Birth Among the Ruins

Elaine Schwager, author of I Want Your Chair (Rattapallax Press 2000), discusses with Vic Schermer her dual careers as poet and psychologist.

Favorites and Facilitators

VS: The desert island: you can take with you the complete works of only four poets. Who are they?

ES: R.M. Rilke, W.B.Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Wislawa Symborska. Next in line (if not equal) would be Rumi, Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, Louise Glück, and Mary Oliver.

VS: What qualities draw you to a poetís work?

ES: Language that has independent life and music, like an object held in the hand or borne in a song, but which at the same time disappears into multiple elusive meanings. Poetry that startles, unsettles, expands oneís mind, and leaves a sense of mystery and intelligence--and sometimes makes one laugh.

VS: And if you could take only ten poems?

ES: "Sunset" from Rilkeís Duino Elegies, "Yeatsís "When You are Old," "Sailing to Byzantium," and "The Second Coming," Nerudaís "Cuba Appears," and "The Watersong Ends," Stevensís "Sunday Morning," Symborskaís "Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition," Williamsís "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower."

VS: What are some of your favorite lines and what do you appreciate about them and their authors?

ES: From Rilkeís First Elegy:

Is it not time that, in loving,
we freed ourselves from the loved one, and quivering endured:
as the arrow endures the string, to become, in the gathering out-leap
something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.
And also: True, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to use no longer customs scarcely acquired,
not to interpret roses, and other things
that promise so much, in terms of a human future;
to be no longer all that one used to be
in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay
aside even oneís proper name like a broken toy.
Strange, not to go on wishing oneís wishes. Strange
to see all that was relation so loosely fluttering
hither and thither in space. And itís hard, being dead
and full of retrieving before one begins to espy
a trace of eternity. Yes, but all of the living
make the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions.
Reading these words, I fly to heights itís hard to get to alone; thatís what great art is for. Itís also a great source of comfort, making one feel less alone in those moments of transcendent, intuitive perception which are easy to negate in oneself and not fully believe in. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(Yeats, "The Second Coming")
When I first read these poems and lines so very long ago, they entered into me and never left. Theyíre the kind of lines that contribute something new to your consciousness every time you replay them. And history teaches with her light
that if you bring purity into battle
in its wake blooms a noble spring.
(Pablo Neruda, "Cuba Appears")
Nerudaís span is remarkable, so rooted in the earth and the real conflicts people face in struggling against oppression and upwards towards the sublime. He merges the two so there is no distinction. Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink
downward to darkness, on extended wings.
(Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning")
Stevens merely describes, but how description comes to be experienced as magic is magical. Weíve inherited hope--
the gift of forgetting.
Youíll see how we give
birth among the ruins.
These lines from Symborskaís "Notes from a Non-Existent Himalayan Expedition" form the epigraph to my book. Itís about forgiveness and the miracle of how the human race overcomes adversity. We had our children,
rivals in the general onslaught.
I put them aside
Thought I cared for them
as well as any man
could care for his children
According to my lights.
(W.C. Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower")
Would Williams have faced this thought about himself as a father if he hadnít written this? Poetry can surprise us with things we might otherwise not admit about ourselves.

VS: Who have your major mentors been as a writer and poet?

ES: My first mentor was Paul Blackburn. I was 16 and a freshman at City College, the youngest in the class, and a bit intimidated, but Paulís attention and enjoyment of my work gave me confidence early on. With his encouragement, I submitted poems, and they were accepted. He paid attention to what was unusual and quirky in my work, and so helped me to begin experimenting and trusting what arose spontaneously in me.

Louis Simpson was my mentor at Stony Brook. In my first year of graduate school, I handed him a thick manuscript to read. He culled the poems he thought were truly poetry, and told me, "You have what it takes, but itís so buried." Over the next year, I wrote prolifically and every week he read and commented on what I had written. Both he and Paul helped me learn to listen for what was beyond my conscious self and genuinely poetic.

One person who has been a consistent and supportive reader for decades is Roger Greenwald. We attended literary magazine meetings together at City College. Later, in the 80ís and 90ís, when he was editor of a magazine in Toronto called Writ, he published my work. These were my only publications during those years because I was in graduate school, in training as a psychologist, and raising my children. While so occupied, I had no contact with poets or the poetry world and no time to send things out. Roger was one of only very few people who even knew I wrote.

