Poetics of Dream Translation 3

This was the last part of my conference, see during which a handful of people from the audience shared recurrent dreams.

Rene Magritte – The Explanation

When I translated the dreams in that chapter of SLF, nurse which were collected years later for the book, my only intention was to write for the sake of writing. I have a habit of reflecting upon my dream content to better understand my current state of mind in my waking life, so this exercise of writing down dreams was a way of doing so. Since I had been publishing them online, friends and readers reacted to them, which was a source of positive reinforcement. I never expected, however, to be explaining any of them.

About dream analysis, Freud says:

The first thing that becomes clear to the investigator when he compares the dream-content with the dream-thoughts is that a tremendous work of condensation has been accomplished. The dream is meagre, paltry and laconic in comparison with the range and copiousness of the dream-thoughts.

The dream, when written down fills half a page; the analysis, which contains the dream-thoughts, requires six, eight, twelve times as much space.

As you have probably observed, the time it took me to explain only 3 aspects of the dream sequence “Daisy” and “Recollection” took nearly as long to have narrated the events in their entirety.

Literary analysis of poetry will probably result in “six, eight, twelve times as much space” as well.

Dreams, if you are able to remember them, are an excellent source for creative material. As a writer, you are able to exploit, through writing them down (or write based on them), what Freud calls the dream-content (what you perceive with your senses) and your condensed dream-thoughts (what you felt and thought in reaction to the dream-content). Both dream-content and dream-thoughts, as played out by your unconscious as you dream, are fragmented, disjointed.

The act of re-arranging this puzzle, to join the loose ends, is the act of translation. As with all translations, original meanings might be lost, but new meaning will be gained, and perhaps even deeper levels of meaning will be revealed through word choice.


The words we choose to name what we see might be clues to what we were really dreaming about – though wordplay and puns, homophones or homographs, or even rhyme. Language structures our very way of thinking, so the relationship between images and language does not go in only one direction.

As an example, I will quote Freud re-telling a dream to illustrate this point, that “one scarcely finds a dream without a double meaning or a play upon words.”

Photo credit unavailable

C in a dream sees a girl on the road to X bathed in a white light and wearing a white blouse.

The dreamer began an affair with a Miss White on this road.

After translating your sequence of dream images to words that are comprehensible to yourself (as well as your potential readers), you will probably have achieved effective poetic prose. By effective poetic prose I mean a combination of words that conveys sensorial experiences as well as emotions with minimal explanations about their particular symbolism (which is what “good” poetry should do – though it’s a matter of opinion).

And if you aren’t a writer, you have poetry within you. Some people might think dreams are a waste of time discussing or even bothering to remember, but the exercise if recalling, wording and sharing what we’ve dreamt can help us cope with the frustrations or questions that bother us in our waking lives. Dream interpretation, which is almost identical to literary interpretation, has much to teach us about ourselves and those around us, but only if we are aware. Like an oracle, or like Shelley’s figure of the poet as a prophet, dreams allow us to look inward and relate to the world outside our minds, therefore providing glimpses of the unknown.

We may never fully understand it, but, as we look out into the ocean and up the sky, there is a promise in all that is uncertain.

Poetics of Dream Translation 2

This part had lots of digressions, discussions and explanations, as well as examples Freud used in The Interpretation of Dreams, tons of Magritte’s paintings (more that I included here), and some passages from SLF. If you’d like to know more, I encourage you to go forth and google (and refer to SLF).

Photo by Angel Huertas


Now, why call it “translation” and not transcription? Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of language as a social agreement: there is nothing natural about it. We learn it growing up as a means for communication, but there is a wide gap between sensory perception and language.

From Introduction to General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

From Introduction to General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

Rene Magritte – Collective Invention


Signifiers (words, whether spoken or written) are common among members of society, yet signifieds (meanings or conceptual images) are subjective.

Rene Magritte - Clear Ideas

Rene Magritte – Clear Ideas


The process of becoming overwhelmed by sensory images is very similar to recalling dreams, or to dreaming itself.We normally have little to no control over what we dream; we might enjoy a dream, or we might be shocked or disgusted by it.

Henri Fuseli – The Nightmare


If we decide to tell someone about a dream we’ve had, we normally have to really try to put events in order, to make sense out of a sequence of sensory images that would otherwise not make any.  We might also change the events as they occurred because they are too disturbing to recall.Most of the time, objects and characters in our dreams are not recognizable, yet, when awake, we try hard to associate them with images from our conscious memory, sometimes changing the memory of the dream altogether.

