Carly Sachs on writing poems out of a love for others, the world, and language

You are the editor of the why and later (Deep Cleveland Press, 2007), and the author of the full-length collection the stream sequence (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2006), and the DIY chapbook Yama Niyama, a sequence on yogic philosophy. The poem “Ahimsa,” meaning nonviolence (a longer discussion of term appears here and the complete poem here), concludes beautifully with these lines:

… Ahimsa is the treasured map,
not the jeweled chest, the one that guides,

but not the arrival. It is the light, like the one in a dark café,
the one that helps you find your page

or your place. Ahimsa is the word you write, or say when
you need to find meaning. Ahimsa is the breath

that whispers in your ear, that inner voice or teacher
who tells you, you are loved.

As a certified yoga teacher and a poet, talk about the eight arms of yoga. In what ways does such practice inspire and sustain creative work? 

Before I dive into the 8 limbed path (Yama & Niyama) being the first two, I want to speak a little bit about the different kinds of yoga, especially bhakti and jnana yoga which I think frame my approach as a poet. Bhakti is the yoga of devotion, or the yoga of the heart and when I began writing poems it was out of a love for others and the world, but more specifically language. I love how poetry can turn language inside out, almost as if a poet is the lover and the poem, the beloved. However, my poems often were about creating knowledge or giving new felt experiences of knowledge, and that’s jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom. From an early age, I loved reading, anything I could get my hands on but specifically I remember being enthralled by Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet which was given to me as a Bat Mitzvah gift. My 13-year old self didn’t quite get all the meaning, but I remember feeling, this man knows what he is talking about and it made me feel such a connection with the world. I felt large and small at the same time reading that book and that’s often what happens when I do asana, pranayama (breathing), and meditation. So in some ways, poetry was my first yoga and when I teach, my students often tell me that it’s my words and my voice that resonate with them the most. Most of my teaching is a theme based class, so in a way, it works much in the way a narrative does.

When I began Yama/Niyama, it was in my 2nd yoga teacher training—a special certification in trauma informed yoga. As my continued sadhana, from my 200-hour training, I vowed to write one poem for every asana I practiced. But what happened was that I realized, they all ended up sounding the same. We had been asked to read some sections from Deschichar’s The Heart of Yoga which focused on the yamas and niyamas, the first two of the 8 limbed path. So I wrote Ahimsa. And I was like, yes, I think yogic philosophy is where it’s at for me. I’ve tried writing after asana and pranayama and meditation practices (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) but that writing feels more for me and less like a poem I would want to share with others. I tend to keep some of my deeper practices private and sacred. There are very few things that I think many of us can say are just ours and so for me the writing that comes from those practices is only for me. I do guide people through journaling after restorative yoga and meditation practices and everyone is always amazed at what is unearthed and so I think the path is a good one for any of us use to connect with places unseen in regular life both in terms of movement and then writing after those practices. I also keep the writing private there too and let people know they will not be asked to share. I think that helps build a safe container for the intimacy that happens when one really connects within.

As a yoga teacher, you’ve also done graduate work in writing and have taught writing in the university classroom. Megan Fulwiler discusses the interconnectedness of yoga and writing classes here and writes, “Both require a commitment to practice rather than perfection; reward risk-taking rather than hesitation; flourish with timely but limited suggestions that encourage rather than frustrate; are active all-at-once activities that are learned by doing; and remain difficult no matter how long you’ve been doing them.” Similarly, in this interview Jane Smiley discusses the importance of teaching in her life, noting “Teaching is a way of reminding yourself of what you know,” and concludes the interview with this advice to new writers, “Be patient. You are a tortoise rather than a hare. You also cannot be a perfectionist, and you have to let your work get out into the world even if you are not really satisfied with it. If you redo it too many times, it will become very confusing, and rewriting will defeat its own purposes.” Talk about your pedagogy in the writing classroom and the guided journaling you’ve lead after yoga classes. How does yoga inform your approach to teaching writing? When working with young writers, what advice do you offer when they meet their edge?

