This is the final interview in our four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile has featured a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.
Valentine Pierce is a New Orleans poet, writer, graphic designer, visual artist and actor. A bit of her wisdom: “We are all many things, a vessel of triumphs and trials, worlds within the worlds of all the people in our lives, singular wonders and curiosities of humanness.” Pierce’s debut book, Geometry of the Heart, was published in 2007 by Portals Press. She has been a resident writer at A Studio in the Woods in 2006, had her artwork displayed at Tulane’s Carroll Gallery, and performed in several productions at Ashé Community Art Center. She even won two awards from the American Academy of Community Theatres—to her surprise.
Melissa is a late baby,
Born in the waters of the Atlantic off the U.S. coast.
Her mid-November birth so far from land destines her
To be a fishwife, to hurl her insults at and spin herself down
Back into the waters from which she came.
No land is near enough to this child of the waters.
Even though her foul-mouthed sputterings
Come as tropical storm winds
And sheeted rain far across the waters,
By the time they reach us they are merely a severe rainstorm,
An accustomed annoyance;
Her voice echoes in the thunder but rallies no fear.
We will feel her wet, latent fury but no one
Will be running for higher or distant ground.
She will die as she was born—helpless and hopeless
In the mid-Atlantic waters in late November.
(Note on this poem: A couple of years ago I heard meteorologist Margaret Orr call a storm a fishwife. I’d never heard of a fishwife and didn’t know how it applied. I did some research and learned about fishwives and why some storms are called such. In November 2013 I finally got to use that word, which had been sitting in the word box of my mind.)
What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?
I don’t recall when I started writing—grade school, I guess. That’s what we called elementary school back then or grammar school.
Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?
The first poem I ever had published, according to my mom, was in the school bulletin at Joseph S. Craig, when I was in the second grade. The only line I remember is “on the outside looking in.” I remember the first poem I ever got published, in 1983. At that time it was titled “Always Strong.” I revised it so the theme was more universal and retitled “Soul of the Universe.” It was published in the now defunct Day Tonight/Night Today.
Is writing your full-time occupation?
Writing was my full-time occupation. I was a journalist for about 30 years. I was a journalist, photojournalist, layout person, editor, managing editor and press chief. I also had a weekly column, “Marrero Musings,” in the Times-Picayune for seven years. And I did freelance writing. Now my full-time job is graphic design and most of the published work is poetry. I also have odd jobs including freelance graphic design, sewing, and crafting.
Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?
Poetry is my primary genre but I write in a variety of genres from simple prose to essays to plays, to one-act-shows. I really don’t categorize my work in the sense of right now I am going to write an essay or now I’ll write a poem. I just write and let it happen. I even have a novel in progress—since July 2005. It is called “Dead North.” It got it’s name from the Federal Flood commonly known as Hurricane Katrina. It is a novel about a major hurricane. I’ve been interested in hurricanes all my life and said to myself, hey, “No one has written a novel about a hurricane.” It seems centuries ago that I read a book about a major storm that brought a bad spirit to a certain island. That was part of my inspiration. Hurricanes were the other part and I had tons of secondhand research. A month later I began to get firsthand information. I am not sure that that novel will ever be finished because going from poetry-length to book-length is a feat.
I write short stories, too. They have never been published because most need a tremendous amount of work. I did have one critiqued about 10 years after I wrote it. The ending was weak but the person who critiqued it, a writer I respect, said it would only take me about 20 minutes to fix then ending. He was right but I’ve never had it published. I have a three or four other books that are laying around in a bin somewhere, too.
I even have a whole book, a short one, called “Boundaries of a Life,” which is journaling and poetry about coping with grief. Hmmm, perhaps I need to pull that one out.
As you can see, writing is my life—paid or unpaid.
Do you have a favorite place to write or a routine that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?
Generally, whenever the muse strikes. I don’t usually decide to write, that is decided by my muses, my environment, my mood. Writing just happens for me. But, if I were to choose a place, it would be my home because there are no interruptions. I don’t have to be concerned with time, place, space. When my children were young, it was after they went to bed. Generally thought, poetry hits me in the midst of everyday living and I write it then to keep from losing it.
Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?
Probably the seafood market that was once on St. Roch at St. Claude. I wrote a poem on a napkin with a burned out match. I can’t remember the name because I was a teenager but I still have it somewhere.
Oh, wait, once, in a restroom I pulled a paper towel off a shelf. When I had entered I wondered why so many of them were on the floor. When I pulled mine, a second one just floated down like a butterfly so I wrote a brown butterfly poem about it. Don’t know where that poem is right now.
Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?
I think the only recurring theme in my poems is life. That’s what I write about. The here and now, the hurt and happiness, the smiles and tears.
I am somewhat a collector of words. Do you have any favorite words?
I collect words and phrases. Often they end up in poems. Can’t think of any phrases to share but some of my words have to do with poems like Onomatapeia and iambic pentameter. I also collect names because they are amazing Like Beth Kneebone, She Ping, Cleopatra Pendleton, William Dear, Freeman A. Hrabowski III., and Jacqueline Goodchilds are just a few I have on my desk right now.
Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?
I don’t know what tips would be useful because writing is such a personal art. Sometimes you have to stay still, stay home, skip the television program to work through a piece, sometimes you have to set it aside long enough for other things to fill you mind and then go back to it because it becomes fresh again that way. Sometimes you have to leave home and go to a park or a retreat. When I had the opportunity to be the writer-in-residence at A Studio in the Woods in 2006 it was the first time in my life that I could spend every waking moment writing. And I did. I was amazed at the amount of work I completed in one month. I wish I could do that all the time. I have several friends to thank for that for constantly telling me to submit until finally I gathered up my courage and did it. My fear was that I didn’t stand a chance because there are so many great writers in New Orleans. I came back from Phoenix, AZ, where I was living with friends after the storm.
(Editors note: the storm = Hurricane Katrina)
Who are some of your favorite poets and why?
Goodness. That list is so long: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, all of the Black Renaissance poets, just about every poet in this city, the poets I recently met at the Acadiana Word Lab, most of the poets I’ve met in my life. What I like is the work, the words they put down, the sound, rhythm, music of the words, how they approach their topics whether main stream or taboo, the many ways writers write. I am probably not explaining this well because it is impossible to say exactly. I just know that poets inspire me, cause me to challenge myself, bring me great joy and sometimes bring tears to my eyes.
I have been inspired to write many poems based on hearing other poets read their work.
Finally, do you have any upcoming readings or appearances you can share with us?
My next events are workshops at the Algiers Regional Library April 19 and 26, 2p. It’s called “Stand Up, Look Up, Speak Up: How to present your work in public.”
Thank you, Valentine, for sharing your work and your thoughts with us today.
Thanks to all of the wonderful women poets that participated in this series. It was great!
To read all interviews for Women Who Write, click here.