Quick survey.  Do you think the way you dream relates to the way you write?

Once I took a nap at the tremendous Casa Libre de la Solana in Tuscon, AZ.  I was there with Heriberto Yépez and Richard Siken to read at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.  It was hot in Tuscon, and the day had been busy, thus the nap.

I like to nap when I am able.  I find it refreshes my brain and, afterward, I write very well.

A midday walk has much the same effect.  But for best results I do what I did in Tuscon that day: a midday walk, then a nap.  When I woke, I wrote fiercely until we were called to dinner.

At dinner I told the group about my dream.  It was a long, windy, story dream.  One person said something to another, got into a car which had a correlative (albeit in a less interesting color palette) in the real world, drove somewhere, said something else...  One thing led to another, fade out, fade in, another thing led to another thing...

Richard Siken listened, incredulous.  He said if he dreamed at all it would be in, say, a color.  The idea that I dreamed in stories was shocking to him.

Heriberto Yépez said his dreams were all over the map.  Sometimes maybe they'd come as a story, then maybe as an image, then maybe a song, an impression of touch.

We got to thinking about this.  Did our dreams say anything about who were were as writers?

Of the three of us, Heriberto wrote most consistently in a variety of genres.  In any one day he might write in any number of genres.

I was in the midst of writing my forthcoming collection, Suck on the Marrow, a series of historically-influenced narratives.  The poems I worked on after my nap were linked narratives, wherein one story led into the next and the next.  Things were life-like and also a bit more colorful than we might notice them to be in real life.  The poems I was writing were not unlike the mode of the dream I'd described.

And Siken, who said if he could describe his dreams at all he could only describe them in terms of a mood, or a color,  "It was a blue dream," for instance,  "That dream was red,"  Siken was busy touring with his moody, tone-rich book, Crush.

I don't know.  It's been a long time since that conversation.  My dreams have changed.  So have my poems.  I'm still wondering if and how the two are related.

I know plenty of poets turn their dreams into poems, all three of us in the conversation had done that, but that's not really what were were trying to define.  We were  interested in something a little different.  How did the manner of dreaming influence our approaches to writing?

I'm interested in hearing what the Harriet community has to say about how a dreamer's mode of  dreaming might influence the dreamer's writing style.

Originally Published: May 26th, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. May 26, 2009
     Joseph Hutchison

    Take a gander at The Annandale Dream Gazette, which specializes in the dreams of poets. Also see William Michaelian's blog, where he frequently posts dreams–some of which have ended up on Annandale.\r

    As for me, I seem to operate like Antonio Porchia: "When I am asleep I dream what I dream when I am awake. It's a continuous dream." If only my continuous dream produced writing as fine as his!

  2. May 26, 2009
     Reb Livingston

    Dreams reflect and comment on what's happening in one's psyche and life, it's natural that dreams and poems evolve and change together. I often "slip" in conversation and say "I had this poem last night."\r

    I'm forgetting many of the details, but I read an account by a Jungian analyst about an analysand trying to play a trick on him. For months the analysand would recount his dreams -- then during one session he announced something along the lines of "Hah, hah, I fooled you. Those weren't my dreams. I just made them up and you were none the wise!"\r

    The analysand thought himself quite clever -- until the analyst went through the "fake dreams" and showed him it really didn't matter. It's all the same psyche -- and it'll speak via dreams, daydreams, fantasies, obsessions, anxieties and most certainly our poems and stories. \r


  3. May 27, 2009
     Michael J

    Great starting entry.\r

    My mom would mention to me that she always dreamed in black & white. And she had read somewhere most people dream that way. I can never imagine only remembering a dream as a color -- it is usually weird for me not to remember a dream. Specific images, specific events. I move around a lot in my sleep, talk a lot -- my dreams are intense. But they're fun. Just the other night I dreamt I was a ninja running through a mansion fighting friends and ex-friends, and my sword was called 'Flash Fiction'.\r

