How the writer processes life informs language. The molecular cerebral-woven sensuality of moments brings to fruition capacitates of life in both trauma and commemorating materializations of concrete beauty. In an essence of life that is distributed to the page, inscription is not only an act of love, but also the ebb and flow in the ways in which it holds the reflections of the sky with branches of shooting stars; swimming in the middle of a school of circling fish; speeding on a motor scooter through the rain. Danielle Vogel is a writer inspired by how language is able to participate in a conversation with the self. The cellular and the spiritual act of reconstructing the prisms of self-definition and how the integration forms, heals, and embraces the divine in both life and writing. In this way language is matter, with the ability to hold balance and inspire a change of greatness.
As a child, Vogel was deeply connected to her mother, she states, “my senses were an extension of her senses,” and in this sense, she “learned to let language shore up around [her],” in the same way that she “liked to drag [her] fingers over the [newsprint] until they became stained with ink.” In this way the cognitive reasoning and instability that she found within her bones was able to slow and organize. She says this shadow: “gave [her] a sense of tactility, a skin to encase [her] thinking;” to experience language “viscerally.” The viscerally places the body back into the language of mind and body, experience and story, language and enumerative living of one in both words and ligaments.
The body in this way is then returned to a state of elements in the same way that it is processed through sensory living. She iterates, “I want to make bodies and meet bodies through words … I want to return language to the elements, to their origins. I want to return my body to the elements … I try to energize new synaptic patterns through the contortion of grammar.” She highlights the focus of our interview with her book, Between Grammars, forthcoming spring 2015 from Noemi Press. The lineage of the letter and the self and the body is contained in the expression of communication that we choose to enumerate. She states, “I believe each letter contains an archive, a lineage of all its origins. I believe language is capable of being changed and of changing. Of design and reformation.” The transformative possibility of this in life and lesson is one of being aware and open to possibility. And, as she states it calls upon the reader, “to become an active participant—almost a possessed lover—in the construction of the absent character,” one that is at once in focus and out of focus as they participate in the adventure.
Danielle Vogel is an artist and writer who grew up on the south shore of Long Island. She is the author of Between Grammars (Noemi Press 2015), Narrative & Nest (Abecedarian Gallery 2012) and lit (Dancing Girl Press 2008) and has exhibited her work at RISD Museum, The University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, and Abecedarian Gallery. She is currently a visiting writer teaching at Brown and Wesleyan Universities.
- What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer?
My desire to write began when I began. I grew up on the south shore of Long Island where I was an only child for nine years. I shared most of those years with my mother. We had an unusually close relationship. The result of our connection was that the only physical body I understood to exist was my mother’s. My senses were an extension of her senses. My experience of being a person began through my consciousness, which seemed to have no skin to enclose it. Whatever linked most people’s voices to their forms didn’t seem to exist for me. My thinking was my body. I was composed of thought-experience, a spectral sensitivity that felt to me like a concentration of light and electricity.
As a child, I was sometimes afraid of my own living. I existed. I was alive. And for some reason I held a lot of panic, shame, and guilt about that reality. Living—in my body—didn’t seem to belong to me somehow. In order to mediate that feeling, I learned to let language shore up around me. Language gifted me a corporeality that my own bones and skin couldn’t. At 3 years old, I can remember sitting on the floor with a newspaper spread out in front of me. I couldn’t read, but I could pretend to. I liked to drag my fingers over the print until they became stained with ink, with the act of inscription and reading.
My mother also loved words. She kept notebooks of words, their definitions, and etymologies. Before I could write, I would watch her write in these notebooks and feel myself writing. As a child and young adult, the only time I experienced my own private form was in the practice of reading and writing, even if I was only pretending. As I read and wrote, I became a home within a house. I was within my own living in a way that felt safe. It wasn’t that I was living inside what I was reading or writing, but that these acts composed a kind of internal intimacy for me. As I read, I felt organized, contained; I felt touched. It wasn’t about imagination—my reality wasn’t transformed—but instead it was about a bridging between my voice and my body. Somehow, through those acts, I not only experienced a kind of communion with whatever was being read or written, but I also met myself in a way that felt impossible at most other times. Language slowed the world for me; it gave me a sense of tactility, a skin to encase my thinking. I know now that this was a form of dissociation, and, over time, I’ve realized the many gifts of this way of experiencing the world. This feeling of living at the sill between presence and non-presence is why I’m a writer, why I’ve chosen language as my primary medium. It’s these feelings that I’ve been working through in my first three books: Between Grammars (Noemi Press 2015), Clasp (under consideration), and A Library of Light (in-progress), books I’ve been writing for the past eight years.
- Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
The first books I remember—and this is pre-reading time to the time I was about 9—are a pictorial-dictionary outlining the Rider-Waite Tarot deck (this was my mother’s book when she was a teenager), a children’s bible with a bright yellow cover, and a book about the lives of women saints, which I still have. I received the bible and book of saints from my mother’s mother who was very religious—she voluntarily cleaned a catholic convent and church weekly—and thus was mortified that I lugged around this Tarot book whose cover was foxed with mold. The children’s bible terrified me. There was so much blood! There were so many wounds. I became obsessed with those gaps into the body. I used to touch the pages, close my eyes, and imagine that I was sealing up all the wounds. The book of saints deeply affected me. As I read, I felt as if I had known all of these women. In 2nd grade, I was able to bring something in for show-and-tell once a month. For some months, I brought myself in dressed and acting like one of the saints I was in awe of.
As a teen, I kept what I called “holy books” on a shelf directly above the head of my bed. These were Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and Sea and Foam (again, my mother’s books from when she was a teen), Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels, Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, and Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest.
In my twenties, I fell in love with women who wrote about the act of writing. Women who helped me to understand that language—in all iterations—is always a physical act; language is always a verb. These women are: Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Hélène Cixous (who I didn’t read until I was 29! I felt like I had just been given the biggest gift.), Jeanne Hyvrard, and Carole Maso.
Now, in my thirties, I’ve mostly been reading books on visual artists to help me better understand my writing practice. How language looms us through sight and sound to time, to presence, and also non-presence. I’ve been looking especially to artists whose work acts simultaneously as a tool for divination: Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz. But also to artists who work primarily with grids, hinges, and clasps like Gego, Lenore Tawney, Ruth Asawa, and Agnes Martin. These artists have helped me to think not only about the invisible implications of language, but also about its bulk, its physicality—how it knots, clasps, extends.
- Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
My teachers: Anne Waldman, Akilah Oliver, Selah Saterstrom, and Bhanu Kapil.
Anne and Akilah for holding space. For demanding that we—their students—do the work required to make change in the world. To see and speak for the voiceless places in history. Selah for helping me to see better. For teaching me to track and learn from my writing tendencies. And for helping me understand that each and every manuscript arrives with its own blueprint, we need only to open ourselves to communicating with our work in order to read and learn from that blueprint. Bhanu, who told me during my first year at Naropa University where I received my MFA that I already had all I needed within me to be a writer. That charged my writing life. I’m sure she’s said that kind of thing to many writers, but for years, whenever I felt desperate, I was able to call up that sentiment.
These women are fierce in their living and in their work; in fact, the two are often impossible to separate. I feel blessed to have been able to learn from and work beside these artists, to carry what I learned—and continue to learn—from each into my practice of living, writing, and teaching.
Outside of the writing community, my father’s mother has been one of my greatest supporters. Her name is Violet. I still send her all of my work. She also gave me my first divinatory tool—a pendulum—when I was five years old.
- How has your own work changed over time and why?
My work is directly influenced by my practice as a visual artist, ceremonialist, and diviner. Alongside each of the books I’ve written, and am currently writing, there have been physical components—textile and ceramic exhibitions, public and private ceremonies—that have helped me to understand what my books are trying to become as I write them.
I have also been fortunate enough to be a part of innovative writing communities that have nourished me. My work is in direct communion with the Front Range writers in Colorado (especially those involved with Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program, The University of Denver, and Counterpath), those who run and come through the Poetry Project in NYC, the Belladonna* Collaborative in Brooklyn, and, most recently, the writers and artists in Rhode Island and Boston.
- Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
Oh, definitely. I have been influenced by everything and write through many genres. I especially love to read etymology dictionaries, the diaries of naturalists and clairvoyants, artist daybooks, artist monographs, books about natural sciences, animal architectures, ancient herbals, lamentation and trauma theories, and books on divination.
- What are your plans for the future?
Goodness. To keep my heart open and to write from and for that openness.
More specifically, I want to finish A Library of Light, which is the barest and most vulnerable book I’ve written so far. I am also writing an extended version of Narrative & Nest, an artist book published in 2012 in conjunction with my ceramic exhibition at Abecedarian Gallery. I am working toward future exhibitions in porcelain and hand-harvested clay alongside the writing of A Library. As well as working with Iceland/Los Angeles-based Theater Artist Samantha Shay as she adapts A Library of Light for the stage.
- What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I don’t know how to answer this question. I don’t feel qualified somehow! But I am a woman and I have been alive longer than twenty years. I am carried by this writing. I am in constant conversation with it. I am a writer because these women have made room for my voice.
- Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
There are so many that I could never name them all. Some presses that I look to are: Dorothy, a publishing project; Belladonna* Collaborative; Noemi Press; Rescue Press; Nightboat; Counterpath, and Kelsey Street. Poet Jennifer Pilch runs an incredible online all-women’s journal bridging visual art to poetics called La Vague. And Two Serious Ladies is an online journal I visit frequently.
- If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Writer. This word contains all possible iterations.
- If the field of the page is infused, as you say, in your poem, “Volume : Page,” “in space through the / speaking. The wet membrane, / syllables sound,” we internalize and embody our language. Language then becomes knotted on the cellular level. In this way to change language do you think it is possible to embody, as you say, “the present tense. / A trellis of water. A wet column of / words to walk through,” if the encounter of the word is a body within itself?
I think I’ll be answering this question for the next twenty years in my work. It’s one of the reasons I write. I experience language viscerally. It feels like a body against and inside of my body. I feel conjoined, deranged, unhinged, soothed, cleaved, and presenced to and by it. For a long time, language was the only sensual body I felt safe inside of. So much happens on the bodily level—physically, through desire, invisibly at the level of my cells and synapses, and whatever this electrical feeling in my body is that animates my thinking—that I’ll never understand. And all of it happens in a continuous present where I am reaching out—with my thoughts, with my language—in all directions through time and space and desire. I imagine a halo. I imagine a mandala of light. I imagine something with heft and a life of its own: my thinking and all it encounters.
I want to look at these questions through language. I want to place my thinking and my physical desire next to it in my books. I want to make bodies and meet bodies through words.
- Can you describe your motivation for placing this animal “hide” of language in a landscape underwater? We read, “She is learning to breathe underwater. / With each sound, a surfacing. She / says:,” and later, “maybe ) ( your ) ( arrival ) ( my ) ( / body a ) ( thick ) ( rope ) ( of noise ).” How do you view the relationship between the molecular structure of sound, self, and language, and its movement through water?
I began a ceramic practice in 2006. Alongside the first vessels I sculpted, I wrote a tiny book called lit, which Dancing Girl Press published in 2008. That book places language underground where the words take shape and erode and cast light in this buried landscape. That book was a small investigation into language’s relationship to disassociation and its ability to both erode and repair the landscape of a body. Between Grammars is an extension of that early investigation. Here I pull language through the element of water while thinking about the symbiotic relationship between a writer, language, and her reader. And I continue this investigation in my next two books: Clasp and A Library of Light. In Clasp, I pull language through the places where water meets land. And in A Library, I pull language through light and ether. I am doing this for many reasons. I want to have more bodily understanding of the somatic interdependence between language and presence. Between form and disjunction. Between the physical and ethereal parts of a body. Between people. I want to return language to the elements, to their origins. I want to return my body to the elements. And in doing so, I have this idea that I’ll better understand my own physicality. That I’ll feel healthier or more in and of the world.
