do with taxes. I was 22. I was out of college and I didn’t know how to do anything. It was a lucky job. I hadn’t gone to typing or shorthand school yet. I typed, but the way you do to make a paper to hand in. It was before computers, it was 1956. What they had us doing was copying numbers from one book into another, and that was probably one of the few jobs I could have done at that time!
I was in a little office in London with two other women who were grown women—when I think of myself back then, [I think] I was a child. They were in their 30’s or 40’s and over from Ireland. None of us had any mind in this job—it was a mindless job for all three of us, a little more for them maybe, but we just talked all day. They were so friendly and sweet and so it was one of the best experiences. I mean, it was completely boring, but because of them, it was so interesting and exotic to me because it was my first big job and I thought, “So far, so good!” I was getting terrible money, but I had no expenses really, and I could shop at the PX and this made me very popular with the English people I met because I could get them great big bottles of gin, or whiskey, or things like that for nothing. It was more than ten years after the war but a lot of things hadn’t lifted yet.
HG: So, you were the bootlegger?
JV: Yes, I was the bootlegger! They were glad when they saw me coming! So that was fun, and it was more about sort of being in another place and being on my own. The job was obviously nothing that would ever help me, except to let me know I could sit in a room with other people and do something and get paid for it. But when I got home I went to the woman who had been the Dean, and still was, of the college that I had gone to and I said, “I don’t know what to do with myself now.” Imagine anybody caring? But she was very kind and she had encouraged me to write poetry.
She had written some and then she had stopped, so she liked to encourage young women, I think, and she said, “Well, what would you like to do?” And I said, “I really have no idea. I could go to graduate school, but I’m not really interested in anything very much that I would learn there. I want to write poetry,” and she said, “well for any job, you know, you’re going to have to learn how to type and take shorthand.” She encouraged me to go to typing school. She knew that I could live with my parents for a short while, and that’s what I did.
I did a couple of short term teaching jobs, one was with 3rd and 4th graders and one was being an assistant to a kindergarten teacher. Then, otherwise, I got married and had two children quite young. Then I sort of “took in” typing. I don’t know if people could do this anymore, but in those days if somebody wrote a thesis, they’d ask someone to type it. And then I’d proofread it. That wasn’t hard work and it didn’t pay much, but my husband made a living that we could live with.
HG: So, when did you decide that poetry was what you had to do? What was that like?
JV: Well, it sounds so crazy, but I really think that I did that even in high school. I wouldn’t have said that to anybody, but I think looking back, because I got encouraged, I was passionate about it. My sister had shown me poetry when I was young. My mother read nursery rhymes. I latched on to it. Even in grade school, then in high school, I think three different teachers encouraged me. In college I had a couple of teachers who encouraged me. I suppose I got encouragement for other things, but this was the thing I really wanted. I don’t know where it comes from. Do you? You get encouragement for something, and that means the world.
HG: Absolutely. Have you ever wondered if you were not a poet, what you would do?
JV: I tried to write prose at one point, when I was still young, in my 20’s. I felt pretty discouraged, but when I look back I think I was in a dream world. I think I thought someone was going to come down and say, “Where are those poems, we’ve been looking for you!” I had sent a few things out, but I was very timid about it. Not one reply. It was very different in those days and I was extremely, extremely shy. I had given up on poetry but thought, “I have to write something,” so I tried prose. I wrote down 50 pages of what was going to be a novel and a friend took it to a publisher. A very kind friend who wasn’t a writer himself, but he and his wife were friends of ours. He didn’t even tell me the name of the editor, he just said he was a very talented young editor in New York. So that sounded…impressive. I still don’t know to this day who it was. But he came back and we had lunch. It was like in the movies! And I thought, “Well, he’s going to tell me it’s no good.” And basically he told me it was no good! [laughs] He said, “The editor says, ‘it’s well-written, but nothing happens.'” And I had written 50 pages and still nothing had happened. So, back to poetry!
HG: Did you read a lot of poetry growing up?
