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Line / Break | Season 4 with Lisa Olstein
The Line / Break season four first episode features Guggenheim fellow Lisa Olstein!
Copper Canyon Press publicist Ryo Yamaguchi talks with Lisa Olstein about dreamscapes, surrealism within our reality, and the many fallacies.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00):
Hey, everyone. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching season four of our interview series Line / Break, which goes into the poems and minds of our beloved poets. We’ve had so much fun over these seasons watching poets on screen talking about writing, books, and life. We’ve simply had to keep this series going.
Dear viewers, season four, I can’t believe we’re here. And we’ve got a format change I want to alert you to. We’ve been thinking about new ways to do the show, and we’re deciding this season to give it some focus. We’re going to be engaging our poets around either a single question or a single poem and letting that develop into a broad and deep conversation that hopefully still touches on all the corners that we’ve loved touching on over these past few seasons.
To kick us off, this is our very first episode for season four, and we have the fantastic Lisa Olstein. Lisa, hello. Welcome. Thanks for being here.
Lisa Olstein (01:03):
Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:07):
I’m so excited to have you here. And the show that we want to do today, we’re going to talk about poems and dreams or poetry and dream. One of my favorite topics absolutely. They are bedfellows. I think that’s the right word to use here. And I’m really excited to really get into the subterranean realm of this topic with you and things.
I’m going to kick this off. I had a dream last night about doing this show and I’ll tell you, it was like an anxiety dream a little bit. I was trying to find a quiet place in the library to set up my laptop and I couldn’t find one. The library was rowdy. It was a loud library, and so I kept trying different rooms in all different corners of the house. Something I think we’ve talked about, too, about the way that spatial arrangements work and dreams and things like that. Can you remember your dream at all from last night if I can put you on the spot?
Lisa Olstein (01:58):
I had a little bit of an anxiety dream, too, a semi-recurring theme where I was madly trying to pack for a trip and I wasn’t doing a good job. Clothes were everywhere. Preparations were not in place. And you’re getting right at the heart of the matter so quickly in some ways, at least.
I think that one of the things that is so interesting about the parallel lives of poems and dreams is that on the one hand, they are the two best examples of things that they’re not about, about. Whenever we describe them to one another, we can in sympathy nod and share or be interested, but they lose so much of their magic, right, a majority of their magic when we try to describe them or gloss them or paraphrase them. And that’s part of the almost echo chamber or analog way that they operate for me, because poems and dreams are… You can’t separate out their parts. You can’t separate out their content from their form, from their atmosphere and mood and images, and that’s something that really, really draws me. So I’m fascinated by the fact that we have recurring dreams, repetition, and that we often have them in common.
So I have it in common with myself. My packing dream is a variation on a theme that I’ve had for years. Maybe your library dream is too. And then there are these ones like the dream of finding a previously undiscovered room or floor in your apartment or your house. That’s a dream that so many of us in this culture share. And on the one hand, it’s so deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and on the other hand, it’s utterly common and shared. I will cop to the fact that I don’t love talking about the particulars of anybody’s dreams because I think it gets boring really fast, but I’m so fascinated by the idea of these shared forms and by all the elements that, to me, in a poem are made up by the craft elements of a poem, the sound and the rhythm and the momentum, the way time operates, the image systems that to me exist in parallel to what create the form and logic and movement of dream.
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:24):
Yeah, that’s so wonderfully well put. And I think you’re touching on things that we had in our preliminary conversations about this conversation we’re having. I love not about, about. I think that’s such a great way to put it. I think in previous seasons that we’ve had with Line / Break, poets touch a lot upon the idea that a poem doesn’t describe as much as it enacts. And I think you are talking really about the material reality of that statement, which is that poems cannot be considered apart from their form or the mood, the images, the quality of image, and the way an image is relayed. All of that is about part of the poem in non-descriptive ways, in enacting or engendering ways and things. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lisa Olstein (05:16):
Yeah. I believe that really fiercely. It’s a very fundamental element of my relationship to poetry. And in this particular collection I was… So I think that’s always true. And then here, I was very aware of leaning into this parallel form of dream logic and dream form as a way to think about what I might manifest or emphasize in that enactment that you’re talking about in this attempt to, on the page, actually create an experience rather than just describe one or report on one.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:53):
Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s fantastic. And I knew also coming into this that… Well, you had said something earlier, again in our preliminary conversation, that this wasn’t a project that was necessarily describing dreams that you had. It wasn’t influenced necessarily by dream research. Look at me. I’m already blowing our moratorium on Freud here. But we said, “We’re not going to talk about Freud in this.”
