox/Jewish beliefs, which is because of my relationships and upbringing and interest in largely just being authentic and true to myself. So this book is largely an exploration of that as a queer person, using the first part to explore gender and sexuality and dysfunction in the tradition family setting, while the other parts explore this within the technological realm. What does spirituality look like with texting, what does it look like when we look at the universe as a living thing separate from humanity?

Several of the poems in Sexting Ghosts are laid out in a Q&A format, while others explore free verse, prose poetry, and other forms on the page. When approaching a poem, how do you decide which form is best for the piece?

I let the piece speak for itself. With every poem, I think of it as a blank canvas. How does the structure better allow me to tell the story that needs to be told? With lineation, everything counts, everything creates a new and dual meaning — and the rhythm, pacing, stresses, and tension are all built into this. I’m very meticulous when it comes to structure — and once I get in a habit, I want to break it. Challenges are how we grow as writers. I never want to write the same poem forever, I want to grow and change and be a better version.

Is community important to you as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Community is everything. Support is everything, no matter what it is — a writing community, a religious community, a romantic partnership. Being part of an artist and writing community means you have people who can be your friends who get you but also your readers, and the people telling you what you need to hear, those uncomfortable truths (even if it’s just, this poem isn’t your best) or having the bigger discussions around sex, race, gender, etc. We learn through discussion and conversation. Movements don’t happen alone. They happen in a group, and I’m very focused on political change.

I stay connected in any way I can: texting, social media, writing letters, phone calls. You name it, I do it. I’m flexible because I care. I care about people. And honestly, it’s fun to meet people and foster new relationships, in person or online.

Do you believe poetry can create change in the world?

Definitely. I believe art changes the world. I think it’s also very easy to see that, from the obvious changes that Allen Ginsberg and Maya Angelou made. It may seem cliche and obvious to name them, but I think that’s the point. Their ideas and their art literally changed the course of history — and changed humans for the better.

Name a poet more readers should know about.

Srikanth Reddy.

What are you currently reading?

RAT PARK by Katie Della-Valle and Stacy Skolnik.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

A lot of strange poems about Werner Herzog as a cat, some David Lynch/Twin Peaks poems, and a novel about ghosts and figuring out how to live in a queer body after trauma.