JV: Yes, quite a bit. My older sister, she liked poetry. She gave me a book of Yeats. Walt Whitman. My teachers gave me poetry too. I went to good schools. I went to private school, and maybe I got better teaching than I deserved, but I certainly was shown poetry. When I wanted to read some poetry there were people who would give me books upon books.
HG: Ahh, when poetry was still poetry.
JV: I appreciate it more every day. You know how there are some things you appreciate more when you look back on it? I think, what would I have done without all those women? And it was all women who showed me the way to reading poems. And reading prose for that matter, just reading.
HG: Did you ever take any workshops? Or did you kind of simply figure it out?
JV: I’ve never figured anything out! I think I just had a lot of luck. I worked at it until I had the famous 48-pages for the Yale Younger Series. Which I think was one of the only prizes that existed in those days. I was 30, so this would have been 1964. I sent it in to the Series, but without much excitement because I’d been turned down by everybody who ever saw it. [laughs] But, you know, I was still writing, and I came home one day to a letter saying I’d won it. From Dudley Fitz.
HG: And what did you do?
JV: I sat down! I came home with my two little girls from the park, and I was opening this letter and I really did sit down on the steps in the lobby. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t when I think about it—what were the odds? So then, I had a book. And I also had a teacher. Because hewas a teacher. He wasn’t mainly a poet. He was mainly a translator of Greeks and Romans, but I must have asked him a thousand questions about that little manuscript. He was very patient with me. Should I have a comma here? I was really asking him questions like that! [laughs] I had no idea! I truly had no idea of what it was to be too demanding of another person, what was to be done.
It was like I was just born. I had been in a pretty isolated world since school, which was for about eight years. Then marriage, then babies, it was a bubble. I had been writing, but I didn’t know a single writer. That couldn’t happen now, I don’t think. Well it could, but not as often.
HG: I think MFA programs have made that hard. People now have a clearer path to follow when they say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.”
JV: Yes, MFA programs really changed the conversation. There’s that, but also, I think there is more energy of connection now between writers. I feel like, now, if I heard about a young writer in my building or on my block, I would put my hand out to meet them, if they wanted to. But I don’t think it was like that in my time. Not that people weren’t wonderful—they were. It was a different social situation. How about you? Are you working on anything? Do you have a manuscript?
HG: Well, yes. Sort of. But you know, the hardest thing is ordering. I’ve just been stacking the best poems up front and trailing back from there!
JV: People I’ve known have felt very strongly about the order. The only way I used to judge it, and this was as crazy as anything else, but to make sure the first and last poem are good. I pictured someone going into the bookstore, and only reading those two! I don’t know if they do that any more than they do anything else, but it’s a superstition.
HG: My thesis advisor, David Trinidad, would always say that when someone picks up your book and flips through it, that you have to be okay with any poem they read being the sole representation of your work.
JV: So he didn’t quite have my thing. He wanted every poem to be good. That makes more sense! [laughs] That’s a high standard. But of course they aren’t [all good] in most books, so don’t let that worry you.
Maybe I’m just untouched by embarrassment. I mean, I do look back and see foolishness. It doesn’t bother me too much. I think the main thing is to keep going, and if you do, you won’t spend a lot of time thinking about the first book. Some interviewer will ask you how you feel about your first book and you’ll say, “It was what I did then.” Somebody might give you a bad review, but that goes by. It’s just poetry. It’s just the world. It’s anything. Though of course we love the good reviews!
HG: When do you think you entered the writing community?
JV: I met my first poet after my first book got printed, which was about six months to a year after I had gotten that acceptance letter, so about 1965. And two things happened: I got a phone call from a poet, Jane Cooper, who lived two blocks up from me and taught at Sarah Lawrence. She was a respected poet. She said, “I’m a poet, and I live near by. I’ve read your book and I admire it and I would like to have you come out and read for us at Sarah Lawrence, but I don’t have any money to offer you.” I said, “Well, I don’t need money! [laughs] I’ll come!” She sounded so nice and so friendly and I don’t think I’d ever read poems before. And then, I got a letter from Adrienne Rich in the mail.
