Laura’s Desires (Nightboat Books, 2024) is a volume made up of two long poems, “Dream Dream Dream” and “Laura’s Desires.” “Dream Dream Dream” unfolds in prose vignettes that examine dreams through various lenses: dreams as portals to a new future, as threats, as the subject matter of pop songs and a model for freedom. “Laura’s Desires” is a sustained long poem using the film Variety (1983) as a frame for a capacious poem about desire—how it shapes us, how it has shaped, and all that it offers to transform the conditions we live in. Both poems are by turns philosophical and playful, serious and sexy, personal and expansive. Together, they examine how the tributaries of our individual longing can flow toward the goal of collective liberation.

Laura and I connected over email in May to discuss Laura’s Desires, form, friendship, dreams, freedom, and more.

Rebecca van Laer: Did you write the two long poems in Laura’s Desires one before the other, or both simultaneously? How did they find their two different forms?

Laura Henriksen: I wrote them years apart, actually! “Dream Dream Dream” began in the fall of 2018, at a time when I was extremely busy, and “Laura’s Desires” began in the spring of 2020, at a time when I wasn’t leaving my house. I think that relationship to time did a lot to determine the forms the two poems developed in. “Dream Dream Dream” was written primarily across little and unpredictable gaps in labor, and “Laura’s Desires” is the consequence of the only time in my life where I was the kind of person who wrote consistently every morning. So while they’re both documents of thought and language accumulating durationally, what they accumulated into looks quite different. “Dream Dream Dream” is a composition of these semi-discrete nodes, and “Laura’s Desires” is all sprawl. 

I love that the book shows a mind actively thinking in these two different ways. And it seems that you often make sense of yourself through other texts—pop songs, queer theory, and everything in between. Was “Dream Dream Dream” more archival (actively looking for songs about dreams) or associative? How do you know a poem or essay belongs in your poem?

Thank you! The different dream pieces each arrived in their own ways, primarily associatively. It was a bit like dreams became the frequency I was tuned into for a time. I’m sure if I had decided to write a poem in which each section was organized around the image of a rose, I would suddenly have noticed that the world is full of songs and movies and texts about roses (as no doubt it is).

It’s been interesting—I had sort of assumed I would be to some extent agonized every time I encountered an evocative new (or new to me) dream song or text after completing “Dream Dream Dream,” like I would wish so dearly that I had written about it, or it would give me the sense that the poem isn’t actually complete because it doesn’t include, for example, “I Am Crazy” by The Mekons (an amazing song my friend Saki shared with me after reading the book). But I haven’t felt regret in those moments at all, I’ve instead had the feeling that these other songs aren’t in fact absent from the poem, even though I didn’t write about them. It feels like what happens when you misread a word in a poem—that in so doing you’ve expanded the poem’s vocabulary, you’ve uncovered one of its ghost words. So the criteria for belonging in the poem’s constitutively incomplete inventory was really just that a given song or text arrived or occurred or was recommended to me while I was in the process of writing the poem. If instead it only made its presence known later, when the poem was no longer my poem but a shared thing, then it has a different kind of belonging and presence.

I love that both poems describe their own composition—moments when you discussed or shared earlier drafts with friends, sometimes (it’s implied) revising or going further in response to feedback. What role do your friendships and relationships play in your composition and editorial process? How do you know when a piece is “done?”

I don’t think it would ever be possible for me to disentangle poetry and friendship in my life—friendship is so central to my composition and editorial process, and poetry is so central to basically all of my relationships. I am entirely of the school of thought that reading and writing are fundamentally social activities, so that in attempting to make a document of a mind actively thinking, more than anything I was tracing years of conversation and listening and reading, all these intimately linked social activities. I am always in reading groups and writing groups and workshops—left entirely to my own devices I don’t know if I would have the courage or energy to write a word. Both of these poems began in writing group settings, and both became a whole lot more interesting because of the thoughtful and generous edits friends offered me.

For “Dream Dream Dream,” I knew it was done when I knew it didn’t have to be done, or it was never going to be, that it would have this other secret life now like we were talking about, where I made the mixtape and I sent it out, and the best thing that could happen is that it might grow in tentacular ways. For “Laura’s Desires,” sort of miraculously, I knew it was done when I arrived at the ending, the final image. I continued to write it and edit it a great deal after that, but the ending was already there and steady.

The book and the poem “Laura’s Desires” share a multivalent title, relating to you, the writer, and to a poster in Variety (which is itself both an advertisement for a German porn film and Bette Gordon’s nod to Laura Mulvey). Did this title come to you immediately? How does it relate to your sense of desire as always relational, embedded in social contexts?

As further evidence that writing is always social for me—the title did immediately announce itself as the title, not because I was so inspired, but instead because I watched Variety with my partner, Morgan, and when the poster first becomes visible in the lobby, he said, “You should write a poem with that title.” It was so interesting, because normally I find titling the most challenging part of writing (way harder than writing an ending even), but in this case it was reversed, the presence of a title became its own challenge. How was I going to write something called “Laura’s Desires”? What kind of accounting was I being asked (or asking myself) to do? Some things I intuited before I began—to write about my desires I’d have to write about my doubts and fears, I’d have to write about my love and I’d have to write about sex. But even though it seems obvious now, I was totally surprised to recognize through the composition process that to write about my desires I would also have to write about my relationships to faith, to my family, to New York in the 1980s. So it both confirmed my understanding of desire as contextual and socially embedded, and also reminded me that the context or bed where I locate my desires is part of a much more expansive network than I could ever begin to map.

