Sunday, December 21, 2008

Conch Chowder

by Elizabeth Alexander

“I’m making conch chowder,” says my next-door neighbor, Joe. There are no walls between our apartments. “We’ll all watch basketball,” he says, “and we’ll eat it with French bread.” I tell him that I have to run an errand.

Next thing I know, I’m outside New York, looking for a roadside Holocaust museum I’d read about, I had to see. I find it, hand-lettered signs, an old woman on a bench with a heavy Polish accent. A young man and his son go inside; you go down into the Invisible Man’s basement, which is wildly lit up and makeshift, and you look out at the world from that small space. I begin to cry. I cry and cry and cry. Then it’s time to go home, so I look for a cab. How much would it cost to go from Jersey to Chicago?

Everyone is upset when I get there. Danielle, Joe’s wife, says we have to have a family meeting, no more lateness, no more unexplained absences. My eyes fill up again when she says the word, “family.” I sit down in front of the TV and eat my conch chowder, which is cold. (2001)

I’m delighted Elizabeth Alexander is Obama’s inauguration poet, for I have always been impressed with her efforts to address herself to matters of American history especially through poems. I was particularly taken by her third book, Antebellum Dream Book, and by the apparent centrality of dreaming to her fashioning many of those poems. As such, she offered the dream space as a site of public and poetic conversation, for the poems are “interpretable” largely through communications between one unconscious and that of another.

I look forward to the new conversations.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Psychoanalysis: An Elegy

by Jack Spicer

What are you thinking about?

I am thinking of an early summer.
I am thinking of wet hills in the rain
Pouring water. Shedding it
Down empty acres of oak and manzanita
Down to the old green brush tangled in the sun,
Greasewood, sage, and spring mustard.
Or the hot wind coming down from Santa Ana
Driving the hills crazy,
A fast wind with a bit of dust in it
Bruising everything and making the seed sweet.
Or down in the city where the peach trees
Are awkward as young horses,
And there are kites caught on the wires
Up above the street lamps,
And the storm drains are all choked with dead branches.

What are you thinking?

I think that I would like to write a poem that is slow as a summer
As slow getting started
As 4th of July somewhere around the middle of the second stanza
After a lot of unusual rain
California seems long in the summer.
I would like to write a poem as long as California
And as slow as a summer.
Do you get me, Doctor? It would have to be as slow
As the very tip of summer.
As slow as the summer seems
On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside
Or standing in the middle of a white-hot road
Between Bakersfield and Hell
Waiting for Santa Claus.

What are you thinking now?

I’m thinking that she is very much like California.
When she is still her dress is like a roadmap. Highways
Traveling up and down her skin
Long empty highways
With the moon chasing jackrabbits across them
On hot summer nights.
I am thinking that her body could be California
And I a rich Eastern tourist
Lost somewhere between Hell and Texas
Looking at a map of a long, wet, dancing California
That I have never seen.
Send me some penny picture-postcards, lady,
Send them.
One of each breast photographed looking
Like curious national monuments,
One of your body sweeping like a three-lane highway
Twenty-seven miles from a night’s lodging
In the world’s oldest hotel.

What are you thinking?

I am thinking of how many times this poem
Will be repeated. How many summers
Will torture California
Until the damned maps burn
Until the mad cartographer
Falls to the ground and possesses
The sweet thick earth from which he has been hiding.

What are you thinking now?

I am thinking that a poem could go on forever.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Group Process

This marks another year’s end for a psychoanalytic poetry reading group to which I belong. We began as a clinical case group some years ago, but began reading poetry together while discussing the dynamics of mourning (we’d read Catherine Barnett’s Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced and Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III which includes that wonderful poem, “One Art”—I’m reminded, incidentally, that two of the most interesting books of poems I’ve read this year are Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and Kristen Prevallet’s I, Afterlife.) Our focus this year was on Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau and a small collection of Emily Dickinson poems edited by Joyce Carol Oates. One matter linking both poets was the engagement each poet offers with sometimes intolerable states of mind—Komunyakaa’s poems were written almost in a flood of memories and affects years after he left Vietnam, while Dickinson obsessively fashioned her deceptively simple poems as she moved through complicated shifts in mood and ideation throughout her life.

I’ve been impressed once more with how valuable it is to read poems closely in a group context. We typically read a poem twice, if not three times, and move rather slowly through a book of poems so as to deepen our attention to what we experience and construe over time. The process points out how deep attention cannot be taken for granted and must, as Buddhists suggest, be cultivated. We jokingly say to each other that we fear not being able to read poems again alone! The truth is we just add each other to the inner chorus of voices always present when we encounter a new poem.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I Believe Insight Doesn't Happen at Once

This poem by Mary Ruefle intrigues me partly as an allusion to the process over time of coming to speak what one knows.

