INTERVIEWS June 4, 2021

A Conversation with sam sax

Sam sax is a queer, Jewish poet and educator. They are the author of two collections, madness and bury it. The latter won the 2017 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. They are a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

During their visit to Butler University in 2019 as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, sax talked with Booth about grieving within exploitative systems, the form of diasporic writing, and the name of their future pet pig.

Abby Johnson: You’ve talked about how the diasporic elements of your identity play a role in your content. Could you talk about how those elements play a role in the form of your work, either performed or on the page?

sam sax: In my second book there’s a poem called “Diaspora” where there are large caesuras between longer fragmented sentences, and there’s a lot of space between lines in the poem. I think that’s the most concrete attempt to show both the continuity and fracture in Jewish diaspora. So it’s part of a whole object but also in pieces and scattered. 

There are those more formal, procedural ways of making poems. But this is something I’ve been talking about a lot because it offers an alternative to Zionism, right? That we are a diasporic people grounded in books and stories instead of a country. So I think what is most of interest and value about our people is our mutability, our survival, and our adaptability, and how, through that, we’ve held on to a single narrative. So writing as a Jewish person is always writing about diaspora, whether or not it’s explicit in the work.

AJ: You’ve described your work as always trying to write from “where the body meets the world.” In relation to that, have you seen your work change as your relationship with your body has changed? If so, how?

ss: It’s hard to know what it is exactly that changes it, whether it’s just having seriously been writing for fifteen years. I don’t know if it’s more my relationship with my body than it is moving cities or being thirty or living with a partner for the first time. 

But the thing I’m loving most is that, as I age, work that I didn’t find urgent or relevant when I was younger has shifted. As I’ve aged, work that once read to me as corny or too quiet has opened up in new ways linked with changes I’ve gone through. I’ve started believing less that if I don’t like something, the piece of writing is “bad,” and more that I’m not in the place in my life to read it. 

Or perhaps something about my relationship with graduate school and poetry. I came up in slam, and then in graduate school the main note I got was that I didn’t need to be so explicit and that I could trust my reader more, which led to a lot of poems that are a bit more abstruse, or intentionally elusive, which in some ways opened up possibilities for meaning-making in the poem and in other ways obscured the thing that I wanted to say plainly. So the main tension I’ve been feeling is how much to put on the page, what is trusting a reader and what is keeping them out of what is important in the poem. 

And as far as my relationship with my body, I’m having a lot less scary and unprotected sex with strangers, so that’s shifted. I think then the poems are more about, not nostalgia, but reckoning with a time where I put my body more at risk, instead of the immediacy of living inside of that experience. But I think it’s also clocking my body as I move through different spaces, like what it means to put my body in certain spaces. 

AJ: And in the same way, do you see your work changing as your relationship with the world changes?

ss: What’s the difference, right? When I was young, I had a lot of very self-righteous, utopian ideas about the world. That was my first mode of poem-making, and then it moved into self-hatred, implicating the self in harm, trying to work through the nuances of how I have received and reproduced harm. 

And now I think I’m back in that utopian mindset. Or just wanting to imagine a world where my friends are able to be alive. You know, even though I don’t necessarily see us surviving impending climate collapse, I am enjoying loving the people I love now, while we’re alive. And so the main shift has been a radical re-orientation to the present rather than to some idea of what a future might be like. 

AJ: You bring an urgency to language, history, and the history of language in bury it while also engaging in wordplay. I think this is a constant in your work, both performance and page. Can you talk about when in your career you saw yourself leaning into this strength of your voice? 

ss: The more I’ve studied and spent time with language, the more it opens up to me. That’s the thing I like to say about poetry, that the more I’ve studied it, the stranger and larger and more unknowable it’s become. How that ties to etymology, in particular, has a lot to do with my shift toward Jewish diasporic understanding. Even our language has a history. It has moved like we’ve moved, across borders and through war, famine, and violence. 

If I was stuck in a poem, the shift would always be to look at the moment where I’m stuck and look at the history of it, whether it’s an object or a particular word, and let that be a door the poem can move through. That happened so much I ended up making this poem called “Etymology,” which is about the history of gun violence, and it posits all these false origins for the word gun. That was in Guernica a while ago. 