JV: Yes, that’s what I said! She said she had read my book and she really admired it and that she would like to be in touch and meet me sometime. That was amazing. All that within a couple of months after the book came out. These two amazing women just reached out to me.
HG: And pulled you in?
JV: I’ll say! I don’t think I actually met Adrienne for a while after that—life was so different, and we certainly didn’t have Skype. We talked on the phone a little bit, and wrote letters and we would exchange poems in letters. Doesn’t it sound antique?
HG: The anticipation of waiting!
JV: It’s as if you were telling me about the 18th century, like you used to have to copy things with a quill! It sounds that long ago.
Anyway, she and I traded poems back and forth. We started that right away. You know her poetry. Hers is very different from mine, and mine was very different from hers. The most generous and encouraging fellow poet in the world. She was just wonderful, didn’t matter if you were doing the kind of thing she was or not. If you were just doing something she recognized as poetry, she was glad. A wonderful colleague forever, just forever.
So, those were the first two I met. I never did meet Plath, although I would have loved to. I met her in her book, or in a magazine. I couldn’t talk to her or actually meet her, but she… those poems…she just set me on fire. I didn’t know you could do that. You know that feeling? Whoa…and that was before my book was taken. So I went back and just got energy from reading her work and made changes in my manuscript because of her. She really gave me a hand even though we didn’t know each other. She did that for thousands of women poets, I think.
HG: How much have you seen poetry change? The poetry community is more diverse now, and the internet gives us access to all these types of people that we couldn’t reach before. Do you think that has changed the kind of poetry being written?
JV: Yes! Thank God! I do. I think once we had a school, and now we have a world. I really think so. I think, even in my time it was white men. Really. One white woman. Really, almost nothing was coming into the world. A lot was being written, but not getting into the world for other people to read. Now we have the whole world! And in a short period of time when you think about it. Certainly in my lifetime. Imagine that. How much has happened. Oh, I think it’s so wonderful.
HG: Are you familiar with the poet Ken Chen, founder of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop? I was at panel at AWP Boston that was talking about diversity in literary institutions, and he said something— and when he said it, everyone looked as though they had been waiting all their lives for it to be said. He said, “What we want is equality, not diversity.” Do you think that poetry has reached that?
JV: I think it’s great that he is saying it, not that it has been achieved. But it’s just great that he has his sights set on it. I love that [he said that]. I think that is how it starts, as far as I know. I think it’s hard on the people who are the firsts, who are starting it. But at the same time, it’s a glory. Wow. It should be everybody.
HG: Yes. He talked about how it is still a challenge for women. Just across the board.JV: You know—I don’t know which is worse, we can talk about it—I have a friend who said, in our country, racism is the worst thing. Around the world, male power is the worst thing. So probably around the whole world, it is both. And here we have both. I don’t know. But it’s got to be going.
HG: Well, I think that is one of the challenges with the internet and technology. You get access to all these people, but also because there is so much, you can filter out the things and people you don’t want to hear. You can spend all day watching FOX News and thinking that’s what the world is actually like. You can learn everything you want about your interests, but less and less have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. When you read a physical newspaper, you have to see it all, but now you can just close your browser. Being challenged, it seems, used to be less of a choice.
JV: That’s depressing. But, the information is there. I guess, I wonder if what we are talking about is human nature to some extent. But I guess human nature can change. I have seen it change. I have. People are different about women. And this is, you know, half a lifetime. It’s not good, but it is better.
HG: I think it’s definitely easier to be a woman now. There are more platforms for voices.
JV: You know, I didn’t know I would be talking about a woman president. I wouldn’t have thought we would be talking about that in my lifetime. But I’m not any needle to go by! [laughs] It’s very encouraging to have seen a black male President and a woman Secretary of State. And the president of Ireland who is a woman. I mean the president of Ireland. I lived there for a while, so I have some idea of what women are there and for them to have a woman president is unbelievable. And she’s a goddess, Marilyn Robinson. She’s just brilliant, and they love her! So these candles are going before us. How does it feel to you?
