The Poetic Unconscious: An Interview With Sarah Arvio

More than writer’s block, I had life block. I was living in anguish, and I didn’t know why. I knew that I had much to express, but I didn’t know what it was.

By Jenny XieOctober 19, 2013

    We are such stuff
    As dreams are made on, and our little life
    Is rounded with a sleep

    — The Tempest, act 4, scene 1

    SARAH ARVIO, formerly a translator for the United Nations, is the author of three books of poetry, all of which are sharply attuned to the nuances of language and its material and aural dimensions. Visits from the Seventh, her first volume, takes the form of a series of conversations with channeled “voices” —Arvio refers to them as visitors — that began dictating to the poet shortly after her 40th birthday. Sono dials up the acoustical effects present in Visits from the Seventh with poems that think through sound and improvisation to reflect on loss and desire. Arvio is alert to the ways in which verbal overlaps and swerves can lend depth; accidents of sound, her poems show, can give rise to a startling amount of sense.

    With her poems’ linguistic energy in mind, it comes as little surprise, then, that Arvio’s third and latest book night thoughts is an exploration of her dream life and the language of her unconscious. Psychoanalytic theories on the subterranean forces of the mind have long served as conceptual frameworks for the interpretation of literary texts, but Arvio’s poems are quite literally her dream-work: the 70 poems that form the first half of night thoughts directly unpack her dreams. Here, the associations and slippages so often on display in Arvio’s poetry serve as entry points into her unconscious, and help her to reconstruct a series of traumatic events from her girlhood. The poems are followed by a “Notes” section — annotations for the dream poems which form a memoir about her dreaming life. night thoughts is a hybrid text that transforms trauma into insight, and the raw material of dreams into potent revelations.

    I had the pleasure of conducting an email correspondence with Arvio. We talked about the links between her psychoanalysis and her creative life — how, in digging for the root of her pain, she was fortunate to excavate the poetry of her unconscious.


    Jenny Xie: In the beginning of the “Notes” section of night thoughts, you write that “poems behave like dreams [...] they draw on the unconscious mind in their development of thought patterns.” night thoughts stresses the many overlaps between poetry and psychoanalysis. Can you talk a little more about how psychoanalysis has affected and opened up your own poetic process?

    Sarah Arvio: I was blocked before I went into analysis. More than writer’s block, I had life block. I was living in anguish, and I didn’t know why. I knew that I had much to express, but I didn’t know what it was. When I tried to write, often I could not make the pen move on the page.

    In analysis, I worked on my dreams. I wrote down all I recalled of the dream on waking, and then told it to my analyst at the next visit. With his help, I tried free association — aloud — letting my mind wander from image to image, thought to thought. He told me that I must not censor any thought that came to me, no matter how trivial or unrelated. This is hard to learn.

    Free association is embarrassing and unsettling: you don’t know what will rise in your mind. I began another practice alone, mornings: I wrote the dream, and then I scribbled out any thoughts that came to me. At first this was a halting half page. Later I could fill six pages in one sitting. I wrote fast, to keep up with my thoughts, which came more and more swiftly.

    I watched as the dream thoughts moved me toward memory and discovery. I found the powers of my mind amazing. The beauty of the powers of the mind: to hide, to show, to disguise, to represent. The ritual of writing — sitting down with my pot of tea in the early morning — was comforting. The rhythms of the writing — I was writing in longhand — were comforting.

    Out of this immersion, my poems sprang. When I wrote them, I felt that same, swift, often rhythmic movement of thought that I felt while free associating: the block was disappearing. I found that I could recreate, at my desk, that same self-accepting peace and comfort that I had achieved in my analyst’s office. Psychoanalysis — dream interpretation — shakes down the mind, shifts and reorganizes thoughts. This is painful and revitalizing.

    Poetry and psychoanalysis share a way of thinking: searching, reaching, shifting. They’re both an enactment of the mind, or a dance of the mind. Above all, they share the accidental discovery:  the clarifying moment of surprise.

    JX: Psychoanalysis is currently on the wane in the US. What made you gravitate toward it for treatment rather than cognitive behavioral therapy or other more commonly relied upon psychiatric options? Were you ever skeptical about the process of psychotherapy?

    SA: I was in too much anguish to even think about choosing between kinds of therapy. I was looking for a doctor who would take my story with utter and comprehending seriousness. I made the rounds of New York clinics and landed, intuitively, at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Their approach, I learned, was eclectic: Freud, Jung, and later thinkers, an evolving idea. I liked this notion of openness to evolving ideas. After some years of psychotherapy, I began psychoanalysis.

    Often, I was reading The New York Review of Books while riding the subway uptown and downtown to my analyst; this was the era in which Frederick Crews was bashing Freud and denying the existence of an unconscious mind. I, meanwhile, was swimming in my dream life, awed by my discoveries, wondrous at the world of my secret mind. I was learning to like myself, because I found my mind so intricate and beautiful. Nothing could have been more dissonant. I met many people who were taking drugs for depression, because more and more people were. Friends on Zoloft smiled glibly — and seemed peculiarly separate.

    Above all, I refused to call what was happening to me “depression.”  I saw the word “depression” literally: being pushed down. What I felt was vivid, loud grief and suffering, with no understanding of it.

