Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish) and The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System), co-written with Sarah Rosenthal. Her latest chapbook, Listening Through the Body: An Exercise in Sustained Coordination, recently appeared from above/ground press. Her writing has also appeared in literary journals such as VOLT, Diagram, Dusie, Alice Blue, and Interim. More at valeriewitte.com
Her poems “\\ten weeks after\\,” “\\four months later\\,” “\\seven months after, ongoing\\” and “\\ten months later\\” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “\\ten weeks after\\,” “\\four months later\\,” “\\seven months after, ongoing\\” and “\\ten months later\\.”
A: This sequence of poems is from a manuscript called “hold short bravo,” which was inspired, in part, by the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 in March 2014. I became fascinated by this impossible mystery and somewhat obsessively read every news piece I could find about it. How could a plane with 227 passengers and 12 crew members simply vanish—in a time of seemingly constant surveillance? There were countless theories about what had happened. Was the plane hijacked? Shot down? Did someone reprogram the autopilot route? (Not to mention: Was the plane consumed by a black hole? Struck by a meteor? Abducted by aliens?) And of course, relatedly, WHERE WAS THE PLANE?
Over time more information has come to light (periodically, what appear to be pieces of the plane have surfaced in the Indian Ocean). But many of the mysteries underlying the flight’s disappearance endure. The manuscript addresses these mysteries, with the understanding that we are unlikely ever to get the answers. Composed of fragments suggestive of a crash, each carrying the same burden of meaning/meaninglessness, the manuscript is broken up by time stamps (moving the reader forward and backward in time) to create a sense of being lost in time—and space—reflecting the very real possibility of never knowing what happened or why.
Amid the backdrop of this singular event are interspersed more fragments—of personal memories and dreams, which mirror the sense of dislocation and uncertainty of this particular event—as well as life in general. The pages included here touch on issues of relationships, parenthood, the environment, and spirituality.
Specifically, the lines following “\\ten weeks after\\” relate to the challenges and doubts inherent in a relationship, fear of aloneness and potential rejection. They probe into these fears and ask how to live in acceptance of them and how to keep going.
In addition to exploring the mystery of the disappeared plane, the section that follows “\\four months later\\” examines another mystery (to me)—the natural human desire and choice to bear children—a desire that has always been foreign to me. In particular, amid the undeniable climate crisis facing humanity and our planet, I find it fascinating that so many people choose to have children given what their descendants will face, yet I also envy their desire and willingness to do so. And in these pages, I actively question my decision to avoid “crossing over” to motherhood, fearing I have made a huge mistake—though it is admittedly selfish reasons that lead me to this quandary: who will take care of me if/when I grow old, will my legacy be lost? And in pondering this choice, I think of one friend’s approach, to teach her child sustainability by living on a farm. This seems wise—but as it turns out, this plan did not come to pass.
In the text that follows “\\seven months after, ongoing\\” and “\\ten months later\\,” the idea of “crossing over” or “crossing a line” continues, as I discuss the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in WWII, after the death of the last of the pilots who did so. These pieces explore the plane’s disappearance along with questions of mortality—and ways to cope through faith and escapism (eg., the idea of finishing—either writing or reading—something like Game of Thrones seems impossibly daunting to me).
Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Over the last few years, I’ve primarily been working on a collection of essays called One Thing Follows Another: Engaging the Art of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer, a collaboration with Sarah Rosenthal. In this project, we explore the work of dancer-choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti—both at various inflection points throughout their careers and in this particular moment. Through a combination of chance operations and intentional artistic choices that push us to unexpected places, and via innovative forms and techniques—including collage, erasure, and our own inventions—we deconstruct the essay form to examine what we as poets, each with our own highly charged relationships to dance, can contribute to the conversation about these pivotal figures in postmodern art. One of the essays in this collection, “Listening Through the Body,” has just been released as a chapbook from above/ground press.
