Monday, May 23, 2022

Madhouse Author Interview: Internet Girlfriend by Stephanie Athena Valente

Hello friends and fiends--

Today in The Madhouse, I'm super excited to host poet Stephanie Athena Valente, whose debut collection Internet Girlfriend was recently published with Clash Books. I started reading Valente's poetry a few years ago, and I think I started with her piece "The High Priestess" in Luna Luna Magazine (which is just gorgeous). I immediately loved the lush, magic quality of her words, so when I saw that she had a book coming out, I knew I had to have it. 

Now I fall in love easily with words, but with this book, it took literally no time at all for me to become absolutely captivated and obsessed. I felt like I was falling back into my young adult and teenage years, and that nostalgia hit me hard. I didn't want to put it down--so I didn't. I read through, taking brief pauses here and there, and I remembered and lived through moments in my life that were transformational, liminal. Truly, I had such a wonderful time with this book and I envy everyone who hasn't read it yet because they're going to get to experience it for the first time, and that first read? Wow. 

Please consider picking up a copy of the book here and giving Valente a follow on Instagram and Twitter, too. She's a unique talent and one we're lucky to have in our community.

With diary pages and planchettes, 

Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: Hi Stephanie! Welcome to The Madhouse. Since this is your first time joining us here, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to poetry in the first place?

SAV: My connection to poetry wasn’t immediate. I remember discovering Emily Dickinson around the sixth or seventh grade and thinking she was quite clever, but at the time I couldn’t personally fathom what a poem really meant (or was trying to express), let alone write one. I started writing poetry in high school but really disliked studying in school (it was so boring and obtuse). It wasn’t until midway through college I took a class on Surrealist art and writing that I felt kind of electrified in a way. The transgressiveness and the sublimation gave me a kind of permission to step through the portal.

SMW: What was your writing process like during Internet Girlfriend? When did the idea for the collection take shape?


SAV: I wrote a few stray poems about early internet culture and The Babysitters Club around 2018 or 2019. It was a deviation from my style at the time—the poems were much more direct and conversational. I pushed them to the side because I kept revising this collection of poems I was submitting (Spoiler alert: It’s been revised three times and it’s still unpublished), and I felt very committed to this collection, but it really was the crux to evolve and grow my voice. Then the pandemic happened. I started looking up old websites on the internet archives as a way to unplug from everything that was happening all around us and I wrote a few more poems. I ended up doing a reading with Leza for Be About It Press, and after the reading she made it a point to tell me how much she loved my poems and asked if there were any more. I said there were a few and I was thinking of calling the collection Internet Girlfriend. Long story short, Clash Books solicited me for this collection, and I ended up writing the rest of the book in a few months. I feel very fortunate.

SMW: This collection is so wonderfully nostalgic, especially for someone like me who grew up in the nineties and was a teenager in the early 2000s. Your poem “realx, kristy, it’s just the dark lord” particularly spoke to me with that opening line: “that spring, i decided to become a witch.” Same with your piece “cult classic:” when we were serpents. / we became witches.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like all girls go through this dark, witchy phase growing up (and some of us make it a core part of who we are, *waves to self*). Can you speak to how witchcraft and maybe magic in general spoke to you growing up and how it ultimately influenced this poem (or your poetry in general)?

SAV: Oh gosh, yes. I went through this exact phase—maybe I’m still in it—but I was in the right place at the right time. Chatrooms, instant messaging, vampire movies, witchcraft websites (also, uh, nycgoth.com), and it all became this swirling nexus for this lush dark discovery. I wanted to feel connected to something and the mystical and the mysterious was always a big draw for me as a kid. Unearthing magic alongside a love of horror books and movies seemed like a natural extension. It was intimidating, beautiful, and alluring all at once. At the exact same time, I was completely immersed in pop music and trying on a few identities like every teenager out there. I used the poems as a means to channel my curiosity about witchcraft before I mostly became a witch.

