Bluefish by Miriam Sagan

New Issue:

Miriam Sagan

First you burned, and then everything else went up in flames. I unhooked you from the respirator, and then you died. Do you remember that evening when we caught the bluefish in Menemsha Bay? We were ill-prepared, had neither a bucket nor a knife. We didn’t expect to catch anything, but a large vicious bluefish took the hook. We pulled it gasping to the sand, and had no way to kill it as its teeth went for our bare feet. You took a large rock and brained it. At that exact moment the moon rose full and orange over the eastern shore of the island, behind us. We put our hands in gassho and bowed to the fish. Took it home, cooked, and ate it. Only I remember, as both you and the fish are dead. You were cremated in your gray under kimono, along with your lineage papers, certifying that you were an ordained Buddhist priest.

Fresh fish (bluefish) on the boat floor

Bubbe Report: A Grandmother By Any Other Name…

Well, I finally have my grandmother name! And it is…grandma. G., almost two years old, finally stopped called me MOM??? and said “Grandma.”

She’s been calling Rich PopPop Rico for some time. (Rico is his commune name, used in the family, too).

It is all tea parties all the time here. The real tea party, which goes like this:
1. smelling and approving the herbal tea bag
2. water in cup–hot!
3. dunking the bag (say dunk dunk dunk)
4. pouring cream from little pitcher
5. two teaspoons sugar
6. stir stir stir (say stir stir stir)
7. a sip, a sigh of happiness
8. check that I am also drinking mine
9. drink cup

Then the imaginary ones, using the little tin set with the hedgehogs on it. Then drinking bath water with measuring cups. And then the most mysterious–a set composed of small breakable objects that were mine but now co-opted…a Chinese tea pot, a bunch of cat-shaped chopstick holders, an Anasazi replica cup and spoon…These things live together but not always in harmony (the cats get stuck in the teapot) and not in a fixed way.

The question of “what do we eat?” remains an ongoing discussion. I added my favorite amethyst crystals to a rock collection, turned my back, and G. was hiding in a corner, looking guilty, and licking them with a hypnotized expression as if they were Turkish Delight from the White Witch in Narnia.

I’d like to eat them, too. But traded them for a spice drop which G. then fed to a legless plastic flamingo.

So that is what is happening at my house.

Bubbe Report: Language Is A Virus

I may be a writer, but I’m not the enemy of non-standard English. This is particularly useful because here in the pandemic’s “Bubbe’s Daycare” I spend three afternoons a week chatting with a toddler. I often feel we’ve had rather extensive conversations on the topics of “can you eat soap?” and “what happened to the cookie in the tea?” as well as more philosophical explorations about “if something is big, is it a mom?”

Speaking of moms, it seems that is my name too. I’m not bubbe, grandma, Mir or anything like that. Generically, I am a mom, and called as such.

My youngest niece called all her aunts and uncles “Steve.” She had an uncle Steve, and she extrapolated to the rest of us. I didn’t mind and I knew what she meant. One nephew called Rich “aunt Richard” which I also found cute. Anthropologists are interested in kinship systems, and little kids are no exception.

My daughter Isabel of course refers to me as mom, and so the toddler sees me greeted that way. My vibe must be similar enough to Isabel’s that the comparison is obvious. I try “yes, grand mom” but that does not take. The truth is, everything is mom right now–people, animals, large blocks, a Navajo doll. And I am mom too.

After all, Isabel once, in a toddler fury, called her father “a suitcase.” As long as you don’t angrily refer to me as an inanimate object, I’m fine.


I’m working on a new memoir with some difficult material. I’m puttig bits of it in “stash” boxes and hiding them in plain sight in this funky art town. It’s a bit of guerilla art, but also an editing process to see how I feel.

Here is a bit of the text:

The habit I can’t break—probably don’t even want to—is that I am amazed by everything in my world and afraid of all the adults in it. It’s going to be difficult to work this one out.

