Marco’s Poem: An Interview with James Valvis

James Valvis is the author of How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books, 2011). His writing can be found in Anderbo, Arts & Letters, LA Review, Nimrod, Rattle, River Styx, and is forthcoming in Hanging Loose, Midwest Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Poetry East, storySouth, and others. His poetry has been featured at Verse Daily and the Best American Poetry website. His fiction has twice been a Million Writers Notable Story. He lives near Seattle with his wife, daughter, and toy robot collection.

HFR: First book jitters? Do tell.

JV: Absolutely. One of the reasons I put off book publication so long is I don’t like the idea of poems being in a final form. There’s something permanent about book publication that I don’t see for, say, magazine publishing. The notion these poems, some of which I’ve had in my possession for twenty years, finally being locked down is akin to sending a kid off to school for the first time. Only the kid is never coming home again…

There’s also the fear it won’t be well received and that no one will want to buy it.

I need a hug.

HFR: The title, How to Say Goodbye: were there any other titles considered when compiling/editing the manuscript? What were those?

JV: No, that was the only title I ever considered. The moment I wrote the title poem I knew I would use it to headline a book. Not that it had strong competition. Many of my poems are named things like: “The Rat.” Or: “About Your Iguana.”

Titles of books are a funny business. They make up about .001% of the book’s words and yet are vitally important to the success of the venture. That seems completely out of proportion.

Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I should have named my book: Jim’s Poems.

Because the author is just about the only thing many of the poems have in common.

HFR: (Re)finish the phrase: “a copy is a copy is a copy is a copy is a…”

JV: rose.

This reminds me of a story. When I was recently married, I started a literary journal called the Avant-Garden. I solicited work from a number of small press writers, sent out acceptances and a few rejections, and then ran out of money. I had literally nothing, not even food. I had no idea how I would print an issue, but then something crazy happened. I won the 1993 Chiron Review poetry contest—and with it $100. I used some of that money to print the issue, running off copy after copy at the convenience store down the road, a dime a page. The cashier looked at me like I was nuts. So did my wife. She couldn’t understand why I would spend what little cash we had on some idiotic project like a literary journal. Not long after I sent out the issue, she left me.

Depressed, I never edited another issue of TAG.

I often tell people to support the small press. Many writers—especially those who only came along after the arrival of the internet journal—don’t understand how much editors give up to do what they do. Most probably haven’t gotten divorced or gone hungry to put out an issue, but every single independent small press editor has sacrificed more than most will ever know. I’m truly grateful to them all.

HFR: First poem/poet you read which made you say, “Now that’s poetry!”

JV: There were several moments where this was the case, but the first came when I was on a school trip to Boston in the tenth grade and a friend of mine showed me his poetry. His name was Marco, Italian kid, kind of fat but good-looking. We were enrolled in St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, a Jesuit school that regularly places students in Harvard and Princeton, though neither of us were much as intellects. Especially me.

Anyway, we’re in our hotel room when Marco pulls out his poetry journal and reads one. Until this time I figured poetry was about trees, and birds, and birds in trees. Maybe somebody’s love gets dead. Maybe somebody gets downright naughty and snatches somebody else’s breakfast plums. Marco’s poem was about killing our Geometry teacher.

Now, that might strike you as disturbing, coming after Columbine, etc., but this was before that outbreak of adolescent idiocy. Besides, I never got the sense Marco really intended to kill old Mr. McGuiness. (Though he might have deserved a good kick in the pants for this joke alone: Q: What did the acorn say when he grew up? A: Gee, I’m a tree.) Marco was just venting in verse, but it was very clever venting, funny venting, rhymed venting, and the subject matter spoke to me, since I guess I’m secretly homicidal. At least when it comes to mathematics.

Anyway, that was the first time I realized that poetry didn’t have to be dull, inaccessible, or about plums. It could be exciting, readable, and about murdering a former-Marine about to flunk you in required coursework. Not long after that, I wrote my first poem.

You didn’t think I was going to say Elizabeth Bishop, did you?

HFR: I had rather hoped you wouldn’t. Can you speak on your experience, working with a publisher on a full length manuscript, how it differs from, maybe, magazine publishing?