SMW: Something I noticed about the poems throughout are that they have this air of confession about them, or perhaps a better way to say that is that the poems provide a narration of someone wanting to share their secrets, their innermost desires. I know when I was younger, I wrote in my journal constantly, and during the height of AOL, my away messages were beyond cringeworthy and dramatic. But that’s teenagers for you, right?  In your poem “baby’s first tarot cards” you write: “everyone would kiss me at parties, / especially at the end of the night,/ they’ll love me and love me and love me/ like ice-cold pepsi after a run.” How do themes of confession, desire, and longing play into this collection? Was that something you thought about intentionally while writing?

SAV: Oh, I love to confess. Many of my poems are confessions or liminal diary entries in a way. I’ve always approached poems—even when my style was more pastoral or academic—in this lens. Whether it’s my voice or another speaker, I love crafting a poem that opens the work as some kind of secret or confession. It’s very intentional. I’m always interested in what people don’t talk about in polite conversation whether that’s because they think it’s too mundane, too dark, or even too lovely and too private to dish out.

SMW: Your poems “blue_nails_cam.jpg” and “a/s/l?” really took me back. Wow. I remember how fascinated and addicted we all were when the internet and instant messaging slowly began to take over our lives, but these poems specifically made me remember all the times I would get online and a random chat would open on my screen saying a/s/l (age, sex, location), and it was like there was all of this untapped potential to be anyone in the world I wanted to be, and looking back that’s really scary and empowering at the same time. It kind of reminds me of an early avatar in some ways, this projection of the ideal self where anything is possible. How do you think your work in this collection explores identity, especially identity through puberty in young girls?

SAV: Much of that was my own lived experience. I mean who was I even really talking to online? And the way we introduced ourselves online, breaking ourselves into these little categories so we’d dial into some shared conversation online. My identity was really shaped by this sentiment—this safety net of the internet world and obviously, how dark and predatory it was at the same time. Because I was young, I didn’t think much about the danger, I just thought of the thrill and the power (or even just seenness) from sitting behind the screen. I just try to tap into those feelings: the rush, curiosity, longing, a desire to see and be seen.

SMW: I don’t think we ever stop forming crushes in life, but it certainly becomes the center of the universe when we’re growing up. There’s this intense focus that happens, an absolute obsession as everything we are and want to be becomes consumed by the idea of this other person. How does Internet Girlfriend tackle sexuality as a running theme throughout?

SAV: Crushes are like getting a spell cast on you. They happen quickly and they feel intense. I remember that feeling well, and I don’t think they entirely go away either. Crushes are like mirrors: What we want to be, what we want to embody, and what we want to experience. I write poetry like a mirror.

The great thing about sexuality is that it never ends, there are also facets and sides to explore. The theme can change shape just as life does.

SMW: In your poem “clear lip gloss,” you write: “my lips/so sticky with clear good, like alien sex/ like too much cocaine on a tuesday night.” Your writing here, again, takes me immediately back to an era of scrunchies, shopping trips to delia*s, chokers, popped collars, and slap bracelets. If you had to describe your style as a pre-teen/teenager, what were your ultimate must-haves? Was there anything that you didn’t have fashion-wise growing up that adult you still want, especially since fashion trends seem to be circling back to a lot of those early 2000s style icons again?

SAV: It’s all popular again! Again, the beauty of the internet: All of these trends are cyclical. I find it much faster and more intense now because of the rapid pace of social media. These trends felt much slower when I was a teenager.

My style must-haves were a tattoo choker necklace, black Converse, and either super skinny pants or like, raver JNCO-style pants. I had a lot of baby tees from DeLiA*s, and zip-up hoodies in black of course. The only skinny pants I could find were at Hot Topic. I also used to wear my mom’s old bell-bottoms *a lot* and some vintage tees she had. So I was this weird mashup of popular rave culture, a diehard teen Cure and Depeche Mode fan, and like, a little hippie kid at times. I owned several tubes of Mac’s clear lip gloss (which is the product that inspired the poem).

