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)


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