Pat Valdata is the author of a poetry book, Inherent Vice (2011), and a chapbook, Looking for Bivalve (2002), both published by Pecan Grove Press. Pat’s poetry has appeared most recently in Passagerand the anthology Challenges for the Delusional (Jane Street Press, 2012). She has also written two novels, Crosswind (Wind Canyon Books, 1998) and the award-winning The Other Sister(Plain View Press, 2008). Her books are available online at www.cloudstreetcomm.com/books.htm
Pat lives in Elkton, Maryland, with her husband, Bob Schreiber. She has an MFA from Goddard College and is an avid birder and sailplane pilot.
Jan: Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk about your work. Congratulations! Your recent poem, “Grim Reaper” won honorable mention in the Passager Poetry Contest and was published in the latest issue. What inspired you to write this particular poem?
Pat: “Grim Reaper,” like many of my published poems, started at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, a writing workshop run by Peter Murphy that I have attended for many years. Peter gives very quirky writing prompts, and then we have only about 90 minutes to come up with a draft to be workshopped later that day. So I was sitting in my motel room in Cape May, with a view mostly of the parking lot, eating chocolate and trying to figure out how to write a poem that included a pledge, which the prompt required, along with images and words from several postcards. I had a very sick dog at home and knew that we were going to have to put her down soon after I got home, and that got me thinking more generally about loss and death. One of the postcards had a picture of Johnny Appleseed on it, so that gave me my opening, and off I went.
Jan: Tell us about your process for writing poems, like “Grim Reaper” or “Inherent Vice”? How do you begin and when do you know that it is finished?
Pat: Well, when I am not at the Getaway or writing to a prompt from our local poetry group, Lunchlines, I tend to begin with an image. It can be anything—a nuthatch, a roadside statue, beech leaves in October. Something just strikes me and I start to work with it. “Inherent Vice” came out of a trip to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. There was an exhibit called Inherent Vice, which is an art term that describes the tendency of some material to deteriorate because there’s something in the material itself that makes it happen. Some artists deliberately use materials they know will degrade over time, and some use materials not knowing this will occur, like the sculpture whose photo is on the cover of my book.
My process is that most often I start with a handwritten draft, and I’ll revise as I type it and start to see what form it needs to take. Often I’ll put a poem away for weeks, months, sometimes longer, because I think it’s important to put some distance between me and the poem for a while. Then I can look at it with fresh eyes, and often see potential revisions that I didn’t notice before. It’s hard for me to know when poem is finished. I can tinker with a poem for a long time before I am more-or-less happy with it, and I have had a few poems that I revised quite a bit after they were already published.
Jan: Your poem, “Inherent Vice” (Can we include it here?) talks about how everything breaks down, the world falls apart and yet, “decay is deliberate…” And yet all is not lost, is it? Is there a remaining ray of hope, and what do you think leaves us hopeful in the face of such “inherent vice” that we can “see it in the mirror?”
“Inherent vice: The quality of a material or an object to self-destruct
or to be unusually difficult to maintain.
“Conservation Resources for Art and Antiques,”
Washington Conservation Guild
It all degrades: paint
fades, varnish cracks,
canvas mildews and frays.
Clouds dissipate, leaves
turn brown and fall.
The bookbinding rots,
The Ice Man melts.
Even petrified wood:
where did the cellulose go?
Decay is deliberate,
like Navajo sand painting,
words scribed in chalk
on a rainy sidewalk,
swans sculpted from ice.
No matter. We are all
design: inherent vice.
See it in the museum.
See it in your mirror.
Pat: I think what we see in that mirror is our own inherent vice—how we age over time. Our bodies are designed to go kaput at some point, and the older we get, the more apparent that process becomes! I don’t see this as a particularly hopeful poem, but I like knowing that we are all part of this cycle of birth, death, decay and transformation that has been going on ever since life first evolved and that will continue for eons to come. There would be no transformation without that decay, so I see the decay as something positive.
Jan: What continues to surprise you about your process as a poet?
Pat: Peter Murphy always tells us “You must surprise yourself! Do not settle for what you already know.” I try to follow his advice when I write, whether it is poetry, fiction or nonfiction. I also like to read about writing poetry and to learn new forms and methods. I’ve been going to the West Chester University Poetry Conference for several years, which is all about form and narrative, and so I have been trying to do more with form lately. I am not very good at it yet, but I am having fun with triolets and sonnets, and trying to imbue my free verse poems with a better sense of sound and rhythm.
Jan: You have published two novels: The Other Sister (Plain View Press, 2008) and Crosswind (Wind Canyon Publishing, 1997). Which do you like better, writing poetry or novels and why?
