This interview with Nick Piombino started roughly five years ago as a project for Wig, a magazine devoted to writing work: poetry that appropriates time and/or materials from the job for its own purposes. As it turned out, we (Kristen Gallagher and I) never produced the third issue of Wig as planned, and so eventually the project fell by the wayside. Nick and I, however, continued our correspondence over the years, periodically reiterating our desire to continue on with the project, with Nick reassuring me that the questions I had sent to him regarding his career as a psychoanalyst and its relation to his writing were still very much on his mind. The Conversant has offered Nick and I this opportunity to pick up where we left off. Part Two will follow in the coming months.
Tim Shaner: As for the questions, I’m thinking of starting with some practical ones, like: What is your average work day like and how does your writing fit into your working schedule? Do you write on the job? You mention having a number of different notebooks going at the same time. I’m interested in how your notebooks fit into your work schedule. In other words, I’d first like to deal with the material aspect of your writing, as it relates to the rhythms of your everyday life.
Nick Piombino: As far as I can tell, my writing has little to do with my schedule as a therapist. But it has much to do with my experience as one. Right now I am seeing patients three days and nights, but for over 20 years I did that plus work at an 8:30 am to 4:00 pm position as a school social worker in New York, and for years before that as a social worker in clinics, hospitals and agencies. I wrote around this schedule somehow, plus went to readings quite often. Nine years ago I retired from my work for the school system. The fact is I have no writing schedule and never have had one. I carry a notebook around with me and write as the feeling hits me. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and deliberately chose to become a psychoanalyst rather than go through with formal literary training. I started as an undergraduate at CCNY where I did honors work in literature. The idea of writing according to some plan, or having a literary career, did not appeal to me. But right now we’re talking about mechanics. At one time I kept several notebooks but stopped doing this after I found it disorganizing. When I found out about blogging (from Ron Silliman and Gary Sullivan) I remembered I had many boxes full of unpublished material, mostly notebooks, but also some lined pads from the 1960’s. I started my blog fait accompli in 2003 in order to get those notebooks out there. I blogged from these notebooks every day for a couple of years, finally over a thousand pages. What I tried to do was create synchronicities by finding passages that corresponded in some way to how I felt the day I was posting the material. One of the synchronicities that happened was that I received the first copies of my book Contradicta (with illustrations by the artist Toni Simon) on the seventh birthday of the blog! The Contradicta started when I found I did not have time to blog and also work on the book fait accompli, which was based on the first three months of the blog. The fait accompli book was published in 2007 by Factory School and the Contradicta book in 2010 by Green Integer.
Now, often late at night, I might post an aphorism on Twitter, typing the text right into the box that allows only 140 characters. When I have a pair I post them to my blog. I don’t enjoy being pressured to write, although I will generally respect deadlines when I have them, and I seem to like having them, so there is a paradox there. But I do not generally seek out these deadlines, at least consciously. What I like about Twitter and blogging is that I post only when I want to. If I am invited to publish, it works best when there is an open deadline. Usually, though, I publish only when a book has already come together. I watched a program about Duchamp tonight; he made the comment that he didn’t want to be part of the gallery system. Similarly, when I could have chosen to join in I passed on being part of the academic literary system.
My writing impulse has always been closely connected to something I wanted to accomplish internally. The Contradicta are based on my practice of writing down short ideas about how I want to be, or how I want to change how I am or how I live, think or react to others. One of the reasons I enjoy being a psychoanalyst is that the profession is obviously dedicated to this issue. When I was younger my poetry was more connected to my love of words, and my fascination with the concept of free association had always been part of my theory of writing. I viewed free association, then, as one of the essential paths to insight. I wrote and published many essays on the topic that are collected in my book The Boundary of Blur. I was inspired early on by Wallace Stevens’ poetry, and in particular his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” collected in his book of essays The Necessary Angel. This love of the sound of words was very likely connected to my love of music. Perhaps I would have been lucky to have become a musician. But I had little talent for this, although I sang in a chorus in high school. Musicians are fortunate to have an art that is intensely interactive. I enjoy the collaborative aspect of psychoanalysis immensely. Perhaps Lacan was right about putting a great deal of emphasis on words in his theory, but I don’t think this is as efficacious as he thinks. I believe the main thing is to become excited about and thoroughly immersed in the process of getting to know and trying to help other people to understand themselves and their lives, within the appropriate boundaries of a professional relationship. Of course I use dream analysis and free association and all the rest. But the concept of “interpretations” has little to do with the way I work. In my view, the patient’s insights begin to arrive when they catch on to the excitement of understanding themselves and their relationships more objectively.