Henri Fuseli – Queen Katherine’s Dream


The prose pieces in the second chapter of SLF are not, as you may have noticed, by definition, stories.  They are poetic prose, because situations and conflicts are hard to determine. Like many poems, they exist out of time and space because they consist, mainly, of metaphors.  They are all dreams recalled while I was awake, and they were my best attempt at weaving pieces of images together so that they would have some kind of logical sequence (for my readers as well as myself).The process of writing poetry and writing poetic prose are not too different: they are both a recollection of visions, through sensory perception, that need some kind of conversion from image to text.  Sometimes intentions and thoughts (in other words, ideas) were unclear when recalling the dream, in which cases I had to consciously add details that were not provided in the dream itself.

For example, “Daisy” is followed by a separate text, “Recollection.”

In the dream “Daisy,” which happened so many years ago now, I still remember my thoughts and emotions in the dream. In my dream, the girl was the embodiment of the flower…

The naked girl was a daisy, not visually, since she had a human(esque) shape. But the images of a daisy and this girl were simultaneous. As I transcribed the dream, explaining this seemed like too much trouble for the reader, so I settled for similes involving different flowers as an attempt to be understood. There is no signifier for the actual dream image of a girl-daisy, so translation through logical language (the similes) seemed necessary.

However, in retrospect, perhaps the girl’s lack of emotional expression had a lot to do with her being a plant. A fresh, cheerful looking daisy communicating no empathy whatsoever. And also the fact that plants are naturally naked…

In that same dream, I was suffering anxiety upon learning that “my image was to be desecrated” – I know much deeper, psychological interpretations may be given to this dream, which may be completely valid (though I don’t remember what I was experiencing in my life when I had this dream)… but my main association upon remembering the dream, then and now, was related to computers and, possibly, web design and the attachment I had to my html files.


The line: “every fiber of my flesh was disintegrating, blinking horrifically in pixels of colors I could only see in codes. […]” in this context, sounds less horrific… but the truth is, as a teenager, I spent hours upon hours a day designing personal websites that, at that time, I considered works of art. Dreaming in codes, (black letters, numbers, and symbols on a white screen) was commonplace and sometimes frustrating. I had lived the nightmare of losing all my files once, where the screen became pixelated and in the color codes in the “story” (yellow, cyan, fuchsia, black, white and red – I don’t need to check the codes I wrote in the text because I remember very well what this screen looks like).  It happened when I was 15 (it was my mother’s computer, but it was I who sat in front of it hours on end) and I have avoided that (living) nightmare ever since.  It seems like a trivial thing to worry about, but the nightmare is a symptom of a real trauma. In this dream, my work on my computer and my vision of self were one.

In the next dream, “Recollection” – which is possibly the same dream, a nightmare from I did not wake, but slipped from and into another sequence.

It is a reconciliation of a lost identity with a regained one. One of confusion that does not depend on concrete evidence, but on memory, even if a faulty one. Whether or not the poets I mentioned were actually mentioned by name, and whether or not the poetry I recited was poetry I had memorized from my waking life and not dream-babble, is irrelevant.

And whether or not these anxieties, the specific ones I mentioned about a computer breaking down and losing all files, hence losing one’s created identity, as well as the ones the dream sequence suggests – persecution, being lost and obliterated, then regaining composure and recalling identity in a particular way, reveal anything about me as a writer or person, should also be irrelevant. I like to think the images are about a universal experience among human beings, no a particular experience based on a memory. However, in the same way we decode symbols in poetry, we decode symbols in dreams: images not obviously tied to their literal meaning, but a meaning extracted through an exercise of subjective association. 

In Freud’s words, “That which is obviously the essential content of the dream-thoughts need not be represented at all in the dream. The dream is, as it were, centred elsewhere; its content is arranged about elements which do not constitute the central point of the dream-thoughts.”

To put it another way, we must decode and make an effort to interpret – to translate – what sensory images paired with emotions, as remembered from our dreams, mean to us (or to your psychoanalyst). Then we re-code them in language (thus, translating).

Rene Magritte – The Lost Jockey


As I mentioned before, what is important in dream interpretation is not so much the physical aspects of the dream, but the psychological relationships with these aspects (either of the reader, or the dreamer).  Much like considering Magritte’s titles when we look at his paintings. The image is secondary to the title, which gives the image an entirely different dimension, open to interpretation. In this case, the image is the dream content and the title, the dream thought.

Rene Magritte - The Entrance

Rene Magritte – The Entrance

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:


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.

Why Stars Like Fish?

Since I’ll probably never be using this introduction again, I’m sharing part of the conference I gave at the UPRH last October, for everyone’s pleasure – of this sort of thing pleases you. 

Credit unavailable. If you know the artist, please send a message!

 “Why Stars Like Fish?” is a question I am asked very often, not only by people who are looking for clues before reading it, but also some who have already read it entirely. I’ve probably been unfair when answering to both, with replies such as a very secure “well, if you read it I’m sure you’ll get it” – or the distressed and insecure “really, you read it and you didn’t get it?” 