Ariel Gore interviews me about Bluebeard’s Castle

Ariel Gore asked me some questions about writing Bluebeard’s Castle for her experimental story structure students.

Which came first in this project . . . structure or content?
Did you have content and then build a structure to accommodate it then add the connective tissue?
Or did you have a structural idea and then write the content to fit that concept?
Or something else?
I guess the question is how and at what juncture(s) did you stop and map it out?

Somewhat paradoxically, Bluebeard began by my writing about my illness and hospitalization. I was really trying to write about it once and for all. I even went to Boston and did a series of private rituals for soul retrieval. But I kept being haunted by the fact that my father blamed me–and not just for that. That created a bridge to the Grand Canyon material–which set up a relationship to the Southwest, my home as an adult. At about this point I realized I had something. I also had a few flash memoirs, like the 9/11 piece. I started to fill in the holes–the most interesting was the family history of my grand-father, the garment industry, etc. Many of the poems were already written but uncollected–Firebird, Cossacks…sort of obsessional material. Then I did my father’s decline and death, soon after it happened, linked to Icelandic poems. So the three central sections were written in order. The “Psyche” poems had been written as a suite a few years before, and are a contrast–introspective, female, mythic.

So, basically yes–Did you have content and then build a structure to accommodate it then add the connective tissue?
I was about half way through before controlling the structure. I worked the whole book the way I would a single hybrid piece–listening for musicality and contrast, controlling repetition, leaving some holes for ambiguity.

Acid, 1971, from Bluebeard’s Castle by Miriam Sagan

Although I cannot say that times are good now here in our United States, I grew up in a rather apocalyptic corner of the Sixties. Indeed, I fully expected civilization to collapse before I could graduate from college. Part of this was that my father was under surveillance from the government. This gave me a dark view of our society from the start. I’m not sanguine about our “present troubles,” but I’m not very surprised either.

Acid, 1971
The click click click of the legal tap on the phone in my father’s house confronted us every time we picked up the receiver. It drove my friends–a bunch of small time drug dealers–crazy, although it was not aimed at them. It was aimed at my father, because this was the height of the war in Viet Nam and the president of a peace organization of which my father was treasurer had gone to visit Hanoi. Click, click, click. My father was a happy man. The most powerful government in the world was concerned with him. He was arrested, Mirandized, released over a matter of cash at a rally. His name appeared on Nixon’s enemies list. He was audited on his taxes straight through through until the first year of Carter’s administrate
Click, click, click. What the fuck is that? asked Joey Patmos. He was my friend my junior year in high school, skinny, dirty blond, wrapped in an old army jacket, Greek, from two towns over. Joey announced that he was coming over and I tried to dissuade him. It was dinner time, and he sounded high. I wasn’t much of a druggy myself. The sight of a close friend’s little brother hurling himself through a plate glass window tripping at a party had been enough to reinforce my natural caution. But I could talk you down.
My mother, despite the disintegration of civilization around her, still believed in dinner. She was terrified, though, that our father’s activities would lead to the kidnapping of one of my younger siblings. “Look,” she said desperately to my father, pointing to an article in the New York Times in which he was described as a millionaire opposed to the war. “They say millionaire–you know what that means. Some lunatic will go and kidnap the kids for money.” The Lindbergh baby was as clear in my mother’s imagination as if it were yesterday. My father paid no attention.
I’d barely tucked into a nice chicken breast with rice and broccoli when Joey arrived and I hustled him upstairs to my room. He was in a very bad part of the trip–the non-blissy paranoid part–which appeared also to be just the start. He slumped down at the foot of my four-poster bed, rapidly opening and closing his eyes. It had been raining, and his hair was matted. I kept him stashed in the bedroom while doing homework, fighting with my sister, even, eventually, brushing my teeth. Every so often Joey said “I’m going to die” and I said “no you’re not.” It was a school night and I had to get rid of him. Click, click, click. I called a friend of ours who lived around the block, hustled Joey Patmos out, and out into the rain. I watched him walk away. I was as alone in the world as if I were on an ice floe.
Time passes. Thirty-four years later I am sitting in my backyard on a summer’s day with my father. My daughter is a teenager, and she has been drifting in and out all weekend with her friends. A tall boy on a bicycle comes over. He is introduced, shakes my father’s hand, and disappears into my daughter’s room. My father looks pained, perhaps, I think, by the boy behind closed doors.
“Remember when you were that age?” says my father.
“Yes,” I say, which is quite true.
“And they arrested me that time and read me my Miranda rights?” He looks happy all over again.
“Mom was scared,” I say.
“Nothing was going to happen,” he says. “It wasn’t like McCarthyism.
I nod.
“That time that Joey Patmos came over,” he says, “that evening…”
I am completely startled. “You remember that?”
“He was on LSD, wasn’t he?” says my father. “Some kind of drugs?”
“Yes, LSD, he certainly was.”
“I’m sorry,” says my father. “I wanted to help you but I had no idea how. So I just didn’t say anything.”
I listen for the click that is sometimes in my brain, but it is silent.

