An Interview with Poet/Psychoanalyst D.M. Black

By Scott Minar


SM: I know that you have done some international war trauma research. Have you written about these experiences or do you plan to do so in the future? What does poetry or memoir have to do with experiences like these, with trauma and its victims?


DMB: I have travelled in the Occupied Territories in Israel, and met psychiatrists and therapists there attempting to cope with the traumatised population.  I haven't done counselling work there myself.  I have also translated (with the help of an Arabic specialist) poems by Palestinians, for an anthology edited by Henry Bell and Sarah Irving, called A Bird is Not a Stone.  Poetry can be extremely important in such circumstances, providing a sense of solidarity, reminding people that there are true values, and that there are people who have had the courage to believe and proclaim those values.  Primo Levi, remembering Dante in Auschwitz, remains the archetype.  But you could say Dante himself, writing the Divine Comedy in the chronic civil war on the Italian peninsula in the 14th century, was a precursor.  And it was true for the Soviets under Stalin, it was true for Richard Wilbur during the Second World War – I think wherever you find such gruelingly inhuman conditions, the capacity to remember poetry, songs, even certain proverbs and phrases can be an invaluable, literally a life-saving, source of courage and hope.  We should hold onto it: we may need it again in the future.


SM: Your professional life as a psychotherapist holds considerable interest to those who read your poetry and know you as a poet. I think readers saw Tomas Tranströmer in a similar way, that his work was amplified by his occupation as a counseling psychologist. In his case, readers have tended to tie his strange brand of “magical humanism” to his professional life. Do you see a relationship between your chosen profession and your life as a poet and a writer? How would you characterize or describe the relationship in your life between psychotherapy and your own writing? Finally, what do you think of Tranströmer’s work? Do you see a relationship between professional counseling and his poetry?


DMB: To answer the final questions first: yes, certainly, about Tranströmer, whom I admire greatly.  "Amplified" is a good word, for the impact on him of his profession, and he wrote explicitly out of his experience with patients and colleagues.  I have never done that, directly.  But certainly there's a relationship between my "day-job" and my writing, if only because to train as a psychoanalyst you have to undergo intensive psychoanalysis yourself, and that, if it isn't meaningless, is life-changing.  [..] Before I did the analytic training, almost every poem I wrote insisted on becoming a narrative, and the last collection I published at that time, Gravitations, in 1979, consisted almost entirely of three 30-page-long narrative poems.  Then I went into analysis, and never had the impulse to write narrative again.


SM: I think it's accurate to say that we all have favourite lines in our own poems. Will you quote a line or two where your life as a therapist and your life as a writer might meet, likewise providing some explanation there as well?



About the meeting of poet and psychoanalyst, on the whole I kept the two things pretty separate – I often thought of Chekhov: "Medicine is my lawful wife, literature my mistress" – but inevitably analytic ways of thinking impacted on my poetry.  One example might be a poem, "An African Exile in Australia", in my latest collection The Arrow-maker.  I wrote it when visiting the central Australian desert, which I loved and which reminded me of my childhood in South Africa – not in detail, but in the quality of the sunlight and the wilderness, "the bush".  It induced in me a strange mood of yearning, which I tried to convey:


                                                                         ...It was a wish

that was no wish, a longing, a crying-out in the cells of the body

to dissolve, to change, to be reconformed, refigured

as all that landscape, in its eternal intercourse

with itself, with the sun, the wind, the cloud,

without the impedimenta of words and language

and the fretting for a point of view, for the characterful voice

that speaks and makes the speaking universe tongue-tied.


I like the sense sometimes of the urgency of meaning over-riding the desire to write "beautifully" – an urgency I associate with Robert Browning, for example, in a poem like "A Grammarian's Funeral".  Something needs to be said, and the containing form creaks and groans but stands up to it as best it can.  What psychoanalysis offers is not something new, but something very important: a recognition that there are always further perspectives on experience, to which one doesn't always have access.


SM: How would you describe the work in your new book, The Bi-plane? If this were “pictures at an exhibition,” it would be a very interesting one. I wonder what you think of your own varied approach to art making here. Is there a theme being explored in The Bi-plane in your view?


DMB: Variousness is one of my irritating qualities.  I not only write about a lot of different things, I also write in both very loose and, sometimes, quite tight verse-forms.  So it's difficult to put together a collection that doesn't seem like a mess or a jumble    The Bi-plane is particularly guilty in this respect as it includes several poems that are about twenty years old, which I realised I'd never published and wondered why not.  It's a sequel, really, to The Arrow-maker, which was published earlier last year and I feared was too heavy.  Nevertheless, there are certain themes I can now see through all my last three collections, Claiming Kindred and The Arrow-maker as well as The Bi-plane, such as the dangers of our current enthusiasm for technology, and the need to face up to pain rather than to evade it. And the title poem is about how easy it is to become resigned to the prospect of disaster:  we have to wake ourselves up to remember we can still be effective.  "No is not enough", as Naomi Klein says.  She is saying we need to find ways to be more deeply effective. I only noticed after the collection was published that several poems are on this theme: the need "to stand up for love against the grave".


SM: What makes a poem “good” for you? What are you looking for, or what do you find in a poem of skill and accomplishment?


DMB: I'm pretty open!  I love all sorts of poems, including really well-made, thoroughly old-fashioned, didactic poems like Kipling's If!  For much of my life I thought W.B. Yeats the great poet of the last two centuries, and you can't get much more skillful, more formal and more musical than that.  But in the last twenty years, and I'm not saying this because you are in Ohio, I have turned to Americans, particularly to Frost, Stevens, Bishop and Wilbur. Along with Auden, who became a sort of honorary American, all these have a bigness of spirit that I miss in most of the twentieth-century Britishers.  My boyhood was spent in Africa and there is something about the space of America that I feel deeply at home with. I think there is some quality connected with that, some sort of (possibly) Whitman-like openness and generosity in relation to the world, that I almost viscerally crave.






               The Happy Crow



If a crow were to find the brawny carcase

of an elephant killed by tumbling in the

pride of life from a cliff above the Ganges;

and that carcase were floating down the flooded

stately river among its mango trees and

jewelled peacocks, the season being Springtime;

and that crow were to think (preening himself de-

liciously!), What a pretty trip I have be-

fore me!, perching then blithely upon the carcase;

and were thereon for days and weeks and even

months to gorge on that quite unwarranted stack of

blood-stained flesh as the powerful Ganges bore it

on among those delights; and if that crow were

to be carried, intoxicated, final-

ly – head bursting, heart roaring, beak still at its

wrenching and swallowing – out to sea, and then still

farther, far out to sea, to where the skyline

is sea only; and if that crow, marooned on that

stinking flies'-nest of bones and sinews (now more than

half awash, and in sight of sinking), were at

length devoured by the great fish Timitimingala –

that, O King, said the Sage, would be much like the

fate of him that pursues the loves of this world.


—D.M. Black


started 1 MAY 2010                 email :

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