Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2009, vol 7 no 2
 
 

What Makes Eve Different?
Patricia Prime Interviews Miriam Sagan

 

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 two most recent being Map of the Lost (University of New Mexico Press) and Tanka from the Edge (Modern English Tanka 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 Bashō, 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.

THANKS SO MUCH—THIS WAS FUN!

 

Three Haibun

Everglade Haibun

It took me a day and a half to get from Santa Fe in northern New Mexico to the Everglades in southern Florida. I left a busy life of family and teaching for more than two weeks of almost uninterrupted solitude. As I pulled up to the Park Service offices I had a moment of terror—what if I'd made the whole thing up and the residency wasn't real? I was reassured to meet Alan Scott, the ranger in charge of the artists in residence program. He gave me a brief orientation to the park, which focused on:

The Four Poisonous Snakes Of The Park
The Two Poisonous Plants
Mosquitoes, And West Nile Virus
Why To Never Touch A Caterpillar
When To Back Away From An Alligator (if it hisses and comes toward you)

Then he took me outside to a conveniently located poison wood tree covered in poison ivy vines and had me identify each one. "Now," said Alan, "on to the dangers of man." Serial killers? Psychopaths? "People drive worse on vacation than they do at home," he said; "be careful, particularly in parking lots."

The apartment I was to stay in looked simple but pleasant, and turned out to be a great place to write. The first thing I did was move my desk—card table really—to the screened porch, facing into the forest of slash pine.



a lizard
living
in a rolled up shade

One day I counted almost a hundred turkey vultures riding the thermals above my house. I was just a few minutes from the Royal Palm Visitor Center and the Anhinga Trail. A few years ago, I'd made a dash of a day trip through here and part of my motivation was to come back—and simply sit and look. I walked the boardwalk around the slough almost every day. Each time I saw something new. I saw a cormorant catch a catfish—it is the only bird that has figured out how to eat catfish—bludgeon it and break its spine and swallow it in one gulp. I also saw:

tree bromeliads—
two anhingas
build a nest of twigs

man with a cane
crosses paths with
a tiny turtle

child pats the palm tree
ignores
the alligator

I wanted to make a poetic map of the park. The poem was getting bigger and bigger, then finally settled into seven sections. Some sections required actually going somewhere—some moved in time and imagination. I went to Flamingo, and out among the mangroves, to Shark Valley and to the Gulf Coast and by boat among 10,000 Islands. I saw crocodiles, a rare tree snail, a nest of baby alligators, golden-bellied spiders, and birds of all kinds—herons, egrets, ibis, purple gallinule, anhinga, osprey, hawk.

tree snail gleams
in the leaf canopy—
stolen ghost orchid

And there were things I didn't see—a panther, not even a bobcat. No pythons, either, those unwelcome visitors. I also explored the border of the park, agricultural lands that interrupt the water flow, the Redland area and Krome Avenue, nurseries I would have simply thought lush and charming if I hadn't been focused on water drainage and wilderness preservation.

out of the palm trees
a peacock darts—escaped—
but from where?
There was a journal that each artist had written in. Alan Scott had suggested I not read it right away, and that was a good idea—I had my own experience first. It surprised me, though, when I did read it, how similar everyone's experience was—the bliss of being in such beautiful surroundings

combined with intense inspiration to create. The only conflict described, one which I shared, was whether to work or to jaunt about. One artist had drawn a detailed image of a green leaf and one of a snail.

only the most
delicate colored pencils
draw the tree snail's shell

I felt a familiar twinge of jealousy—the ability to reproduce the world visually. Still, I found that here I was working as a poet almost the way painters must work, going out, looking at something, recording it in my notebook.

hurricane downed
tree roots, nurse log
what green comes next...

tree canopy
butterfly, and purple glade
morning glory

rare buttonwood vine
looks like any foliage—
but rare...

a leaf drops in
the mahogany hammock—without season
The artist who was in the apartment before me had left me a big board covered in foil. The first thing I did was put up a map of the Everglades. Then came photographs by my friend Mary Peck that had been exhibited at Miami-Dade Community College. The images of the park were in black and white, meditative long horizontals. Then I added three postcards of birds, including one ibis and one egret. I had trouble telling them apart and was plagued by not knowing what bird I'd actually seen. I kept changing them in a poem, changing the sound, trying to get it right. I hung up a pair of beautiful long beaded earrings and an even more lavish turquoise, white, yellow, red and black necklace. The ladies at the Miccosukee Indian cultural center had helped me match them. Over it all, I pinned up a painting of a model of the solar system. Why? I guess because I felt far from home but also at home in a vast space.
On the boat out of 10,000 Islands I met a family from Pasadena. The woman and I got to chatting, and at the end she exclaimed: "I've never met an author before!" I, on the other hand, had never seen white pelicans before—hundreds of them taking off from a sandbar.
raindrops' circles—
yellow spatterdock flowers
floating green pads...

two shy vultures
pick raindrops
off the car's roof

cypresses
drawn in an inky line,
overcast afternoon

leaf's
drop tip
implies rain

Published in Santa Fe Poetry Broadside

 

Mala

The word mala is Sanskrit for garland. It is a string of prayer beads. You always wore one wrapped around your wrist.

These bone beads
Did not go up in smoke—
Unlike you.

You were a Zen priest, and when you died you left shelves of books and records but otherwise very few possessions. In some ways you really were unsui, clouds and water, a Japanese word for monk. Although you were also my husband.

A mala has 108 beads. You told me this was to insure a hundred minimum. But I read that it is also a mystical arrangement—twice the fifty letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, plus eight magical amendments. One bead is called the guru bead. You left a string of wooden beads marked by one of crystal.