Recently, Stan Marcus, a friend and poet, has been a reader for me and someone I talk to about poetry, literature and art. His responses to my work have often helped me push the boundaries of subject matter and style. Then too, I have used as role models writers who had second professions, particularly in the healing arts: Williams and Chekhov. Like them, I have tried to balance my life as a writer and as a psychologist.

VS: Oliver Saks, who has had dual careers as a neurologist and a writer, has said that doctors are basically storytellers. Are you telling stories, narratives in your poems, or do you see yourself more creating images, dreams, paradoxes?

ES: Sometimes I tell stories in my poems and sometimes I create images, dreams and paradoxes. The stories need to go beyond fact. The factual level has to collide with some level of consciousness beyond the merely factual. This collision may create paradox or mystery. Poems that are primarily images, dream and paradox need to be in some narrative context, however minimal. A haiku is primarily image, dream and paradox, but it still tells a story.

Family Legacy and Artistic Themes

VS: Where were you born and what influences did you have as a child?

ES: I was born in Pittsburgh, the daughter of German-Jewish immigrants, and came to New York City as an infant; my father wanted to pursue a career here as an opera singer. I grew up in the Bronx and lived there through my adolescence.

Many of my ancestors in Frankfurt and Munich perished in concentration camps or otherwise as a result of the Holocaust. My fatherís parents were reportedly shot en route to a camp. My motherís father owned a department store, which was ransacked on Kristallnacht. He died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. My motherís older brother left because he could not practice law and died in South Africa. My grandmother, then alone with my mother, decided to send her, at 13, to Israel, and did so accepting that she would then have no one and would probably die. My father, then 16, left on his own initiative on the same Kindertransport to Israel.

The losses my parents endured during the Holocaust and the resulting upheaval of their lives were a constant and profound influence on me. They did not speak of their past and I knew only the barest facts, but I felt in the silence many unexpressed painful feelings I felt it my responsibility to articulate and discern. Moreover, I felt I had to make up for the losses and the mothering they had lost. My dual professions may derive from these feelings: on the one hand, the need to articulate the unsaid, what is in the silence, and on the other, to nurture and try to heal anotherís pain. I made a promise or prayer at an early age to try to offset all the bad with something good.

VS: This search for goodness, and even--albeit indirectly--for something holy in everyone and every thing, is evident in your poems. How did this striving for goodness develop, and how was it preserved and nurtured in you?

ES: The unthinkable horror of my parentsí and grandparentsí lives made me feel from a very young age that I had to reach an understanding of life by which its sacredness and meaningfulness were preserved, one that could not be rendered senseless by atrocities, cruelties, inhumanity. My grandparentsí world was senseless; good and evil were defined in senseless ways: You were evil, worthy only of death if you were Jewish, or a gypsy, or gay. You were good and deserving of power and luxury and safety in the world if you embraced this definition and participated in the killing.

The awareness that "good" was an arbitrary, cultural or prejudiced value, and that lives and souls were thereby destroyed and mutilated, set me on a course of wanting to know what was universally "good" and formed my belief that external definitions, logic, values, norms cannot destroy peopleís fundamental sense of goodness and innocence. Poetry was for me a powerful vehicle in reaching and surrendering to this realm of greater intelligence or sense where one could touch on some other truth or reality. When I wrote, I felt I was in touch with something inviolable that I knew was in everybody if they chose to access it. This core of intelligence and innocence exists whether we choose to live in accordance with it or not.

The mad, senseless, stupid, incoherent, violent life many have lived in this century does not negate the fact that potential for other than this exists. It is a painful and difficult struggle because survival in the world as it is so often demands existence at that level. I am guilty of slipping and being seduced by much of the insanity around us, but the consequences of not trying to be conscious, of not trying to sustain a struggle for goodness, are clearly apparent, certainly in my history and everywhere we look. I recently listened to a CD of Rambling Jack Elliot. One line is, "Thereís no safety but in doing good," yet our culture trains us that safety is in being better than, rich, famous, powerful. These seductions are hard to resist.

My father was very gentle, very other-oriented. He had enormous talent himself as an opera singer, yet his first concern was always that of taking care of others. I learned from his example about sacrifice and about not doing harm. Literature, reading a great deal, also nurtured these values in me.

My mother was the cousin of Anne Frank. The evocation of her presence in my early life, reading her diaries, made me see how writing could become a refuge, an alternate world, and yet articulate and document that presence in the self which goes totally unrecognized by others and by the world. The duty I felt as a child to the past and to my parents was overwhelming. Then too, writing afforded me early on some sanctuary of my own. I always loved reading and was allowed to go to the library by myself at 9 or 10, where I would check out four or five books a day and read for hours.