AJ: I’m also interested in humor as a device in your work. You’ve talked about humor as a tool to trick people into listening to you. And I’m wondering how wordplay and humor coincide. Do you think they’re the same movement in your work, or do they feel different to you?

ss: I think it’s easier to be funny at a poetry reading than elsewhere because everyone has a really low expectation, in general, for what is going to happen, and no one really expects humor. I don’t think I could ever do stand-up, but I love bantering between poems. It’s something I learned from the slam, where you have three minutes to say a thing, and here’s how you pull a listener in, here’s how you get them to listen to you, and now you can say the thing that you need to tell them. So that’s a structure that always seeps into my writing, even when I try to push against it. And there are a lot of ways to do that. Wordplay can be one of them, especially if it’s silly. The whole range of human experience has a place inside the poem. 

AJ: I’m interested in the structures of your collections and how they come about. For example, the bridges in bury it, the erasures in madness, or the monster suit in “Guide to Undressing Your Monsters.” It seems like that may be very important for your work or process, to have something throughout the collection that orients it toward one idea. 

ss: First I think about what I would want most as a reader—what is going to keep me in a book. I think having these signposts is always really useful to me. That’s also why I like books with hella section breaks. I like the opportunity to put something down, breathe, and then be pulled back into the book despite myself, which is what I hope the section break does. 

It’s also how I write, generally. I mean, I don’t have any concrete processes, but in general if there’s something I don’t understand I’ll write a suite of poems about it, or poems with that same title over and over again to see the various ways I can get at and analyze a particular poem. Gay Boys and the Bridges Who Love Them was going to be the title of bury it, and there were thirty poems I wrote about that. A lot of the ones that didn’t make it into the book were news clippings that I reorganized or personal anecdotes of a friend who had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. 

I think about it like Cubism. You’re looking at a three-dimensional object on a flat surface, and writing in sequence is a way of turning that object to see all the various ways you can look at it and distort the thing itself. That’s sequentially the footholds in a book. 

AJ: There’s a lot of conversation in the poetry community about poetic ancestors, whether those be historical or contemporary poets. Who are your poetic ancestors, and in what way does their work speak to yours?

ss: There are the folks who first permissioned me to make poems and challenged me to push my work in different directions, and then there are the people that I learned later were supposed to be my poetic ancestors, who in some ways were, who affected the people who I read that affected me but who weren’t primary sources for me. 

I read “Howl” in high school, which was the first time I read a queer Jewish person be filthy in a poem. And I’ve fought against the Ginsberg connection for a while, because he was not the best guy in a lot of ways, but also pretty remarkable. I came across a book by Essex Hemphill called Ceremonies when I was a sophomore in college, and that really transformed how I thought about what is possible in a poem. I mean, it’s mostly queer men. But Audre Lorde’s essays were really formative for me. That someone could have such a nuanced and visionary politic, that shows up in both the essays and the poems. Crush by Richard Siken was a big book for me also.

A lot of writers in the slam world were big for me as well. Before I was reading poetry seriously, I was listening and being transformed by people’s stories and craft as I got to go from city to city. I think now I’ve started to draw further back connections to other sad, quiet homosexuals like Hart Crane. 

AJ: And those are the people you “should have been reading”?

ss: I think that’s it, who I’ve learned is in my family. 

AJ: And I’m sure, like you said, in slam and local artists doing punk house stuff alongside you. A mixture of all those things. 

ss: It’s really been the people I’m around, that I’m closest to, that have affected my writing the most. But that’s not a poetic ancestor, it’s a kinship—kindred spirits pushing me and pulling from their various traditions. There were a handful of people in college doing weird, experimental, multi-disciplinary stuff that I saw and was like, “I want to do that. I want to do that with you.” And then I read books on historical performance art and books of experimental monologues that were really impactful to me when I was in college. Like Kathy Acker, Adrian Piper, Karen Finley, and folks. But it depends what day it is whose impact is most clear or how I’m thinking about it.

