Sage Cohen brings the fierceness. I learned this first-hand, when she and I met when we were both greenhorns in Manhattan, studying for M.F.A. in poetry at New York University under the tutelage of heavy-hitter teachers like Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. It was plain to me then that Sage was mindful of what she was doing, both in poetry and in life. She was, in other words, pretty freaking fierce. (As for this writer, that is another story.) In the years since, she’s blossomed as a poet, writing instructor, and author of books focused on helping writers do what they do, first in Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writer’s Digest Books 2009), then in The Productive Writer: Tips & Tooks to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success (Writer’s Digest Books 2010). In straightforward, empathetic prose, Cohen helps writers tackle the challenges usually faced alone in a dark room. She continues this project with Fierce on The Page: Become the Writer You Were Meant to Be and Succeed on Your Own Terms, just out from Writer’s Digest Books. I had a chance to talk to Sage over email, where from her home in Portland, Oregon, she discussed being fierce, as well as teaching, workshops, and our common ancestral homeland of South Jersey.
This is your third book about writing and the writing process. What motivated you to write this one?
My first two writing books were how-to’s: one for poets, and one for writers striving to increase productivity. What I discovered in writing those books, and in the decade of blogging about writing along the way, is that I am more interested in exploring possibilities than offering prescriptions. Because there is no one-strategy-fits-all in the writing life. There’s only what works for you.
Maybe five years ago on my blog, I stumbled into writing personal essays, in which I explored various writing themes through the lens of my own life experience. And readers really responded. Eventually, I came to understand that what I was offering people (and what they were seeking me out for) was not advice, but permission. To come closer to who they are, to notice what’s working and what needs recalibration, and to find their own true way forward in service to their craft.
I got so excited about this more intimate and spacious way of accompanying writers that I wrote a proposal in the hopes of writing a book-length treatise exploring this form. And then I sat on the proposal for three years until I had come far enough through divorce and single parenting a very young child to believe I had the stamina to write a book in parallel with my full-time business and life.
It’s plain to me you enjoy motivating writers to write, to go places they haven’t gone, to be fierce. Was there a time you didn’t think of yourself as a fierce writer?
I don’t really think of myself as a fierce writer—more like a writer who practices ferocity. And for me, that means relentless self-responsibility. The truth is, what I think of myself as a writer has never been of much interest to me. What I have devoted myself to as if my life depended on it—and it turns out, it does—is my writing practice. I’m not sure how it happened, but I have always loved and tended my writing, absolutely dedicating to helping it reach its potential, without much concern about who liked it, or what it would do for me. It may be the purest relationship I have. A devotional practice, of sorts. I just want to serve my writing. I just want to help it grow and flourish. I just want to exist in that liminal space where words are taking shape.
What do you get out of teaching that fuels or informs your writing? Or is it a different relationship altogether?
I love being with people. I love watching them wake up to their own possibilities and discoveries. Teaching and lecturing has given me deep insight into what writers are struggling with, hoping for, and moving toward—and this helps me serve them better.
How about readings?
I also have spent a few decades overcoming a terror of public speaking. And putting myself in front of students and audiences as much as possible—as a practice of overcoming this fear—has fortified me as a person and a writer. I know I can count on myself to get up at a podium, even if I’m fairly certain it will kill me, and do it anyway. This is an important thing to know about myself.
What I have learned through this is that writers are seeking permission to be themselves, assurances that they’re welcome in the writing mosh pit, and trust that they have everything they need to do the work they are called to do. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve been able to write and publish books that offer this kind of guidance, along with all the practical and technical stuff.
I love how your advice in FOTP is both nourishing and straight-shooting. You write early on how you “have simply committed to showing up and writing down what wants to come through,” and that that’s the “single most important thing we can do as writers.” At the risk of sounding mystical, how does the writer find what wants to come through?
I think that process is unique for each writer. Here’s how it works for me: I find what wants to come through when I practice paying attention: leaning into discomfort, softening into vulnerability, listening to the conversations of strangers, taking in the natural world. The more curious I am about the world, other humans, and myself, the more “what wants to come through” is revealed to me.
For me, free writing was my way in. I started this foundational practice in my early 20’s, inviting language to move through me without forethought or effort. After many years of writing blind to find that there was an endless supply of language, image, metaphor and insight pouring through me, I came to think of myself of more as a channel, and my writing practice as a kind of cosmic weight lifting. My goal has been to train myself to be agile, strong, and receptive enough to tap into currents of language that I might otherwise not know how to be listening for. So I could ready myself for writing, whenever it might happen to ask something of me.
