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BY LISA MARIE BASILE
I spoke with Joanna C. Valente, our managing editor, about her book, The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press). While we normally don't interview each other here at Luna Luna, we thought our readers would love a conversation around tarot + poetry.
Having recently read Jessa Crispin's The Creative Tarot, and after having attended a creativity & Tarot workshop with Becca Klaver, a poet, from Brooklyn, I've been thinking a lot about how the Tarot has found its way into our creative subconscious.
Joanna let the Tarot inspire her, too, and in her book, the text is interspersed with illustrations of each of the major arcana cards in a Tarot deck. You can read some samples here and here. Each poem: an exploration. In my conversation with Joanna, we explore her inspiration as well as the challenges of writing a book based off of the occult, a topic that I’ve always found fascinating in art.
Lisa Marie Basile: For The Gods are Dead, you write a poem associated with each of the Major Arcana cards. What is it about Tarot that you associate with poetry?
Joanna C. Valente: Tarot is all about finding your way to fulfillment—how can you become more whole, more satisfied with your inner and outer lives. Nothing in life is perfect, but the Tarot forces us to evaluate ourselves on every level—emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, materially—so that we can move forward, not backwards. Poetry does the same thing for me—writing is an act of therapy—in general, writing allows you to become more self-aware and observant of the world around you, so I thought, I love both—why not merge them?
In another way, the Tarot also lends itself well to storytelling. Each Major Arcana card is based off of an archetype; The Fool, for instance, represents all of us—The Fool is going on a journey to discover parts of him/herself, while The Empress symbolizes and harnesses stereotypical feminine power and energy. As I learned more and more about the Tarot myself, since I taught myself how to read the cards, I wanted to tell its strange, bizarre, mysterious story.
Typically, my poetry tends to air more on the narrative side—while it isn’t narrative in structure, there’s always a loose thread of a story tying a collection together for me. I enjoy creating these ambiguous, magical worlds that emulate our own. Perhaps it’s a way for me to comment on issues I see in current culture—sex and gender relations, feminism, race—in an alternate universe. It’s fantasy meets poetry.
Lisa Marie Basile: How can poets work with the occult in order to generate creativity and work? What is the benefit?
Joanna C. Valente: Poetry in itself is very ethereal—it lacks a real narrative in that there isn’t always the typical plot chart that we teach to everyone since the dawn of language. Writers and artists make art about what we don’t understand—for me especially, I’m transfixed by the magical, non-tangible world—what is it, is it real, imaginative, or something else? Ever since I can remember, as a child, my life has been touched by supernatural phenomena in subtle ways—nothing crazy or outlandish—but small things like dreaming of dead relatives, being able to anticipate certain events, feeling outside presences. I would hardly consider myself special—I think anyone can access these feelings—it’s just about how open you are to them.
By definition, occult merely means “supernatural, mystical, magical beliefs, practices, and phenomena.” Anything that takes us outside of ourselves, that makes us question our beliefs, is intrinsic to being a writer. It’s beside the point if you believe in ghosts or anything occult-related, it’s more about the thought process that goes into skepticism and spiritualism, about trying to figure out your place in the world.
Lisa Marie Basile: If you could pick one card that represents your poetry, which card would it be and why? I'm sure we've chatted about this over wine before, but in the sober light of day, I'd love to know...
Joanna C. Valente: This is so hard, because we’re always changing, and the cards represent all of stages of our change. If I had to choose, I would probably say The High Priestess. She basically represents duality—of light and dark, mediating reality vs the ether, male and female; she also bears knowledge and intuition—symbolized by the moon under her left foot. Whitman said it best when he wrote “I contain multitudes.”
We all contain dualities within us, and I fully embrace this as much as I can—within myself and my relationships and my poetry. Poetry should be anything but simple—it should be full of complication, ambiguity, and nuance, because life is. A simple conversation about the weather says so much about us alone—whether we like overcast days or bright sunny days.
Also, women are ruled by the moon every month, it’s physically within us. So you know, there’s that.
Lisa Marie Basile: So, what was the challenge in writing this book? Was it that you were held to a concept? Was it that the tarot is so defined?
Joanna C. Valente: It was difficult for two reasons, really. The style is much different than I usually write in—it can be incredibly clinical at times, with sparse emotion and an overload of detail. I felt like I had to write this way, to stay true to the cards, which presents the second challenge. The cards are very specific and detail-oriented—every color, gesture, and symbol means something, so I really had to study each precisely and decide what I was using and where I was veering away, and creating my own meaning within the poems.
It was exceptionally hard deciding when to be true to the Tarot and when to allow myself to have freedom to break away, in order to make social and political statements, as opposed to just personifying the cards. The last thing I wanted to do was write some pretty, outdates story—I always want to push myself into the grotesque, the unsettling, the hard truths.
Lisa Marie Basile: How did Ted Chevalier (the artist) approach all of the art in this book? Did he take cues from other tarot card decks, was it entirely his own storytelling? And, were the images created after the text, or before?
Joanna C. Valente: He approached with an astute eye to detail—he studied the Tarot like it was his only job—which was obviously crazy generous considering there’s no money to be made from poetry. He watched documentaries, read books, bought different decks, and really just made it his own. In particular, he loved a documentary that Alejandro Jodorowsky made, as well as the Rider-Waite (which is what I based the poems off of, since it’s the most common) and the Marseilles deck.
In terms of storytelling, he followed my lead—I wrote the poems first, then he illustrated them based on the work itself. So, like the poems, every deviation from the cards themselves was based off the poems. It was honestly luck that he already had a defined interest in the Tarot, which is why he illustrated the cards, since I had actually already written the collection prior to us ever discussing collaborating. It was a perfect meeting of the minds.
Lisa Marie Basile: You write a lot about the feminine – at least, the female condition and the experience of the body. How did all of this work its way into this?
Joanna C. Valente: As a woman, it’s hard to ignore all the ways in which woman are ignored and silenced, all the ways queer, trans, POC folks are seen as ‘other.’ I have always been fascinated by the idea of ‘otherness,’ because so many of people are seen as other, for different reasons and it’s all fucked up.
Instead of people reading the collection and saying how great and wonderful it is that I’m trying to ‘liberate’ women and women’s sexuality, or that trying to write through a feminist/female lens, I want people to realize this is not other. That being a woman is just as murky and complicated and fucked up as being any human, and that women like sex, want sex, and get abused by sex. There’s a lot of strange sex in the book, and not because I’m trying to make a shocking statement, but because if we don’t understand how women feel about sex, sexual abuse is going to keep happening, and victims are going to stay invisible. I also, of course, want to point out that fetish is different than violence, which always gets confused—and perpetuates a lot of ridiculous ideas that women say no when they mean yes. I hate that, I don’t want that to be true in another fifty years.
Lisa Marie Basile is a NYC-based poet, editor, and writer. She’s the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine, and her work has appeared in Hello Giggles, The Establishment, The Gloss, Bustle, xoJane, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and The Huffington Post, among other sites. She is the author of Apocryphal (Noctuary Press, Uni of Buffalo) and a few chapbooks. Her work as a poet and editor have been featured in Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New York Daily News, Best American Poetry, and The Rumpus, among others. She currently works for Hearst Digital Media, where she edits for The Mix, their contributor network.
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 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 Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente