Interview with Joanna Valente on Xenos

Julianna DeMicco talks with poet Joanna Valente, author of the chapbook Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), about heritage, family, and the immigrant experience in America.

JD: Tell me a little bit about your background. Do you think your cultural heritage is reflected in your writing, especially in this chapbook?

JV: I’m a native New Yorker. I was born and raised here. In that sense, it totally has molded my personality in that I’m definitely a “tell it like it is” kind of person, which you can see in my writing. Even though I do write in a surreal, image-based way, which can seem strange and abstract, it’s very narrative and conversational at the same time. I like to get to the point, even in my everyday life. When I first meet people, they are usually struck by how open I am, and being a New Yorker, I think, makes you that way. Things move too fast here, and otherwise, everything will just get lost in the shuffle. Plus, we’re impatient.

Culturally, this chapbook is heavily influenced by my family and upbringing. It’s written about my grandmother’s experiences growing up in an immigrant family right before, during, and post-WWII. Her family emigrated from Greece, and they were/are very proud to be Greek—which is definitely a common thing in that culture. I personally always wanted to explore her life, and our culture, and I tried to stick to that truth as best as I could. Like any culture, it is complex and has so many facets to it, both meaningful and foreign to me. The strong sense of a united family is definitely something I was raised to have and I explore that there, but that in itself is a double-edged sword when you want different things than your family and when your family has different beliefs than you.

In many ways, this reflects both my grandmother and myself—she wanted to join the army, which she did, but it ostracized her for a time. She also wanted to marry a non-Greek, which was a no-no at the time—and she didn’t. Even now, she always talks very wistfully of that man, who has since passed on. It’s incredibly sad, even though she did live a happy life with my now-late grandmother.

For me, I’m very different from my family, who are conservative and more traditional than I am. My parents, for instance, voted for Trump—whereas I’m a poet who lives in Brooklyn who considers themselves as queer / non-binary and is outspoken about all of these things. So, it’s tough, for a lack of better words.

JD: How would you describe your aesthetic style? How has it changed since you began writing? Where does Xenos fits into that style?

JV: I would say it’s lyrical and narrative, surrealistically narrative. I’ve always been fascinated by stories and the act of storytelling because my family has always been into telling stories from the past. Because of that, I’ve always felt enchanted by telling stories, and that has been a significant factor of my writing ever since I could remember—and Xenos really comes back to that idea more so than any other collection I’ve done, but similar to my first collection Sirs & Madams. Of course, I try to make every project different in their own way and set a new challenge with each one, so I often have stylistic and structural differences, but the basis of my writing is always telling a story—and using an image, as if it’s from a film, to do this.

JD: The poems in Xenos — especially the poems “Changing Names” and “Basilie“—seem to have strong elements of ethnic heritage and the experience of losing certain aspects of one’s history or identity. Can you tell me what it was like for you writing about these themes?

JV: Honestly, it felt easy for me to do because I feel like for anyone who grew up in a family whose culture and traditions were part of their everyday life, it’s something you deal with everyday—especially when those traditions aren’t really the norm. There is this terrible idea that to be American, and to have the “American dream,” you have to look and act like everyone else. We do this to ourselves all the time, especially when it has to do with your sexuality and gender identity—which I know only too well. I’ve often had to “wash” myself as something else, depending on where I was. I’ve often pretended to be cis and straight in certain groups, and in many ways, I had to for safety reasons, but this happens culturally, too.

I remember being teased in school for being different—I happened to go to a Catholic school (although I’m not Catholic, I was raised Greek Orthodox) and a few kids bullied me for looking “ethnic” and for being Greek. I remember one kid even said that “the school was being infiltrated by Greeks” and looked at me as she said this, and I was the only Greek kid in the school. I don’t know why it bothered these kids so much—I suppose the religious difference upset them because they didn’t understand it. And the scary thing is, it’s not like it is today, in that if I were a Muslim kid at a Catholic school, which would be much, much worse because of all the Islamophobia. But it also says a lot about how difference and change, however small, freaks people out.  It’s strange how these feelings of discomfort and hatred are inbred, in that kids just mimic their parents.

JD: In this turbulent, xenophobic political climate, what do you think the poems in Xenos are saying about the immigrant experience in America / the Americanization of immigrants to the country?

JV: It illustrates how difference makes people uncomfortable on both sides. My grandparents totally assimilated, so they wouldn’t be harassed. They moved to America at a time, similar to now, when immigrants were despised by the citizens were lived there—fearing they would “ruin” the country. This chapbook shows how we want to be loved, to connect to others, but how there is often a loss in doing that when you want to be accepted by people not like you. But this is also a call to change. We shouldn’t change each other fundamentally to do this—or cast away others who are not like you.

JD: Do you have any current or future projects that we should be looking out for?

JV: My collection Marys of the Sea just came out from ELJ Editions, which you can order here.

Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (ELJ Publications, 2016), and Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Feminist Wire, BUST, Pouch, and elsewhere. She also teaches workshops at Brooklyn Poets.
Julianna DeMicco is a senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically the Medieval Era to the Early Renaissance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s