When did you decide that Variety would become the frame for “Laura’s Desires”? In the poem, you’re wrestling with the attraction of narrative: the ways it enables pleasure, but also limits it. How did its narrative scaffolding anchor your own thinking—or enable its own non-narrative arc? Did it ever restrain or limit you?

There was never a time when Variety wasn’t the frame for “Laura’s Desires.” Variety is the first condition of possibility for the poem, even as the poem also reaches back to touch the same preoccupations I’ve been obsessed with since I was a teenager who had no idea who Bette Gordon or Kathy Acker or Nan Goldin were, who had no idea people used to regularly watch porn in movie theaters.

For me the movie was an engine and never a limit. When I didn’t know where to go next, when I had temporarily exhausted a line or a question, I would just go back to summarizing the movie, and trust that sooner or later it would shoot me through another unanticipated portal. It was, in this way, perhaps a tool to have a more social writing practice when I couldn’t literally go meet friends and write together. It didn’t limit me because I didn’t feel an obligation to be bound by either the constraints of narrative or the constraints of filmmaking. In the very beginning, I write about what Christine is thinking in the opening scene of the movie, when of course I can’t hear her thoughts, they aren’t in the script, they aren’t available props. This was an extremely exciting realization early on, that I could fill in whatever I felt compelled to fill in, that I could rely on research and analysis, but whenever I wanted to I could just guess or intuit, or change the subject completely.

At the beginning of “Laura’s Desires,” you write that Variety is, from the beginning, about an economic problem. Do you think your book is, too?

I love this question! Yes, totally, crucially! As we talked about, the forms of the two poems mirror the kind of time I had according to the way I was working while writing them, so economic problems guide them constitutively. And then, in studying dreaming, I was necessarily also thinking about sleeping, and also about fantasizing, and in thinking about sleep and fantasy, I therefore was also thinking about work, a powerful barrier to both. And in studying Variety, it was necessary to confront certain fantasies about being an artist or a writer, about living in New York. Both of these poems are deeply concerned with the uneven distribution of precarity and enforced disposability and exploitation. Both of these poems are attempts to find and expand moments of possible liberation, and liberation is, among other things, a personal problem, a sexual problem, a moral problem, a political problem, and an economic problem.

The book is wrestling with what it means to be free—from the prison of subjectivity, in particular (through sex, through the celebration of impermanence, through writing). You reach towards a definition, describing it as a presence and a place. Have you learned anything new about freedom from finishing this book? From publishing it?

I don’t know if I’ve learned anything new about freedom from finishing or publishing the book, just like I don’t know if I’ve learned anything new about desire. I’m reminded of Anaïs Duplan’s book that ends with this very perfect line (sorry, spoiler): “I have learned nothing. Thank you.” But then that kind of goal-resistant non-attachment perhaps is a way of learning something about freedom, from the tyranny of the self, of narrative, of progress, of linear time.

But I also want to make clear that the freedom that I want to think about isn’t and can’t be purely interior or theoretical or individual: what I am concerned with is the dismantling of every site of detention or incarceration on the earth. Without that, no kind of freedom is possible for anyone, literally. In thinking about freedom as a presence and a place, I’m following Ruthie Gilmore. Another definition that guides me comes from Angela Y. Davis, who teaches us that “freedom is a constant struggle.” It isn’t something that is finished or arrived at or achieved; it is an ongoing choice to refuse and to fight and to build and to love, to participate in that history of refusal and creation, with everything that we do—in our political organizing, in the sex we have, in the poems we write, in the dreams we dream. In all of it.

The final image in “Laura’s Desires” is a windshield glare that obscures a movie theater. In this, it seems to echo the gesture of Variety’s street corner, while also erasing the very idea of “the movies.” Do you think of this image as similar to Bette’s, open-ended? Or as commentary on what film cannot offer us, the bright real light of the sun, of experience?

Thank you for your thoughtful reflections on the closing image! It is very much meant to echo the intersection that Variety closes with, this corner that presents itself as empty while simultaneously exploding with history and potential energy. Who has been and who will be illuminated by the streetlight? What was there before the sidewalk was there? How will that sidewalk look when I’m dead? In closing with this obscured image of a movie theater, and also this very brief anecdote about its construction, in this moment of transit, I’m hoping to create the feeling of possibility and uncertainty that we find at every precipice, and also to offer the reminder that every place and every moment is a precipice.

What have you been dreaming about lately?

A free Palestine.

Rebecca van Laer is a writer based in the Hudson Valley. She is the author of a novella, How to Adjust to the Dark. Her next book is forthcoming from Object Lessons/Bloomsbury in 2025. She can be found online at

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