VALERIE WETLAUFER: at some point you have to be a little selfish
Valerie Wetlaufer is a queer fat femme, birth doula, poet, and doctoral fellow at the University of Utah. They are Poetry Editor of Quarterly West, and their work has appeared in many places, including Drunken Boat, PANK, Glitter Tongue, The Journal, and Bloom. Valerie has published two chapbooks, Scent of Shatter (Grey Book Press 2010), and Bad Wife Spankings (Gertrude Press 2011).
I was fortunate enough to meet Valerie through the Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Writer’s Retreat. Valerie is an incredibly talented poet currently getting her PhD at the University of Utah. She co-edits Quarterly West, the U of Utah’s literary journal.
What books do you love and are currently reading?
Right now I am studying for my PhD exams, so I’m not allowed to read anything not on my exam lists, which means I’m currently reading a lot of Foucault, Derrida, and Butler, as well as a lot of great disability studies texts and Gertrude Stein. I’ve also read a lot of 18th and 19th century writing, since that’s my area of focus, and I think I could read Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights over and over and over again. As for other books I love, my favorite writers are Carole Maso, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Carl Phillips, Bernadette Mayer, Lidia Yukanavitch, Myung Mi Kim, Jenny Boully, Lyn Hejinian, to name just a few.
What writers do you admire?
I admire writers who are doing something different, producing work that isn’t the same as most of what you find in journals and books these days. I’m most admiring of what is innovative. Some writers I admire are writers I’ve gotten the chance to work with before in some capacity, such as Sandra Simonds, Meg Day, C.A. Schaefer, Erin Rogers, Rebecca Lehmann, Rebecca Hazelton, and Barbara Duffey. I am always most inspired by my peers. It’s the best part about graduate school, the chance to mingle with so many talented writers. Right now I’m the co-editor of poetry for Quarterly West, and I love getting to discover work I’ve never read before that just knocks my socks off. I deeply admire all the writers who have generously shared their work with us.
Are there any hobbies or activities that you enjoy, outside of writing? Do you think that these activities help you with your writing?
I love camping and being in nature in whatever way I can, and that takes me outside of myself, and I love yoga, which focuses me inward. Those two things help me maintain a balance so that I don’t lose myself in my work, and so that I don’t become too solipsistic. I’m also a birth doula, and though the world of pregnancy and birth seems unrelated to poetry, it feels deeply connected for me, so my experiences helping pregnant people labor and deliver their babies feeds my writing, especially because my work is increasingly focused on the body.
What is your writing process? Do you mostly write from personal experience?
Sometimes I have a specific topic in mind that I choose to write about, but mostly it happens organically. A line appears to me in my mind, and I go with it. Personal experience definitely influences my writing, but that doesn’t mean that my poems are literally true. The emotion is true, but it’s not an essay, so it doesn’t mean that everything happened the way it’s described in the poem. I take complete artistic license to change things. Also, I write to tell stories. My poems aren’t strictly narrative, and oftentimes the story exists legibly only for me, but my writing comes from a place of wanting to speak out and tell my story and the stories of people like me that I don’t find in a lot of places.
How has your career evolved over time?
I still feel like I’m just beginning with poetry, so I think this is a hard question to answer. The biggest change is that I used to write what I thought other people wanted to read, and now I try to write poems that I would like to read. That’s not the same, and it’s often not the popular choice—meaning it doesn’t get published as quickly or as readily, but it’s what fulfills me. And it’s never boring. I chose to go the academic route, because I love school, and it’s what works for me. I got a Masters in Teaching right after undergrad, and taught high school, then went on to an MFA program at Florida State, and now I’m in a PhD program at Utah. I published during my MFA, but my poems really started getting picked up during my first semester at Utah, when I knew myself and my work better. Everyone tells you during an MFA program to only publish in “top magazines,” and also never to publish online, but I’m more interested in publishing in journals—in print and online—who publish interesting work I respect. I’ve specifically sought out journals who are explicitly queer-themed—like Bloom—or that are openly welcoming of queer work—like PANK.