- The intimate relationship that the writer has to her language is reciprocal. She, you write in the poem, “Volume : Book,” is “waiting. Flooded by the book./ She floods the book in return. / Watershed, she floats below the lip. / And the little words are with her in the / dark.” The body as it is pronounced through the field of the page is a bit of her, a whole of her, a song of the ligaments of an inhalation. Language then becomes a limb, a cerebral cortex, an emotive extension of the self. How do you believe that language, as we read, “Unblotted through the body. / So exposed. A piece of her. A letter, / liable. On paper or on language,” changes the writer? Do you believe that the writer changes the letter or the letter changes the writer? In broadening the canon, then, does language become part of the feminine? How does the imagination interplay with this space? What part of the writer lives her life as a poem? Is there a difference and what is the importance of the difference?
First, I just want to say how honored I am to have my work read and responded to in these ways. Your questions get at the marrow, the very cellular structure of my work. And because of that I find myself writing alongside your questions instead of answering them outright; I hope that’s okay.
I don’t know if the physical act of writing changes the writer, but I’d like to believe it does. I think it does. What I understand is that memories compose synapses within in the body. When we learn something new, strings of synapses are created or old sequences are adapted to include the experience. As I write, I try to energize new synaptic patterns through the contortion of grammar. I write in a way that, for me, might heal through a reconfiguration of past experiences. I believe language holds this capacity. Or, at least, I really want to believe that it holds this capacity. That it can enter the body and rework the muscle of past experiences. That it can locate areas of numbness and release residual traumas. That it can create endless opportunities for proliferation and reparation.
I believe each letter contains an archive, a lineage of all its origins. I believe language is capable of being changed and of changing. Of design and reformation. Language imagines through us and remembers all of its imaginings. It is a living and mutable archive. I think all of this transcends masculine and feminine binaries. But the feminist in me wants to say, yes, writing is entirely a feminine act. It is beautiful and bloody. Sexy and guttural. Entirely of the body. But the parts of me that do not feel like a woman, those parts that feel more like electricity and light, want to answer this in a different way. The act of languaging is not feminine; it is what happens at the limit, the threshold of the self. And in that place, at that juncture, we—all of us—are neither male nor female.
I’ve said elsewhere, in another interview, that I don’t see much difference between a book and a body. So when you ask: “what part of the writer lives her life as a poem?” I want to answer that I believe—as I write, am written, and read—I expand through sound into the space of language. And that that sound-space is of me and of the reader, simultaneously. I am gatherable, utterable, alive. Met and meeting.
- Is the relationship to language as you say to, “( someone’s ) ( lover ) ( / someone’s reader ) ( each sound ) ( a / ) ( skin ) ( myself ) ( through a voice ) / ( one of us ) ( opens ).”? If this is the case, how do you view cross-cultural encounters of language? What happens when the encounter is not one of love-making and what happens when language does not have words for the body that it inhabits?
It is as if you are seeing into the future of this series. I wrote Between Grammars in a fit of deep loneliness. I was mourning the death of my mentor and friend Akilah Oliver as well as mourning the passing of a six-year partnership. I wrote the first (very rough) draft of Between in one ten-hour stretch. I had never lived alone before. I had never—literally—had only my writing to keep me company. So Between was a conversation with that loneliness. I was already six years into the writing of Clasp, which, secretly, I consider a translation project. Not a cross-cultural exchange, but the translation of an untranslatable absence, silence, and vacancy. It seeks to gather and transcribe the voice that cannot be heard because it does not have a conveyable logic. Clasp is written at the intersection between language and the unutterable. It is concerned with the inherent violence and sensuality embedded within the act of languaging. And it calls upon the reader to become an active participant—almost a possessed lover—in the construction of the absent character: this girl who cannot arrive or come into focus. I have so much more to say about this. I want to take apart the word violence for you, but I’ll save that for another time, I think.
And while I cannot speak directly to translation projects between languages because I am not a translator, I do study translation theory. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in “The Politics of Translation,” writes: “Translation is the most intimate act of reading. I surrender to the text when I translate … The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying.” I experience the act of writing in this way. When I write, I feel the weight of an atmosphere in my body, almost like a wet bolt of fraying cloth, and I aim to translate that dissipating atmosphere into sense as closely and as faithfully as I can.