Heather Bartel

On Derealization as Process, Tarot Inspo, and All Things Plath in Her Debut Essay Collection, ‘Exit the Body’

Cover of Heather Bartel: On Derealization as Process, Tarot Inspo, and All Things Plath in Her Debut Essay Collection, ‘Exit the Body’

I once heard Melissa Broder say something like, “living in a body…not my first choice.” I laughed when I heard it, but it’s one of those things that’s so funny because it’s so true. Living in a body is freaking hard. And so what of the appeal to leave the body, or should I say, to exit? The word exit is defined as “a way out,” and it resonates because I think in some way, shape, or form, we are all looking for ways out of ourselves. Whether to catch a glimpse of our lives from another point of view, or for temporary reprieve, we are all seeking some kind of escape hatch.

I came to Heather Bartel’s work through The Champagne Room, a literary journal (and a fine one if I do say so myself) of which Heather is the Founder and Editor alongside her literary partner-in-crime, E.A. Midnight, Editor and Web Designer. TCR published a weird nonfiction piece of mine, one about the chants of girlhood and how they turn sour when revisiting them as an adult. It’s a theme I love exploring, how the games of our youth shaped our views of the present. And this is what Heather does in her writing—she communes with the divine feminine. Her writing is reminiscent of eerie nights at sleepovers spent hovering over a Ouija board, hands atop the planchette, that small heart-spaced piece of wood with a hole at its center, waiting to receive a message from beyond.

In Heather Bartel’s debut essay collection, Exit the Body (Split/Lip Press, 2024), she makes it so we can all leave our bodies. The collection is described as “an offering” and includes a tarot reaching, a one-act starring dead and dreamed women, conversations with Sylvia Plath via a mirror, and epistolary to a living ghost. The essays, which I feel comfortable calling experimental in form, navigate larger questions: How to trust the self? Is it possible? Is it a worthwhile pursuit? And what do we do with our ego? Do we destroy it, or face it head on?


Brittany Ackerman: You are a self-proclaimed “informal Plath scholar,” which I love so much. Sylvia Plath is conjured many times in Exit the Body. You even say, “I think I might be Sylvia Plath reincarnate,” during “The Knife Speaks.”  

Can you talk a little about your path to Plath, and how Sylvia’s life and work features in your own writing?

Heather Bartel: I first read The Bell Jar in high school, and later Ariel. While I enjoyed her writing—I established a casual tradition of reading The Bell Jar every winter—I did not begin to fully realize my kinship with Plath until I was finishing the final semester of my MFA program at Goddard College. I’d recently moved to Athens, GA—embarking on a weird and dark and lonely parenthetical in my life that I still don’t know what to do with—and found a copy of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath for sale at a local coffee shop. Reading her journals was my gateway into obsession. I began dissecting Ariel (my copy is annotated as fuck), and also read both volumes of her letters during the early months of the pandemic. That time spent reading her letters—and then, in turn, reading her poetry as it coincided with her life—that time felt like I was forming a relationship with this long dead kindred creative spirit. I thought about her all of the time. I was writing the earliest versions of the essays in ETB in 2020 during and after my close readings of Plath’s entire body of work. During that time, I felt like she was my only real tether in an otherwise isolated and uncertain era. Her words were opening doors within me, prompting me to ask more questions, both of myself and of her. 

I think of many parts of ETB as a conversation between us—some of our exchanges are imagined, others feature her words, borrowed from journal entries, letters, poems; sometimes she is simply sitting across the room from me as I write, or hovering somewhere just within my periphery. As I was approaching thirty, the age Plath will always be, I felt such an urge to understand who she was when she was writing such brilliant work so vigorously; I needed to understand who she was when she was alive, who she was when she decided to die. 

BA: I scanned your bio, and I also found that you’re an Aries sun, Capricorn moon and rising. Looking into this, I’ve found that the placement of the sun determines one’s ego and identity, their role in life. With the Sun in Aries, this usually means that you are assertive, persistent, courageous, also naturally competitive and fiercely independent. You push through life with enthusiasm and perseverance. 

What part of this very shoddy internet reading rings true for you? Or in your own gatherings, what does being an Aries mean and represent for you?

HB: “Naturally competitive” so captures my essence. Anyone who knows me well would agree. The rest of these descriptors make up the nicest possible version of how I consider my Aries self—an escalator, a firestarter, wanting often to cause trouble, wanting always to have fun. 