My father gave up his opera career, and did so partly, I believe, because he felt obliged to achieve some financial security for my sake. I think I wanted to redeem his calling as an artist, and wrote this poem at 10.


As I was walking down the road
I came across I bright green toad.
A big brown bear I dare not think
might eat him up in just a wink.
So with this thought going through my mind
In my pocket he went in the nick of time.
For there in front of me there stood
A big brown bear with a big black hood.
I could not run, I could not fret.
I had to make my choice but quick.
So as I ran and ran so fast
I reached my door with that in the past.
I looked inside my pocket with hope
and saw the green frog had jumped
out of my pocket without a care
that I had saved his life from the big brown bear.

When I wrote this, something magical happened. I gained contact with another world inside me: the unconscious, a greater intelligence, an intuitive sense, whatever. From then on, I wrote. Though I couldnít have articulated it then, the themes that emerge here have echoed through my poems over the rest of my life: A little girl stands up to oppression, authority, danger to save another, innocent and helpless, who rewards her, not with gratitude, but with his own freedom.

My mother was sure I must have copied the poem from a book, thus sending me paradoxical and contradictory messages: "This is something that we cannot Ďseeí in you." and "You can write like people who write books."

VS: This first poem and the message you got from your mother have the aspect of a mystical, numinous side of your personality and poetry, i.e., the frog comes and goes: a mystery. Your mother--perhaps with a touch of envy and hysteria--evokes a magical, omnipotent "other" as the source. There is also an aspect of fear that you are trying to master. These elements manifest in many of the poems in I Want Your Chair.

ES: Mystery is only mystery in relation to a reality more conventionally defined as rational, scientific or logical. The poem is just a more intelligent understanding of my life than I was conscious of at the time. What is mystical is the fact that it could be written, that it could be revealed. How did I let it happen? Who let it happen? How could I have had at 10 insights I can barely allow myself to live by now?

Yes, many of the poems in I Want Your Chair reach for that intelligence, that numinous side, and also resist the "big brown bear," those forces of oppression, arbitrary authority. They oppose even just the "already-thought" that deceives one into thinking oneís thoughts are genuinely oneís own, that deadens the aliveness of poetry which springs from its own source. And not just poetry: In high school, I was equally dedicated to art and writing.

VS: The first section of I Want Your Chair is called, "Was That God Asking Us to Listen?" Poems there speak very deeply about the Holocaust.

ES: My parents focused on survival, on rebuilding a life, and tried to shield their children from what had happened and from the painful emotions they kept buried in themselves. It became my mandate to grapple artistically with what it all meant.

Elie Wiesel says that when he first went into a concentration camp as an adolescent and saw babies being thrown into the fire, he thought he must be dreaming. This is the feeling one lives with oneís whole life. How do you reconcile the capacity of humankind to manifest that kind of cruelty and brutality with a faith in life that makes sense and is ultimately oriented towards goodness?

Some of the poems address the legacy as reality, some as metaphor for lives and a world forever torn by genocide and its emotional trauma. They explore the terrain between that trauma and healing, with all its quicksands, landscapes of memories and dreams, and embedded contradictions. I am always aware of and trying to resist simplifications because these can create new forms of psychic imprisonment and potentially breed further oppression.

Transcendence in Poetry and Therapy

VS: Do you think that psychotherapy has an aesthetic or poetic aspect to it? Do you think historical narrative is important in poetry and in psychotherapy, or are both more about finding ways to point to the ineffable Other?

ES: Poetry and therapy at their best are about the mystery in oneself making contact with the mystery in the Other. Only when therapy reaches that level of the aesthetic and poetic is it truly effective. There can be a true meeting between two people, an I-thou meeting--usually through the therapistís ability to locate himself in an "empty" or somewhat transcendent state of consciousness. When this happens, the patient not only learns "things" about himself, but experiences life, if only momentarily, on a different level, one that could be called poetic or aesthetic.

Through these moments, the patient experiences something other than his ego, the consciousness of his usual dilemmas, and exists in a new relation to himself, the world, his history and problems. This comes out of a present meeting or experience, not an assembly of facts or history, though at times those may be a route towards it.

Perhaps one understands the inevitability or necessity of oneís history in terms of its contribution to the shaping of oneís identity, or one no longer feels like a victim, or oneís mission in life in relation to oneís history becomes clearer. As oneís consciousness changes, so does oneís historical narrative. The ineffable and the historical exist in a reciprocal relationship, a dialectic, each continually transforming and influencing the other.

