This is Jim Valvis’s first full-length collection of poetry. He is 44 years old & grew up in Jersey City and presently lives with his family in Washington State. How To Say Goodbye consists of a whopping 143 tightly written but highly accessible poems. The poems are extremely varied in style, narrative voice and subject matter and were written over a period of twenty years. Valvis told Heavy Feather Review in an interview (see link below) that ‘one of the reasons I put off publication so long is I don’t like the idea of poems being in a final form…The notion these poems, some of which I’ve had in my possession for twenty years, finally being locked down is akin to sending a kid off to school for the first time. Only the kid is never coming home again’. He adds tersely, ‘My feeling is that most poets rush into book publishing too soon and too often. They’re hardly done with one poorly received book when they start working on putting the next- and cheap and easy publishing is not discouraging them any.’
The poems are mostly free verse narratives based on everyday situations the poet has experienced- working out in a gym (‘Lifting’), watching his mother play bingo (‘Waiting’) or walking across the road with his daughter (‘Crossing the Street, My Daughter Reaches for My Hand’). The writing is clear, unembellished, often confessional in a wry, reflective manner. The collection is divided under three separate headings: I. So Long, II. Farewell and III. Godspeed with a short foreward by the writer Paul Kareem Tayyar. The subject matter and the chronology of the poems in the collection appear to have been mapped out randomly by the editor Kevin Patrick Lee.
The title poem ‘How to Say Goodbye’ is an interesting study in the transitory and sometimes fickle nature of relationships. The speaker, presumably Valvis, receives an urgent phone call from his wife’s estranged lover who is desperate to find out where she is. Valvis has mixed emotions: ‘Part of me feels sorry for him’ yet another side of him savors the irony that ‘the guy/ who drove my wife from our home/ then found himself on the other side of it.’ He admits matter-of-factly that his relationship with his wife has ended but they have not yet worked out how to bring closure to it, ‘She knows/ I won’t beat her or even beg her/ to return. We’re beyond that place/ and trying to discover how to say goodbye.’ Learning ‘how to say goodbye’ is perhaps about reflecting on one’s past and then moving on to what is most important- the present moment. In speaking to Heavy Feather Review when asked about whether he had any other titles in mind for the book, Valvis stated, ‘That was the only title I ever considered. The moment I wrote the title poem I knew I would use it to headline a book.’
How to Say Goodbye
How to Say Goodbye
My wife’s estranged lover telephones me.
He asks if I know where she is,
and I reply, You gotta be shitting me, pal.
Even if I knew where she was, why in hell
would I tell you?-- and hang up in his face.
Later I’m in an all-night diner in Stark,
the kind of hole that caters to truck drivers
and drunks, serves a triangle of apple pie
the size of a pizza slice. A slow night,
my wife’s on a break from waiting tables.
I tell her about her former lover’s call.
She can’t believe he has the nerve,
but then again she can. I ask how
he got the number, but we both know.
She gave it to him when she left me.
Plans were made, desires spoken,
into that phone that sits on my porch
that looks out at the loneliest dying lake,
its shoreline receding like a man’s hair.
My wife is with another guy now
but she suspects he may become violent,
so I’ve gotten the call. She knows
I won’t beat her or even beg her
to return. We’re beyond that place
and trying discover how to say goodbye,
how to let what we could’ve been
become what we’ll never be.
I tell her I can fly her home to her parents.
She says she’ll return after all this blows over,
but we know it’s a lie, and I know it best.
In the morning she returns to the new lover
for a couple more nights of sex charades,
until her check arrives and we can work out
a time to leave when the guy’s not home.
Part of me feels sorry for him,
not knowing he’s living with a ghost
who in just a few hours will be on a plane.
A day later, I’m looking out at the lake,
a husband about to help his wife flee her lover,
one definition of a fool. The phone rings.
I stare a long time before picking up,
and sure enough it’s him again, the guy
who drove my wife from our home
then found himself on the other side of it.
He asks me once more if I know where she is,
and I tell him, Jesus Christ. Let her go already.
Not knowing if I’m talking to him or to myself.
Then he begins crying, and I know
I should hang up the phone--
I have every damn right to hang up--
but I don’t. Instead I listen to him weep
and watch the wind ripple what’s left of the lake
until he forces himself to break the connection.
