Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Patricia Prime Interviews Miriam Sagan

Miriam Sagan was born in Manhattan, raised in New Jersey, and educated in Boston. She holds a B.A. with honors from Harvard University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University. She settled in Santa Fe in 1984.

Sagan is the author of over twenty books. Her most recent is a memoir,
Searching for a Mustard Seed: A Young Widow’s Unconventional Story (Quality Words in Print, 2004. Winner Best Memoir from Independent Publishers, 2004). Her poetry includes Rag Trade (La Alameda, 2004). The Widow’s Coat (Ahsahta Press, 1999), The Art of Love (La Alameda Press, 1994). True Body (Parallax Press, 1991) and Aegean Doorway (Zephyr, 1984). Her published novel is Coastal Lives (Center Press, 1991). With Sharon Niederman, she is the editor of New Mexico Poetry Renaissance (Red Crane, 1994): winner of the Border Regional Library Association Award and Honorable Mention Benjamin Franklin Award, and with Joan Loddhe of Another Desert: The Jewish Poetry of New Mexico (Sherman Asher, 1998). She and her late husband Robert Winson wrote Dirty Laundry: 100 Days in a Zen Monastery, a joint diary (La Alameda, 1987; New World Library, 1999). She is the author of Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry (Sherman Asher, 1999) which Robert Creeley called “A work of quiet compassion and great heart.” Sagan is also the author of four juvenile nonfiction books, including Tracing our Jewish Roots (John Muir). Her work has appeared internationally in 200 magazines. She writes book columns for both the Santa Fe New Mexican and New Mexico Magazine, and a poetry column for Writer’s Digest.

Sagan, an Assistant Professor, runs the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College, and has taught at the College of Santa Fe, University of New Mexico, Taos Institute of the Arts, Aspen Writer’s Conference, around the country, and online for writers.com and UCLA Extension. She has held residency grants at Yaddo and MacDowell, and is the recipient of a grant from The Barbara Deming Foundation for Women and a Lannan Foundation Marfa Residency. She has recently been a writer in residence at Everglades National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, and The Land/An Art Site.

PP: Despite your impressive literary output, your work perhaps is not as well-known as it deserves to be. Could you please outline your background?

MS: I was born in Manhattan, raised in Jersey, have a B.A. from Harvard, M.A. from Boston University. I ran off to San Francisco when I was 26 – probably the smartest thing I ever did. I’ve lived in Santa Fe since 1984 and I founded and direct the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College – which I think of as a natural extension of my early years as a community organizer. I’ve published over twenty books; the most recent is Map of the Lost (University of New Mexico Press).

PP: How did you build your list of authors in the early years of the Santa Fe Poetry Broadside?

MS: Our mandate to ourselves was to put up as many New Mexico poets as possible. That was before many writers were web-savvy and we wanted potential readers to be able to find work by local poets such as Leo Romero. So we begged and nagged for work! And have also expanded into other areas of interest, particularly with guest editors.

PP: What is the hardest thing for you in your job as an editor?

MS: At this point, staying fresh.

PP: I often feel that women writers are in a double-bind. There is that external pressure to succeed as lover, wife, mother and, often, equal work partner. There is also an internalized, self-imposed pressure. How do you cope given this situation?

MS: When my daughter Isabel was born 20 years ago I realized that she came first – just not every minute! This was very helpful. I had rules that my study was an inviolate space – pretty soon I broke these and she had coloring books etc. in there. But it didn’t matter. We survived a hard time, the death of my first husband Robert Winson as a young man. But to be honest I haven’t felt huge conflict. I feel my writing comes from life, and Robert’s death made other people seem even more important. Paradoxically, in the last 13 years I re-married, raised my daughter, and published a dozen books of poetry and memoir – most related to my experience.

PP: What about the notion of the essential female identity which locks women writers into biological determinism?

MS: Yikes! I’ve spent a good part of my 54 years wondering if men and women were essentially the same or different – and I’ve changed my mind a few times! I’m interested in identity – as a woman, a Jew, an American, a baby-boomer – but I’m also interested in something essential that isn’t totally defined by these things.

PP: It seems to me that there is a connection between writing and illnesses like depression, which occurs in many women poets – Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, to name but two. Can writing come out of depression, illness or breaks in relationships?

MS: I think that for the trained poet, writing can come out of anything. I think about Anna Ahkmatova standing outside the prison at the height of the Stalinist purges and the woman behind her saying – can you write about this? She said yes, and wrote her masterpiece “Poem Without A Hero.” I love Sexton’s work and it seems obvious that she used and encouraged her mania to induce creative states – with Plath I sometimes think her writing was the sane part and survived despite her. Of course we’ve all known people who suffered dreadfully and were ill who weren’t artists at all.

PP: Do you think there is an inherent difference between male and female poetry?

MS: No

PP: To return to your own writing – how does the poem originate?

MS: It has been my lifelong practice to write poetry – it is a mixture of observation, image, language, word, and feeling. Then I chase that bit of inspiration as with a butterfly net – and try to get it down.

PP: How much attention do you pay to stylistic elements? In what ways do you work on syntax, phrasings, finding the right words to communicate?

