In conversation with Nuar Alsadir on ‘Fourth Person Singular’

To celebrate the release of Pavilion Poetry’s three new collections for 2017, and in the run up to the official launch, we have a series of exciting interviews to share with you. This week, Natalie Bolderston is in conversation with poet, writer, and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir, on her brand new collection Fourth Person Singular

Fourth Person Singular

1) Could you explain the title of your collection, Fourth Person Singular?

There was a period during which I was trying to figure out what kind of speaker to use in my poems. I was grappling with the recognition that even though I’d developed an aversion to confessional poetry, the poems I found moving, which served as my measure of a poem’s value, were invariably lyric, written in the first person and addressed—as is all speech—to a second person, whether circumscribed or implied. I spent the bulk of my waking hours trying to work out this problem until one night, during sleep, my dream voice said, “The fourth person singular exists in the fourth dimension.” I woke up and immediately began attempting to decode that fragment by researching the fourth dimension (I have a background in neuroscience, so the task was not as daunting as it may have otherwise been). Amazingly, through the lens of four-dimensional space-time, it is possible to grasp the meaning of the fourth person singular. There’s a lyric essay in my book that explains what I came up with.

2) In that essay, you discuss physics, with particular focus on four-dimensional space-time. What are the challenges of this?

I suppose the biggest challenge would be that the ideas might seem too difficult, alien, causing the reader to disconnect. But that’s always a concern with science and math, which are often shrouded with so many associations of impenetrability that it can be difficult to step back and allow the beauty to come through—as one might be more able or willing to do with a complex piece of music.

3) Can you tell us a bit about how your background as a psychoanalyst feeds into your writing?

I am endlessly fascinated by the mind, how it draws associations, redacts, displaces, represses, moves. The most useful sessions occur when the analysand does not have an agenda or subject and allows themselves to simply free-associate. In doing so, the mind will invariably come upon something significant that the analyst will ideally recognize, point out, so that it can be explored. That free association is similar to improvisation in dance. The improvisation is necessary to figure out how the body is organized and moves, but eventually certain gestures will stand out, demand interrogation, and become the basis of the choreography of a piece. The choreography may appear improvised because of where it originated, but is, in fact, carefully crafted.  I hope my writing similarly retains that free associative, improvisational impulse even as the choreography of the book is consciously set.

4) Throughout the book, you make use of a range of poetic forms and intertextual references. As a writer, do you have any particular influences – literary or otherwise?

The poetic forms reflect the shape of the gestures or thoughts propelled by that free associative, improvisational impulse I just mentioned. As for influences, I’m really more of a thinker than a reader. When I read, I like reading poetry, aphorisms, philosophy, theory—texts that I can read very little of and then think about, off-page, for hours. As I turn over phrases, images or ideas in my mind, I invariably alter them. In the book, I’ve used the altered forms—representing my Franz Kafka, or my André Breton—and have then provided the correct version in the notes. All of the texts I reference in my book are important to me, but I’d have to say the greatest influence on my writing is quotidian experience. I’m probably as inspired by what happens on the subway as I am by what happens within texts. There’s a great line in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, “I’ve been around the world several times and now only banality still interests me… I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter.” Virginia Woolf has that relentlessness, as does Larry David, Tracey Emin. I can think of many contemporary poets whom I’d consider bounty hunters in that same way.

5) In one of your lyric essays, you reveal the process behind creating your ‘night fragments’: waking up at 3:15 a.m. each night, and writing down whatever was at the top of your mind. Do you have any other processes or rituals that help you to write?

Marianne Moore once wrote, “We must have the courage of our peculiarities.” That precept guides my process. I’m open to letting my peculiarities reveal themselves, and to exploring whatever sense of shame that revelation might evoke. In psychoanalysis, there’s no subject matter or material that is higher or lower than any other. I approach poetry in a similar way.

6) The collection features striking illustrations, photographs and references to visual artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Marlene Dumas. How do you think poetry relates to or complements visual art?

I’ve always wished my poems could be experienced as art installations, so that the reader could enter and experience them without the linear unfolding created by reading across and down the page. I’ve tried to disrupt that linear unfolding somewhat with simultaneous texts, but the dimensional limitations of the page are unavoidable. The mind doesn’t have thoughts, see images, hear, smell, perceive in tidy succession—that cacophonous chaos, which visual arts often capture so vividly, is exciting to me.

Click here to read an excerpt from Fourth Person Singular featured in Granta 


Nuar Alsadir Photo by Grace Yu (c)

Nuar Alsadir is a poet, writer and psychoanalyst. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Grand Street, the Kenyon Review, tender, Poetry London and Poetry Review; and a collection of her poems, More Shadow Than Bird, was published by Salt in 2012. She is on the faculty at New York University, and works as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York. Her latest collection Fourth Person Singular can be found here


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