Practically speaking, I am never out of arm’s reach from an index card. When a thought, image, or phrase strikes me, I write it down, no matter what else is happening. By being accountable to my own creativity and curiosity in this way, I think I maximize my receptivity to “what wants to come through.”
What are your thoughts on the traditional workshop these days—by traditional I mean a group in the room, copies of a draft, everyone talks about it, marks it up, perhaps the author stays silent.
I think the value of workshops is largely in the eye of the beholder! What I value most from my own education through traditional workshops is how I’ve learned to evaluate and use (or ignore) feedback. I have also gained valuable insight about my tendencies and vulnerabilities, and I have cultivated skills in thinking and speaking critically about poetry. I take it for granted now, but workshops have really helped me grow up as a writer.
For people like you and I, who have a few decades of writing practice under our belts, I think the value of a workshop becomes highly dependent on who is around the table. I didn’t workshop for years and didn’t miss it. But I did attend lots of readings and gather with many writers in those years and fill my cup that way. These days I have a group of poets I meet with here in Portland intermittently. Because I have great admiration for their work, just clearing three hours to step in and collectively contemplate their poems (plus see my poems reflected through their lenses) is invaluable for me.
Whether it’s a workshop, conference, reading, or lecture, I think there is huge value in writers coming together in person to remember that we are not alone, that we are a part of a larger conversation, and that we can always learn from each other, at any stage of our evolution.
I am especially gratified in those chapters where you talk about being a mother, a co-parent, who has found kindred souls online and in person for support as people and as writers. That didn’t come without a struggle, I’d imagine. As a father, I can’t help but rely on cliché when I encounter expectant writer-slash-parents. Do you have any advice or say anything when speaking with soon-to-be parents who are concerned about their identity as writers?
What comes immediately to mind are the first two years of my son’s life during which neither of us slept more than two hours at a time. I’d sit in the rocker in the middle of the night with my magnificent child in my arms, at the brink of my earthly sanity and patience, and I’d tell myself: This is my poetry practice.
I’d lean in to my discomfort and mine it for the ecstasies of attention. I’d study the exquisite smell of his fuzzy head. I’d notice the arc of warmth where our bodies were now only temporarily joined. And I’d know that there were women all over the world awake with their children, that my son and I were a speck of a wave in the endless ocean of humanity.
What I am saying is, poetry trained me for the mosh pit of motherhood. And in return, motherhood became a potent poetry practice. I didn’t write many poems in my son’s early years. Yet, I would argue that my entire life became a poem—a study of sound and image, a resonance with the exquisite beauty of impermanence. Which is to say, nothing was lost. And so much was gained.
Parenting and poetry are both love practices. They ask of me similar things: to be patient, to show up at the most inconvenient, awkward and downright humiliating times, and to be willing to take myself apart and reassemble myself at a moment’s notice in pursuit of what is true and just and loving and beautiful. I have been seasoned and humbled by marriage, C-section, miscarriage, divorce, single parenting, co-parenting, and finding my way toward a collaborative little blended family. Through all of these incarnations, my identity as a writer stretched, severed, scarred, and grew stronger at its new, more inclusive seams.
I believe that when we love what we are doing and we love the lives we have chosen, there is room enough for everything we want, throughout many fluctuating seasons. What we may compromise in time at the page we gain in wisdom and authority when we return to the page. If that’s how we choose to hold it. And I believe we can all choose to hold it that way.
Lastly: we’re both from South Jersey. Is there anything about our childhood home, the place, that sticks with you in your writing life, now that you’re living in Portland, Oregon, for nearly 14 years?
Yes! You stick with me. Seriously. Even though we met for the first time in graduate school in New York City a decade post-South-Jersey, the fact that I had a friend with similar roots whose trajectory through the territory of poem paralleled mine was a huge gift—and a kind of welcome I’d never felt before.
South Jersey was a terribly lonely place for me. I didn’t understand who I was, what I needed, or how to get it. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t know how people survived the anguish of being people. So I wrote poems secretly—and kept writing them—through which I revealed myself incrementally to myself over the course of a lifetime.
My desire to see clearly, to make sense of feeling and experience and context, and to keep evolving as a person and a student, were nurtured by the generosity and support of my parents, the epic discomforts of adolescence, and my English teacher, Mr. Carr, who dared me to be better than I believed I could be.
I learned when I was pregnant that when butterflies are assisted out of their cocoon, they die. Fighting their way out is what activates their wings and gives them what they need to survive. South Jersey was my cocoon. Fighting my way out of the binding old ideas of self, I came to inherit and inhabit my wings.
I am incredibly grateful for all that shaped me, held me back, and ultimately set me free.
—interview by Daniel Nester