MS: Colette said – “don’t wear yourself out with lying and don’t look for the rare word.” I like this advice! I’m more apt to work from form than syntax – let’s say from syllabics or meter or line length than from searching for the exact words. But I’m afraid I’m a little sloppy.

PP: The imagery you use is often quite complex, full of shifts of perspective. Do you make demands on your readers’ imagination? Is that an important part of your craft for you?

MS: Aah – those leaps are my favorite thing – I think of the poem as a trip or a place – I want to take the reader there – to see what I saw.

PP: Sometimes I find glimpses of humour in your work. How important is humour for you, with regard to your writing?

MS: It is crucial. As a young poet I was very serious. People would complain – you’re so funny – and your writing isn’t! I set about to change that.

PP: How does the editor or prose writer in you get on with the poet? Do you co-exist in harmony or do you consider yourself primarily a poet?

MS: I’ve written a lot of prose. I’ve been a columnist for Writer’s Digest, New Mexico Magazine, The Santa Fe Mexican, and Sage Magazine at The Albuquerque Journal. I love the essay form, and the review, and the constraints of commercial writing – deadlines etc. I think it is just a different muscle. If I feel like writing but don’t feel inspired I’ll tend to work on prose, which lends itself to elbow grease.

PP: Do you tend to compose spontaneously or by applying certain procedures to materials that you have previously written or derived from other sources?

MS: Spontaneously – but I encourage certain situations. For example, I was recently a writer in residence at Petrified Forest National Park. I had two weeks in a little cabin all to myself. Every day I took field trips, walked, identified wildflowers, read, talked to archeologists and paleontologists, etc. I’d go out and “sketch” in words, come home and revise. It was heaven!

PP: Do you go about writing a tanka or haiku sequence with a specific sense of structure or in the knowledge of how it will develop?

MS: Sometimes. It tends to be site specific. For example, in Petrified Forest I wanted a haiku sequence and some connected tanka. In ordinary life it might be more random.

PP: Do you want to say something about what lyric means to you? Is it something musical, song-like, or is it more about the kind of orientation towards its content?

MS: I think of lyric as coming from the Greeks like Sappho – personal, musical, brief, metaphoric. Essentially the heart of poetry that isn’t epic or a long narrative.

PP: Can you say something about your interest in haibun?

MS: I love it and was excited to realize it was an actual form being practiced in English! Of course, I’d read Basho, Issa, the Japanese poetic diaries, etc. I’m very interested in diary and journal writing, and this had a formal approach that intrigued me. Plus I’d always felt poetry and prose could not be combined – and haibun proved the opposite!

PP: Do you think that the reader identifies too often with the speaker of a poem?

MS: Absolutely – or poetry wouldn’t work. On re-reading your question, is it too much? Well, I think not – how else to enter the poem?

PP: Do you feel that women bring something to the genre that men do not?

MS: Well, of course the specifics of experience as women. And our ancestors in tanka, haibun, etc. are often women. But in today’s society in the US where women and men have close to identical educations – no “women’s language” or boys learning Greek and Latin and girls not – I think the differences would be more individual and less sweeping.

PP: Do you feel that men dominate the genre by virtue of editorial entrenchment or bias?

MS: I hope not – and I’m not aware of the bias – but that isn’t to say it might not be there.

PP: What do you think of the idea that research stimulates an incident-set that may later be used in a poem?

MS: I really agree – I love research – but it might be more poetic than hyper-intellectual. I read a huge amount of non-fiction particularly about history, sociology, biology and it is a big influence.

PP: Do you think it may create a number of possibilities that you then think about transforming in certain ways?

MS: Or even that knowledge re-shapes the way I experience things – deepens perception.

PP: What is the role of revision in your work? Do you spend a lot of time working on a piece or is it a swift process and then you re-work things?

MS: I’m fast. As a young writer I’d do about 20-25 revisions, it was a learning curve. Now I do just a few. I tend to toss something that isn’t working rather than over-revise.

PP: You are very active in the literary scene. Do you still meet other poets on a regular basis?

MS: Well, my life is full of poets and poetry. I’m just back from the STIR Festival in Albuquerque which was several days of stellar poetry – I saw a lot of old friends. And of course my students are poets in the making.

PP: How would you characterize the literary scene in the USA at the moment?

MS: I’ll just go with New Mexico – it is vibrant and inclusive here. Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces are all dynamic hubs with all kinds of poets – from slam to academic. Nationally things may be more separate – slam poets don’t dine with language school folks. But luckily things are integrated here

PP: It would be interesting to learn more about your method of working. Is there a strict time scheme you stick to when writing?

MS: I’m production oriented. My goal is to write 5 poems a month – a bit of a stretch. If I’m behind I really push it!

PP: Can you identify some poets who have inspired you?

MS: My demi-gods include Neruda, Lorca, Machado, Ahkmatova, Yosano Akiko, Allen Ginsberg. In terms of American haiku writers – Elizabeth Searle Lamb, who was a close friend.

PP: What are your literary projects in the foreseeable future?

MS: I’ve been doing some visual work – a poetry installation at The Land/An Art Site in Mountainair, New Mexico. I’ll be doing a gallery installation at their Granite Street site, writing on walls. I’m working with some letterpress printers and collaborating with a photographer as well.


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