A Conversation with Jessica Walsh, Tammy Robacker, and Joanna Valente

ELJ Editions authors Jessica Walsh, Tammy Robacker, and Joanna Valente discuss the impulse behind their collections and weapons of poetic technique.

JW: Joanna and Tammy, these are amazing collections, and I’m blown away by their strength. In both cases, I can see a powerful exploration of the femme body as a source of power as well as pain, sometimes both at once. I kept thinking of something I heard in an Ani DiFranco song (sorry if that’s too 90s for you, but I am kind of old) that said, “Every tool is a weapon / If you hold it right.” And I guess that will give me a place to start. What battle are you fighting in your book? What are your weapons?

TR: The poetry I wrote in Villain Songs was my way of confronting and crafting the narrative to one of the most deleterious abuses I survived as a child. Villain Songs looks at how women are vilified when they tell the truth or emerge scarred after the ruin or the rape or the catcall or the transgression or crime. The trauma I sustained (that many girls and women sustain) was best approached by me as an artist, in my final stages of accepting what happened to me, in my own home, in my own family. In spite of all the pain and fracturing of the most basic foundations of self, I think being able to look at all the pieces, fragments, memories, and sensory details surrounding the transgression and the perpetrator, and to write poetry about it, became an act of transformation for me.

In poetry, in poems, I could put my story together with weapons of poetic technique and license. I could filter in the passage of time, my life’s wisdom, my literary and scholarly education (I earned an MFA in creative writing and wrote my critical thesis last summer on the poetry of sexual trauma), and the writerly re-staging of the scene with metaphors, images, and words with my poet’s eye. This kind of story control made discussing the dark secret of sexual abuse and trauma something I could manage and approach with the integrity of art and the beauty of language behind me, bolstering my endeavor and my courage.

My best weapons were conjuring my ancestor-sisters in the storytelling. In a number of poems, I called upon historical female villains to add in their voices and stories of loss, rape, and survival. Characters such as Medusa, Brunnhilde, Ilsebell, and Aedos show up in this poetry collection to speak to their own mythos and legend and add a deeper villainess context to show how insidious and how long this abuse and trauma has been suffered and endured. When you discover the narrative of subjugation, rape, victim-shaming, and that the stigma/blame culture on women even reaches into children’s fairy tales, it can put both our trauma and our survival in a greater socio-political context. I found that both devastating and empowering to examine in my poetry.

TR: In both Marys of the Sea and How to Break My Neck (even in my own poetry collection Villain Songs), I thought the poet-speakers, the poet-women we crafted here in these collections were very disenchanted, too-wise, perhaps so pained, they were nearly numb or afraid to hope or expect the romanticized outcomes of love, men, or relationships. I saw that disenchantment figure heavily in how the poems viewed or filtered difficult subject matter (to name a few) such as love, loss, and expectations of others. I was wondering if you both could individually speak to that tone in your work?

JW: Even the title of my book is focused on this struggle. I once watched a true-crime show (my favorite genre) and saw a re-enactment in which a man approached his lover from behind and moved a hand toward her neck. For a moment I was unsure if he was reaching for her in a gorgeous, intimate gesture—or if this was in fact mortal peril, possibly her last moment alive. And what else is intimacy but a possibility for danger? I do not romanticize or eroticize violence by saying that, but instead make a genuine inquiry: How can we love without risk? I am always half-terrified by my love for others, in part because I believe the best and worst of people simultaneously. My poems very much enact that desire to escape risk but the knowledge that nothing we do protects us entirely. With every revelation, we are telling others how to hurt us.

JV: The tone is definitely intentional, and in many ways, how could it not be? The book is so focused on physical and emotional violence on behalf of men that the narrator becomes disillusioned from comfort and safety and love from others, not just men. When you are violated in that way, when you are sexually assaulted, it is the kind of betrayal not just from others, but it seems from your own body. What do you do when your own body betrays you, and nothing but your mind seems yours, and even that doesn’t seem yours? That pain is unspeakable in so many ways, and from my own personal experience, it stays for a long time and makes you forget what love and comfort are. 

TR: We are so often homebound and sort of in-house, hiding with the speaker of these poems. Can you please speak to the use of the married/domesticated moments, imagery, and catch-phrasing that threads itself in and out of the scenes of many of the poems in How to Break My Neck?

JW: I am so thrilled to consider this observation—I had never seen my poems as reflecting an almost homebound world, but it makes so much sense. I suppose in keeping with the query above, my poems are about the most common of dangers: daily life among those we love. Marriage and love are always about the coin flip: this is the best or worst of all things. There’s a poem in which I talk about the moment between would-be lovers in a parked car (yes, I’m old enough to have parked), finding out whether what’s going to happen between them is going to be a hot thrill or basically suicidally bad judgment. Every day, even as a parent, I feel torn between extremes: I’ve got this or I’m screwing up monumentally. If I hide, perhaps I can avoid danger entirely? I hide in my poems, for sure, where I can explore all outcomes from a safe space. I’m out in the woods as I write this, and I spent hours today hiking alone through some fairly deep woods, pondering how many places there are to hide and disappear. I longed to crawl into warm spaces, nooks and hollow logs and shelters formed by the roots of a fallen century-old tree, thinking of how little I needed to make a home and how much I could hide from. 

TR: The city of New York weaves through most of these poems, and it became so much more than a backdrop or setting. I felt New York was just as complicated, moody, and violent as a character, lending and illuminating more meaning into the text of the poems. Can you speak to why place figures so deeply in the poems in Marys of the Sea?

JV: The simple answer is the fact that I’m a native New Yorker, so in many ways, the city has become a figure to me, this looming kind of place. I think NYC has a strong duality: it is both wondrous and exciting and full of love and people – and it is also overwhelming and cold and cruel and just downright hard to live in. It’s the kind of place that when you’re depressed, it can feel really oppressive because you’re always crammed next to someone else (whether in your too-small apartment or on the subway) and everything is so expensive that it feels like a prison. It also can feel like an abuser, so I used the place as a parallel to the abuser (and abusers in general). 

At the time I was writing this, I was also literally in both of those places, finding it hard to navigate socially and financially, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. And that’s difficult in a very unforgiving city. 

Tammy Robacker is a Hedgebrook writer-in-residence, and she graduated from the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program in Creative Writing, Poetry at Pacific Lutheran University (2016). She won the 2015 Keystone Chapbook Prize for her manuscript R. Her second poetry book, Villain Songs, is newly published by ELJ Editions in winter 2017. Tammy published her first collection of poetry, The Vicissitudes, in 2009 (Pearle Publications) with a generous TAIP grant award for poetry. Tammy’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in Alyss, Lumen, FRiGG, Tinderbox, Menacing Hedge, Chiron Review, Duende, So to Speak, Crab Creek Review, WomenArts, and many more. Tammy was born in Germany, raised in Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Oregon with her fiance. Visit the poet: tammyrobacker.com.

Jessica L. Walsh is a poet and professor at Harper College in suburban Chicago, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two chapbooks, Knocked Around and The Division of Standards. Her first full-length collection, How to Break My Neck, was recently published by ELJ Editions. Her second collection, Banished, is due out later this year from Red Paint Hill. Her poetry has appeared in Tinderbox, Crab Creek Review, Midwestern Gothic, Sundog, The Fem, and more. Her work has been nominated for Bettering American Poetry, Best New Poets, and the Pushcart Prize.

Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Sexting the Dead (Unknown Press, 2017), & Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes, Poetry and the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. Learn more at joannavalente.com.

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