If Our Time Here Means Anything at All: An Interview with Joanna Valente, author of The soul, our soul

Blog mistress Jessica Walsh had the opportunity to talk with Joanna Valente about the new Agape Editions title, the soul, our soul

JW: Tell me about the relationship between the visual and textual components. Are there any visual pieces that led to poems, or vice versa?

JV: Both happened! Sometimes I wrote poems first and then wanted to illustrate them (sometimes immediately, sometimes awhile after) and other times I created visual pieces that I felt like expanding in verse. There were also images that came about from the overall ideas I was exploring but weren’t necessarily attached to any one poem. I think generally, I am a visual person and really am embracing that side of myself to expand on feelings and emotions that aren’t always tied or translated to language. The world, our brains, our heart, are all so big and expansive and I find that harnessing both language and visuals really helps me feel the completeness of everything as much as humanly possible (which clearly is limiting no matter what). 

JW:  In the very first poem, “The Fountain and Its Water,” you write of “that fountain whose magic we didn’t / believe—not until / we did”.  As I continued through the collection, I came to see the book as a shockingly radical statement, a prophetic urging to believe in beauty as an act of defiance against a cynical and even apocalyptic culture. In this way, the book becomes the fountain, a place of magic.  In the writing process, were you intentionally pushing back against the fearfulness and anger or our time?

JV: I’m glad you felt this way, because I definitely felt that way writing it – in the sense that I was exploring and reframing all of that for myself. Particularly, I feel like it’s easy to lean into pessimism and nihilism right now, and feel very weighted by the world and everything in it, even/especially ourselves. There is, of course, a lot to be afraid and frustrated with, to feel angry and often helpless. Those are all valid feelings and reactions to a lot of injustices and situations; however, at least for me, not finding a way out of that isn’t very helpful or healthy. I really wanted and needed to heal myself, and in doing so, I needed to sit with myself, really spiritually examine everything, and figure out what is important to me. In finding meaning and purpose, and I can only speak for myself, that journey basically meant I had to find beauty and love, and really see that everything and everyone is connected. That is sacred. That is magic. 

This isn’t to say that I didn’t think love or tenderness or beauty weren’t important before, but I think it was easy for me to get sidetracked and consumed by other things. I’ve always been a spiritual person, but the cliche of kind of losing yourself, or your way–or perhaps really needing to find it in the first place, was huge for me in recent years. So yes, I basically was making myself do the hard work of figuring out why I was angry and why I’m afraid, and try to manage my reactions and emotions, and figure out how to be, essentially. It isn’t easy being human, but aging has begun to taught me that if our time here means anything at all, and it has to for us to wake up everyday and actually live, not just go through the motions, then I have to figure that out. And I have to dedicate myself to that. And for me, it’s focusing on love, kindness, and tenderness. Those small moments really do mean everything. 

All of this sounds very cliche, I’m sure. And for a lot of people, it’s probably a “yeah, so? / you’re only figuring this out now?” kind of reaction. That’s valid too. I feel, perhaps, in a lot of ways like a late bloomer. 

JW: The soul, our soul is filled with moments of merciful tenderness—old men feeding strays, the quiet intimacy of two uniformed men as one straightens the other’s collar, sharing of a family recipe—that are nevertheless fragile and fleeting. Rather than grieving the knowledge that every moment passes and is gone, however, the poetic voice embraces a sort of cognitive dissonance: life is beautiful, and life is crushingly brief.  You write “To have faith in a dying / thing, a dying idea, means / to have hope in // everything/”. Those lines are from a poem about the Temple of Apollo. How did the setting of ancient temples and ruins contribute to the book’s exploration of beauty and mortality?

JV: I think going back “to the beginning” really has a way of simplifying a lot. How to pay attention, how to learn, how to be more humble (like we’re all just fleeting specks in the grand scheme of things, specks with lots of emotions!), how to be more self aware, etc etc. What does it mean to be human? It’s so easy to forget that among media and all the new fancy gadgets, and all the things we’re taught to want (thanks, consumerism/capitalism) and it takes a lot of time unlearning that (at least, again, for me). I don’t like generalizing, since we all have different life paths, but for me, getting older and exploring being humans means a lot of unlearning. 

Besides that Greece is home to a lot of ancient stuff, being Greek and having my family come from there (and having family still there), makes it especially personal. So in a lot of ways, it’s also a personal journey exploring where my family came from, their small villages, and what that is like. The passing of time feels so long, because we’re human and time is a weird construct that we can’t really escape, that encapsulates so much of how we understand our short lives. And yet, for the earth/the universe, time is nothing at all. Trying to understand that kind of nothingness, which is also everythingness, is a lot – and especially when I think about my family 100 years ago, 200 years ago, etc. 

I have family members who are, or nearly were, 100 years old. Even that thought by itself is pretty crazy, almost unfathomable, when I think about all the changes they’ve seen in those years. So when I think about the passing of time for earth, and the comings and goings of buildings/people/things/animals, it really makes it strikingly easy to see beauty in all things, but also so hard in some ways to wrap the idea of mortality around. We’re here, and then we’re not, in the blink of an eye for nonhumans. There is a type of shark (Greenland sharks!) that have a lifespan of 500 years (https://www.npr.org/2022/07/31/1114807928/greenland-shark-longest-living-animal-caught-in-belize). Miraculous, right? I often find myself thinking about those sharks, and what their sense of time must be like. 

JW: What are you working on now? What projects lie ahead for you?

JV: A lot of unfinished stuff! A little novel writing here and there (various projects that have been years and years in the making), some children’s books ideas, lots of photo taking, and mostly a lot of crafting. I’ve been teaching myself how to knit recently, for instance. I have these grand goals of knitting flowers or making dog sweaters (for my dog), but I am so very far from that level. So for now, just a lot of fun. No rushing. 

Joanna Valente’s the soul, our soul is available for purchase via this link. Joanna 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 (2016, ELJ Publications), and Xenos (2016, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2011, she was the recipient of the American Academy of Poet’s Prize. She is also the Founder & Chief Editor of the magazine, Yes, Poetry, as well as the Managing Editor for Luna Luna Magazine and Civil Coping Mechanisms. Read more about her work here.

Jessica Walsh is the blog mistress for Agape Editions.

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