I am the publicist so I have to publicize that the collection we’re talking about is Dream Apartment, and the apartment part, I think, is equally important. I’m going to hold this here for everyone who’s centering it. I love this image also because it has this sense of interiority. We’re looking out the window into the world, out of the window from our consciousness or our dream consciousness, and I think that’s really beautiful. And I don’t want to be lost in that sense. I think sometimes when we talk about dream, we can be overwhelmed by a kind of allegorical sensibility around them.
Let me ask quickly though. As you were talking, I was thinking about the idea of dream dictionaries that you could look up a dream you have and it’ll… A dream about drowning is really about a fear of the unconscious. A dream about falling is really a fear of control and having no control. Do you buy that? Do you buy dream dictionaries? Yeah, yeah.
Lisa Olstein (07:11):
I mean, I’m interested in them as artifacts. I’m interested in them in the same way that if I’m reading a poet in translation, I want to line up… If I have the opportunity to, I want to look at the same poem and line up five different translations of it so that I understand the context that it’s coming from. I just don’t think there’s an absolute truth. I’m very interested in dream research, but I think maybe from slightly more bird’s eye point of view. So I don’t think that anybody has a lock on the truth. I think that it’s always divination.
And some people have produced, or some traditions have produced, more or less interesting kinds of codes or approaches to that divination, and I think that sometimes they resonate with us and that’s great. But the idea that there is a way to unlock an absolute truth around dream symbology or anything like that, I think, is silly. I think that’s human folly. I think that’s hubris. So it can be very interesting and it can be a tool among tools or something like that, but that is in no way what I was attempting to pursue in these poems or in my thinking about what makes homes and the way they inhabit form or time or space or affect as parallel to dreams.
And a lot of it is about… I think of the night as a type of dream apartment. Even when we’re awaken in it, it’s an alternative space. It’s a space where on the one hand, lucidity and compression and realization of what we really think or feel can come to us when we’re awake or in a dream, but it’s separate from the highly mediated, constantly distracted movement of daytime life for most of us.
So the night itself can offer those moments of lucid compression, or it can offer those moments that also parallel what can happen in dream of this associative and then, and then, and then, and then, right, where we go from one place to the next and take turns and sometimes ricochet or skip or turn leap in a volta kind of sense. So I’m not being literal about dreams and dream apartments so much as thinking about the ways that poems and dreams and some kinds of waking life create pockets of unordinary time and space that are as real or true to our consciousness and our meaning-making as the more normative ones, but are often cordoned off and thought of a little bit as other.
Ryo Yamaguchi (10:00):
In my notes, I have a sequence of we go to dream to X, we go to dream to Y in response to your poems. One of them was we go to dream to deposit our contradictions, was something that I was really vibing on the work.
I also love bringing up night as… Another note that I had here was about night and thinking a lot about night as not a time of day, but as a space of the day. Again, going back to a spatial orientation to it. I think the long poem in Dream Apartment, Night Secretary, I think it’s very evocative of this and this sense of a worker who is attendant to the night or something like that in a space. A library, maybe, or room or something like [inaudible 00:10:42].
Lisa Olstein (10:41):
Yeah, or whether she wants to be or not. And that-
Ryo Yamaguchi (10:44):
Yes. Right, right, right.
Lisa Olstein (10:45):
And you’re right. In that one, although that poem does refer to dreams occasionally, that is about being awake in the deep ache of the center of the night and the solitude of that place and the way memory works there and grief and the casting out of connection that may or may not be able to land or be met. Yeah.
