Sam Sax is the author of Madness (Penguin, 2017) winner of The National Poetry Series and ‘Bury It’ (Wesleyan University Press, 2018) winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. He’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lambda Literary, & the MacDowell Colony. He’s the two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion, winner of the Gulf Coast Prize, The Iowa Review Award, & American Literary Award. He’s the poetry editor at BOAAT Press.
Sam and I got a few beers and falafel and talked about his newest book of poetry, Madness.
Phillip M Miner (PM): Inside the cover there’s something written in either Hebrew or Yiddish. What does it say?
Sam Sax (SS): It’s a line of text I’ve put in every book I’ve published and I want it in every book I make. It’s Yiddish. There was this punky subgenera of Yiddish literature that was for women and queers and outcasts and weirdos while hebrew was the masculinist rabbinical literature, reserved for men in Yeshiva. So in certain early Yiddish books there was this warning that reads, “This book is for women and men who are like women in that they cannot learn.” That’s the audience I’m interested in and who I’m trying to speak to. That’s me calling out to my idealized readership, casting a little spell for my community.
PM: I love that. Can you talk a little more about how identity impacts your work?
SS: Lineage and etymology and inheritance are a large part of everything I write and what I’m interested in. I’m Jewish and interested in Jewish diasporic narratives, that game of telephone where culture and language shift and change from year to year from country to country.
I also identify as a queer. I identify as a faggot. I like the term “invert” / “sodomite”. Names that give birth to an identity you have to negotiate how to live inside.
PM: Do the mental health themes play into that?
SS: What started the book was I found this list of reasons for admission to Allegheny Asylum in the 1800’s and that’s where I started to work from on this book. It included things like “kicked in the head by a horse”, “masturbation into tobacco” and “novel reading”. It’s funny and horrifying when you look at how where we’re at now is rooted in these racialized, homophobic, sexist categories of normalcy.
After I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder I was amazed how my thinking around my mental health changed when it was given a name. I was diagnosed and then suddenly I was different. Although nothing material was different in how I lived in my body or how I experienced the world.
PM: Another identity you have to live inside?
SS: Exactly. I think that ties into the history of how queerness is pathologized. How desire has always been pathologized…really, any deviant behavior. Psychological taxonomical categories as ways of promoting traditional family units.
PM: That pathology theme seems to carry over into STIs and Sexual Health.
SS: I once got a list of dangerous [sexual] behaviors from a doctor’s office and I was like, “Oh snap, I practice every single thing on this list.” Several of these poems navigate what it is to be clocked like that, to be viewed as dangerous & then become the danger. One poem uses that list as verbatim sampled text. There’s also a series in this book about PrEP, when I was exploring getting on PrEP I was struck by how all that diagnostic & charged language maps onto an identity.
PM: Earlier you mentioned your interest in changing and shifting narratives. I love how present that theme is present even with STIs.
SS: Tracing history is interesting to me. The history of diseases are similar to the history of language, you can follow their movement across history, borders, between bodies. There’s a poem in the book which tracks syphilis back across time, countries, people, and literature.
PM: I love how your work has that historical perspective, but is rooted in your struggles.
SS: I think that’s the art I’m drawn most to, poems that work through their difficulty. I had several mentors in the slam who instructed to write into what scares you most & I’ve gotten some of my most alive work through this praxis. I try to write about what I don’t understand that makes my body feel (disgust, pleasure, etc.) as a way to order that unknowing. Things that feel too large for me to understand in analytic language. I’ll write a sequence of poems that turns that strange object and let’s me look at it from many sides.
PM: You’re great at that. Can you tell me about how people react to your work?
SS: In so many different ways! At it’s worst it’s folks treating me like I’m in a club I don’t belong in (the high literary), or maybe at its worst it’s apathy. At its best it’s folks tattooing lines I’ve written onto their forearms. At its best it’s kids telling me that my poems have helped them come out, have helped them through the some of the world’s difficulty. That’s what I’m hoping for with my work. And it’s what literature does best. There were so many early books that kept me from killing myself. Books where I saw representations of queer people who were able to inhabit their desire and not be destroyed by it. I’ve had a couple people reach out and tell me my work does that for them. That’s been truly amazing.
Check out a few of Sax’s readings below