I lean into astrology as a tool for better understanding myself and others, and our dynamics. As an Aries, I am a baby. This doesn’t mean I lack maturity, but it does often mean I require a lot of attention. Growing up I didn’t yet understand this about myself. Realizing it now, I can better recognize certain tendencies I have in relationships, such as forming friendships with women who mother me, or why I am feeling fussy or impossible—I just need to be coddled and witnessed and held. What’s fun, then, too, when considering my Capricorn placements, is that I am secretly hyper-practical and driven and frugal and tethered, but my Aries chaos is always outshining that energy, saying, hey girl–let’s play

Astrologically speaking (because it’s fun!), I also feel it’s important to mention Plath’s sun was in Scorpio. Scorpios and Aries are notoriously tethered. I’ve had several intense connections with Scorpios in my life. I think of myself, an Aries, as a wildfire, and a Scorpio as an ocean, and I feel vulnerable in and entranced by their presence, recognizing they are the only ones who can overtake me, knowing I want to dive in. I attribute, in part, my intense connection to Plath to our astrological compatibility—even from beyond the grave I felt the pull of her, pulling me under, balancing out my blaze.

BA: I saw a TikTok recently where someone was speaking about dealing with “derealization,” a feeling of being detached from one’s environment. During these derealization episodes, one may perceive their surroundings as dreamlike or distorted, unreal even, distant. There’s a dissociation at play, a disconnect between your body, your thoughts, your sense of self.

How is derealization like writing? Especially with writing essays, do you feel the need to dissociate as you write, or do you need to strengthen your sense of self in order to do your best work?

HB: Without ever having known of this concept, I think the bulk of ETB, before the revision process occurred, was written in a state of derealization. The experience of returning to and reading my work is often jarring. When I am writing well, I am getting lost in the act, surrendering to the language as it occurs, not yet trying to make too much meaning of it. I’ll be unable to remember the precise essence of the person I was when I wrote it, as in I don’t remember writing it, as in I was so pulled out of myself and into the work that returning to the work is a process of remembering, yes, I wrote that, that was me. It’s weird! I guess I feel that when I am writing well, I get into such a state that I do lose track of myself and my space and the words occur and it’s somehow like spellcasting, it’s something I’ve done without knowing the how and the why of it, only that I wanted the yes yes yes of it. My mind is firing because I’ve stopped trying to force an expectation of where I want the writing to go, I am only writing. 

My advisor during the final semester of my MFA program, Douglas A. Martin, referred to this process as “making mud.” Working with him was the first time I figured out how to sit down at the page and lose myself. I trusted what I could do. The revision process is essential. It’s when I return to my work as the critical version of myself. I start to see more clearly the vibrancy of the different pieces and figure out how to tinker with them, how to make something out of the mud. 

The experience of my study of Plath felt, too, like an experience of dissociation. My time spent with her felt beyond fixation—we were intimate, her writing was existing in my orbit as more than words on a page. Trying to recall the time spent reading her so closely feels similar to the fever dream of getting lost in a particularly ecstatic session of writing. I lost track of myself; I surrendered. 

BA: The ‘About Us’ section of The Champagne Room website reads, “As the journal continues to evolve, the editors intend to use its pages and the space beyond to explore authenticity, becoming, illumination; we are seeking to expand the definition of a room: what it is made of and what it contains…We remain devoted to making this literary space physical.”

As Founder and Editor at TCR, what are some things you enjoy about being at the helm of this literary ship? What’s a recent standout piece from the mag that you can share with us?

HB: The Champagne Room is a special project. The journal stemmed from my desire to collect and share luminous and challenging writing, to make a space for it, to let it be held. But, of course, editing a literary journal—especially one as small and scrappy as my own—is a project few people have enough time or energy or money for.  It’s all about desire, vision, love. TCR has evolved in many exciting ways since its conception; in those years, I have evolved, too. Being at the helm is less of a thrill than it once was. What I enjoy these days are the ways in which my vision is supported—by the tireless and profound care of my co-editor, E.A. Midnight; by the enthusiastic drive of the readers we’ve added to our team. I once thought of TCR as mine. That sense of possession is fading now.  

All of the pieces we publish stand out to me. That sounds like a version of a parent’s I love all of my children equally, but it’s true. Spending so much time with each piece of writing we choose to publish is a special experience. I am often getting our contributors’ words caught in my head. And that’s because their words are words that I believe in. This project has always been about them. 

BA: How has your experience been with Split/Lip? What’s been the biggest learning moment for you so far? And your biggest “yay” moment?