JV: My experience is rather atypical. Because Kevin Lee solicited the manuscript from me, I never had to go through a submission process. So that right away is different since most of my magazine publications come out of the slush pile. I don’t have much to say about the experience between publishers and writers, since I don’t think there is much of one. I write poems and they publish them—or don’t. I do have something to say about the difference between magazine and book publishing in general.

I think the main thing different about publishing a book, rather than placing poems in a journal, is that you really need to carry the day yourself. There’s no David Wagoner on the next page to save you if your poems do not work. There’s no reason to buy a book if nobody’s ever heard of you or read something of yours that they loved. My feeling is that most poets rush into book publication too soon and too often. They’re hardly done with one poorly received book when they start working on putting together the next—and cheap and easy publishing is not discouraging them any. Like Simon Perchik, I think the real action is in the literary magazines. You should be able to score consistently in quality journals before even thinking about book publication. Even then, you should wait some time.

I waited 20 years before finally publishing this first book. Did I need to? No. I was 24 when I published my 100th poem. I’m now 42. A lot of people don’t want to wait, and so they rush out a book that nobody’s interested in buying. They have no platform other than the books, and so they spend most of their time obnoxiously selling their books to anyone who’ll listen. I just want to get away from such people. There’s really only one way to sell a poetry book. Write killer poems that people want to buy. Anything else leaves the already tiny poetry audience bitter and disillusioned when they buy book after book of verse that even a journal that takes 25% of its submissions doesn’t want.

HFR: What is a “killer” poem, in your opinion? What do you look for in your personal reading?

JV: For me a killer poem is one that does exactly what it sets out to do. This changes from author to author, and even poem to poem. One of today’s trends that disturbs me is the many poets who insist that one kind of poem (always their kind) is not only the best kind, but the only kind. You see this especially with language poets. They like to declare their brand of poetry to be the only poetry, and everyone else is merely writing prose chopped into lines, which is frankly laughable.

As for my reading, I love all kinds of poetry, including well-done language poetry. The trick isn’t what kind it is, but whether it is masterfully done. About the only so-called poetry I have no use for is nonsense poetry, writing that is purposefully meaningless, and concrete poetry, which isn’t really poetry but a visual art. I’m not alone in this regard. One reason poetry has such a small audience is because it has gained a reputation for being mere gibberish. I think a lot of this kind of verse gets traction (and awards) in academia because people are simply afraid to look stupid by saying they don’t understand the poem. It’s like the emperor with no clothes. Nobody wants to be the one who says he’s naked.

I’m also growing more and more impatient with what I call the Church of the Image. There are some people who think the image is the entire reason to write a poem, as if sheet rock were the only reason to build a house. A kind of poison took over poetry with Williams’s “no ideas except in things” mutating into “no ideas at all.” The image is a tool, one kind of material out of which we build a poem, but it is not in and of itself enough. Nobody’s life is transformed by an image, otherwise our lives would be transformed every time we open our eyes, and poems should in some way move us. Otherwise, why the hell are we reading? The poem, like the human being, needs to be more than a body. It must also have a soul, and the soul comes out of the communication of an idea, even if that idea is merely suggested. For me, a poem cannot be killer unless it has that kind of soul.

HFR: What do you do for a living?

JV: Before I met my wife, I had done a lot of different things to earn cash. I was a soldier, a cashier, a film developer, a factory worker, a dishwasher, a janitor, a carny, a landscaper, a stock boy, a theater usher, etc., never anything for long, always going to the next thing. As a boy, I had this dream of moving from state to state, working in a different field six months before moving on, Mardi Gras in Louisiana, oil rigs in Texas, alligator wrestling in Florida (hey, I was a boy), and so on, before settling down to write about it all. I never did it, but I did something like it, purely by accident.

Well, such a lifestyle was great for the accumulation of writing material, but I never accumulated much money or learned a skill that could support a family. When our daughter was born, my wife and I realized if I worked it would hardly cover the costs of childcare—and we didn’t really want strangers raising our kid. So we decided that it made more sense for her to keep working and for me to stay home with Sophie and write. And I’ve been doing that for the last ten or so years.