    A few nights before that, I dreamt I was an X-man fighting an epic battle in New York. Before that, I was trapped in a house with the Devil, and I kept waking up in the dream, thinking I was awake, only I wasn't. Then the water started rising like The Great Flood, until it subsided and it turned out I was outside with a bunch of believers and all the non-believers were inside the house. Only I began doubting whether I was really being saved by God or if this was another Devil-trick. (strange thing is, I am not a hardline religious person, although I am very, very spiritual).\r

    I usually dream in stories. I also dream the future (I am not joking), so the majority of my dreams tend to be reality based. I have never turned my dreams into poems, but this cannot be said with an assertiveness. I believe some of the dreams have crept into the work... I write screenplays and am a very visual person; my dreams represent that.\r

    What I have found I am able to do, is think about what I want to dream about, then dream it. If I want to work on a project (usually a script or short story), I will think about it before I go to sleep, then solve it there. Poems... I am not sure... I don't think of them in terms of solving while sleep. Poems are more central. And will always work beneath the surface, without need for me to 'focus' them, I guess. They are always there.\r

    So Freud came to the conclusion that dreams were latent desires, or compacted, repressed issues. Supposedly, the general community after Freud disagrees and believes it is mostly the brain stem flowing images into the cortex, and trying to make sense of the barrage. It's a combination of all those things Freud and everyone else said. Plus more beyond what we can easily categorize...\r

    Oh, and I always dream in color.\r

    * side note: Can anyone else do the following: before I have gone to sleep, I will repeat the time I want to wake up, again and again, in my head. I will continue doing this until before I feel myself falling asleep, then I'll stop. The next day, I will wake up within 2 or 4 minutes of the time I wanted.

  4. May 27, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    In my own experience, I dream less if I am writing well--which doesn't mean I am "submitting" well or "publishing" well, God forbid, but that I am fulfilling my deepest need as a human being to be well, to understand well. I come to terms with my life better when the images in my poetry are richer and more fluent. Indeed, at such moments my images are more real and more user-friendly than my facts.\r

    Dreams in our time are a sort of psychic spill-over, a waste like a wet dream. In my experience, dreams have only been really useful psychologically when I've been in analysis, satisfying both my need for meaning and my analyst's need to have something to reveal to me the next morning (which is what all the money is about–no blame). Indeed, I almost never dream 'psychological' dreams when I'm not in analysis--which means I don't most of the time.\r

    My Thai wife, Homprang, doesn't dream 'psychological' dreams either, but rather ghosts and the future–as did the prophets and still do shamans all over the world. Because psychoanalysis never put a stop to the old magic of dreams, a power which has served human beings so well. \r

    I mean, what else could the little Aborigine do on the Walkabout but dream? How else could he navigate? How else could the little hunter survive in the Kalahari desert?\r

    But here's my real point. Great poems are much greater than modern dreams, it seems to me, because they are distillations, not distortions, fulfillments, not wish-fulfillments. \r

    And as to me personally, I can't read a poem through that doesn't do something like that for me–which is why I read so few poems today. Actually I read quite a lot of poems everyday, I just don't read very many all the way through to the end, what is more more more than once. \r

    Fortunately, I don't have to teach them or discuss them in workshops, and there are no poetry cocktail parties in my neck of the woods, or talk shows. Otherwise I'd have to read a whole lot of poems whether I wanted to or not–or lose my job and my clout. Otherwise I'd have to pretend.\r


  5. May 27, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    I dream in language, like a wave running through my mind when asleep, writing perfect prose and poetry, a continual linguistic stream which i know is perfect in every way. This happens when i have been writing a lot, i sleep and the brain carries on the process, like a spin dryer or washing machine spewing out a flow of textual gold which evaporates on waking like footprints on a tide washed beach, the book written and forgotten in sleep.