Ryo Yamaguchi (11:12):
No, it’s really wonderful. Well, maybe I’ll move us into… Shall we reify this conversation with a poem if you feel up for reading a poem, something of you’re choosing? Yeah.
Lisa Olstein (11:23):
Yeah, yeah. And I’ll preface that with, so I had two almost guiding lights in the years that I was working on this work, and one is Adrienne Rich’s statement in an essay. I might get it a little wrong, but poems are like dreams. In them, we put what we don’t know we know. So this idea that both of these territories are places that we uncover and discover and that we can’t do that work outside of them, and that’s also quite foundational to my experience of poetry and my commitment to it, that we don’t know until we’re in the poem. Language is a necessary partner in it.
And then the other one is from an Anne Carson interview where she says, “Every accuracy has to be invented,” which is amazing when you pair accuracy with invention, right, because those don’t usually go together. So first, the mind gets to linger in that seeming paradox, which when we’re talking about making art is not a paradox. When we’re making poems, right, it makes perfect sense even though it runs counter. But also, even if we accept the premise, “Okay, yep. Accuracies have to be invented,” well how? How would we achieve that, right? And that again, into that void or into that mystery rushes all the elements of form that make poetry the place that allows for this highly visible and available means of doing something like inventing an accuracy.
To invent the accuracy, it can’t just be about semantic meaning. It has to be there, probably, but it’s going to be about embodiment and feeling and association and all these other elements that are affecting us as we inhabit that space. That’s how you invent the accuracy, I would say.
So to get to a poem or two, there’s a number of forms across the book, a number of forms that recur, and one of them is a very highly enjambed, very short-lined, single stanza poem often in a single sentence or something close to it. And again, these don’t recount dreams, but I was trying in this form to inhabit that Jacob’s ladder-like tumbling sense where meaning or realization cascades through you that can sometimes occur in a dream or in a moment of waking life that we would call maybe eerie or uncanny, which of course are synonymous with dreamlike in our lexicon. So maybe I’ll read one of those and then one that inhabits a different type of poem logic. This is the first poem in the book. It’s called Fort Night.
The snake is a sleeve the deer puts on its mouth, a beaded cuff in the haze men make of morning with each release of their fist-gripped guns. Is this a dream of shame? Is this a dream of potential unmet, of possibility undone? School, no pants. Brush, no teeth. Podium, no poems. Open door, all wall. Dear monster, none of the guests we invited arrive. In the darkness, no lion comes.
So that one is hybridizing, maybe, the attempt to inhabit the eerie, dreamlike space. The opening occasion or image with the snake and the deer comes from a video I encountered online arbitrarily, randomly, of hunters in, I think it was in Florida, in the swampy forests who came upon an anaconda who was swallowing a deer. And they were there to hunt, and then they encountered this form of natural predation. And it was such a bizarre image and such a striking image, and it struck me as so dreamlike although it is drawn from very real life, although mediated through me finding it online. And from there, I tripped into considering this idea of what do we even mean when something’s dreamlike, and what are these recurrences or mirror images that occur across our poems? So it’s a little bit of breaking the bottle of champagne on the prow of the boat to start in that place.
Ryo Yamaguchi (16:12):
And let me very quickly, just for readers, because you’re talking about the layout of the poems, and I think the structure’s really important. I just want to show what this columnar, this very thin column looks like on the page. I think it’s quite lovely and elegant, and lots of references to that elsewhere. Yeah. Thank you, Lisa. Yeah.
Lisa Olstein (16:30):
Yeah. And then I could read maybe a short poem that’s inhabits this other more associative dream logic type of space.
Ryo Yamaguchi (16:44):
Yeah, yeah. Please. Yeah.
