The Anna Van Valkenberg Interview

“A town is a tin of children in an ocean,” writes Anna van Valkenburg in her debut poetry collection, a rich, unpredictable, and deeply surreal exploration of identity and the multiple contradictions we each embody. These poems, set in locations real and imaginary, magical and banal, inhabited by figures out of Slavic folklore and a Boschian landscape, strive to unearth truths, especially those that are difficult or uncomfortable, using Bertolt Brecht’s maxim “Do not fear death so much as an inadequate life” as a touchstone. At once ecstatic, meditative, and grotesque, the poems in Queen and Carcass confront some of the most fundamental existential questions. Anna van Valkenburg was born in Konin, Poland, and currently lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Her poetry and reviews have been featured in literary magazines across Canada. Her work has been shortlisted for the Pangolin Poetry Prize and nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Project. Anna is the associate publisher at Guernica Editions. Queen and Carcass (Anvil Press) is her first poetry collection.

When did you start working on Queen and Carcass?

2014. I had just started an MFA at Pacific University in Oregon— the book started as a compilation of various poems written in workshops and during the semester. It changed wildly since then, but that’s where the first poems were made.

How have lit journals informed your writing and putting this book together? 

It takes some digging to find writers who are not only good at what they do, but who speak to you in some way. I’ll go off on a tangent here. Apart from helping you hone your actual writing, an MFA gives you exposure to different writers, different voices. You’re blown away by a craft talk given by a writer who becomes your new favourite poet. A professor reads your work and recommends a book for you to read. A classmate who workshopped with you tells you your work reminds them of someone else’s, and you read that poet’s work and love it. It’s a sea of people who feel the same jolt of electricity when they hear a killer line of poetry (or a great line of dialogue, etc.), and who can continuously share their literary “findings” with you.

Lit journals have served a similar purpose for me. I’ve found so many writers through lit journals who have influenced me, whose work I may not have found otherwise (Monika Zilm! Robyn Sarah!), and gotten so many ideas from individual poems (or stories, or interviews) for the poems in this book. A good lit journal is a living organism — it breathes and keeps my mind moving. I’ll add that the interview/ review/essay sections of good lit journals have been just as stimulating to me as the poetry and fiction content.

What themes do you like to explore in poetry?

I don’t think there are specific themes that I like to explore— but there are ones that I end up writing about often. Vievee Francis once said that each writer writes predominantly from (a) certain emotion(s): love, sadness, happiness, excitement … I’m a cynic, many of my poems are born there. I also write from mourning. Sometimes from love.

Identity ends up being a common theme in many of my poems. Why do immigrants so often write about immigration? It’s not for a lack of other ideas. It leaves a gap that we try to fill. It’s involuntarily losing a part of one identity and gaining another. Something so integral becomes so complicated.

“There’s a lot of red in this book— red has a lot of life, and a lot of conflict. There’s also a lot of white. It’s that dichotomy between purity and lifelessness that interests me. When is it a wholeness, when is it holy— when does it turn into absence?”

Love is another theme that comes up in the collection, or rather the difficulties that surround it, that make it worthwhile. I like resilience, I like things that are messy, that almost break us and then turn around and give us substance, another dimension. Sacrifice that can’t be romanticized or that doesn’t give back. People aren’t broken as easily as we assume— it’s that furthest point that we can withstand where the most interesting things happen, it’s what many of these poems try to locate.

I love folktales. The lullabies I sang to my first child were folk songs because they calmed me. Rusalka ended up being the backbone for this collection. She speaks to the place where identity meets opposition. She defies the odds of what she is (was) and rises to the challenge of embodying something new, and so she ended up being the right symbol in a book that focuses on identity. I also love fairytales, mostly because they’re creepy. Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Snow White and Rose Red… Creepy is fabulous for a poet’s mind! Queen & Carcass ended up being the daughter of all these things.

Who are some of your favourite writers?

Valzhyna Mort, Ilya Kaminsky, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, Nazim Hikmet, Dunya Mikhail, Jean Follain… I end up reading a lot of poetry in translation.

How does working in publishing affect your own writing?

The short answer: I don’t think it does. Working in publishing lets me meet other writers, learn about their work, work closely with their writing. But working with writers is very different from writing. The tasks are similar to working anywhere else— emails, meetings, pitches, etc.  — none of it is very literary even though everything is centred around literature. Reading affects my writing a lot, so you could say that I’ve found material through my work that I love and that has shaped my own work in some way.

How does colour play into this collection?

I like the way in which colour evokes emotion, it’s served as a way of building metaphor throughout the book. We know that a moon is white. But if we stress that the moon is white, what does that do to the image? In one of the poems I write about “a dog’s red bark”. Suddenly the bark is more fierce. If silence is black, it’s not the silence of a meadow, it’s more serious, something is at stake.

There’s a lot of red in this book— red has a lot of life, and a lot of conflict. There’s also a lot of white. It’s that dichotomy between purity and lifelessness that interests me. When is it a wholeness, when is it holy— when does it turn into absence?

