A Virtual Interview with Valentine Pierce

Valentine Pierce will be the featured reader Thursday, August 11, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

“This is not the quiet tap of civilized literature; this is the loud, raw truth of life.” Valentine Pierce, author of Geometry of the Heart, comes to BookWoman from New Orleans to perform her poetry. Pierce is a spoken word artist, graphic designer and artisan. She has performed in a variety of events from poetry to plays to one-woman shows. She has produced shows with musicians, poets, dancers, drummers and lyricists. Hailing from has performed and been published throughout the U.S.

Pierce’s poetry has been developed into visual art display (“The Geometry of Life”) and choreographed by the Newcomb College for Women dance department for the inauguration of Tulane University’s president (“Rivers of My Soul”). Guaranteed to  be a memorable evening.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer?

VP: I think I was drawn to writing because I was drawn to books. My mother had some interesting books like Amazing Facts, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and even a huge two-volume unabridged dictionary that I combed through. In fact, at one point dictionaries and thesauruses were my favorite books.

I actually thought of myself as a writer in high school. Wanted to be like Maya Angelou, presenting my poetry to the world.

CH: Your background includes journalism, spoken word, and performance. How do you identify as a writer? How was that identity forged?

VP: Writing has been the one constant in my life. My mother even bought me a typewriter for my 12th Christmas. She used to love to tell people my poem was published in the school bulletin when I was in second grade. She even carved one of my poems into a leather purse. I think it was my love of books, love of words that kept me writing. I had other dreams, such as being a fashion designer but writing was and is a spontaneous act for me.

CH: I know you’ve long been associated with New Orleans, but that you spent a few years in California. How did your experience in California shape your writing?

Actually, I was born and raised in New Orleans and always come back to it. Don’t ask me why. This is a troubled city but it is also a wonderful city. As for California, my formative years as a journalist were in the Marine Corps. I lived for feature stories, stories about people. It fed my spirit. I have been back and forth between California and New Orleans several times in my life. When New Orleans got too much  for me, I’d leave. I went to California because I had friends there.

CH: I understand you returned to New Orleans from California in 2004—just a year before Katrina. How was your writing life changed by the storm? What kind of influence has it had in your work?

VP: Oh goodness, Katrina was such a disaster not only to the physical place of New Orleans but to the emotional place. I freelanced as a journalist from 2004-2005. I was hired as a graphic designer for a small newspaper January 2005. (Graphic design was also something I have always done even though as a child I didn’t have a name for it. It is my second great vocation.) Katrina gave us the boot in August and at the time, I was actually pleased to see long lines at gas stations. I felt people were taking it seriously. I knew that as long as the people survived, the city, our culture would survive. I had just started working on a novel (all writers have that secret desire, right?). I never finished that novel but I hand-wrote 12 notebooks about Katrina. Today I still feel and see the damage it did. Even now my writing is angry. Every thought leads to anger because of what happened here. Soldiers locked and loaded on homeless, starving, dying Americans. I wrote a play (it won a community college contest — amazingly), prose, poetry, an entire book.

CH: How did your residency at A Studio in the Woods come about? What was the effect of the residency on your work?

VP: It was my friends who got me to apply for A Studio in the Woods. I was in Phoenix but I was still connected to home via email. In my mind, I didn’t see that I qualified. New Orleans is filled with fantastic writers in every crack of the sidewalks. Plus, I was in Phoenix, living with friends. Finally, after several prompts I applied. How the staff caught up with me is still a wonder because I changed phones, changed phone numbers. My internet reception was a challenge. They contacted me on their last attempt before moving to the next person.

As for the effect on my work, ASITW did more than affect my work. It affected my spirit. I was so crushed by Katrina. Two weeks before it hit, I had been to a meeting of Alternate Roots, an artist collective. I had performed, connected with a director for my plays, was tethered to a fast-moving chain of people pulling me into my own future. Then, Katrina hit. I spent the next 18 months deeply depressed. Some salvation came when Mona Lisa Saloy published her book of poems, Red Beans and Ricely Yours, which I read in one sitting. Beyond that, I felt hopeless. Then came the residency. Being a city dweller I didn’t know how I would do in the woods but I loved it. I did nothing all day but write. It was the only time in my life when all I had to do was what I loved most. I was home; I was safe; I was well-fed and well taken care of. I was rejuvenated. It was called the Restoration Residency and I have to say, I was restored. I began to be alive again.

CH: As a performance poet who’s also taught writing and has a book in print, you inhabit both the world of the “stage poet” and the “page poet.” How do you navigate those different worlds? What difficulties and opportunities have presented themselves as a member of both communities?

VP: Truthfully, I never even knew there was a difference until my book was in the process of being published. Poems went from the page to the stage with ease for me, although, in 1991 I attended a writer’s conference and the editor that reviewed my poetry didn’t get it at all. We were required also to read our work and that when she and everyone else got it. I still didn’t know the difference. I thought all poetry translated from page to stage. I guess because I don’t write for either one, I don’t see the difference. However, when other people read my work, it sounds different to me. People even get different meanings from it, surprisingly.

I just write. And if I decide it’s ready for the public or think people need to hear it, I present it. I find poetry a writing a great tool for saying “we all feel the same thing; we are all humans and have failings and wonders surrounding us.”

CH: It’s quite an honor to have your work chosen to honor the inauguration of a university president. How was your poem, “Rivers of My Soul,” chosen for the inauguration of the president Tulane University? Were you involved with the Newcomb College for Women dance department in the choreographing of the poem? What was that process like?

VP: I actually had no say in it. The director of the department somehow came across my work and included it. At the time, I was making that last cross-country trip to California after a failed marriage that led to a failed business. Naturally, with everything failing, my phone was out. I had a pager. Email was still new. One of the other artists finally caught up with me and told me about it. They wanted to make sure I was okay with it. I was. I didn’t get to see the inauguration because I was in Cali by then but came home for an exhibit at Delgado and got to see the rehearsal.

CH: How did you select the poems that are part of Geometry of the Heart? How did you find a publisher for the work?

VP: The publisher asked me. John Travis of Portals Press inherited the business from his father and regularly publishes local writers. The first weekend I was home to stay after Katrina I went to the Maple Leaf poetry series (which is the first place I ever did open mic). John is a regular there. He said, “It’s time; you’ve paid your dues.” As for selecting poems, I submitted them to him and he kept asking for more. He did reject a few but for the most part, the poems in the book are the poems I wanted in the book.

CH: Looking back on a writing career that continues to bloom, what advice would you offer your younger self? 

VP: I would tell me to find more writers but to not be wooed by the collective voice of what is and isn’t good. I would be part of diverse writing groups. I would also tell me to keep submitting despite rejections and doubts.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

You really don’t want the list of my favorite poets because I read everything imaginable: Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Khalil Gibran, Pablo Neruda, Alice Walker, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Robert Hayden, local poets from cities I lived in or near like Lee Grue, Asia Rainey, Niyi Osundare, Marcus Page, Geronimo, Chancellor Skidmore, Jerry Ward, Gina Ferrara, Quess, Shacondria Sibley, Jessica Mashael Bordelon, Eliza Shefler, John Sinclair.… . And anthologies. I love anthologies. My collection is vast and diverse. I’ve had to temper my love for poetry because of my budget. I even barter for books.

These days, most of my poetry comes from emails, Facebook, the internet and open mic. I am really into local artists and often they email me either their work or the works of poets they’ve come across online.

Well, I know this may be more than you wanted but more is better, right, because you can take what you need/want and discard the rest. Hopefully, it gives you a sense of who I am without being overwhelming.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to present my work at Bookwoman.

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