Lisa Olstein (16:44):
[inaudible 00:16:44] sense. Okay, so this one’s called Great Question. When I say seeing you again really opened me up, I mean like a hatchet to the chest. I keep hidden in my chest, stuck drawers near the heart. Little lathe long past, do you remember? After years of careful study and even more studied looking away, having retraced the memory palace from the unfinished novel of what lives and lives and lives and still lives wherever it is, flint meets spark in the dark, hot orange here, then gone low and slow, a smoldering field, a controlled burn. Yes, I remember. Finally, I’ve located the girl, the bend, the night, that series of precise and fumbling distances that set our bodies in motion across thousands of other nights. But from these forensics, I’ve gleaned no wisdom, only wish, sorrow, sorrow, wish. Nothing at all about the ox I am or my carton. So in these poems, which are more… These are in couplets.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:01):
Yeah, beautiful. Yeah.
Lisa Olstein (18:04):
And have a longer line. They might still work with some enjambment, but in a less distilled or intensified way. They’re a little bit chattier, more narrative, and more associative, following the thread of something. And some take more leaps and others circle and bear down in that circling.
But I was thinking here about both the way that the apartment of the night is a space in which we do a certain time travel across our memories and our feelings, our griefs, our losses, our ongoing loves, and then also that, as I mentioned earlier, that more associative type of dream where they tell us our dreams are like three seconds long, but I don’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Some of those dreams feel like novels. They just keep unfolding and they have these… You think, “Oh, here’s where the story ends,” and then some new direction or some new association propels it forward. So this is an example of poems that are attempting to, in some way, mimic that type of momentum or logic.
Ryo Yamaguchi (19:21):
It’s very audible to me, too, in the reading. And of course, some of that is the format of the poems and the longer lines. But what’s also audible to me is what you’re saying, that there’s this associative quality which feels… It’s almost like a call of a siren. It lures you more deeper into the recesses of its own manufacture, of its own invention, to coin on that. And I think it’s, yeah, it’s really wonderful and I do think that… I mean, it’s really great to hear both of these poems side by side to be able to hear in juxtaposition the logics themselves, the different logics that are at work.
Going back to the first poem you wrote, the opening one, and thinking of the Jacob’s ladder and something that while as you were saying maybe sounds more sequential. Maybe I’m just keen to tell you that the word of the day today was a word that was new to me, seriatum, which is just in a series one after another. Just a fancy way of saying sequential. A lovely way to say it, I think.
But thinking of logic and sequence and things and… Well, this brings me to something that I wanted to talk about a little bit, this idea of fallacy, because fallacy comes up so much also in Dream Apartment and you’re interacting with it. And let me show also… Let me see if I can find it quickly here. I’ll use the word concrete poems, in a way, so here’s 32. And this is from Night Secretary. This is right smack in the middle of Night Secretary. But here are the fallacies that are listed in this Aperol kind of shape here. I loved looking up, actually, the no true Scotsman fallacy. That was a new one to me. [inaudible 00:20:58].
But I want to pick your brain a little bit about dream logic. So let’s just create a triad here. So there’s dream logic and then there’s poem logic and then there’s fallacy logic. And I’m curious if you can describe in fallacy logic or what kind of intervention, maybe, that these dream poems have with the idea of fallacy. What’s the critique of fallacy?
Lisa Olstein (21:21):
Well, I think that if we’re talking about logic ever… And I love to think about logic. I think it’s fascinating. Just like our dreams fall into certain forms or recurrences individually and collectively across our culture, logic is also essentially an invented form. It’s a way of thinking through that feels organic or original, but in fact is often shared, received. Like Steven says about language and the imagination, the world presses in, but the imagination also presses out.
And so I think that not to disrupt your lovely triangle, but I think if we’re thinking about logic at all, we’re also thinking about fallacy because faulty logic falls into repeated patterns and we name them. We have this wonderful little dictionary of identified types of logical fallacies that often have totally charming, oddball names themselves, but they’re common enough that they’ve been identified. So it’s a murder of crows. It’s the no Scotsman fallacy. So we think in any given moment that we are coming up with our own idea or way of thinking through something, but in fact we’re often inhabiting forms that either we’ve inherited or that we all, or many of us, tend to reach for or shape ourselves into. And so that’s my fascination with it.
