A Writer’s Insight: Anne Valente

Anne Valente’s story “Who We Were” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review. “Who We Were” is an adapted excerpt of Valente’s debut novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins (October 4). Hear Valente read from “Who We Were” in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story and novel below.

 “Who We Were” is a harrowing story about a terribly tragic event, a school shooting. Out of that context, however, I’d argue that the story’s structure and language are remarkably playful: the first person plural narrator, the multiple tense changes (past, conditional, future), the frequent use of repetition and lists. How do these craft choices relate to, interrogate, or reflect the larger themes of the story? Why have so much narrative play in such a heavy story?

In general, I’m a writer who enjoys narrative play—I love repetition and listing, and any other mode that experiments with linear storytelling. But beneath the surface of structure, I also contended with what narrative mode would best tell this particular story. So much of this story—and so much of the novel—is about memory, and how each character attempts to reckon with this tragedy. Neither memory nor grief are linear: both double back, both take loops and turns, both obsess and repeat, and both follow maddening paths that are anything but straightforward. To best reflect the process of grieving and memory, I chose a structure that mirrored the ways our brains attempt to make sense and move on.

One of the more astonishing aspects of this story, to me, is how expertly the narration guides the reader through the school. We also shift between the points of view of Lewis and Clark’s yearbook staff members: Christina, Zola, Matt, and Nick; and there are shifts in time, toggling between scenes before, during, and after the shooting. This creates a chorus-like effect, further underlined by the use of the “we.” Could you talk about why you chose to write from this point of view, and how it might influence the telling of this kind of trauma?

Much in the same way that memory circulates in nonlinear ways around trauma, I think that point of view is also so difficult to pinpoint around a tragedy like this. One of my leading questions while writing this was: Whose story is this? I think we’re accustomed to stories of tragedy belonging to the media and news, and it’s one of the only ways we access information about mass violence. Broadcasts bring such authoritative voices, and I didn’t want a singular voice to own this narrative. The news is only one voice, and I imagined whether trauma like this belongs to everyone, or to each individual who experienced it, or to some gray space in between. I wondered if this kind of tragedy would bring a community together—a township, a high school, an entire city—while also splintering the collective apart, since no one experiences grief in the same way. By shifting the points of view between the collective and the individual, I wanted to explore the ways in which trauma is communal but also singular.

Unfortunately, school shootings like the one featured in “Who We Were” are all too common. How did current events and politics influence you while writing this story? Moreover, why set it in 2003, rather than, say, 2013 or 2016?

I began writing this in early 2013, just after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’d been a junior in high school at the time of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and a college instructor at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I couldn’t believe in 2013 that as a nation we still hadn’t found a way to prevent mass tragedies like these from happening. Though gun violence occurs every day in America, something about mass shootings—maybe because they are almost always carried out by men—suggested to me a fixation on power and a perceived threat to that power. Though this isn’t explicitly explored in “Who We Were,” I set the book at the time of George W. Bush’s presidency and the search for weapons of mass destruction. The audacity of that search, as well as its need for power and answers when there weren’t any, felt like the right backdrop for a community seeking answers where grief so often provides so few. I also wanted to set this at a time when we as a nation hadn’t yet grown numb to so many incidents of mass violence.

“Who We Were” is being published in 2016, a year that feels marked by an excess of gun violence. These incidents, as well as so many that occurred after I finished writing the book in 2014, have further saddened me about the state of violence in this country—mass shootings, including those in Charleston and Orlando, but also police brutality in Ferguson and Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and so many other cities in America. I don’t know what to say about so much violence, other than that I hope we continue to stay vigilant to not grow numb, and to continue speaking out and fighting against brutality, gun violence, and excessive force.

This story is the first chapter of your forthcoming novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Why or how is “Who We Were” a beginning, structurally, tonally, or otherwise?

I think “Who We Were” sets a tone of interrogation of memory; that in the wake of trauma building an archive is not only an objective but also an impossible task. For the yearbook staff members, the project of building a book after this kind of tragedy is both a diversion and a compulsion—a project that helps organize and funnel their grief, but a project that is essentially intolerable because of the material it forces them to engage with. I also wanted to begin with an account of the shooting so that the novel explores the aftermath—what we so often never see after television cameras and newscasters move away. Our media tends to focus on shooter and motive, and not as readily on how a community does or does not move on. “Who We Were” addresses the shooting immediately, but through the prism of four points of view, so a new narrative can unfold considering how these points of view process grief.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is also your debut novel. Congratulations! You’ve published dozens of short stories, including two collections. How did your process change while writing a novel? Did it change? What advice would you give to someone shifting from short stories to their first novel?

