Leona: 00:00 I read this one little line in this one little book about the radical ... it's called The Radical Lives of Helen Keller ... and I read this one line, and it was about her politics, which were quite radical. A lot of people don't know that, but she was a socialist and she was really cool.
Leona: 00:17 Anyways, one little line said, “And she performed for four years on Vaudeville.” And I was like, "What?" Like, how did I not know this? And this is toward the end of my PhD, and I just knew, I kind of filed it away and I said, “I need to do something with this.” And so that was sort of the seed of my one woman show.
Gavin: 00:36 Welcome to the What Origin podcast, where we explore the origins of creativity. In this episode, we'll be interviewing blind advocate, writer, actor, creator, and more, Leona Godin. And you can find out more at Doctor [D-R] M-L-G-O-D-I-N.com, and you can find out about her project Aromatica Poetica at aromaticapoetica.com.
Gavin: 01:05 If you'd like to find out more about the podcast, you can visit whatorigin.com, and we have transcriptions available in the blog post about each episode.
Gavin: 01:15 Creativity can live anywhere even in darkness, like with Leona, who happens to be blind. If she wasn't blind, I'm sure she would be creating things anyways. It's an ethic. It's something that lives inside us. It's a hunger. Once we create something once, we want to do it again and again, and I know that's how it starts.
Gavin: 01:37 Things start small, but putting yourself out there and doing something new is the path to becoming a creator. And I think almost anything is creative, a new haircut that you decide on, trimming your hedges in a beautiful way. But if creativity can live in darkness, I believe it can live within you.
Gavin: 01:54 Through the story of Leona, I've learned that having a disability doesn't mean you can't create beautiful, interesting, colorful and aromatic things. So without further ado, let's jump into the interview.
Gavin: 02:10 I've seen on your personal website, you have a acting reel so, you've been in some various things. You've done one person shows, you have written plays. That is just to me, is a general creativity that ... I have friends that are really great, and they go to work and they do the normal stuff, and they're creative in their own way, but they're not creative in the sense that they want to go write a play, or they're not even comfortable enough to get on stage in front of people.
Gavin: 02:39 I only did see a clip of it, but it was pretty ... it made me laugh. So not necessarily, where did that come from, but maybe talk a little bit about what you have created, and what the process of just sitting down and being like, "Hmm, I'm going to create something from scratch." Why do you do that?
Leona: 03:00 Sure. Hi. Thank you, for having me on your podcast. I went the academic route, and I think that sometimes staying in school, especially for blind people, you can get a lot of support in school. And so, my mom said, “Stay in school.” And so I did for a long, long time and got that PhD.
Leona: 03:19 But somewhere in the middle of it, I felt like I wanted something else, and I had gotten a guide dog, which really opened up sort of my mobility. I was still visually impaired at the time, but it was difficult for me to get around at night.
Leona: 03:34 Anyway. So, to make a long story short, me and my guide dog, Millennium, started going to open mics when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation. And we started running around the Lower East Side of New York City, and going to open mics, and doing comedy, and doing our storytelling and all kinds of nonsense.
Leona: 03:55 And I think, on the one hand, it was really to kind of get out of the house, and writing 24/7 is hard, especially when you're writing about the 18th century. But it was also, yeah, exactly what you said, this kind of need to create something.
Leona: 04:11 And so, I was already in this very creative cesspool of the Lower East Side, and people were doing one woman shows, and people were making music, and people were doing all kinds of things. And, I guess, I read this one little line in this one little book about the radical ... It was called The Radical Lives of Helen Keller. And then, and I read this one line, and it was about her politics, which were quite radical. A lot of people don't know that, but she was a socialist, and she was really cool.
Leona: 04:41 Anyways, but one little line said, “And she performed for four years on Vaudeville." And I was like, “What?" Like, how did I not know this? And this is towards the end of my PhD, and I just knew, I kind of filed it away and I said, “I need to do something with this."
Leona: 04:56 And so that was sort of the seed of my one woman show. And, gosh, I don't know. I mean, it sort of took off from there. It's like, I guess, if you do like to create stuff, once you do it, you kind of can't stop.
Leona: 05:11 Performing, I have indifferent feelings about performing. I mean, I don't mind being in front of an audience too much. I mean, I am very stressed by it. I've known people that like, absolutely thrive by being in front of audiences.
