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Alumni Spotlight: Elise M. Paschen '81

Elise Paschen
Elise M. Paschen '81
In a poem from her most recent collection, “The Nightlife” (2017), Elise M. Paschen ’81 depicts Salvador DalÍ immersed in a dream reverie meant to inspire his artwork. She writes “that the artist, straight-backed / in bony armchair, would doze, heavy key between thumb / and forefinger. That the clatter of metal hitting the tin plate beneath / his hand, wakes him up: a Capuchin monk technique.” Paschen, like Dali, synthesizes her art from her unconsciousness. In her waking life, though, she has penned works including “Bestiary,” “Infidelities,” “Houses: Coasts,” edited many anthologies, founded the Poetry in Motion program in New York, and served as Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America. The Harvard Crimson spoke to Paschen over the phone about the creativity that arises from dreams, her coming anthology, and her memories of studying English at Harvard.

The Harvard Crimson: What was your process for writing “The Nightlife?”

Elise M. Paschen: I’ve always culled from my dreams in my work. In “The Nightlife,” I did it more deliberately. There are just a couple of poems where I say it’s a dream, but many of them arose from dreams. They arrived like mini-novels, or like a film. I could see the whole poem play out. I’d wake up and notate the dream.

THC: Tell me about one of the poems from “The Nightlife” that came from a dream.

EMP: There’s a poem called “The Week Before She Died,” and in that poem I do acknowledge that it came from a dream. My mother was the prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. There was a time when I was thinking about writing a prose piece about the summer when she and my father were separated and she became involved with the dancer Rudolf Nureyev. My mother and Nureyev flew to Denmark, where she was supposed to perform with Erik Bruhn, the Danish dancer. She introduced Bruhn to Nureyev, and Nureyev and Bruhn fell in love. It was this love triangle. I ended up not writing the prose piece, but a week before my mother passed away, I had this very vivid dream which I feel like distilled the elements of the prose piece.

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THC: Your dreams are very productive.

EMP: In college, I would be studying something and I would have a dream and it would help me figure out how to write my paper. When you think about something a great length, sometimes your unconscious [self] will help you work it out, help you see different levels you haven’t seen before. I’m an insomniac, as well.

THC: What are you working on now?

EMP: I’m currently working on a new anthology called “The Eloquent Poem.” We’re hoping that it will be used in classrooms, colleges, and writing programs to help inspire learners and teachers of poetry to write poems. That anthology is based on the work I’ve done as a professor teaching in the writing program at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Each chapter is based on a mode or a form of poetry. We’ve asked contemporary poets to contribute their own work to the anthology and to write a paragraph about the genesis of the poem and how his or her poem fits into that section of the book. It’s going to come out in spring of 2019.

THC: Are you working on a new book of your own poems?

EMP: I wish I was working on a new book of poems! When you finish a book of poetry and you’re starting to write a new book of poetry, you want to figure out how to do it completely differently than the last book. So I’m hoping to do something that doesn’t have anything to do with dreams.

THC: Why is it important to keep studying literature?

EMP: No matter what you end up doing in your life, if you have a strong grounding in literature, it will serve you throughout the rest of your life. I think that for all of us, when we think about fiction or novels, there are so many that have made such a deep impression on our lives. I harken back to the things that I’ve read in literature as I look upon reality. At the beginning of autumn, John Keats’s lines of “To Autumn” come to my mind. When I’m by the ocean and discovering tide pools, I think about that wonderful scene in “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf. Many things that we’ve learned through literature inform our sense of how we perceive the world.

THC: What are some of your favorite Harvard writing memories?

EMP: I loved my time at the Harvard Advocate, where I was eventually the poetry editor, so I want to encourage students to pursue these interests.

I lived on campus my last year [of college], on Scott Street. I was recently in Cambridge to give a reading, and my former landlady gave a book party for me. It was so nice to be back in the house, because I lived up in the garret, and it was such an inspiring place for me to live. I remember writing a lot of my poems there.

One of my great memories was, as a senior, walking over to 33 Kirkland Street, where the English department was. I had these independent tutorials with Richard Tillinghast the poet. I remember these spring days, magnolias blooming, and how much I loved Cambridge and loved working with this professor and creating poems.

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