Thank you! I did write only short stories when I first began writing, and I still write short stories now. To write a novel, I extended what I knew of short stories to a much longer form—that there still needed to be conflict, rising action, everything that a short story required, but outlined across multiple chapters. My process didn’t necessarily change, though I’d say that writing a novel required far more mapping of events, of timeline, and of the background of 2003. I built a big visual map above my desk to keep me on task. It also required more devoted time to stay within the world of the narrative, so I made time to write every single day.

For someone shifting from short stories to a first novel, I’d definitely suggest creating concentrated time each day so that the world of the novel stays fresh and immediate. In terms of more abstract advice, however, what was most helpful for me was to hear that a novel can be an enormous umbrella for many ideas. Whereas so many of my short stories tackle a single narrative across fifteen to twenty pages, I’ve found that a novel can contain even the kitchen sink. Part of the fun of the novel was drawing connections between fragments of ideas I’d kept but not known where to place: gun violence, but also astronomy, swimming, memory, cicadas. I found ways of exploring these ideas through character development and setting within the novel. Constellating ideas together is a big part of my process, and the novel provided a bigger playground for drawing connections between different strands of thought than short stories.

 

Anne Valente is the author of Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins, and the story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. Her stories and essays have appeared in One Story, Ninth Letter, and the Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.

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A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Alison Pelegrin

Alison Pelegrin’s poem “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogue Falaya” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review; her essay “Waterlines” was published in The Southern Review’s summer 2015 issue on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Waterlines is also the title of her new collection, published by LSU Press this month. This interview was conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer. Conducted prior to the August 2016 flooding in Baton Rouge, the interview speaks volumes about the power of poetry in times of crises.

 

1). In your nonfiction piece “Waterlines,” you describe “Poem Folded into a Boat and Offered to the Bogue Falaya” as a prayer. Can you speak more on this?

 

I had been writing poems nonstop for a while, and then one morning I sat down with my notebook and nothing happened. Even though the creative cycle of flood and drought is a familiar concept, the actual shift from inspired to shriveled up is always a surprise. I wanted to write, was ready to write—and I had nothing but a blank page and a question. Oh my God—what comes next? Then the title came to me. I stared at it for a while and tried to remember how to make a paper boat. Then the words came in a flash and I wrote them down.

After church we did offer my poem to the Bogue Falaya. For the rest of the summer I was flooded with ideas for these origami poems that the kids would help me hide in secret places. It was kind of like vandalism, only biodegradable, and also invisible, because no matter where we put the poems, no one ever noticed. There are stories of the ancient Chinese poet Li Po writing poems and then floating them down the river, and I like feeling like a member of his tribe. Unlike Li Po, I kept copies of my poems, and many of them appear in Waterlines.

But to get back to your question, all poetry is prayer, isn’t it? You put the words out there—whether praise, or curse, or lament—and you are changed by the act of having uttered them. Communion with the world, the art of attention is a type of prayer, and I mean this in the biggest sense possible, across nationalities, languages, and faiths. Isn’t this what Dickinson meant when she wrote, “The Sailor cannot see the North—but knows the Needle can”? Isn’t this why she kept on writing, with no readers, no books, no witness to her genius?

 

2). There appears to be a relationship between the flow of words and the momentum of water in the poem. Is there a sort of communion happening between the voice of the poem and the river?

 

There is probably a communion happening between the poem and the river, but not just the Bogue Falaya. In South Louisiana, water, rivers, lakes, creeks, muddy ditches not to mention the excitement and destruction of hurricanes and floods surround me. Water is a natural marker in my life, so I guess it makes sense that it saturates so many poems.

The title of my current collection with LSU Press is Waterlines, and this is also the title of an essay I recently published with The Southern Review. It operates on so many levels. I am thinking of the inscription on John Keats’s tombstone: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” I also think of the flood lines I have seen in my life—sometimes a flood line is a tangle of debris caught in a chain link fence, or marooned fish drying out on the sidewalk, or a coating of mud on the azalea bushes. After Katrina, many of the houses in New Orleans, my brother’s included, had multiple waterlines. His house wore waterlines like tea stains from eight feet high all the way down to the stoop.

The event of the hurricane or flood is itself a type of marker—you are always measuring yourself against it, the same way your mom might chart your growth on the back of a door. After Katrina, the door at my mother’s house with notches for me, my brother, and my children was thrown out. So now it feels like waterlines are the only thing left to demarcate my life.

 

3). In “Waterlines,” you discussed your inability to write poetry immediately following Katrina. Since then, you have published two collections. What did this lapse in writing teach you about the creative process?

 

Writing was impossible after Katrina because my life became more about survival than anything else. I will never be able to explain the extent to which my life descended into chaos, or how Katrina tore me up, tore up my beloveds. Even after we got back into our house, I felt lost because so many trees were gone that the light changed, and even familiar places were strange.

