Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Seven Places in America: A Poetic Sojourn---An Interview with Miriam Sagan

KIRPAL GORDON: I first discovered your poems in the indie magazines of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Your lines produce a sense of the profound and what knocks me out about your style is that, though it seems inspired by Asian meditation practice, it’s “just so” without the cultural “scaffolding,” as if you’d grokked a tao-buddha-nondual appreciation of life in a hard-won American voice, the antidote to fawning imitation and authoritative replication. Philip Whalen once said that religions get weirder the further they travel from their home, but I wonder if you aren’t giving meditation practice a good name by not putting “legs on a snake.”



MIRIAM SAGAN: First of all, thank you. What a great thing to say. Phil Whalen was a very important person in my life. My then husband Robert Winson (died 1995) and I came to Santa Fe in 1984 along with Phil--they were setting up a zendo. Phil needed cossetting--he wanted to eat hamburgers and watch Dr. Who on BBC. We spent several years carting him about. He was never a teacher in a formal sense, but I learned a lot from him. He'd mark lines in my poems he hated with skulls and crossbones.

But what you are noticing is that I had some poetic practice before I ever encountered Buddhism. As a child I'd had raw experiences of just sort of accessing reality--they were surprising but secret. At 21 I almost died from a lung infection and spent months in the hospital. After that, reality as I knew it was very shaken and I went questing. Then poetry came along and I tried to match experience with language. Ideas in Buddhism--before that similar ideas in art (cubism, Merce Cunningham, John Cage)--would sometimes line up with my experiences.

I'm always amazed/amused when anthologized as a Buddhist poet because I've never thought of myself that way. Maybe a poet who was around a lot of Buddhists?

KIRPAL GORDON: You were at Harvard (undergrad) or Boston U (grad) when your lung became infected? What was almost dying like? Were you already putting out Aspect?

MIRIAM SAGAN: I went through Harvard in three years, and then didn't get into graduate school. I was spending a year trying to turn myself into a community based poet when I got sick, with what in retrospect doctors have told me was most likely Swine Flu. I was writing, teaching at the Cambridge Women's School and creative writing at the New England Conservatory of Music, and yes, had responded to Ed Hogan's plea for folks to read the slush pile at Aspect. I was a bit lost and vulnerable and had no health insurance--when the flu attacked my lungs I ended up in the
Beth Israel Hospital where pain/surgery/morphine/and ICU induced psychosis put me into quite a different state from the intellectual/ political one I usually resided in. I had some classic near death experiences (soul leaves body, gates of light, etc.)--totally without context.

Months later when I left the B.I. I thought--well, I'm never going to do this again...i.e. die. Then had to amend it to "as an amateur." I went to the local TM center and got a mantra! (You can tell this was 1976!). I sort of followed the expected familial path for a bit--did go to grad school and stayed too long on the east coast...ran to San Francisco finally when I was 26.



KIRPAL GORDON: Regarding your getting anthologized with the Buddhists, you are certainly a poet who appreciates economy of expression and a vision that includes the hidden compliment of opposites, willing to embrace the spirit of a literary form without getting caught up in the letter of the form. For example:


the widow’s short skirt—

gossip about who

wanted the divorce


open pit copper mine—

in every Gideon’s Bible

The Book of Job


you tell me these ducks

don’t always mate for life

are you flirting with me?


Taken from All My Beautiful Failures, these sixty haikus published in your sixtieth year are not structured in the 5-7-5 syllable lines of traditional Japanese haiku, but they match D.T. Suzuki’s definition: “A haiku does not express ideas, but puts forward images reflecting emotions.”



MIRIAM SAGAN: My mentor in haiku was Elizabeth Searle Lamb, often called the American "first lady of haiku." She died some years ago, but she was practically a neighbor in Santa Fe, and even though we saw each other often we also corresponded--by postcard and email. She really favored the soft light approach to English language haiku, where lines are 5 syllables or less, 7 or less, 5 or less. Towards the end of her life I asked her if she had any advice for my students about haiku and she said, "well, I just do what I want." That was after a lifetime of study, but I did love the remark.


KIRPAL GORDON: Here’s the one that really stands out the most:


even in this

suburban neighborhood—

wild scat


It harkens back to your Seven Places in America: A Poetic Sojourn, published by Sherman Asher the year before, 2012, and your skill at working the edge that Robert Smithson called the“slurb”—the border ‘tween the suburban and the wild. Like many of the poets in the Taoist-Buddhist-Shinto traditions of China and Japan, you wander our outback of geological and historical sites and national parks.


