Member Profile: Carla Sameth


When and why did you become a member of PEN Center USA? 
I had been interested in joining PEN Center USA ever since I became aware of their international work supporting the freedom to write and their teaching artist program, PEN In The Community. A teaching artist was placed at my son’s school when he was younger, and I learned a lot about his classmates through their poetry, including the class bully’s true feelings. When the kids’ work was anthologized, my son’s poetic words became part of the book’s title, which meant a lot to him. I finally joined PEN Center USA last spring. I was about to graduate with my MFA and was putting more focus on my writing instead of just eking out a living as a single mom and writing when I could. I wish I had joined sooner, but I like to think that I have been a strong admirer and supporter of the organization in other ways for many years. 
What is most meaningful to you about PEN Center USA? 
PEN Center USA's core mission—the freedom to read and write brings strength and power. The connections we make as readers and writers can literally save lives.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?  
Freedom to Write means the ability to write what I really see, think, and feel, knowing that I will survive the repercussions. For people in certain parts of the world, writing their truth may mean torture or even death. For others it could mean being slammed by Internet trolls, racists, and other haters. Some may even fear the reactions of their closest friends and family. I have become more willing to take risks and write my truest truths thanks to supportive colleagues, groups like Women Who Submit, and organizations like PEN Center USA. Also, having hit a certain age (I am 57 years old), I am aware that my time on this earth is limited. I want to “get out” what I can, and maybe my words will help someone else out there feel less alone.   
Writers are using their digital media platforms to engage with readers and other writers on serious topics. Can you give an example of a writer or organization that is doing this well? 
Women Who Submit immediately comes to mind. Women in that organization are pushing to get their voices out there, and their subject matter is diverse and essential (race, gender, mental health, violence, injustice in the criminal justice system, and much more). They have successfully connected with women across the country, encouraging them to write and be published and to form more chapters. Last spring, I was asked to write a piece for their blog on the subject of writing about difficult topics because this is something I do often.  
What is the one book you wish you had written and why? 
The Chronology of Water by Lydia Yuknavitch. There are so many, but this one both inspires people and guts them. Her story, the quality of her writing, her fearlessness and the power of her words are all riveting (and I don’t use that word carelessly). I find her work to be both intimidating and energizing. 
What is your favorite quote? 
Again, there are so many. So I’ll give you one from my mother. When a social worker evaluating her for dementia asked how old she was, this was her response: “Look, I can’t really tell you how old I am, but what I can tell you is that I do exist.”   
Who would be your ideal literary dinner guest (living or dead)?   
I have a list. But here’s one I recently met in person (she was on the faculty of my MFA program): Ada Limon. She is effervescent, incredibly talented, and writes beautifully. (My friend read one of Limon’s poems at my wedding last weekend.) 

Actually, I have sat at dinner with Limon and other members of our MFA program, so let me give you a dead one: Tillie Olsen. A cousin once called me and said, “Read ‘I Stand Here Ironing’, from Tell Me a Riddle. This is about our grandparents.” Another feminist Jewish writer I’d love to have as a guest (and is still alive) would be Lillian Faderman. I could learn a lot from these women. I have questions. And I would love to spend some time with Kahil Gibran. But I have no idea what I would cook for any of them.

What are you working on now?
I am putting the finishing touches on my memoir-in-essays, working on some fiction, and writing an essay for an anthology. In case there are publishers and agents out there: “One Day on the Gold Line tells the story of a single, Jewish, lesbian mother raising a Black son in Los Angeles, with meditations on race, culture, addiction, love, and the dream of the perfect family…”

Carla Sameth has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University and recently completed a memoir-in-essays. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and publications such as  Brain, Child; Full Grown People; Mutha Magazine; Narratively; Tikkun; and La Bloga

Carla is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, who presented a four-week "Poetry Within Reach" series via an NEA grant in summer 2016. Another project is planned for December 2016 through March 2017 With Side Street Projects. Carla has helped others tell their stories through her business (iMinds PR), as co-founder of the Pasadena Writing Project, and as a writing instructor and mentor for incarcerated youth through WriteGirl. She is a fall 2016 PEN In The Community teaching artist, and she teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project, Secondary Writing Institute at Cal State Los Angeles.

Read Carla’s “Graduation Day at Addiction High”.
Photo credit: Michael Sedano