    I learned that cognitive therapists did not think that the past mattered: a prescription might include a daily swim, positive thinking, and a pill. I’m sure there are many people who get relief from this. But I’m also sure that no pill or program could have released me from my painful and self-destructive thoughts and fantasies. And did I want to be a dumbed-down version of myself, fatter and with no sex drive? Wouldn’t I want to know what had caused my extraordinary suffering? I was not prepared to accept that my feelings arose from a chemical imbalance.

    Psychoanalysts are not against pills: they use them when necessary. My analyst suggested I take some when I was at my worst, but I told him that I wanted to feel my feelings or I would never get over them.

    JX: There’s such a mesmerizing quality to the wordplay in your poetry — not just in night thoughts, but in all your books. Did this close attention to words precede your psychoanalysis, or was it something that was honed by the psychoanalytic process?

    SA: Thank you for this. I’ve lived all my life in words; when I was very young, reading was more real than life to me. I have a natural ear for languages; I’ve earned my living as a translator.

    And yet, the practice of writing my associations with my dreams amazingly enhanced my fluency. An image has a color, a shape, a word, a name, even a sound. Any of these can be followed. A pink fruit in a dream can lead to the thought of a pink dress, and from there to the pinkness of skin [...] A name or word can go in so many surprising directions, following meaning, or sound. One thing leads to another. Riffing happens fast when the mind is open.

    This openness to associative thought led straight to the poems. Many of them find their meanings through association.

    JX: Did you first write out your dream thoughts and then later shape them into poems? Do you see a distinction between the private language of dreams and the more public language of poems, and did you write the dream poems with an audience in mind?

    SA: I wrote out the dream associations during the analysis. Years passed before I could even consider the idea of sharing this story; the material is so harsh and intimate. I wanted to. Above all, I wanted to defeat those who pretend that dreams are random and meaningless and that the unconscious mind is a myth.

    Finally, I asked myself this: how can I refuse to write this intriguing story of the mind, because I’m ashamed of something that happened over 40 years ago, to a young girl who happens to have been me? I knew that my mental discoveries — the process by which I solved the puzzle of my fantasies and grief — were unusual, fascinating, and possibly even important.

    I first tried writing the book as prose; I couldn’t make it work. Then, quite a while later, without forethought, I began to write out the dreams as poems. Though the dreams were evocative and unsettling, a layer of the story was missing. I had the idea of annotating the dreams. As I wrote, the annotations spun into a narrative. Last, I indexed the dream imagery so that a reader could move back and forth easily between the poems and the “Notes.”          

    JX: All the poems in night thoughts are 14 lines in length and composed in unrhymed decasyllables. You refrain from using punctuation throughout. Can you comment on your formal choices, and what drew you to the architecture of the sonnet?

    SA: The dreams fell easily into that poem shape. By dream, I mean the part of the dream that mattered to me; what we call a dream is always part of a rolling sequence of dreams. The poems tell the dreams, and also some of the thoughts and memories that came to me as I was contemplating them. These are brief but dense contemplations, and so 14 lines were just right for them.

    Punctuation seemed limiting, so I dropped it. Dreams themselves aren’t punctuated: one image or sequence segues or slides into another in a seamless flow. I only want rhymes that occur naturally in a line; I would never try to invent a rhyme. In many of the dream poems, I found myself repeating the same word at the end of the line. This, I think, matches the obsessive and repetitive nature of dreaming.

    Later, reading my friend Phillis Levin’s Penguin Book of the Sonnet, I learned that the earliest form of the sonnet used a pattern of repeated end words; rhyming came later. I love these coincidences. Dreaming is primal, primitive, so it’s nice that dream poems unknowingly mimic an early poetic form.

    JX: night thoughts is part poetry, part memoir. How do you feel about the place of autobiography in poetry?

    SA: In any art form, what works, works. There are many different ways to reveal and also to hide.  

    When Marianne Moore talks about imaginary gardens with real toads in them, I think she means the setting is imaginary, but the emotions shown are my own; the toad is me, hopping. That’s a lot like dreaming.

    Poetry is always an expression of the life of the poet, in language; the greater the poetry is, the more it expresses that life. Whether Stevens cultivating his imaginary gardens, or Frost describing his real orchards , those are expressions of the lives of those poets. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” is really no less a garden. He sings what he saw around him; what he saw is his life.

    The dream poems and the “Notes” — a prose narrative — are different ways of telling the same story, and they depend on each other. The narrative discusses the images in the dreams, and describes how the dreams led to the memories that are the story of what happened. So the book is not only a memoir, but also an essay on dreaming, and on the nature of dream thought.

    JX: What do you hope readers will gain from reading night thoughts?

    SA: Every book is a visit to a world, and here, the world is my dreaming mind and what it revealed to me about my life. A reader might get a fresh understanding of the way in which dreaming can offer an avenue into the mind and memories.

    JX: What is your dreamlife like these days?

    SA: I like the word “dreamlife,” which mimics my own word fusions in night thoughts. I no longer remember my dreams. I believe I found there what I needed to find.

    JX: What is your next project?

    SA: No idea. 


    Jenny Xie is currently a language lecturer at New York University.

    LARB Contributor

    Jenny Xie is currently a language lecturer at New York University.


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