When we were courting, you came down the dirt road to visit me. You held one wrist aloft—I thought it was wrapped in bodhi beads. I ran towards you to greet you and stopped dead. A snake was wrapped around your wrist.

jewel eyes, darting tongue
the snake you found
wrapped like a mala

To pray. To count. To keep track of what is passing. You didn't leave much behind besides the malas—bone, wood, crystal, snakeskin.

Published in Contemporary Haibun Online, March 2006, vol 2 no 1

 

Last Words

I tended my mother-in-law Claire when she was dying at home.

"I have something to say," she whispered to us.

My husband and I bent in close.

"And it isn't very deep," she added. The gist was that although she wanted to eat, she really couldn't.

Her last request to me was to get her comb and brush from the little wicker table in the other room.

"Your house is so cluttered," I teased her. "A little table! Where?"

She laughed. I brushed her hair and lay down to take a nap. My husband sat by her bed until she died.

since your mother's death
you do the crossword puzzle—
filling in the blanks

Published in Simply Haiku, Winter 2006, vol 4, no 4

 

Two Poems

Nightsky

Antelope, jack rabbits, dusk
Comes on
Civil twilight, then nautical
As if light were a little ship
Slipping over the horizon
Sirius, dog star brightest
at this latitude
Contrails like speedboat wake
Give way to velveteen sky
Saturn, whose rings we can't see
Without the binoculars
We left on the shelf at home,
Castor and Pollux
Shining on either side.
And gradually, like invisible ink
The constellations you point out
Begin to define themselves
Dipper, Orion, the city of Albuquerque faint glow to the north.
Stars come out in nightsky, cryptobiotic
Mark direction
As clearly as in the planetarium.
Planes above us headed somewhere else
I'd like to know
Where
And how each passenger
Is doing, reading, dozing,
Worrying about the past
As ice clinks in plastic cups.
Try painting all this
With whiteout
On carbon paper.
On earth
The flying star weed called
Datura.
I'm cold, now, ready
To go
You say—"you do the Cliff Notes
Of altered states."
Aldeberon, Betelgeuse, Procyon
And smoke from the Manzanos
Burning all night
Highway flashing sign
FIRE ACTIVITY AHEAD.
These stars
Like the ceiling
Of the Shaffer Hotel:
Lion's head, masked dancers, backwards swastikas of migration
Thunderbird, lightning zigzag, a narrative of relocation.
These stars
By dawn
Will unfold their wings
And fly away again
Like mourning doves in the yard below us.

 

Justice Department Santa Fe Internment Camp

Maxfield Parish sky
Hill overlook
A courting couple sits
He, long-haired and dark, perches
On the granite boulder
That marks the Japanese internment camp.
She, bleached blonde and pierced,
Says: I come here all the time
But I've never read the marker
All the way through
He looks at the long view of the city
Says—What happened? Did somebody die?
Sunset pinks the Jemez to the west,
Below, we find the red roof
Of St. Anne's, blocks from our house,
Upriver, the campanile
Of the Bataan Memorial Building.

Footprints, bird tracks, anthills
Ephemeral as haiku
Wind writing on sand
There's nothing left but dust
Those memories.
And somehow, we've been remiss.
In the new suburban neighborhood
Split levels lit with fairy lights at solstice
Or equinox's candled Jack-0-Lanterns.
Land rolls down to the river,
The Feed Lot, the Laundromat, pizzeria, and a place for chai.
Along the banks, sculptures
Life stars or airplanes high
Above the bear claw grasp of time.
Foot bridges cross, no water beneath.
Heavens roll to the abyss.

 

Biographical Note

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.

Selected Poetry Books

Tanka from the Edge, Modern English Tanka Press, Baltimore, 2009
Map of the Lost, University of New Mexico Press, 2008
Rag Trade, La Alameda, 2004
Archeology of Desire, Red Hen, 2001
Inadvertent Altar, La Alameda, 2000
The Widow's Coat, Ahsahta Press, Boise State University, 1999
The Art of Love: New and Selected Poems, La Alameda Press, 1994
Pocahontas Discovers America, Adastra Press, 1993
True Body, Parallax Press, 1991
Advice To The Unborn Baby, chapbook, Fish Drum, 1991
Acequia Madre: Through the Mother Ditch, Adastra Press, 1988
Aegean Doorway, Zephyr Press, 1984
Talking You Down, chapbook, Pinchpenny Award, 1983

Books on Writing

Unbroken Line: The Lineage of Poetry, Sherman Asher Publishing, 1999. Writer's Digest Book Club Alternate Selection.

Fiction and Memoir

Gossip: Essays, Tres Chicas Press, 2007
Looking for A Mustard Seed, Quality Words in Print, 2003, Second Edition, 2003. Winner, Best Memoir, Independent Publishers Association, 2004
Dirty Laundry: 100 Days in a Zen Monastery, La Alameda Press, 1997; New World Library, 1999
Coastal Lives, novel, center Press, 1991

Editor

Just Outside The Frame: Poems from the Santa Fe Poetry Broadside, Tres Chicas Press, 2005, with Miriam Bobkoff
New Mexico Poetry Renaissance: 41 Poets, a Community on Paper. Red Crane, 1994, with Sharon Niederman
The Buddhist Poems of Philip Whalen, Parallax Press, 1996, with Robert Winson
Across the Wind Harp: The Collected Haiku of Elizabeth Searle Lamb, La Alameda Press, 1999


First published in Haibun Today, November, 2008