Interview with Sabrina Dalla Valle, part 1: on philosophy and poetry

7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin) was selected by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge as the winner of KSP’s 2012 Firsts! contest

New Kelsey Street Press author Sabrina Dalla Valle elaborates on her poetic and philosophic influences, as well as her writing practice, in this two part interview.

Anna Morrison: Congratulations on winning KSP’s very first Firsts! Contest. We’re proud to have 7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin) as one of our titles. Your book combines a poetic narrative with philosophical inquiry, something for which there is ample precedent—from Parmenides to Etel Adnan. At the same time, philosophy and poetry can be positioned as opposing forces: Plato had anxiety about poets in The Republic. Philosophy, having a primarily rational basis, could be seen as contrasting the gestures of poetry, which may progress intuitively and emotionally. What are your thoughts on this? Can you speak a bit about the relationship between poetry and philosophy?

Sabrina Dalla Valle: I find this dualistic relationship between poetry and philosophy in your question difficult to connect with ~ because for me they are reciprocals and they mirror one another, so they are found in each other. Build fires to worship the wood, burn wood to worship the fire. This line from one of Susan Stewart’s poems really encapsulates my response.

Heidegger starts to articulate this when he says, “Art grows out of being and reaches into its truth,” and more specifically, “Poetry is the saying of truth, the saying of the unconcealedness of beings.” He is emphasizing the less obvious significance of Parmenides’ work here. The term ‘unconcealedness’ is an imagistic translation of the Greek term aletheia that we take in English to mean ‘truth’. In Greek, aletheia literally means ‘not forgetting’ ~ so truth is an act of not forgetting. All that we know of Parmenides’ work comes from the fragments of one single text, a poem titled “On Nature” ~ the subject of all his contemporaries.

What is important for me with Parmenides as the beginning of Western philosophical tradition (which really wasn’t Western—but that is another conversation) is that he was the first one we know of who built a bridge between knowledge through dreams to knowledge through reason (from subconscious imagination to conscious thinking). But we have to be careful about what was originally meant by reason. For Parmenides, it meant a way through the tensions and even the contradictions between that which we can know and that which we cannot know. The birth of philosophy in the West is essentially the birth of consciousness ~ how to become aware of more things.

You mention Etel Adnan as an important current poet-philosopher who holds the torch at the top of this lineage. Despite all these 2500 years that have passed, I think the mission is the same; we just live it with a different perspective. Adnan’s verse from “Manifestations of the Voyage”: The Word has sunk/ we are left with no cry   gesture/ or gaze   silence to us is forbidden ~ takes us right back into Parmenides’ chariot ride guided by the goddesses to the underworld where he supposedly is given the gift of “reason”~ or the ability to navigate through paradoxical ambiguity. Anne Carson, as both a poet and Classics professor, engages with this as well. Nox, her published elegy to her brother, is structured around Catullus’ poem 101. Following a leaf from Herodotus, she explores how history can be at once concrete and indecipherable ~ it’s brilliant.

For the pre-Socratics, what we don’t know is what we have forgotten. The first pre-Socratic philosopher before Parmenides is Heraclitus. His famous little match that set fire to what today we call logic is the notion that “Nature prefers to hide.” Or “A hidden connection is stronger than apparent ones.” The truth is obfuscated; we have to look at the signs and interpret them. So really, the irrational mystical and the positivistic rational, while dualistic, are intertwined. Mystical experiences claim to have access to a hidden structure of reality, rational arguments to a visible one. One is subjective, the other is objective ~ and both come together when mediated through the imagination.

We can easily see how this is the foundation for poetic thought. A poem about the desert can reveal more than what it describes, creating a kind of essence or idea that isn’t fully present. So poetry, just like Heidegger’s art, is a partial idea— similar to Plato’s daemonic energy, or one’s higher self or intermediary between that which is mortal and that which is immortal, filling itself with the tension between the known and unknown ~ or the best strivings of philosophy.

Heidegger helps me to understand this foundational relationship between poetry and philosophy. Here in this reciprocal bind, we are challenged to see language as more than an instrument. Quoting Goethe in a 1975 documentary called On the Way to Thinking he says, “language in its daily usage appears as a means of comprehension and these means are used for the usual relations of life. Only there are still other relations than the usual ones… These relations are deeper… In ordinary life we scarcely get by with language because we only indicate superficial relations. As soon as speech is made from deeper relations, another language immediately appears: the poetic.” Here, Heidegger borrows from the Romantic tradition that when subsumed by the de profundis moment (hence poetic) the human does not speak, language speaks—the living dynamic of language itself clicks in and goes to work.

ASM: I love that Susan Stewart quote, as well as your insights into Heraclitus, and your formulation, “the irrational mystical and the positivistic rational, while dualistic, are intertwined.” I think that, where it exists, the tendency to view poetry and philosophy as opposing forces may be a reflection of mode—that we perceive poetry as seductive to the senses. Do you find the mode of philosophical thought to be different than the mode of poetic thought?