***Bluebeard’s Castle is available on Amazon, at your local bookstore, or through Small Press Distribution.

Save The Dates!

Sat Sept 28 1-3pm
100 Thousand Poets for Change
Great line-up of about 20 readers, nice shade, come for some or all…at Ethyl the Whale on SFCC Campus (right across from La Familia clinic at SFCC)

Sun Oct 6
2 pm
Op Cit in the De Vargas mall
Miriam Sagan reading from new book of a two year diary, A Hundred Cups of Coffee, and Melissa White reading about Japan in her memoir Dizzy Sushi.

Letters To The Dead

Who is your audience? That’s an ordinary writing workshop question. But I think it is more common than we’ll admit–dead people. Ancestors, lost loves, dead friends and family, the unborn. Are they listening?
Of course this caught my interest–

MAIZURU, Kyoto Prefecture–Those who want to post messages to the dead can deposit their letters in a “green mailbox” at a Buddhist temple in this western city facing the Sea of Japan.
Anyone is welcome to leave a letter in the mailbox, which stands in the grounds of Daishoji temple in Maizuru’s Kitasui district.
Temple officials don’t open the letters, but burn them in a ritual in a “gomadan” fire altar.
A parishioner who used to be a postmaster donated the pillar-style mailbox about 30 years ago.
The box was installed beneath a wisteria trellis beside the temple’s main hall and was sometimes used as a collection box for offerings as it is near a sacred waterfall and the fire altar.

To read more, click here.


So…I’m thinking about more memoir. “In Bluebeard’s Castle” will be out next month from Red Mountain–it’s about my dad, gangster and intellectual. “A Hundred Cups of Coffee” launches from Tres Chicas Books in the fall. What’s next to write about? As always, whatever I’ve been avoiding, currently, AIDS, sexuality, San Francisco in the 1980’s, and more.
It’s always an assemblage process. I’m thinking of this piece near the start–if I can connect it.


