by Gina Myers | Contributing Writer
How does one speak the unspeakable? How can grief and immense loss be conveyed to others? These are questions that Charles Valle grapples with in his debut book of poetry Proof of Stake, released by Fonograf Editions in June. Written in stops and starts over nearly a decade, Proof of Stake is comprised of a single long poem, an elegy addressed to Valle’s daughter, Vivian, who died shortly after her birth. Unlike traditional elegies, the speaker does not arrive at a place of consolation or solace by the end of the poem. Instead, Valle rages as he unsettles himself throughout the poem, mourning not just the loss of his daughter, but also decrying the persistent racist history of colonialism, and the contemporary racism and cruelty of capitalism—the things Vivian would have inherited, the things Valle’s other children have inherited. This is an elegy that resists and refuses closure as it recounts various traumas. It is a poetics of grief, a rallying cry, and a protest song.
Valle and I connected over email to discuss Proof of Stake, racism, how to express grief sonically, the end of capitalism, and hope for the future, among other things.
Gina Myers: Can you begin by telling me about the experience of writing Proof of Stake?
Charles Valle: The experience of writing the book has been, in turns, amazing and frustrating, and difficult and cathartic. I think of the work as an assemblage from various fragments I’d been playing around with for years. The earliest fragments were from right after Vivian died back in 2011, while other fragments were culled or constructed from the craziness of 2020. Elegies are difficult in many ways, subject matter notwithstanding. I knew I wanted to write an elegy that consciously resisted the impulse to capture or preserve; I did not want psychological/emotional reportage. Primarily because I don’t think I’m capable, nor do I think it’s possible to properly capture that loss. I wanted to create a space that honored Vivian while recontextualizing her loss through social and historical lenses.
In 2019, I was invited by Notre Dame’s Creative Writing Program to read some poems and participate in a panel about life after the MFA. The reading very much forced me to work more rigorously on the elegy. I was very lucky to have Joyelle McSweeney—who had also experienced a baby loss—in the crowd that night. She, along with others, were very encouraging about the excerpt I had read. The assemblage was resonating with others!
Writing while working a corporate day job and helping to raise two precocious children is incredibly frustrating. Much of the book was written between 10 pm and 1 am. Reading, researching, writing, and editing in stops and starts. I’d add long sections and remove them the next night. Reorder, rearrange, delete, develop. It got to a point where I had several different versions. I submitted different versions out to various publishers. Luckily, when Fonograf got back to me regarding wanting to publish Proof of Stake, it was the version that I had continued to develop.
GM: I’m struck by your statement that you wanted to write an elegy that “consciously resisted the impulse to capture or preserve.” One of the things that I noticed while reading the poem is the ongoing struggle to put your grief into language, alternating between, as you write:
There are no words
There are words
There are no words.
It reads as an authentic experience of grief, anger, and love, which are messy and complicated things that refuse to be pinned down. Has arriving at a final version of the book affected your understanding of the project? Does it feel complete or is it something you are continuing to write?
CV: I definitely wanted to play with a lot of the internal negotiations and tensions I experienced in my early grief work. Words fail more often than not in trying to articulate the contradictions and impulsiveness of emotions and thought processes. My friend Lawrence and I were recording the audio for the book last month and we were discussing sound design and how to represent grief sonically. I asked if it was possible to have audio speed up and simultaneously slow down, to have it envelop you and disappear in the same moment. [Spoiler alert: we ended up with harps.] Much like love, grief is so messy and complicated, and so unique to each person’s experience. Personally, love and grief both fuck with my concept of time and place. For me, it’s like the opposite of overdetermination, with several effects from singular causes. And the effects are sharding and being distributed to different nodes in different time zones.
Publishing Proof of Stake definitely affected my relationship to the larger project I have been working on. My initial idea for the project was one really long poem woven from multiple skeins—the threads in the book representing a subset. There are parts of the book that are wound very tightly; I can see myself uncoiling them and inserting new fragments in the future. As a product, I think Proof of Stake is complete. I’m happy with how it turned out. And I’m excited to have people read it. At the same time, I’m going to continue to work on the larger project.
