Identifying with Valentine: An Interview with Anya Silver


Gale Marie Thompson (GMT): “Valentine Godé-Darel (1873–1915): Five Paintings by Ferdinand Hodler,” takes a different approach to chronology. Can you explain the creation of this poem, and its relationship to time?

Anya Silver (AS): I first saw Swiss painter Hodler’s depictions of his model and lover Valentine Godé-Darel when I was doing research on art and literature and medicine. Hodler composed over 120 paintings and drawings of Godé-Darel as she was dying of cancer. What’s so stunning about the work is its absolute lack of sentiment and its frankly disturbing objectivity in the portrayal of the sick and dying woman. Hodler’s paintings and drawings of Valentine in her last days, and on her deathbed, present an absolutely emaciated, de-sexualized body. As someone who is living with advanced stage breast cancer myself, I found myself strongly identifying with Valentine and wanting her to be remembered in her strength, vitality, and beauty rather than as a corpse. In a bit of magical thinking, I wished the poem that I wrote to return her to health, so I structured it backwards, from her death to before her diagnosis (though I later found out that she was already sick when Hodler painted the painting with which I end the poem). I think of the poem as attempting to do what so much poetry has tried through many centuries: to bring the dead back to life and to preserve them from annihilation.

GMT: It is a strange, magical thing that poetry does—not only can it attempt to reawaken the dead, but it can also take material from any source and will it into being, and into life as well; it draws on the imaginative and rhetorical possibilities of other disciplines. I’m wondering about that assimilation, in particular regarding your research on art and science and literature. What role does research play overall in your creative work?

AS: It’s unusual that I set out to do formal research before I write a poem. I did so with the Valentine Godé-Darel poem because she was a real person and I wanted to represent her without taking too many historical liberties. I am also a bit obsessed with whether or not Hodler’s paintings are loving or cruel or both. I wanted to write poems that I was sure would not exploit Valentine’s illness, and the research helped with that.

Normally, my poetry arises from some experience, or from the contemplation of an event or object, or engagement with an idea. Like most poets, I often read something—sometimes just a phrase—that sets me thinking and eventually turns into a poem. I’m very fond of epigraphs. They’re scattered through both of my books and my current manuscript. One of the joys of reading outside of my discipline, whether it’s a work of theology or philosophy, or just the newspaper, is finding a little fragment that I can build a poem around. And of course, works of art such as paintings or songs often find their way into my poems as well. I love that poetry is like a dragnet that can pick up all sorts of material and refashion it.

GMT: Yes, absolutely. I am very intrigued by the quote in the first section of your poem, “1915: The Dead Valentine Godé-Darel”: “All things have a tendency towards the horizontal, to spread out / like water on the earth.” What are some epigraphs or quotes that are playing through your head right now? Alternately (or additionally), what are you reading right now?

AS: I always have epigraphs running through my head. It’s a kind of sickness. There are two that just sparked poems for me this week. One is from Carolyn Forché’s spectacular poem “On Earth”: “for the rest of your life, search for them / for the words that would not come.” The poem that I wrote is about a true experience that my father had in a sanatorium for tuberculosis. While there, he met a man who (not knowing my father’s identity) confessed to being involved in my grandfather’s political murder. He was seeking forgiveness, and my father couldn’t find the words or will to forgive him. Forché’s lines seemed perfect to me as an entryway to the poem. The second epigraph is much more lighthearted. It’s really just a caption that I read to a cartoon of an angel: “Angels are 80% music.” I turned that whimsical phrase into the title of a poem. I found the cartoon on Pinterest, by the way, which a colleague of mine calls the Wunderkammer of the twenty-first century.

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and theology these days: Paul Tillich, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Montaigne. I feel like I should have read these authors years ago and never did, so I’m catching up. (I’m filling my journal with many epigraphs, incidentally.)

GMT: Among the speaker’s many questions in your poem are these: “his obsessive brush—does love move it? Or does he paint despite their love?” In thinking about this line, along with your wishes to respect Valentine’s illness, how would you describe your relationship to your own craft, writing poetry?

AS: I recently had a conversation with a writer friend of mine about this subject. We were talking about how the writer sometimes finds himself or herself at a remove from experience because he or she realizes that the experience could be the subject matter for a poem or story, and then sort of takes a step back and begins observing rather than fully participating. Similarly, a writer’s reflections on his or her life implicitly or explicitly use other people as subject matter, and there can obviously be a great deal of cruelty or insensitivity in that. My son, who is eight, was furious at me for reading a poem at a poetry reading that refers to him vomiting; I hadn’t even thought about his reaction before I read the poem. But in general, I’m very, very careful about not publishing anything that could hurt my family or friends. I realize that that limits my subjects, but it’s more important to me to preserve my relationships and to be a decent person. Plus, there’s enough to write about without revealing things that will bring unnecessary pain or embarrassment to others.