Interview with Poet & Teacher, Valerie Fox
SOUND:POETREE:: Hi Valerie! Thanks for agreeing to an interview, and thank you for submitting your work to the Spring issue of SOUND:POETREE::.
Valerie Fox: You’re welcome. I am thrilled to be in SOUND:POETREE::
SOUND:POETREE:: And, I’m thrilled to have you!
To jump right in, my first question has to do with your collaboration with Arlene Ang. How did you two meet and decide to work together? And, what was the process of collaboration like for you two? The poem featured in SOUND:POETREE::, “An Imitation of Playing on Horns,” has a singular-sounding voice to me; I never would have guessed that there was more than one author. How did you achieve that effect?
Valerie Fox: Arlene Ang is based in Italy, but we met when she contributed poetry to a magazine I was involved with at Drexel (Drexel Online Journal). Around 2005, Arlene helped me out of a slump by inviting me to join her daily writing group. This daily writing group became an important part of my writing life for quite some time. We started helping each other finish and edit work, and the next natural step was to actually collaborate.
Usually we write in what Arlene calls ping-pong style. We vary whether or not we are adding a few lines or many lines or paragraphs or even pages of work. (We wrote the draft of a novel together once.) We often trade words or images or ideas, along the way. Other processes grow out of this, and sometimes we are working on numerous works simultaneously.
The goal is to always do something in the collaboration that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do alone. Vulnerability comes up in this work. I think we can pull it off (without it being overdone) in our collaborative mode.
Even if we use two or more voices or perspectives as an organizing principle, we are always editing each other right up until we consider the work “ready for prime time.” Also, just as individual style matures over time, our joint voice has evolved. “An Imitation of Playing on Horns” went through many versions; it didn’t happen fast.
SOUND:POETREE:: Yeah, I bet. Can you talk a little bit more about what it means for you to collaborate with another artist? I mean, how does it change the work or your process or your thinking about poetry/art/life in general? Why is collaboration important to you?
Valerie Fox: I think collaborating makes me bolder. And it is great to have someone to bounce ideas off. The other person as the first reader or reactor is there to give generative feedback from a positive place. Having that kind of response keeps me from over-editing in the early stages. Recently I have been collaborating with artist, Jacklynn Niemiec. Her process is very intuitive, yet she is technically incredibly talented and meticulous. Perhaps there are some similarities already in our processes, but just as importantly, we are open to trying out new processes based on what the other suggests.
Jackie and I both have an interest in art-books/hand-made books too. As with the writing collaborations, there has to be respect and trust, but also the willingness to collaborate closely, to really be in the process together.
The first time Jackie and I met to really discuss a specific collaboration (Jackie’s Variable Space concept), we found out that we both admired Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, very much. So that was an auspicious start!
In terms of life, even—that’s a good question. I guess collaboration is always different, always new. It’s both challenging and familiar. I guess that’s my way of being social as well as my way of being a writer. Just building on and noting the intersections between arts has always been a fascination of mine, so collaborating is a way of doing that. I was completely thrilled and thankful when you paired Kinds of Dramming with the sound of Jerod Sommerfeldt. The pairing, for me, was very deep and apt. Jerod’s sound piece really inhabits that poem, for me, in a beautiful way.
SOUND:POETREE:: I can definitely relate when you say that collaboration is a way of being social for you. I find that I lean more toward introversion, so it sometimes feels easier to connect with others when we’re working on something together. Also, I’m glad to hear that you are happy with the pairing. I know I’m taking a risk when I make choices like that, so it’s nice when it works out.
I really liked your visual poems Kinds of Dramming and If You Dream About, and it seems like drawing/visual art is an important part of your practice as a poet. Even in your poem, “Insomnia,” the speaker mentions Salvador Dalí. Can you talk a little bit about how visual art informs your work? Do you maintain a regular drawing practice as well? Are you a big fan of the surrealists?
Valerie Fox: I draw more than I used to but not every day. I am working on that. But I have always liked that idea of the page as “field” (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov etc.) and using the words to make a picture (think, Apollinaire). I do return to the surrealists, also—they seem to stay fresh for me. They get me to think without their work seeming too “thinky,” if you know what I mean. So when reading before writing, I do return to them, amongst others.
SOUND:POETREE:: Yes, I feel like I do know what you mean about the surrealists, though I can’t articulate it any better than you have. On a related note, another theme I noticed in your work is dreaming. Dreams come up everywhere. Do you record your dreams? How do your dreams inspire you?
Valerie Fox: Kinds of Dramming and If You Dream About involve drawing in response to Jackie’s suggestions in a class we taught together. But I’m applying the hand-writing/drawing to a manuscript I have that is a faux dream interpretation book. At some point, though people seemed to like these poems, I decided they were unreadable or unpublishable. In retrospect, maybe I just didn’t want to share them. I like reading them and using them as sources for poems. Sometimes I just use a phrase or word to start a poem—or other times I create a visual poem. I am trying to make sketches and “treated” works using pages from the manuscript. The visual poems in SOUND:POETREE:: are this kind of work.
SOUND:POETREE:: That’s amazing that you’re creating a faux dream interpretation book! What a great idea. I’ve always been fascinated with the dream world myself. Tell me more.
Valerie Fox: Some images in the poems come from dreams I have had. And some come from other sources (dreams of characters in books, images that could come from any number of places). I used to ask my daughter when she was little about her dreams. That was interesting. As a consequence of this faux Dream Book, dreams and sleep keep coming up when I am writing.
There’s the interpretive side to it (using a dream image as some kind of guide). Minimally, dreams highlight something we are concerned about, right? And that often is a good place to start a poem. There’s something there that a reader connects to (since we all have a dream-life).
For me there is a connection between the meta and the dream-like, also. I got to thinking about this recently again after I saw a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve been trying to write off of that. I especially love the climactic play-within-a-play part. I get very caught up in that part (just like the spectator characters do).
I am trying to put these dream-related works together. And then I hope to find another angle, or perhaps I should say obsession.
SOUND:POETREE:: Ha! Obsession certainly sounds closer to the truth for me! Finally, I know that you teach writing at Drexel University. Can you talk a little about what that’s like for you? How do you manage to balance your teaching duties with your artistic pursuits? And, do you think Philadelphia is a good place to be a poet? Are there local resources for poets that you’d like us to know about?
Valerie Fox: Philadelphia has a huge writing and art community and so many resources (independent bookshops, reading series, and so on). This is the summer I hope to attend some workshops and spend some time at Philly Soap Box, learning about bookmaking and zines in the Philly Soap Box library.
Overall, I appreciate that my job allows me some time off in the summer. Without that I’d get a lot less done. As for balance, well, that can be hard. Deadlines help me a lot, though. So I always try to have a few (but not too many) on the horizon. I try to put time into working toward both short and long term goals. It keeps me from waking up the day after the academic year ends and thinking, “oh no, where do I begin?”
SOUND:POETREE:: Thanks again, Valerie! It's really been a pleasure catching up with you.