Leona: 05:25 To me, acting, it's craft like anything else. So, the only reason I was in my one woman show was because I was like the cheapest actress I could find, but not necessarily the best. So, being an actor, I kind of fell into it because I was writing, and I was in this performance world.
Leona: 05:43 And I think the creation of things is more interesting to me than to get up on stage, and kind of recreate it over and over again. So in that way, I've kind of moved away from the theater only because I prefer the creation over the reenactment, I guess. And I'm not the greatest actor in the world. I mean, again, it's a craft. But I've fallen into it and there's been some opportunities that have come my way because of blindness.
Leona: 06:07 Like, for example, I kind of got this commercial, which was pretty amazing, this national commercial. And that kind of funded a lot of like really weird art for a couple of years.
Leona: 06:17 The most exciting thing that's happened in the last couple of months is that I sold a book proposal. So, I'm actually writing a book for Pantheon, which is a really amazing publisher. They've published little people like Michel Foucault, and if you've read House of Leaves, but they published that and lots of amazing titles. So, look for that in 2020.
Gavin: 06:44 Let's talk about the Aromatica Poetica project. Can you tell me a little bit about it, and where it may lead in the future?
Leona: 06:51 So, Aromatic Poetica is an online magazine dedicated to the arts and sciences of smell and taste. I started it because I felt like so much of smell, and taste is about selling products. And I kind of wanted to get at sort of, especially smell is what really drew me in, but of course, smell and tastes are so connected.
Leona: 07:14 So, I wanted to get into kind of a more literary and intellectual pursuit of these other senses that, especially smell kind of gets a bad rap a lot of times. So, I do interviews with everybody from psychologists who use scent, to booze makers, to witches, who use scent and smell. And then lots of literature, stories that involve smell and taste, and personal essays and things like that.
Leona: 07:44 So, I want to expand it more to bring in lots of different voices. I've spent a good portion of my life being visually impaired. So, I was diagnosed with an eye disease when I was like 10. But most of my life was spent as a visually impaired person sort of moving towards blindness super slow. I usually say it's like the slowest calamity over decades.
Leona: 08:06 So, now I'm basically totally blind, and it's kind of like my little reward for, or like, you talk about compensation when you talk about disabilities a lot.
Leona: 08:17 So, my odd compensation is that, I really just discovered smell, and it was really through this whole sort of aroma therapy craze. But it was kind of an amazing experience to start smelling these new smells that I actually had smelled before, but giving them names.
Leona: 08:34 So yeah, it's a completely new adventure for me in terms of getting excited about smell, about how it actually is in literature, and you just sort of don't notice it as much because people are so into fairly cliched visual impressions of people.
Leona: 08:51 And I think some of the texts, for example, sometimes on Aromatica Poetica, I'll put classic texts on there, and like there's a really amazing passage from Portrait of Dorian Gray [The Picture of Dorian Gray]. And then, you start reading it, and you realize that smell is all over the place, but you don't tend to notice it.
Leona: 09:08 Again, and my approach to this is from kind of a literary standpoint, so I'm sort of interested in how we can kind of expand our sensual imagery on a literary standpoint. So this is kind of a new adventure for me. It's not something that I've been ...
Leona: 09:27 I think, it's just like anything else where it's more acute only because you pay attention to it, right? And if I hadn't adopted smell or something that I was interested in, in the last five years, it would not have expanded in the way that it has.
Leona: 09:40 So, I'm kind of learning smell. You know, it's not like you go blind, and suddenly you can smell everything. It's like you actually have to kind of train yourself to get good at it.
Gavin: 09:52 So, are you looking for other people that are visually impaired or blind, as it were, to describe their experience with smell on the site?
Leona: 10:02 Well, the whole way that I think we got connected was through the amazing Awesome Foundation disability branch. So right now, as many online magazines are, I can't pay writers. So, I've had people submit things, some poems, and I've done some interviews, but I decided to ... And I'm open to all kinds of writers. It doesn't matter if they're blind, or visually impaired, or perfectly sighted or anything else.
Leona: 10:33 I kind of had this idea that I wanted to have a magazine that was not about blindness, but it was about ... because I do write about blindness so much elsewhere, like on my personal website and stuff.
Leona: 10:44 But this site is not about blindness, but it's kind of blind friendly, is how I think of it. So, it's kind of a place where blind people, and sighted people can talk about something, or nobody is at a disadvantage there.