To me, writers generally exaggerate the importance of words in their work, and perhaps psychoanalysts do the same. I realize this contradicts some of the things I wrote about when I was younger, but this is what I have come to realize after a lifetime of thinking about these things. I began to formulate this consciously when I read a letter of Debussy’s in which he explained that he thought his friend was in too much of a hurry to write things down. He added that this might be a kind of materialism. In recent years I have become convinced this is often the case with writers. Poets pride themselves on the number of books they have written, and I can understand this because there is so little in this field to mark one’s progress. Obviously a publication announces to the world that the writer is out there and part of things and has some important work to offer. For me, the important thing in life is not words but relationships. I thought this even as a student in college, but I was unable to formulate it. When I began reading the object relation school of psychoanalysis (Klein, Guntrip, Fairbairn, Winnicott) in the ’70’s, I became excited as I realized my college era hunch had been correct. Fairbairn, going beyond Freud’s pleasure principle, wrote: “Pleasure is a signpost to the object.” On the other hand, everything that excites and inspires people connects them so that all the literary and artistic movements are important particularly in this function. What we do is we carry over our thoughts and feelings about people and ourselves into all our activities, whether this is in writing an ambiguous poem or in creating an abstract painting. Nothing wrong with that—artistic projection is enthralling. But it is projection, just as we might project meaning into the melodies, notes, chords, tones and pauses in a string quartet, just as we project in our thinking into what we imagine others are feeling and doing.
So, to sum up, for me the mechanical aspects of writing, even the main tools of writing, words, are not so important. What is important is to try to understand people, their feelings, actions and relationships, and particularly our own. I’m not talking here about chicken soup, touchy-feely empathy and generosity, which has its place, of course, but I mean the realistic understanding of what motivates others in all their constructiveness and destructiveness. For me, writing that helps me to understand life, to arrive at insight about myself and others, is the most valuable. This does not mean, of course, only or principally literal writing. Abstract writing or so-called language writing does this by releasing the thought process from ruts and assumptions and culture bound conclusions. But I no longer believe that it is the arrangement of words that does this, but the fact that these texts excite people to connect with each other. Also, these texts encourage freedom of thought and action on an intellectual plane and this is an immeasurably important contribution in its own right. For me now, however, the most important goal of reading and communication is to generate insights and to amplify our awareness of the importance of others in our lives. Gertrude Stein once said that remarks are not literature. But the only thing she wrote that continues to help me was: “I am I because my little dog knows me.” In the same way I believe that Heraclitus’s comment, that you can’t step into the same river twice, has helped to guide people as much as many of the great books. What do we remember about the classic films, like Casablanca? We think mostly about the actors Bogart and Bergman. For me it is the actual people behind the books and paintings and texts that we ultimately value and think about. That such works are the expression of particular individuals is what is ultimately most astonishing about them, and what challenges and inspires us to think and do more. Literary works connect people, and it is this connection to others that is one of the key paths to insight. The alternative is to cover oneself in a blanket of grandiosity.
Over time I’ve come to the conviction that my “writing” does not advance by means of putting words on paper or on the computer. My “writing,” which expresses and reveals my being, or even my character, advances by means of insight. As Heraclitus put it: “Man’s character is his fate.” For me “writing” is only one way of trying to influence this outcome, not the other way around. I am less interested in output than I am in outcome.
Nick Piombino opened his ongoing weblog fait accompli in February, 2003. His books include Poems (Sun and Moon), The Boundary of Blur, Light Street, Theoretical Objects, Two Essays (Leave), The Boundary of Theory, Hegelian Honeymoon, fait accompli, Free Fall and Contradicta, (Green integer), with collages by Toni Simon.