REBECCA VALLEY is a poet and editor from Saint Albans, Vermont. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Drizzle Review, a book review site with a focus on under-represented authors and books in translation, and serves as associate poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review. She currently lives in Northampton, MA, where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her first chapbook, The Bird Eaters (dancing girl press), was released in August 2017. Find her online at www.rebeccavalley.com.
JR: The Bird Eaters is a going away present of sorts, its publication shortly before you moved cross-country for your MFA. Likewise, we open with the giving of a gift,
the cat left a body on the porch.
It was a yellow songbird,
the size and shape of a fist. (“We Ate the Birds”)
How does the theme of exchange influence your collection?
RV: It definitely feels like a going-away present, though I didn’t think of it that way until you mentioned it, Jon — I spent my last few years in Washington working on these poems, and when I received the chapbooks in the mail at my new apartment in Massachusetts it was a bit like opening up a short-lived time capsule.
There are definitely a number of conversational and physical exchanges between myself and my cat in these poems, but on a less material level, I was thinking a lot about failed exchanges while I was writing this chapbook. “This Hunger” is a series of these kinds of failed exchanges, in my mind — the narrator coughs up a gift for her partner that he doesn’t appreciate, the partner responds in languages that the narrator can’t understand. I think there’s an extraordinary amount of pain in these moments, when the people we are closest to are incapable of understanding our intentions, or our needs, or our language, even.
I relied quite a bit on animal imagery, or distinctions between species to make that clear, I think — because what encapsulates a failed exchange more than a dead bird on the porch, a disgusted owner, and a proud cat? I find that when I’m trying to express an inability to be heard or understood, I often turn my narrators into animals. I suppose that’s an exchange too — of one body for another, hopefully better-fitting one.
JR: “This Hunger” juxtaposes illness—“In the morning, I cough shards of wooden desk chairs, / coffee cups, newspapers”—with time and the delicate: “You say when you dream of me I am a little bird. / I fly into your coat pockets and live there for decades.” Why do these lines play off of each other as well as they do?
RV: When I wrote this poem a few years ago, I was thinking a lot about the relationships between physical and mental illness, and the ways that one can disguise or prove the existence of the other. I’ve struggled with anxiety for as much of my life as I can remember, and my symptoms are often physical — shaking legs, racing heart, nausea, vomiting. I think in “This Hunger,” I was trying to capture that experience — that lack of control, that confusion, the way that anxiety has at times made me feel destructive and monstrous — and juxtapose it with the tenderness of a forgiving partner. When I wrote this piece originally, I was sure it was angry; that illness and the delicate could never live together, that one could never understand the other. I saw the delicate parts of this poem as ignorance rather than tenderness. It wasn’t until I shared it with others that I began to see, through their readings, that there’s a sweetness here. I think, reflecting on it now, that there’s some safety in the more delicate aspects of this piece. They soothe some of the more violent images.
JR: “I create / a porcelain cauldron. I make / a mother of pearl stew” (“The China Bowl”). This had me googling nacre, which is quite the multipurpose mollusk byproduct, one that’s been carved into altarpieces and gunpowder flasks. All that wonder, and still, Wikipedia’s quick to point out that its formation “is not fully understood.” This is a valuable reminder for those who seek constancy of meaning in poetry, no?
RV: What a beautiful question. I love thinking about poetry as the shimmering veneer over something dangerous, like gunpowder or the grip of a pistol.
I’ve known for a long time, I think, that poems are unwieldy creatures. I can still remember the first time someone pointed out a theme in my own poem that I hadn’t realized I’d included. There’s something beautiful and, I think, apt about comparing poems to pearls — they begin as something uncomfortable, which we roll around in our mouths/brains/guts for a while until the uncomfortable thing becomes, somehow, more palatable. Then we display them. It’s a strange system, and a strange practice, trying to make sense of the things we can’t or don’t want to understand.
I’m rambling, I think, and probably not answering this with anything resembling clarity. Basically, I’m trying to say that I’ve been reading poetry since I was about twelve years old, and what I see in the poems I’ve read over and over again changes as I get older. I fall in and out of love with poets and poems all the time. I think what I love most about poetry is that it grows with me, in ways I can’t always understand. My favorite poems seem to find me (or find me again) at precisely the moments I need them most.
