An Interview with Miriam Sagan

Bettina Gilois: Poetry and writing. Where did your journey begin?

Miriam Sagan: Like many people who write, it started young for me. A crossroads came for me when I had to decide if I was going to keep doing it and commit to it. Before that it was kind of natural and unexamined. When I was 20, I decided to pursue it.

BG: Was there a drive to write for you? Was it inevitable? Or was it a decision?

MS: It was like an infatuating but potentially bad boyfriend. An incredible compulsion, but I hadn’t totally lost my wit. I was saying to myself, “You could go for this and it will be more exciting and perhaps a little bit more dangerous than anything else you could do.”

BG: Did you study writing?

MS: I studied with Robert Fitzgerald who was a great classicist at Harvard. The translator of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He represented that whole world of classical thought. This was the early seventies. The women on campus where a bit shocking to someone on the verge of retirement. But he kept his cool.

BG: After college what was the path you took?

MS: It was somewhat torturous. I went to graduate school for a year, which was a good thing. Stayed in graduate school to get a PhD, which was a bad thing. I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t know what I was doing and I was in my mid-twenties. My heart was broken. I went to pieces actually.

I had kind of a flip-out of meaninglessness and existential void.
And then, very oddly, in the middle of all this meaningless chaos, I went to Yaddo and then to MacDowell. I was 23 years old. An ignoramus. I was at MacDowell for four months. And then I just flipped. Left the East Coast for California and it was the start of a real life.

BG: You moved from the East Coast to California to the Southwest. Did you find that your geographic transitions influenced your writing?

MS: Hugely. I was raised in New Jersey. It’s actually a very haunting, fascinating place. But it was like a prison to me. Right across the river is Manhattan and everything that that anybody could ever want. But you can’t jump there.

I couldn’t have been more of a Manifest Destiny person if I had been a 19th century President. I was saying, “Go West. It’s good. It will save you.”

And it turns out I was right.

BG: There’s something about that open space that goes far beyond geography. Many great men came from farms where there was nothing but open sky. There’s something about being in openness and nature that is very affecting.

MS: That’s very nicely put.

BG: If writing is a road what kind of road are you on? Is it a winding mountain incline? A wooded path? A freeway?

MS: What is the road? It’s really been many different kinds of roads. If I have
to summarize, it’s been a road into the remote. I am very easily scared.

A little dirt road in a little subdivision is enough to make me think I’m in the vast wilderness. But it’s been a road that has been away from civilization. I spent several weeks out in Wendover, Utah in the barracks at the edge of the Salt Flats at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. And probably that was the most psychologically remote place I had ever been. It was very, very compelling. I tend to think I’m further away from things than I really am. Two hours out of Salt Lake and I think I’m at the edge of the earth.

BG: Are you familiar with O.E. Rolvaag’s “Giants In The Earth”? I lived on a ranch myself. It was seven miles to the mailbox and an hour to the grocery store. It is a little bit like being on the Moon. It’s daunting and liberating at the same time.

MS: It makes me feel like I’m on the edge of what I can do.

BG: Is that something that inspires you?

MS: I’m very into it. There have been times when I absolutely needed it. Times
when it’s been more optional. Remoteness and intense emotional states. You know. You had kids. When you have a small baby you don’t need to be somewhere really remote, because you already are somewhere really remote. You’re off your map. You’re into the free-fall. Being grief-stricken is like that. Being in love is like that.

Those are these very intense states that poetry thrives on. You can’t live a life where you’re always confronting very intense states. Physical remoteness works in a very similar way.

BG: Very well put. The landscape of emotions. They all are travels of sorts.

MS: I think they are. Particularly if you like that way of approaching it.

BG: How would you describe your relationship to writing? Are you two lovers? Friends? Siblings?

MS: I used to think it was a classic S&M relationship. Writing was the dominatrix. And I was the slave. This muse does not care about me at all personally. Am I hungry; am I tired? Do I want to write? Do I not want to write? Do I need to make a living? It felt like a harsh mistress so to speak.

