Interview with Lambda Award Winner Valerie Wetlaufer

authorphotocolorI am excited to present to the blogosphere my interview with Valerie Wetlaufer, author of Mysterious Acts by My People (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014).  This is part one of a two part interview with Valeria; the interview started on June 2. Enjoy!

DB:  Congratulations on your Lambda Literary Award win in the category of Lesbian Poetry for Mysterious Acts by My People (Sibling Rivalry Press)! How are you feeling the morning after your win?

VW: Thank you! Honestly, I’m still in shock. I had to get up at 5am to take the dog out, and I kept checking my phone, rereading the texts that alerted me to the fact that I won. Was this a dream? Did that really happen? I feel so incredibly honored. This is something I’ve wanted since I first started writing poetry, but it’s hard to believe it’s real.

DB:  Tell us about the experience of discovering your win.  Where were you? Who told you? Who was the first person you told? Spare no detail. Inquiring minds want to know. 

VW: I had just gotten to my parents house, where I was having dinner after a day spent at the dentist. I was sort of groggy and out of it. I knew someone would livetweet the Lammy’s, so I figured I’d follow along throughout the course of the night. I went to check my phone, not sure if anything would even be posted yet, as the ceremony had just begun. Before I could even open Twitter, my good friend and fellow nominee Meg Day started texting me congratulatory messages. I said sort of casually to my parents, “Oh. I won.” Still not totally believing it, I went to Twitter to find confirmation, and sure enough, people were reporting me as the winner. My parents were screaming in joy, congratulating me, pouring drinks, and I just sat there kind of stunned. I didn’t expect to win, because all the nominees are so incredibly talented. I’ve read all their books, and I didn’t envy the judges having to choose a winner from the bunch. My parents, at this point noting my stunned silence, asked me why I wasn’t happier about it, and I told them I was just in disbelief. Honestly, my mouth really hurt from the dentist, and I was feeling pretty hungry, because I hadn’t eaten lunch, being numbed up from dental surgery. Then my editor, Bryan Borland called from Little Rock, and that helped it sink in. He said a lot of very sweet, encouraging things, and I started to believe I’d really won. My best friend from college, the novelist Chandler Klang Smith phoned. “Did you just win the Lammy?” she asked, having seen a post someone made on Facebook. “Yeah, I guess I did!” She congratulated me, and recalled how I talked about someday wanting to win when I was still a baby poet in college. That made me tear up a little, because it’s true; since I started writing poetry, this was a dream of mine, but I thought it would be a long way off. My parents were especially happy for me, and I’m glad I was with them to celebrate. They’ve given me unconditional love and support, and I’m so grateful for that. Since last night, I have been blessed with so many kind words and texts, calls, tweets, likes and posts. I had to turn my phone off so I could get some sleep last night, which is a nice problem to have. I feel very somber, to be honest. For over a decade, every year, I’ve read the books of the finalists for gay and lesbian poetry. That was one of the main ways I discovered new poets to read and connect with through the pages, and I think the prominence of Lambda does help young queer kids find connection and community. To think that someone might now find my book and it might mean something to them, help them feel less alone as a lonely Midwestern rural queer kid, that is an enormous honor.

DB:  Would you share part of your journey from as you say, “baby poet,” to Valerie Wetlaufer, Lammy winner?  As in, how have you seen your work change over the years?  Who are writers whose work you’ve kept close or whose work has pushed or inspired you?  Is there a close circle of friends who serve as your rock?

VW: I think that my idea of what poetry can contain has expanded. I used to have an idea that poems all had to be about large, lofty things, but the more I’ve read, the more I realize there is room for everything, even the grotesque everyday in a poem. In 2010, I challenged myself to write a poem a day, which I’ve continued to do on and off over the years, and it welcomed those smaller details of life into my work. The monotony of trying to come up with something new each morning also led me to get weirder in my words. Many of these daily poems from 2010 are in Mysterious Acts. For about a decade, I worked on two projects concurrently. The book-length novel in verse that is my second book, to be published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2016, and the poems not in that project that were collected in my first book. I have spent so long with both of these books that I’m still figuring out what I’m writing next. I’ve been quite lucky to spend time in graduate creative writing programs where I got to work with brilliant professors and talented peers, who all introduced me to new realms of poetry I wasn’t previously familiar with. I’ll always come back to Thomas James, one of the first poets I studied deeply, and I never tire of reading Lucie Brock-Broido’s poetry. What most gets me to my desk to write, though, is the inspiring work of my peers. Rebecca Lehmann is a brilliant poet, and her work galvanizes me to create, too, which is always a mark of talent, in my opinion. Barbara Duffey has this effect on me as well. He poems are like picking up a situation and turning it around to look at it in a completely different way than I previously would have done. Throughout my writing career, I’ve had a variety of groups I worked with, especially at Bennington College and Florida State. My best writing buddy, who always encourages me, is fiction writer Chandler Klang Smith. We met at Bennington, and have remained close ever since. She’s always the first person to remind me that if I’m not happy, it’s because I’m not writing.

DBAre you able to share any details about your second collection forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press?  Title?  Topic?

VW:  Yes! The collection is entitled Call Me by My Other Name. It is basically a novel in verse about a queer couple in the Midwest in the late-19th century, based on historical documents. Two people, both assigned female at birth, lived together as husband and wife, and it was discovered when the masculine partner was arrested and jailed. This really happened. Of course labels are anachronistic, but the book explores issues of gender and sexuality and weaves the stories of Frank and Gertrude together alongside a more contemporary lyrical narrative about equal marriage rights in the US and the difficulty of marriage. I worked on it for about a decade at the same time as I was writing Mysterious Acts. It’s really the book I was focused on the most, but then it wasn’t getting picked up anywhere, and I kept working on it, kept revising it, and eventually it was accepted at SRP.

DB: I don’t want to stray too far from Mysterious Acts, but you’ve piqued my curiosity.  Can you share why the person was arrested and jailed, or will it give too much away?

VW: Not much is known, but they were arrested for stealing some money. During that time period, there was an economic depression, and I imagine things were tough to find work for two people who were read as women. I explore these issues a lot in the book.

DB:  Thank you for sharing. Denise Duhamel once said that she believes poets write from a deep wound.  In 2009, she elaborated on the comment: “But what I mean is I believe that there is some wound (early perhaps?) from which many poets write.  This is not a scientific fact by a long shot, and I believe this to be true from anecdotal experience.  Why else would we write poems?  (Many poets would disagree with me….”).  What are your thoughts on the topic?

VW: That’s a great quote. While I’ve been enormously privileged in my life, I have always felt like an outsider. There were so many ways in which I never fit in, and writing became the primary way I sought to make space for myself in the world. Books became my friends, my community. I’ve had family members ask why I can’t write happy poems, and I’d argue that I do and have written happy and even funny poems, but it is true that in many ways the best poems anyone writes are those poems that seek to express some kind of pain, particularly trauma. So I’d have to agree with Duhamel.

DB: Let’s talk about Mysterious Acts by My People.   If I may, I’d like to ask about the dedications.  Your book is dedicated to Elizabeth Huddleson, JaNeill Weseloh, and Laura Hershey.  Are you comfortable talking about the reasons behind the dedications?

VW: Sure. Liz, JaNeill, and Laura were all very important people to me at different times in my life, and they all died far too soon. Their deaths affected me profoundly and I wanted to honor them in whatever way I could. Liz was a friend from childhood who died in college from meningitis. She was one of my closest friends when I was young, and always supportive of my writing. JaNeill was a close friend of mine from college and also a writer. She committed suicide the summer after graduation. We were in a writing group together at Bennington, and when I started my MFA, her death loomed huge in my life. Laura was an incredible poet and disability rights activist I met when we were both Lambda Fellows in 2010. We kept in touch and helped one another with our writing until shortly before her death. Though I didn’t know her for long, she had a profound affect on me, and her friendship meant a great deal. Many of the poems in Mysterious Acts were revised with her guidance at Lambda. I was lucky enough to publish her work in the first issue of Adrienne, thanks to her partner Robin’s assistance.

DB:  I remember when we first met.  We don’t have to admit how many years ago that was in West Palm Beach.  I recall you raving about Mark Wunderlich.  You admired him.  If my memory serves me correct, Wunderlich was a mentor to you while in school. How did it feel when he agreed to blurb Mysterious Acts?  What was your reaction when you first read his blurb?

VW: Mark was my first poetry professor, and he has always been very supportive of my work. I was so grateful to him for taking the time to write in support of my book. It’s always illuminating to discover what other people think of your work, but especially so when it’s someone you really admire. I remember feeling very gratified that what I was aiming for came across to a poet whose own work I respect so much.

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& it’s a wrap for part one of my interview with the talented Valerie Wetlaufer. Do you have a question or two for Valerie? If so, email your questions to dustinvbrookshire@gmail.com; please include your name and city/state of residence. Your question may be answered by Valerie in part two of our interview.

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