JR: Of calving glaciers you write
The ice can be up to 600 feet thick.
When it rolls in the churning arctic
it looks like the thick black neck
of a plesiosaur rising from the deep. (“Mouth”)
Are these shades of what the poet Joyelle McSweeney calls the Necropastoral? What other ways does climate change find its way into your work?
RV: It’s funny that you ask this now — I certainly don’t and have never considered myself an environmental writer. This poem snuck up on me, in a lot of ways, and I think of it as distinctly different from the rest of my work. That being said, last week I sat down in my first environmental lit class, and for the last week or so I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. Maybe it’s the rising oceans (or temperatures, or levels of methane gas…) but I’m feeling a much deeper sense of urgency to write about the ways our planet is changing. I was moved recently by Emily St. John Mandel’s book Station Eleven, which is maybe the most heartwarming dystopian novel I’ve ever read. I’ve been interested, I think, in what art can do for us in moments of great uncertainty, and also what art has to do in these moments.
JR: One of the images that excites me the most occurs in the tercet
I smelled something burning.
It was the house we lived in, but nobody had hands
to douse the fire or lips to spit it out.
There’s a mix of the visceral/elemental, not to mention the horror of the non-mouth. How do these relate to the poem’s (“Scenery in a Dream”) epigraph by artist Zhongwen Yu, Life is not merely the struggling at present, there is also the poetry and distant fields?
RV: I am truly indebted to Zhongwen Yu for this poem. He’s a painter and visual artist from Beijing, China, and when I discovered his paintings last year I felt a stronger compulsion to write than I had in months, maybe even years. Both the title and the epigraph of this piece come from titles of his paintings, and I loved the epigraph in particular because of the way it simultaneously acknowledged the pain of daily life and looked toward something distant, and more beautiful. Yu’s paintings are fuzzy and vivid and look like snippets from dreams, and I think the horror in this poem comes from writing into that dream-space. I often use poetry to work through troubling images from my dreams and nightmares, and there’s a kind of helplessness to dreaming that I’ve often experienced, and which carried through into this tercet. I see that helplessness in Yu’s epigraph, and I love the way he points to poetry, not as a solution, but as a kind of relief.
JR: I enjoy how you write about the body from a transformative standpoint, specifically
I tied a ribbon
to your wrist and we wandered together
through the blackness
until your turned your belly into a lantern
and we glowed from the inside out
from “There Was a River We Couldn’t Cross.” Which of these two states—the luminous corporeal or the stygian ethereal—generates the most beauty?
RV: As a self-proclaimed optimist, I think I’m contractually obligated to choose light over darkness here. There’s something beautiful, of course, about darkness too — it is heavy, eternal, infinite — but I have poor vision and so I’ve always been unsettled by the dark. The image of a glowing belly is one of my favorites in this chapbook, and I think I’m fond of it precisely because, deep down, I’m drawn to the idea that we can create our own light, or that there is some untapped secret in our biology that makes it possible to (at least temporarily) conquer the pressing darkness. The corporeal doesn’t have the longevity of the ethereal, true, but I think at the end of the day I’d still choose the body. I’m partial to it, even if I am always changing it into something else in my poems.
JR: In “It is December Again,” you tell us
The cold has put a sheet
over my father’s backyard, like the furniture
in a house where no one lives anymore.
Ah, isolation. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the continual perception that pairs writers with aloneness?
RV: It certainly feels appropriate to be asked this question in an interview about this particular chapbook — the central narrative is essentially just me talking to my cat, which might be the most stereotypical of all lonely-writer-type behaviors. I think writing is an inherently solitary activity, even when you try to make it social and collaborative; at the end of the day you’re just two or five or twenty people quietly scribbling notes to each other and reading them quietly to yourselves. Peter Gizzi, who I’m studying under this semester, shared a quote from Jack Spicer with us earlier this week — he wrote “Loneliness is necessary for pure poetry.” I’m not sure what makes for pure or impure poetry, exactly, but I think there’s something about loneliness that drives us to create.