(Reprinted with the permission of the author)
The main thrust of the book is centered on Valvis candidly recounting his experiences through first person auto-biographical narrative poems. He treats the reader with a smorgasbord of poems- memories of growing up in the ghetto of Jersey City, his troublesome relationship with a violent father, his army tales, the failure of his first marriage, the joys of seeing his daughter grow up, the unmasking of his own vulnerabilities and his determination as a writer & as a man to make a ‘good life’ for his family ‘from nothing’ (‘Watching the Boy You Were Walk in Snow’).
Poem by poem Valvis carefully constructs for his readers a detailed, authentic portrait of himself, his family and his reflections on life. In an interview he told C.L. Bledsoe (see link below): ‘What I wanted was to get on paper the essence- not the reality, but the essence- of what I had experienced as a human being in a way that all people who could read would find valuable.’ Some of the most memorable auto-biographical poems involve Valvis taking an ordinary event and then moving on to make highly insightful observations about existence. In ‘The Old Film’, for example, he explores the passing of time and the impermanence of the flesh, in ‘Last Orders’ he focuses on how words ultimately fall short of capturing feelings, and in ‘For a Girl Whose Name I Can’t Quite Remember’ explores the incompleteness of memories. Because of the universality of his themes it is easy for us to relate to his work and often his poems evoke similar incidents & emotions from my own past.
Valvis has also included in his collection a variety of other types of poems. He dabbles in micro poems and has a liking for poems which use extended metaphors as in ‘The Pinball’s life’, ‘Ball in the Air’, ‘Inside the Egg’ and the meta-poem ‘A Poem That’s No Damn Good’. Often Valvis will also run with a concept & will feed the reader a mass of detail- throwing in every nuance, variable or thought. In ‘The Lye Vat’, for example, he contemplates the various causes of death, in ‘To a Self-help Guru on PBS’ he satirically explains how people follow their bliss of booze or bingo or power, and in ‘After the Blade, the Blame’ Valvis explores the toxic recriminations which befall lapsed love. There is also a series of poems scattered throughout the collection, including ‘The Eyes of Oedipus’, ‘Sophocles Reading Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘For the Womb’ which use allusions to Ancient Greek literature to draw parallels with Valvis’s own life.
More appealing to me are Valvis’s portrait poems which compress the lives of quirky, often outcast individuals. The best of these poems include ‘Master Sergeant Hoffman’ a Vietnam vet shabbily treated by the authorities, ‘June’ the tragic story of a dying neighbour, ’Minnie and Joanne’ a third person poem about down & out lesbian squatters, ‘Trailer Trash’ about an elderly woman suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, and ‘Whopper Board’ about an ex fast food worker who recalls his job years later.
Over the last two years I have closely read How to Say Goodbye several times. This is one of the best first small press collections of poetry I have read in the last five years. It is up there with Rob Plath’s Bellyful of Anarchy and Mather Schneider’s Drought Resistant Strain. This is a rich and immensely enjoyable book worthy of multiple readings. Valvis is an authentic American voice of the underclass and I urge you to investigate his work further.
INTERVIEW WITH JAMES VALVIS 26 APRIL 2013
It’s been two years since the publication of How to Say Goodbye. You revealed in an earlier interview that you were never in a hurry to publishing your first book of poetry. How was the process of being involved with Aortic Books, especially in terms of how your poems were assembled in the collection and promoted? How has your book been received?
There really was no process as far as submission goes. Kevin Lee, who edits Aortic, noticed that I publish a great deal and decided he wanted a book from me. I never approached him, and if he had not approached me it’s very likely I would still not have a book out. I don’t think in terms of books and am a little surprised and disbelieving of poets who claim they do. Like, “This is my book about my father.” Oh really? And you will never write another poem about your father? Who thinks like that? I have my obsessions and could write about these themes and characters that obsess me, but once they hit a book do those themes and obsessions disappear? Hardly. For me, poetry is a way of living, not a destination. A process, not a product.
Speaking of process, the process for putting together the book was straight-forward. I sent Kevin something like 300 pages of poetry and he selected from that pile about 190 pages. Why he chose those 190 and left out those 110 is a question you’d have to ask him. In fact, he left out some of my favorite poems, and included poems I’m not sure would have made the cut had I been choosing. Not that I have any bitterness over this. I think it came out well, maybe better than had I done it myself. Our favorite poems are not always our best.