I think that there’s a surface level language and language play and thought play where I just find the names of them fascinating. I love looking them up. I can never remember them consistently. I always have to go back. And a Texas sharpshooter fallacy. So there’s a level of play and pure sonics, but also there’s this fascination with what feels inevitable or original or newly created, but is in fact shared and maybe inherited, or at least common in terms of our impulse. And that’s not to put it down. It’s just to say that’s fascinating to me.
Ryo Yamaguchi (23:48):
No, that’s wonderful. Well, think about the Texas sharpshooter. I think our world presents it as more sinister than it is. It’s actually a comical fallacy, I think, of this drawing the targets around where you’ve hit.
And I bring that up because I think part of this whole thing, part of this whole dynamic also is this idea that we are fed these fallacies ad nauseum, ad infinitum every moment of our day. I mean, thinking about… It’s funny listening to you describe the anaconda story of watching a video online somewhere. And I was like, “Oh, it occurred to me that oh, just the speed and rapidity of media consumption that all of us have, that’s its own kind of subconsciousness, right? That’s its own dream world.” We’re going to remember that anaconda. But the idea that we’re fed this fallacial, if I’m saying that right, [inaudible 00:24:41] not get that wrong, language all the time. And so that the dream place, the other word I had here was that we go to dream as a safe agon, as a place where we can confront and dismantle some of this language that I could say that impedes us, that we are attacked by in lots of ways.
I mean, it was election day yesterday. The density of political discourse and all of the fallacious logics that it interacts with is something that we… It’s our psychic burden that we have to deal with. We need literacy in it. And maybe the poems give us that literacy, or at least that’s my belief. Yeah.
Lisa Olstein (25:24):
Yeah. I mean, that very much resonates with me. And I’m thinking about a… I took a film class in college, and so this is going back some decades. And this is pre-internet, at least for the common man or woman, but one of the premises of this film course was that through film and television entering in the 1950s, entering people’s homes, a profound change in human memory occurred because now we had these memories in common. And the quintessential example of that was the assassination of JFK, I believe. And so these touchstones that become shared, felt, experienced memories, but are on a completely different scale than humans had mostly had up until that time, right, of that media and that type of speed. And that, we’re only talking about TV and three channels or five channels or something.
So I am very much interested in and have been preoccupied for a long time with these, as you say, this incredible influx. Misinformation, disinformation, also earnestly felt, earnestly articulated best version of the truth information, but we watch it change, change, change. It’s not static. And to pretend that just because this is to the best of our knowledge in this moment, again it seems foolish. It’s like so many assertions that we now know to be absurd or spurious or just simply untrue, those too were the best of our knowledge 10 minutes ago, 10 years ago, 15, 30, a hundred. So it’s constantly changing.
So yes, I agree. Having a sense of having literacy around fallacies and manipulation of thought processes. But also for me, this is an incredibly intimate book. I don’t mean to imply that it’s an either or. The intimate is political. The political is intimate. A hundred percent. But I’m also really interested in the stories that we tell ourselves about our own lives or the rationales, the logics we apply to what occurs.
So one story that… And it’s Night Secretary that does bring up all the stuff about fallacies explicitly. The speaker is attempting to reckon with the loss of a great love that occurred many, many years ago and how that story is written and rewritten in her memory and in her present life. And then there are other poems in here that encounter and attempt to deal with in some way the loss of a friend to suicide. And thinking again, “How do we understand something?” Well, if we’re talking about understanding or meaning, we’re inevitably talking about logic. And if we’re talking about logic, we’re talking about construction and sometimes fallacy.
Ryo Yamaguchi (28:37):
Yeah. That’s wonderful. And thinking through, I mean, you’re touching on a final point that I wanted to think about also with this book, which is elegy, if I can use that word. If that’s right. The other longish poem that’s in here, Glacier Haibun, I imagine glacier’s a reference to the national park in Montana and that space. There’s a lucidity in elegy in this book in particular. There’s a resolution, it feels like, to some of the more associative qualities of the dream world that happens in this poem. And I was wondering about this idea of dream and the reckoning of loss, as you’re bringing up, and how… Yeah, I mean how that structuring… I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess I’m just astonished by the transformation that happens into that book, and I think that elegy and an acceptance of loss has to do with that in the dream world. And I’m wondering if you think of dream as also a place where we go to reckon with loss too.
