Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is a former Poet Laureate of Kansas and the author of the novel, Miriam’s Well; here is a link to her website:
Q: When did you know you were a poet?
A: As a child, I was hard-wired to make things, and I started out as a visual artist, drawing and painting all the time. When I was 14, and my parents were in the middle of a long-winded and horrendous divorce, I found I needed words, so I switched on a dime from art to poetry. Luckily, I soon found a great mentor in my high school English teacher, who took me under her wing and guided me to great poets. She also encouraged my poetry and my life as a poet. We recently reconnected, and I’m so grateful to her. Over the years, I expanded to writing fiction, memoir, non-fiction, songs, and much more.
Q: What is Miriam’s Well about?
A: Miriam’s Well is a novel that traces a modern day Exodus of Miriam, somewhat from biblical fame (she was Moses’ sister), but set in America from 1965 onward as she searches for her people and place. She is very purpose-driven, knowing she’s alive to feed, help, reach out, and making joy with people, particularly people facing big challenges, so it’s no wonder that she keeps finding herself at the center of major events that shape our country, such as People’s Park in 1969, Wounded Knee in 1973, the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the 1980s, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and so many other events. She also, through her wandering the desert of our times, finds bits and pieces of the promised land, sometimes in places at the edge of America, literally in the case of an island she lives on off the coast of Maine and earlier on, her days in Key West, but also in communities on the edge. She lives in an ecovillage in North Carolina, in the middle of a very rural area in extreme west Texas, and in a small town in Idaho along the way. Her calling is continually make meals, music, and miracles.
Q: What made you chose “Exodus” as the model for your story?
A: I was always drawn to the story of the Exodus, especially Miriam’s role. She saves her brother Moses’ life by putting him a basket and sending him down the Nile, and she’s credited with leading the women singing and dancing through the desert. There’s also a biblical story about Miriam’s well, a mythical well that springs up from something Miriam does with a stone whenever the wandering Jews land some place new. That well allows the people to feed themselves, so it’s no wonder that my Miriam is both a singer and a cook. Mostly, I wanted to explore how we are always searching for the promised land in ourselves and our communities, and in many ways, we are always wandering too.
Q: You teach writing at Goddard College. What are some of the things you want your students to take away from the classes that you teach?
A: I teach in the Goddard Graduate Institute, and it’s a low-residency program in which students self-design their own studies. So there are no classes per se, and I work with students — after they attend an 8-day residency to plan our their semester’s studies — long-distance, reading their work, and helping them go deeper into their best ways of learning and applying their learning to the real world. I teach writing, but much more since we’re an interdisciplinary program in which students study what calls to them most. For example, I have one student now studying spiritual memoir, another writing a thesis about how good health is related to the gut, and another planning a school on mindful outdoor leadership. I love the variety. What I want for my students is what I want for everyone: that we find our callings and also coalesce strong communities around us to help us move toward what’s most meaningful in our lives.
Q: What are some pitfalls that writers should avoid?
A: I think there’s a fallacy that writers need to suffer, especially from writer’s block, which I don’t believe in. If you’re stuck as a writer on a particular project, it just means you need more time or new perspective or that there’s something else calling for you to write. If writers can reframe the torturous myths that they must grapple with writer’s block into a much more life-giving story that, to quote poet Theodore Roethke, “we learning by going where we have to go,” then writers can open their art and lives up to new possibilities and likely far more strong writing.
Q: What are your feelings about the latest trend of open mic story telling?
A: I think story slams and the rise of lots of story podcasts are wonderful! They get us looking for meaningful moments in our lives, then finding the language to convey the power of those moments. I listen to This American Life, The Moth, and other podcasts regularly, and I’ve been running with professional storytellers for many years, so I’m delighted to see this trend taking off. Then again, this may be a trend, but storytelling is at the very root of language and the oral tradition.
Q: You were the Poet Laureate of Kansas. How were you selected for the honor?
A: I was both nominated and applied, and it ended up that while I was poet laureate, the governor eliminated the Kansas Arts Commission, which held the poet laureate program, so I was suddenly floating. Then again, the governor’s office didn’t ask me to step down, so I organized my own projects, did crowd-sourcing to raise funds for my travel, and had the privilege of working with writers around our state to hold readings and publish books. The whole experience allowed us all to speak out and up for the arts. In the end, I was able to find a new home for our poet laureate program with our humanities council, and the program has been going strong there every since.
Q: What are some of the key elements of a good poem?
A: Strong imagery and compelling rhythm are at the root of good poetry as well as strong fiction and memoir.
Q: Who are some of your writing influences and how is this evidenced in your writing?
A: I love a wide variety of writers — poets like Adrienne Rich and William Stafford, the novelist Toni Morrison, non-fiction writers like James McBride and Terry Tempest Williams. I’m not sure how my influences are reflected in my writing, but I believe writers need to read widely and deeply in many genres.
Q: How has your writing style evolved over the years?
A: I started out as a very mediocre poet in my teens, and hopefully, I learned more since then. I have moved to speaking more directly, focusing more on my images rather than telling the reader what something means, and letting the writing lead me — and hopefully readers too — toward its own vitality that can speak to our lives.
Eliza’s interviews are done by email; all answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)