Fractured Identity & The Freak Show: An Interview With Valerie Bandura

by Lacy Arnett, Audrey Camp, & Valerie Bandura

Note: Although based on an original podcast conversation, the interview that follows here has been significantly altered and revised by Ms. Bandura.

Lacy: Your new collection, Freak Show, seems thematically eclectic. You write about your schizophrenic sister, your family’s experience emigrating from the former Soviet Union to the United States, and then various conjoined twins in the news. So I’m wondering: how did you select the poetry for this collection?

Valerie: I’m not sure I chose the poems as much as they chose me. My family emigrated in 1979 and my sister had her first schizophrenic episode in 1981. Coming to a country where I didn’t know the language, a Jew among Irish Catholics, a “commie” during the Cold War, and seeing my sister fractured by a severe mental illness are subjects that share for me the same thematic root of fractured identity. But once you enter crazytown, things just get freakier. The birth anomalies were just a physical manifestation of a similar theme. I was pregnant and my anxiety about my pregnancy manifested into an obsession with physical deformity, an image that I found had great metaphoric potential. I share almost the same genes with a person who lives in a completely different reality from mine. I looked like every other kid in class, but I was an outsider for all the reasons mentioned above. Same but separate.

Audrey: Did the idea of “The Freak Show” compel the poems, or did you title the collection after you saw the group of poems together?

Valerie: Both. At some point there was a poem in the book titled “Freak Show”—a title I used for the working manuscript. Then I decided the poem was tonally too different and belonged in the second book. But its title worked thematically for the first book as it was evocative of its themes. So I kept the title Freak Show for the first book and changed the title of the poem in the second book.

Lacy: Listening to you talking about your influence for writing these poems, I’m wondering: do you ever think of your writing as memoir?

Valerie: There’s a discernible distinction between documentation and art. Before the emigration poems were poems, they were personal accounts. Growing up I heard not a word about any emigration story. No one wanted to talk about leaving the Soviet Union. It was too terrible to share. The experience was over; they were here now. Then I overheard one story. I sat down in the hall to listen to it. When I researched whether there were books at the time that collected personal accounts of this decade-long Russian Jewish exodus from the former Soviet Union, I found none. So I began interviewing, brushing up on my Russian to interview my parents’ friends, and then friends of friends. But when it came to transcribing, I was bored. I liked the firework moments. I liked how certain details had metaphoric potential. The impulse is one of creation, not documentation. In my poem “Jews for Jesus,” for example, about my sister’s experience with electroshock, I have no idea what that experience was like for her. I was never told those details. I never asked. The details in the poem were fabricated entirely to heighten the drama of the poem. Many poetry collections derive from similar impulses, such as Sharon Old’s Satan Says, Marie Howe’s What The Living Do, Louise Glück’s Vita Nova, Catherine Barnett’s Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced, Alan Shapiro’s Song & Dance. Abuse, trauma, a brother dying of AIDS, divorce, the death of relatives. These collections came from experience forged into art.

Audrey: As you were coming up with these poems, was there a chronology to your work and how long did it take you to go through the process and come up with what ultimately became the collection?

Valerie: I was also learning to write as I was writing these poems. Chronology did not exist initially as much as the idea of self and breakage. The chronological arrangement came later. I got invaluable advice from Ellen Bryant Voigt about ordering a manuscript. She said a collection of poems should have a narrative arc, a story to tell, emotionally, tonally, aesthetically. There should be structural consideration between the first and last poems. The central poem should represent the book’s culminating theme. I did not end up following her advice. I tried. Instead, I took cues from Sharon Olds’ earlier work that separates poems into section: past, husband, child. And from Marie Howe’s What the Living Do that arranges poems chronologically. When I began fiddling with different orders, I turned my attention to identifying thematic, aesthetic, or stylistic holes and created poems to fill those holes in a way that made sense within the context of the book.

Lacy: It seems pretty difficult to publish any creative work but that especially seems true of poetry. I’m wondering if you can talk about the process of finding a publisher?

Valerie: I naively assumed publishing a book would be easy. But I sent out Freak Show before it was ready. It got some interest, was a finalist for big prizes. I revised individual poems, re-ordered the collection, had a son, stopped writing. Came back to the book over a year later with less clarity than before. Got some more finalist awards. I received a personal letter from the editor of one prestigious award who apologized for writing late with the news that the judge requested more time to consider my manuscript and another’s, and then chose the other’s. That happened twice.

Lacy: Oh, that’s hard.

Valerie: I was a bridesmaid but never the bride. I had the pleasure of receiving feedback from poet Patrick Donnelly whose direction lead to an overhaul, and several months later, Freak Show was contracted with Black Lawrence Press. Who knows if the revision helped or if it was just time. But I’m grateful that the book received that last revision. I wouldn’t have been as pleased with a prize but a lesser product.

Lacy: And you’ve recently finished another book?