HG: It depends on the day really.
JV: Yes! Good point. When I was young there were two lines of poetry that Adrienne and I used to quote. We didn’t talk about it much. There wasn’t much to say, but the men who we admired had one line: Them lady poets must not marry pal / because if they do they really mess up everybody. The first line is quoted [John Berryman], but the rest is just what I got from it. You can get his drift.
Roethke, who I loved when I was younger, said: women poets shake their tiny fists at God.And I felt, “you didn’t write that did you? You didn’t. Don’t do it.”
HG: Your gods disappoint you.
JV: Yes. And sometimes your goddess too. I don’t know. Being just about 80 now, I look back and see things much better. At your age, I would probably be more discouraged, but at my age, I’m seeing more, just in terms of time. I’m seeing more changes in the time, but you haven’t been here as long. And of course, there isn’t as much change as anyone would have wished.
HG: The idea that poetry is more “institutionalized” makes it more complicated. You have institutions, not just the public building up a certain group— they get applause, and the applause just continues.
JV: I don’t know if that is that different though. When I was young Stanley Kunitz was teaching at Columbia. There was very little teaching going on. They didn’t have the programs, but Stanley had his people. I mean, I think they were all white, but they were men and women. In those days that was something. Not much.
It’s dismaying, but I don’t know what we can do about it except keep trying to educate people. Keep on trying to truck. Keep trying to write the best you can and get it out there. I sort of forget about the “getting out there” part. But I think we shouldn’t. I think we should really try to get it out there. I try with my students. That’s the most important thing, for them to get it out there. I think if something like Cave Canem, or Kundiman comes along, or these other groups, then maybe they can have schools of their own, publishers of their own. It won’t be nothing. It will be really important, I think. The world is slow. So much of it is part of the “boys club,” even some of the women. That’s not going to shock anyone if it comes out in an interview. I think they know.
HG: This actually came up a while ago when I was talking with someone—about women being a part of the “boys club,” and they noted that compassion was important. Because, in the “boys club,” there is only space for one or two women. So they try to hold onto their space.
JV: But it’s like you are a mascot. To have one woman there so you can talk about it. You get a woman who thinks like you do. So unless people are more brave than that, more challenged than that.
I think that’s what happening now, or at least what I see…people are writing more now, and differently. Do you think so?
HG: Yes, I think there is more freedom and more space to say what you want.
JV: That’s what I think. And to say it whether anyone likes it or not. I think, even someone white and intellectual for instance, a woman like Brenda Hillman, I think she is pretty free in what she is doing. I think she goes from book to book, thinking, feeling and she’s politically involved too, which is even better I think.
That’s what I felt when I first met Adrienne and Jane. I felt strengthened. As long as we can build up that kind of strength—that there are people like me in the world and people who love each other’s work and have each other’s back…
Cornelius Eady came to read at Drew, and he did a fantastic conversation first, and then he read his poem about Susan Smith, the white woman who claimed a black man kidnapped her children and drowned them in a lake, when she had really done it herself. It’s amazing. It’s a book-length poem (Brutal Imagination, Putnam, 2001) and he read the whole thing. I was sitting with Ross Gay, and Pat Rosal was there as well.
Pat and I had had a minute to talk afterwards and we both said that it was the strongest poem by an African-American male with understated anger that we’ve ever heard. That he was able to communicate emotion without emotion being the story. He had such power.
Pat and Ross were so moved by Cornelius’ reading, and so particularly moved—that he could make this outside of that rage—it meant a lot to them. I’m not against or for rage, but in that setting it was important to them. I could appreciate that. Here he was, with a pretty white middle class audience in his hand, completely in his hand. It’s not just because he is a good performer, he really was giving us some history. It was very moving. So, I guess, he has gotten a lot of strength from Toi [Derricotte], and the people he has surrounded himself with. He’s gone from strength to strength. Maybe what people need is family and groups to carry us. I couldn’t have gone a first step without those friends. I wouldn’t have. I know that. And if I had, no one would have seen it!
