INTERVEW WITH MIRIAM SAGAN
***Finding Beauty in the Search
The Literary Aesthetic of Miriam Sagan
by Jeffrey Laing • SantaFe.com
May 6, 2009
Santa Fe People
Having been an avid reader and unabashed fan of her poetry for the past twenty-five years, I had the pleasure of speaking with Miriam Sagan about her recent work. From her earliest poetry, such as the haiku of Eyebrows of Geese and Talking You Down (a Pinchpenny chapbook), Miriam has created emotionally engaging, witty, and articulate work that searches for beauty in contrasts and physical place. However, Miriam has taken on many professional hats since I first met her in Santa Fe in 1983, including novelist, memoirist, reviewer, essayist, teacher, and editor. The problem with interviewing Miriam was choosing where to begin.
After catching up on the life paths of husband Richard (office manager of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute) and daughter Isabel (undergraduate at UNM), I asked Miriam if she were truly a Renaissance woman or if one of her occupations was primary: “Poetry is the natural thing [for me]. I think like a poet. However, sometimes there comes a self-realization that something needs narrative to complete it, something which I can’t shut up about. Prose is always a conscious choice.” Though “poetry is central and is my primary commitment in language, my well spring,” Miriam finds no difficulty moving freely between poetry and prose since “they are separate skill sets and mind sets.” Furthermore, Miriam perceives “poetry as a gift” and “prose as fitting my middle aged personality of being bossy, organized, and outer-directed. I like to make things happen that I am fond of. Whenever I take one of those personality tests the response is ‘You’d make a good general’.”
In discussing the many labels critics have attached to her writing, the only category Miriam has consciously tried to embrace has been “woman writer”: “I [became a teenager] in 1966 when feminism [was in ascendency]. I tried to liberate myself. Actually, the idea was to wedge myself out of suburbia.” When I mentioned her latest residencies in National Parks and her nature poetry, Miriam qualified the term “nature”: “I’m a Johnny-come-lately to nature writing, though I was a botany major for a semester at university and I have always loved flora. I agree that I am more a ‘romantic’ since I don’t understand nature for its own sake; I understand it in relation to civilization.” Life and art coalesce as forms of investigation for Miriam: “Seeking is our life and it is poetry. They are the same thing.”
It was winter, night, cold
Driving back towards La Madera
Yes, we all saw them
Bobbing in the open field
Green balls of fire
As if carried but of course there was never
Anyone there at all
Between the shoulder of the road and the arroyo.
(from “Witch Lights”)
Remembering a twenty year old discussion of poetry with Miriam about “What a poem is,” I asked her if she still defined poetry as “something with line breaks”: “I still agree with the statement since poetry is about breathing. The poet breathes and the line also catches its breath.” She also cited her first mentor, Harvard’s Robert Fitzgerald, who delineated the difference between prose and poetry: “Prose is transparent. You look through it to meaning. Poetry is opaque. It has a surface in which meaning and language are integrated.” Miriam also finds local writer and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg an inspiration because her tenet that states that “writing follows the mind” is very liberating: “There is no writer’s block ever.” Miriam also finds that Goldberg’s process-oriented approach “good for a poet with its many associations, leaps and jumps.”
Miriam has had the opportunity to work in artist colonies at Yaddo, MacDowell, and Marfa. All have provided her with the gift of time and “helped me forge my identity” by meeting a variety of creative and inspiring people: “It (MacDowell residency) helped give me the courage to be a writer.” Her recent residencies at Everglades National Park and the Petrified Forest have been “very quiet and remote and very intense, more about relating to nature than to people.”
The process of poetry for Miriam is metaphor. Finding language itself metaphorical, Miriam finds metaphor “dynamic and thrilling in that we are not completed and that things are like one another. I think comparing a human, say, to a cherry tree is an upgrade.” Miriam Sagan’s poetic voice lives in the subjunctive mood in a state of becoming and invention rather than in a world of fact and certainty: “[In writing, one] travels but never arrives.”
If the Mother Ditch would fill
A silver river
It would be summer
Evening, the stars, a lit window
Sitting on the porch watching the street
In the endless
In the always
(from “Acequia Madre”)
Miriam’s celebration of metaphor and enthusiasm for language is one of the key attributes in making her a superior teacher: “I will see things as simultaneous and be seized by the desire to have other people see it [this moment of beauty].” She is also quite clear on her belief in the currently somewhat unfashionable belief in the moral center of teaching. In response to my question about what would constitute the perfect student, Miriam mentioned that she wants students who wish to be in school and who are open to the world. However, she also added the following personal note “Any student who engenders your affection [is the perfect student].”
Miriam founded, administers, and teaches in the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College. It is a growing, highly subscribed program that had six creative writing certificates awarded in the first nine months of the program’s inception. She lauds SFCC President Dr. Sheila Ortego, a published novelist “who has a natural love, support, and understanding” of creative writing; Margaret Peters, Chairperson of English & Speech; and Dr. Bruno Bornet, Dean of Liberal Arts and Core Studies, for their “marvelous and incredible support.” Miriam is also the faculty advisor of the Santa Fe Literary Review that is published by the college and is open to submissions from the public. (For the complete information about the SFLR and its submission guidelines, please check the Santa Fe Community College website.)
As for her own published work, Miriam Sagan is as prolific as ever. The elegiac poems of Map of the Lost (UNM Press, 2008) and her comic essays in Gossip (Tres Chicas Books, 2007) are only her latest works. Lost is about “traveling, the hidden urban spaces, what used to be there, and how memory cuts through present time” while Gossip is about “love, Jersey girls, fake “how-to” advice columns, just totally fun stuff.”
It’s Baca Street! We’re back
In the neighborhood where my daughter
Immediately becomes lost.
“I don’t get straight streets,” she says.
My money’s good here. I buy two cups of foamy chai
And look in her face, turning from girl to woman
And want to construct
My map of the lost.
(from “Take a Left at My Mailbox”)
I ended my interview with Miriam in the way that I usually do; I asked her if she had anything else to say to the world that I did not ask her. After a time, she revealed that “While I found motherhood creatively stimulating, I find the lack of motherhood has also changed me. It’s great. There’s nothing like it. I’ve returned to that sixteen-year old sense of self, and I’ve found that in middle age that I was and am very fond of that old self. And I’m very close to it now in my experience.” Miriam sums up her epiphany as follows: “I’ve been released back into a larger world.”
Santa Feans better be on their guard. With an empty nest and a wider world in which to engage her active and energetic artistic sensibilities, Miriam Sagan has the time and the tapestry to create more of her achingly beautiful, insightful, and witty writings. I look forward with great anticipation to those vital seekings from one of Santa Fe’s major literary figures.
Dustin Pickering interviews me on his blog about creative writing, 2016
What kind of experience did you from creative writing instruction as a student? How did that compare to your experiences as an instructor yourself?
I studied at Harvard and Boston University. Although I had some strong mentors—Robert Fitzgerald and John Malcom Brinnin—instruction was pretty casual. Creative writing wasn’t really “taught” back in the 1970’s—you just sort of found your own way.
When I teach at community college, I tend to be very craft oriented. I teach structure, tropes, forms—in all three genres. But I don’t emphasize being a “professional” or academic literary writer. I’m too much of a hippie, and I was taught more by immersion in reading and writing than anything else.
What do you think a student in creative writing courses can expect to learn? How many students enter your classes and see improvement in their writing? What sort of comments do you get from students after they have taken one of your classes?
At minimum, to learn simply from having some time and intention. At best, how their own individual voices combine with traditional techniques. People seem very happy with my teaching, including on-line classes, but I think any teacher who gives true attention and compassion can move a student forward.
Do you think writing poetry is different from writing prose? How so?
Well, Paris is different than Chicago. I think different in every way. Poetry is fast, driven by feeling, momentary perception. Fiction has that nasty engine called plot.
Is there such a thing as natural talent in this field? What could a person who is naturally inclined to write learn in a course on writing? Do creative writing courses help young students learn discipline in their writing?
Of course, but like all natural talent, it really isn’t that important. A lot of teachers rightfully emphasize elbow grease and mastery as opposed to talent—years of work. But that takes a certain kind of talent too. Maybe the greatest talent is to love what you do.
What can creative writing teach a person in regard to other aspects of living? Is there anything practical learned from creative writing that can be brought to the “real world”?
Well, maybe empathy and self-awareness. Also, observation. But really I think writing just grows writing. Some excellent authors might be pretty poor human beings. I don’t think the insights necessarily translate from the page to life.
What qualities do great poems have from your own reading experience?
Transcendence. Transport. I also like it when the little hairs on my arm stand up. Insight, and the beauty of language and Aristotle’s catharsis. But mostly I like getting that rush.
I read advice from Benjamin Franklin concerning learning to write recently. His advice was extremely helpful because it suggested methods. Most advice is “read more, write more” but there is no practice of writing suggested. Do you have suggestions for the practice of writing?
