Interview by Emily Faison
Lambda Award-winning poet Valerie Wetlaufer will be sharing her work on the Reading Queer stage on Sunday, November 22 at the Miami Book Fair. Valerie holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah, an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida State University, an MA in Teaching & a BA in French from Bennington College. She is the editor of Adrienne: a poetry journal of queer women, and author of the poetry collection, Mysterious Acts by My People, as well as three chapbooks. Valerie’s forthcoming book, Call Me By My Other Name, will be available this spring from Sibling Rivalry Press. (Look for a review here at SER!)
First of all, congratulations on your Lambda win! Your collection, Mysterious Acts by My People, won the 2014 Lambda Award for Lesbian Poetry in 2014 and you’ll be reading with a panel of other Lammy winners and finalists at MBF. Beyond the excitement of winning this award, what are the more far-reaching effects of this honor? Have you found an increased or more receptive audience?
Thank you! I think in the long run, it will mean that the book does have a wider audience than it might otherwise have, which is great for my publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, and important to me, because a big reason why I write is to create the books I wish I’d had as a kid. When I get messages from young people who have found my work and had it mean something to them, that is incredibly affirming. So the award will get the book into the paths of the people who need it, and that is amazing.
I can’t get over the cover design for Mysterious Acts by My People. Did you get to have a hand in the design at all? The colors are bright but subtle, and that reindeer? moose? is somehow both quirky and majestic, if possible. How does the cover reflect the poems in, and the title of, your collection?
I’m glad you liked it! It’s an elk on the cover. As I was working on editing the book prior to publication, I noticed how many elk appeared in my poems. A lot of the poems were written while I was living in Utah, and I did see a lot of elk in the wild while there. They became for me a symbol of wildness and living in a strange land, which is what Utah started out as for me; such a completely different culture and landscape than I was accustomed to, so when I sought out cover art, I looked for something that featured an elk. I came across Zeke Tucker’s [cover artist] work, and loved it. A sense of mystery is woven throughout the collection, as is the idea of belonging to a group— “my people”—that feels foreign to outsiders. For me, the elk embodied this.
Your voice in these poems is sharp: Every time I might feel a soft, lulling rhythm, I instead feel a sudden pang in images like “you fed me potpourri like your mother kept in bowls” and “I put the fakery.” What drives your language?
Sound is a big factor, as well as exploring and putting pressure on the language of everyday life. I was a French major in undergrad, because I fell in love with the sound of French words, and that interest carries over into English, too. I also have an associative quality to my writing that influences my language, and is different on any given day. The practice of writing daily means that whatever I’m involved in that day makes its way into the language of the poem, so if I’m reading a book on Marie Antoinette, I might get a poem on fashion from that era. If I’m working with tarot cards one day, then maybe that vocabulary sneaks into my poems. I think it’s important to read vastly, not only other poets, but completely different subjects, too, and that enriches the language.
Many of your poems exist in a particular moment in time, from descriptions of “ribs whaleboned” to “football traffic on a Saturday,” swinging from poignant childhood in another decade to the cell phone I only “extinguished” in the theatre yesterday. What’s the motivation to set a poem in a time long past? Can you tell me more about the significance of time in your poetry?
Time is so fluid for me. One minute I’m sitting in my present day living room, and the next moment my memory or imagination is transported to another time and place. It feels natural that my poetry should encompass a wide array of time periods. Again, I think that associative nature of my writing practice influences this.
I’m eager to read your forthcoming novel in verse, Call Me By My Other Name, available in March through Sibling Rivalry Press. You’ve said that this new collection is based in the late 19th-century Midwest. How did you feel about working in the constraints of a specific time and place in these poems? How did focusing on a single narrative change your process or poetry-generating experience?
I wrote Call Me by My Other Name before Mysterious Acts, or at least simultaneously. CMBMON existed as a project long before MABMP. Compositionally, CMBMON is my first book, and finding that project marks, for me, when I really came into poetry as a serious pursuit.
I loved telling a story over the course of Call Me by My Other Name. I did years worth of research for the project, and really imagined myself into the world, but the book also takes place in the contemporary moment, so it’s not entirely in the world of the 19th century. The long 19th century was also, not coincidentally, the time period I focused on during my graduate studies. I really fell in love with it.
So some of those poems written for Call Me By My Other Name appear in Mysterious Acts. Can you reflect on the process of revising these poems to fit the narrative of a different book?
Mysterious Acts contains one section— “Scent of Shatter”—which was originally part of Call Me by My Other Name, and poems that I wrote that didn’t fit in with the project of what is now my second book. In fact, CMBMON was the book I sent out for four years, often achieving a finalist status, but ultimately never chosen. Several editors actually told me it was a great book, but a better second book than a first book, and so I ended up putting together another manuscript to submit, full of what I think of as my “one-off” poems, those that didn’t fit into CMBMON. Those poems I’d been writing for workshop and as part of my Poem a Day project I began in 2010.When I put the “Scent of Shatter” section into MABMP, actually, I had to revise it quite a bit, since it lost its context, but I’d already published that section as a chapbook with Grey Book Press, so I think in the end it fit nicely.
In addition to your own poetry, you edit Adrienne, a poetry journal of queer women. Has the experience of editing a magazine inspired or motivated your own work? Do you find the magazine to be a catalyst, or is it simply exciting to publish other poets?
I have always been so inspired by other writers, so the opportunity to publish other poets is a dream. It definitely drives my own writing to be connected to the community in that way. It definitely encourages me to sit down and write when I read and have the privilege of editing other people’s writing.
Reading Queer is partnering with the Miami Book Fair to promote Miami’s queer literary community. Are there other Reading Queer poets you’d like to recommend?
Where do I begin? The entire line-up is stunning! I’m so fortunate to be included in such good company. My pressmate (and fellow FSU alum) Stephen Mills is, of course, fabulous, and I’m very excited to meet Dawn Lundy Martin, who I’ve long been a fan of, as well as other pressmates Julie R. Enszer and Raymond Luczak.
Other than your own reading, of course, what event are you most looking forward to at MBF?
I’m most looking forward to the panel on Intersectional Poetics! A stunning roster of writers, and a really important topic.
Emily Faison is a graduate student at Florida State University, where she writes about YA authors and YouTube.