HG: In terms of the modern literary landscape, do you ever think about how your work fits in? Where you sit?
JV: No, I don’t. I have some friends that I show my work to, that I have had most of my life. Where I fit in, I don’t know. Because I don’t know where anybody fits in. I see people who are the best-known, but that is different. I certainly wouldn’t want to be thinking about it in any of those terms, because that is pretty fleeting, I think. It might be our whole lifetime, but it’s still fleeting. So I don’t know where I would fit in. I’ll tell you, I feel more peace of mind about this now. I just noticed recently, I used to want everybody to like my poems, and have gradually realized not everyone is going to like my poems! [laughs] What I’ve come to know is the stuff I write is not for everybody, but I’ve found a few people who read it and will tell me what they think. It’s not so much if it’s for everybody, but more of where I’m on and where I’m off, you know? In my own writing of a single poem. That’s more important to me than where I’d fit in on the literary landscape.
HG: What about your own personal aesthetic in terms of what you are reading? How has that changed over the years? Have there been events that pushed you outside of your comfort zone and made you expand what you like?
JV: Completely. Thank god. I think I was more interested in catching up with women at first, which was important. But I wasn’t going outside of my racial zone. A little, but not very much. I’m consciously trying to do that more, but I’m not where I want to be. As far as taste goes, all I want now is someone who is just going to go to the absolute end of their rope for this thing.
But I think I would like to read much more—work that I’m not acquainted enough with. Part of that would be black literature, Native American literature. All of it. That’s what I want to read. I just want to keep enlarging the circles I am in. I have my rivers that I am in, but they are just rivers. I would like to get much more.
HG: It’s a life-long process…
JV: Oh, I know, and then there are the Greeks! And the Anglo Saxons! I just hope that there are a lot of lives. [laughs] That’s what I am hoping.
HG: In terms of poetry, you are the master of the short poem. This is a fact. What do you think a short poem can accomplish that a longer poem can’t?
JV: Well that’s really interesting because I think of it in terms of breath, somewhat. You know Seamus Heaney just died, and I have a poem over there of his. It’s about 19 lines. He starts out—it’s sort of like breath, how much breath do you need to get to where you want to go? He starts out in this particular poem [“In the Field”], which is very moving, with his own death in mind. I think it’s a breath thing. But if I did that—and I can’t. First of all, I couldn’t! [laughs] But if I was trying to do that, or if Dickinson was trying to do that, you know with her short poems, she would do it in less breaths. She’d say: the this, the this, the this, and then—whoosh!
So, that’s what I think the difference is. It’s more of a shock I think. It’s more like putting your face into icy water. Whereas, Seamus would let you walk into it a little more, and then you’d see it. Dickinson, can do that too, she can have that same effect, but she’ll do it with a different kind of breath. He is more gentle, I’d say—has a whole different voice. Like he’s telling you a story, and in that story he can be as shocking as Dickinson. Shocking isn’t quite the word. She takes your breath away. She takes mine away with those effects of hers. So she’s maybe, more…I don’t want to say dramatic, because that’s a bad word… but she goes for it. It’s the difference between how much time he [Heaney] wants to take and how much time she’ll [Dickinson] give you. She’ll take you out of one place and put you in another pretty quickly, whereas he’s more gently taking you by the hand.
HG: I once heard the poet Brenda Cardenas say that with poetry, we need to “write about the things we cannot say,” which I think is a really complicated statement. How do you get to that point? Of the things you cannot say?
JV: That’s a really good question. I used to just give that to myself as an assignment. I would say to myself, “Write what you can’t write,” because it would get me, right away, into something I found very important. But, you know, being a woman, for one thing, there was a lot of stuff I felt I couldn’t say. But anything I thought people wouldn’t be able to read, or I wouldn’t be able to say to people, I tried to write. You wouldn’t know it, but I’m quite introverted, usually. In an interview, I’m uncontrollable! [laughs]
So, I don’t feel I can talk to most people about much, but I try to sit down and say what I can’t say. I think that is a good prompt for anyone, but it especially was for me. I could hardly say anything to anybody. I could hardly say good morning. So to put that in front of an introvert, who wants to be a poet, was very helpful.
