Poetry and psychoanalysis

It was a pleasure to be invited to read at the conference ‘Poetry and Psychoanalysis: Creative Borders and Boundaries’ on 9-10 June in London. The event was organised by poets and researchers Kathryn Maris and Catherine Humble in collaboration with psychoanalyst Susanne Lansman. It took place in the Sigmund Freud Lecture Theatre at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in Maida Vale and attracted a sizeable audience of both poets and psychoanalysts.  I learnt that the building used to be an old dairy, as evidenced by the cow on the corner (in a similar manner to the Old Dairy pub I used to go to not far away at the foot of Crouch Hill/Stroud Green).

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Friday evening comprised an engaging and entertaining keynote reading by Annie Freud (‘The Remains’ –  poems interspersed with her own finely observed paintings), followed by four poets: me, Emily Berry (‘Stranger, Baby!’), Kayo Chingonyi (‘Kumukanda’) and Bill Herbert (‘Omnesia’) who were reading from their new books, in some cases (as for Kayo) just published. Each poet explored different types of trauma through poetry, including my own poems following the Paris terrorist attacks. There was wine and nibbles both before and after the reading, so there was time to chat, and Kathryn kindly took some of us for dinner afterwards.

Saturday consisted of three panels, in which nine poets gave papers. My favourite was the first panel whose papers looked at poetry as reparation after sibling suicide (Joanne Limburg), at poetry and developmental trauma (Ruby Robinson) and at the ever-shifting nature of trauma (Karen McCarthy Woolf):

Joanne Limburg talked beautifully about how grief used to be considered merely as a process of withdrawl and detachment but that now it can be considered more as the ‘renegotiation of a relationship that is ongoing’, with writing that deals with loss part as ‘an act of symbolic reparation’. She talked of how a person may ‘remove their breathing presence’ but the mother remains their mother, the father remains their father. In loss, the deceased becomes ‘an internal object’ and a ‘legacy of complicated emotions’. Poetry is thus a process of reassembly, repair, reparation, through which the poet reassembles the deceased, thought by thought, and by incorporating the many fragments of real experience (with them). Nonetheless, she questioned the ethics of producing ‘capital’ (poetry) from loss and considered how, in guilt, we might seek to hold onto pain, as if keeping the pain of loss is a way of keeping a person inside you forever.

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Ruby Robinson considered what it is to be alive. In an honest and candid talk she drew heavily on her biography and spoke of the ‘harmful and helpful’ power of language. She discussed her the poets articulates felt experiences, particularly ‘common unhappiness’ and everyday stresses. Addressing difficult child-adult relations, she admitted: ‘I remember feeling I didn’t have skin…I didn’t want to indulge emotions’. She quoted Mimi Khalvati who said that ‘a poem is only a true poem if it reveals what you didn’t know you felt’. Ruby said she used running and cycling to ‘prioritise emotions’, using exercise as ’emotional regulation’.

Karen McCarthy Woolf spoke beautifully of how her grief has travelled, from writing about the loss of her stillborn son, to writing about environmental themes of plastic in the oceans and other pollution, i.e. how her trauma has grown from the closely personal to the collective and global. She talked of the poetry of Louise Gluck, and about the relationship between feeling and form on the page, from the notion of reduction and making the smallest possible imprint she could in two syllable lines, to complete physical absence on the page. She spoke also of sound as absence (not having heard her child cry) and the articulation of pain as a political gesture – contrasting the human reaction to trauma (visceral, emotional) with the critical reaction of the poem on trauma (is it good art?). As such, writing for Karen was catharsis but she had to apply technique – form was vital – because it was the ‘complex structural architecture’ that could ‘support the emotional, lyrical voice(s). This in opposition perhaps to the ‘spontaneous overflowing of feelings’ mentioned by Ruby with regards to Wordsworth. Karen went on to talk about the increasingly vital presence of an object (in this case, a fallen horse chestnut in her garden) as a thing to cling to and hold on.

Before lunch, and after the prize giving to competition winners (Geraldine Clarkson for two great poems in the final shortlist), Steven (S J) Fowler munched a green apple loudly and stared into Freud’s portrait before jumping on stage to deliver a new literary performance on the fear of living and fear of dying that saw him whip playfully through 53 Powerpoint slides containing questions, notes to self, reflections and cheeky confessions, all with a wink to the audience and their profession. After lunch Robert Peake who grew up close to the US-Mexico border, read a brilliant poem inspired by the CAUTION signs (of three people in black silhouette running on a yellow background) for motorists, warning them to look out for families negotiating the 16-lane motorway. He showed several poem-films produced in collaboration with his wife Valerie Kampmeier – a collage of words, images and music – including the beautiful and award-winning children’s film ‘Buttons‘.

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In the afternoon’s third panel on ‘poetry and mental borders’, there were papers on Dante and The Divine Comedy as a product of exile (David (D M) Black), on negative poetics and holding loss in the work of Dorothea Lasky, and on the ball in poetry and film and its relation with self-loss (J T Welsch). The final panel on the politics of displacement’ brought together papers on trauma, migration and the nomadic consciousness in the poetry of Bhanu Kapil and Vahni Capildeo (Sandeep Parmar), on the music lying beneath words and the poetics of trauma (Deryn Rees-Jones) and finally, on trauma, Trump and the Tories – political poetry in the post-truth period (Bill Herbert).

All in all I felt the first panel was strongest not least because the poets spoke naturally and engaged with the audience, thinking and reflecting in real time about what they wanted to say, rather than reading their papers verbatim, which is dull for the listener. Some of the papers got very detailed and academic in their delivery. The most effective of the nine presenters made use of photos and images in Powerpoint and/or circulated sample poems for the audience to read from so that they were active participants.

All in all a really focused, stimulating and thought-provoking event that had the advantage of bringing two very different audiences together. I was writing furious notes. Or notes furiously. Listening to the different speakers helped me zone in and generate ideas for my own poems. It was very good venue and a wonderful opportunity to catch up with London poet friends like Anita Pati, Ben Rogers and Valerie Josephs, or meet new poets like Paul Deaton. It seems that the organisers are already looking to hold a follow-up event next year on a theme other than trauma so do contact Kathryn Maris if interested in being on a mailing list.

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