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Searching for the Phantom Captains of our Souls: An Interview with Kim Rosenfield

Across seven books of poetry, Kim Rosenfield has plumbed the limits of language and the mind. With one foot firmly planted in the American modernist avant-garde literary tradition, Rosenfield’s poetry is distinguished by its sensitivity to psychoanalytic practice, its range of reference, and, crucially, its humor. Rosenfield’s latest book, Phantom Captain (Fence Books 2023), the winner of the Ottoline Prize, uses all of these techniques to create a convex mirror of the self in the 21st century. It’s challenging, exciting, rewarding, and a total joy to read. I was lucky to have a conversation with Rosenfield about her new book, the relationship between psychoanalysis and poetry, survival in a fragmented and apocalyptic world, comedy, and language.

Kim Rosenfield is a poet and psychotherapist living and working in New York City. She is the author of Two Poems (LEAVE books 1995), Good Morning––Midnight–– (Roof Books 2002, winner of Small Press Traffic’s Book of the Year Award), Tràma (Krupskaya 2004), re:evolution (Les Figues Press 2009), Lividity (Les Figues Press 2012), USO: I’ll Be Seeing You (Ugly Duckling Presse 2013), and Phantom Captain (Fence Books 2023).

Aaron Winslow: Can you talk a bit about the origins of the book? 

Kim Rosenfield: This manuscript had been in the making for a long time. I was reading a lot of Buckminster Fuller, who’s such a controversial and complicated character. There are a lot of problems there, but I was just so fascinated with all his ideas, especially the concept of the Dymaxion, an early version of the electric car, and the geodesic dome.

There was also the flood behind a twenty-five-year marriage ending, moving out of my home, my kid going to college. There were so many huge life changes that were pretty decentering. So the book is about that, especially the last couple of sections. They really focus on me facing despair around these changes. I think the beginning was more about crafting worlds and experiences. I was just thinking about the really fucked up difficulty of living and being human and all of that. So it’s kind of a bleak book. It gets really bleak, I think, toward the end, which I really like. And the new project I’m working on is even bleaker.

AW: It’s a beautiful book but, yes, it’s very bleak. There’s just a ton of apocalyptic imagery throughout. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KR: That was a manifestation of my inner state, which was feeling pretty bleak and scared.  It also reflected what we were all going through–not all of us in the same way–but what the world was going through, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Just catastrophe after catastrophe, all the fear and misinformation, the election, it just felt endless, endless, endless. I was already starting from a personally ruptured place, and the world started splitting apart in every which way and continued to do that. So I was thinking about what holds a person together, you know? Is it theory? Is it philosophy? Is it science? Is it New Age beliefs? Is it spiritualism? Is it music? I was watching a lot of survival movies and thinking about all of that. I was also reading a lot of Simone Weil. I really think it’s about being able to live in uncertainty and hold hope and dread at the same time. Holding all of that open.

AW: I was particularly struck by the lines in the poem “The Great Empty Goodnight”:

We are undone

light is to grief

as begging is to parity

paltry hiding places

remote nooks and crannies

of the realm of the

universe overwhelmed

and in ruins

These lines bring up this idea of fragmentation of the self, while also calling to mind Eliot’s line from “The Waste Land:” “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Similar to your work, the poem frames writing and art as a mode of somehow patching together a decentered self.

KR: Thank you so much for that connection. I didn’t really put that together about The Waste Land; that’s really interesting to think about. Funnily enough, I was just at T.S. Eliot’s summer home for a residency as part of the Ottoline Prize. Dear Eliot House, it fits with “The Waste Land.” That feeling of apocalypse, it’s a story as old as time. It must have been how everyone has felt throughout history.

As I wrote this book, I was also working on this little piece about the Polish sculptor from the Twenties, Alina Szapocznikow. She was a Holocaust survivor and had been imprisoned in five Nazi concentration camps during World War 2. So there was something about her work in this book; I have one of her sculptures on the cover of my last book, USO [Ugly Duckling 2013]. Her work is brutal and grim, yet also funny. I think this book is funny too. I mean, I hope it’s funny.

AW: Oh, it definitely is! I was hoping you could talk about the connection between humor and apocalyptic writing?

KR: It’s a way to cope. And it’s also a distancing mechanism. It’s a way to reveal the absurdity of everything. And it’s a way outside of reality. Even the physical release of laughing, of your brain having a moment of rest. To laugh is healing; it’s important.


Photo Credit: Nikolas Koenig, 2023

AW: I know you love Freud, and Freud, in Jokes in their Relation to the Unconscious, talks about how jokes are similar to dreams—they’re both ways of relieving unconscious desires.

KR: I strongly believe in the unconscious. So, jokes are tapping into unconscious experience. And it’s a break from reality, a glimpse into another realm that’s operating at the same time as consciousness. When you tell a joke, there’s something else intruding there, something that you’re aware of but can’t name.

I want the whole book to feel like that. That there are a lot of realms that you can’t quite grasp that are intervening in the work and in the writing. It’s also the book I wrote after USO, which was all about stand-up and the role of comedy during wartime, entertaining the troops, this idea of social control, keeping people happy so they can do the awful work. So yes, it feels like a natural flow from that, even though it’s been many, many years since I wrote USO. There are those humorous parts. But it’s not the focus, of course.

AW: It feels like there’s a lot of self-analysis in the book, a lot of talking back and forth. You’ve got this great line very early on: I keep talking to you myself, but I don’t answer me so good

The way it’s set, in italics at the bottom of the page, beneath another stanza, it’s almost like a question and answer, or an analytic moment. Do you feel like your analytic techniques come into play in your poetry?