Promotion? Little promotion was done on his end. Mine amounts to social networking and continuing to place poems in the journals, which brings forward new readers. Not a lot, mind you. This is poetry, and after a century of pretentious pedantry in poetry the audience is so small you could fit them all a shoebox.
That said, those who read the book have loved it, almost universally. In fact, some of the reviews surprised me by their praise. I’m probably not as good as they claim, or as bad as I fear.
The three sections of your book have similar titles ‘So Long’, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Godspeed’. Can you explain why you included these headings?
That was Kevin entirely. He probably thought that 190 pages of uninterrupted poetry were too much. The average poetry book runs 60-80 pages. So he came up with the plays off the title and cut the darn thing into three more easily digestible slices.
What are your overall intentions as a writer?
A big question. I’m not sure I ever sat down to think about it. I usually define my intentions by what I am not intending. I’m not out to change the world, let alone save it, since as a Christian I do not believe a fallen world can be saved, only made a little better. I’m not out to overthrow the capitalists or right some long ago wrong that can never be righted. I’m not out to impress people with my vocabulary or knowledge of arcane of obscure literary minutia. I’m not trying to pad my resume so I can get tenure. I’m not trying to get in anyone’s pants.
My causes, where I have them, seem to be local and universal rather than global and identity related. Be decent. Tell the truth, especially to yourself. Don’t cheat on your spouse. Don’t pretend to be better than you are. Be nice to children. Nobility comes more from doing than saying. Be grateful.
Especially that last. It seems to me that much that is wrong with the world is a lack of gratitude. Why does the man cheat on his wife? Because he doesn’t appreciate her. Why does the employer cheat the worker? Because he doesn’t appreciate him. Why does the man kill himself? Because he doesn’t appreciate the life God gave him.
So those are some of the overall intangible intentions, but there are also the intentions within each piece of writing. For instance, the desire to create a mood or feeling or express an opinion. For instance, in “How to Say Goodbye,” the poem, not the book, which I will use because it’s available to read, the intention of the piece is show how despair and heartache can lead to compassion for a fellow sufferer, even one that has wronged you.
You are a full-time writer. Can you describe a typical day?
With variations, my to-do list has these same 18 items every day.
1. Read 5 poems (usually more)
2. Read 1 short story (usually 2 or 3)
3. Read some novel (at least a chapter)
4. Read some nonfiction (at least a chapter)
6. 1 hour walk
7. Write poem #1
8. Write poem #2
9. Write 500 words of short story/prose
10. Write 500 words of novel
13. Shower, shave, brush teeth
14. Eye drops for glaucoma
15. Time with family
16. Clean house
17 Make dinner
I don’t always (heck, ever) get all these done, but I make an honest effort when the Seahawks aren’t playing. I often try to double them up. I clean while I cook. I listen to nonfiction while I walk. I edit a story between poems.
I pray when I submit.
How has your style and subject matter evolved over the decades? In terms of chronology, what are some of your earlier and more recent poems?
I’m not sure the style has changed much, maybe the lines have grown longer, the language lusher, and I no longer screw with grammar much. The subject matter seems largely the same, though of course new subjects pop up periodically and I think I write less confessional work today than in the past. I think what has changed most is my worldview.
I started out like any other outsider poet, though even then I was more a fan of Edward Field and Gerald Locklin than Charles Bukowski and Todd Moore. I did a lot of crying about the academy, which the academy duly ignored, since they’re getting all the money, awards, tenure, and care not a whit what the peons think. My poems of that time, some of which appear in the book, are clever but not especially accomplished. After a decade of that nonsense, I realized it was pointless to kid myself into thinking I’m a transcendent genius and began to study the works of the people who were getting the awards and found them very well put together but often lifeless and pretentious. But really what got to me was that, deep down, when probed to the root, the academic writers and the underground writers were the same. Or at least they were saying basically the same things. The tropes and language and subject matter were different, more or less accomplished, more or less image-based or bestial wail, but the philosophy behind the work was monolithic. And yet, as I read all this poetry, my daughter having just been born, terrorists having just flown planes into those two ugly skyscrapers, my certainty of atheism buckling under the arguments of Chesterton and Lewis, I felt with increasing dread that I disagreed with almost all of it. The endless focus to the point of obsession on people’s identities: black, gay, female. The outright hostility to God and religion. The loosening, in not abandoning, of morality, especially any sexual morality. The disdain for western culture, especially the western literary canon. The glorification of suicide and alcoholism and drug addiction. The elevation of animals to the status of men, deserving of all the rights of a human being, and the demotion of men to mere animals, who should never fight against his baser instincts but accept every depravity as natural and his “true self.”