Yes, I do. I studied for a while with Natalie Goldberg, who proposes writing practice. This helps a lot, as does The Artist’s Way’s (Julia Cameron) advice on morning pages. I suggest writing raw every day, using one of these techniques. Then, try working your way through a book of forms or prompts. Essentially you are trying to build writing muscle and flexibility. I once heard the critic Helen Vendler say the best thing a novice writer could do was make a lot of mistakes quickly. Read every day—but as a writer. Keep notes. Imitate.
I sometimes suggest teaching in ways that encourage thinking outside of the daily box for creative writers. When someone asks me how to workshop, for instance, I suggest they give an exercise that will lead students away from commonplace thinking. Then edit, edit, edit. What way would you approach editing? Do you have editing methods or specific ideas on how and what to edit?
I hate editing. Allen Ginsberg said—first thought, best thought. This might not really be true, but for me sometimes it’s just—first thought, no other thought! That said, I suggest editing organically.
What is the piece? It’s shape, theme, purpose? Edit towards that shape. Take out the extraneous, add in detail.
Then get someone else to read it!
Tell me about your own books. What inspired them? How long roughly did each take to complete? What obstacles did you face in writing them?
I’ve published about 30 books, and written probably close to 30 more, that will mercifully never see the light of day. I’m 62 years old. At thirty, I set myself an impossible task—to publish a book or chapbook a year, or to complete some kind of big project annually. So each book had its muse, meaning, purpose. My novel Black Rainbow took 30 years to write. I have a chapbook forthcoming from Red Bird that took about fourteen super intense days to write (I was in a writer’s residence on Lama Mountain north of Taos, NM).
Actually, I think the books might be one giant project. They feel very interconnected and range from a tiny lovely print out from Origami to a hardback from a university press. They truly are a record of where I’ve been, and who.
My major obstacle was just that often I was learning on the go—my vision vaster than my level of skill. But I don’t begrudge that!
James Baldwin said once that any writer will probably think the world conspires against his or her talent. Czelaw Milosz said in his Nobel address that there is a “conspiracy of silence.” In what ways have you felt this yourself? Why do you think writers are inclined more to this thinking than others?
Fight this way of thinking with every fiber. I feel the world doesn’t care about me one way or another. And that’s fine!
In your opinion, what separates a great writer from a mediocre one? Do classic writers have anything in common?
Poetry is more of a narrow range. An OK poem just isn’t that interesting because it usually doesn’t quite hit being a “poem” yet. Mediocre fiction can be quite readable—non-fiction too, if you’re reading for plot or subject. “Great” writers might have reputations that come in fads. I’d go for “good”—and here again, if literature takes me out of myself, I’m content.
Could you say something about style? What is style? How is style developed? Do writers change styles? What do you think sparks those changes?
Style is an expression of personality—like hair or clothes or cooking. It’s sort of an extended set of accessories of the self. I used to think it was set—like adult height or certain character flaws and virtues. But I had a shocking (to me!) change of style a few seasons ago—so still exploring this question.
Does a writer’s worldview have an effect on their use of language? Why are semantics important to a writer’s work?
I really don’t know. It’s a cool question, but I don’t have a strong feeling about it. I almost wonder if language doesn’t affect worldview. Are semantic patterns fixed? Do they come from an individual rather than a language group? I do know that if I curse at something I feel more hostile—the opposite if I bless it.
Finally, there is a lot of talk of kinds of censorship the universities practice today. By this, I mean safe spaces and trigger warnings. I also mean how political correctness is used to silence ideas. What has prompted this movement toward hypersensitivity to certain topics and ideas? Why are students choosing to impose this on their learning experience? Although these approaches begin with a noble and thoughtful aim, they seem to lead to distrust of personal judgment and cultural repression. What effects does language have on culture? Do you think political correctness is censorship or could be used as censorship, or is it useful in some capacity? Will it have an effect on literature and the way it is written? How do we adapt to its demands?
I have little first hand experience with this, as community college settings don’t tend to grapple with this much.
I did have an opposite experience in 1972. At Harvard, my roommates were taking Anthro 101. The professor announced on the first day that the women could expect lower grades than the men because they were biologically less well equipped to study! Of course the women students were completely freaked out. So, I think for those of us with long memories, this emphasis on safe space may be because we remember very unsafe space.
I do agree with what you say—Although these approaches begin with a noble and thoughtful aim, they seem to lead to distrust of personal judgment and cultural repression.
To be honest, I doubt very much if art and literature should or could give in to any ideology, including political correctness. Art under Stalin or Mao isn’t what we’d consider a genuine expression of the artist or writer.
Academic approaches come and go.
The true pursuit of writing does not.