HB: My experience with Split/Lip has been so supportive and lovely! I couldn’t be happier with their commitment to launching ETB into the world. My biggest “yay” moment—other than, of course the initial letter of acceptance—was getting to meet so many of the Split/Lip folks at AWP in Kansas City this year. Meeting the people behind the names, giving them face and body and personality, gave me such a thrill. I really do feel a part of their community, their constellation, and I feel proud to be part of it. 

I am so green in the literary world. This is the first time I’ve had the experience of working with a small press publishing my book. I learned something I already knew, which is to pay attention to deadlines because they affect every part of a process a lot of people are working hard on, and also not to be scared to ask other people to blurb your work. I’ve continued to learn that writers really do want to connect, want to help each other out.We’re working with each other in so many ways, rather than against. We are constant collaborators in a lonely art.  

Oh! Another yay moment: seeing the design that would become my book cover for the first time. We worked through eight or ten mock-up options, many of them spectacular but not quite right, and then I saw the design and knew. It was “Option H” in the line-up, which I found fortuitous. 

BA: Back to your bio, I saw that “Beyond writing and editing, her projects include shooting a tarot-inspired Polaroid series, collecting rocks and houseplants, making collages, and practicing yoga and emotive dance aerobics.”

I, too, am a collector of rocks. Not so much houseplants, but rocks, yes. Collecting rocks feels akin to essay writing for me because each rock is so unique and holds a different feeling, a ~vibe~ if you will, the same way each subject or experience or memory I want to write about feels self-contained. Essay as rock.

Could you share a story about a rock you’ve collected?

HB: A rock is attractive because it is something you can hold onto. You can carry it, touch it, learn with absolute familiarity and precision the texture and the weight and the size and the shape of it. I want to have a different story than the one I am going to tell only because this one feels so far away from me but is so fundamental. I completed a low-residency MFA program at Goddard College (RIP), in Vermont, during the summer residency period I went for a walk through the woods from the main campus to the library and happened upon the most perfect little piece of quartz. I carried this rock with me for months—possibly even a year, possibly longer. It became the rock with which I am most familiar. I knew the texture and the weight and the size of it, it became a part of me. This rock reminded me of a time and space in which I felt most like myself—a writer witnessed as a writer, a woman searching for symbols with which to understand herself beyond love. I kept this rock near me for a long time when writing certain projects–not ETB, but others. I’ll admit that I do not know where this rock is now, but a lot has changed since I carried that rock with me daily as I’ve lived between houses and state lines and a storage unit, been married and divorced and grown deeper into myself. It served its purpose. 

BA: Can you share the seed of one of your essays from the book? I.e. a “rock” that was held, examined, collected?

HB: I’m feeling inclined to discuss the opening essay of the collection, “Yet the Phantom was Part of the Flower,” a title borrowed from The Waves by Virginia Woolf, a woman who carried in her own way rocks in her pockets. This essay brings together an early childhood fascination with Ameila Earhart with a later discovered obsession with images of women screaming in the works of David Lynch. The seed was unknowing–what happened to her?, the “her” being all of them. The seed was trying to understand why I wanted to be the disappearing woman, why I always wanted to scream. I was living in Georgia in the heat of the summer and the height of the pandemic and I felt unsafe in my own house, the only place I was supposed to be. I was collecting images and ideas and holding onto them and crying and trying and trying to make sense of something and what I got were these words: this phantom, this flower. 

BA: Because so much of your work deals with Tarot, symbols, ritual, etc. I’d love for you to give our readers a little treat here. Could you pull a card from your Tarot deck, or pick a card you think would make for some good writing, and create a prompt around it? 

HB: Oooh, yes—this is so fun! I am pulling from the Shining Tribe deck, a Rachel Pollack deck, gifted to me by my co-editor, ghost sister, and dear friend, Emma. 

The card I drew was the Speaker of Rivers, which is so perfect because the divinatory meaning is, according to Rachel Pollack: “storytelling, imagination, the power to inspire or heal others. Leadership, with the implication of followers.”

So my prompt is this: A river moves. The water you witness is never the same water twice. Write into this sensation of ongoingness. What has happened and will happen? What is seen and what lies beneath the surface? Are you submerged in the water or just dipping your toes? And, how does that change what you’re trying to say? How does that change who you are?



Heather Bartel is author of the essay collection Exit the Body (Split/Lip, 2024). She is founder and co-editor of The Champagne Room. Her writing appears in MAYDAY, Grimoire, Fence, Leavings, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Columbia, MO.

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