Valerie: I had the wonderful privilege of being awarded a James Merrill Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center in May 2013. Having a month to myself, without work and family commitments, afforded me a kind of productivity that exceeded my expectations. The month on Vermont to write while someone else cooked and cleaned for me allowed me the time and mental space to shape a mass amount of rough content into the first draft of a second book, Human Interest.

Audrey: Your poetry has been published in several prestigious places, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Is that a necessary step—to publish your poems individually—before attempting to publish a poetry collection?

Valerie: Who knows. For me, the publication of poems during those long isolating years of writing a book is an acknowledgement, a reassurance that I’m on the right track. At one point, I hadn’t been having a good relationship with my writing, and an editor from a journal I’d been submitting to for years contacted me about two of my poems. When I got the proofs, I thought, “These are awesome, they can’t be mine!” Publication is irrefutable proof that the struggles will be resolved, the poems will happen, someone will read what I have to say.

Lacy: And so the book you most recently completed, you’re planning to follow the same route you took with the first book—sending it out to contests?

Valerie: Black Lawrence Press was wonderful in getting Freak Show out into the world; I’m very happy with my experience with them. But for my sense of ego, my ultimate goal would be to have a book that’s been selected for a prize. I came so close an insane amount of times with Freak Show. An award is a hard vision to give up.

Lacy: There’s something to that. Because if I see a book and I see that it’s gotten a prize, I’m so much more likely—knowing nothing else about it—to pick it up.

Valerie: Sure, there’s the potential marketing value. An award for me implies recognition. I’m competitive. Sometimes I read my poems and think, What drivel! Other times I think, This is cool, I’d read this. I want the sticker on my book cover. I want the blue ribbon. I realize it’s sophomoric. Art is an end unto itself. But I want to try nonetheless.

Lacy: The cover art of your book is really striking. It was painted by Inga Bandura. Is she your sister?

Valerie: Yes. She made the image in high school, a short time after her schizophrenic break. So I see it as her self-portrait with its manic energy and asymmetry. When she was a senior in high school, she presented her art portfolio to an admissions committee from the Pratt Institute. They said it was forged, work too mature for a seventeen year-old. She got full rides from every art school she applied to. But after a just over a month into her freshman year, she had another episode and dropped out of college altogether.

Audrey: When you were publishing the book with Black Lawrence Press, how accommodating were they to your input about the cover? This sounds like a very special image to you.

Valerie: Diane Goettel, the editor, she asked me if I had any ideas for the cover art and immediately I volunteered the book’s current image. She loved it. I think she recognized not only a compelling image that may attract potential readers, but how well it visually illustrates the book’s thematic qualities of a self disjointed, the “freak show” in the self-portrait.

Lacy: You received your MFA through Warren Wilson College. Can you talk about your experience there?

Valerie: The experience I had at the Warren Wilson MFA Program forced me to develop more deeply as a writer and thinker. I should say it allowed me the space and direction to do so. I had been working as a reporter in Boston and was unhappy since I had no energy to write creatively. During one meeting at work, my supervisor joked that she hadn’t read a book in a decade. So I quit my job and changed my life. I took ownership of myself as a writer when I was in graduate school. It was an announcement to myself and my family that my writing is a priority.

Lacy: You’re married to the fiction writer, Patrick Michael Finn. Audrey and I are married to very much non-writers. What’s that like living with another writer?

Valerie: Oh, it’s just awful. No, it’s wonderful. I never thought I would get married because I had a traditional image of marriage with traditional gender roles. I assumed if I became a wife I would have to give up my identity as a writer, would have to explain how I write, why I write, the time that it takes, and the seemingly bizarre obsession in doing stuff that has no monetary payoff. In college, I would often stay in my room when my friends would go out to bars. They called it “dorking out.” Because I’m married to a writer, we don’t have to explain ourselves to each other. We are also each other’s first readers. We trust each other’s instincts. Although in different genres, we have similar aesthetics.

Audrey: What advice do you have for poets?

Valerie: Writers are plagued by self-doubt. It’s doubt that forces the writer to constantly examine and evaluate the work and the relationship to his or her work. I’m concerned as well by whether I’m developing as an artist. I would hate to write the same poems now that I had written ten years ago. It would be like dying. I want to continue with doubt. I want to know there is constantly going to be something more. There are a lot of reasons to stop. But, as I’ve heard my husband, Patrick, say: It’s painful to keep going. But it’s a lot more painful to stop.

Born in the former Soviet Union, Valerie Bandura received degrees from Columbia University and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she served as the Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow. She was awarded a residency from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the James Merrill Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared, among other publications, in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, Alaska Quarterly, Third Coast, and the Best New Poets anthology. Her collection of poems, Freak Show, was published by Black Lawrence Press. She teaches writing at Arizona State University.

Lacy Arnett and Audrey Camp are co-hosts of The Postmasters Podcast: Writing & Life After the MFA. They are both graduates of Lesley University’s MFA program and their stories and essays have appeared in various publications.