On the other hand, I’ve built a community out of the writers in my life. I used to attend a monthly reading group in Washington in which we passed around a book of poems and read sections of the book out loud to each other, and then discussed what we’d read. Most writers create in solitude, but there’s nearly always an imagined reader. I think this is all a long-winded way of saying that loneliness can make for beautiful writing, but that what we’re doing as writers when we create is reaching out to those around us, to share our feelings and our imaginings and our perceptions of the world. That feels like the opposite of being alone, to me.
JR: My three “wish-I-were” careers have always been meteorologist, talk show host, and librarian. You held one of these positions in the Pacific Northwest, which sounds like a win-win. How did middle-school librarianship contribute to your growth as a poet?
RV: I am also fascinated by meteorology! The musician Gregory Alan Isakov talked about naming his latest album The Weatherman because there’s something so miraculous about a person coming on the TV every morning to tell us the future. Imagine having the power to influence the outfits of thousands, even millions of people every day… I think it’s a highly under-appreciated profession.
Anyway, librarianship. I spent a lot of time last year reading middle-grade fiction so I had a broad base of books to recommend to my students, and the thing I loved the most about that reading was the playfulness of writing for kids. I spent so much time in school reading Serious Literature, and it was a relief to remember that writing doesn’t always have to be serious, that there’s room even in poetry to explore and to be playful and to take big, stumbling, ridiculous leaps. It’s something I’m working toward still — giving myself the space to be curious, and to be playful.
I also think working with kids every day made me a softer, more vulnerable person in a lot of ways — it certainly changed the way I interact with people in my day-to-day life. I think the earnestness of my students, and their ability to talk about and express their feelings without fear or self-consciousness, made me feel like I could be more vulnerable, too. That’s definitely something I’ve been striving for as a poet for a long time — the ability to communicate difficult feelings without hiding too much behind a curtain of abstraction. Without a doubt, my students sped up that process for me, though I’m not sure I realized it in the moment.
JR: Thank you for your work at Drizzle Review which focuses “on translations and/or books by queer authors, women, and people of color because we believe in the power of reading from a variety of perspectives.” What’s the backstory of how DR came to be? Do you have any translation projects underway?
RV: Thank you for your support, Jon. The original plan, to be honest, was to start a literary magazine — I had been brainstorming for a year or so the right way to create both virtual and physical page space for the people who deserve more of it. The idea to write reviews instead came from a professor of mine, who introduced me to the idea of reviewing as an act of service. The backdrop to all of this, of course, was the 2016 election. I wanted Drizzle to be a safe place, because I needed a safe place. Campaigns have a way of simplifying the most complex parts of our world into just a handful of (mostly white, male) voices, and I wanted Drizzle to be a space for all of the other, important, intelligent voices that weren’t given the space to speak. Now we’ve expanded our staff and we’re working on publishing interviews and essays alongside the reviews we’ve already published, but the focus is still very much on advocating for quieter, or more commonly silenced voices.
As for translation projects, I don’t have any planned for Drizzle in particular, at the moment. Now that I’m back in school I feel like it’s time to undergo another translation project of my own, and I’ve been perusing Quebecois poets specifically, looking for something of interest — my paternal grandparents are both French Canadian and I’ve felt pulled lately to dive deeper into that part of my upbringing. If you happen to have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
JR: I hope your MFA program is off to a fabulous start. What are the strongest craft aspects students of poetry can glean from The Bird Eaters?
RV: Thanks for the well wishes! As someone who still identifies very much as a student of poetry, it feels funny to offer craft advice. I feel like there’s still so much to learn. I can say that nearly all of the poems in The Bird Eaters were inspired by visual art, and that ekphrastic writing has saved me dozens of times when I felt stuck. Visual art has often helped me transform vague feelings into concrete language. Perhaps, to take it back to craft, I learned while writing these poems that, if you’re lucky, juxtaposing images can drive a piece into surprising new territories.
JON RICCIO is a PhD candidate and composition instructor at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers where he serves as an associate editor at Mississippi Review. Recent poems appear in Neologism Poetry Journal, Permafrost, and Rust+Moth. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he was a reader for Sonora Review during his MFA program at the University of Arizona.