John Lambremont, Sr., “Mining those Golden Slumbers: the Poetry of Dreams”
You are asleep for about one-third of your life, but your mind does not shut down while you
are sleeping. In sleep, your subconscious comes to the forefront, and all of your hopes, fears, and
desires manifest themselves in the form of dreams, which can be literal or quite surreal. Rather
than waking up and dismissing that visceral dream as an oddity, consider using it as the basis for
a poem. Where else but in dreams, after all, do you totally reveal yourself to you? Dreams can be
startling, sublime, or revelatory; the same qualities make for good poetry. Your dreams are fertile
grounds for your poetry writing as another means by which you can make the familiar seem
strange and the strange seem familiar. This essay will discuss ways of harnessing your dreams
and using them to your poetic advantage.
Let me begin by stating that most literary magazine editors, including me, shy away from or reject outright poems that identify themselves as dreams, so your task is to present the dream poem quietly without labeling it as such. Surrealism and abstraction are prevalent enough in today’s poetry that a well-crafted dream poem can pass muster without the poet revealing or the editor surmising that the poem is about a dream, and if you can do that successfully, your chances of acceptance are much greater. But first, you have to lasso your dreams.
Capturing your dreams is not easy, because the deeper you sleep, the more you dream, but a
deep sleep is harder to wake from than is a light one. Nonetheless, if you want to write about
your dreams, you must develop the ability to wake yourself up in the middle of a dream, as
dreams that carry through to completion are often not retained on waking. So, try to be aware
during your dream cycles that you are dreaming, and once you find yourself in a dream that is
interesting enough write about, will yourself to wake up. Tell yourself, “This is an incredible
dream. Wake up! Open your eyes!” This technique will work with some practice, and is also
useful when you find yourself sliding into a bad dream or nightmare. You can also try to
develop a technique for controlling or guiding your dreams which I read about in one of Carlos
Casteñeda’s Don Juan books many years ago, and which with practice can be done. The method
is relatively simple: once you realize that you are dreaming, look for your hands in the dream and
focus hard on them. Then, once fully focused on your hands, look up slowly to the dream scene
and try to retain the focus. If you can do this, you can then allow the dream to continue while
controlling or at least guiding its direction. This technique does, however, require many, many
nights of practice to develop, and may be contraindicated if you sleep with a significant other
and tend to talk in your sleep. Another way of controlling your dreams is to understand that bad
dreams and nightmares are often caused by physical discomfort, so if you’re having a nightmare,
wake yourself up from it and attend to the cause of your discomfort, at the same time reflecting
on the dream to consider its poetic possibilities.
Just as a lepidopterist cannot catch butterflies without a net, you need the proper equipment
to capture your dreams. A bedside lamp (or at least a pencil flashlight), pens or pencils, and
a writing pad are musts, that way you can make notes or actually compose your dream poem
without getting out of bed. Also helpful are a comfortable mattress, pillows, and bed covers
which allow you to sleep deeply so you will dream more. I have found through experience that
an uncomfortable sleeping area will decrease the number and quality of your dreams, so consider
buying a new bed if yours is lumpy or saggy.
There are many ways of using your dreams in writing poems. The first and most obvious is
a verbatim recitation of the dream in whole or part. You can also combine snippets of various
dreams to create a poem, or combine dream sequences with waking observances to write or
finish up a poem. Another method is to use a dream fragment as the starting point for a poem.
Pay special attention to the things you see or hear just prior to falling asleep or just before
waking up, as these are windows to your subconscious. If you’re not going to get out of bed to sit
down and write out your dream poem, make as many notes as you can or write a few lines while
still in bed or using the bathroom before you go back to sleep. Keep a compilation of your dream
notes and dream fragments in a folder for later perusal and writing, and don’t hesitate to use your
vocabulary and/or imagination to change, re-arrange, or substitute the dream words, phrases, or
quotations you’ve recorded over time, as these are but dreams; they are yours to use as you see
fit, and you’re not married to them.
Two examples of dream poems from my latest full-length poetry collection, Dispelling
The Indigo Dream (Local Gems Poetry Press 2013), are shown below. “Mesa Moderne,”
previously published in Picayune Literary Magazine, is an example of a literal dream recitation.
“Variety Gala,” previously published in Sugar House Review, is an example of a poem created
from a dream snippets recorded over a two-week period, then arranged, altered in parts, and
supplemented with a waking observance. The first two lines of the poem are a literal quotation
of something I heard said in a dream. A dream reference to Elvis Peacock, former University
of Oklahoma and NFL running back, was transmogrified into “elfin hands” and the Peacock
retained for later use in the poem. The last lines incorporated a waking experience of observing
two peeled apples side-by-side on the kitchen counter that appeared to be staring up at me. The
title came to me mid-way through the writing process, as the poem took shape and seemed to
depict a bizarre stage or television show. I wrote down dream snippets on the same piece of
paper for two weeks before attempting to turn them into this poem.
Once I recorded for months the last things I heard before falling asleep. The first night I heard
the words “Sperm with no song.” The next night it was “Sea plum trumpet.” I kept a journal of
these phrases and quotes from voices I heard, recorded them in chronological order, and then
used them almost verbatim to create a long poem in five parts titled “Suburb In Rondo,” which is
perhaps the most surreal poem I have ever written. After being rejected by several reviews, with
one editor describing it as “the pickle jar that no one can open,” it was eventually accepted by A
Hudson View in New York City, and shortly thereafter nominated for The Pushcart Prize; so, go
figure. I estimate that about fifty percent of the poems I’ve written over the last five years have
been dream-inspired, and even a larger percentage of my dream poems have found their way into
publication. So, I urge you to attempt a dream poem or two, and see if the process works for you.
I can almost hear the reader now remonstrating, “What happens when I keep waking
myself up and then I can’t fall asleep again?” One answer is to go ahead and write that dream
poem now, but another alternative is to read; the process of moving your eyes back and
forth will usually make you sleepy again quickly. Let me also share with you my fail-safe method of putting myself to sleep when my mind is racing and won’t shut up; just sing to yourself several times the first line of the John Lennon-penned Beatle song Tomorrow Never Knows: “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream...” If you don’t know the tune,
you can find it online. It works every time. Sweet dreams, and keep writing and submitting!
The Otawi lie together
passively on their blankets,
some already rolled over
on their backs asleep,
the elders staring blankly
at the flickering monolith.
Kragthorpe sits anxiously
on his haunches,
his blue eyes searching
the sky, waiting
for the New Messiah,
and the Wise Child dances
up and down the rock path,
each time seeking the white nun
to touch and examine
Watch the fishes walk their bones
and shake them down below.
The yellowfader elfin hands
make broom-stands on the swaying stage,
their seven kneels to the peacocks' three,
the larvate magnates praised.
The excesses of fetch and rend
have spent the fish in somberness,
the strings cut loose from the pupas,
the audience transfixed, as two denuded apples
stare out foolishly, stripped to the core.
Author bio: John Lambremont, Sr. is a poet and writer from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where
he serves as editor of Big River Poetry Review, www.bigriverpoetry.com. John has a
B.A. in Creative Writing and a J.D. from Louisiana State University. His work has been
published internationally in many reviews and anthologies, including Clarion, The Minetta
Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Mayo Review, The Louisiana Review, Words & Images,
and Cantos. John’s second full-length poetry collection, Dispelling The Indigo Dream, was
published last year by Local Gems Poetry Press, and his latest poetry chapbook, What It
Means To Be A Man (And Other Poems Of Life And Death), will be published this fall by
Finishing Line Press. John’s blog of his previously published poems can be found at: