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Mirror Neurons: Interview with Nuar Alsadir


Indiana Review is accepting submissions to the Poetry Prize until March 31, 2019. Final judge Nuar Alsadir will select a winner to receive $1000 and publication. Hannah Kesling, our current Poetry Editor, chats with her about the genre, empathy, unconventional ways of “finding” poems. Listen to some of Alsadir’s work here:

Hannah Kesling: You write a lot of hybrid poetry/critical essays–sometimes these genres are mixed in one piece (a poem that includes critical analysis, or an essay that is also a poem), other times you spark conversation between pieces by placing a series of poems next to a related essay. Do these pieces all start out as hybrids? Do you know the genre of a piece before you start writing it? Or do you discover the genre as you write?

Nuar Alsadir: Genre, for me, isn’t defined by form but by effect. I don’t necessarily consider a piece of writing poetry merely because it uses line breaks, words or devices that are considered poetic, nor do I necessarily consider a piece of writing that incorporates ideas and texts a critical essay. I am endlessly fascinated by the mind, how it draws associations, redacts, displaces, represses, moves. When I write, I follow the movement of my mind, which is, at base, hybrid, kaleidoscopic, and let that determine the form.

HK: What excites you about poetry? In your opinion, what makes a good poem? 

NA: I am most excited by poetry that moves me—and I’ve thought a lot about what it means to feel moved. I’ll try to summarize my thoughts briefly here, but for a more lengthy explanation you can check out a craft talk I gave that was published in LitHub ( Essentially, feeling moved is a bodily sensation that occurs when we witness another person’s genuine feeling, which then triggers our mirror neurons to fire so that we feel their feeling inside ourselves as our own. For example, if you see someone slip on ice, your mirror neurons will fire, causing the slipping sensation to be mirrored within, as though it had originated within your own body. Because the same mirror neurons fire when we witness an emotion or action as when we feel or act ourselves, we are able to experience what happens outside of us as part of our own subjective experience—to feel moved by the experiences or emotions as thought they belonged to us (empathy, in German, is articulated as feeling into the shape of another). “[A] work of art can create no greater effect,” the composer Schoenberg said, “than when it transmits the emotions that raged in the creator to the listener, in such a way that they also rage and storm in him.” That is what excites me most about poetry—to feel into the emotions and thoughts of another in a way that allows me to experience them as my own and, in the process, expand my subject position.

HK: In Fourth Person Singular, you attempt to access your subconscious by setting an alarm for 3 AM every night and writing down whatever comes to mind before you fall back asleep. You include some of these fragments as poems in your book. Do you have any other unconventional ways of finding poems?

NA: I try to listen—to my mind, the world, voices around me. Listening, as John Cage believed, is a form of composing, and I’d say the same is true of observing. Even the most mundane objects and occurrences have the capacity to reveal profound meaning. I see the same dynamic at play in my practice as a psychoanalyst—when someone is able to genuinely follow their mind wherever it leads them, without trying to control the direction, they invariably land on some unexpected revelation. When I was writing night fragments, I was trying to listen for the syntax and arrangement of sounds and thoughts that my dream voice created, rather than record and analyze the content of my dreams. I wanted to access a deeper, more interior syntax, thoughts and feelings I couldn’t willfully access or create.

HK: In an article about Janet Malcolm on Granta, “Since Feeling is First,” you write, “We ‘have been raised,’ according to Audre Lorde ‘to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings’ because it threatens any system that calls upon us to prioritize external logic over internal knowledge. Trained to suppress what Lorde calls the erotic power of ‘non-rational knowledge,’ we settle for lesser understanding, permitting essential meaning to be lost.” In what ways does your writing challenge the systemic valuing of external logic over internal knowledge?

NA: By not adjusting the work to prototypic forms, allowing form to be determined by internal impulses, you will be more likely to create writing that expresses non-rational knowledge, which is erotic, of the body. Whenever the body is brought into the process, the writing will be encoded by the specific body it passed through (with all its genetic, racial and desirous markings). The risk is that if the work doesn’t appear recognizable, reinforce preexisting forms, it may not be rewarded—or, in your words, systemically valued. The benefit, however, is that when it more accurately represents the emotional, lived experience of the writer, it is more likely to trigger the reader’s mirror neurons to fire, make them feel the feelings and experiences in the writing as though they were their own, feel moved. Connecting in this way offers us the potential to expand our modes of experiencing and relating to one another in ways that may not strengthen the system but will benefit us as human beings living in a shared world.



Nuar Alsadir is the author of the poetry collections Fourth Person Singular (2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Forward Prize for Best Collection; and More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012)She works as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York.