SMW: Another theme I noticed throughout was friendship. Female friendships are so important and complicated and beautiful and magical. How did your friendships growing up influence the creation of some of these poems, particularly “pink plastic caboodle?”

SAV: I really wanted a ride or die best friend at that age. I’m lucky to have a few now.

All of the tropes from television, movies, and books really affected me. I wanted the friend who made me friendship bracelets or sent letters from camp. It seemed very solid. The pieces I experienced made it into the poems, as the parts I wanted (but didn’t get).

SMW: What poets are you currently reading? Are there any collections you’re looking forward to adding to your TBR list?

SAV: I’m actually reading mostly mythology right now and lots of Sappho. But I desperately need some contemporary poets to dig into, so I’m saying this here to manifest it as a call to the universe. My TBR pile has mostly Anne Carson, Octavia Butler, and Angela Carter on it at the moment.

SMW: What’s next for your readers?
I’m still writing poems as it’s a kind of therapeutic practice for me. But I’m working on some fairy tale and mythology retellings. 

Bonus questions:

  • What songs would be on your mixtape? Lana Del Rey, Nick Cave, Molly Lewis, Sparks, Depeche Mode, Maye, Monogem, Nadine Shah, Yves Tumor.
  • What tarot card do you think you are? Strength and Queen of Swords.
  • How did the movie The Craft help shape your identity as a young woman and a witch? I feel like it was such an important film for all of us, regardless of the shortcomings it had. I wanted to be a witch, as simple as that. I wanted to get some power. The movie made me realize I could be something else. I didn’t have to be the person I was at the time, and I could get more out of this life.

Author Bio:

Stephanie Athena Valente lives in New York. She is the author of Internet Girlfriend (Clash Books, 2022), Hotel Ghost, waiting for the end of the world, Little Fang (Bottlecap Press), and Spell Work (2021). Her work is featured in Witch Craft Magazine, Maudlin House, and Hobart. She is an editor at Yes, Poetry.
Stephanievalente.com

Praise for Internet Girlfriend

Stephanie Valente’s Internet Girlfriend oozes with style. In an age of Y2K nostalgia, this collection of poems somehow makes the dial-up days feel glamorous while also experimenting with form in such a way that makes me excited for the future, assuming it will contain more poetry like this. These poems are a mystical time warp, a sequined occult ritual, and a lip gloss kiss stain emoji all at once. Valente writes: “please make / everything feel / opalescent // now and / forever” & that is exactly what every single poem in this collection does. — Kailey Tedesco, author of She Used to be on a Milk Carton, Lizzie, Speak, and FOREVERHAUS

In Valente’s debut book, Internet Girlfriend, we go on enchanting dates with poems. They envelop us in a simultaneously glossy and sinister sheen, turning us on—maybe even to our meta-reality. As words, glitching pixels, codes, and messaging accumulate, we peer into the sheer magic of a loose language, a reckoning with our inner teenager, and wherein the internet as our lover; Meaning develops past the screens. We become engaged to our witch hood.—Katherine Factor, author of A Sybil Society, winner of the Interim Test Site Poetry prize

Stephanie Valente's, Internet Girlfriend serves up a vivid nostalgia for a time when the newness of the internet intersected with the newness of sexuality for a generation of teen girls; those who dealt with the impossibility of their cultural irrelevance with ouija boards, witchcraft and fantasy, and eventually, and finally, by embracing a form of empowerment in the many variations of sexual attention their youth afforded them. The reader travels back to the days when we would consult the magic 8-ball "if i could love/ myself,/ it says:/ keep dreaming/ keep dreaming" but is also granted several visions of the future. "Here is how our great romance ends" begins one of my favorite of these poems, "oracle" which shows battle scars, but also wisdom; and in "palmistry" the speaker predicts, among other things, how despite or maybe because of these numerous difficult experiences "in the future, you'll learn to love yourself and it feels strange". —Carrie Nassif, author of lithopaedion (forthcoming with Finishing Line Press)

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