Miriam Sagan: The Survivor

It seems weird to me now that there were only two women of the ten “Young Writers I Admire” article from 1979’s A Critical (Ninth) Assembling – and no writers of color – but in any case, Miriam Sagan was a standout poet on the 1970s small press scene.

A graduate of Harvard with an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University, Miriam published her work in many of the same little magazines that Tom Whalen, Peter Cherches and I did. Her work attracted me from the beginning with its deceptively matter-of-fact voice, its subtle lyricism, its sense of wisdom and humor.

Miriam was one of the editors of the legendary Boston area-based Aspect Magazine, the 1969 brainchild of the late one-man phenomenon Ed Hogan. I’d meet Ed and Miriam at the yearly small press New York Book Fairs in the 70s, meeting at such weekend venues as the Customs House, the Park Avenue armory and the parking lot under Lincoln Center.

Aspect lasted through the whole decade of the 1970s, morphing from a political to a literary magazine in its long and storied run. In 1980 Ed shut Aspect down and he, Miriam and others founded Zephyr Press, still active as a publisher today although Ed’s death in a 1997 canoeing accident definitely caused it to break stride for several years. (Full disclosure: Aspect‘s 1978 double fiction issue contained a story by me and the first critical article about my work, Susan Lloyd McGarry’s “Twenty-seven Statements I Could Make About Richard Grayson,” and Zephyr published my 1983 collection I Brake for Delmore Schwartz).

In 1982 Miriam moved from the Boston area to first San Francisco and then Santa Fe, where Miriam has made her home since 1984. She’s published over twenty books, including Searching for a Mustard Seed: A Young Widow’s Unconventional Story, which won the award for best memoir from Independent Publishers for 2004; her poetry collections Rag Trade, The Widow’s Coat, The Art of Love and Aegean Doorway; and a novel, Coastal Lives.

Miriam has also co-edited such anthologies as New Mexico Poetry Renaissance and Another Desert: The Jewish Poetry of New Mexico and co-authored with her late husband Robert Winson Dirty Laundry: 100 Days in a Zen Monastery: A Joint Diary. Robert Creeley called her book Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry “a work of quiet compassion and great heart.” Miriam has written a poetry column for Writer’s Digest and articles for the Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican and New Mexico Magazine, and she directs the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College

I’m not often in touch with Miriam these days, but we did catch up after nearly 15 years when she came to South Florida to give a talk at the Palm Beach County public library in Boca Raton in November 2003. And last year I got to watch her in action as a poetry workshop leader and lecturer when she was a featured guest at the Celebration of Writing at the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix, where I taught AP English.

I wasn’t surprised what a fine teacher she proved to be, because Miriam has always been as good with people as she is with words, the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost. Driving her to the Miami airport during her 1982 visit, I detoured to show her the decaying mock-Arabian Nights architecture of slummy downtown Opa-Locka – only to open a literary magazine a year later and find that in our five-minute drive through town she’d seen enough to create a terrific, haunting, melancholy poem.

Last year in Phoenix, I got to meet Miriam’s second husband, Rich. (He was her high school boyfriend, I think.) Here’s her poem “Remarriage”:

My second husband says
He wishes my first husband
Would get married again—

My first husband
Has been dead for years,
But I dream about him.

At first, he was angry,
Or calling on the phone
Wanting to come home

But I was already
With the man who would become
My second husband.

Recently, I began to dream
My dead husband was dating
A very pretty—

But obviously not Jewish—
Blonde woman,
She seemed very nice.

My second husband
Was getting sick of my dreams—
He said he hoped they’d get married.

In my next dream
My first husband told me
He was indeed marrying her

But he enraged me
By inviting his sisters
But not our daughter to the wedding.

My friends politely mention
They think I am in denial
After all, my first husband

Is dead, not getting married.
But it is as if
He has some kind of life

That goes on without me
Perhaps because I have had
So much go on without him

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