When I visit the poet Nuar Alsadir ’92 at her 12-foot-wide row house in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, one of the first things she tells me is that before she moved in, it had been the home of four nuns, who’d left it largely unchanged from the 19th century. We enter a space marked by another era’s time capsules: Elegant carved-wood screens divide rooms, and a back hall holds a beautiful, still functioning dumbwaiter that once accessed a basement kitchen. A mezuzah (which Alsadir has learned was once gifted in friendship to the nuns) hangs not on the front door, but on a wall in the dining room, where the nuns must have admired it. “I love imagining the nuns,” says Alsadir, who now shares the space with her two daughters, Sabine and Isadora, and their Italian greyhounds, Siggy and Miro. “I like that we can feel their presence.”
This is fitting, because in addition to being a poet whose work is celebrated in the United States and in England, Alsadir is a practicing psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. She’s invested in making sense of the traces others offer up, and in decoding ways our traces belie us. As we talk, her love of analysis creeps in right away. Even before we get to poetry, we’re discussing Alsadir’s own phobia of rodents. (It’s Brooklyn, after all: they’re never far off). “This is the way a phobia works,” says Alsadir: “you split something outside yourself, and it’s as if what’s externalized becomes a container for something that’s actually terrifying inside you.” She adds: “You’re keeping away from yourself the part of yourself you’ve made the container for.” After a pause, she muses: “I’ve found this really helpful in thinking about parts of race theory in describing how ‘the other’ functions.”
We’ve spun from nuns to rats to race theory in two seconds flat, and yet this feels like a typical conversation with Alsadir, who is even now preparing a talk on literature and psychoanalysis that she’s giving in London, in which she’ll examine self-control and addiction in Anna Karenina, using ideas from the theorist Donald Winnicott. Over our time talking through poetry on my visit (as well as on the phone and by email afterward) we discuss topics as varied as Freudian theory, cephalopod intelligence and the structure of the voice.
Alsadir works to make sense of the traces others offer up, and to decode ways our traces belie us.
As wide-ranging as our conversations were, their rangy scope might not surprise people who knew Alsadir at Amherst in the early ’90s.
Arriving from Chicago, where she’d grown up as the daughter of two doctors, both of whom had emigrated from Iraq, she thought of herself as neither an emergent poet nor an emergent psychoanalyst. “I wanted to study dance and neuroscience,” she says, remembering her days in Wendy Woodson’s dance classes.
In fact, she attended Amherst precisely because it would allow her to do both. Yet by graduation, she’d decided to explore the ways both body and mind could play in language. During a summer at Oxford after junior year, she fell in love with Ulysses, and came back wanting to write a thesis on contemporary poetry, which she did under English professor Bill Pritchard ’53. She also began memorizing poems and writing poetry. Now this evolution seems natural: neuroscience and dance read as early cognates of her later vocations, ways of delighting in the kinetic jump. When I point this out, Alsadir agrees. “My ultimate joy is to associate—to jump from thing to thing to thing—that kind of leaping is my favorite pleasure; it’s my play,” she says. Alsadir went to New York University for an M.A. in creative writing and spent a year at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. Back at NYU for a Ph.D. in English literature, she examined how the modern lyric evolved from the epistle. Then she trained at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. She is now a practicing psychoanalyst.
Her first book, More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012), came together slowly—“I was busy with my kids,” she says. “I don’t even think I did a single U.S. reading.” Alsadir’s second book, Fourth Person Singular, published by Liverpool University Press in 2017, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Epigrammatic and essayistic, it uses sharp, theoretical shards to examine who is speaking inside the lyric poem, and to explore a discontinuous personhood. It invents a new pronoun position—the grammatically impossible but theoretically tantalizing “fourth person singular,” which is Alsadir’s attempt to excavate the origins of the lyric voice.
To discuss this book, and writing generally, Alsadir and I met for dinner in Fort Greene, and then corresponded between my home in California and her home in New York.