Conversations with Contributors: Sam Sax (Issue 13, Poetry)

In September, we talked with Issue 12 contributors Brynne Rebele-Henry and Ian Burnette. Next up from Issue 13 is Sam Sax in conversation with Audrey Zhao. Check out their discussion of all things poetry.

 Photo by Chris Unguez.
Photo by Chris Unguez.

Audrey Zhao, Blog Correspondent: Let’s start with some recommendations. What are some works or authors that have influenced your work?

Sam Sax: The work I’m most influenced by is often the work closest to me. All of the members of my collective, Sad Boy Supper Club, have amazing first books you should be reading now. That’s Hieu Minh Nguyen’s – This Way to The Sugar (Write Bloody), Danez Smith’s [Insert] Boy (YesYesBooks) & Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster (forthcoming from Gold Line Press).

Then there are the books I always (re)turn to when feeling too settled in my own voice. Whenever I read these something new & unexpected comes up through my work. Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys by DA Powell, Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral, Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall, Water Puppets by Quan Barry. Looking a smidge further back I’m constantly ruined and rebuilt by the poems of Robert Hayden & Robert Hass & Muriel Rukeyser & Audre Lorde & Anne Sexton & also, there’s the first poet I loved, who gave me permission to be strange, & queer, & brutally honest in my writing and that’s Essex Hemphill. His work showed me a poetry that can hold all of what’s possible & most urgent in myself & my best vision for the world. Whenever I’m feeling lost in what it is I’m doing on the page, his poems are the ones I make sure to read.

AZ: You are a two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion! What do you think of the Bay Area’s poetry and slam poetry scene?

SS: I’m nothing but grateful to have been a part of that community for as long as I was. I have so much love for everyone laboring for free to build platforms for people to share their poetry. There’s special love to my first coaches & mentors, the poets Mona Webb, Jaylee Alde & Kim Johnson, who paired a focus on written craft with community accountability; an emphasis that your work has consequences in the world, so best be aware & intentional about it.

I moved to Bay after getting off a year long poetry tour & joining a group of energetic writers to be in conversation with has become a really important part of my practice as a writer. After a few years attending the slams & feeling a little stagnant a buddy, Nic Alea, & I started a reading series called The New Sh!t Show, which was a bi-monthly open mic held in an underground [literarily & figuratively] venue in The Mission District, where participants could only read new poems. In running the show we realized that there were so many different divided writing communities alive and working in the Bay Area that were often fragmented around aesthetics & the identity of participants & so we tried to build a space where as many dope writers as possible from various scenes could come & share their work. Since founding, this reading has developed incarnations in four American cities, Boston, Minneapolis, Austin, & San Francisco.

AZ: You are now a Poetry Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, so how is the poetry scene different in Austin? What do you think is your “ideal” poetry scene?

SS: It’s a little hard for me to parse the difference between poetry communities, largely because I don’t work as an organizer that much anymore, & because I’m entering Austin’s various lit communities at a later stage in my career as an writer; a bit more sure of my voice & with networks of folks whose poems I already love. I think there are lots of folks doing great work here, but I fear Austin might suffer the fate of many fragmented lit communities that aren’t in conversation with each other. To be honest, the undergrad slam community at UT which I coach has proved to be one of the more vibrant writing spaces I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of here in Texas (which has nothing to do with my coaching). It’s an example of a diverse group of hungry writers gathering weekly to work on their poetry & share work that’s most exciting to them. & for me, that’s at the heart of what makes a good writing community: a place where a wide range of voices all committed to poetry & willing to do the work of poetry & support each other in their writing & non-writing (whatever that is) lives. Community is such a shifting & liminal idea I want to make sure to honor all the one’s I’ve passed through that let me hang out for a spell.

AZ: In your interview with Conflict of Interest (found here), you said you invented a boy detective character in order to process your melancholy through your recently published chapbook, sad boy/detective (recipient of the Black Lawrence Chapbook Prize from Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Can you speak on how creating a character added a new dimension to your poetry writing?

SS:  I’m new to this character making business, this fictioneering.  But I think the epigraph, to the chapbook spells out best what was made possible for me with the invention of the ‘sad boy / detective’. It comes from Agatha Christie:

“There is nothing more thrilling, I think, than having a child that is yours and yet is mysteriously a stranger.”

The invention of character is that to me, both something deeply embodied & deeply estranged. Through this new avatar I was freed up a bit around some of the strictures of autobiography. The boy detective isn’t accountable in the same ways that I am, & I don’t mean in terms of representation or engaging with larger structures of power, but rather accountable to the personal relationships in my life, to be held to the facts in order to access what’s most stirring about a certain series of events. When the boy detective falls in love it isn’t with my ex-lover & I don’t have to consider my ex-lover when thinking about the boy’s life. Same goes for his relationship with his parents, or his slow spiral into madness.

AZ: Your poems possess a beautiful rhythm and sound. In your opinion, what is the difference between reading a poem and hearing it spoken aloud? Are there facets of poems that can only be appreciated in one of these forms?

