What is it with you and the dreams?
That’s a pertinent question. That shows me you actually read my poem. Or wrote it. Either way, thank you.
The dreams have been a muse for a long time; maybe even forever, hence the poem’s title. The dream described in the poem is literally my earliest memory: all my toys dancing in a ring of light around my crib to the tune of It’s A Small World After All.
When I was about 10, I learned how to lucid dream. I had this recurring dream about a man dressed in black circling the house. Eventually I came to recognize the images as creations of my own unconscious’ making, and I decided I should be able to do something about it. So I imagined a gun in my pocket. I shot at the man, but of course, never having shot a gun before, I had a crisis of confidence and I missed. I reasoned with myself again, “it’s my dream, I can shoot him down if I decide to,” and the last time ever had that dream, I shot him dead. This dream inspired a monologue in my first 3-act play, A Tribute To Black, which was produced in Canberra in 2001.
I suffered from pretty bad depression from circa age 12, and being able to control my dreams gave me some respite from my waking life. It was fun. I could fly; I could be whoever I wanted to be. It was a kind of emancipation.
However, the dreams aren’t always lucid, and they aren’t always fun. In 2010, I went a whole month where I dreamed constantly and vividly through every night and woke up every fifteen minutes. I was teaching an intensive summer semester creative writing course at Victoria University in Melbourne at the time. I was going mad. I saw my family doctor who diagnosed me with a kind of insomnia where you get stuck in the REM part of your sleep cycle and never progress to restful sleep. It’s exhausting.
In 2014 in New York, I lived in the West Village studio of a lovely Spanish artist who for many years was a master engraver for Cartier. I slept on a red velvet Recamier surrounded by his metal sculptures. In the studio I mostly had night terrors. One involved the zapping sound of busted electrical wires waking me, and smoke rising around the Recamier, and I was paralyzed and trying to fling my body onto the floor. Another time I lay deadly still as I listened to footsteps climbing the fire escape, and then the window opening, and then a giant body landed inside, scurried across the floor, and escaped out the door. When I woke I had to check that the fly-screen was in tact.
During and after immigrating to the U.S, when I was swinging between New York, Sydney, Melbourne, and Nara (Japan), every morning in a hypnagogic state before opening my eyes, I would try to guess where I was: which continent, which bedroom, which decade. I was always wrong.
Fast-forward to March this year. I pass out in the shower one morning (this is not a dream, this is real), and develop a constant headache that persists for days. Then weeks. Now months. Neurologist orders an MRI of my brain, which shows I have something called Grey Matter Heterotopia (also known as Periventricular Heterotopia), which is a congenital disorder where clumps of grey matter occur in parts of the brain where they don’t belong. It causes seizures in most people who survive it, and has connections with neurobehavioral issues like depression and anxiety, too. It’s possible I have partial seizures in my sleep, which might explain the dream-life.
That is weird. What does it have to do with poetry, though?
Like I said, the dreams are a major muse. Poetry is a way of asking and answering the question of the meaning of life. Dreams are a way of disrupting the impulse to impose logic onto that conversation. So, they add depth to the human experience that can’t be enjoyed in our waking lives.
Octavia Butler wrote this brilliant short story called Martha, in which God asks the protagonist how she would improve humanity, and she answers that she would make everyone have wonderful dreams that inspire their best selves (in a sense).
If Rita Dove was right, and poetry is “language distilled”, then dreams are “humanness distilled”. Or they are the bounds of our humanness, maybe.
But you said the dreams might be a result of a brain disorder. Now you’re likening dreams to poems. Are you trying to pathologize poetry?
No. But that’s an interesting idea, too. It might explain why, when you ask a poet to interview themselves, they will often end up talking about mental and physical illness. Sorry about that, by the way.
No problem. You once said the world would be a better place if everyone refused to have sex with anyone who didn’t read poetry. Why is that?
Because poetry is the antidote to the social-media bubble coma we’ve fallen into. This coma is how we got into the mess we’re in. Real poetry is not pandering to your existing knowledge; unlike most other things we read every day. Poetry is offering you the experience of a dream you have never and would never have had otherwise. Poetry asks you to bend in a brand new way. If you want to know more about that, you can check out the second edition of my book, The Bloomsbury Introduction To Creative Writing, which comes out in 2019.