Though so many people shared my experience, and though so many were far more devastated, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed to stand in line for food and water, embarrassed to pay with an EBT card (food stamps), embarrassed to have my house smashed open to the street and my possessions in a molded mound on the curb. People would slow down in their cars and stare. Most of all I was embarrassed by how I simply fell apart. I failed miserably at holding things together. So no, I didn’t see any poetry in my situation.

I wasn’t able to write about the storm until I found humor in it. This happened when I was making a catch list for the world’s worst contractors. I had the most ridiculous list of things for these guys to finish, and I wondered how we were stupid enough to give them a final payment. About two pages into the list I realized that the contractors would not be coming back. I was making a list of things that we would be finishing. I had to laugh about it because if not I would have had a heart attack from the stress and my unhealthy lifestyle at the time.

This lapse in writing taught me that the words will come, but never when you expect it. In my case, the words came after a fevered dream on an air mattress. I still have that notebook—there are pages and pages of insurance adjustors and contractors and estimates, and then out of nowhere is “Big Muddy River of Stars.” In my despair over my losses, I had forgotten that the words always come back.

 

4). Tell us about the current creative writing community in South Louisiana. Do writers still feel the compulsion to write “poetry of witness”? How have writers continued to collaborate with one another eleven years after Katrina?

 

I can’t speak for other writers, but I think my earlier Katrina poems were a reaction rather than the act of witness. In the immediate aftermath, any poetry I created was done so as a sort of self-defense in response to the fact that everybody seemed to be churning out Katrina poems except the people who had experienced it and who, like myself, were silent because they were putting their lives back together.

Katrina is a marker—everything is either before or after. I have finally relaxed a bit—on the ninth anniversary of the storm, I forgot about August 29 and only remembered the anniversary on August 30. But no matter how much time passes, to a certain extent Katrina gets blamed for everything that is lost. For my mother, it was Hurricane Betsy (1965), and for my grandmother, Hurricane Camille (1969). I have a poem about that, by the way, published in The Southern Review!

 

Alison Pelegrin is the author of four poetry collections, including Waterlines from LSU Press. She has received creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Division of the Arts. Her work has appeared recently in The Cincinnati Review and Crab Orchard Review.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.


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Thank You, Thank You. Humbly, The Summer Intern

Dear The Southern Review & LSU Press,

Sometimes, falling asleep at the student desk logging acceptances and rejections in and out of the system or reading chapters 8.75 or 26.9 or 110,456.5 of The Chicago Manual of Style, I felt as though my last week would never arrive. I hate commas. I don’t want to send rejection letters; they make me so sad. I have six paper cuts from all the press releases I just stuffed into all these envelopes.

I was the ungrateful intern in those moments. The nervous rookie, still adjusting. Now, today, I am the melancholy intern, who wishes to rewind and replay the summer and relish those learning moments. But I cannot, so instead I offer my gratitude. Worth little, but genuine all the same.

Thank you, everyone, for visiting my little desk on that first day. You asked my name; you complimented my homemade lunch; you helped me navigate the submissions manager, e-mail, and piles of mail; you gave me your own parking pass so I wouldn’t get ticketed; you agreed with me that the copy machine was a complete piece of junk even though we both knew that was untrue and that I just did not know how to operate it correctly and was embarrassed and trying to save face.

Thank you for always ensuring productivity. I always felt useful, I always felt needed, I always felt like I had mentors who wanted to teach me, and, I promise you, I always want(ed) to learn.

Thank you to all my hardworking coworkers I only met once, or spoke with infrequently (like when I needed a set of keys or broke the copy machine for the seventh time that day)—thank you for your kindness. I understand how important you are and I hope to have coworkers as friendly and talented in the future.

Thank you, TSR and LSUP, for trusting me enough to contact poets and authors, many of whom are my heroes, my creative idols; thank you for not laughing at me when I geeked out that Charles Simic (!) had sent a piece of mail or Tom Sleigh (!) reached out via e-mail and I realized I had the distinct honor of responding. Thank you for trusting me with manuscripts, proposals, and editing projects. Even though my professional opinion is worth almost exactly two cents, thank you for allowing me to participate in acquisitions decisions.

Thank you for showing me that any person at any time (within the posted submission period!) can send in a poem, proposal, or nine hundred page manuscript and all submissions are read and considered equally. This gives me faith in the system and reminds me that literary meritocracy is alive in this beautiful corner of the world.

Thank you for showing me that I can be a woman and an editor of an internationally renowned literary journal, a woman and the publisher of a major academic press. Thank you for showing me that I can be a woman who works with other women without feeling threatened or the need to compete. Thank you for showing me that I can be a woman who works with men in a male- dominated field without compromising my ability or my intelligence to succeed or belong.

Thank you for confirming that the devil really is in the details. The size of the dash always matters! There are two different types of single quotation marks and they have dramatically different meanings! We must check and double-check the spelling of every noun, verb, and adjective we think we know how to spell because we cannot trust ourselves, and we certainly cannot trust writers!