SDV: ‘Mode’ is a term that is charged with meaning for me. My mother used to tell me that what got me into trouble was not what I said, but how I said it. This made me so angry; I thought that what I had to say was so much more important than how it came across, and I insisted on this insensitivity for years until I felt completely alienated from everyone in my world.

I finally understood this crucial piece of communication after I started to study philosophy and poetics through the ages. I came to understand rhetorical mode, the how, as a valenced spectrum of connection between the soul of the content and the body and temperament of the text. The soul of the what is given a body through the modulated tones shifting between narration, description, explanation, persuasion and reflection. This mastery has everything to do with appeal or ‘tastiness’~ the fruit of the subject’s haecceity ~ a direct way to savor the je ne sais quoi essence of the what through a crafted corporeality to materialize the soul of what wants to be expressed.

This question you ask would make a fantastic creative writing course. If you really took up this study, you would find so many different ways in which these conventions are used across the board between philosophy and poetry and you would come to realize the inherent metaphysics embedded within the world of rhetorical modalities.

In early history, philosophy and poetry were one and the same: the Veda Sutras, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Homeric Epics, the Bible, the Kalevala, the I Ching… others that I cannot list right now. Here, the entire notion of modes of ‘deliverance’ and ‘intent’ is wrapped up with guides for how to live a sane life within an unpredictable and mysterious world. These are written as puzzles, narratives, songs, psalms, verses ~ all uses of language that are more ceremonial gazing into a mythical/pre-historical sense of the world. This interdependence between state of awareness and rhetorical modality is sacrosanct to me. But also, maybe because of translations and difference in our historical awareness, these works are chaotic. As we become more modern, the author’s voice (philosopher and poet) becomes more self-reflective, less focused on the mythical legacy of the wild universe and more attentive to the scattered wilderness of the soul.

The Gita, for example, comes down to us as an oral narrative of struggle. These early texts are templates to this mythical chaos just mentioned. Both the actual battle of Arjuna’s struggle and the plot development are a metaphor of his state of mind. As my dear friend and mentor Ian Mills says so well, the episodes develop “like the progression of a jazz improvisation session, a coming and going of themes rising gradually to a summit of soul-progression of understanding.” The entire epic narrative is about Krishna’s efforts to keep order in the topsy-turvy wilderness of the universe.

We can agree that Plato weaves together all modalities to still this chaotic wilderness of the unknown between the soul and the universe. But then, with the Book of Chuang Tzu, chaos returns in a sequence of narratives that kicks away the seriousness of our relationship to the universe. Here we see in a kind of dry humor how the repetition of something is what creates a pattern, which we then connect with an idea of a certain order ~ but you never know what is going to happen next. Luckily, a base line resonates underneath chaotic action. Then with Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”, which for a long time were considered mere fragments of a larger work, we come to a series of reflections based on the Stoic practice of daily examination of conscience as a way to tune one’s being to the tune of the universe.

We start to get really modern with Nietzsche and tumble into his passionate psychic world constructed with such reflective and narrative exaltation. He is interested in the wilderness of human relations, particularly friendship. In The Gay Science, he becomes more sober and looks at friendship as strife ~ but a healthy one, for the difficulties and disagreements help us cultivate ourselves. And so we must remember these friends, for they have given us star friendship. “There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path,—let us rise up to this thought! But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.— Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies.”

And then with figures like Luce Irigaray, something new happens, and a new philosophy emerges as a direct encounter with the fortressed lineage of male philosophers. In Marine Lover, Irigaray writes a direct address to Nietzsche as his star friend, which he would not have expected, because she is a woman. She weaves, in her own brilliant way, every modality to create a completely unique imagined love affair. She has her work cut out for her, because in order to love him, she must flip all the diminishing comments he makes about women. Irigaray is rewriting a position for herself as a candidate to fulfill Nietzsche’s call for the ‘new philosopher’. Little did he know, it would be a woman who restores love to its proper place as point of origin and drive for philosophic activity.

ASM: What an interesting work and project. For many women writers, that is part of the challenge of writing in friendship with your influences—that many of those influences may have belittled your efforts in advance. The star friendship/earth enemy dynamic offers a mediating lens.

Next week, please look for the second half of our conversation with Sabrina Dalla Valle, where we’ll discuss the structure of 7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin) and her new projects.

Sabrina Dalla Valle

Sabrina Dalla Valle
Photo by Jeffrey Martin

Sabrina Dalla Valle received her BA in Anthropology from Reed College and her MFA in Writing and Consciousness from New College of California in San Francisco. Her writing has been anthologized in The Best of Kore Press 2012 Poems (Kore Press, 2013), in Alchemical Traditions (Numen Books, 2013), and has appeared in numerous journals including New York QuarterlyGently Read LiteratureCaketrain, and jmww. Sabrina lives in Los Angeles where she teaches writing and consciousness studies at the University of Philosophical Research in Los Feliz (Hollywood). 7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin) is her first full-length book.

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