The Hand

The teacher asks a question.
You know the answer, you suspect
you are the only one in the classroom
who knows the answer, because the person
in question is yourself, and on that
you are the greatest living authority,
but you don’t raise your hand.
You raise the top of your desk
and take out an apple.
You look out the window.
You don’t raise your hand and there is
some essential beauty in your fingers,
which aren’t even drumming, but lie
flat and peaceful.
The teacher repeats the question.
Outside the window, on an overhanging branch,
a robin is ruffling its feathers
and spring is in the air.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Muses and the Sense of Intolerable Loneliness

In a journal entry for the Poetry Foundation blog ( a year ago or so, Patricia Smith asked readers to characterize their muses, describing her own as “the love child of Mona Lisa and James Brown” and whom she has variously named “La Music, Jimmie Savannah, Her Bitchness, Ruby Begonia, Sista Sometimes, Mavis, Butterfly McQueen, M’Dear, Hot Damn, The Esteemed Imperial Inimitable Goddess Ms. Gwen, My Boo, Cleopatra Jones, Tamika, Miz Thang, and Mamie Eisenhower.” One poet described her muse as an exquisitely sensitive young girl adults don’t tend to hear; another as “Bo Willie or Gut-Bucket” because his poetry emerged from gut-wrenching experiences; still another as a “bad boyfriend.” Evie Shockley described her own as a Debbie Allen figure peering over while Evie reads the morning paper and pointing out what’s missing from its pages. In an essay published in ZYZZYVA titled “The Visitor” (and later in the anthology Lucky Break, edited by Howard Junker), I described my own muse as an old slave woman whose picture I’d seen as a child. She was posed with her bare, whip-marked back facing the viewer, and I went on to imagine her visiting me some nights, looking in me for her stolen children. I suggested that the conversations between us eventuated in my poems.

I’ve been preparing a paper on writing and the problem of intolerable loneliness, how such experiences can lead writers to turn away from their unfinished works, even from working. It occurs to me that, while many writers characterize this state as a sense of their muses abandoning them, we might also think about those writers abandoning to some extent their own muses. And I wonder if the further unconscious aspect of this mutual rejection doesn’t involve struggle with some measure of destructiveness ever present when writers are emerged in the process of creating. Melanie Klein’s 1963 paper on loneliness (from Envy and Gratitude) has been especially helpful in this regard. Klein delineates several internal and external sources of the sense of loneliness—which she distinguishes from a sense of solitude or feeling lonesome—but she suggests that the infant’s earliest psychic challenges include the developmental quest to achieve some essential integration of creative and destructive representations of oneself and of others. In relation to one’s internal objects, Klein writes, “ (t)here is always a close connection between being able to accept and to give, and both are part of the relation to the good object and therefore counteract loneliness. Furthermore, the feeling of generosity underlies creativeness, and this applies to the infant's most primitive constructive activities as well as to the creativeness of the adult.” I think the concept of a muse is one way writers can represent their relation to that “good object”.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Other Conversations

I had the pleasure of conducting two public conversations about psychoanalysis this week. On Friday, Ricardo Ainslie (, an Austin psychoanalyst, filmmaker and professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, visited with SFCP candidates as part of an intersession series on the politics of the other. Ainslie’s focus was immigration, and we talked about anti-immigrant sentiment and the complex psychological dynamics underlying it, as well as the social imaginary (a la Castoriadis) of Mexican immigrants moving across political and psychological borders into the United States. I was intrigued by Ainslie’s unique career, his moving work on racial and ethnic conflict in selected Texan communities, and especially his discussion of culture as “a series of sociopsychological enclosures.” He used this Winnicottian idea to elaborate the ways in which immigrants from Mexico recreate such enclosures in public and private spaces so as to negotiate the necessity of cultural mourning as well as engage with the challenges of migrating. For immigrants and non-immigrants alike—the distinction probably more fluid than either is inclined to think—the creation of enclosures also involves the creation of what is excluded, a matter we humans find sometimes impossibly challenging when we perceive ourselves as threatened and feel uneasy.

On Sunday, I interviewed devorah major as part of our Poetry and Psychoanalysis series. Her poetry stresses the performance as much as the written aspects of the art, and she discussed how her development as a dancer shapes still the poems she makes. I was enthralled with her voice—both in the enunciation of her poems and in the musics of her distinctive style. She also spoke of her conviction that poets must engage themselves and their art with the world, offering to be shaped sometimes in ways they would not imagine beforehand. I often think this is true also of psychoanalysts!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Poets Making Poems: A Program on Poetry and Psychoanalysis

Recent outreach efforts by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis (SFCP) to expand relationships with a variety of community interests have spurred involvement with local nursery schools, mental health centers, post-performance discussion programs conducted in conjunction with the American Conservatory Theater and the San Francisco Opera, and a public lecture series.