What was it like working with Stuart Ross?

Stuart was the voice that helped me figure out how to shape this book in the first place. We started off with a bunch of poems that needed to be organized— there was no rhythm to the book. He helped me hone individual poems, then made me feel like I did it! He was also the eye that caught little discrepancies, small things that made a world of a difference. He saw my vision for the book before I could articulate it. A perceptive and generous editor from beginning to end.

You were born in Poland. I remember a friend of mine once said her Polish grandmother used to sing her little Polish songs, and would take out the vowels to make it sound funny. Does that sound like a thing?

Haaaa— people who don’t speak a Slavic language always tell me how few vowels we use. And it’s true, we tend to squish a bunch of consonants together. Some of them make a single sound (ex. sz= sh, cz= ch) but to the anglophone eye, the words look unpronounceable. Brzeczyszczykiewicz is a famous tongue twister that Poles make their anglophone friends repeat. But even regular words — for example, źdźbło (blade ie. of grass), szczęście (happiness)– are pretty low on vowels. A staccato exercise! I’ve never heard of anyone doing this.

How does memory and family conflict go along with your poetic intentions?

Questions of identity come up a lot in this book— “where do I come from?” and “does it matter?” I think most of us are pulled to some degree to questions of our roots. Memory is tricky in this context, it defines everything we know: we all have individual memories, we also have familial (or societal) memories that are given to us and that largely affect our idea of “identity”.But it’s easy to get caught up in familial memory as a safety net— a false, clean image that is insincere to reality and that fits what we want to believe. A conflict between memory and objectivity, a wish to preserve something for the sake of emotion rather than authenticity. I love Lucille Clifton’s “Why Some People Be Mad At Me Sometimes”: “they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and i keep on remembering /mine.” As poets, I think it’s our responsibility to search for that balance— to use memory constructively even if it presents contradictions, rather than fitting it into a box of what we want (or of what we’ve been taught to want) the past to represent.

In terms of familial conflict: a hypocrisy that often comes up for immigrants is romanticizing the way things were in the home country while living in completely different circumstances. We want to visit our grandparents on farms where cows get milked at five in the morning and where there is no indoor toilet, even though day-to-day we’re happily living with Netflix, Starbucks, cellphones (and indoor toilets!). It oversimplifies things but I think it makes the point. We want to preserve these things for our own psychological benefit. But I do have a pull to those ‘simpler’ ways, so again it’s a struggle for me to balance these out— how to explore the past, how to explore family and culture and tradition in a way that is sincere and doesn’t sentimentalize. Ironically (or maybe not) surrealism has been one of my favourite tools for this while working on Q&C.

Discuss the title please. It’s enigmatic to say the least.

Queen & Carcass is pulled from “Melodies”, the first poem in the book. A hen has been killed and is being defeathered in a courtyard: “She is at once queen and carcass”. There’s a dichotomy between the beautiful and the grotesque— two concepts that depend on each other. This is the main thread of the book and informs the connection to Rusalka, who also has two sides to her: the water nymph and the human. The water nymph seems obviously more “grotesque” and is associated with death, but once she’s a human, Rusalka’s life becomes unbearable. So, who is the Queen? Who the Carcass? At the end of the opera, Rusalka embraces her curse— she makes the ultimate sacrifice and proves her humanity. But it’s not a clear distinction from the start and I think it asks the right questions. Which also brings me to one of the other questions in this book: what does it mean to “live”, to be human?

Who are some of your favourite Canadian poets?

I love Eve Joseph’s writing. Ben Ladouceur, Larissa Lai. Karen Solie is up there, Gary Barwin. Marc Di Saverio is a powerhouse poet (whose epic poem I had the pleasure of editing last year).

How do magazines of poetry in Canada factor into your process?

Through lit mags I often find new work by writers who I don’t know yet, or who I might not normally ‘seek out’ myself. There is so much great writing out there by writers who haven’t gotten the chance to publish in book form yet. There are also so many good books being released every year in Canada that it’s hard to keep on top of it. So I’ll often find a piece I love in a lit mag and then go look for more work by that person. I like reading literary magazines from start to end, like a book. A good editor will organize the material in a way that keeps your mind moving— it all leads somewhere together. I love anthologies for the same reason.

Do you like reading your poems out loud?

To myself, yes. To an audience… I’m working on it. I was reading a lot of poetry out loud when my first daughter was born to be able to keep reading while still keeping her occupied (and not screaming). It’s actually my cat who loves when I read! He won’t come when I sing, when I talk. But something about reading poems makes him crawl out from wherever he’s sleeping in the house to sit with me and purr.

What are you most looking forward to about releasing your debut? 

Many writers talk to me about being anxious that their work will get taken the wrong way by readers, or differently than they intended. That someone will misunderstand what they’re writing about. To me, that’s the most interesting part! I want the poems to live their own life, outside of my head and outside of my intentions. Also of course the pure joy of having a first book out.