Leona: 10:56 So, for the awesome foundation disability grant, I took it upon myself to offer some paid opportunities for blind and visually impaired writers. So right now, I am soliciting from, specifically, blind and visually impaired writers to have them write for me.
Leona: 11:13 And already, I was absolutely delighted that ... I don't know if your listeners know, but there's a guy named Jim Knipfel, and he used to write a column called Slackjaw for a New York Press, and he wrote a memoir called Slackjaw and many other great books.
Leona: 11:28 And so, he was the first person that I just published that was an actual blind writer talking about his experience, kind of chasing a scent on a New York City street. So, that was our first blind writer project submission, and we've got three more coming. And I'm still open for submissions until tax day, until April 15.
Leona: 11:48 So, you can go to Aromaticpoetica.com and find out about that if you happen to be visually impaired or blind.
Gavin: 11:54 Yeah, I think it's interesting because, if you're a writer you don't have to say, "written by Blind So and So." You can't tell by written words, and it is something that you can just look at and judge for its quality.
Gavin: 12:07 So, I think it is an interesting concept that yes, I mean, I think those people should have a voice, and be sponsoring what you're doing is the right thing. But at the same time as well, it may be like, you read a great piece, and then you look up the person and you're like, “Oh, they happen to be blind.”
Gavin: 12:22 It's like, as I, going into this, thought, like, "It's a writer who happens to be blind." Not like, "Okay, this person is blind, so I should sort of think what's the quality of the writing or if they have this or that."
Gavin: 12:37 So, writing is kind of an equalizer. It doesn't ... You wouldn't be able to tell if the person's a good writer, whether or not they are sight impaired or not. Right?
Leona: 12:47 That is correct. I mean, in the best of all possible worlds, writing is a really beautiful medium because there you don't have a face. Yeah, there's no body, there's no face there. There's just sort of these words, right? So, in the best of all possible worlds, I think that's absolutely true. Good writing is good writing.
Leona: 13:10 I will say that historically, being involved in a writerly community, that is to say, getting the latest texts, getting the latest literary journals, having access to, say, submitting as a writer so much of what you do is about submitting things. Submitting pitches, submitting full pieces .. That has been quite difficult up until technology has made it possible to get most literary journals and things like that to really be kind of up on the most current new releases and things like that.
Leona: 13:51 It's still a little snooty about eBooks, though. I mean, I have to say like, I won't name any names, but some pretty major players in the literary world still refuse to print or publish digitally, which is kind of one of my pet peeves because it's just, it's like it would cost them nothing to do that. It's just kind of a snooty attitude towards eBooks.
Leona: 14:14 And I'm here to say that eBooks are accessible books. So, for blind people who are able to, if we can get an electronic book, we can make it bigger for visually impaired or there's also these really nifty things called braille displays so, you can actually have Braille output from an electronic text. If you want to ask more, you can.
Leona: 14:35 And then, I personally, like I love Braille. I think it's the coolest thing ever, but I kind of suck at it. So, I pretty much always read using a lovely electronic voice output. But anyway, so, electronic books make it possible for blind and visually impaired people to read in whatever way works for them.
Gavin: 14:55 So, obviously you have a website. You have a website for your project Poetica Aromatica.
Leona: 15:01 Yes.
Gavin: 15:02 I'm mentioning this. So that has allowed you to connect with people, and share. And I know that you've done a number of things, even acting. How has technology helped you create things and connect? I mean, without it, it seems like the whole creation process would be, I don't know, almost impossible, huh?
Leona: 15:25 Yeah. I mean, certainly computers have made so much possible. I mean, and granted, since whatever, the early 19th century, since Braille, people have been able, blind people have been able to write and to read. But then there's like a translation issue, and then also, Braille books are super expensive and super bulky to make.
Leona: 15:49 So, absolutely. Computers, I mean, again, I was one of the first people I knew to really embrace things like email, and computers, and I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend sort of early on that was into computers. And kind of gosh, I mean it's not going back that far. But for me, I was sort of one of the first, I think in like around 1990 or so. And then I was able to use enlargement software because I was visually impaired at the time.
Leona: 16:21 So from then, I absolutely embraced email as a means of being able to write and communicate with people because, I mean, I lost my ability to read very early on. My central vision blew out so, I didn't have details and stuff pretty much since I was like 15.