VS: Tell us a bit about your training and the type of therapy and school of thought or important influences which you lean towards in your practice.

ES: I earned a Ph.D. in psychology, did externships and internships in prisons and various hospitals, and worked on in-patient wards for over four years, including two years on a long-term ward for schizophrenics. I then went on to get analytic training, which exposed me to both classical and relational theories. Coming to all of that as a poet, I was keenly aware how much of theory neglected the centrality of peopleís creative and spiritual instincts.

Freud, in viewing sexual and aggressive instincts as primary, saw creativity and spirituality either as sublimations of or as defenses against those instincts. He viewed man as fundamentally biologic and thus concerned with survival, pleasure, comforts, happiness, not with the spiritual strivings of man which therefore often put him at odds with these things. I donít see aggression as primary, but rather, as a reaction to the feeling that oneís soul is being damaged or violated.

Jung, Rank, and Ferenczi became important influences on me because of their greater emphasis on the artistic, spiritual and non-authoritarian or hierarchical framework. I have recently written a number of articles attempting to put these aspects of personality into better focus. In them, I seek particularly to address the fact that most developmental theories use models which lack any vision of the child being at his or her core a spiritual and creative person. I consider the work of Donald Winnicott and of Robert Coles important because they bring this dimension of the child and person to light.

It is important to read outside the field of psychology, to learn from the arts, from spiritual thinkers and from philosophy. These realms help one learn how to develop a state of mind that is not harmful, particularly to the fragility of the creative, the more marginal, less classifiable, eccentric or errant soul.

The spiritual teachers of the American Native Curanderos desert tribes know thereís no "good" or "bad." For them, only three things exist in creation: Natural Law, energy and consciousness. Thereís no right and wrong; there is only what a person has done to create the situations he needs in order to learn and change. If he doesnít change, he must keep having lessons. The freedom to make the mistakes allows one to learn what is within, to encounter oneís "shadow."

Toni Morrison said, "The function of freedom is to free someone else." If we are not free, truly free in some place inside ourselves, we will not be able to free others. It is this that is critical in terms of whether therapy will be a form of liberation or of enchainment, not which theory we use or abide by. When our patients listen to our words, and our being, they know whether we are chained to any one position or another or have found our way to a place where we can listen unhampered. It is this example more than anything we think or say that can liberate them.

Once a theory dictates what we are liberating patients from or towards, it is a problem. What are we liberating patients from and to what? Is it to be sexually free, or free of the uncontrollable demands of sex, to enjoy solitude? Is it to be free enough to be in a relationship, or get out of a relationship; free enough to leave work that is a security for work we enjoy, free to separate; to be intimate, free enough to free associate, or to be free of the clatter of my multiple minds to experience silence? To have a goal for freedom becomes immediately an enslavement. Is that not a paradox in which psychoanalysis has in some way entrapped itself? The method, just by being a method, determines a goal, and is that the goal of our deepest selves, or do we quiet that self to achieve the goal of the method?

There is always a problem of theory becoming more important than the person, the danger that the person will be judged in terms of whether he exemplifies or confirms the validity of the theory rather than in terms of the individuality of the person, his particularity expanding, challenging, or even negating theory. Theory can become its own culture, determining what is good or bad. Celibacy can be judged unhealthy under Freudian theory, which regards sex as the hallmark of good health; isolation or solitude can be judged neurotic in relational theory. If mature relations are the standard by which we judge a personís health, how do we evaluate his capacity for solitude or creativity?

VS: How does dogmatic adherence to a belief system affect artists who are in treatment?

ES: The artist is among those most discriminated against in society--unless and until he creates a marketable commodity. But in process, he needs space and nurturance. One has to be very careful not to impose oneís own reality onto that space. Freud sent away a poet who came to him for treatment, telling him psychoanalysis might be bad for his art. Instead, he gave him food and some money. By definition, the creative person doesnít fit in, canít be labeled or explained. When theory offers a solution before the problem is even uttered, it can be death to the creative self, a kind of soul murder. All theory is at some point original and serves the purpose of breaking new ground, but every idea is subject to disproof or exception. Emerson said it well: "No idea is so sublime it wonít be surpassed."

VS: Many of your poems are about our intimate struggles as human beings, and some are about frankly "crazy" or psychotic people. How did you become interested in "craziness" as part of the human condition?

ES: Iím really not interested in "craziness," that is, in labeling behavior as "crazy" or in labeling it or diagnosing at all. I am interested in the uniqueness of people and how they came to be who they are. By imposing theories to explain people to themselves, labels or diagnoses, we deprive people of their dignity, of the very complex struggle each person has with his pain, evil, eccentricities, abnormalities, and the creative ways they themselves express that struggle to tell another who they are. I think this desire to give people the space, both in terms of suspending oneís own categories or judgments and of respecting their own inclinations for integration--and their desire to be good, no matter how far away from the "norm"--, comes in part from my Holocaust background. I feel a repugnance for the self-appointed authority that comes when people label others and donít let them speak for themselves and creatively give voice to their struggles.

VS: Did you consciously set out to write poems about the Holocaust, or did these poems simply evolve for you along with the others?

ES: Obviously, genocide is the final grind of the oppressorís boot-heel, where those in authority isolate one group of people as worthless, crazy, abnormal, whatever, and exterminate them. Psychological theory can exterminate aspects of peopleís psyche by not giving recognition or value to aspects of the self which are designated crazy, bad or less central than other aspects. Writing poems about patients is a way for me to feel my way into their experience and perhaps give voice to something unspoken in them and in myself, a feeling or thought perhaps that is not conscious or easy to get a hold of. These poems are perhaps my way of asking myself, for myself and on their behalf, "Who are you really? What does this symptom or crime or eccentricity really mean in terms of your experience, your world?" It is my side of a dialogue with them. Insights I get from the writing might then inform my work with such a person.

VS: You are very gifted at blending the form, sound, and content of a poem in a seamless way. When you write a poem, do you look for forms to use, or does the form come from an unconscious source along with the content and sound?

ES: No, I donít look for forms to use. Sometimes the form comes spontaneously from the unconscious, along with the content and sound. More often, it comes in the rewriting when I begin to get a better sense how certain lines seem to work in terms of units and play with where to break the line, both in terms of sound and meaning.

VS: What advice concerning craft and voice do you give someone who is serious about writing poetry?

ES: You have access to the same sources and wisdom as the greatest writers. They may be guides for a while, but eventually you have to get there yourself. Learn ways to listen to yourself on the deepest level you can and find readers who will listen to you in a way that you trust. Read widely, not just poetry: The richer your mind, the richer your work will be. Feed it with good experiences, good works, good art. Always use your writing to push beyond the boundaries of yourself and what you know.

Fall in love with the process, the magic of what it can open up for you, the wisdom you can stumble upon. Craft is in some way a function of very refined listening. You learn to hear what is off musically, what is bullshit, what is trite, what is a cliché, what is colorless, what no one would care about. You need to listen a lot, to yourself and others, and see what works for you. This contributes to oneís unique voice, something inevitably oneself.

Writing poetry (or involvement in any art) provides a place in which one can be as free as one wants. There are infinite possibilities; no one is stopping you, judging you; you can push the limits (reach that "shoreless other shore"). Go there often, luxuriate there, feel around, let yourself make mistakes, stumble, play, come up with nothing--if thatís what the moment necessitates.

VS: What projects do you have in the works now?

ES: I am aspiring in my newer work to bring a larger political and spiritual world into my poems, and also to render poetically my understanding of the human condition as gleaned from my patients and from others who move me. I am also rewriting a couple of screenplays and in the preliminary stages of a documentary about the intergenerational effect of the Holocaust, involving second- and third-generation descendants of survivors and of Nazis. In some ways, I consider these projects different forms of poetry.

VS: Thank you, Elaine, for your very open sharing about your own life, and for your perceptive and deeply-felt thoughts about poetry, life, history, and self.

ES: Thank you.

[Ed. note: Elaine Schwager can be heard in readings in and around New York. She was scheduled to appear with Louis Simpson at the Mid-Manhattan Library on December 9, but that event had to be postponed. Check listings, especially those on, for upcoming dates. Interview based on one meeting and email correspondence exchanged in October/November, 2000.]

(Vic Schermer reviews music and literature and conducts frequent interviews. A psychologist in private practice and clinic settings in Philadelphia, he has explored artistic consciousness (see, e.g., Graves, M. and Schermer, V., "The Wounded Male Persona and the Mysterious Feminine in the Poetry of James Wright: A Study in the Transformation of Self," The Psychoanalytic Review 85/6, Dec. 99, pp. 849-870), and presented papers on Eliot, Wright, and Dickinson respectively for the Phoenix Reading Series in New York. His poetry has appeared in Rattapallax (Vol. 1, Issue 1) and his work is among this monthís additions to Big City, Little.