  6. May 27, 2009
     Martin Earl

    Fabulous post Camille…I don’t know if the subject has ever come up on Harriet? Nabokov (in his never-ending attempt to dis Freud) was vehement (overly so, it belies his debt to Freud) about the irrelevance of dreams, considering them to be the garbage of the subconscious mind. \r

    A couple of choice stabs: “we must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb (Lolita); “Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts.” (Speak, Memory).\r
    But I’ve often wondered as well how much dreams have to do with our writing habits. I tend to take the Freudian side over the Nabokovian. Like you, I dream in sequenced stories, often ones that resolve problems that can’t be resolved during the day; translation problems, poetic solutions, etc. Bill Knott has a great line on this: “I have sleep to do. I have work to dream.” \r

    Like a lot of writers, my dreams are very visual and very language intensive at the same time. They are also polyglot. When I dream about my wife, we speak in Portuguese, since we never speak in English when we’re awake. The other night I had a dream about my parents (in English). But I had a poodle with me, and the poodle we speaking in French, and wanted to know if she was speaking to quickly for me, and I assured her, in French, that she was not. \r


  7. May 27, 2009
     Don Share

    My own answer: no. Poems are made of language; I don't know what dreams are made of, so to speak, but they are image and sound in my very unpoetical neurosystem.\r

    I love the Surrealists' explorations of dream, have dawdled for many happy hours over the likes of Jung & Freud, and sometimes correlate Geoffrey Hill-style the ability to write with chemical adjustments to one's brain and mental health - but I don't think science quite bears out a belief in the reified "unconscious" (though whatever lives in the noggin helps invent dreams, poems, lies, wishes, moralizing, good and bad behavior, and other creative epiphenomena).\r

    I might as well reference the infamous Poetry essay, "The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time," by Frederick Turner & Ernst Poppel, which you can read here.

  8. May 27, 2009
     Karri Kokko

    Just a few nights ago, I had one of these reoccuring dreams where I'm chased by the authorities. What my alleged crime was, I have no idea. Late in the dream, I seek cover in a queen-sized bed that's set right in the middle of the street. Actually, there's two of us, but what happens between the sheets, let's not go there. Anyway, the pressure becomes almost unbearable, until suddenly, I find the perfect escape. Call it poetic justice, or not, but I know I can get rid of my pursuers just like that--by waking up.

  9. May 27, 2009

    To return to Camille Dungy's intereting query, "how a dreamer’s mode of dreaming might influence the dreamer’s writing style"...it seems to me (sadly) impossible to dream anything one isn't able to think in waking time. Or at least to remain conscious of it. Ah but for a swoon-sleep, a nighttime flaming of dream-liscious fritillated multiglot, a polyidiom of colour, image, language, sound and fathomless experience, raising the low roof beams of our daily daily, and broadening our sallow, shallow 20/20s with every improbable number and index.\r

    I would say that the opposite is true: our mode of writing influences our dream style. Were it otherwise, poets and writers might never be awake! "Sorry, the Poet is sleeping now..."

  10. May 27, 2009
     Aaron Fagan

    Speaking of science, this year is the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow's famous lecture, "The Two Cultures." Perhaps it is time for the two to kiss and make up?

  11. May 27, 2009

    I love this question. My experience is exactly opposite Christopher's: when I'm writing well and steadily--but only fiction or poetry, not expository prose–I remember my dreams much more frequently and vividly than when I'm not. The correlation is so strong and obvious that it's led to my private acceptance of what I recognize to be scientific nonsense: the notion that the imagination is a general mental faculty that bulks or atrophies according to use, like a muscle.

  12. May 27, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    The content of some of my dreams finds its way into poems, but not necessarily the style of the dreams.

  13. May 27, 2009

    dreams used to infest my sleep.\r
    years of smoke and alcohol\r
    cured me of them.

  14. May 27, 2009

    The way I clip my toenails relates to the way I write poetry.