In many ways I believe I am a counter-revolutionary poet. In the sixties, the dominant culture was attacked and eventually overcome by a counter-culture. This counter-culture has triumphed to a large degree in society, but in the literary arts its victory has been total. In this view it is not enough to say that blacks were mistreated and deserve full franchise in the American dream, which any decent person ought to believe, but instead the American dream for everyone is a thin lie, an idea that is not nearly such a no-brainer. In this culture, suburbia is a hotbed of hypocrisy (especially religious) and repression (especially of females). Middle-class white Christian males are villains by definition, unless they declare themselves complete automatons for the monolithic progressive culture. Victim groups, like homosexuals or Native Americans, can do nothing wrong and are always portrayed as noble, funny, smarter, and a hell of a lot cooler than the squares.(I’m part Chippewa Indian, by the way.) If they are cruel, it’s because you had it coming, you racist, bigot, homophobe. Read any Joyce Carol Oates, who is not much of a poet but is one of our finest prose stylists, and you will see a misandry that is stunning. All men are either creeps or victims of a system run by creepy men. It’s a worldview where dead white male is a slur, and you wonder what exactly is the crime there, that they’re dead, white, or male? Imagine a male writer writing this way today about women. He would be rightfully excoriated.
Yet my experience ran exactly opposite all this. I had grown up poorer than poor in the ghetto where my friends were blacks and Puerto Ricans and poor whites. To be sure, some of those people were wonderful and some were victims, but a great many of them, maybe even a majority of them, were poor not because of the system but because of a combination of a debased culture and their own failings. This is shocking to those who love to spew the 99% rhetoric, but the truth is the 1% doesn’t have to screw over the 99%. The poor, and increasingly the middle-class, are busy screwing over each other and themselves.
As a young adult, just sprung from the army, my best friend was a homosexual, and so I spent a lot of time in a gay bar, shooting pool, refusing the offered free drinks, trying to decide which unmarked bathroom was for the men. I met a lot of people there, from some of the finest people I’ve ever known to some of the worst, but try and find a villainous portrayal of a homosexual in a poem or short story. No, don’t bother. It’s the third rail of poetry. It simply would never be published, probably not even written. To my mind, this robs these people of their full humanity, makes them mere pawns for our righteousness and self-congratulatory proclamations. I don’t think any group can truly be free until everyone is free to call someone in that group an asshole if he is an asshole—or to even call the whole group out if there is something wrong with it. (Think, for instance, of the horrible misogynistic ramblings of thug rappers.) Dr. King put it more elegantly than I just did, character not color, but how far we’ve travelled from that ideal.
Meanwhile, when I lucked out and married above my station, I found this horrific suburbia to be filled with decent, hard-working, thoughtful people. The wives are happy enough, and the men are not looking for a reason to beat them. Do unhappiness and beatings happen? Sure. But are they the norm? No way. Did some of them get their nice houses by cheating people? I suppose. But a lot of them got them by working three jobs while putting themselves through medical school. My wife is such a person, the most decent person I know. Somebody ought to defend them, these people, I thought.
If you look at poems like “The Anti-Pinocchio,” “Revolution,” “Trailer Trash,” “The Absentee Fathers,” “To a Self-Help Guru on PBS” and others you’ll see me taking a stand against this monolithic culture that says suburbia is the worst possible fate, the poor are kind and the rich (or at least richer) are greedy and evil, irresponsible young men cannot help themselves because they are controlled by their dicks, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Even a poem like “How to Say Goodbye” is revolutionary in this way because it takes a member of a protected group (females) and shows her to be far less than perfect, though fully human. It is in granting others their full humanity that I think makes the finest art.