Otherwise, I’ve been working periodically on a project that explores the idea of coping with trauma through escapism. Although not closely related to the content of the “hold short bravo” text, this work also plays with time and space, which perhaps makes that a recurring theme in my work! I am using H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine as a source text (what better mode of escape than time and space) and building a collection of 60 or so prose-ish blocks; each begins with a line from the book that leads into the subsequent lines. The book touches on myriad topics including callout culture, dealing with the loss of someone gone too soon, erasure (in writing and in life), the nature of monstrosity, the tragedy of both natural and human-caused disaster, finding comfort in the idea of outer space, and questions of authorship, specifically, the ethics of repurposing someone’s words to use against them under the guise of art.
Q: Do you approach your solo work differently than the ways in which you might approach collaboration? What has collaboration allowed that might not have been possible otherwise, and how has the experience affected, if at all, your solo writing?
A: For solo projects, I often select a source text or texts and adapt language, combined with my own, creating a series of pieces eventually building to a cohesive whole. I am always collage-ing, fracturing, manipulating words—folding in notes I have written over the course of several months, or years—and looking for overarching themes around which to construct a manuscript. I play with language a lot, and nearly all of my poetic work employs some kind of innovative or unusual form. The work tends to be somewhat autobiographical but expressed in an elliptical way, and often involves fantastical or sci-fi elements.
While I enjoy the inherent freedom of working on my own projects, I deeply value collaboration as well. My approach with each collaborative project differs depending on the participants, the particular contours and dynamics of the project, the medium of the project, and so forth. No matter the specifics, there’s just no replacement for engaging with the ideas of another individual, which inevitably prevents us from falling back on old habits or themes that recur in our work. Through collaboration, we are inevitably forced to avoid the familiar and embrace what is completely new to us, i.e., someone else’s experience and ideas. In general, I find that an effective collaboration involves the following:
Being forced out of my comfort zone: Most recently, as noted above, I have been working with Sarah Rosenthal on a multiyear project related to the work of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. With this project, I’ve taken on a subject I never would have addressed on my own. My (minimal) experience with dance has tended to be fairly negative, often resulting in feelings of despair, insecurity, or humiliation. But Sarah’s idea for us to focus on postmodern dance intrigued me—I appreciated the tension inherent in addressing a topic that would conjure unpleasant memories for me, along with the possibilities in exploring aspects of myself that would otherwise remain untapped. By tackling this atypical (for me) subject matter, I’ve come to learn so much about dance, postmodern art, the letter and essay forms, and myself.
The element of surprise: Part 1 of our project was the book The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System). For this book, we co-wrote a series of sonnets, emailing each other alternating lines until we had 14 for each poem. Of course, we never knew what the other person would send back, and sometimes the delivered line left us perplexed or uncertain of how to proceed. Yet at the end of the process, we found that we often could not remember whose lines were whose, so in-tune we had become with each other’s language, rhythm, and style. While I always strive to create surprising, unpredictable moments in my work, collaboration forces this like nothing else. It’s also a fascinating way to discover how another person’s mind—with its own associations, memories, and perspectives—works.
Support + accountability: Writing is generally a solitary activity, and you can often feel as if you are writing into an abyss, that your work isn’t good, or that it will never see the light of day. Having someone to offer feedback and encouragement; discuss ideas with; and be a partner in all aspects including editing, publishing, and marketing is incredibly beneficial. Additionally, having scheduled meetings, shared goals, and joint events to plan for is motivating; it’s much easier to ignore my own vague deadline than it is to blow off an appointment or deadline that affects another person.
So far I have tended to compartmentalize these two ways of working (solo and collaborative)—I strive for a balance of different types of projects, and I find that each mode fuels the other. I am always learning from my collaborators different ways of thinking and making—and from them I have developed a greater appreciation of the importance of feedback and trying to see things from a different perspective. While I have collaborated with a visual artist as well as other writers, I hope to do more cross-disciplinary collaborations down the road—with sound artists, visual artists, filmmakers, etc.—that would open up more opportunities for creating and delivering unique experiences for an audience.
Q: Have you any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What possible works or writers have you in the back of your head as you write?