  15. May 27, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald


    Newly Divorced\r

    Can you dream me, baby, while\r
    you’re sleeping in New York’s night?\r
    Catch my thought transmission?\r
    Can you feel me in your REM\r
    at 8am in France, drinking\r
    hot coffee on a cold day?\r

    The leaves are falling here\r
    and the sun seems barely up.\r
    Can you dream me here\r
    in Paris, writing you\r
    a poem?\r

    Copyright 2005 - Evolving-Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald\r
    Copyright 2006 - Specimens-Selected Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  16. May 27, 2009
     Annie Finch

    I've had a handful of amazing dreams in which I've been writing fabulous poetry with fabulous pens on fabulous paper in fabulous books in fabulous landscapes--but I've barely remembered any of that poetry on waking. The only clear correlation I've found between dreaming and my actual writing life was while I was writing my first book-length poem The Encyclopedia of Scotland at the age of 22, and had recurring dreams for months that I was yelling furiously at my father.

  17. May 27, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Beautiful, Annie.\r

    Similarly, Bobby says his experience is exactly the opposite of mine, and when he's writing well he remembers his dreams more constructively ("more frequently and vividly" he says).\r

    I think it comes down to what the poem one is writing is about, and what one values most in the experience of writing that poem. I'm an old man, and what I value most is the indescribable peace that comes over me when I feel fulfilled in anything I'm doing. If I'm working on a poem I feel really close to, that I feel is honest, brave and helpful, whatever the topic, positive or negative, clear or unclear, I feel more at ease in myself. The result can be, at its very best, that wonderful dreamless sleep that one wakes from a far better, more observant, more flexible person.\r

    Ask yourselves what you value most as you write, and I think you'll see that you get what what you think you need.\r


  18. May 28, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Thanks for posting my little poem, Camille. Now that I am (ahem) slightly more lucid, I thought some more about this poem. I selected it, of course, because of the dream reference, but it occurred to me this morning that I wrote it back in September of ’73. It is more than thirty-five years old. That’s kind of scary.\r

    Another weird thing...a friend just this week returned from France and was showing me some pictures. One was of Notre Dame taken from the Place Saint-Michelle. In the foreground is my favorite café, the very spot where I wrote this poem so long ago. Funny how things come together.

  19. May 29, 2009
     Eileen Myles

    I think I transcribe my poems the way I write. I mean I love the way dreams are simply given and felt but not interperted. They just are. And to transcribe them you kind of have simply say what there is and the dream is already moving, ie vanishing so it's a real live transcription. I totally enjoy waking up and trying to grasp what's left of the experience of the dream. It's an operation of failure which I think prepares me for the partialness of the poem.

  20. May 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    I, too, had a dream recently where I was yelling at my father.\r

    As Poe reminds us, dreams can be waking ones:\r

    Ah! what is not a dream by day\r
    To him whose eyes are cast\r
    On things around him, with a ray\r
    Turned back upon the past?\r

    Our nightly dreams, (like the Raven,) are visitors from the land of non-dream.\r

    Dreams are a visitation of the real, a message from an 'unhappy master' (ourselves, the tragedy of real life).\r

    I suppose the poet's role is to be that visitor, be the dream itself. Let others dream. The poet (with his poems) IS the dream.\r

    I don't have nightmares, or, I don't remember them; my dreams are usually very pleasant, dreamy. Nice dream. Be dreamy, please.\r


  21. May 29, 2009
     Ana Bozicevic

    As my poor dear Amy King loves to hear each morning, I'm a big dream junkie. I often dream in language and I steal that language whenever I can remember it. I'll dream that I'm writing; sometimes in the dream I wake up and scramble to transcribe the 'dream text' into a notebook. Then I wake up for real (allegedly) and lunge for the paper and pen by bedside. "It’s an operation of failure which I think prepares me for the partialness of the poem." -- thank you, Eileen M (above!) The loudening waking world is one big lumbering Person from Porlock, tearing through the trails of dream image-language. The feeling of loss itself is a motivator to seize the poem.\r

    Often a poem idea that I've been playing with in daytime appears as or in a dream, and more often than not it's the right metaphor for what I was trying to express, communicating it playfully and obliquely and out of left field. The dream makes it live, provides a solution. Who said that 'a problem can't be solved by the level of consciousness which created it'? Once awake, the conscious editing process can begin whereupon I slough the dream placenta off the salvaged language. It feels a little bit like diving. There's nothing hokey in having a creative relationship with one's sleeping self, if it floats your dreamboat and fits into your writing process. Like ears, eyes never really close, and that's OK.