Then I would say I outgrew this need to for highly romantic relationships. Settled down by the time I was thirty or so. I’d say it’s very passionate. I often feel, and I don’t know if other people experience this, I feel like I’m going to be with the writing. Certain things I want to wear. Certain things I want to eat.

It’s like a date. Certain things I want to read. Being with the writing the way you want to be with a spouse. I want to keep the writing entertained. I want to look good. It’s very personal.

BG: It is like a relationship. Sometimes you’re not speaking to each other.

MS: That’s great.

BG: You travel and write about traveling. Sometimes you write while traveling? Does the open road inspire you?

MS: That’s interesting. I’ve had two very intense kinds of traveling over the last 20 years. The really “on the road” traveling has been with my husband, Rich. This is his art form. When you’re on a road trip with him, it’s like being in somebody else’s movie. Or play.

It’s been super inspiring. It’s also been stressful. It’s very hard to write when you’re with somebody else 24 hours a day. A person who is not a writer. Who doesn’t want to stop. But he expanded my range physically. To the point that I know the Southwest and West really well.

He was this magic guide who appeared in my life and started taking me to any place that I said I had this mild interest in going to. And he would make it happen. He’s said he’s a servant to the muse.

BG: That’s really great that you have a wizard on the road. There’s an internal road trip. And there’s one that you share.

MS: I traveled with a photographer, Teresa Neptune, and we called them “Road trips to the Moon.” I liked having somebody else to collaborate with.

BG: What is your relationship to destination? Is it inevitable? Necessary? The dreaded thing?

MS: You have to have it. But it might be an illusion.

BG: Sometimes it’s just the necessary evil at the end. Sometimes it more about the process than the ending.

MS: I ended up writing this long poem about the women’s room at the Albuquerque airport and some of the artwork that’s hanging there. This is my significant spot. This is my destination. I end up back here.

BG: I find that writing is like embarking on a trip, when you’re about to embark on another project, and there is a destination in mind. If I have to write a screenplay I literally have the page count in mind. These are all mile markers. I know I have to get to 120 miles. When I’m at 30 miles I know how much further I have to go, and that road feels endless sometimes. Sometimes you feel like you’re coasting. How would you describe your process of writing? Is that a road for you?

MS: It’s a contract. I’m teaching full time. In a way that drained off a lot of my organizational propulsive energy. What I have been finding recently is that what I’m working on is not apparent for quite some time. For instance I didn’t know I was working on a book until I had finished it. I didn’t realize it was connected. I just thought of myself as having these obsessions. Writing blind. Daily life is preoccupying me.

I have recently been working on a longish piece of fiction, but I didn’t realize it’s something I had written with some of the same characters and some of the same names. That was just stashed. The subconscious patterns seem to be ruling the day.

It’s like getting on an airplane and realizing, “Oh, I’m in Pittsburgh with a toothbrush.” It’s like not really knowing where you’re going.

BG: What are your important influences for your writing?

MS: I’m hugely influenced by the Beats. Phil Whalen, who was associated with
Ginsburg and the Gallery Six readings. He was an amazing person who connected me emotionally to that lineage. The whole idea of being on the road. Not deriving from Europe. It’s really American.

I’m a woman. I’m also very influenced by the Confessional School. By Plath. By Sexton. Maybe influenced is not the right word. I’m not trying to be like them. Feeling the weight of their influence.

And then world poetry. Greek anthology. Neruda. Spanish Poets. Latin American poets. Chinese. Japanese. That whole international, very lyric poetry. Where people feel free to speak in a certain way you sometimes don’t see in American poetry. Tremendously direct and lucid. Beautiful surface. That’s my fave.

BG: The writer and the writing are often two different things. Is there a writer you’d like to meet? Dead or alive? Or is the writer best kept away? How does personality relate to writing?