Leona: 16:39 So, being able to communicate via email was huge because I couldn't exchange letters with people without having other people have to read them to me. So, there was that. I did use some other magnification stuff for years. But in terms of art, because so much of my art is about writing, that's been huge.
Leona: 17:00 Being able to communicate with people on Facebook gets a bad rap and all that. But blind people have found it really great to be able to communicate with each other, and a lot of times to kind of bitch about sighted people and their ignorance. There's quite a bit of time spent doing that on Facebook.
Leona: 17:19 But in terms of making art, it's really about, I think for me as a writer, submitting and having access to journals, and to outlets, and to publishers, and things like that and being able to submit in a way that I can also not have to involve other people. Whereas, if I had to send out letters and to have other people read letters, at the very least, I'd have to scan it and all that stuff. So that would be tough.
Leona: 17:47 Yeah, that connectivity is huge, and it would have been very difficult 10 years ago, even I would say.
Gavin: 17:56 You got your PhD, you went through school and I think you got a writing degree. I don't think I could get a PhD. Okay? I don't have that stamina, but how was that process? Like just working through school, and having colleagues that are cited and such?
Gavin: 18:13 How was that process just making it all the way through? Did you feel like it took longer? Or there was this, the general frustration of how hard it is to finish a degree like that?
Leona: 18:25 Yeah. Well, I mean, I've never been known for having incredible staying power. So, yeah, the fact that I made it through the PhD is, I'm still amazed. It was made even more difficult ... well, two things made it more difficult.
Leona: 18:39 One was that, I started it quite a while ago, and even then, getting a hold of books was still a little rough. When I first started reading and being in college, most of what I had to get were like books on tape and stuff, which are not the easiest for research. And then I had lots of readers and stuff at The Lighthouse in New York City. And so, that was a little rough, especially in the beginning. Things got better as it went along.
Leona: 19:09 And then the other side of it was that, somewhere in the middle of it, I was like, “I want to be an artist; I don't want to be an academic.” So, those things definitely made the PhD a long process, I will say that. My colleagues were amazing, and teaching was amazing. So, there were not really problems there. Yeah, somehow.
Leona: 19:33 I mean, well, at first there was. I should say, once I got a laptop, it was much easier. So then, running classes, it was a lot easier once that happened. So, I have like a little earbud in my ear, and I could read my notes and stuff and lecture to the kids.
Leona: 19:50 Somewhere in the middle of it, I knew that I wanted to kind of pursue an artistic direction, and I kept teaching all the way up until I guess about 2012, I think. And then jumped off the deep end and did a one woman show.
Gavin: 20:08 I find certain people have inspired me, or I've seen them doing stuff and I'm like, “Hmm, I could do that or, I could create that.”
Gavin: 20:17 Do you feel partially because of Helen Keller dropping that note, that quote that you mentioned, that it's also part of your being to leave breadcrumbs, or a seed in someone's mind that, “Hey, here's what I put out and maybe someone will see that and want to create themselves.”?
Gavin: 20:37 I find that there's almost, it feels like a debt to society when someone else has helped you, you want to put out a little breadcrumb, and obviously, you're sponsoring blind writers and such. Do you think part of that is those other people that influenced you?
Leona: 20:53 I think you're exactly right when you say that or when you were asking about sort of that impulse to create. I think that, that's all it takes really, is that impulse to create. And then, almost anything that you read or discover, I mean, can spark that need to make something of it.
Leona: 21:18 In terms of inspiring other people to create, I think it's almost impossible as an artist to not ... Like, if you really are pushing yourself to do something that you feel is meaningful, and you get it out there, I think that you can't help but influence people.
Leona: 21:36 I mean, I think people are influenced in so many different ways, and so the more you can get your own ideas about the way that the world works or doesn't work out there, the more likely it is that, yes, you're leaving breadcrumbs for people to think and create in new ways.
Gavin: 21:54 Well, I really appreciate your time and ...
Leona: 21:57 Oh, it was my pleasure. This was fun.
Gavin: 22:00 Yeah, thank you very much. And I know now you're saying you're using Twitter and Facebook, so feel free to share it. And if you'd like to find out more about Leona, you can visit Dr M-L-G-O-D-I-N.com. And to find out more about the podcast, you can visit whatorigin.com or join the conversation @facebook.com/whatorigin.