Sunday, June 21, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Valerie Witte

Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish Book, 2015) and the chapbook, The history of mining (ge collective, 2013). Her writing has appeared in various journals, including Diagram, Dusie, Barrow Street, VOLT, Interim, and Alice Blue. In 2014 she began a collaboration with Chicago-based artist Jennifer Yorke. Their artist books based on her manuscript Flood Diary have been displayed in the exhibition, “Quotidiean/Elements of the Everyday: Water,” held jointly at the CelerySpace gallery in Berkeley, CA, and La Porte Peinte in Noyers, France. A native St. Louisan, she now lives and works as an editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her musings and her work at @shellthief (Twitter) and

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I am still figuring that out! My first book, a game of correspondence, was just published, and I think the main change is that when I tell people about it, they get very excited. So that is fun. It is (roughly) about the ghosts of relationships that still haunt us. My newest (unpublished) book I think is much less about relationships than my previous work was, probably because I am in a happy one finally. :) It is more about the body (the minor deformities that we all experience, and mine in particular), the evolution of human skin, and the history of silk. In this way, it is both internal and external, but not as relational as my other work.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to fiction first! I grew up writing stories, or at least filling notebooks with partial stories. I majored in Fiction Writing in college. But my fiction wasn't very good. After college, I began reading my brother's poetry books--he had two boxes of them and they were at my parents' house, where I was now living. I fell in love with Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, and others. I don't count them among my inspirations, since I write very differently from them now, but that is how I came to poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It's pretty slow. The book I just finished took over two years, and it's only 50 pages. It was particularly slow. Sometimes it takes me about a year to finish a manuscript. I do lots of drafts and rewriting and tweaking. The form can change five or six times during the process. I've been able to start the last two manuscripts at residencies, which has been a very positive experience.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I am always working on a project--usually a whole book. I collect text from various outside sources as well as my own journals and writing. And I compile them with some kind of theme in mind, or one emerges over the course of the note-gathering. But I can't just write a one-off poem. I have no idea how to do that anymore!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I both enjoy doing readings and am terrified of doing readings. I am always looking for ways to make them different. Sometimes I bring audio recordings that accompany my performance. Sometimes I ask friends or members of the audience to participate by reading different sections or "voices" in the poems. I am still usually super nervous, and I really want to get a lot better at putting on an engaging performance that resonates with the audience.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

How to use poetry to understand deeply human things like deformity, aging, physical and emotional pain, relationships. I am very interested in the environment and exploring issues related to climate change. I am currently thinking a lot about story and mystery--what do you do when things go missing or mysteries go unanswered...and why are we so fixated on resolving such mysteries.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Of course she has one! I think it can be whatever the writer wants it to be, to an extent. I think the role of artists in general can involve many things--to entertain, enrich, and enlighten. I don't think the writer has to feel she must change the world or be directly political. But I do believe in contributing to the community and that sharing one's work with others is a key element of being an artist. I feel some obligation to help "get the work out," so I volunteer in a small press, and I helped form a collective that exchanges mail art and engages in collaborative projects and happenings.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have rarely worked with an outside editor--thus far. My chapbook I edited myself; and my book book was lightly edited--they were very kind to me! I work professionally as an editor, so I feel that I have a deep understanding of the process and would work well with editors in general. I definitely believe strongly in the editing process.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I was an intern at a performing arts center in college. My manager was a musician, and he kept a binder of his rejection letters. I thought this was odd, but he said those are what make you work harder. So in general I don't feel upset when I get rejected. It's just part of the artistic process--and it does make you work harder.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (solo to collaboration)? What do you see as the appeal?
I love collaborations. I have been working with a visual artist, Jennifer Yorke, for about a year. She created artist books based on my Flood Diary manuscript that have been exhibited in Berkeley and France, and we are now working on videos based on a new manuscript I wrote called Silkyard. She is amazing to work with, so I feel very lucky. Neither of us knows the first thing about video, but we are eager to learn, and as she says, not afraid to fail! The appeal to me is both the process and joy of working with another artist, and creating something unique and new, different from a book.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I'm afraid I don't have much of one these days. I am trying to write on the train to and from work now. Otherwise, I just slip it it when I have time. It's a challenge.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Still trying to figure that out! Probably music mainly and poetry books that I love. I also try to get out in nature as much as possible. I get most of my ideas on my morning walks--it's one of the few times in my day where I am disconnected from the world, so it's a very valuable time to me.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Hmm...trees and grass?

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I just read a long article about thermonuclear reactors. And I've written about cryogenics and researched the development of the Apollo Spacesuit. Yes, science seems to find its way into my work quite a bit. I love music, it's really my passion, but it doesn't find its way into my work directly very often. I listened to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" a lot when I was writing one of my manuscripts--I think exactly one poem in the manuscript references the album.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
For poetry: Barbara Guest, Laura Walker, Rusty Morrison, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickinson, Bhanu Kapil. But I mainly read a ton of articles, essays, and news in places like Slate and The Atlantic. I obsessively read TV and film reviews.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Anything that combines writing with other art forms--I love to sing and I play drums (not well yet), so bringing those into a performance is a goal/fantasy; the video Jennifer and I working on; maybe an art installation based around my work. 

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think it could be really amazing to be a massage therapist. It seems like it would be wonderful to combine something physical, using your body, with helping someone else feel better and heal.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don't know, I don't remember a time when I wasn't writing. When I was very little, I wanted to be an art teacher. But other kids' skills quickly surpassed mine. So I think that is partly why I am a writer--because it is something I have worked a lot at and am somewhat able to do. :) But also I just feel compelled to do it and it's the thing I do that always brings meaning to my life, for which I am very grateful.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine; film: This was a while ago but I loved Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley.

20 - What are you currently working on?
Not sure yet. :) I am thinking a lot about the missing Malaysian plane from 2014. I am obsessed/intrigued that something so big and all those people can simply vanish. I am interested in exploring mystery--the human need to understand tragedy--including the morbid curiosity around it. Like the cultural obsession around the podcast Serial. I am also thinking about something related to hemispheres. Where any of this will go is yet undetermined...

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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