I think for me the most important principles in teaching anything, but in this case writing and movement, is to be encouraging and supportive and making the material relevant and engaging for each student. The challenge there is in group classes where there is a variety of interests and perspectives, but for me as a teacher, it is creating enough experiences and assignments that leave room for student directed inquiry. That way, they are doing something for them and feel empowered as they journey forward on the page and in their bodies. I think I had this philosophy as a teacher of creative writing but it definitely deepened as a result of my own teacher training at Kripalu, grounded in inquiry based experiential learning practices. My husband teaches at the university and I think the words he would say would be collaborative, student centered, and active learning.

I also agree with Jane Smiley. Patience is essential as it helps us look at our writing, movement, or learning over a wider spectrum. It’s easy to focus on just the present assignment, class, etc. but more challenging to see ourselves as multidimensional beings with a relationship with ourselves over time. It’s harder to focus on the process or the practice instead of the result. There’s a lovely passage from the Bhagavad Gita that states, (I’m paraphrasing) you have the right to your efforts but not the fruits of your labors. I think this is very helpful to keep in mind as practitioners of writing and movement. For me, this takes the pressure off the poem or the pose and keeps more of my energy in the long rather than the short game.

We’ve talked about teaching writing and yoga and inspiration. Beyond the classroom, studies, and the mat, what motivates your writing practice? In Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” Describe your process, writing life, and practice.

Wow, that’s a big question! Ha, don’t print that. Poetry almost always begins somewhat divinely. I don’t mean that to be cliché, but for me, it really is about a feeling or words that just come organically and sporadically. I remember one time in college, just sitting down in the snow because a line came to me and I knew I had to write it at that moment. I would love to be one of those writers that has a regular disciplined time to write, but often I only end up frustrated and with writing that doesn’t feel satisfying. Though I suppose over time, that would shift and I would learn a new way of writing. However, I do teach in a Writing Workshop in which we write intensely for three days—I teach poetry and I get to participate in the fiction and non-fiction classes and I am always surprised at how well a disciplined practice works when writing in community. I think that’s because I respond to prompts well. I like the surprise that a prompt uncovers and so I think that’s partly attributed to the mystery within that it leads me to.

With my first book, the steam sequence, at first I thought I was writing about the process of sublimation, but then a mysterious voice emerged, an almost ghost woman who survived the Holocaust and was dealing with PTSD. At the time I was writing it, I don’t think I even knew the term PTSD, that came later though my yogic studies, but it almost was as if I had channeled someone else’s voice. I think it was Jack Spicer who wrote about tapping into another frequency much in the way Gilbert believes in getting out of the way. Whether it comes from inside or outside of ourselves, I think poetry has the capacity to bring us to deeper places of connection with ourselves and the world.

Having a project for me works well to create a book. Yama/Niyama began as a vow to write one poem for every asana—-after the famous Dharma Mittra poster. After about 10 asana poems however, I realized they all were sounding the same, so I started diving into yoga philosophy. Ekphrasis is another way that I get into writing. For me, the image is the heart of the poem and so the visual is a natural way to lead me into the mystery or to help me get out of the way of myself.

How do you define chapbook? A shorter book of poems but still connected thematically. A small book. When I first heard the term, I misheard chat book. So I thought, a more casual book 🙂

What makes a good chapbook?
One that takes my breath away and one where I want to meet the author.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Anything from the Wick Poetry Series. It’s where I first learned what a chapbook was and it was refreshing to meet newer poets who were often closer to my age.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Something smaller as a theme, something that may eventually become a section of a larger book. Often, something I’m experimenting with.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I like focusing on the smaller and more micro—especially with a baby on the way. I like the freedom of less pages.

What’s next for you? I honestly have a lot of poems that don’t have a place and so organizing and revisiting old work.

Number of chapbooks you own: a lot

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: a lot more

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. It’s honestly newer for me so I’m open.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I’d like to do more of this and maybe start a chapbook challenge for NaPoWriMo

Your chapbook credo: Just write. Don’t worry. 

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Probably on yoga or coffee

Your chapbook wish: To learn more about printing and making my own and to teach this to my daughter.

Residence: Lexington, KY

Job: Yoga Teacher

Chapbook Bio: Carly Sachs is the editor of the why and later (Deep Cleveland Press, 2007), and the author of the full-length collection the stream sequence (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2006), and the DIY chapbook Yama Niyama, a sequence on yogic philosophy. To request a handmade copy of her chapbook Yama Niyama, contact Carly via email.


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