  22. May 30, 2009

    "I’m interested in hearing what the Harriet community has to say about how a dreamer’s mode of dreaming might influence the dreamer’s writing style."\r

    Another good topic, Camille Dungy. Thinking on the question forces me to an admission: I honestly don't know if dreaming influences my writing style, at least when it comes to poetry, prose poetry, and poetic prose. Somewhat to my surprise I realize I am okay with not knowing. Especially, since, the two activities, in my view, are two species belonging to the same genus and therefore related. The first condition of both is that they are pre-conscious activities whose procedural rule is associative thinking. While Aristotle might be my first authority on the associative nature of poetry, recent thinking in neurobiology pretty much holds that the first condition of language itself amounts to associative thinking. In effect, the first condition of poetry could be said to amount to dreaming-awake, right? Which brings up a further question. To what degree does a poet's poetry influence how she dreams? Do poets dream differently from other people, or, at least, more frequently so? And if so are we now talking about a kind of feed back system getting started up between dreaming and poetry, poetry and dreaming? Danged if I know the answer(s).\r


  23. May 31, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Annie, Eileen, Thomas, Ana, Terreson, Camille, and so many others et.al,\r

    I've particularly enjoyed this thread because we've all tried our best to say how dreams effect our poetry yet none of us know the answer–even as we examine our own most precious, creative, and intimate experiences. That's extraordinary.\r

    I don't get to see many movies, so when I refer to a film it's usually pretty ancient, and often a little low. I have no idea how the world received Robert Zemeckis' 1997 film, "Contact," but I know the images struck me with an original force I rarely experience outside of dreams. The huge construction itself was potent for me, and the whirling and whirling and whirling a cranking up of my own psyche I rarely experience. Then the vertigo of passage through multiple dimensions only to arrive at the most familiar, most intimate, most hum-drum encounter, on the beach, no less–the sort of family drama we all die for yet forget even as it's happening.\r

    Profound in the extreme, and I suspect very near The Truth.\r

    With the film in mind I recently read Carl Sagan's "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," and found it tremendously disappointing. Because Carl Sagan had also written the novel upon which "Contact" was based, I assumed the great man would apply his mind to the possibility that the way we human beings think, even at its very highest and best, even as a cosmologist, is always limited by the dimensions through which, and in which, and for which we seem to exist–that indeed big and small, near and far, here and there are not necessarily the way it is at all.\r

    And he didn't, not once–almost as if the thought had never occurred to him. And indeed perhaps it hadn't, even though as an artist he had incarnated it.\r

    Which is the point.\r

    The huge variety of dream experiences in relation to writing poetry that have been expressed in this thread is more proof of that pudding. Because even our dream-life is so stubbornly particular–which leaves only our poetry through which to get a true glimpse not just of the universal but of the universe. \r

    Better even than the Hubble when it's good!\r


  24. June 8, 2009
     Alexander E. Weiss

    Dream definitely affects my writing style. And I know my writing affects my dreams. I’ve kept a dream journal for over a decade and am eager to sleep, not from exhaustion, but for exploration. There is a part of me that gets uncomfortable if I go more than a day or two without recalling and writing down Dream, as if it hasn’t been attended to in the manner to which it has become accustomed and that this is not okay. I am fascinated by the whole enchilada. I have begun to wonder if Dream is a function of the Earth, that we are dreamt also, and that our function is simply to bring Dream into waking awareness. The conditions that contribute to a good night’s (or afternoon’s) sleep and dream recall seem to be the same that invite along a reasonable, healthy lifestyle. Even a horrific dream experience seems to have as its shadow some nugget of redemption, if not just the relief in waking. I very much enjoy the juxtaposition of people, ideas, images, and things that occurs outside of my waking frames of reference. This carries into language, where a phrase understood as meaning one thing can evolve to be understood differently. “Dream on!” shifts from a spoken judgment regarding the unlikely fulfillment of a stated desire to a statement of gentle yet insistent invitation.