I wrote animal stories as a child. In seventh and eighth grade classes, I’d read Tennyson and Poe, but then my friend Catherine Patterson sent me Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Poems not in a textbook—and by a woman! I was hooked.
In college at the University of Virginia, I took two poetry workshops with Greg Orr—he was an encouraging and intuitive teacher. After graduation I worked in Europe, and became a member of a woman’s poetry group in Paris. I earned an M.A. in creative writing at Johns Hopkins (at that time a one year program) but I was not mature or savvy enough yet to teach myself how to make better poems. Eight years later, I foolishly enrolled at the University of Delaware because the graduate director said he’d “count” my M.A. if I passed Delaware’s M.A. literature exam. I did pass, by a slim margin I’m sure, but the process of studying for it made me see that the degree won’t matter if the work is not good, and good work in my case would take more time. Today I advise my students to see formal education as buying time. Anyway, I asked the same graduate director if I could start the Ph.D. clock over and he said no, so I applied to University of Maryland, which ended up being a better place for me anyway.
The reading I did for my Ph.D. classes (I specialized in narrative and feminist theory, and wrote a dissertation on the coquette figure in the novel) turned me into a deeper thinker, and thus a better poet. Reading theory helped me understand my life through the lenses of racism (I was married to a black man for thirty years until he died in 2008); feminism (my Slavic father dominated my mother and tried to dominate me); classism (when we emigrated to NYC, my father worked as a building superintendent and as a parts picker at a car dealership; my mother cleaned the building—by the time I graduated from high school, we were comfortably middle class); queer theory (I always felt “other”—outside the mainstream—and attracted to both men and women.)
Graduate school brainwashed me; it taught me to think in certain—call them political—ways, yet I’m grateful because I can identify how I’ve been taught to think. Anything that can be said in language can be said clearly, Wittgenstein wrote. That striving toward clarity—not simplicity—is a noble goal whatever the genre. My book of essays, Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory, out from the University of Michigan press last fall, is the book I wish I’d had as a student of poetry. It’s a book of history and philosophy, not “just” craft. Scholarly training taught me how to find and evaluate sources, giving my passion for libraries some backbone.
What are your writing habits?
I wish my writing habit were as regular as my swimming or chocolate habits. When I’m teaching, it’s a struggle. I chip away at my own projects. And yet, I admit my use of time is my choice—I could take those two hours a day that I spend getting to the pool and write instead. But then I couldn’t move because I have old injuries from my years as a waitress.
The monthly meetings of my writing group are my deadlines. And I can write anywhere, I think, as long as no other demands are more pressing. I’ve never been to a writer’s colony, although I did have a Camargo Foundation fellowship where I found myself as interested in the market produce and bread as in writing. I don’t have a romantic vision of myself as an artist. Writing gives me intense pleasure but so do a lot of other things.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
When I was at Squaw Valley in 1992, Galway Kinnell was asked the same question. He responded, “bus drivers don’t get bus drivers block.” In other words, if you think of it as a job, you do it. I also like William Stafford’s advice, “lower your standards.” It’s not always possible to write good stuff, but one can always write something. And then revise it later. While I see the career value of producing a lot of writing, I am also wary of repeating myself. Sometimes I catch myself writing a poem I know how to write—and I stop. Either that, or I force myself to turn it into a poem I don’t know how to write.
How does teaching affect your work?
At the Vermont College of Fine Arts, I get to work with graduate students who are gifted and serious—and whose poems I often find exciting. I learn from what they are reading and how they process that reading, and I learn by articulating feedback for them. My ken is wider because of my colleagues and students in that program.
Undergraduate teaching is hugely different—undergraduate students must learn how to read and write and think—the genre, even the course and its concerns are secondary, almost irrelevant. I was interested to learn that Louise Glück prefers teaching undergraduates, in part because her poems are so psychological. I suspect she likes helping them analyze themselves. I love leading discussions and reading new books with students. I try not to repeat teaching a book, so I discover the material alongside my students. From my own history as a quiet student, I can draw out students and manage discussions. I probably became a teacher so I’d get over my anxiety about speaking up in class.
At Ellipsis, I enjoy teaching students how to evaluate submissions—meticulously and fairly. They are used to having literature presented to them as “perfect” and some of the best learning takes place when we discuss revision strategies for flawed pieces. It’s often easier to learn from someone else’s material than one’s own.
What do you do for fun?
I write and read, of course, but I also cook and bake and garden. I love travelling, and the preparation for it. I shop for hotels online the way other people look at porn. My first app when I finally got a smart phone was “hotel tonight.” I used to do that the hard way—I’d run up to the front desk and ask “what’s the best rate for a room tonight?” That’s how I got to stay at the Mövenpick in Petra for half price. And an amazing monastery-turned-inn in Ragusa, Sicily. I know this habit is odd, and it certainly drove the people I travelled with crazy. I’ve tried to analyze it. I love bargains and the efficiency of using something that would otherwise be wasted. And the serendipity of unexpected pleasure. But I also love planning—a website like Tripadvisor is made for me. I enjoy the critical reading it involves, reading between the lines as it were, and figuring out the aggregate truth. No one review is authoritative, but if you read enough of them you get a sense of a place. People betray their biases if they are being unfair.
I also love visual art, going to museums and galleries. I took as many art history classes in college as I did English classes, and I’ve continued my study of visual art since. By contrast, I don’t care much about music and I get bored in concerts. This is not something I am proud of and for which I apologize to my musician colleagues.
Natasha Sajé’s first book of poems, Red Under the Skin (Pittsburgh, 1994), was chosen from over 900 manuscripts to win the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, and was later awarded the Towson State Prize in Literature. Her second collection of poems, Bend, was published by Tupelo Press in 2004 and awarded the Utah Book Award in Poetry. Her third book of poems, Vivarium, (Tupelo, 2014) won the 15 Bytes Award. Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory, was published by the University of Michigan press, also in 2014.