A: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life has been very influential for a long time. The book feels immediately innovative yet also thoroughly logical due to its structure—a section dedicated to each year of her life, each with that many sentences (the number has changed over time; in a revised edition, more sections and lines have been added, in accordance with Hejinian’s age at the time of her writing). I am always thinking about structure from the time I begin any new project and striving to devise a meaningful and fitting form for each one—and this book’s structure is one that I can’t help but admire. Beyond this, I find the elliptical, stream-of-consciousness-style unfurling of autobiographical details and insights appealing; this too is something I emulate in my work. I especially appreciate how one phrase or thought leads to the next but often in a tangential-seeming or non-obvious way.
Fairly recently, I discovered Maggie Nelson, in particular, her poetic memoir Bluets. I was immediately struck by the deceptively simple concept—compiling and reflecting on a series of items, notes, memories—all associated with the color blue. Again, I love the form of these numbered prose blocks, each containing its own discrete narrative—an interweaving of personal experiences and philosophical observations that ultimately tell a story in a way that seems accessible yet is also truly singular. This too is a book that calls attention to the process of writing, a strategy I sometimes employ in my own work. Further, the content in her work often strikes me as wild, audacious—it makes me wonder: Are you allowed to say that? What might her loved ones think upon reading this??? She pushes the envelope and compels me to do so also, in my own way.
Though not an autobiography—scratch that, in a way it is!—one of the books I return to again and again is Laura Walker’s beautiful poetry collection Rimertown: An Atlas. I love both the construction and the language in this book so much. It operates on several frequencies at once, composed of a series of numbered (not in order!) maps, stories, prose poems, and a loose fragmentary narrative, whose lines trace the bottom of the page. I can’t help but imagine Walker creating these various components, spilling them out and mixing them up, deciding where and how they fit together best. (I have no idea if she wrote it this way—this is purely my own imagining of her process.) Emerging as a rich tapestry as it unfolds, the collection is an elegant and quietly observant work that movingly depicts the experience of a culture and place. I return to it again and again as a source of comfort, inspiration, and intrigue.
Q: With two full-length collections and a couple of chapbooks, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: As mentioned, I generally begin most of my projects with source texts that I carve away at or erase or extract language from, and fold in bits of my own language, until something new—hopefully unexpected—emerges. It’s a lot of playing with phrases or snippets of text, and shaping them into different forms, which I use to build a cohesive whole.
Despite this fragmentary approach, I am deeply interested in narrative—or things that resemble narrative—but I often feel that I struggle with the sentence. This issue has definitely been put to the test throughout my recent collaboration. In The Grass Is Greener..., we began by co-writing sonnets. To help ground the work, we ultimately decided to fold in letters to each other that examine the process of writing the letters and discuss topics as wide-ranging as the environment, poetics, feminism, and music.
Initially, my letters were both tentative and, yes, fragmented, as I was uncomfortable writing in such a vulnerable and straightforward way, something I rarely do for public consumption. But recognizing that this was not what was needed for the project, I tried switching things up and writing in a more standard letter form. As we continued with our correspondence, my letters became more substantial, informed by research and critique. My confidence grew and by the end of the project, I felt as though it was at least possible for me to write compelling sentences.
Similarly, with the essay collection, I at first struggled with the form, which again seemed to require writing in coherent sentences; I felt my essays were falling flat. After each writing three of our five essays, Sarah delivered a fourth essay that was bold and surprising in format and language. I was blown away. It was (at least somewhat) composed of sentences but structured in an unusual way that served the piece perfectly and was truly exciting. It showed me that I was missing an opportunity and gave me permission to bring my poetics into the essay form. My next two essays were the easiest to write because I allowed myself to play with structure and syntax in ways that served the topics while also conveying what I wanted to express about them. I ended up rewriting my first three essays—each now has an experimental form, which suits the subject matter and offers an enhanced reading experience, in my view. In the process, I discovered there was a more effective form and approach to telling these stories. Yes, there were still a lot of sentences in these hybridized essays—but combining those with my experimental tendencies, I was able to push the essay form into interesting places without sacrificing meaning, clarity, or depth.