This past year, SFCP initiated a very successful program on poetry and psychoanalysis, which has drawn in members of the public interested in poetry and has featured stimulating discussions of the creative process articulated by a variety of poets. Susan Kolodny, an SFCP faculty member, founded the program, a series of 90-minute interviews with local poets conducted by Kolodny, Alice Jones, an SFCP Training and Supervising Analyst, and me. We are analysts who also happen to be poets, and the interviews are organized particularly to explore the process of making poems.

The guest poet is usually interviewed for a third of the program; another third is spent reading and discussing the poet’s work, especially his or her thoughts about the poems; and the rest of the time is devoted to questions from the audience. During the first year, a distinguished group of six poets, who have each published poetry collections, participated in the program, which was attended by 35-75 people each time.

The poets and their most recently published collections were Brenda Hillman of St. Mary’s College, Pieces of Air in the Epic; Paul Hoover of San Francisco State University, Edge and Fold; Dan Bellm, One Hand on the Wheel; Lyn Hejinian of the University of California, Berkeley, The Fatalist; Alan Williamson of the University of California, Davis, The Pattern More Complicated: New and Selected Poems; and Elizabeth Robinson, Apostrophe.

During the interview, poets were typically asked about their own paths to writing poetry, how they each think about the nature of their poems, supports for and interferences with creating their poems, the place of unconscious or nonconscious elements in the process, and their experience of real and imagined audiences in writing and revision. After reading their poems, the poets described what they remembered about writing them, and they responded to questions and comments further illuminating that process for the audience and poets alike.

Several of the poets were asked what they thought about the relationship between poetry and psychoanalysis. Most pointed to a heightened appreciation in both of the emergence and experience of language. Further, both disciplines were characterized by an awe
or appreciation for the nonconscious. “Most everything we are is the unconscious,” Hillman suggested, and she noted that both writers and psychoanalysts strive to be better listeners to what emerges from the unconscious, especially significant metaphors.

Hoover suggested that poetry goes straight to and acts on the unconscious, and he conceived of the relationship between poetry and psychoanalysis as formed especially around an interest in the vicissitudes of mental states. Like Hoover, Hejinian was impressed with the shared interests in language and mental states but emphasized the process of making poems as more consciously countering the determinism inherent to the unconscious.

Bellm described the two traditions as working in the realm of mystery, interested thus in metaphor, image, and the tolerance of ambiguity. Bellm and Robinson see poetry and psychoanalysis engaged in what each terms “spiritual practice.”

Williamson talked explicitly about Winnicott’s ideas about transitional space. He was persuaded that the process of making poems entails language being experienced by the poet as being both outside and inside, with the creating poet engaged in transitional play. For Robinson, language is emphasized as an attention to mental states which reflect the intersection between “the immanent and the transcendent.”

Some of these poets said poems emerged from their heightened receptivity and attention to compelling images, sounds, even phrases or lines made salient within aesthetic states of mind. Williamson described the poem as already formed at this point but, like an embryo, waiting to be developed. For others, some conscious preoccupation initiated poem making; the poem was an opportunity to “think things through.” Hejinian, who likes to dwell in a “state of quandary,” feels poems are the result of conscious engagements with philosophical, sociopolitical, or cultural questions or problems. Most poets seemed to suggest that both of these originations characterize to some extent the process of creating poems, the preferred character a function of personality and aesthetic style, formal and informal education, and subject matter.

The poets differed in the degree to which they intended their poems to be expressive or abstract, and several spirited discussions ensued concerning the matter of “accessibility” or “difficulty” in poetry. The variety of their answers highlighted the numerous paths they took to becoming poets (despite many shared conditions which favored poetry over other forms of creative expression or silence), the influences of creative and intellectual mentors and traditions, even the many differences for poets in their respective audiences.

The diversity of poets for the series has helped us attract diverse audiences, with community poets and artists equaling the number of psychotherapists of various kinds. Comments from discussion participants have been enthusiastic, conveying excited anticipation of future programs of how poets make poems, and how that process is similar to the heightened attention to meaningful language psychoanalysis fosters.

reprinted from The American Psychoanalyst (2008)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
—which what?—something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.

Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that “here” is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space.

--William Bronk (1964)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Intimate Listening

Suppose we think of the poem as its own intimate listener, listening closely to itself as it is being composed and later interpreted, acting upon the receptive poet (the original maker of the poem or the reader who makes the poem up each time he or she engages with it) so as to become real. As such the poem exists as a dynamic and ever-potential phenomenon seeking out its listener.

