WRITING “NIGHT THOUGHTS”
(night thoughts: 70 dreams & notes from an analysis was published last month by Knopf.)
I’ve always told myself that, as a poet, I’m only waiting and listening. However, making night thoughts wasn’t like that. I did a long analysis, studying my dreams--it lasted ten years. The dreamwork, the practice of free-associating from dreams, fascinated me. It was both anguishing and liberating.
Urged by an agent, I set out to write a book about the experience. I studied my notebooks and journals; I selected the important dreams; I began to write. I planned to describe the dreams and then explicate the process of using them to uncover and understand lost and troubling experiences.
The agent wanted me to write the book differently: it should be about my life in New York, my life as a single blond poet suffering over love in artsy downtown New York, while in psychoanalysis. A memoir of a sexy life in New York--but my life, despite all the cocktail parties and art openings, was not all that action-packed or sexy. I tried alternating discussions of the analytic sessions with accounts of meeting my boyfriend; it didn’t work.
Finally the agent and I couldn’t agree, and I gave up.
Almost a year passed.
One afternoon I sat down aimlessly and began to write out the dreams as poems. This was not a decision; it was an impulse without forethought. Once I had begun, my mind rifled through all the dreams I had chosen and pondered for the prose book; I made a list of them and tackled them one by one.
This was not like writing on request or choosing a topic; here was something that was burbling or burning inside me, longing for expression (I don’t know which it is, water or fire).
These were narrative poems, narrating a story I already knew; I hadn’t done this before. I didn’t cry or laugh as I wrote them. I was skeptical of this working method but carried on.
I thought at first that the poems were too formulaic; I believe I thought this because I knew the narrative of the dreams before I began to write the poems.
And yet, the narrative of a dream by nature is lyrical, surreal, hopping over space and constraints.
I began to see that often, writing the poem as a dream, I was working out its meaning. I had understood the dream--from my free associations of years before. But here was a new level of meaning that contained a surprise. So the poem was a further free association from the matter of the dream.
Many of these sprang fully formed; others I had to try again and again until I got the right tone and angle. I couldn’t leave out a dream because the poem didn’t work; I needed it for the evolution of the story, so I had to try. Trying and not trying at the same time is a curious exercise.
More than trying to get the right lines, I was trying to get in the zone where the right lines would come to me.
Here are two poets on dreams:
Oh God, Oh God, let the sore soul have peace
Deliver it from this bondage of harsh dreams
“Preludes for Memnon II”
The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes,
The one pours out a balm upon the world,
The other vexes it.
I want to say that I had complete conviction, and many doubts about this book--at the same time, or alternately.
MAKING A HYBRID BOOK--HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
At first my editor was as bewildered by the dream poems as I had been by the dreams. I had had a mental picture--a vision (I use this word lightly)--of a cross-referenced book, with notes and marginalia. I wrote some comments about some of the images that appeared in the dreams; showing them to her, I asked her if she would like me to annotate the sequence. To my surprise she said yes.
The notes, as I wrote them, gathered or spun into a narrative. This was moving and troubling and satisfying. It was also what I had been trying for in the prose book: a study of the dreams and the revelations that unfolded as I considered them.
I don’t have much to say about the index right now: only that it was a fascinating and evocative undertaking.
So the hybrid book was not a plan: it was an evolution.
The jacket shows a loop of ribbon, in many beautiful colors, on a black background. Perfect for the darkness out of which the dream emerges--and for the colors of the dreams.
Another designer (from the same team) posted her designs on the web: many small scribbles in different colors of ink, on a vanilla background; cut-out items of clothing, also in many colors, floating on a vanilla background. These are fresh, marvelous jacket designs, reflecting aspects of the dreamwork; but they don’t quite match the darker, harsher mood of the book.
One of the names that arises in the dreams is "Sabon"; to my wonder, the book designer came up with a font also named Sabon: See the “note on the type” at the back. Here is an extra, unexpected layer of hybrid meaning.