Natasha Sajé: An Interview



Daniel M. Jaffe

Natasha Sajé, poet and essayist, has won a host of awards and other recognitions. Her first book of poetry, Red Under the Skin (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), won the Agnes Lynch Starret Prize and the Towson State Prize in Literature. Her second book of poetry, Bend (Tupelo Press, 2003), was selected as Utah Poetry Book of the Year. She is also a Campbell Corner Poetry Prize winner and recipient of the Robert Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her writings have appeared in numerous literary journals including Paris Review, Kenyon Review, and Henry James Review. Natasha served as a Maryland poet-in-the-schools from 1989-1998, and teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City as well as in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College.

How did such a rich literary career begin? “I started writing poems as soon as I was reading them, in seventh grade,” Natasha recalled. “Before that I wrote animal stories. Poetry appeals to me because of its concision and perfectibility—maybe I have a short attention span, too. There’s a saying that every Slovenian is a poet, and my father liked witty epigrammatic pieces of writing, so I might also have inherited a preference for  poetry.

“I think, however, that I’ve read more novels than poetry. I had to give up novel reading after I finished my dissertation because it takes so much time. From age 12 to age 40, I probably read three novels a week, the way other people watch TV. I have a poem about my addiction to novel reading. ‘Couldn’t put it down’ was often literal for me.”

Natasha’s poetry sometimes mixes humor with the exploration of serious ideas, resulting in a reading experience both fun and provocative. Readers can hear Natasha read one such poem, “Reading the Late Henry James,” which compares the process of reading Henry James to having sex while tied to the bed! I asked how this set of associations came to mind, and why Natasha selected that particular poem as both her online calling card, so to speak, and as the first in her collection, Red Under the Skin.

“I was studying to become a James scholar,” she replied, “and the ‘late’ refers not only to the fact that’s he’s dead but to his post-1910 writing, autobiography and travel writing, very convoluted syntax, partly because at that stage he was dictating his work. I love James’s work, of course, and the challenge of that particular poem was the ending—in earlier drafts I could never be cheeky enough because I was so reverential. When the poem was finished, the first journal I sent it to was the Henry James Review; a reader there called it ‘inventive but inappropriate.’ The journal Feminist Studies published it later. And I published appropriate and not particularly inventive criticism in the Henry James Review some years later.

Red Under the Skin starts with Henry James (realism) and ends with Gertrude Stein (postmodernism). The trajectory is one that nudges me into a new place with Bend, my second book.”

When compiling Red Under the Skin, Natasha carefully weighed the poems she planned to include. “Each poem had to stand on its own merits, but also contribute to the whole. I wrote the title poem, by the way, after the collection had been accepted under the title Red Under the Skin. I realized that the title poem, which had started out as an essay, could use the same title as the book.”

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What does Natasha see as the  major difference in reading experiences of Red Under the Skin and  Bend? “I don’t know about someone else’s reading experience,” she said, “but the writing experience was more difficult. I didn’t want to repeat myself in content or form which meant waiting ten years until I had figured out how to write different poems.”

Natasha’s poem, “H,” is an example of the joy one can experience with rhythm and repetition, and seems to go hand-in-hand with an essay she recently published in The Writer’s Chronicle, “Rhythm and Repetition in Free Verse, or The Poet as  Witch.” In that essay, Natasha wrote, “[T]he human body thinks as it feels. Poetic rhythm is the ultimate example of  this process. When we read or hear a poem, we feel it in the same way we feel our hearts beating or our nervous system humming.”  

Did rhythm lead the language while Natasha wrote “H”? What’s the role of rhythm in her poetry, in general? “H,” Natasha explained, is “part of an abecedarium I am working on. Each poem is spurred by a letter of the alphabet, by etymology, by the dictionary. I noticed that a lot of humorous-sounding compound words begin with ‘H’: hanky panky, hugger mugger, harum scarum. My challenge became turning as many as possible into a poem—which turned out to be a sonnet in iambic pentameter.

“When I started writing poems, and even with my first book, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a stressed and unstressed syllable. They all sounded stressed! Only in teaching scansion did I learn to hear the difference in emphasis. Yet I suppose I knew instinctively—from reading others’ poems—how to please the ear. Some of my poems are generated from a snippet of language, others from ideas, and still others from a rhythm that becomes the way to express an idea.”

After reading her poem, “Tale,” which tells of an encounter with a woman who  has a tail, I felt curious as to what sparked the flight of imagination. “That was a dream,” said Natasha, “verbatim. I had to interpret the dream to write the poem however. I see the dream as being ‘about’ the fear of being different, even if that difference leads to greater ability. I love homonyms, too, because of the way they reverberate in two directions.”

Natasha was born in Germany—does having European family roots influence her writing, either in terms of subject matter, as one might read into “The Tunnel” and “Agoraphobia,” or in terms of the appeal of European poetic traditions? “German was my first language so I understood—when I learned English at the age of five—that language is an approximation, that it is produced because of the need to be understood, and that all reading and listening is interpretation and translation. George Steiner talks about this in After Babel. Playing with language comes ‘naturally’ when you learn that concepts in one language do not exist in another. Alas, now English is dominant, and I think in English syntax and translate into German when I speak it. Plus I have an American accent. I love the fact that English has words drawn from both the Anglo-Saxon and the Latinate/Greek, plus so many other languages. The relatively simple syntax (compared to German) combined with the lexical richness make a medium I love to work with. Sort of like tennis players preferring clay to grass, or sculptors preferring metal to stone.”

Natasha spent the spring of 2005 in Slovenia as a Fulbright scholar teaching the sociology of art at the University of  Ljubljana. I wondered whether her Slovenian students appreciated art—literature in particular—differently from her American students? “Literature,” explained Natasha, “is still more important to everyone in Slovenia than it is in the U.S. Interestingly, however, although they teach drama and visual art through the studio/workshop method there, creative writers are on their own. There are no graduate programs or even undergraduate courses in creative writing. You’re supposed to learn it by reading, which is of course a time-honored way to learn to write—but one that, with a mentor, becomes much more efficient.”  

I asked Natasha about her experience as a Maryland poet-in-the-schools. Were school children interested in poetry? Given her extensive experience teaching adults, as well, did she have any thoughts as to whether people tend to gain or lose a poetic sensibility as we age? Natasha replied, “I loved teaching fourth graders in particular. I could see the way schools in general beat the art out of their students. By the time children are in high school, most of them are conventionalized and clichéd. They’re afraid to think differently. I believe that every person is born with some kind of artistic talent and life’s circumstances often discourage rather than encourage it. Often, in middle age, people come back to what they love in whatever way they can—think of Alice Walker’s essay, ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’ where her mother gardens instead of paints because that is what is available to her. One reason I love teaching in the Vermont College MFA in Writing program is because the students are mostly adults rediscovering their talent; they bring to their writing life experience and dedication that is unusual in someone younger.

“Another problem is that poems are often taught, particularly in high schools, as interpretative problems with a ‘right’ answer—and naturally the teacher, who out of laziness teaches the same poems over and over, has that answer. Even when teaching college literature, I try never to teach poems—or novels, for that matter—that I know too well. That way my students and I can discover the literature together.”
Isn’t that one of the greatest joys offered by literature, the joy of discovery?

Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and his web site is here.

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