Thank you for demonstrating the profound creative capacity and literary tradition of the South—I am filled with pride when I tell people that I work for The Southern Review and LSU Press. That is how Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks wanted us to feel, I think, from the coeditors all the way down to the summer intern. Your pride in your work, your endless dedication to craft, your tireless enthusiasm for language has impressed itself upon me, it invigorates me, and validates my desire to work in editing and publishing and to continue my own creative work.

Thank you for editing this letter before it appears on the website, because I am grammatically, syntactically imperfect and have not memorized the house style guide (yet).

Thank you, a thousand times thank you,
Matty Carville
Summer Intern, Enemy of Copy Machine 4106


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August 2016 Newsletter

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The Storm Isn’t in the Gulf: Jessica’s Blog for the Summer Issue

A lot has happened regarding devastating clashes between law enforcement and the general citizenry here in Baton Rouge and across the United States in the past week, and it continues. Many people have spoken their opinions in person, in writing, on social media, and so forth. I don’t have anything to add, no brilliant insight or proposed solution. I just see a lot of people in pain and that pain manifesting itself in various, individual ways: frustration, sadness, anger, compassion, lack of compassion, judgment, self-righteousness.

A few days ago I told our publisher I didn’t want to write this blog. I was dreading it. I didn’t know how my usual banter that leads into my talking about the new issue of the journal could work at such a sad time. All weekend I was thinking of how much pain and anger and frustration and sadness was around me, and even my daughter’s usual adorable antics—a common theme in my blog—couldn’t set it right. Two weeks ago, before any of the events of Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, or Dallas unfolded, I read a poem by Maggie Smith, a contributor to The Southern Review. Like a lot of you reading this blog, I wake up to a daily dose of beauty sent to my e-mail from the Poetry Foundation. Her poem “Good Bones,” is a seventeen-line powerhouse. In it she talks about protecting her children from the world which “is at least half terrible.” But she’s attempting to sell the world to her kids, like “any decent realtor” would, by trying to convince them, the reader, and herself that the world has “good bones” and that, with the right touch, “You could make this place beautiful.” I shared it two weeks ago on Facebook, and for the past week, especially, that’s what I’ve seen on Facebook and in the news: that the world continues to be at least half terrible. I told my good friend last night that I’m shutting off social media for now because I can’t take everyone’s feed. But before I do, I am going to give you something beautiful, not terrible, to read.

And here’s where I remind you that we have a new issue out, and it’s gorgeous from cover to cover. Internationally celebrated artist and recipient of the U. S. Department of State’s Medal of Arts award Kehinde Wiley provides images of his vibrant paintings for our summer issue. His aesthetic simultaneously prompts an emotional and intellectual response by using the traditions of portrait painting to show young black men and women in positions of power. You can view Wiley’s paintings and read about him here. You can read his statement about his work in the issue.

In addition to Wiley’s lush, provocative paintings, the new issue includes much wonderful writing, of course. The issue opens with “Letter to Summer, from the Other Side,” from Louisiana Poet Laureate Peter Cooley, a poem he says is inspired by his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, and that he reads in our audio gallery, which includes a dozen contributors this season. I’m happy to share poems on the more unexpected topics of gastronomic challenges from Mary Jo Firth Gillett (“Strange Appetites”) and Christine Rhein (“‘Woman Fries and Eats Pet Goldfish After Fight With Husband’”) and professional wrestling from Carrie Shipers (“Poem Ending When My Match Is Cut Because the Show Is Running Over”). And, as always, I love David St. John’s verse. His “Emanations” is a sprawling, vivid journey along the California coast and around the area known as Jeffers Country, named after the poet Robinson Jeffers who lived there. At one point, about two-thirds of the way through the poem, the speaker says, “Today we walked down to Henry Miller’s library to steal Wi-Fi / & sit with an espresso // —as news of the world came a hawk overhead dipped one wing // So I turned off my phone & opened The Air-Conditioned Nightmare // & that’s all the irony anyone should share.” I like that irony and the notion of shutting off the news of the world to steep oneself in literature.

I’m posting this blog on the Internet and on Facebook, and then I’m shutting it down, for a while at least. When I get back home to New Orleans, I’m going to take the summer issue of the journal to the pool with my daughter, Saoirse (whose name means “freedom,” for another dose of irony), and sink myself into the pages of the new issue, rereading Richard V. McGehee’s translation of Eduardo Sacheri’s charming story about flirtation and soccer, “A Smile Exactly like That,” and Josip Novakovich’s “Vignettes”—humorous short essays about a love of wine and drinking. Maybe it’s an escape from the reality of the day, but it is still a reality that is worthy. One way to help make the world a beautiful place is to offer it beautiful things.

The summer issue is now available for purchase online or from your favorite bookstore.

 

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