Pat: Neither genre is better—they are both fun in their own ways. The advantage of a novel is having the scope to work in—lots of characters, long time periods, different settings, which is not something you get to work with in a poem unless you want to try an epic, which I don’t! But when I write fiction, I don’t sit down at the computer and think “Okay, now I am going to write a novel.” I think, “Okay, now I am going to write a scene.” So I am still working with a fairly compressed form.
Jan: How does what you do to build a poem compare to the process for writing your novels?
Pat: Whether I am writing a poem or a scene, the work needs to have an arc, with an intriguing beginning, the right level of detail, and a strong closing, so they have a lot in common.
Jan: An earlier chapbook, Looking for Bivalve(2002) published by Pecan Grove Press was well received.
Pat: Thank you!
Jan: Have your concerns about the world represented in your poetry changed since this earlier book was published? If so – how?
Pat: I wrote most of the poems in Looking for Bivalve in the1990s. I was younger then, and life was certainly different pre-9/11, so my poetry in that chapbook reflects who I was and how things were at that time. Of course, times have changed and I’ve changed, so the poetry I write today is probably different from what I would have written in the past, but I don’t think consciously about that. I just work with what I’ve got.
Jan: What have you learned from working with publishers that you wish you had known when you first looked for a publisher?
Pat: LOL! Oh, po-biz is the hardest part about being a writer. I am very lucky to have been published by Pecan Grove Press. My publisher, H. Palmer Hall, cares very much about making good books and about making books well, so he spends a lot of time and works closely with the poets to get the right cover design, to seek and destroy all typos, and to make sure the arrangement of the poems is just right. He worked hard to get my book finished in time to debut at the AWP conference in Washington, DC, in 2011, and he featured it on the press’s web site for quite a while. But he’s in Texas and I am in Maryland, so publicizing it in the Mid-Atlantic region was something I had to do myself, and that’s pretty much how it is with any publisher who is not in the same town as a poet. That’s just how it goes.
Fiction is a whole different story. It is really, really, really hard to get one’s fiction published through traditional publishing houses, which is one reason why you see so many people self-publishing or going straight to e-books. It is very cool that we have the technology now that lets this happen. My only problem with it is that so many of these books need to be copy edited and proofread before they go on sale.
Jan: What other poets have most influenced your work as a poet?
Pat: I love reading poetry, and I have so many books of poetry on my shelves! This is a very hard question to answer. Elizabeth Bishop is someone whose work I really admire. Her attention to detail and to language is exquisite. Denise Levertov is another poet who paid close attention to getting the details right. I was lucky enough to take a poetry workshop with her many years ago when I was just starting to write seriously, and she is the Denise mentioned in my poem “On Reading ‘Tattoo, Corazon: Ritchie Valens, 1959’ ” Other poets whose work I admire very much are Alicia Ostriker, Barbara Crooker, Pat Fargnoli, Ned Balbo, Robert Pinsky, Richard Wilbur.
Other poets are important to me not only for the quality of their work, but also because they have shown confidence in my own work that helped me trust myself as a poet. Probably Mark Doty was the first, when he was my thesis advisor at Goddard College; also Wendy Battin, Maxianne Berger, Robin Kemp, and Marilyn Taylor. Palmer, also, for publishing me, and he is a heck of a poet in his own right.
Jan: Poet Barbara Crooker describes your poetry as, “Graced by clean lines, sharp images, economy of words, these are poems that will linger, long after you close the covers of the book.” Your images do resonate. For example, I loved your image of God “kicking off her pumps / pouring a glass of Malbec” at the end of a hard day… Can you describe this process of “seeing” an image that is unforgettable and leaving it to glow, like an ember in the reader’s mind?
Pat: Oh, thank you so much for saying that my images resonate! That is such a nice compliment, and something poets always hope for. I can’t describe any process, really; like Hemingway, I just try to get the words right and keep revising until I think I have it. There’s no way of knowing what will resonate or not, but it is a joy when readers see something in one’s work that sticks.
Jan: What is the worst advice about your own writing that you have received and chosen to ignore?
Pat: “Write what you know” is pretty bad advice. Writing what you don’t know is so much more interesting.
Jan: And what do you wish someone had told you when you finished college?
Pat: What I really wish someone had told me when I finished college was to go to grad school right away and to heck with being practical. I feel as though I wasted a lot of time being afraid of admitting that what I wanted more than anything else was to be a writer.
Jan: And as we end our interview, what advice do you offer to encourage other writers?
Pat: Just keep at it, and don’t get discouraged, especially if your family and friends don’t get what you are trying to do. Find other writers who do get it, and help one another out. Also, find good teachers. You don’t have to get a degree—that was goal of mine, but it isn’t for everyone—but you can take noncredit classes, and especially for a beginner, some writing classes can make a real difference in the quality of one’s work.
In Maryland we are lucky to have the Writer’s Center, especially now that they have online workshops for those who live too far from Bethesda to take classes in person.
Jan: Thank you for this lovely interview.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: