Monday, October 18, 2010

Jean Valentine

Let me just say this upfront: I know absolutely nothing about poetry. I haven't read much of it, and the few poems I've read I didn't understand. Occasionally I'll come across a poem that is more accessible than the rest, and a glimmer of hope will flicker through me that I'll gain an appreciation for this art form, but most poems leave me perplexed, scratching my head.

The poet Jean Valentine spoke at Butler tonight. In preparation for Valentine's reading I visited the library, taking out every one of her books. Over the past few weeks I looked through the pages of her books, sampling the poems. I was intrigued, taken by the sequence of her words. Even I could tell there were layers of meaning within but, alas, even the outermost of those layers remained out of my reach. So when I took my seat tonight in the Butler auditorium, I brought with me a deep curiosity. I was eager to find if I could come any closer to understanding Valentine's work by hearing her read it. Also, I wanted to see what Valentine would bring to the table as a writer; if she, like last month's poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, would bring a sense of mutuality to the reading, share her experience as a writer and engage with the audience.

From the start it was clear Valentine was up for the challenge. She read poems from her new book, "Break the Glass," several of which incorporated the subject of Lucy, the 3-million year old skeleton unearthed in the '70s in Ethiopia. Valentine's reading was lovely. Did the reading bring me any closer to understanding these poems? Not really. My experience in hearing the poems read was not unlike my enjoyment the few times I've gone to the symphony: I didn't understand the meaning of the program but I took pleasure in the sound. But even though my poetry literacy hadn't changed, there was still a revelation in store for me and it came with the Q and A session that followed the reading. In conversation with the audience Valentine was generous, and I learned not only about her writing process, but also about the ideal way for a writer to navigate the world of readers and other writers.

When asked about her use of blank space within poems, Valentine reported that she employs this feature to accent the emotional effect of timing in her poems when they are spoken. When asked how it came to be that Lucy became her muse, she amused us by saying that she first saw Lucy's face in an issue of AARP's magazine, and joked that AARP wanted to show its readers someone older than themselves! She said that the photo of Lucy's face effected her powerfully in a way she couldn't (and can't) explain, only that it spoke to her. When Valentine was asked how she knows when a poem is finished she told us of the three poet friends she uses as readers, adding that she endlessly revises. In response to another question she told us her early influences were ee cummings, (she liked how he flaunted the established rules and had a dreamy sensibility), and Emily Dickinson.

I asked Valentine about her beginnings as a poet, and she said she knew from the tender age of nine that she wanted to be a poet. Then, in a surprise move, employing a phrase she would use a few more times with other audience members after she was done with me, she turned the tables and asked me, "How about you?" After a moment of stun, I managed to reclaim my composure and say that, like her, poetry has always fascinated me; which I suppose is true, but perhaps not exactly in the way she might imagine!

Valentine seemed to take genuine pleasure in taking part in a conversation about her work, and that open-hearted engagement with the world can't help but draw others in. Even someone for who struggles to make sense of poetry, like me.

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