AJ: There’s a question that every poet is getting now. As a poet working during the Trump administration, do you see the responsibility of the poet changing? And, if so, in what ways?

ss: I don’t think it’s any different. I think it’s caused certain people to awaken to what’s always been there. Not that there’s an obligation for every poet to explicitly speak to the moment they’re living in. That is the work I am most interested in. But poetry can be and do nearly anything, so when we talk about poets having a singular responsibility or obligation, I disagree.

It’s hard because every poem has politics, is a political poem, right? You can read any poem in that way. The poems that I have loved most are polemical while also having a deep, urgent sense of self. That well predates Trump; some of my favorite poets were writing in the twenties. But that’s not to say that times aren’t dire, and more dire for a lot of people. And that we’re not on a trajectory toward annihilation. And it’s important to contextualize that within a wider scope of capitalist, consumer-based harm and violence and neoliberalism. I think the myth of Trump being an anomaly instead of a product of that is dangerous in our work and how we talk about our work.

AJ: I absolutely agree. As far as bury it, you’ve talked about it as a work reckoning with the deaths of queer people and how those deaths are publicized. How do you reckon with that publicity as a queer person who is writing elegies?

ss: “Politics of Elegy” points to that difficulty. Hieu Minh Nguyen and Danez Smith and I all wrote poems with that title, and for me the moment in the poem is the sort of etymological bent: “eulogy from the greek means praise / praise from the latin means price.” Praising the dead is a performance for the living and has often been a monetized process. And to reckon with being compensated for mourning, it’s something I can’t really get my head around. 

The ways in which it provides relief for people, the writer, myself, and the ways in which it benefits from destructive capitalism felt important to talk about in the book. But I also didn’t want to not grieve the people I felt I needed to grieve. I think poetry often offers a place for the nuanced, complicated politic and experiential relationship of living through unspeakably violent and political times while also holding on to joy and care inside your body. So ferrying back and forth between those two spaces is something I think poems can help us navigate, if not understand.

AJ: What boundaries do you set for yourself, or what self-care do you do, as someone whose job is living in this headspace of reckoning with grief and trauma and systemic violence?

ss: Therapy has been really useful. Sometimes after a reading folks will talk to me, or on social media or whatever, about experiences I’ve written about, particularly my own experiences with trauma or familial violence. Often how I’ve crafted and put it in a poem is the extent to which I’m trying to talk about it. 

I often feel compelled to talk to people if they care about my writing since it’s such a privilege, honor, and gift, but I also want to be able to say “I can’t talk to you about whatever x is”—and finding ways to set a boundary around that. Exercising and eating better have been helping. I was writing a book that was going to be about the Anthropocene and queer joy, and during my research I had a bit of a breakdown, so I put that book aside and stopped working on it. Trying to be sensitive to where my limits are is very critical.

AJ: Given that your next book is about pigs, literally and figuratively, if you owned a pig, what would you name it?

ss: An ex and I talked about owning a pig together when we were in college. There’s a poem in the book about it. They wanted to call it Rainbow Queen Encyclopedia, so that name has always stuck with me. I think it’d be a cute name for a little pig baby. I want a pig and I want a pit bull and I want them to be best friends. I hope to, at some point in my life, be in a stable enough position to own and care for a pig properly. 

AJ: Who are you reading right now?

ss: Right now I’m rereading Alexander Chee’s collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I’ve got this Amos Oz book called Jews and Words. I just read Aria Aber’s first collection, called Hard Damage, which is a really phenomenal book. I have Hanif [Abdurraqib]’s new book, A Fortune for Your Disaster, in my bag too, which is really stunning. So those are the four books I’m currently eating, and then—and this is kind of dweeby—I’m reading a couple pages of Ulysses every morning.

Abby Johnson is a poet and a Hoosier who is proud of the local art scene that fostered her. She received her MFA in Creative Writing through Butler University. She is Poetry Co-Editor for Booth: A Journal. Her micro-chapbook No Line Except is published through Ghost City Press in their Summer 2019 collection. She has individual pieces published in Turnpike Magazine, Josephine Quarterly, The Indianapolis Review, and most recently in the Winter/Spring 2020 issue of Sycamore Review.