Poetics of Dream Translation Part 1

From The Poetics of Dream Translation. In this first part, I’m explaining why the dreams in SLF are not short stories, but should be interpreted as poetry, given the similarities between dreams and poems in structure, content and language. I mean… in a nutshell.

As many of you might be aware of (or perhaps not), many of the pieces in the second part of Stars Like Fish are what I call “dream transcriptions.”

The subject of the creative process has come up often after the publication of Stars Like Fish.  In The Poetics of Dream Translation I will explain the process I engaged in while transcribing dreams, as well as the similarities between dream language and poetic language.

First off, to help clarify the difference between writing and interpreting both genres , I will compare narrative fiction to poetry.

Writing narrative fiction is one process… in order to write a narrative, we must first imagine a situation, a conflict, a main character with a unique personality. Then, we involve our character in the conflict, and have him or her struggle, resulting in an outcome. Although sometimes characters (and maybe even the plot itself!) take on a life of their own (when we, as writers, become them as we write), there is still a formula to writing narratives that we must take care to follow.

Poetry, on the other hand, if we choose to write in free verse, is free of formulas.

Its structure is a series of images intended to move the reader; it reveals meaning through symbols more often than narrative does because it consists mainly of symbols. A poem may be one extended metaphor or a series of metaphors.

In order to compare the effects and intentions of narrative versus those of poetry, I will quote Percy B. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry:

A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. There is this difference between a story and a poem, that a story is a catalogue of detached facts, which have no other connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds. The one is partial, and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.

In other words, poetry speaks to us in a universal language (that of symbols), and its content is not limited to time and space. We relate to poetry regardless of the century, geography or society we exist in.

My creative process of writing poetry usually consists of being overwhelmed by a feeling (any feeling at all) then sitting down, whether with paper and pen or in front of a keyboard, and writing what I see through my mind’s eye or what I feel. Sometimes feelings come to us as images only, and we must try our best to transcribe, or rather, to translate them.  Some poets have a good idea of what they want to write poems about before they do. As a habit, I usually don’t, and most of the time I don’t even realize the meaning(s) of what I’ve written until I feel that the poem is finished and have re-read it.

As an example, I’ll read you a poem I wrote last summer:

non-text 

there is a notion that words couldn’t catch

only an image that haunts, that plays back

like a silent film,

in pieces

like colors on a palette of memories

(and melodies)

painting over in shades that cannot be reproduced

not exactly

there is a notion that couldn’t be translated

couldn’t be worded

couldn’t be recognized,

(not if you heard it)

it looks like a spatter,

like the silence of night

reflected on rolling

waves of dark light

it flickers

it is

(and it isn’t)

never the same

like the shore

like paint…

What I was feeling at the moment was manifest in images. The source of these images, of course, is memory, but my individual experience is beside the point, because it is as much about my actual life experience as it is about the experience of writing the poem itself.  Writing poetry can sometimes become a half-dreaming trance, where we do pay attention to the mechanics (such as cadence, rhyme, or alliteration), but the focus is usually sensorial.

This poem was an example of writing based on memories of images used to convey emotion. In a similar way, dreams are not necessarily derived from events of the day, or any given moment. They are sensory images that may date back to our early childhood or recent events, which may be recalled from an actual lived experience or a vicarious one.  For instance, images from a movie, photographs or the emotions of a character in a novel.  Perhaps we might even dream of songs we’ve heard before but don’t even like. What we dream is beyond our voluntary control, but comes, undeniably, from our own consciousness. I will quote Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to illustrate the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness:

[…]  the distinguishing characteristic of the waking state is the fact that its psychic activity occurs in the form of ideas rather than in that of images. But the dream thinks mainly in visual images, and it may be noted that with the approach of sleep the voluntary activities become impeded in proportion as involuntary representations make their appearance, the latter belonging entirely to the category of images.

So, as dreams metaphorically speak to us through sensory images to interpret later, so does poetry. Poetic language is one to be decoded by the reader. The experience of reading and interpreting poetry should not always take into account the poet’s ideological intention. Language and symbols (sensory images) are subject to individual interpretation, which is why I prefer readers not to attach my personal experience or intentions to the dreams in Stars Like Fish, but their own.

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