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)