Poet Natasha Saje resists straitjacket of language

March 15, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

"It's probably much more important that I love cats than that I am a white female of Eastern European descent," Natasha Saje says. Ms. Saje, an award-winning poet living in Baltimore, reaches down to pet her gray cat, Basil, as if to prove her point. Basil, she explains, was named after the herb. The name comes from the Latin word for royal -- "basil" meaning king of herbs.

Word histories, as well as cats and herbs, are features in most of Ms. Saje's poems. She also writes about food, food histories and stereotypes, specifically the way stereotypes separate people.

"Stereotyping is the root of racism, sexism and war," she says, adding, "I'm worried about the kind of things people infer from a name or the color of your skin."

Those worries surface often in "Red Under the Skin," Ms. Saje's first book of poetry. In 1993, it was chosen from more than 900 first-book manuscripts to win the highly coveted Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh. Ms. Saje (pronounced sah-YAY) received a cash award of $2,500 and publication in the prestigious Pitt Poetry Series. She will read poems from the book, as well as new ones, at 8 tonight in the Academic Center of the University of Baltimore.

Sitting in her living room, Ms. Saje ushers her cat outside, then begins to discuss her theories of language. "Being a non-native speaker of English," she says, "has made me conscious of language." German is her native tongue. Ms. Saje's family came to America when she was 2.

As a child, Ms. Saje was an avid reader. She had her first poem published when she was 16. She recites it, pleased that it still resonates: "Stale bread / tastes pretty good toasted. / Maybe we should try / a little warmth."

Ms. Saje, who reads her poetry to classes in Maryland public schools, will receive a doctorate in English from the University of Maryland in May. In 1980, she received a master's from the Writing Seminars of Johns Hopkins University, where a course in literary translation was especially helpful. She found the seminars enriching and made good friends at Hopkins, among them Kendra Kopelke, professor at the University of Baltimore and sponsor of Ms. Saje's poetry reading tonight.

After graduating from the seminars, Ms. Saje married Tyrone Robertson. Because he is black, her concern with stereotypes increased, affecting her poetry.

"Poems are a way of reaching people," she says. "They're a way of breaking down those binary oppositions that occur when people see life in two columns -- straight or gay, male or female, white or black -- and assume that one column is better than the other. But this limited way of thinking keeps people from their full potential."

Ms. Saje considers poetry a way out of the "straitjacket" that language imposes on human experience. She notes the irony that poetry is made from language, yet its images transcend language.

"I have a very broad definition of poetry," she says, describing poems as "evidence of someone thinking." In Ms. Saje's view, poems become art when you're willing to put aside your own needs and let the art work through you to determine its shape.

POETRY READING

Who: Natasha Saje

Where: Room 252, Academic Center, University of Baltimore, 1420 N. Charles St.

When: 8 tonight

Admission: Free

Call: (410) 837-6022

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