MIRIAM SAGAN: As a child in N.J. I was kind of obsessed with the idea of "underneath"--archeology, or the woods, something under a suburban existence--powerful but hidden. Smithson of course was also from NJ. Did you know William Carlos Williams was his pediatrician? How cool is that! We once found a tiny chip of a Dutch tile digging a vegetable garden--I was as excited as if it had been a Viking ship.

I had this strong romantic desire to get "Out"--later heightened by leaving the east coast but when I really settled in Santa Fe these opposites seemed less clear...I started watching the boundary lines between things and it made me incredibly happy, even when some of those things were negative. As poetic material, it first became clear to me when I was writing about the Mexican/US border.

When I went to the Everglades in 2006 as an artist in residence in the park I was tremendously excited--everything seemed like a borderline, even my own mind. And yes, this state was created and heightened by solitude. I'm hardly immune to the delight of feeling like a Chinese poet hermit even while eating a tray of take out sushi from a convenience store.



KIRPAL GORDON: You end the book’s Introduction with an amusing remark your father made when you called him from the Everglades, “Where is the nearest jelly doughnut?”Reflecting on indicators of civilization, you conclude, “It is not possible to shed the old self just by changing geography. But it is possible to expand the self so that it includes not just a jelly doughnut but a more permeable boundary between self and landscape—the terrain of a poem.” I thought of Ol’ Lao’s wu wei principle, a model for Chinese landscape painters, when reading these lines from “10,000 Islands”:


Mangrove roots

Coated in oyster shells—

This is a border

as surely as between Ciudad Juarze and El Paso del Norte

Between sleep and waking

Between the evening star and his wife the morning star

Between the living and the dead

This is the border

Between land and water

That first division

After darkness and light


And these lines from “Shark Valley”:


past fifty myself

I’m still trying

to perfect the mix

of getting somewhere

and being there…


And the last lines of “The Folly”:


Pastel, the edge of rundown town

In the rain

Buildings painted pink, lavender, pale green

By the prison’s razor wire

And the truck with melons.

And along the side of the road

The poor go on walking

As they do



The poetic line functions as the permeable boundary (intermediary? dissolve unit?) between self and scene. What a way to limn a landscape!



MIRIAM SAGAN: I had a map tacked up on the wall. The Everglades has three non-contiguous sections. I'm not a bold driver, and I'd freak out in Miami traffic, but I was determined to see the whole park. So it was a very physical process--crossing in and out of the park and the highly contrasted south Florida. A white knuckle experience in traffic! But it was good poetic practice--not getting stuck in one place or point of view.



KIRPAL GORDON: Another quality most admirable in these sojourn poems of a more or less chronological sequence from 2006 to 2009 is that your three-line observations placed side by side actually build a narrative. I’m thinking of your “Sketches in a Notebook”:


a lizard


in a rolled up shade



child pats the palm tree


the alligator



tree snail gleams

in the leaf’s canopy—

stolen ghost orchid



MIRIAM SAGAN: Adding in the sequences of the three liners helped me continue that practice of brevity. In a way, what I was seeing in unfamiliar and remote places both had narrative and stop-on-a-dime moments of perception. I've always felt a tension in my work between these two streams--interestingly adding the prose essays and integrating the three-liners so they are a kind of haibun helped.



KIRPAL GORDON: Your next sojourn is in your own New Mexico backyard, “forty acres of land, pinon and juniper,” what you called “the familiar made strange.” I liked the opening line of your seven-sectioned “Laundry Line Koan,” “Nothing is blank, darling.” Here’s “2. Two Blue Circles”:


The artist

Wanted to plant

A circle of bluebonnets here

But they wouldn’t grow

In the desert soil.

Instead, he constructed

A circle of blue grass.


The neighbors were meth addicts

Hard characters, who yelled

And fought. When the screaming started

Their children went into

The circle of blue grass—

Stood in the center

Of a safe place.


Another artist

Also wanted to build a circle

On the land.

He sent exact

Specifications by mail

Dimensions to be raked

Into the earth.

But this did not create

A perfect circle in sod.

Rather, it evolved, and a gopher

Dug a hole in the perimeter.

Then it rained

And the circle’s interior

Bloomed with flax.

The circle was filled with blue flowers.