Lisa Olstein (29:40):
That does seem inevitably true to me. I imagine we each do it differently, but dream spaces and poems, right, we put in them what we don’t know we know, do seem to be a place where… It’s like in our waking conscious, ordinary minds, we can worry a certain thing. We can turn it over and over and over and over again and spend weeks or months or years on it, and then something comes to you in a dream or in a poem and in an instant, it gives you better information or a clearer understanding or a movement in something that was otherwise so stuck that the conscious mind wasn’t able to move beyond. So I do think our lost people come to us often in dreams. Our past selves come through in dreams. Sometimes they do have these oracular senses or ways that seem to show us ways forward or doors that open.
There’s one like the science of dream, not the Jung-Freud type science of dreaming which again, I’m not against. I think it’s super interesting. But a more neuroscience. There was a study that essentially described a neurochemical process that would occur. I think it was looking at folks with PTSD and that often we’ve looked at recurring nightmares as a sign of being stuck in trauma. But in fact on a neurochemical level, through the repetition of a nightmare or traumatic dream, the brain is actually learning to live with something, and that the neurochemical experience evolves over the lifetime of the dreaming. Not in one night, not in one dream, but over time through dreaming, which is parallel, I also read, I don’t know if it’s still considered true but tears release… The chemical makeup of tears that are not out of irritation from wind or foreign object but out of emotion, they release certain chemicals from the brain. So they have a functional effect on our brain chemistry, and this theory of dreaming was similar.
So I’m interested in that, which is very different than pretending closure or pretending resolution, which I feel like I have a lot of resistance to. But I do think that things evolve and change over time and our relationship to them evolves and changes over time, and logic and discovery through dream or through the dream space of poems can be part of that evolution.
Ryo Yamaguchi (32:32):
That’s really beautiful. As you’re describing the effect of dream, I was thinking of my own education in psychology and this term, the plenary effect of dreams, is the idea that it is just this continuous washing over you, which is an erosion, or that we’re making deposits into it. I mean, I’ve never heard that before, but we cry real tears that relieve us of these things.
I take this all and, well, this is a good place, I think, to come to a close in thinking about dreams. And I think the word I want to land on here is just patience and trusting in our dreams and trusting in our own interactions and our ability to live with these things that we do slowly dislodge. And maybe not come to closure with, but learn to live with, perhaps, or something like that. Yeah, I don’t know. I hear it in that.
Well, maybe one more poem. I don’t know. Do you think? Could you close this with a poem? Does that sound good? Yeah.
Lisa Olstein (33:27):
Sure. Yeah. Love to. Did you have anything in mind?
Ryo Yamaguchi (33:31):
I mean, I could. But something that you come to if you get to it before me.
Lisa Olstein (33:39):
Sure. I could maybe do Plum. It’s a short one.
Ryo Yamaguchi (33:42):
Sure. Yeah, that… Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That sounds great. That sounds great.
Lisa Olstein (33:45):
Plum. To the ear, plum is indistinguishable from plumb, the way love disappears before no one’s eyes exactly how fathoms the line, plumbing the air with the scent of plums in green morning, not yet mourning, still morning, still time.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:10):
Thank you, Lisa. I think that does beautifully assert a sentiment that in the stillness, we’re still here. And I think that’s really beautiful.
Well, thank you so much for joining me today in this conversation about dream and poetry. I think we were able to touch on quite a lot in rapid time in the three-second duration of real dreams, right? I think so. Perhaps that’s what it was.
Lisa Olstein (34:28):
It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:30):
Yeah. And thank you all out there for tuning in. This is our fourth season of Line / Break, and this is our first episode of that fourth season. We’re so excited to get going, and we’ll see you all out there next time. Thanks very much.