Writing the Life Poetic: An Interview with Sage Cohen
A version of this interview appears in the May issue of The Practicing Writer, a free monthly newsletter for fictionists, poets, and writers of creative nonfiction.
WRITING THE LIFE POETIC: An Interview with Sage Cohen
by Erika Dreifus
Like many of you, I suspect, I’ve become acquainted with a number of talented, generous writers through the brave, (still-)new world of the Internet. Sage Cohen is one of these bright lights.
Sage is an award-winning poet with a BA from Brown University and an MA in creative writing from New York University. The author of the poetry collection Like the Heart, Like the World, Sage has published widely in journals and anthologies. She writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Co-curator of a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble, she has taught and lectured about poetry at universities, hospitals, libraries and writing conferences as well as online.
I initially “met” Sage through her e-zine columns. Then, as I began to add poetry to my writing practice, I signed up for one of her online classes. Sage is also one of the best bloggers I know, truly bringing poetry into her prose. Although she’s currently very busy with multiple commitments (including her joyful, if sleep-deprived, mothering of an infant son), Sage was gracious enough to respond to questions prompted by my reading of her new book, Writing the Life Poetic (Writer’s Digest Books). Please welcome Sage Cohen!
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Sage, as I read Writing the Life Poetic, I was impressed by the wealth of information it provides; the variety of its “Try This!” suggestions; and its wonderfully conversational and generous tone. I imagine these qualities will appeal to a broad readership, but I’m wondering, too, whom you envision as the book’s target audience.
SAGE COHEN (SC): My goal was that this book: serve people who are already writing poetry and want to deepen or invigorate their practice; invite people into poetry who have felt intimidated by or confused about poetry; and support teachers and other ambassadors in generating excitement about poetry. Most importantly, I wanted everyone and anyone who picked up this book to be assured that poetry is available to them if they want it.
ED: The book jacket notes the important truth that “[y]ou don’t need an advanced degree to reap the rewards of a rich poetic life,” but you do, in fact, hold a graduate degree in writing. Please share with us what motivated you to pursue this degree – what you hoped to gain from that experience – and how it has affected your writing practice in the years since.
SC: I had a daily poetry practice starting at age 14. It was something I did without much self- consciousness…something I did to stay alive…like breathing. At age 23, it occurred to me that if I was writing and reading poetry every day, maybe I was a poet. Stumbling upon (and claiming) this identity was a pivotal moment in my life. At the time of this revelation, I was in a corporate job where I was having existential angst about not believing in the mission of my employer–so much so that I was having anxiety attacks. In contrast, the one place I felt certain I belonged was in the realm of poetry.
When I applied to two graduate programs just a few months after this revelation, what I hoped to gain was time. Two years to immerse myself in poetry seemed like the greatest possible wealth. The deal I made with myself was this: if either school accepted me and gave me money to attend, I’d go. NYU accepted me, gave me a full scholarship and a $10,000 per year stipend. I was overjoyed; I went.
My experience at NYU was life-transforming in so many ways. As planned, I completely submerged myself in “the life poetic” for two glorious years in which I ate, breathed, slept and bathed poetry. I loved being jumbled about in the poetic mosh pit of New York City, with access to riches of poetry, music, art and food. Every pore tingled with receptivity to language and image.
I’d say that the most significant gift from that time was having the opportunity to discover my own rhythms–in both writing and living. With my time largely unstructured and a stippling of classes in a few afternoons and evenings, I learned when I write best, when I sleep best, how to keep my inspiration well full, how to balance good health with a wild imagination. In short, I learned how to cultivate not just my craft, but my LIFE. With that first tenuous foothold into a life of poetry, I had the confidence to keep moving toward what I loved most….and the trust that it was within reach.
ED: In the section titled “The Starving Artist Has Left the Building: On Poetry and Prosperity,” you advise readers: “Don’t expect to make a living writing poetry,” and you share the fact that you have a marketing communications writing business that supports your creative writing practice. You also note that many poets teach, and “[o]thers feel that they must do work for money that does not engage their creative mind at all.” How did you discover/realize what would work for you, and what advice do you have for poets and writers seeking to find their own paths to jobs/careers that can support their creative writing?
SC: I must confess that I have since reconsidered that statement, which may be the only “can’t do” prophecy of the entire book. Today, I am far more interested in how one DOES make a living writing poetry. For example, it’s a very slight perspective shift to consider my marketing communications business as a part of my creative process–because the income it generates has funded my creative writing life. Thus, I’m now going to say the exact opposite of what I said in my book: “Expect to make a living writing poetry!” The things we expect are far more likely to happen…
My own employment path was unplanned, somewhat haphazard and in the end quite fortuitous. In summary, I just kept trying work that I thought might fit until I found a direction that actually did. As I mentioned in the previous question, my time at NYU instilled in me a great value for managing my time my own way. So when I figured out that a freelance lifestyle would allow such possibilities, I was hooked. Even thirteen years later, there’s still an element of thrill (and gratitude) for me each time I am paid well to write.
