Délani Valin is neurodivergent and Métis with Nehiyaw, Saulteaux, French-Canadian and Czech ancestry. She studies for her master’s in professional communications at Royal Roads University, and has a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Vancouver Island University. Her poetry has been awarded The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize and subTerrain’s Lush Triumphant Award. Her work has appeared in PRISM International, Adbusters, Room, and in the anthologies Those Who Make Us and Bawaajigan. She is on the editorial board of Room and The Malahat Review, and lives on traditional and unceded Snuneymuxw territory (Nanaimo, BC).
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing small poems when I was still a child. I wrote stories too, but my favourite thing was plunging into the Thesaurus, picking out some obscure word and then mangling its use in a melodramatic poem.
Nowadays, I think poetry allows me to cut to the emotional core of an idea. Poetry is a container, but paradoxically I find a lot of freedom and space to experiment. It’s these kinds of constraints — form, line length, sound, metaphor — that create the conditions for, say, the ghazal about gendered body image stigma from the perspective of the Michelin Man in Shapeshifters.
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?
With poetry, I do very little to alter the first drafts, but I edit as I go along. I tend to use a combination of free-association writing and mind-maps when I’m generating ideas for a poem. The mind-maps work for me because I can relate seemingly disparate concepts in a big web, which is how I tend to see the world: everything is about everything. Once I’ve created this, I more or less have the shape of the poem and intuition usually guides me towards finding the specific words. I think the only downside to this process is that I can have a tendency to want to be exhaustive. Scope creep, in other words, can prevent me from moving on to the next step. It's a skill unto itself to know when to let the work breathe with its own lungs in the world!
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?
With Shapeshifters, I had some ideas I knew I wanted to explore, such as embodying the (imagined) experiences of the capitalist mascots that permeated my childhood. Other poems surprised me, surfacing out of my lived experiences and out of an attempt to understand them. I kept faith that I was moving towards a manuscript, but I didn’t quite know at what I was chipping away until I’d amassed the majority of the poems in this book. Part of me would actually like to work according to a more stringent plan, but poetry, like life itself, has a lot to teach me about being flexible, patient and open to surprises.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I always forget how much I love public readings until the second I’m in front of an audience. Readings give me no small amount of anxiety, but there’s something really special about being able to share a poem and seeing whether it resonates with anyone in real time. It’s an incredibly rich experience that I will absolutely continue to coax myself into!
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?
With Shapeshifters, although I wasn’t always conscious of it, I was really driving at questions around authenticity. I think so many of us learn to sacrifice our authentic emotions, expressions and desires to get along and go along. There is a huge cost to this, as we can become alienated from ourselves. Neurodivergent people especially talk about having to wear a palatable “mask” in order to avoid persecution. This has been my experience, being so docile and disconnected from myself that I would often forget I even had a body. So, in Shapeshifters I try to find the perfect mask by donning a plethora of personae. As it turns out, there is no perfect mask, and authenticity can look like a lot of different things.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think different writers have different roles. Some cajole, shock, reflect, amuse, provide solace and enlighten. I think writing is a bit like medicine, and people can come and read the medicine they need. It doesn’t seem like it’s up to the writer to know which medicines they are providing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I welcome the help of an outside editor because once I’ve worked the piece through the mind-map and into a solid draft, it becomes very difficult for me to see it in any other light. An editor also has the benefit of seeing a bigger picture, such as sequencing or seeing how the poems may relate to one another.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I have some really great people in my life: my partner Joe reminds me to be self-compassionate and my friend Liam is fond of reminding me that, “it’s chill to let yourself off the hook.” In essence, life sings when I’m a friend to myself and I would love to see more people be easier on themselves, too.
10 - 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 don’t have a writing routine. I write when I feel like I’d be unwell if I put it off any longer! These days I’m busy trying to write a Masters thesis, so that’s been taking a lot of my mental energy. But the urge to write creatively is still there and I’m mindful to respect it.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
There’s this pinecone potpourri my mom used to set in a bowl all winter. I would hide my socks in the bowl and they would come out reeking like holiday spice and that always felt comforting to me. So, cloves are a good sign something’s cooking for a long time and that we’re here to stay.
13 - 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?
Nature has become a strong influence for me. Every plant and rock and animal have their vocabularies. There’s so much to belong to. Even the reminder of these connections can spark an idea. I also have playlists that I like to write to, and I collect random factoids that make their ways into my work as well.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to go on a really long walk. I’d like to do the El Camino or a similarly long venture. I love walking and want to see more of the world that way.
16 - 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 would have become a counsellor.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
A deep inner nagging that’s made itself known since I was about 11 years old.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Three books I really enjoyed in the last year include Stuart Ross’s The Book of Grief and Hamburgers, Jónína Kirton’s Standing in a River of Time, and Céline Huyghebaert’s Remnants (translated from the French by Aleshia Jensen).
19 - What are you currently working on?
Apart from toiling on my thesis project, I’m also putting down the bones for a novel which will feature a neurodivergent Métis protagonist and her inner and outer quest for belonging.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;