A third circle,

Drawn on blue chalk

On the sidewalk

By me as a girl

Washes away in the rain.


You describe The Land/An Art Site as “an artistic incubator.” In terms of context, “Two Blue Circles” is part of a poetic map or on-site installation? It also calls to mind Robert Smithson’s remark, “Earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating.”



MIRIAM SAGAN: Installations on The Land are low or no impact. I never saw these circles, just the remains of one but heard the stories. The stories were more permanent. Also, they reminded me that the rural isn't bucolic--it can be crime ridden and harsh. But also that art has almost magical qualities to save a person.



KIRPAL GORDON: The Santa Fe River, “designated America’s most endangered river,” is your next “pilgrimage” site. Comparing “the mighty Hudson River” you knew from your NJ childhood with the dry river you know from adulthood, you show us “Randall Davey Audobon Center”:


Walled garden set

Among dry hills.


Fountain, a simple stone

Bubbles over—


Talking water

Out of the living rock,



Orange-tipped winged black butterfly,


Yellow butterfly on a field of lavender,



Like any Impressionist

I sit on the bench in my straw hat:


Creation is born

Of name and water.



You write that “water fills my dreams. When I was pregnant and after my daughter was born, I often dreamed of us in the water.”


MIRIAM SAGAN: Well, I was a water poet before I came to the desert. As a child, the Atlantic ocean--Jersey shore, Cape Cod--was basically the only access I had to real natural beauty. Well, maybe the Palisades too on the Hudson River. All water. When I was four years old I saw the moon rise over Cape Cod and realized--I'm seeing something beautiful. It was the first time my experience had an aesthetic label. So the high desert was a bit of a shock. The land really scared me at first. I once couldn't hike across some basin land but had to follow railroad tracks--it gave me agorophobia.



KIRPAL GORDON: The Petrified Forest in northern Arizona is your next stop. In “The Tepees,” the first section of “Views of the Painted Desert” you write:


Sunrise over the Painted Desert

Dawn’s striations illuminate

Colored hands of the Chinle Formation

Lava cap, white sandstone, dark red iron stained siltstone

Red house of hematite

And the dark carboniferous layer of life.


Pangaea broke and floated south

You might name these layers of sediment

Call them:

The trip we took in 1965,

The year my heart broke,

The day I moved to San Francisco,

The wedding day, the cremation,

That nice time we had

With the kids in the motel swimming pool,

An east coast rainy afternoon.


The present sits on top

I’m here alone

Where earth has pitched her tents

Where wind wears things down

And continental drift

Builds things up.

Rolling in and rolling out

The low sea is gone

For the moment

Or eon.


What was it like in your cabin built by the CCC back in the 1930s? Did you choose the Petrified Forest National Park or would you say it chose you?



MIRIAM SAGAN: I'm constantly applying to the parks for residencies, but they are difficult to get. So yes, you could say it chose me! Plus it was a special place in my childhood. The cabin was small but comfy--except that the doors rattled all night long in the spring wind. I was essentially the only person IN the park--rangers were housed outside. So it was very intense at night--if crowded by day! The park staff was wonderfully helpful, and took me to see some amazing things.



KIRPAL GORDON: In “Secret Garden Trail,” at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York, you write:


Why must inspiration be a visa?

Remembered peonies are beaten down by rain

Into their impressionistic essence.

A formal garden in the mind’s eye

Blurs in all this mist

And the dark alley between trees

Is scattered with pine cones, cinquefoil, trillium.

In a sculpture garden

Even the mushrooms

Seem placed on purpose.

Once, half-lost, I turned into a cul-de-sac

And saw through a gap

A pond full of water lilies

In all directions---

An inner self

That also shifts shape.


These lines struck me as a sort of Ars Poetica for your project. The poems in this section, which include meditations on Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls and a field trip to the Oneida community, are also part of a “Poetry Field Guide” commissioned by the Art Park?



MIRIAM SAGAN: I went off to this sculpture garden in upstate New York with a full project in mind. I wanted to make a "guide" to the sculpture that was a poetry'd stop and look and read, like a version of a museum guide. But the map of New York was overexciting and I started to include all kinds of visionary and utopian social movements from the 19th century. So the park itself became a kind of paradise inside of a landscape housing more ideal visions. The pamphlet, which was given away free to several hundred visitors, isn't identical with the section in the book, though--dropped some and yes added some too.