At the very least, it’s been very good for me. Maybe she [Cardenas] felt some of what I felt, that if I said what I really thought, they’d throw me away.
HG: If underrepresented people lack in examples, at least acknowledged, validated examples, then to have to be the first one, even to be the tenth one, still feels like being the first.
JV: Yes! How long ago was Dickinson, and I still feel the same way. It’s not necessarily even forbidden subjects. It can just be something you feel no one else would understand because it is so weird. I love weird! People used to say how weird I was. And my poetry. And I’d say,thank you, yeah. [laughs]
HG: After you write a poem how do you feel?
HG: Not exhausted?
JV: Maybe. Yeah there’s that too. I do feel tired at first. Especially if I’ve been working on it a long time. But sometimes I jump up and down, I’m so excited! And if I’ve got it, I feel very happy. You know, the way I usually know, is that I talk to one of my poet friends on the phone and they’ve got it in front of them and we talk on the phone and they say they think it’s a keeper, then I’m very excited and happy.
HG: That’s one of the nice highs of poetry. But then, of course, there is the opposite end. When you want to write and you feel like there is something on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t get it out.
JV: Yeah, that’s frustrating.
HG: What do you do to get yourself outside of that rut?
JV: I don’t. Probably just what you do. What anybody does. Just sit around with it. I have pages that aren’t doing it, and I’m not even sure what it is I want to do quite yet, and it’s just frustrating. I just walk around with it and keep trying at it. But sometimes I never get it. Sometimes I start things that never get anywhere. Do you have that feeling to? That experience?
HG: Yes, it’s like missing the train when you are already late.
JV: Exactly! Oh no, there it goes. When’s the next one going to come.
HG: Are there any writers that you turn to when you are struggling to get into writing? For example, I have an “emergency” bookshelf above my writing desk, for when I can’t get “there.” I reach for Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine, or W.S. Merwin and know that they will take me somewhere.
JV: I know what you mean. I think Brenda Hillman would be one for me, and Jane Meade. Strange as it is to say, Rilke and Osip Mandelstam and Dickinson. Celan, every time. But I don’t go with any idea that I will “be” where any of them are, but that they just might give me a little light. It’s almost like prayer. Can you give me a little light here? I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. And sometimes, just a word from one of them will get me into it again. Does that happen with you?
HG: Absolutely. My favorite is when you are reading something and you misread a sentence and then you are like, “Oh my god, I have a line!”
JV: Exactly, isn’t that wonderful! Misreading from heaven! It’s great: “I’ll take this, thank you God.” It is wonderful.
HG: I read an interview that you did with Eve Grubin a few years ago where you said, “I am going towards the spiritual rather than away from it.” Is that something you recognize when as it happens, or do you suddenly wake up on that journey, having to make sense of how you got there? Was there a catalyst for this “going towards?”
JV: Well, it used to be more like that. I’d wake up and be like: “Where’d that start?”
Where I am now, that’s pretty much all I am interested in. Not that my poems might show it that much. I went out and read at Oberlin about a month or so ago, and Kazim Ali said, “Some of the students are asking why you are so interested in death.” I could have said, “Well…look at me. I’m almost 80 years old, it’s coming closer [laughs]!”
But I didn’t really feel like that was the answer, I feel it’s part of the answer, because one is getting closer and, if they are lucky to live this long, they are getting closer to death. I am certainly. I think part of it is, as some of us get older, we get more interested in spiritual things, and I don’t think it’s just because we are going to die, but we are moving in a natural kind of progression from what we’ve seen and touched to what we don’t see and don’t touch.
