Interview with Sabrina Dalla Valle, part 2: on memory, finding form, and new existential experiments

Frontispiece for 7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin)

7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin)
Frontispiece illustration by Marisa Dalla Valle

In part two of our interview with Sabrina Dalla Valle, we discuss how she arrived upon the form for 7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin), which was selected by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge as the winner of KSP’s Firsts! contest. (Read part one of this interview here.)

ASM: Structure is always important, especially when creating a hybrid work. How did you find the structure for your book?

SDV: I entered experimental writing as a way to explore the less conventional aspects of memoir. I had been questioning the honesty and accuracy of memory. And first I was stuck on this idea that what we remember is usually some point we want to make about ourselves. I had a moving experience in graduate school when I wrote my own memoir about my adolescence. I was remembering a silent retreat I took with a friend over a long weekend. I was convinced of several events that I thought had occurred. I could clearly see the scenes in my head, but then when I found my journal from that period and read it, I saw the problematic nature of memory. I had persuaded myself that food was anonymously delivered to our bedroom doors ~ when in reality we went to the refectory to get our trays.

At that point, I no longer wanted to write a memoir based on memory. So then I got close to the idea that what we don’t know is more important than what we do know. Aren’t we urging towards the missing pieces all the time? A friend of mine just recently shared his experience of tinnitus with me. He said that this kind of ringing in the ear is a phantom sound that the body makes up to fill any gap that would appear in the sound wave spectrum passing through one’s hearing. We always feel a little unstable when the spectrum isn’t complete.

I took a new approach to handle two of these problems. Somehow I had to find a way to let the ‘destabilizing’ gaps in awareness ring for themselves – gaps between conscious moments and gaps between states of consciousness (sleep and waking). I also wanted to get closer to my experience and not rely on memory to describe my life.  Somehow I had to figure out how to write a memoir of presence. I had read an interview with Carolyn Forché about caring for her mother in the hospital. Forché had to do something to structure her time and so created this practice of writing something every hour. I decided to do a similar thing. It was also a kind of mental game for me. I disciplined myself before each new hour struck to resist the onset of impressions. Then, exactly on the hour, I let myself loose to a bombardment of impressions and, trusting my affinities, consciously chose which one I wanted to document. I called these day-long life-documents diurnals. Then, to differentiate the way we process, I decided to use the mythologized lyric to describe the night journey that remains in the subconscious and unconscious.

ASM:  I found that  interesting in your book—that you seem to have stitched those more memoir-like pieces to the hours of the day.

7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin)

7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin)

SDV: I expressed myself through a few different rhetorical conventions (probably all) and separated them into two types of writing to designate the differences between the space of the subconscious and the conscious mind. Each day, or diurnal (hourly recording of life), is followed by a night. Since few really know what intangible spaces we travel during those dark hours, I took the book through a journey out into the solar system in a way that resonates with the mood of how I feel the subconscious to be. When I reflect on my dreams, there are single points of focus at all times contrasted with the conscious field of infinite points of focus from which to choose.

The material for the diurnals was organized around my own affinities according to a fairly rigid program. The fact of our day-to-day reality structured around hours assumes a specific causal linearity, and yet the focus of attention is seemingly irrational, disjointed—until you gather together multiple days throughout a year and begin to gain perspective. The poetic in this experiment was in the emergence of synchronistic points of attention and fields of awareness creating unplanned patterns of meaning that I find beautiful.

The difference between the diurnals and nocturnals allows meaning to take place. This gives a nice movement between discourse and modes ~ a kind of poetics of motion, as Cole Swenson would say, between different registers of consciousness.

ASM: Have you started any new projects since completing this book? In what direction do you see your work moving?

SDV: I really like the idea of the book-length poetic sequence as a framing device. Cole Swenson asks a very good question about structure for experimental writers. Why does poetry have to operate on its own? Formalism is a big topic in literary criticism ~ which I think is making a comeback. The emphasis of meaning is focused on how the text is spoken rather than what is spoken, or the context, or the speaker, giving it its aesthetic particularity.  Instead of focusing on the connections and tracing the origin of our awareness (as I did in 7 Days and Nights), we can hide them. Susan Stewart, also a poet and literary critic in this same stream we have been meandering upon in this interview, makes a good point. The place of origin must remain unavailable in order for desire to be generated. And this is one new convention I am working on creating now.

I also like the challenge of neutralizing myself and my context as much as possible within the lyrical text. I know this seems naive to say given today’s contemporary consciousness—but this is the existential experiment I am trying to do in this new work. Can I know my subject and give it voice outside of myself?

Both the Romantics (except Goethe) and Heidegger suggest that we cannot be aware outside of the consciousness of our own language, that in fact our consciousness is created by the language we inherit —and this is what I am testing now—what can I know outside of the life of my own language and can I translate this back into language?

My current project is about the relationship between language and honeybees. I am looking at bees from all angles ~ from entomology to etymology ~ and trying to use them as a guide to understand my questions about language. It is significant enough to me that the oldest recorded subjects by humans on earth are images of bees and the honey hunter found in the oldest known rock art along with fertile women and cows. This event is loaded with possibility.

I am most interested in the honeybees’ struggled relationship with light based on direct observation of their life.  They are a living paradox. On the one hand, they are the only species on earth that exclusively use the light for communication and orientation. And on the other hand, they cannot stand direct contact with the light. It excites their hormones and makes them crazy. So as nature would have it, the poison in their body mutes the light that passes through their solar panels into their nervous system. The result is that they perceive the world in an infrared twilight.

The method for my experiment is born out of my reading of ancient and continental philosophical texts that look at the tensions between light and darkness as a stage for our field of awareness. I am also interested in what for us could be seen as an eroticism of the honeybees’ survival. I see this tension generated in the contrast between the interaction of nectar and poison inside their body. Hopefully I explore this in a new way that doesn’t idealize, symbolize, or anthropomorphize the honeybee.

ASM: I look forward to seeing it develop. Thank you, Sabrina, for taking the time to chat with us.

7 Days and Nights in the Desert (Tracing the Origin) is available for purchase through Kelseyst.com (with free first class shipping in the U.S.) as well as through SPD, our distributor, and Amazon.com.

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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