“Creative entanglement: A conversation with Nancy Kuhl about her new poetry collection On Hysteria” — curated by Karla Kelsey

Nancy Kuhl is the author of four full-length collections of poetry and several chapbooks. She is co-editor of Phylum Press, a small poetry publisher, and Curator of Poetry of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In this interview I talk with her about On Hysteria, Freud, suburban entanglement, and inheritance.

Karla Kelsey: From title to epigraphs and gloss notes, On Hysteria both directly and lyrically engages Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer’s 1895 Studies on Hysteria as well as Freud’s 1905 A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. Simultaneously, On Hysteria includes contemporary suburban America and the landscape of the estuary; cul-de-sac and tidal reach. Threaded through these landscapes is the nuclear family, natal to suburbia and often thought to be as “natural” as the tide. Your book unforgettably troubles this: just as psychological symptoms manifest in the individual’s body, disease of the suburban and natural landscape signals the social body’s distress. What experiences or texts did you find generative in thinking about place as you wrote On Hysteria?

Nancy Kuhl: When I started writing the poems in On Hysteria, I was fascinated by what I experienced in Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria as a tangle: metaphor and the body; language and sensation; knowing and not knowing; secrets and their physical expression; memory and its opposites. I was moved by the ways the girls and women in Studies communicated via symptoms. The poems I started writing were interested in all of this…but I was especially curious about symptoms as an expression of (quoting Freud) “the story of her illness.”

I haven’t articulated it to myself in this way, but of course you’re right that kinds of symptom-language are evident in the natural and unnatural, the human and inhuman elements of our time. In every time, maybe – certainly this was true of the world Freud and his patients inhabited.

The more I read about Feud and his patients and Vienna in the 1890s, the more I was reminded of the world of my own childhood, in a riverside New Jersey suburb in the 1970s and 80s. Though obviously distant from one another in many ways, it seemed to me that these were places where one reality was often imperfectly superimposed over another, both partly visible, both partly obscured. The inexact arrangement might create another form of existence, an experience shot through with gaps and occlusions.

Growing up in the suburbs was about navigating such layered realities. I can think of no better way to tell you about the striving white middle class neighborhood where I grew up than to say it was a landscape of shady, welcoming green lawns and tidy houses with heavy, imposing front doors that made dense barriers between the family that lived in the house and everything else in the world; it was a place where, from the street, windows framed both distorted reflections of trees and sky, and the vague and shadowy forms of bodies inside. This world — like my understanding of (or my imagination of) Vienna in the decade before the turn of the twentieth century — was a place of incomplete narratives, pieces that almost added up.

Growing up in such a place inspired in me an abiding suspicion that things were not exactly as they seemed. Hysteria, then, became a useful metaphor for thinking about suburban spaces and the relationships they shaped. I could say, as easily, that suburbia became a useful metaphor for thinking about the lives and experiences of 19th century “hysterics” : in this world, a girl might be so constrained by conflicting realities, so cornered by contradictory demands that her unconscious mind would devise a clever new a language involving both the mind and the body, a language creatively employing symptoms to arrange realties in a way that concealed something and emphasized something else.

KK: In your acknowledgements you mention your course of study as a Research Fellow at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis and your scholarly residency at the Erikson Institute. Do you see On Hysteria as a collaboration with Freud? His texts? With the women in from his cases, which you cite? Will you tell us about your interest in psychoanalysis and how it informs your poetic practice?

NK: I became interested in Freud and psychoanalysis through the work of the poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), whose archive is among the papers I steward. H. D. moved to Vienna in 1933 to be analyzed by Freud and later, in London in 1944, wrote a memoir about the experience, Tribute to Freud. This book – along with H. D.’s correspondence with friends and family during her analysis (collected in the amazing book Analyzing Freud edited by Susan Stanford Friedman) – marked my starting place. After reading works by and about Freud and about psychoanalysis on my own, I found my way to the Institute, where I had the opportunity to read the work of psychoanalytic writers and thinkers with practicing psychoanalysts.

Reading about clinical psychoanalysis I encountered so much language and practice I knew as a reader and writer of poetry—metaphor and symbol, linguistic play and pattern, voice and idiom; in this shifted perspective, many things came alive to me in new ways. I became fascinated by connections between poetry and processes of the mind and by the complex creativities driving every kind of meaning making. Writing poems has been a way to explore these fascinations, to experiment with imagining or recording or replicating the channels and tensions that link the conscious and unconscious mind.

Alongside study at the Institute, my interest in psychoanalysis developed through my work in the archives of modernist era writers and poets who were influenced by Freud and his early followers, both as readers and as analysands, including H. D., of course, and also: Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patient and long-time correspondent of A. A. Brill; Scofield Thayer, founder and editor of the crucial modernist literary magazine The Dial, who moved to Vienna in 1921 to work with Freud; playwright Eugene O’Neill, who was influenced by Smith Ely Jelliffe; Jean Toomer who kept a dream journal during his Jungian analysis. Over time, I developed a vivid sense of the ways the history of psychoanalysis is intertwined with the literary developments of the early twentieth century. My research at this confluence resulted in an exhibition at Beinecke Library: Psyche & Muse: Creative Entanglements with the Science of the Soul.

The pivotal phrase in that show’s title, “creative entanglement,” feels more apt to me as a description of my relationship (and that of On Hysteria) to Studies on Hysteria than “collaboration.” Certainly, I have felt, at times, confounded and ensnared by the ideas and stories in Studies — as “entanglement” suggests. And I’ve found this peculiar bewilderment generative, productively challenging, and even exciting.