I think that’s fairly natural. I don’t find myself more interested in religion, but I find myself far more interested in what’s real, what’s inner and what is driving people that they are not conscious of. And the inexplicable, the things you can’t say. The things you don’t even know you can’t say. The things you don’t even know the right questions for.
HG: I’m wondering how you feel about accessibility in poetry? I don’t feel like poetry needs to be universal, but…
JV: I don’t either…but give us a break. I feel sort of in between. I wouldn’t want Dickinson to change, but we have come to her. We have. It wasn’t right away. A few people got it. I feel, if you can be accessible, do it. My feeling about her would be my same response to accessibility versus the avant garde. Dickinson, is probably being as accessible as she can. But, I don’t feel like there is any advantage to trying to be obscure.
I feel like you are just trying to be as clear as you can! That seems to me to be more the struggle! And I think it’s a little affected to be inaccessible.
HG: Absolutely, I think many of us can remember, when we were young, and the first poems that really got us. Poetry has to be able to get people.
JV: Yes. Into your veins. There’s that.
You want to be able to bring them along. But also, the whole enterprise to me seems to be to speak to another human being. That it’s one human to another, or one human to a planet. I don’t care what it is, but it is one being to another and if someone is trying to not get across, why do poetry?
But if they have to, if this is the only way they can speak…god, I love them for it.
But, I never feel outside of my gods and goddesses. I feel like they are doing the best they can. I’m trying to get more true. And I love voices don’t you?
HG: Do you think that when you were younger, the poet you hoped you’d become has matched up with the poet you feel you are?
JV: Oh, god knows.
I don’t know. I think I was secretly ambitious. I would have said I wasn’t, but secretly I was, and wanted to be a “wonderful poet.” I wouldn’t say I am a wonderful poet. But, by my own standards, I’ve worked at it. For that, I am very, very glad. Sometimes, I didn’t and couldn’t but, every time I could, I did.
It’s like I said before, I don’t think I can really judge my own stuff. The best thing that I could say is that I hoped to really do it seriously. And I did. I have. Sometimes I couldn’t. Most of the time I have been able to. Though, there were five years when I couldn’t write. That was really bad.
HG: I’m sorry, what? Five years?
JV: Yes, that was bad. Five years.
HG: Not a single poem?
JV: Not a single poem.
HG: What did you do?
JV: The interesting thing is: I lived through it. I didn’t think I would. If you had told me it would have been five years I would have thought, “I can’t do that.” But you know what I realized?
I had lost my publisher. I had lost my relationship. I had lost my therapist who was like my father—he died. So, I had lost a lot.
And it seemed to just silence me. Those were all big changes in my life. I guess what I gradually realized and, I mean, over the years— this was five years—was that, I am still here. Something in me is still here. I thought I was gone.
But I was still there. And I guess the “I” that was still there began to write a poem. You know? After all that time.
HG: What was the first poem you wrote after that?
JV: I sent it to Oberlin, to their magazine, Field, because they had been really good about taking my poems, and the editor there who had been with me—with my earlier poems—said, “Oh, it’s so good to hear from you. This isn’t quite there, but we love seeing something from you. Send us your next poems.” So it was completely encouraging, but with regret [laughs].
HG: Were you like, “That poem took five years to write!”
JV: I know!
But it had the effect that, “you are still there, send us the next thing,” and I went on from there. It was beautiful. To me, it meant everything that he was saying, “You are going to do it, send us the next one.” And I did.
Then I was back.
HG: That’s terrifying, though. Five years. Maybe it happens to a lot of writers.
JV: I don’t know. I wonder did that happen to Dickinson? Did she have long periods? I don’t think so. Probably just before she started. But she started around 16, so I don’t think we have to worry about her!
God knows what Osip Mandelstam went through? I’m trying to think do I know people who have stopped for that long, or who have been stopped for that long. That’s more what it felt like.
But, it came back. And that was the amazing feeling I had. That I was still there. So then who was I? Because the I meant to me that the poet part was still there. The rest of me, in the body was still there, of course…
Yes, yes. I can’t remember now if I’ve heard of other people who’ve experienced that. I don’t think Adrienne ever had a time like that. Jane Cooper didn’t write much as she got older.