Going forward I’d like to channel this experience and keep practicing these techniques—retaining my experimental poet mindset and vision while continuing to push the sentence form, or narrative writing in general.
Q: How did you get to a point where you are constructing narrative via fragmentary collage? What is it about this approach that appeals? What do you feel such structures allow that might not be possible otherwise?
A: Like many (most humans?), I am naturally drawn to story. From the time I learned how to write, I was writing stories—and this continued to be my focus for several years. But after college, I came to recognize that fiction writing was not my strength and no longer my core interest, and I started to read more poetry—and writing it, almost exclusively. In terms of written text, I’ve become more compelled by the real/things that actually happen, particularly when expressed in innovative or unusual ways, as through experimental poetry or hybrid forms.
Despite my shift away from fiction, I still feel the very human pull of story and narrative. So my writing—which I generally characterize as poetry—typically contains a thread of story woven through it. Sometimes I begin with a work of fiction, such as a novel (Gothic and sci-fi, to date) or a sci-fi film, as a source text, and try to inhabit those worlds, to draw out the emotion those sources evoke in the reader/viewer, while bringing to the work my own personal experiences and imaginings. By mixing my real experiences, thoughts, dreams, etc. with fictional elements, I aim to elicit a sense of mystery and intrigue, to heighten the experience of reading, perhaps prompt the reader to wonder things like: What is happening here? What is this work—through its structure, language, syntax, and so on—doing? And I utilize different forms to help achieve this. For example, in a game of correspondence, I crafted “emails”—built through a collage of memories and ruminations, language from a novel, and tropes of the Gothic fiction genre—as a nod to formal epistolary works of the past; and in hold short bravo, I combined fragments of my own dreams and observations, with language from a flight’s audio transcript and subsequent articles and news reports, creating a fractured portrait of what happened in that particular incident while presenting it as a lens through which to view the modern human experience.
My projects almost always have an autobiographical component, which while nonfictional, still connects to story, as we all have stories that we tell about ourselves, in our own minds and to others. I no longer invent fully developed characters or devise plots for people to enact. The people and action in my work are either some version of myself or people in my life and my own experiences or more gestural, offering a suggestion or notion of figures and events, often designed to evoke a certain mood or emotion. As many postmodern artists have noted, techniques like collage, erasure, and the like can be a way to avoid being overly sentimental and placing oneself in the center of a work, and this approach has become intrinsic to the way I work.
Additionally, such techniques are a way to eschew predictability, force us out of our habits, and ensure a level of surprise in language that is difficult to achieve in more straightforward prose. For me, it’s a more exciting way to write than telling a story in a linear way. I admire writers who can write traditional fiction and keep things interesting. But I’ve learned over the years that is not my project. I prefer my work to ask more questions than provide answers—and that is something that fragmented storytelling helps me do.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: In Forces of Imagination, Barbara Guest opened my eyes to the possibilities of art criticism, illustrating how literary and art theory could be accessible, exciting, and beautiful. As the Editor’s Note states, the book comprises parts of talks, essays, poems, and short pieces with recurring observations, phrases, and ideas; it should come as no surprise that such a compilation has been of significant influence and continues to inform my poetics. In this groundbreaking work, I discovered how a discussion of art can itself be art.
When I first picked up Lisa Jarnot’s Some Other Kind of Mission, I was immediately drawn to the visual nature of the book. Not only does she use space on the page in compelling ways throughout the text, but she also incorporates various experimental visual elements—erasure and collage to create surprising juxtapositions and omissions—creating a tableau of sorts, which intrigued me from the beginning and has never lessened its grip.
Lisa Robertson’s book The Men, while small in size, is such a substantial, powerful work. I appreciate the inherent feminism in the deceptively simple little book, its provocative yet playful examination of our culture’s attitudes about gender. Hers is the kind of writing I emulate—deeply moving yet humorous, intellectual, and emotionally true.
And, as mentioned earlier, I’ve long admired Laura Walker’s Rimertown: An Atlas, which I return to again and again as a source of inspiration.