GM: One of the threads in Proof of Stake is your Filipino heritage—covering the colonial history of the Philippines and discussing present day violence in the United States. You write:
It’s 2019 and there’s a man who wants me
to go back where I came from
There’s a man who wants to
Call me a
And I’m not even a .
You then describe the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year, climate disaster, and income inequality increasing during the pandemic. Can you talk about the ways in which this deeply personal book is also deeply political?
CV: It’s interesting to me how when we think of the dead and project their presence in our lives, the projections often point to events or milestones that the dead will not experience with us. Birthdays, holidays, first days of school, etc. There were so many events in 2020 that I’m glad Vivian never had to endure. There are so many racist articulations and interactions that I’m thankful she will never have to deal with. Some of the conversations I’ve had with our children, Ivan and Olive, dealing with race and politics and history, are heartbreaking. Olive is 6 years old and is palpably afraid of the police. She is afraid that since I have dark skin, the police will kill me. She wishes her skin was lighter. The constant negotiations she and her brother deal with are so exhausting.
I was born in the Philippines and moved to Southern California when I was seven. Feeling like an outsider made sense since I was an outsider. But Vivian, Ivan, and Olive were born in Oregon. There is no going back to where they came from. So in many ways, the deeply personal and the deeply political are inescapable. There’s a section in the book where I talk about Vivian’s progenitors as captured through European ethnography in the Boxer Codex. And here we are, almost 500 years later, and we’re still dealing with very similar Orientalism. Still dealing with elites and ruling classes maintaining the superstructures, defining civility and savagery. In terms of cultural hegemony, there’s no unfucking for POCs and for me, Filipinos specifically. It’s something I keep going back to in the book: how do we unfuck ourselves? There were some amazing decolonizing gestures last year. There was so much sincere and justifiable outrage in the streets. The NBA players actually shut down the league! And then Obama called Lebron & Co. and everything’s cool? What?
GM: It does feel like we are at a crossroads. There is such great potential for radical change right now, but of course the push for change comes with reactionary backlash. Do you have any optimism about how what is happening now could affect the future?
CV: I’m actually quite optimistic for the future. But, it’s hard given current news cycles, given social media, etc. There are so many aspects of the partisan theatrics playing out before us that are accepted as sincere discourse; it’s maddening. Trump and Obama played such perfect heels; they were both so effective at riling up different parts of the arena. I was really excited by all of the GameStop drama earlier in the year, much like Occupy Wall Street in the last decade. I was hoping/dreaming the Diamond Hands Army would rip the curtain down and expose the fragility of the securities infrastructure. I was hoping/dreaming that Antifa and the Q Klux Klan would hold hands and sing Woody Guthrie songs as they burned down the Federal Reserve building and Goldman Sachs and BlackRock. Seriously though, I really believe we are progressing as a global society (except for the whole climate crisis thing). It’s just slow and painful for a lot of people. I don’t even think we have to point back to the atrocities of the imperial projects of the 16th-20th centuries to show progress. I mean there were anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. until 1967. It’s crazy how recent that is.
Change is coming. Substantive change. The U.S. imperial project will stop at some point. Today’s form of capitalism that is crushing the large majority of the world will stop at some point. It may not happen in my lifetime, or Ivan’s or Olive’s, but large transformational changes are coming. Maybe the climate crisis will be the forcing function, or China’s impending financial dominance, or maybe cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technology. (Hopefully cryptocurrency.) I’m hopeful for the global youth. Especially the ones who’ve been participating in a lot of the direct actions in the past year. The kids know we fucked them over; I can’t wait until we get out of their way.
Gina Myers is the author of Some of the Times, published by Barrelhouse in October 2020. She is the author of two other full-length poetry collections, A Model Year (2009) and Hold It Down (2013), as well as several chapbooks. In addition to poetry, she has published essays, reviews, and articles for a variety of publications, including Hyperallergic, Frontier Psychiatrist, Fanzine, The Rumpus, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. Learn more at gina-myers.org.