When naming the book, I never gave it much thought. Images of stars and fish are recurrent in my writing, and they share many similarities in their symbolism. I suppose I overlooked the fact that “Stars Like Fish” is a poetic line in itself, one that invites interpretation (whether a conscious or unconscious one).

For those who expect an explanation on how stars are in any way like fish, or how fish can be possibly be similar to stars might be disappointed. Yes, there are stars in the book as well as fish, but there is never a direct comparison.

Before I make my best effort to explain my title choice, I’d like to show you this illustration by one of Prof. Carmen Torres’ students, Michelle (whose last name I don’t know), who was kind enough to let me keep it.

I was excited to see it for many reasons: one, to know that by means of your own creativity you have bonded with a stranger who has reacted through art. We are all inspired by other artists, but we rarely get to connect. Having the opportunity to see an interpretation of your work in an entirely different medium provokes a feeling of togetherness and communication, even if it’s based on a title alone.

A second reason is that, having this self-created complex that “nobody gets it” regarding my title, this student helped me get over my anxiety because, when she showed it to me, with intense emotion I thought “SHE GETS IT!”

I would like to analyze Michelle’s  watercolor as an answer to “Why Stars Like Fish?”

It’s a reversible image of creatures in water and outer space. You may look at it from one angle or another, and its meaning is unaltered (in the same way stars like fish or fish like stars are interchangeable).

But what is the meaning?

Does a starred sky ever meet the ocean’s edge?

From our human perspective, it does. As residents of an island, we might take visits to a shoreline for granted, but we’ve all noticed the horizon, the line where the ocean ends and the sky begins (or vice versa).

Under a dark night sky, however, this line is almost impossible to isolate.

Michelle’s illustration shows both sky and sea, almost blending into one another, but not quite. She painted white dots in the violet space, and colored stars in the blue one. The stars in space resemble stars as we see them, tiny white dots against a dark background. The stars in the sea resemble starfish, or anemone. In a sense, through linguistic signs (not considering definitions), there are stars in both sky and sea.

Now I’d like to focus on the characters: a mermaid and astronaut are looking into each other’s eyes, yet, they’re not touching, but waving at each other.  Where do they meet?

I really had to give this some thought. What seems obvious to me is quite difficult to word, because I’ve never thought of it in words, until this moment, but in metaphor.  We are beings of the earth… the sky and the sea, whether we have a scientific understanding of it or not, are realms beyond our reach. Humans may visit these spaces, in suits that allow us to temporarily adapt, but we cannot naturally experience them.

Hence, sky and sea are where we look to for solace, for a promise that there exists what we cannot grasp: origin and flight, a beginning where there is an end, birth and death (and an afterlife), which is why the sky and sea are elements in creation myths around the world. There are fish in the ocean and there are stars in the sky, so much we know… more than we can count, because we simply cannot.  Stars are born and die as often as fish do, as our own lives are ephemeral… but we manage to live on our own, relative time, as we look beyond the horizon, beyond our atmosphere.

So, how are stars like fish? They inhabit the unknown, and are symbols, in Stars Like Fish, of what we can see – but cannot fully comprehend.

On occasion, we might see stars reflected on water. In our dreams, we may see fish floating in the sky with other impossible objects. 

Halloween Conference! Not really, but…

Last time I visited a class at the UPR in Humacao, more about I was so excited to meet students who are creating, whether as reactions to literature or reactions to LIFE, and I’m so happy to have been invited again!

I’m still writing this one up… lately, “the creative process” is a topic that’s been following me, something I’ve never in my life talked about (not even with other writers or artists) – or maybe it’s something I’ve taken for granted.

I decided to talk about the process of dream translation (yes, translation and not transcription) because my creative process, in most instances, relies on disturbed sleep and the left side of my brain running amok. (“Amok, amok, amok.”)

But I’ll also be clarifying some questions about the title…

Because I’m feeling generous, I’ll post a little preview.

Remember this?



It’s so perfect in every way… I’m using it to talk about the title, Stars Like Fish:

It’s a reversible image of creatures in water and outer space. You may look at it from one angle or another, and its meaning is unaltered (in the same way stars like fish or fish like stars are interchangeable).

But what is the meaning?

Does a starred sky ever meet the ocean’s edge? From our human perspective, it does. As residents of an island, we might take visits to a shoreline for granted, but we’ve all noticed the horizon, the line where the ocean ends and the sky begins (or vice versa). Under a dark night sky, however, this line is almost impossible to isolate. Michelle’s illustration shows both sky and sea, almost blending into one another, but not quite.


So there you go. I’d be really tickled if anyone NOT from the UPRH made it, so, here’s the flyer: