A Conversation with Sam Ross
BY PHILIP MATTHEWS
Sam Ross is the author of Company, selected by Carl Phillips for Four Way Books’ Levis Prize in Poetry. He lives in New York City.
Philip Matthews, Interviewer: Sam, I’m thrilled to speak with you about Company for The Adroit Journal. I feel compelled to start our conversation with how we met: as 2016-17 Fellows at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Reading Company, I thought so much about you being in practice in Provincetown, having arrived with the book-in-progress and finishing it there. Could you talk about how the course of the project shifted during that time, or more broadly, over the course of its life?
Sam Ross, Poet: It’s a privilege to talk to you about the book, Philip. I came into our fellowship with a manuscript that I had been working with since graduate school with the working title At Night Not Knowing Where. That title is embedded in the end of my poem “Lichtung,” in which the speaker is haunted by a near-drowning; it’s a phrase I lifted from William Bradford’s On Plymouth Plantation: “their core was planted, all ther victails were spente, and they were only to rest on Gods providence; at night not many times knowing wher to have a bitt of any thing ye next day.” The phrase struck me as particularly beautiful and eerie, suggesting suspension, isolation, and doubt. There was something very in between about it which is an aim of mine, being able to capture a bothness without getting muddy or mealymouthed. So that title always felt like it was doing some work for me, but as the manuscript changed over the years, it loosened its hold.
Then I was eating an egg sandwich by the bay with a poet friend who was visiting Provincetown, and he noted the happenstance of working there on a manuscript with a title taken from Bradford since many things in Provincetown (including our favorite/only watering hole) are named for him. He also observed that by giving the title to Bradford, I was giving him a lot—and who exactly was he? That conversation stuck with me, and I ultimately decided to let the governor go. I don’t know him. And the more I wrote, the more the book’s doubt transformed into its own certainty. A clearer-eyed intimacy, though of a very in-between sort. One day, it was something else.
PM: I love hearing about these transformations, especially of the book becoming more certain by grounding down into its doubt. I was floored by the ending of “Lichtung:” “…blood passing / long halls of marrow at night, // not knowing where.” It points to an ongoing theme of being lost, trying to find or re-find your place. That experience is internalized in the body here, and elsewhere, expressed in relation to intimate others or surroundings. For example, in “A Feast of Distance and Air,” which opens, “At the church of San Francisco / I lose my companion,” or in “Vox Inaudita,” which closes “Teach me how to forget / I’m lost here.” It feels to me that the speaker is often suspended, or “in-between” as you say, but even so, knows exactly what it is that he’s searching for, aimed at. Do you feel elements of that doubt-turned-certainty at play in these moments?
SR: Yes, I think some of the poems here speak to the state of being lost as almost a spiritual necessity. That goes back to Dante (or further I’m sure) in the opening lines of the Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / for I had wandered off from the straight path.” The acceptance of being lost may be the only way forward, vulnerability as an openness to possibility, perception, knowledge.
PM: It strikes me that you’re navigating different geographies in the book: places you’ve called or continue to call home (NYC and Indiana). What do you feel each place gave the book? Are there aspects of your work that are transmitted from these places? I was especially struck by poems like “Indiana, Not Indiana,” “After Assault,” “Attendant,” which brilliantly conjoin urban and rural space, which feels to me like a political (and hopeful) move.
SR: In some ways I think the book’s geographies are incidental, though not without meaning. I did want to write against the idea that rural spaces are bucolic, free from danger, or “natural” in that way that suggests purity. I also didn’t want to position queer becoming as something only offered by way of an urban space. It just isn’t true. One thing that joins the urban and rural is a sense of hazard because wherever you are, someone is going to say something fucked up. Someone voted for Trump. You will encounter enormous variance in class and resource access. You will witness life and death. What looks like safety can be a trick, and what looks like danger might promise transformation. I’m glad that collapsing the distinction suggests hope. I’m hopeful. I’ve lived in New York for more than a decade, so my rural bona fides are up for debate, and when I return to the midwest, I can feel, I don’t know, a little incongruous maybe, but I can also walk down the street in Brooklyn in August and catch the smell of grass or the scent of manure and for all I know I’ll turn the corner and find myself in a field of rolled hay bales drying under a full moon. What is it Louise Glück says? You see the world once in childhood and the rest is memory? Where I grew up, we didn’t have any neighbors.
PM: A powerful aspect of the book is its exploration of intimacy and loneliness, or maybe it’s more accurate to say aloneness. They feel co-present in the speaker’s mind. For example, I love the realization in “Accompanied” as the speaker witnesses the emergence of seven humpback whales and says, “so—see— / how alone can you be?”
SR: Yeah, even as the poems are charting a distance they find themselves populated with friends, intimates, strangers, animals. I think that’s where the hope in the book emerges, minor-key as it is, and it’s something I hope the title suggests, the feeling that wherever you are, you look up, and there’s someone else there. “Anywhere I’m gonna lay my head, boys, I’m gonna call my home,” in the words of Tom Waits. He says he wants to be alone, but he isn’t singing to himself.
PM: Part of the arrest of Company is in your ordering. You continuously gather and wield material from poem to poem. I first noticed it in the move from “Water Street” (one of my favorites) to “Trace a Line.” In “Water Street,” the speaker mis-sees, as a python, a ram’s horn wrapped around a man walking towards him. In “Trace a Line,” the speaker’s neighbor has tossed “a snaked contorting itself around itself / over and over” into the speaker’s yard. Throughout the book, these kinds of images recur. They seem to haunt the speaker. Were you conscious of these iterations writing the poems, or was it an insight that came afterward, when you were structuring the book?
SR: I was trained to have an eye for both detail and the big picture, so I’m conscious of recurring images and motifs in the book. I didn’t approach the work with a sense of It’s time to write another poem about a snake. It’s more that when a piece reaches a certain stage, I develop an idea of how it echoes others and then determine whether it’s a necessary upgrade, a meaningful affirmation, an important contradiction, or a pointless retread. In process, lots of things fall in the former or latter camps, and they end up cut. I build the architecture as I go, and sometimes I don’t notice a pattern until I’m far along. Still, it’s important to me to understand how things are working in sequence. The guns in this book (another motif) are fired by the end, in a Chekhovian sense, which is to say lyrically and literally.
PM: Yes. I’d love to talk about the gun motif if we can. “Sol in Leo” introduces an ambivalence to guns—“Shooting a .22 is perversely / gentle”—that is picked up again in “Mercy Error.” Here, the neighbor’s gun is borrowed (because the speaker does not own one) to shoot down a dead heron, still ensnared by knotted fishing line from an oak branch. While these encounters emotionally resound, they’re physically innocuous, as opposed to the final firing in “Innamorato,” and the stunned grief over the Pulse Nightclub Massacre:
Could you speak to the decision to render, and juxtapose, this motif in these starkly different contexts?
SR: Thinking about it now, and hearing your response, I can’t help but remember Dickinson’s “My life had stood a loaded gun.” I’m not sure I can explain exactly. “Sol in Leo” is concerned with concealing and revealing; the gun is a device which has a power belied by its ease of use and concealability: “It can kill a man.” In “Mercy Error,” the gun is a tool not for violence, but for narrative closure, and its absence is a perversion of narrative, which is often how life is, lacking resolution. “Innamorato,” on the other hand, is a poem of relation in the shadow of unfathomable violence. The gun’s capacity for ruin has been realized, terribly so and offstage, and we are left in a world from which others have been violently wrenched. There’s something completely broken about our cultural response to this phenomenon of shootings. I tried to reflect that in the poem’s syntactical disintegration towards the end, and in the soft irony of the phrase “in ultraviolet / inviolate” since there’s no reason for the speaker to feel safe from harm. The frequency of these events seems to both reflect and perpetuate a kind of numbness. To be honest, I’m not sure about poetry’s ability to respond (or even, thinking of Adorno, its right to), but part of my goal for the book was to have it to reflect a recognizable world, and here we are.
PM: That definitely comes through: the book taking the world in and giving it back, redefined. I notice especially instances of spoken language that thread throughout, almost as if the speaker, and so reader, are overhearing something as we pass through. I’m drawn to the way this impulse gives way to the “Vox” quartet. “Vox Celestis,” closing out the second section, gathers these energies that are then expounded in the fourth section through “Vox Erotica,” “Vox Inaudita,” and “Vox Fidelis.” How do you perceive these four poems working together in the book? To my mind, they have a distinct presence: almost as if they were heard and transcribed, instead of written.
Too, their course enacts on a microcosm, something I experience overall in the flow of the book. The first half feels slower; I don’t know if contemplative is the right word, but like a gathering, an indraw of energy that feels enormously released in the latter half. I fly through sections 3 and 4, as if shot through. The book feels like building a fire, then burning—or building an appetite, then sating it.
SR: I’m so glad to hear that the book’s structure, in particular with relation to the Vox poems, had that effect for you. It took a long time to get there. As for those poems, I read about a part of an organ (in the musical sense, as opposed to a heart or lung) called a stop that controls the flow of air to the pipes. Different stops have different names, and there’s one called “Vox Humana” which is named for its resemblance to the sound of the human voice. I loved the idea of using this as a title and letting the poems decide where they wanted to go, totally ungrounded, or maybe it would be better to say on a ledge. They tended toward the numinous and the erotic. I found other names for organ stops, and then started making up my own. There were more Vox poems than ended up in the book because I felt that the balance between the other material was really important to get right. I think they also ended up influencing the work that came after. Eventually, I didn’t need that many to do what I needed them to do. They had left their mark.
PM: There’s a sense of starting over in many of these poems… something wound up over the course of the book—relating to memory, history, forgetting—that finally gets released in the last poem “Only the Past Can Save Your Life.” The sweeping gesture that closes the book isn’t exactly getting rid of history, but it does seem to clear a space, make way for the last line: “put the light in me.” It feels redemptive—like a forward motion that simultaneously calls back to the first poem “When I Was Fire.” How did you arrive at that arc?
SR: I remember first reading Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” and being exhilarated by his description of an angel being pulled forward by a storm while looking back at all the rubble accumulating in his wake, wanting to stop and attend to it but being powerless to do so. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to feel the truth of this metaphor more deeply. I reached an age where I felt that I could periodize history I’d actually lived through, could watch it receding before me while feeling the future looming behind, like a wave. From my highly subjective perspective, I was struck with a bodily sense of how near we are to so much and how quickly forgetting happens. It freaked me out, to be honest, but I didn’t want to turn away, nor, by the book, could I.
For awhile, the poem you’re referring to was a question: “Can the Past Save Your Life?” It had arisen out of thinking about Benjamin and also reading Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind, which is partly about the ways the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America corresponded with the East Village’s transformation into a kind of consumerist, amnesiac simulacra. Can the past save your life? It was only when the book was nearly finished that I took a pen, crossed out the question, and replaced Can with Only. I wanted to believe we are freer than the angel, that we can attend, take stock, learn, change. That we’re not done, yet.