Listening implies relation, at the least between the speaker and the spoken-to. But deep listening (or, intimate listening, the kind of listening so characteristic of analytic listening) implies certain qualities about the relation—close attention, mutuality, evocation of “potentiality”, idealization?.... It is an aspect of what is therapeutic—the assumption that what we have failed to know, speak and hear lies behind what distresses us; once we speak the formerly unknown to a listening other and to an accepting and reflective other-in-self, we become better able to live our lives well.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fateful Encounters

An old blues legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. One night at a crossroads, people say, Johnson met another black man near a river, and gave the stranger his guitar. The stranger tuned it, played one song, then gave it back. From that point on, Johnson becomes unusually creative—he can play the guitar well, he can make up new songs, and he can sing. He also matures into a man of unusual power. And those who had known him before, who had considered him a bit of a pest on the guitar and who found his voice scratchy, were surprised and delighted by this change. They were also suspicious, for they were sure Johnson had made an evil bargain.

This Faustian legend intrigues me as a poet and as a psychoanalytic therapist, especially the element within it of the fateful encounter--the interpersonal and intrapsychic engagement with whatever it is the devil represents here which allows in turn for something new and creative. As a poet, I recognize in the process of writing poems a fateful engagement with aspects of my imagination, my ear, and my skills as a writer. As well, there is an engagement with internal objects and with an internal audience that helps me realize poems singly and in sequence. And as a therapist, particularly as a psychoanalyst, I engage not only with my analysands in potentially transformative ways, but with aspects of myself in the countertransference. However, contrary to the blues legend, I have learned from both kinds of encounters that meaningful change happens not suddenly, not dramatically or supernaturally, but gradually and subtly. And, it happens through language.

Poets and psychoanalysts are, of course, taken with meaningful language and appreciate its power to contain, represent and to affect. The language is verbal, primarily, and we attend to its contents and to its form. But we are also intrigued by the relationship between what is stated and what is not, and between what is symbolized and what remains unsayable. We also attend to what feels most meaningful, and to when and where the breaks in meaning occur. Both psychoanalysts and poets concern themselves, moreover, with the relationship between meaningful and nonmeaningful language.

I also find that we value subjective experience, particularly the unconscious, as well as the processes of relaxed attention and “free” association. And, as one who is both, I have developed a basic trust in “the process”: in treatment, that the analysis of resistances to emerging transferences moves most analyses along; in poetry, that overcoming impediments to fateful engagements can similarly yield meaningful writing.

I do not listen in the same way, though, when I am in my office and when I am at my writing desk at home. As an analyst, my listening is close and largely focused on moments of immediate discomfort conveyed either in the content or form of what is said to me. I listen also to the content of the analysand’s language for connections to what else I have heard about the history, the transference, and the current life. In short, I listen as an analyst primarily to language. As a poet, I seem primarily to be listening for language. I am listening largely for what presses to be represented, and then for how to present “the right words in the right order”. Though analytic listening involves a similar dynamic, analysts associate more to what is already communicated. When I write poems, I am most like my analytic self only when I am revising or “re-seeing” the not-yet-finished poem, for then my attention is directed more keenly and my thinking more prominently synthetic.

I’ve not been conducting psychoanalyses for very long, but so far it seems that another, related difference between the two kinds of listening involves how much time I can spend freely in reverie. In the office I experience an interpersonal (and professional) pressure to speak what I observe and what I think. When I’m writing, the danger of foreclosing a poem inclines me to wait, occasionally for a year or two, before I begin to think of myself as working on a specific poem.

My dual identity as a poet and a psychoanalyst is new, and only slowly does it become more comfortable. Sometimes, I feel as if the two represent distinctly different states of mind. Increasingly, though, I recognize that each influences the other in terms of the content of my preoccupations, and in terms of the stimulation within me of productive states of contemplation. Most valuable, though, is the way each deepens my capacity to listen. It makes me think once more about that Robert Johnson legend: perhaps in fact his fateful encounter was with what he had yet to hear, his transformation thus a changed capacity to listen to what had seemed unpleasant, uninteresting or merely absent. Perhaps the change occurred not only in Johnson, but in all of us, poets and analysts included, who were listening to him.

printed originally in The American Psychoanalyst (2000)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The Poetry and Psychoanalysis series at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis resumes this spring with three interviews scheduled with distinguished poets.

April 6, 2008 devorah major
Interviewed by Forrest Hamer

May 4, 2008 Carol Snow
Interviewed by Susan Kolodny

July 20, 2008 Al Young
Interviewed by Forrest Hamer

All sessions take place on Sundays from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at SFCP (temporarily located at 2340 Jackson Street, 4th floor.) There is no admission, but participants are encouraged to register beforehand by calling SFCP at 415.563.5815 or by email at