The biggest thing that has helped me as a writer was being a 2010 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writer Fellow and attending the retreat. I made so many good friends and I finally had a readership for my poems with people who didn’t ask me vocabulary questions. This just cemented my belief in supporting queer literary efforts, because while I hope never to be just a niche writer, I don’t ever want to change my work to make straight people more comfortable. (Sorry mom and dad.) I’ve had great opportunities to read all over the country thanks to connections I made at Lambda, and I was fortunate to find publishers for two chapbooks, and my two full length manuscripts have been finalists in numerous contests. Hopefully one or both of those manuscripts will be published eventually, and I’ll get a job, and then I’ll feel like I actually have a writing career.
Did you have a mentor—if so, how valuable was that? How did the relationship come to be?
I was very fortunate when I was in undergrad at Bennington College to study with Mark Wunderlich. I’d actually never written poetry before my senior year, though I’d been writing fiction and nonfiction, and aspiring to be a writer professionally since elementary school. But I took a class with Mark, and he encouraged me to pursue my writing. I took four classes with him, actually, and he was wonderful, telling me what to read, teaching me how to line edit my work, helping me become a good reader of my own work and find good readers for my work. He was an incredible source of support for me, personally and professionally. I don’t think I would be writing poetry if it weren’t for his help and motivation. Mark was also (to my knowledge) the first queer teacher I had, and since my first poems were about my experience as a queer woman, I know it made all the difference to have a welcoming, safe reader of those works. He gave me the confidence to write what I’d always previously been afraid to write. Of course it helps that Mark is a fantastic writer himself. He’s also an incredible teacher. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to work with him.
What’s your daily working method? How much time do you spend writing each day—and how do you make that happen?
Though I have gone through periods where I write daily—in 2010, for example, I wrote a poem every day—it’s not a realistic or even desirable thing for me most of the time. Being in a PhD program I’m so busy teaching, studying, and looking for jobs that I need to take breaks from writing. I try to spend time with my projects every day, though, whether that means revising poems, writing new ones, or rereading poems, so I’m mentally sitting with my work regularly. I go through spurts where I am writing ten poems a day, and months where I write nothing. That’s just how I work, so I don’t worry when I’m not writing, because I know it will return. If I am feeling stuck, though, I give myself a challenge and I tend to respond well to that.
How do you balance work and life?
I don’t see a difference between my work and my life. My work is a part of my life. My life is a part of my work. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I weren’t writing, and everything I do feeds my writing, so they’re inextricable. But I suppose if pressed for an answer I’d say spending time with my family and my pets. Getting away from actively working for the moment, though I’m always thinking about what my next poem will be, so there’s passive working and active working.
How do you make money—does most of your income come from your writing, or not?
I suppose indirectly my money comes from writing. I got into grad school on the strength of my writing, so in a way my writing pays the bills. But, more directly, I make money teaching, and I’ve been very fortunate to have fellowships at all my grad programs. I told myself I wouldn’t go to grad school if I had to pay anything for it, so it is those fellowships and teaching stipends which sustain me financially. Also, there is my work as a birth doula; though I don’t do it for the income, it does help.
Do you teach? If so, do you feel it helps you to be a better writer, or is it a necessary evil?
I’ve wanted to be a teacher longer than I knew I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think people should teach if they don’t love to teach. I realize it’s the reality of the current economic client that a lot of writers end up teaching for lack of other ways of making money, but it’s profoundly depressing to me. I was in a 5 year BA/MAT program in college and taught high school before going back to grad school for my MFA, so being a teacher is a firm part of my identity. I do think it helps me be a better writer. My students surprise me all the time with their insights, and every time I teach a text I learn something more about it. I just love teaching. If teaching isn’t sustaining your writing then you should not be a teacher. I have had wonderful teachers, and I have had awful teachers, and the awful teachers were the ones who cared much more about their own work than working with their students. At some point, of course, you have to be a little selfish, but it’s very clear when you only want to surround yourself with sycophants and when you are interested in helping to cultivate new voices.