MS: I would like to meet Sappho. Who wouldn’t? The great-grandmother of all women poets. She had a school on the island of Lesbos. I always think, she had a job. It’s kind of reassuring. Then it would have to be William Carlos Williams. They’re all dead. I haven’t got anybody living. Patty Smith. Would that work for living?

BG: Yes. Would you say the landscape of New Mexico influences your writing?

MS: At first I was obsessed with it. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t know what people’s behavior meant. I was on a tremendous learning curve.

Then one day I pulled up to my funky little house and had this moment that I thought, has all my work and struggling and traveling come down to this funky little house? And I think that it was in that moment that I realized that this decrepit neighbor is made beautiful by your love for it.

I’ll always be an outsider. That’s not a bad thing. It’s probably necessary for a writer.

BG: I get deep into people but I need that distance at the same time. You can’t judge and you can’t get too involved.

BG: Writing is vision. Is your writing an inner vision? Is it influenced from the outside? Where does it come from?

MS: It would be great to know the real answer. I experience it as coming from the outside. I know it must be coming from the inside on some level, because that’s how the mind is structured, but I always experience it as external. I heard a Zen teacher once say, “Anybody who has an enlightenment experience, the trigger comes from outside.” The Buddha became enlightened when he saw the Morning Star rise. I thought that’s just like poetry. You have to have some quality of availability. Maybe it really is relational. I don’t experience it as coming from deep within me. I always feel like something has caught my interest. Something is singing outside.

That’s such a great question. It would be great to ask about fifty people the same question.

BG: Maybe it’s an alchemy of both. The outer cue and the inner response that translates into vision.

MS: Exactly.

BG: Poetry. What’s your favorite form of poetry? In your own writing and what you appreciate.

MS: I like very short forms. I love traditional haiku. I like the short-work poem. I like that sexiness. That seductive quality, where the work says, ‘come with me,’ and it doesn’t take up the whole page.

BG: Short-form poetry and haiku it’s like food. Poetry is so delicate; it’s like the highest form of culinary experience. Words have flavors. The less, the more important every flavor is.

BG: Writing novelistically vs. prose? How do you feel about writing other than poetry?

MS: I like going back and forth. There’s a lot more heavy lifting in writing other than poetry. Poets will go on about how hard it is, but it’s not that time consuming. Prose has more elbow grease in it. Lets you experiment and work. And slightly less inspiration-dependent. A B+ essay is worth writing. But a pretty good poem, I would have to throw out. Poetry is much more that you have to hit the high note. I feel that effort is more appreciated by prose, but poetry is a little bit more inspiration-dependent for me.

BG: There’s a lot more rolling up your sleeves.

MS: It helps you get through the day.

BG: Exactly. The page count. The miles.

BG: If you could get in your car and drive anywhere you want, where would you go?

MS: Reno to Great Basin. And then maybe back through Mono Lake. To go near the Loneliest Highway, which is Route 50. It’s still pretty lonely. Someplace really big, mountainous, dry, and has no destination, and has hot springs, and archaeology, and some rock art, some weird funky towns. A trip that is just passage through.

BG: Since you’re in New Mexico I have to ask: Red or Green chile?

MS: It’s totally so green. What about you?

BG: It’s Christmas. I just need the dialectic of the red and the green together.

MS: I have to say, it ruined me. It was suddenly like a drug. I ate it and that was it. I just wanted to eat it for the rest of my life and was unhappy if I couldn’t. It’s the great thing about New Mexico, every place has chile. It’s not American food. It’s going to be something that’s got chile on it.

BG: It’s like nowhere else in America.

BG: Final question. Is there a final destination or is it the open road?

MS: I’m trying to find out the answer to that question. That is the question of the moment.

Bettina Gilois is an award-winning screenwriter and author who has been writing in Hollywood for over twenty years. Her screen credits include the Disney/Bruckheimer production Glory Road for which she was nominated for the Humanitas Prize. She lives in Los Angeles.