Sally Van Doren ’84 is an American poet and visual artist who graduated from Princeton with a degree in comparative literature. She began her professional career in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a radio news director, before becoming the executive director of the Santa Fe Arts Commission. Her fourth collection of poetry, Sibilance, is due out in September.
Can you talk about your development as an author and where you’ve received most of your inspiration?
My freshman year at Princeton I took Latin, and we were asked to translate poems by Catallus. I remember my professor after looking at my translations saying, “Wow these are really poems on their own.” I really think Catullus was one of my first major influences because he touched upon serious subjects like love and death, while also obtaining a sense of humor. [Like Catallus,] I also work in short lyric poems.
What do you see as next steps for you?
Right now I am going all in on poetry and visual art. I was teaching poetry at the 92nd Street Y in New York and decided I regretted that I didn’t take any studio art at Princeton. [At the time,] I was living in New York with amazing opportunities to study at this school of visual art and under the Hunter College undergraduate art department. I actually did a couple of years doing painting, printing, printmaking, and drawing. [This] gave me the opportunity to start my own studio practice, which was five years ago.
I also have been journaling since I was very young and about 20 years ago I stopped writing legibly. It was more of the process of putting pen to paper in the morning that was meditative for me and not necessary to really know what the words read. At one point I realized, “Oh, this isn’t writing anymore, this is drawing and I really need to focus and allow this drawing to come out of me on different surfaces.” I’ve really enjoyed drawing on large drawing paper and canvases while also starting to show at galleries and developing my visual work. Often it [my work] references this calligraphy illegible scrawl that I do. I am very interested in the interplay between visual language and written language.
Can you speak about your time at Princeton and how it has shaped your career?
I also studied Italian renaissance epic poetry (at Princeton) and I’ve been working on a long epic poem that I’ve been writing since 2006. I’ve been writing a line a day and it’s now 400 pages long. The other fun thing I did at Princeton was rugby. At the end of every game we’d sing songs and create new lyrics to the songs so I think I also incorporated that playfulness from that into some of my poems.
— Interview conducted and condensed by Sophie Steidle ’25