There was a book of essays about Bukowski’s poetry called “Against the American Dream.” Well, that describes not only Bukowski’s writing, but nearly the total sum of poetry and much of literary fiction for the last 50-100 years. It’s about time someone defended the American dream, defended America, defended dreams. After all, who the hell wants their kid to grow up to be Bukowski?
Do you have one or two poems which clearly stand out as your favourite babies?
I have a soft spot in my heart for “About Your Iguana.” It was written when I was still in the army and just starting to write poetry seriously. It was the first poem where I thought to myself, “You know what, Valvis? You can do this thing at a high level.”
The poem went on to win the 1993 Chiron Review contest, still the only poetry contest I ever entered.
Is it my best poem? No, probably not. That will hopefully be the next one I write.
What literary magazines do you consider the best and most innovative in America?
The best and most innovative are two different things. I’m not a big fan of innovation for innovation’s sake, and you can be pretty sure something is going to be unreadable if they call it “innovative.” We’ve been making it new so long that making it new has become old. Anyway, it’s hard to know what’s the most innovative because I don’t know the thought processes of the editors. I fear that a lot of the ones with the best reputations care nothing at all about diversity of thought. Oh, they’ll bend over backwards to make sure a binder full of women are in the issue, and maybe a black person, but you read the work and it’s hard to tell one writer from another. I sent “The Anti-Pinocchio” to a couple of dozen literary magazines and they all turned it down. Why? Too hot to handle, I imagine. It might make an old lady clutch her string of pearls.
I used to love The Wormwood Review and Chiron Review before they went goodbye. Those markets are disappearing and being replaced with online journals that not only don’t pay but also aspire to be as dull and respected as many of the university presses and as poorly crafted as any of the old mimeos. The best way to do this (since a change in editorship is all that’s required for a great magazine to become ordinary or even bad) is to list what I think would make up a shockingly interesting and entertaining magazine.
1. No guest editors. Guest editors are a recipe for endless nepotism. While some guest editors are honorable, the majority simply reward their friends.
2. Open to all points of view. Especially *marginalized* points of view.
3. Avoids cliques and schools and any kind of groupthink.
4. Open to beginners and newcomers and those who were too poor to get an MFA. No, not just open, but actively seeks them out.
5. Never publishes with an eye toward awards.
6. No quotas of any kind. Merit is the only criteria.
7. Doesn’t publish friends/students/colleagues.
8. Prizes clarity over pedantry and obscurity.
9. Does not abandon the free market entirely. If you cannot sell your journal to non-writers, that’s telling you something. Charging fees or moving online won’t save your journal. It will only preserve its already fetid corpse.
10. Stop thinking that challenging what used to be mainstream America back in the 1940s and 50s is new and daring and exciting and, God help us, brave. It’s not. It’s been going on uninterrupted for decades, and it’s old, and nobody’s risking anything by taking yet another stand against creationists and Prohibition.
Any journal that does that, or most of that, is going to be okay in my book.
In earlier interviews I was keenly interested in your recommendations for writers and have since followed up poets such as Ted Kooser, Ron Koertge and others. Have you come across the work of other writers who have impressed you more recently? As a follow up to this, have you read any good books lately?
Well, it wasn’t that long ago that I gave that interview. I still love the writers I named. I try usually to name one or two writers that people may not have heard about before. I guess recently I’ve become a fan of two short story writers, Ron Carlson and Ron Rash. Maybe it’s a Ron thing. I’m presently reading a collection by a writer little known in America, but was and is loved in France and Russia: Andre Maurois. He’s a joy to read. Also, the aforementioned Joyce Carol Oates, because, dammit, whatever her flaws philosophically, the woman is an elemental force. I’ve also been enjoying the poetry of Anthony Hudgins, James Laughlin, and C.P. Cavafy. I just finished Life After Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D’Souza, which was excellent. Also reading Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope. Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Man oh man, don’t get me started. Since I write poems, short stories, novels, and some nonfiction, I read at least some of each of those every day.
Let me finish up by recommending to everyone Raymond Hammond’s Poetic Amusement. Must reading about why the poetry world today is in crises.
What are you working on at the moment?
Poems. Short stories. And I’m about to start a novel draft, if I can ever finish the outline.