Your work often pushes beautiful boundaries between BDSM, heartbreak, marriage, ideas of queerness, and place. I often feel conflicted about the relationship being a queer writer has with socio-political responsibility. How do you feel about this concept of responsibility? Do you believe that queer writers have a responsibility to their respective communities?
I believe queer writers have a responsibility to promote and support other queer writers, but I don’t believe that responsibility extends to the content of our writing. Of course I love writing that includes explicitly queer content, and I’ve obviously felt moved to write those kinds of poems myself, but you can’t force what you write or your writing will suffer. There are ways to be politically involved without putting it in your writing—through the presses and journals you choose to read, subscribe to, publish in, and through your own personal activism. I also think that it’s important, especially for white queer writers, to know when to sit down and shut up and let our queer writers of color speak. As writers, we want to take up so much space and always have something to say, but sometimes the best allies are the ones who know when to step back.
Can you speak to your own evolution of writing as the queer movement has become more visible & politicized?
More and more, I am interested in intersectionality. I spend more time in the fat activist and disability communities, or the pockets of queers within those communities. When I think “queer movement,” I tend to think of a monolith of white, cis, thin, able-bodied, mostly male gays and lesbians, and I’m more interested in truly queer groups of people who don’t fit societal norms, and who don’t want to. I think that’s true for my writing, as well. I think my writing makes visible and politicizes bodies in different ways now than it did when I was 21 and first started writing poetry. I can’t separate my queerness from my body, and my body is one that is fat and disabled and genderqueer, so I often feel left out of larger discussions. For awhile—and you can see this in my chapbook Bad Wife Spankings, which I call my breakup book, I was writing a lot about marriage. At the time, I was planning a gay wedding in Canada, and I’ve lived in several states that have either passed amendments banning same-sex marriage or tried to (Florida and Iowa), so that politicized my writing even more. Those external debates meant that me writing about my daily life was suddenly a political act. But marriage is far from the top issue on my mind these days. My writing has become more conscious because of external debates on queerness, I suppose. I think it leads me to write more and more queer poems and to make my poems queerer in form as well. I know that I, personally, feel a responsibility to write about my reality in the face of misrepresentation by the media of what it means to be queer. It has also led me to seek out queer writing communities, like the Lambda retreat, and the 3 Dollar Bill off-site AWP reading in 2011. I’ve often been the only queer writer in a workshop, and I’ve lived most of my life in relatively rural, conservative places, which gets quite lonely at times. I’m not a city girl, though, so it makes sense for me, but I definitely seek out those connections more fervently now.
Tell me what writing means to you.
Writing is the only way I know how to live, and that’s been true for as long as I’ve been literate. It’s the way I experience and make sense of the world, often the way I forge my community, via pen pals and websites and networking, and it’s how I keep in touch and understand my world. It’s everything.
Tell me something good—anything you want.
I’ve spent the month of May with my family in Iowa, which means I’ve gotten to see a lot of my six-month-old niece, who is my favorite person on the planet. Nothing is better than seeing her smile.
Editor’s note: since the publication of this interview, Valerie’s signed a deal with Sibling Rivalry Press to publish her collection of poetry, Mysterious Acts By My People.
July Westhale is a writer, femme shark, activist, and archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She writes poems, long curly letters, academic articles, art criticism, travel essays, interviews, book reviews, & the occasional terrible short story. She does not normally wear blazers, or drink lattes. She was recently named a 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry for LLF’s Emerging LGBT Voices Writing Residency, an Artist in Residence at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony, a runner up in the Femme Bot & Arsenic Chapbook competition & an indentured servant at Copper Canyon Press. University of Wisconsin at Madison’s lit journal Women in REDzine just named her one of their “top 10 inspiring political poets of 2011.”