KK: While the poems in this volume inhabit the realm of the particular and individual—the speaker’s body and mind—they are also inclusive of many other voices. The voices of the case studies, certainly, but also of what is said by others, received phrases, and citations. “Say” and “said” are favored verbs. There is a teasing out of what a story is, what any given story reveals in spite of itself as well as what any given story withholds. What is special for you about the way lyric engages with story, with speaker, with saying or not saying?

NK: What an interesting question, Karla! You know, I’m sure, that the woman described in the first case history in Studies, Bertha Pappenheim – in the book she’s called Anna O. – referred to her treatment as “the talking cure.”  We encounter her, in part, through her “talking” – though her story and voice come to us through her doctor; her story and his can’t easily be separated. In my poems, my story – as a reader of both and as a writer about both – adds another layer.

Reading and thinking about Studies, I was often carried away by historical details or theoretical ideas; as a student at the Institute in conversation with practitioners, however, it was impossible to forget that in practice psychoanalysis is very much about two people, talking — trying to say something, to listen, to understand. We easily use the term “life story” but it isn’t that simple; there are so many ways one’s life both is and isn’t accommodated by narrative modes of speech.

In my poems, too, I have been interested in the role repetition plays in creating a narrative, the ways meaning accumulates in recurring images, echoed word and sound. I say “creating narrative” as if I am not always rediscovering an inevitable instability in any story (in the very idea of story). In On Hysteria I tried to hold different stories (and different versions of stories) in mutable constellations. I’m thinking about Studies, but also about family stories which can often, at least in my family, seem both fixed and unfolding at once.  Poetic forms are an excellent laboratory for experimenting with all of this.  

KK: One of the many remarkable things about the poems in this book is the way in which they are immediately tangible and solid while simultaneously revealing the porosity of language and experience. The solidity comes from imagery, “The indifferent backdoor propped open/ Somewhere nearby tides empty the river,” for instance, as the first couplet of the first poem, “One Story House” unfolds. The permeability comes from the ways you flex and pleat language: a one story house is a house with a single story that it tells. It is also a single-story dwelling. The effect of this tension between solidity and porosity is great visceral and intellectual pleasure—and also an invitation to look, and to look again. Will you tell us about your writing process: where does such language-work reside? Many of these poems use unrhymed couplets (perhaps the ultimate solid-porous form?): do you compose in form?

NK: I love the language of pleating, Karla, and it seems useful as a descriptor of some part of my writing life — which includes much stopping and starting, moving froward and back (though “pleating” suggests an evenness and regularity that I have never been able to maintain…). Like every poet I know, I am fitting my writing into and around other life commitments, so it’s often very scrappy and patched-together. It took me a long time to realize (or maybe to acknowledge) that even tiny increments constitute a “process.” Now I try to be curious about what I can accomplish in a few minutes on my phone in a doctor’s waiting room or on the train to work. When I was invited to write my book Granite as part of a publication series that had a tight deadline, I tasked myself with writing ten lines a week. My choice of ten lines was somewhat arbitrary – mostly, it seemed like something I might actually accomplish in a week’s time. Soon, however, I realized that a ten-line poem is a terrifically flexible form. I still find it to be a compelling and stimulating measure. Couplets are so well suited to this form—and to so much of what the poems in On Hysteria are exploring: reflection and doubleness and duality; pairings like now and then or before and after.   

KK: In taking up Freud, the nuclear family, and hysteria you boldly take up cultural inheritances that are fraught, particularly for women, and work with them in a way that allows them to speak otherwise. How has your work as Poetry Curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library informed your sense of inheritance? Your poetic practice? What poets or works from the collection (or elsewhere) do you recommend to the reader who wants to enrich their relationship to our shared poetic inheritance?

NK: Studying psychoanalysis has expanded and complicated my thinking about inheritance, especially with regard to archives and literary imagination. Archives are composite portraits and multivocal documents, simultaneously revealing and obscuring the creative process. Maybe this is just another way of thinking about narrative, and about porosity: archival materials construct stories by way of association and make meaning through subtle patterns and repetitions, and through (or in spite of) large and small gaps and fractures.

But to the question of “shared poetic inheritance” I would point to the notes, fragments, drafts, and manuscripts that make up poetry archives. Regardless of era, circumstance, or aesthetic, where manuscript survive we might encounter dynamic traces of the minds of poets, traces that can enrich and enlarge our understanding of individual writers, creative communities, literatures. It should not go without saying that survival is not random – it has everything to do with gender, race, class, and the many kinds of historical favor that can adhere to privilege. Like any history, manuscript records are both partial and biased. And yet, because most research libraries make parts of their collections available online, we live in a time when more people have more access to more literary archives than ever before.

In typed pages and scrawled letters and hand-stitched booklets and countless other manuscript and draft forms, we can sometimes see evidence of unconscious as well as conscious attention to language, of the tension between spontaneity and craft. We can see a poet changing words and lines, changing their mind about sound, meaning, form — one of my favorite examples of this is this group of manuscripts from the Langston Hughes Papers at the Beinecke Library. Manuscript drafts can undo romantic myths of writing poetry – they record work and frustration and slow-dawning insight where one might have preferred to imagine the tranquil visitation of the muse. The writer’s thinking and their hands are present in written, typed, and marked text, in physically cut-and-pasted pages. To my mind, evidence of the writer’s labor does nothing to diminish the mysteries of the creative process – instead it locates those mysteries inside the poet’s mind and body, as opposed to some ethereal, exterior realm.