SS: Thanks! I’ve always been interested in poems that can devastate on the page, in the ear, & in the mouth, & I try to make work that reverberates across these various modes. Since my roots are in performance poetry I begin each poem with a sound, the impossibility of breath pushing forward from the diaphragm and from there venture to construct poems the listener/reader leaves somehow different from when they came to page. I love the strange intimacy and interiority that is only possible in poetry, what begs you to lean into the haunt, what speaks softly in your ear and makes the hairs on your neck rise to their feet. That being said, I think each media offers a unique opportunity for tweaking the word to let it sing best [on or off the page]. A spoken poem often only has one opportunity to reach its listener, to do its work. I often try to select the poem that will fit best to the space & moment it’s being read in. Whereas the written poem often exists across place & time, something you return to when you decide to bring it back to life.


by the late poet Jason Shinder

A poem written three thousand years ago

about a man who walks among horses
grazing on a hill under the small stars

comes to life on a page in a book

and the woman reading the poem,
in the silence between the words,

in her kitchen, filled with a gold, metallic light,

finds the experience of living in that moment
so clearly described as to make her feel finally known

by someone—and every time the poem is read,

no matter her situation or her age,
this is more or less what happens.

Although, I must say the rise of internet videos (shout to Button Poetry, who published my first chapbook) is changing how the performed poem functions in popular consciousness & complicating my ideas about ephemera & how performed poems have a different kind of life. This & the rise of online journals with audio & video components are radically changing the landscape of contemporary poetry. I’ll probably have to revisit all these ideas in a few years, how exciting!

AZ: Your poems also deal with coming of age, especially regarding queerness. Do you have any advice for queer writers, or for those who address/write about queerness?

SS: My investment in the ‘coming of age’ narrative is it’s both an extremely specific & universal moment of self-making in the world. Everyone comes of age, or eventually becomes no longer an infant. & for many, it’s a moment where the internal mechanics of desire or how you see the world are in direct conflict with the violence & institutions of the word. To return to the coming of age narrative in a poem forces a reader to return to their own learned & deeply held beliefs & reconsider them.

On the larger project of queer writing, I see my work as part of long tradition of homosexuals writing their experience dead-on or somehow askance, hidden inside their own text. Some days I feel I can trace my lineage straight back through Catullus’s filthy feather(?) pen. Other times I feel more contemporaneous with houseplants & their sadnessess, with fields of dead automobiles, with a locked up rusted bicycle.

As far as advice, I’d say write everything & lean into what most terrifies you. Try & focus on what it is about language that brought you to the page to begin with, drag what you’re most afraid of out into the light. & once it’s all there, you can decide what it is that you want to share — hold on to what would do more damage than good & consider the rest. Incorporate whatever technologies make your voice sing most. Figure out who your poets are, build your own weird lineage, your own personal canon, figure out what speaks to & through you, & enter into that conversation with your own brilliant voice, use it to caress & brutalize & pamper & fuck it up, make something new with all you’ve been given & all you’ve taken as your own.

AZ: Can tell us a bit about your forthcoming chapbook, All the Rage (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016)?

SS: Sibling Rivalry’s doing amazing work in the publishing world at the moment, amplifying necessary queer voices in poetry & filling a necessary void, I’m so glad to be working with them. The press’s literary journal, Assaracus, was one of the first journals to take an interest in my work & I’m deeply grateful. The poems that make up this chapbook span & sprawl several subjects, but focus in & around rage, whether it’s tied to police violence, Israeli apartheid, homophobia, or other subject matters.

AZ: We have heard you’re working on some manuscripts—we’re excited! How is that coming?

SS: Exciting indeed! At the moment I’ve got three projects in the works. The first is my finished first book length manuscript called Boys & Bridges, which is a meditation on queer masculinities, architectural violence, and the practice of elegy. The first poem was written after the slew of young gay male suicides in the summer of 2010. The bridge is the central image that ties the collection together and signifies that which is leapt from as well as that which ties two discrete bodies together, both the image of isolation and the structure that makes language possible. It’s been a finalist over at Crab Orchard & YesYesBooks, & hopefully will be out in the world sometime soon.

I’ve got another chapbook manuscript, STRAIGHT, which is a sonnet sequence that looks at addiction & a friend’s overdose & was just a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s chapbook Fellowship.

& I’m currently working on a second full length manuscript project, cause you know, the first book seems like such an insurmountable behemoth sometimes, & I don’t want to not be writing. So this second book is called MADNESS & takes as its subject the history of Western medicine and where it intersects with desire. The poems themselves take various shapes, including titles of antiquated diagnosis, a sequence of essays on quack medical practices, and erasures of the DSM 1 and early psychoanalysis, among others.

AZ: Finally, to cap this off: Give us a question to ask during our next Conversation with Contributor.

SS: Do you have any bizarre writing habits? // What’s the strangest way a poem has come to you? 

sam sax is a 2015 NEA Creative Writing Fellow & Poetry Fellow at The Michener Center for Writers, where he serves as the Editor-In-Chief of Bat City Review. He’s the two time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion & author of the chapbooks A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters (Button Poetry, 2014), sad boy / detective (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), and All The Rage (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016). His poems are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, New England Review, Pleiades, Poetry Magazine, & other journals.

Audrey Zhao

Audrey Zhao is a high school senior at Marin Academy in northern California. She was a poetry mentee in The Adroit Journal’s 2015 Summer Mentorship Program. Audrey is constantly learning what it means to be ‘Audrey Zhao’ from mistakes/successes, people, events, and herself.

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