Some of the poems have been about shipwrecks. God and his muses alone know what got me interested in shipwrecks. I’m an old army guy, not navy, but I find the tales of these people going into the waves utterly fascinating and full of poetic possibilities. Every one of them is an end of the world scenario, where the earth is the ship and the iceberg is the comet come to kill all. The recent bombing in Boston has got all kinds of people running to their keyboards to write poems, but I don’t know why. At least I don’t see why this horror show is more interesting to them than the sinking of the General Slocum, where a thousand people, mostly women and children, burned alive or drowned just outside New York, except that the Boston thing just happened and the General Slocum is old news.
Well, eventually everything becomes old news, and the fact that it is old news allows me to go into these events and pull out what poetry that might be in there without seeming to be profiting off the carnage. In this way, I’m paying tribute to men and women whose lives and deaths we had no business forgetting, but did.
What advice would you give to a group of young talented writers?
The first thing I would tell them is to forget about talent entirely. Nothing matters less than talent, unless it’s inspiration. In fact, in some ways, it can be a hindrance. Too much early facility with language can turn a promising young poet into a vapid old one, content with playing word games while the reader yawns himself to death.
Better by far to focus on study and hard work. But even these are not enough.
The best thing is to understand what makes a poem memorable—for it is the same thing that makes anything memorable. And that is simply this: quality of emotion. Emotion is the key experience in writing and, for that matter, life. I talk to young people sometimes and they say things like, “Well, we’re getting married. If it works, it works. If not, we’ll just get a divorce.”
I gotta shake my head at such a person, more if he imagines himself a poet. He or she will never be a good writer of any kind. This may seem common sense, but it is surprising to a lot of people. In order for the reader to care the writer must care. And not just about his writing! If you can get married without much care whether it will work out, you are screwed as a writer (and a spouse.) It has to mean everything. You can’t go into a poem thinking, “Well, if it works out, it works out. If not, not.” Who the hell wants to read that poem? Or for that matter, marry that person.
So this is my advice to them: care. Give a damn. Find those things that matter to you and make them matter to others. But here’s a caveat: don’t bullshit yourself. Yeah, I know you’re supposed to love those fat beasts of the sea we call whales, but the fact of the matter most of us don’t. It’s much better to write about hating whales, if you hate them, than to pretend to love them because you’re supposed to. What I’m saying is fuck whales. Those fat bastards.
(PS: Don’t send me any hate mail. I love whales. Truly I do. And llamas. And tapirs. And penguins. But fuck manatees. You know what I mean? Manatees. Sea cows. I mean, what the hell?)
If you’re a person who doesn’t care, you’ll never be a writer. You can learn all the rules and memorize every sonnet by Shakespeare, but in the end the poetry will be flat, uninvolved, and boring. If you deceive yourself into writing about stuff you don’t care about, or, worse, stuff you don’t agree with, then you will hate your writing. It will always be a chore. You’ll get “writer’s block.” Its only joys will be in publications, but even that satisfaction will soon fade for nothing has a half-life shorter than the happiness that comes from an acceptance.
There is a fear out there, practically palpable, of being seen as sentimental, of caring too much, of looking like a weepy sap. No ideas except in things! But what they mean is rip your heart out and write like a robot. You see it every time when some ass says, after you said how you really feel, “Tell us how you really feel!” Well, I don’t know about you, but the only reason I read anyone is to find out how they really feel. If I wanted to know how they pretend to be, I can go watch them try to pick up each other in nightclubs. To hear how someone really feels is a great gift.
It’s been said that art is the human heart at war with itself. This war is impossible without a soldier who gives a damn. In an era when everyone is so damn cool, cynical, and aloof, when people want to save the earth but have no desire to save their souls, when people will fight for gay marriage but not their own marriages, is it any surprise there are so many worthless writers?
Thanks James for being so honest and generous with your time.
Thanks for such great questions.
Buy How to Say Goodbye on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/How-Say-Goodbye-James-Valvis/dp/0978798333
Read this excellent interview with James Valvis in Heavy Feather Review: http://www.heavyfeatherreview.com/home/2011/9/17/marcos-poem-an-interview-with-james-valvis.html
James Valvis is also interviewed by C.L. Bledsoe in his blog Murder Your Darlings: http://clbledsoe.blogspot.com.au/search/label/An%20Interview%20with%20Jim%20Valvis