SHAMAR HILL Interviews JOANNA C. VALENTE
1. The title of your collection, Marys of the Sea, is also the title of a song by Tori Amos that she released is 2005. In the song she says: “You must go must flee/For they will hunt you down/You and your unborn seed.” The way your collection speaks to her song feels very purposeful. Can you talk about the title, if you were inspired by Amos’ song? How the title frames your collection?
Since the book itself is a retelling of my own experiences as a sexual assault survivor, of someone who had an abortion (as a result of the assault), I used the ocean as a metaphorical, and sometimes, physical landscape to the book. The ocean is a really danger place, it can drown you - and assault is the same way. It drowns you, it kills you. You become reborn, so just in that sense, the title was purposeful (although ironically, it wasn't the first title. The original was Mary & Mary, which focused more on the duality of motherhood and sexuality).
I was aware of the song, as a huge Tori Amos fan, so it was also a nod to her. The song happened to be perfect for the collection too, which was a happy coincidence, since the book does focus on the fact that Mary feels like she's ostracized for her pregnancy and assault, she's lonely and isolated, and feels self-loathing for herself and her body.
Ironically, I actually didn't hear the song until I was retitling the MS, so it was a really interesting coincidence, which also makes me feel a spiritual connection to Tori, a champion of sexual assault awareness and support. I listened to her songs furiously as a teen, I really felt like she saved me in so many ways, taught me about my body through her words, allowed me to believe in magic. So in many ways, Tori herself has been a huge inspiration, especially considering how her songs often deal with sexuality and spirituality.
2. The first poem in your collection is very layered and surreal. The way it opens is so beautiful: “All mothers eat their children. All children drink their mothers.” It creates this connection with the reader about birth, death, mothering, being a child, especially a girl becoming a woman. Why did you choose this poem to begin Marys of the Sea? Can you also talk about writing this poem?
It's interesting, because that poem was originally in the middle of the collection, but as I was reordering it in order to better tell the story, I realized that sense of duality perfectly encompasses so much of what the collection is about: death and rebirth, the loss of innocence, the idea of being a sexual creature while also a mother, the idea that becoming a woman doesn't necessarily mean you want to be a mother.
I also chose it because it was from the POV of the unborn child, which I thought would not only be compelling and disarming to the reader, but would be an interesting start, since so much of it is from Mary's POV. And in general, we typically don't often hear from an unborn being, so I wanted to start the collection in an otherworldly, bizarre landscape where this child is imagining its life.
3. Mythologies are clearly important to you as writer. Pandora, Lucifer, Dionysus, to name a few. In a way, the whole collection is building myths, deconstructing myths. Please speak to that.
We create mythologies around ourselves, around everything. Our family names, our family stories, our histories, religions--all of these to some extent are based off mythologies. I grew up with them, as we all do, growing up religious, going to religious school, learning about our supposed histories. I deeply wanted to deconstruct them, and in a way where I could deconstruct the self, not just personally, but politically. We have so many myths about what it means to be a woman, man, parent, partner, etc. I really hated it for awhile. Now I don't as much, because I don't feel constrained anymore.
Dealing with a trauma makes deconstruction necessary, you have to rebuild yourself. And part of that stemmed from the fact that I felt uncomfortable in my own body. In many ways, I think I always had (I identify as non-binary), and being assaulted comes with so many emotions about having a strange relationship and distance from your body. It makes deconstruction natural, but it also makes you realize these myths have human forms and origins, and that means we all have flaw, have ugly parts, and that is comforting to me.
4. In your poem “Mittelschmerz” (which is German for pain from ovulation) I feel a real vulnerability. You say: “You could have been/my baby. I was almost your mother.” The line break after been is masterful. It holds the tension and meaning at the same time. “Could have been” as in could have lived, existed. And the next line beginning with “my baby” captures the emotional weight of not only the poem but the collection. What are your thoughts?
This poem is just very honest. It was me being honest with myself, with my emotions, and I tried to be as precise as I could with the line breaks, silence, and sense of tension to illustrate how nuanced pregnancy loss and abortion is for many people, while not sugarcoating it or overly dramatizing it either. It is just supposed to be a mundane moment where suddenly the speaker is triggered by their memories, by their emotions. But it's also about acceptance, to accept the pain, the choice.
5. The title poem is stunning. The surreal seems to help the speaker and the reader with this poem, with its violence and its claiming of self. How do you mine the surreal?
I mine the surreal by owning the real, if that makes sense. You can't have a surreal image work if the rest of the poem isn't grounded in a real event or moment, because then the reader is lost in a strange limbo, and they don't know what to do or think. So, first, I make sure I have a story, then I make it bizarre through what I see/feel/think. I think in images when I write poems, I don't write for the words, I write for the picture. This is partly due to the fact that I started out as a painter, so I think I instead translate the image I have in my head, rather than always trying to find the right words. Because there are no right words, there's just a story you can tell, and you can hope to tell the story in a way that sticks, that moves.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016) and the editor of A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). Joanna received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, a managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine and CCM, as well as an instructor at Brooklyn Poets. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, Apogee, Spork, The Feminist Wire, BUST, and elsewhere.
Shamar Hill, a Cave Canem Fellow, is the recipient of numerous awards including a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a scholarship from Fine Arts Work Center. He has been published or has work forthcoming in: Day One, Southern Humanities Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Vinyl. He is working on his first poetry collection, Photographs of an Imagined Childhood, and a memoir, In Defiance of All True Things.