Nuar Alsadir

An Interview

Maria Isakova Bennett

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Nuar Alsadir is a poet, writer, and psychoanalyst. She is the author of the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (2017), a finalist for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland; and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012). Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times Magazine, BOMB, Slate, Grand Street, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry London, and the Poetry Review. Alsadir is a fellow at The New York Institute for the Humanities, on the faculty at New York University, and she works as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York.

I was especially drawn to Nuar’s work in 2016, a year before she published Fourth Person Singular with Pavilion Press in Liverpool a time when I was privileged to hear her read new work and talk as part of  the Miriam Allott Writers Series, ‘Contemporary Poets Respond to Freud – Nuar Alsadir, Kathryn Maris with Josh Cohen’.

Maria Isakova Bennett: Nuar, after I first heard you read in Liverpool in 2016, I couldn’t get the idea of writing at 3.15 a.m. out of my mind. I wonder if you could talk further here about the process and about the use / value of writing from the unconscious?

Nuar Alsadir: My night fragments were written during a creative dry spell—I began to use a method of accessing my interior which involved going to bed with a notebook on my bedside table, pen marking a blank page, setting my alarm for 3:15 a.m., and, at hearing the alarm, waking for a few seconds to write down whatever was at the top of my mind. I reoriented my process so that, rather than trying to construct thoughts, I was listening for the thoughts that were already there. Psychoanalysis approaches the mind similarly, as does the art of clown—which I discuss in a recent piece I wrote for Granta When you enter a session or take the stage, you’re not supposed to operate from your expectations, have an agenda or idea of what you’re going to do. Without a plan, you can listen—and, if you trust and follow what is before you, you’ll realize that the dryness in any dry spell likely has less to do with what is available to you than your approach.

MIB: It sounds a fascinating method. I wonder, are there other methods to access the interior, other ways of listening for the thoughts that are already there? What I mean is, are there methods that can be used in the daytime ?

NA: Psychoanalysis, for one! Or clown school. Once you tune into your inner voices, you hear them all the time, during the day as well. This approach was helpful to me in generating material—though it did not always yield work that I would show to anyone else.

MIB: Has this approach (no agenda, trusting and following what’s before you) replaced your other approaches, or improved them? 

NA: Writing night fragments hasn’t replaced other approaches—it was a particular method I used during a particular period of time. I’m not writing night fragments at the moment.

MIB: Nuar, in your Granta essay about Clown school, you talked initially about spontaneous laughter and the link with honesty. What do you think is valuable about spontaneity for a writer and can you talk a little about the link with honesty?

NA: Slips of the tongue, parapraxes, outbursts of laughter represent escapes from the unconscious, as do my night fragments. I use the term “spontaneous” in the piece to point to what emerges from within in a way that retains its form without being matched up to social (or poetic) codes. I carry this idea across clown, psychoanalysis, and poetry to political action. In relation to poetry, I talk about the importance of resisting the urge to write what Derek Walcott termed a “fake poem” even if it receives accolades, and call for the poet to, in Sylvia Plath’s terms, allow themselves to ‘grow ingrown, queer, simply from indwelling and playing true to [their] own gnomes and demons’. Honesty, in this context, is accuracy—representing what is within without adjusting it to fit pre-existing forms, as expectations surrounding the dominant perspective are often revealed through form. This kind of honesty is critical, I believe, when it comes to work that expresses a different subject position than the mainstream, so that the writer resists the pressure to explain, tweak the work to make it accessible to a general reader. It is radical—indeed political—to hold on to your perceptions and not adjust your perspective for the comfort or recognition of a particular audience.

MIB: Accepting that what is within must not lose its form, to what extent do you think that the initial representation needs to be edited and honed if the work is to be shared? To what extent does the writer need to consider the reader / listener?

NA: When you say, ‘the reader,’ who do you mean? The editor of a mainstream poetry journal, a beloved, an internalized figure? Conflicts arise for most writers if they imagine a set reader that will judge, assess and determine the future of their work/career/sense of artistic worth. As ‘the writer,’ I need to address my work to an imagined reader of my choosing, what Bakhtin termed a superaddressee, a ‘(third), whose absolute just understanding is presumed.’ I am not concerned with making sure what is within doesn’t lose its form for the sake of retaining whatever was once inside me (the psychoanalyst in me imagines that would be like a toddler undergoing potty training who can’t bear to have their ‘creations’ flushed down the toilet). Form, for me, is determined by the way I imagine the reception of my work by my superaddressee, and what would best suit that circuit of communication. A writer will always have to negotiate the desire, in Plath’s terms, to ‘grow ingrown, queer, simply from indwelling and playing true to [their] own gnomes and demons’ and the drive to catch ‘New Yorker fever… by main force and study weld[ing one’s] sensibility into some kind of articulateness which would be publishable.’ 

MIB: I suppose that writers, especially when starting to send out work are often overly concerned about ‘the editor of a mainstream journal’, and your thoughts here are enlightening. Thank you so much for these references. It’s been wonderful to have this time to talk to you. I look forward to hearing you read again, and to reading more of your work.

Photo by Grace Yu.