This Island Is Not Real

     The summer I was seventeen I took a fiction writing class at the New School. Every day I’d leave the daycare center where I worked mornings to take the number 84 bus into Manhattan and the subway downtown. On Mondays and Wednesdays I’d take a modern dance class, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it was fiction.
     After class, in the late afternoon, I’d walk crosstown a few miles west to where my boyfriend had a summer sublet in a Chelsea brownstone. This was when that neighborhood, at 23rd Street, was unremarkable and cheap, and where a secretary who was somehow related to someone my father knew had a sad dusty narrow studio apartment that was mostly furnished in a bed up against the only window at the far end of the apartment and a kitchen table. This was just fine with us–me and my eighteen year old boyfriend who somehow seemed much older than me because he was already in college. Really all we cared about was the bed.
     Except for food. He’d cook me strange little hot dinners–experimenting–chops and peas, burgers and onions, not right for the small sweltering apartment but tasty and necessary. What else did we do that summer? I can hardly remember. Once we walked around Wall Street and looked at three tiny overgrown cemeteries, scattered along the blocks like a series of weedy pocket parks, the tilting submerged headstones of Sephardic Jewish colonists unreadable. between the Hebrew and the decay. And we had tickets to several of the Mostly Mozart concerts.
     The fiction class was very disappointing. However, I did not complain–my parents had paid, after all. The instructor, in her thirties, with black hair dyed blacker still, was more Beat than hippie, or perhaps proto-punk. She spoke at length during each class about the difficulties, actually impossibilities, of being a writer. She for example, was forced to support herself by writing the captions and dialogue for comic strips. Then, she criticized our work.
    My final story, the one I had been working on all summer, was set on a mythical tropical island, probably Caribbean. At least, palm trees blew. And in a fanciful addition, flocks of black and white butterflies filled the air, pausing only to mate on the shiny hoods of the cars of the rich. There was a pair of lovers in the story, lovers who quarreled (I can no longer remember the reason) and in the final scene she pushed him backwards off the dock, where he allowed himself to drown. Or perhaps he pushed her? This is a long time ago to remember. But looking back, I do not think that in 1971 I would have written a story in which a man drowned a woman.
     When we went to the Mostly Mozart concerts, we left directly from the apartment. I had a blue and white dress of a soft slinky material, and I had to ask my boyfriend to zip up the back. I added a long strand of white beads I’d borrowed from my mother. The beads were tiny, making a shimmering rope. I saw myself in the mirror in the blue dress, with my boyfriend zipping me up, and I wondered if this was the first scene of many like it, stretching out over a lifetime.
     The teacher hated my story. She felt the setting–my favorite part–was unrealistic and unconvincing. Butterflies do not mate in a trade wind. Men born on islands do not just drown. Where was the grit, the poverty, the fried plantains? THIS ISLAND IS NOT REAL she wrote in bold black letters across the first page of my story.
     I went to a different college from my boyfriend and then I broke up with him. I married a man who had once hunted octopus off a dock in Key West simply because he was hungry. We were married for thirteen years and then he died, leaving me a can full of pens and sharpened pencils in which there was also a tiny two-pronged utensil–a lobster fork. Meanwhile my boyfriend had hitchhiked…but who cares, this part of his past is not in this story. Anyway, I married my old boyfriend and am his wife to this day.
     This island is not real.  Manhattan is an island. I’d walk crosstown, past the discount shoe bins and the lively crowds of people of all nations–Haitians, Puerto Ricans, east Indians. The big Greek selling slices of lamb off the steamy rotating grill called me sweetie as he handed me a simple sandwich–meat and pita bread–wrapped in a thick slice of paper. I loved the walk, between the mean fiction teacher and the hot apartment.
     This island is real.

Is This Little Piece of Flash Memoir Too Weird? Narrative Fallacy by Miriam Sagan

Narrative Fallacy

The inventor of swarm theory is found dehydrated, disoriented, and naked, wandering by the side of a rural highway in central New Mexico.
I read you this opening sentence of a story I have yet to write. I ask you–what should happen next?
You say: someone should come along in a truck, maybe your first husband with the baby in the car seat. She really was a pretty baby.
Naw, I say. I’m sick of my first–now long dead–husband. Maybe it should be an old beat up white guy in a truck. But one of those weird rancher types who is the caretaker of the Lightning Field or something, who knows all about land art and earthworks.
OK, you say.
You don’t really care, it isn’t your story, but you pay attention because you are a good friend.
We are in a laundromat in Maine. Actually we are at a conference at a camp that has its own washing machines, but you prefer town. Between us we don’t have enough for a white load, so we just mix it all together.
“Once,” you say, “the moon fell in love with woman. She turned herself into a lamp. He was so fat and round he could’t fit through the doorway of the yurt.”
“Good,” I say. “Tell me more.”