What I’ve learned from my process is to value the “error” part of trial and error; each time we don’t get it just right, we get a little more information about ourselves that leads us a little closer to the sweet spot. What I would advise poets and writers is to experiment. Try writing jobs, mindless jobs, day jobs, night jobs, part-time, over-time–whatever it is that feels like it might be both financially and creatively nourishing. And don’t give up until you find a comfortable fit.
One word of warning: don’t use the challenges of the work day, whatever they may be, to excuse yourself from the glories of poetry that can be squeezed in the margins this very minute. My friend, colleague and mentor Christina Katz says (and is quoted in my book), “People don’t have time management issues. They have determination issues.” Anyone doing any job can find a way to stay creatively awake and write poems. My invitation to readers is: start finding a way to write poetry around whatever work you’re doing today. You can always improve your process and circumstances along the way.
ED: This book contains a number of remarkable poems: Ted Kooser, Rebecca McClanahan, and Sharon Olds are just a few of the bylines readers will recognize. You’ve also managed to incorporate – without sounding didactic – a number of craft tips from other poets. For instance, at one point you note that “Robert Bly once insisted that if there aren’t at least three repeating sounds in every line of a poem, it’s not a poem,” and then you encourage your readers to “Write a poem that would make Bly proud.” Recognizing that elsewhere in the book you also encourage readers to consider a diversity of approaches, even conflicting ones, what are some other craft-related suggestions from poets and teachers that you’ve embraced?
SC: I think that our most important learning about the craft of poetry comes from reading poems. And this learning is less conscious/thinking than absorbed. Every poem I have ever read has imprinted in me some new craft possibility…In this way, poems are like fun-houses that open door upon door upon door. There is truly no end to the discovery adventure, as long as we keep turning the page.
Of course, there is so much fabulous wisdom out there about ways to tap into the poetry moving through us–and then hone it to a shine. Natalie Goldberg’sWild Mind was my primary teacher in the poetry-generation process in my early 20’s. Inspired by Goldberg’s example and approach to getting out of our own way and into our flow, I devoted myself to a daily freewriting practice for most of my San Francisco years (which spanned a decade). Now I can often drop into that loose and unedited space without the freewriting because my mind and body have learned how to go there. I’d encourage anyone who is stuck or feeling unsure of what their material might be to stop thinking and start writing!
ED: At one point in the book, you mention that you have an literary agent. Since I’m a Sage fan and have followed with particular interest your ongoing column, “The Articulate Conception,” in The Writer Mama e-zine, I was under the impression that Writing the Life Poetic came into being without an agent. Does this mean that you have another book in progress, and if so, please tell us about it!
SC: That’s a really good point, Erika! Now that you mention it, I realize that I forgot to mention the agent acquisition step in my most recent column. I think the fact that this is an afterthought belies the nature of this relationship for this particular book. I pitched Writing the Life Poetic directly to Jane Friedman, Editorial Director at Writer’s Digest Books, and she accepted. With book deal in hand, I interviewed a few agents and chose the fabulous Marilyn Allen. Marilyn worked with me to review and refine the contract. So my agent relationship in this case came in the final stages of the book deal.
I have about five other book ideas simmering, and will consider pitching again once my multi-media twins *Writing the Life Poetic” and my son Theo are a little more established and allowing me to sleep through the night!
ED: Anything else you care to share with us, Sage?
SC: Yes! I believe that for many of us, poetry is more powerful and more possible in community. So I’ve created a number of ways to keep a dialogue going with poets and writers everywhere. You can join in the Writing the Life Poetic conversation at my blog, http://www.writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com.
I’m also getting ready to launch the very first issue of the Writing The Life Poetic Zine, a free monthly publication featuring the panoramic wisdom of ten Portland poets. The zine offers writing prompts, publishing markets, interviews, wisdom and tips about cultivating a writing life and community, and more! If you’d like to receive a monthly muse infusion, just visit http://writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com/ and enter your email in the top right box where it says “Sign up for our email newsletter.”
For an in-person savoring of the life poetic, you can join me at one of my upcoming appearances and book celebrations. (All events currently on the calendar are in Oregon. I’m in the process of planning events in San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia. Those dates will appear here once they’re scheduled.) And finally, feel free contact me directly at sage(at)writingthelifepoetic(dot)com.
Thanks so much for having me, Erika. I appreciate your provocative questions and your insightful reading of Writing the Life Poetic! Wishing you and your readers an inspired journey!
ED: Thank you so much, Sage!
(c) 2009 Erika Dreifus