HG: Your collected, Door in the Mountain (Wesleyan, 2004), how did that come about? How do you decide it is time for a “collected”?
JV: I was still kind of creeping back from my early glory and then my sinking.
I liked the poems [I was writing], it wasn’t that, but coming back, I didn’t know what I’d do in the world. Suzanna Tamminen, the editor there, was encouraging. She wrote to Fanny Howe, who liked my work, and I think it was on the strength of Fanny’s recommendation that Suzanna took the book. And then I think I wrote Susanna and asked about a collected. You know, because I had never had one. And she said, “Yes,” that it was “a good idea.” And then I remember, it just happened and that was wonderful.
HG: The title poem, “Door in the Mountain,” is one of my favorite poems ever. It’s my computer desktop background.
JV: Oh, thank you! We didn’t talk about dreams, but that is a dream poem, yeah…
HG: How do you realize a poem is seminal? Do you realize it? Or does someone have to tell you, “By the way, that’s amazing.”
JV: I guess I have an instinct about it, a sort of feeling. I think usually, I get an idea for a title and usually people go along with them. But I like Door in the Mountain, too, as a title. I like that poem too. I’m glad you like it. Do you do dream work?
HG: Yes. If I have really weird dreams that I feel like I need to discuss it later. I’ll make a note of them. But, so often I’ll tell myself I’m going to remember this, and well, that’s of course, no good! But then there are reoccurring dreams I have that are persistently knocking on my door and demanding to be written.
JV: Weird dreams are good. They are wonderful. And you don’t need dreams books. You are writing the dream book. You really are. As much as I am or anybody else.
I want to tell you what Galway Kinnell used to do. He said when he was young and married, he had a machine he could talk into that could take his dreams. This was a long time ago, so it wasn’t quite a tape recorder, but it would wake his wife up. He couldn’t turn on the light because that would wake his wife up too. Then he found a pen that had a light on it, and that was the best solution he had to write things down when he got them.
Because he knew they were gold, as I do. Sometimes you get things you can’t use, but you have them there. But when it does come, you know, that that’s really the soul talking. I think it’s so important to write down everything.
But I understand the fear. You think, oh my god, is that the truth? In some deep “truth” poetry sense? But no matter how weird your dreams are it is something for humanity. You are dreaming for humanity. You really are. You are chosen. You may not want to be! But I think it’s good. I’ve never been given anything that hurt me, in poetry. Never. I think somebody…the giver of the dreams, must know.
HG: Do you write down all your dreams?
JV: Oh yes. Before I go to bed I put the notebook and the pen right next to my lamp and just say my prayers, “Send a dream please!” I love dreams. I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without them. That’s an exaggeration maybe… but they’ve given me an awful lot to go on. You know, all my attachment to weirdness. A lot of that is about dreams. You can’t understand them, but you don’t have to.
HG: I agree. I’m interested to know, looking back, what has been a favorite year in your life so far?
JV: I think one of my favorite years was when my daughter moved back to New York with her husband and two daughters.They lived down the street. They were here for a few years, and I got to see them. Especially the younger grandchild, because she was the one who still needed a grown-up with her. That was one of the happiest times in my life because I was in and out of their house all the time and we had a lot of time together. The older grandchild is also a very good friend of mine, but she didn’t need the constant “watching over” that the young one did. Then they moved to Brooklyn, and she got to be a teenager, so you know—forget it! But that was just wonderful. I loved those years. A few years of real in-and-out-of-the-house family love. It was just great.
HG: That sounds lovely. Speaking of traditions though, do you see yourself giving more poems to the world? Do you have any new work coming out?
JV: I hope so! I’ve got a book ready to go, Shirt in Heaven.
JV: But, I’d say, it should come out by Fall 2015, Copper Canyon Press?
That’s nice of you to ask. When I think about it, I am happy I do have a book. I am sort of going from poem to poem all of the time!