by Joanna C. Valente
While I'm not in the business of telling other people how to live their lives (aka: write poetry and live their best life) - or give writing advice or say what makes the best poetry as a definitive statement, I can talk about why I write the poems I do. Essentially, I just want to convey a truth, my truth or someone else's -- because truths need to be told in order to gain empathy and understanding for the world around us. Ultimately, that's what life, to me, is about: kindness, and compassion, and living your truth. So these are my six manifestos or rules:
- Truth. It's important to tell a truth, whether it's yours or someone else's, because otherwise, what are you saying? Even fiction, even fantasy, has to be based on some kind of truth. A truth can be as simple as loving the ocean or as complicated as writing about your transgender or nonbinary or queer identity.
- Empathy. If you aren't empathetic, you probably can't understand other people, and emotions, very well. Empathy allows us to write better, because if we don't understand motivation, we can't really understand anyone, not even ourselves.
- Observations. Because it's good to get outside of your own head, because understanding the world around you and learning to pick up on the small details helps you understand yourself better too. Observing, and being able to grasp what the "little things" mean sort of also goes hand in hand with empathy, because you understand what it meant when someone uses their hands a lot or looks down at their feet, etc.
- Experimentation. Make yourself uncomfortable, challenge yourself. If you do this, you can challenge your reader. Being complacent is the worst thing a poet can do. We don't want to make the same art over and over again, or write the same type of poem we know works. It's boring to you and your readers.
- Vulnerability. No one wants to read something that doesn't feel as if you aren't telling them a secret. We all like secrets, we're all voyeurs, we all want to relate on a deeper level. If you aren't willing to be vulnerable, why will your reader? Why will they connect to you?
- Form. Play with the form. In poetry, form is everything and we often still don't think of this enough, but it helps us tell our story in a way that also changes it. I use the page like a canvas, and think of it as visual art.
The difference that poetry gives us, as opposed to prose, is a structure and that structure can help us deconstruct an ordinary moment or situation in a way that objectifies it for us to understand society, what needs to change, how we need to change. I'm not sure why I was always so concerned with "change" or living better, more fulfilled lives, but I always was and literature was a way for me to figure that out.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes, Poetry and the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente