Oregon Cultural Trust

Poet Q&A: Portland’s Valerie Witte on the pleasures of collaboration, poetics of the strange, and going beyond the written page

Witte will read May 9 from her collection "A Rupture in the Interiors" during the McMinnville Public Library’s monthly Poetry Night.

|

“While my work is semi-autobiographical, one reason I like to incorporate other, often strange, elements is to resist sentimentality and avoid making poetry that’s overtly confessional,” says poet Valerie Witte. She adds, “We all grew up with poetry of some kind, and to be fair, some of it is really strange. I am thinking of Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll.”
“While my work is semi-autobiographical, one reason I like to incorporate other, often strange, elements is to resist sentimentality and avoid making poetry that’s overtly confessional,” says poet Valerie Witte. She adds, “We all grew up with poetry of some kind, and to be fair, some of it is really strange. I am thinking of Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll.”

The McMinnville Public Library consistently offers a steady supply of poetry on the “new” shelf upstairs, but that’s not the only way they go to bat for verse. On the second Thursday of each month, the library hosts Poetry Night, during which a local or regional poet reads their work, and an open mic follows.

For May, librarian and organizer Courtney Terry landed the busy poet Valerie Witte, who will read from her most recent collection, A Rupture in the Interiors, at 6 p.m. at the library. Published by Portland-based nonprofit Airlie Press, where Witte is one of six collective members, Rupture is her seventh poetry collection since 2013. 

A native of St. Louis, Witte moved to San Francisco in 2003 and for 12 years lived in the region, where she was a founding member of the Bay Area Correspondence School. She earned her MFA in writing from the University of San Francisco in 2006. She lives in Portland with her husband and edits education books.

The extent of Witte’s artistic work is made clear in a lengthy curriculum vitae on her website. The recipient of several awards and a 2015 residency in France, Witte has worked in various capacities with small press and journal publishers and her poetry has appeared in a variety of publications.

Collaborating with other artists is integral to her work. Witte’s most recent project, for example, is at midpoint: She’s been working with Sarah Rosenthal on an exploration of two postmodern dance choreographers, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. The first half appeared in 2019: The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow, published by The Operating System, is a fascinating hybrid of poetry and elements of memoir and literary analysis within an epistolary construct — an ongoing exchange between Witte and Rosenthal. That’ll be followed later this year by an essay collection by punctum books titled One Thing Follows Another: Experiments in Dance, Art, and Life Through the Lens of Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer.

“I’ve never been involved in the dance world, and the dance-related experiences I have had often tended to be negative,” she said. “But I was intrigued by the notion of addressing a topic I’d never choose myself and was interested in examining it through the lens of our contrasting relationships to the discipline — hers primarily positive and mine somewhat fraught.

“This is one of the pleasures of collaboration. It’s another way to get outside of yourself, to get away from making art that is purely focused on the self, another way to generate moments of surprise.”

Sponsor

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

The following conversation with Witte was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first encounter poetry as a reader? What do you remember about that, if anything?

Witte: Like many young readers, some of the first poetry I encountered was Edgar Allan Poe. I was more interested in his short stories. Until recently I never gave his work much thought in terms of how it might have influenced my own writing. Looking back, I can’t help but note that his work has so many elements of gothic literature, like haunted settings, exploration of the supernatural and paranormal, and so on. Those topics have found their way into my work. Maybe some of that spookiness seeped into my subconscious as my poet-self developed!

Interesting that you mention Poe, because there’s something fundamentally mysterious (i.e., spooky) about the creation of art, how ideas emerge from an imaginal space and become a physical thing — a story, a painting, a piece of music, etc. The one I always think of is Rilke, standing there in a storm coming off the sea, then he goes inside and writes the first of the Duino Elegies in one sitting. Later, he described the writing of his Sonnets to Orpheus as “taking dictation.”

The way Rilke describes writing as taking dictation reminds me of the poet Jack Spicer’s Martian poetics. In his 1965 Vancouver lecture series, Spicer described how poets are influenced by outside forces, giving the example of a train ride in which Yeats’ wife went into a trance, and Yeats began “automatic” writing with ghosts who were communicating to him via his wife. He started asking the spirits questions, like “What are you here for?” They (allegedly) replied: “We have come to bring metaphors for your poetry.”

Years ago, I took a class inspired by Spicer’s lectures, which focused on poetics of the strange. I loved it. My chapbook It’s been a long time since I’ve dreamt of someone involves a speaker communicating with an alien of sorts via radio signals — in reference to these lectures. In the world of the book, the poet is merely a transmitter of messages from beyond, a bridge between the “material” and “invisible” worlds.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

"In the Coils, [1.2]" from "Ruptures in the Interiors" by Valerie Witte
“In the Coils, [1.2]” from “Ruptures in the Interiors” by Valerie Witte

Well, you do say in A Rupture in the Interiors that it was inspired by a dream, which is a kind of invisible world. We’ll circle back to that, but first could you tell us how you got on the path to a life in the arts? How was your creativity nurtured and encouraged?

I was fortunate to be in a household where the arts were greatly appreciated and encouraged, and I had a lot of resources. I loved kindergarten because it was like one big art class. I enjoyed going to the art museum, and I thought I wanted to be an art teacher when I grew up. In terms of literary arts, I was lucky enough to have an older sister who read Little House on the Prairie books to me every night before bed, and my grandfather also read to me a lot. My father was an avid book and record collector and housed them in “the library” in our basement. I started writing stories and poems pretty much from the time I learned to read and write. My visual arts prowess and interest waned early on, but I never stopped writing.

Perhaps it’s an impossibly broad question, but in general, what do you find yourself writing about? What themes do you gravitate to?

The topics and themes have been wide-ranging. I usually start by selecting language from one or more source texts – which could be almost anything.

I’ve often been inspired by the otherworldly – science fiction or supernatural, in particular. In the first half of my book a game of correspondence, I adapted language from a surrealist Czech novel called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. I was drawn to the book because of the name, of course, and I liked the challenge of writing a modern, experimental gothic novel. The second half drew from the movie Blade Runner and an encyclopedia of ghosts and demons. Sometimes, I am simply interested in exploring the unknown.

Are there any real-world or autobiographical components?

I’ll typically weave in personal experiences. While my work is semi-autobiographical, one reason I like to incorporate other, often strange, elements is to resist sentimentality and avoid making poetry that’s overtly confessional. I want the work to be both emotionally evocative and surprising, and using different source texts helps me achieve that balance.

Sponsor

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

Aside from any individual work, there is a strangeness to poetry, isn’t there? Unlike with prose, many readers who say they don’t read poetry regard verse as a puzzle to solve, or a mystery to understand.

I don’t know that I consider poetry inherently strange. It’s a pure form of expression and one of the earliest literary forms, after all. Like any art, there’s a broad range of aesthetics, styles, and forms. We all grew up with poetry of some kind, and to be fair, some of it is really strange. I am thinking of Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll – a true master of nonsense poetry! But poetry can also be straightforward, simple, or even matter-of-fact, though that is generally not where my interest lies.

But some people do resist reading poetry. Why is that?

Because they’ve learned through school or through societal expectation that it’s essential to understand what a poem means, and if they don’t “get it,” they may feel some insecurity about that. I let go of that – the need to understand a poem’s meaning – a long time ago. I am not as concerned about what a poem means as I am about what a poem is doing.

But back to your thought about mystery. The writer Barbara Guest had an enchanting way of describing this quality, the hauntedness within or just under the surface of the poem. She wrote that every poem has something else behind it, “an elsewhere, a hiddenness” that is like a secret that lies behind the primary text. And that this secret hints at something that is not said in the poem. She suggests that the poet should leave this echo to haunt the poem and “assume its own ghost-like shape,” which is the shape of the soul as one writes.

One of your interests is merging different art forms, intersecting art and media, and working technology into readings. What would be an example of how you’ve done that with poetry?

Sponsor

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

Several years ago, I collaborated with Chicago-based artist Jennifer York for an exhibit called Quotidiaen/Elements of the Everyday: Water. She produced handmade books based on poems from my manuscript Flood Diary, which were displayed in the main gallery along with other artwork from the exhibition. In a room next to the main gallery, attendees could hear a recording I made by layering modulated vocal tracks of me reading lines from the poems, resulting in a kind of undulating aural soundscape. The idea was to create an immersive experience with this water-oriented text. 

Does your interest in doing that relate to the fact that we’ve moved from a print-based culture to a visual culture? I was just reading Dana Gioia’s essay about this, Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, and that was written two decades ago. We’ve come quite a distance since then.

It stems in part from my desire to go beyond the written page and make performances interactive, especially when doing so enhances the reader’s or listener’s understanding of the poetry. Because my work can be “difficult” and sometimes very visual, it can be helpful to show what the text looks like on the page or to bring in audio elements, such as different voices representing different “voices” in a text.

Also, my writing tends to be made up of fragments and is largely about creating a mood or experience for a reader/listener. It’s fairly easy, at least conceptually, and fun to play with these fragments in various ways – whether through layering vocals or presenting poems via a slide show, so that the audience can get a clearer sense of how the language plays both on or beyond the page.

Will you be doing anything “extra” when you bring A Rupture in the Interiors to McMinnville?

I think I am just going to read the poems for this one!

“{marginalia} batting lessons” from “Flood Diary” by Valerie Witte
“{marginalia} batting lessons” from “Flood Diary” by Valerie Witte

Rupture’s afterword states that the inspiration was a dream in which you wrote a book called Silkyard, which led to a study of texts related to silk and the “anthropology of human skin,” along with your own experiences. It looks very different from several other collections of yours. How did Rupture come together, the process of writing it?

Sponsor

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

I collected text from those sources and interwove my own text based on observations and experiences around issues with hair and skin. I decided the book would be nine chapters and picked a theme for each. I had a lot of lists of phrases and moved them around and iterated on them until I achieved interesting results. It took me around two years to complete the book, and it was a struggle.

How long does it usually take to complete a collection?

Typically, when I am focused, it takes me one to one-and-a-half years to write. This manuscript was the most grueling one I have written. At one point, in an attempt to make the process fun, I printed all the poems and put them in a pretty binder with notes on origami paper, trying to figure out how to assemble the pieces. Landing on the form was a real challenge – and critical. I think I tried five different forms before I landed on the final version, which is a centered body of text, with italicized lines representing a loose narrative of a female figure threaded throughout the book. It was kind of terrifying to center the poems, but once I did that, I knew that’s what the form needed to be.

Do you have anything in the works?

I have a manuscript called hold short bravo that was inspired by the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I wondered how it was possible to be lost in a world under constant surveillance, and I wrote into that wonder and the horror of dislocation. The book aims to deliver the experience of disorientation and trauma inherent in uncertainty.

You’ve been doing readings for a few years now. What’s the arc of it been like, regarding audiences, interest? How has your experience of poetry-in-public changed, if at all?

The pandemic changed the landscape for art events for everyone. One thing that came out of it was the emergence of virtual readings as a legitimate option. I only did one during the peak, but would like to do more. It’s a great alternative to in-person events and far more accessible in that anyone (with tech capabilities) can attend. It’s also easier to do things like screening a film or sharing a slideshow.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

I didn’t altogether miss doing events for a while – I am pretty introverted and part of me enjoyed the quiet hibernation period. I’d have been upset if I’d had a book published in 2020 and was unable to promote it, and I empathize with anyone in that situation.

My next book was published in 2023 and I’ve been able to hold events. The vibe is different now in that people feel grateful and excited to be able to get out and to commune with each other. There is still some fear and anxiety around gathering together, and I think that will be with us for a long time. But overall, there’s a sense of joy that these events are possible and an appreciation that attendees and those running venues — whether bookstores, galleries, or people’s own homes — are still supporting artists in this way.

Be part of our
growing success

Join our Stronger Together Campaign and help ensure a thriving creative community. Your support powers our mission to enhance accessibility, expand content, and unify arts groups across the region.

Together we can make a difference. Give today, knowing a donation that supports our work also benefits countless other organizations. When we are stronger, our entire cultural community is stronger.

Donate Today

Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

SHARE:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top
Salem World Beat SB FIXED #2
Astoria Open Studios Tour
Lake Oswego Festival of Arts
NW Dance Project
OCCA Monthly
Maryhill Museum of Art
PAM 12 Month
PSU College of the Arts
Oregon Cultural Trust
Oregon ArtsWatch holder
We do this work for you.

Give to our GROW FUND.