Interview With Poet Sage Cohen

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writer's Digest Books' most recent poetry title, Writing the Life Poetic. She's also the author of Like the Heart, the World (Queen of Wands Press). She's taught poetry at universities, hospitals and writing conferences as well as online. As principal of Sage Communications, Cohen writes the words that connect businesses with the people they want to reach.

Though I admit I'm usually suspicious of self-published titles (Queen of Wands Press is Sage's own press, named after one of the poems in the collection), both Tammy and myself found her collection Like the Heart, the World to be a great read. Here's one of my favorites:

The Irony of the Small Horn

Paul says the Great American Music Hall
should be called The Great European Music Hall.

Its gold flourishes and imperial balcony feel more
like something you'd yearn for from across the ocean.

Nothing is named right in this world.
I don't know what to call Paul's body against mine.

Dancing, maybe, but that's not enough.
It's more like a question before it is born

gathering force among the margins
of what is already known or believed.

Paul has his hand on my stomach where my shirt rides up
and I press into the beat coming through his chest.

My hips rotate with the room. Singular surrenders to plural.
Sweat and smoke and beer and bodies pulse in the darkness.

The music is a fire. Dancing is the flame.
We all depend on each other to burn.

Paul points out the enormous man playing the tiny trumpet.
All the big guys have small horns, we agree.

This poem was supposed to be about that. About the trumpet,
because that was how Paul and I planned it.

But nothing ever turns out the way you think it will.
The music ends, and then it's time to go home.

*****

What are you up to?

National Poetry Month has been great fun over here. I've launched my Writing the Life Poetic book tour by speaking at a few chapters of Willamette Writers and appearing on a variety of writing blogs throughout the month. It's week five of my six-week Poetry for the People online class, and my students have been dazzling me with their dedication and fine poems. My full-time "day job" of marketing communications consultant is clipping right along, and I've been dedicating every scrap of free time to your Poem-A-Day Challenge. Because my son Theo has been waking up every two hours or so throughout the night for the past seven months, I'm in a perpetual sleep-deprivation daze that I've decided to embrace as a poetic state of mind. 

Like the Heart, the World is a self-published title. Why did you choose this route of publication?

Before deciding to self publish, I spent about a year sending my manuscript out to publication contests. It placed as finalist or semi-finalist four times, which was exciting. That was enough validation for me...I didn't want to spend any more time waiting for someone to choose my book for publication. I felt a sense of urgency to have that body of work in the world, and to have it look and feel exactly the way I wanted. I've spent years creating marketing communications materials for clients, and I always enjoy the opportunity to design and produce my own pieces. So I hired my favorite illustrator/designer to layout the book and create the cover, and within a few months, had a finished product in my hands. 

What do you think is the most rewarding part of self-publishing your collection? What do you consider the most challenging?

It was very empowering deciding that my book was ready to be born, and then making it happen. The poems in Like the Heart, the World span more than 15 years and reflect time periods and thematic cycles in my life that felt complete. With this publication, I feel that they've been well honored, which gives me more breathing room to embrace the poems of this life chapter. There really haven't been any challenges or regrets.

I hope that my experience will remind other poets who feel helpless about the poetry publishing waiting process that they have options. We can decide when our manuscripts are ready to go forth into the world as books, and we can do that however we like...the traditionally prescribed way or our own way. 

You've taught poetry at universities, hospitals, and writing conferences. What's the most common question you receive? What's your answer?

While the questions take many different forms, what people studying poetry seem to universally need is permission to write poems--and encouragement about their capacity to do so. I see my role as a mirror...I reflect back to my students what is powerful and true in what they are doing so they can have more fun and be more successful doing it.

Why should a poet buy a copy of Writing the Life Poetic?

The craft of poetry has been well documented in a variety of books that offer a valuable service to serious writers striving to become competent poets. Now it’s time for a poetry book that does more than lecture from the front of the classroom. Writing the Life Poetic was written to be a contagiously fun adventure in writing. Through an entertaining mix of insights, exercises, expert guidance and encouragement, I hope to get readers excited about the possibilities of poetry––and engaged in a creative practice. Leonard Cohen says: "Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash." My goal is that Writing the Life Poetic be the flame fueling the life well lived. 

Practicing poets, aspiring poets, and teachers of writing in a variety of settings can use Writing the Life Poetic to write, read, and enjoy poems. Both practical and inspirational, it will leave readers with a greater appreciation for the poetry they read and a greater sense of possibility for the poetry they write. 

Like the Heart, the World is broken into three sections (New York, San Francisco, and Portland). How important is location to your writing?

I wouldn't say that location is important to my writing, per se, but that the writing processes that I chose in each of the cities I lived seemed to yield a kind of poetry that resonated with that particular place. In New York, I walked everywhere and carried a small, handheld tape recorder where I whispered my little slivers of street-sightings and trash tracings. Then I'd transcribe these observations into the computer later and write from there. In San Francisco, I had a regular rhythm of freewriting (in longhand, in notebooks) in cafes, often while listening to live acoustic music. These days, I have somewhat of a hybrid of my previous two practices. I carry 3x5" index cards everywhere and write down everything that comes—usually while hiking in a rainforest or taking a bath. As a result, the New York poems often echo urban alienation and are laced with street grit. The San Francisco poems are often thematically and craft-wise a little looser and more musical and the Portland poems feel to me watery and deeply green.

Do you have a favorite poetic form?

I'm fascinated by haiku. This form represents to me the quintessential art of compression that poetry asks of us: to reveal a panoramic truth in a thin, velum layer of words.

Who are you currently reading?

Tess Gallagher, Paulann Petersen, Mari L'Esperance, Jack Gilbert, Jericho Brown, Jay Leeming.

If you could pass on only one piece of advice to your fellow poets, what would it be?

Welcome what comes. The poems choosing you are the ones that need to be written. Don't judge them or worry if they're "important" enough. Your poems will teach you who you are as a poet and a person. Just follow the golden thread and let them write you.

*****

If you wish to learn more about Sage Cohen, check out her website at www.sagesaidso.com.

Or you can stop by her blog at www.writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com.

*****

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*****

Looking for more poetry information?

  • Check out our poetry titles (on sale in the month of April) HERE.

  • Read the most recent WritersDigest.com poetry-related articles HERE.

  • View several poetic forms HERE.

  • See where poetry is happening HERE.

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