Photos by Eian Kantor
Writer Joanna C. Valente’s work beholds the body, crafting lines like music to produce surreal, cerebral work. The founding editor-in-chief of Yes, Poetry, the managing editor of Luna Luna Mag, and a Brooklyn Poets instructor, Joanna is as much an author as a teacher. We sat down at Postmark Cafe in Park Slope to chat about Joanna’s intimate poetry, love for metal, and the undeniable wonder of Coney Island.
“Poetry really speaks not just to the political, but the personal in a way that fiction and nonfiction doesn’t,” Joanna says. Joanna, who identifies as a non-binary femme and goes by the pronoun “they,” claims an “obsession” with writing about the body, gender dynamics, sexuality, sexual assault, and abortion. “These topics are near and dear because they affect me as someone who has had an abortion and was sexually assaulted,” they tell me.
Yes, Poetry’s recently launched #MeToo writing series tackles such topics, publishing works on sexual assault, abuse, and misconduct. Joanna harnessed the hashtag’s emotive outpouring by offering a platform for writers similarly entangled with the oft-depressive and traumatic aftershocks the hashtag triggered. Two of my own poems, which are included in the series, allowed me to voice complex feelings I couldn’t articulate without the freedom poetry affords. By creating a platform that elevates unheard voices, Joanna allows writers to speak their truths unapologetically.
“In this age of political chaos and post-Trump, I’d rather have someone feel connected through language than me make five dollars of revenue on something that wouldn’t have made money to begin with,” Joanna says. Joanna’s approach to writing centers more on artistry than academia. They look at their own poetry all “at once, kind of like a film, where it’s more about the feeling.” A deliberate attention to line breaks and white space also impresses a surreal tone on their work. “I want you to really take time and also see the silences.”
Joanna is currently working on a novel called Baby Girl and Other Ghosts. Its titular protagonist grapples with sexual assault and gender identity, and these struggles manifest themselves as a ghost that haunts her. It’s not revealed whether the ghost is real or imaginary, Joanna’s method of expressing how traumas manifest physically or mentally in one’s life.
Joanna’s work evokes identity questions that link to the notion of performance: who is performing, how are they performing, and why? When Joanna lived in Greenpoint, they bemoaned the feeling that they had to somewhat “perform” or appear a certain way as part of a “cool neighborhood.” Though they still visit Greenpoint to stop at Saint Vitus, they’ve lived in Sunset Park for the past four years, both for the sense of neighborhood and a sense of nostalgia. “I need to be in the same borough that Coney Island exists,” Joanna says. “It just feels like home.”