It’s the best job I’ve ever had.

HFR: I want to revisit the “sheet rock” simile, however loosely. There is a great amount of other writings one sees you publishing outside poetry, if only from Facebook posts, your Fictionaut and New York Quarterly pages—fiction, for instance. How does the switch flip, so to speak, come writing time, when you determine what shape a piece has taken, when you are building?

JV: I wish I had a better answer for this. Often I start writing one form only to realize later that it needed to be a different form. My Big Alabama stories began as poems—I even published a few as poems—before I realized they were linked stories. Those aren’t the only poems, either, that later became stories. Roughly half my stories, especially the flash stories, started as poems.

That said, sometimes an idea will define itself simply by length. A poem that’s 6 pages or 800 words long is crying out to be a short story. A short story character that keeps popping up is maybe trying to become a novel.

A lot of times it’s trial and error.

I will also say this, however, that people have free will. I don’t believe people who say they can only write poems, not fiction. Or only short fiction, and no novels. I don’t think they’re lying. I just think they don’t believe in free will enough. A man decides what he wants to be, and he decides the kind of writer he wants to be and the kind of writing he will do. If I decide to sit down and write a short story, I never fail in that ambition. Same with a poem. Same with a novel. I’m not a product of some accidental atoms smashing into each other, forming DNA, and making me solely a poet who can write only one short poem per month. I am a human being capable of deciding for myself what form, what genre, and how much I will write.

Too many people think that because something is hard they were not cut out to do it. I can’t think of a sadder or more disastrous philosophy to adopt.

HFR: Who is your Poet Laureate, living?

JV: You know, I’m not a big complainer about the Poet Laureates like some. I generally agree that the people who get it are worthy. Who can argue with Donald Hall or Billy Collins or Kay Ryan or Ted Kooser? Excellent poets, and even the ones who aren’t my favorites have demonstrated a lifelong dedication to poetry. I have zero bitterness about these people being rewarded, and I think, by and large, they represent the art well.

That said, there are so many people I would love to see as Poet Laureate who probably have zero chance, either because they exist too far outside the Academy or are controversial in some manner. Take Stephen Dobyns. Brilliant poet, excellent credentials, and he has no shot because someone accused him of sexual discrimination. Likewise, a gifted poet like Tony Hoagland, who said some controversial things about race, probably has no shot because of the political correctness of the mainstream. This is why much of modern poetry is carefully dull. Everyone is so scared to death of saying the wrong thing that the easiest thing to do is say nothing. Either that, or toe the PC line. Always. After all, you wouldn’t want a risky word to cost you a NEA grant, would you?

I can think of others who are deserving. David Wagoner, for me, is one of our greatest living poets. Vern Rutsala is a poet who poetry could use the wider platform, since he’s brilliant but unknown. Picking somebody like Charles Harper Webb or Denise Duhamel or Russell Edson would show people you can be laugh out loud funny in poetry—and not be named Billy Collins. Marge Piercy would show you can be political and personal and prolific. And how about Lyn Lifshin? Are you kidding me? She not only deserves to be Poet Laureate, but her energy alone would make her one of the best. If nothing else, it would show people you can be a poet every moment of every day—and write and publish thousands and thousands of terrific poems.

Anyway, I really wish once in a blue moon they would think outside the box—and include writers who are not tied to the university system and lecture circuit. Dean Young is amazing, and Marie Howe is wonderful beyond words, and Robert Bly is surely deserving, but imagine if they chose someone like Gerald Locklin. A lifetime of brilliant work, much of it daring and distinctly his, but largely ignored by the establishment and those who think poetry only is read and written in April. Such a pick would show that that there is more poetry in the world than just that which appears in the New Yorker or Poetry—and such a realization is going to have to happen if poetry is ever to have a wider audience than it now presently enjoys.

HFR: Could you write HFR a short-short or poem containing the words “orange” and “cuckold”?

JV: Fidelity

Watching his wife
eat her orange,

eyes shut tight,
juices spurting

from her mouth,
tongue licking lips,

makes him feel
like a damn cuckold.

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