KR: Oh, always, always, always. That’s such a great read. I think that’s right. I think all my writing–and I don’t know if I can say this for everybody, but I might dare to say all of our writing–is talking, but self-talk, in a way. We’re trying to figure something out. We’re trying to listen and put it down. And as it is, I work 7 plus hours a day in the realm of the unconscious, hearing stories, in an intrapsychic experience, sitting, listening, listening, listening, and digesting with my psyche. That absolutely comes into the work. I can’t escape working with language that way, thinking about it in those ways—like language is the patient sitting on the couch.

AW: You start the book with this passage:

There is a great deal to know about myself before I can start to see another. The metaphor of a sailboat helps me understand how I took in water in the form of pain even before my first breath, and by the time I finished grade school, my boat sat with tattered sails, low in the water, hull already full. I must try to release the water of the past

And then not too much later, you have this line: “Metaphors are investments instead of possessions.

Thinking about how you use language in this book, I’m curious about the role of metaphor here. It seems like the book keeps bringing it up very explicitly.

KR:  That’s really interesting. I didn’t intend to. I didn’t even think of “metaphor” as a theme. My work, both poetic and clinical, is all rooted in metaphor. There’s the content of what a patient tells you, that surface level, but then there’s the symbolic nature of what they say, which imparts an experience that often falls outside of direct language. That process can feel like a metaphor to me: to translate that initial material, to turn it into something that goes through me, something that I can digest and that we can bring between us. And I think metaphor does that too. It also helps make meaning, you know, on a deeper level.

AW: So you’re taking something that’s subjective and turning it into an object that can be communicated to someone else? 

KR: Not just an object. It’s my own subjectivity coming back, too, the meaning is also being filtered through me. Turning meaning into a metaphor is a way to process the unmetabolized data that’s coming at you, and that can feel symbolic, that can feel real. I like to use metaphor in my clinical work. I like to speak in metaphors. I also get these really intense visual images, and sometimes I bring them in, and then we talk about it. The same happens, obviously, in poetry—it’s all allegory in some ways, and metaphor, and symbolism, and subjectivity, and feeling states.

AW: What’s a feeling state?

KR: That’s a Eugene Gendlin term. It’s this state that we’re kind of talking about in the interpsychic realm, a state that goes below thinking and intellectualizing. Somehow our bodies know more and hold more and give us signals. The unconscious, to me, is part of that kind of archaeology, that layering, the possibilities that come through if you quiet down the intellectual schema of things and think on a symbolic, metaphoric level. The analyst Antonino Ferro believes in approaching analysis as if you’re in a dream, or as if the analysis is a dream, the whole analysis is a dream state. [Laughs] That’s one way to do it.

AW: You work in all of these realms, of analysis and writing and poetry. Are those realms parallel or similar? Are they different? 

KR: In clinical work, I have all kinds of frameworks. I can only do that kind of more dream state work if I have the boundaries of the law and licensure, malpractice, an office, a time frame, and all these things. That all has to be in place, as well as note-keeping, billing, and money. In my poetry, I don’t have to have any of that. It’s me talking to myself, and I don’t hear myself so good sometimes. But I feel much greater freedom. I can do whatever the hell I want. It’s a free-for-all. So that feels to me like an incredibly different space I go into.

In both realms, I think a lot about intergenerational transmissions and what, as poets, we are transmitting through our ancestry, our heritage, our inheritances, our time in the world now. In clinical work, as Haydée Faimberg says, there are always at least three generations in the room, even when you only have two people. Everybody’s in the room with you. I really believe that.  The title Phantom Captain is about that, too—it’s a Buckminster Fuller idea, and do not ask me to explain it. It’s absolutely incomprehensible.  All I know about it is that it has a spirit, and technically it’s sort of a motor, like on a ship. When the captain leaves the wheel, it’s the thing that clicks in to steer the ship. It’s invisible, and he also talks about it as a force. But I’m thinking of it as what commandeers us unconsciously, these phantom captains of our psyche.

AW: What are the other literary touchstones of this book?

KR: I have a lot on inspirational rotation. Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a hugely important book to me. Reading about Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, their relationship and her mental illness and battling that and her turn to spiritualism. Clarice Lispector, Mina Loy, reading about the Futurists.All of that is in there. And I was reading a bit of Nietzsche and Kant. And Freud, always. And Bion. Lots of Bion.

AW: Are you reading anything good now?

KR: Oh my gosh, I’m reading so many things. You ask me what room at the house, and I’ll tell you what I’m reading in that room. I reread Kay Gabriel’s Kissing Other People which I really love. Rainer Diana Hamilton’s The Gossip According to Rainer Diana Hamilton, which is this Belladonna chapbook that is going under the radar, and it shouldn’t. It’s so amazing. And I’m rereading Night and Day by Virginia Woolf. And then I’m reading a biography of Leonora Carrington. But all my focus is going into Goya and reading about Goya. I have stacks of Goya books that are for my next project.

I turned to the Black Paintings which, you know, he painted as an old man going deaf and being very ill. I saw them when I was at the Prado years ago in Madrid, and they made a strong impression on me. I can’t imagine living with these paintings in your home. They’re so intense.  From thereI just started to research the Spanish Inquisition pretty heavily. I’m using the black paintings to structure the poems. But then I also got very involved in his plates, these parables, Los Caprichos‘ and The Disasters of War. So all this imagery and metaphor and allegory that feels to me like… very relevant to what’s happening now.

Aaron Winslow is the managing editor of Air/Light.

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