KIRPAL GORDON: The great earthworks of native civilizations in the American southeast and midwest, including the mounds of Cahokia along the Mississippi River, become over the next two years, your sixth sojourn spot. Once again, all the poems in this section moved me, but your lines about middens, those mounds containing shells, animal bones and other refuse that indicate the site of a human settlement, struck a deep chord:



Shell middens haunted my childhood

Where were they—those great piles?


Left behind by people older than my grandparents

And long gone.


On the beaches of what will be Manhattan

Or in the Everglades mangrove swamp of standing trees


How people who never saw mountains

Built them, platforms for the gods


And there are others too

Beneath the earth


With the bones arranged

Tidied for re-birth


Motif of the bird of prey

The mortuary mounds


That in this light seem so benign

Seem to swell away


In a sea of grass

Where you can picnic


On Memorial or Father’s Day

And not have to ask


What is underneath


As in the other sections, the call to dig under the surface of things never had a more apt metaphor. It seems both a personal statement as well as an artistic one about life in the USA. Do you think as a nation that we’re in flight from the past?



MIRIAM SAGAN: A good question--I'd say we're more in flight from the TRUTH about the past. We have patriotic or ready made histories--I was raised on those in elementary school. And then there is revisionist history, which attempts to right wrongs, but which can limit things too. I'd say we lack a mytho-poetic past. Whose past is it? How can it be everyone's in some authentic way? Hart Crane's "The Bridge" is a good example of attempting this, but poets concentrate more on individual histories. I was raised on tales of the Classical world and that is kind of a pagan alternative to the present--I'm still searching for richness in what underlies contemporary America.



KIRPAL GORDON: The Andrews Experimental Forest in the Pacific Northwest is your final destination. Here’s “A Different Forest”:


The woman at the hot springs

Asks what brings me here

I say I’m staying in the forest

But she mishears

And thinks I’ve come to visit

A local boy named Forrest

Who lies unconscious in the hospital

After a terrible car wreck.


I don’t want to be reminded

Of the descansos on old Las Vegas Highway

Four crosses in pastels and purples

For the kids killed that night

By a drunk driver

Or the sound my daughter’s friend made

When she heard,

A sound beyond weeping.


Logging trucks go by in the midst

Like a line of oversized hearses

All round me

The forest is awake

With its moss-draped yew trees

Its beetles and fungi stirring in a tree trunk

To ferny soup.

Only I am sleeping.



That last line seems properly ambiguous, and it’s here in this old growth forest setting in the lower Cascades that you write, “I felt the intersection of humankind and the wild.” You conclude your prose remarks with, “The forest itself was of course a vast compost. And so it seemed was my imagination.” What a hopeful way to end this seven sojourned, cross-country adventure.



MIRIAM SAGAN: Thank you! The sojourn in the forest was utterly refreshing. It was also a dark time of year--autumn headed towards winter solstice. Although the experience was one of decay and death it was also peaceful and fecund. I didn't realize I was writing this book until I was at Andrews.



KIRPAL GORDON: In addition to having published 23 other books besides Seven Places in America and All My Beautiful Failures, you lead an active life as a teacher, poetry advocate and founder/director of the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College. What has that been like and do you ever think of retiring?



MIRIAM SAGAN: The activity that really speaks to me right now is text installation. I've been working with sculptors and other artists to put poetry in some unusual or unexpected places. Recently collaborated with textile artist Alisa Dworsky on a large piece that floats up a wall and a series of doves with text with ceramacist Christy Hengst. These were shown lats summer at 516 Gallery in Albuquerque. Right now I'm trying to initiate "Haiku in the Hood" which will look like road signs. I lie in the bath tub and get dozens of ideas, jot them down, and try them. Some heavy lifting here--these projects take more time, money, and collaboration than writing a book but I find it thrilling.
If I ever retire from community college, my goal is to do more installation. Poets don't exactly retire of course from poetry. But I'm aware that at 60 my time and energy have limits--I'm try to discover and engage these limits.
Creating the program at
Santa Fe Community College has been wonderful. I based the curriculum on what I thought and observed students were drawn to and needed. The program includes visual arts, a one on one tutorial, and a literary magazine internship. I drew a lot of what I knew--from Harvard to my small press roots--together to share it.




KIRPAL GORDON: How can readers at the Giant Steps Press blog stay in closer tough what all of what you do?

MIRIAM SAGAN: Check out my blog Miriam's Well I'm always looking for contributors.
Thank you! This was very inspiring.