The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #104: sam sax

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I could write a bullet list of sam’s sax’s recent accomplishments, but the wiser thing would be to advise you to pick up his newly released book Madness. Exploring addiction, mental health and the frailties of the human body, sax’s formally agile work upends and reinvents the notion of normalcy, coaxing you closer with a type of relentless, astral intensity.

sax, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, is the author of four chapbooks and Bury It, winner of the James Laughlin award and forthcoming in 2018 from Wesleyan Press.

sax and I met up at a restaurant in Greenwich Village, where, over coffee and piles of quinoa, we talked about living in the city, demystifying addiction, and Madness, his debut collection.

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The Rumpus: The book is finally here. How do you feel?  

sam sax: I don’t know how to feel! It’s hard to think of the book as being an actual thing in the world. I’ve been working toward this collection for so long, it’s a bit unreal. It feels like that movie It Follows; my book slowly crawling toward me for years, taking various forms with a spooky, unflinching stare, and when it finally catches up with me I’m going to die.

Rumpus: You moved to NYC recently. What do you think of it?

sax: It’s pretty lovely! There’s a great 24-hour sandwich spot on my block with ridiculous sandwiches and two gay bars with drag queens that perform regularly, so that’s neat. It’s also super loud and lonely. This is the only place I’ve ever lived where I’ve been burned out by the sheer number of readings. In every other city I’ve lived, Bay Area and Austin particularly, I’d go to every reading and still leave hungry. That’s not so much the case here. Balancing showing up to literary events versus doing writing has been tough. New York is a great city to be a writer in, but not a great place to write.

Rumpus: I’m thinking about your line in Madness: “We know queerness is a form of possession.” When it comes to writing about the body, you don’t shy away. Was there a time in the evolution of your writing where you were like, ‘I’m going to own this’?

sax: I remember coming across Essex Hemphill’s book Ceremonies in a used bookstore in Minneapolis in my mid-late teens and having my whole sense of what was possible in poetry transformed. That you could write so frankly and intimately about the body, desire, and queerness was revelatory. That you could make desire breathe upon the page and have it resonant inside the reader was both a kind of eroticism/companionship and an unimaginable act of kindness. Finding that book saved my life. I then began to leaf through all the canonical writers I’d read and realized how many of them were queers and perverts as well, and then found some kinship in that basement.

When I think about where I write from, or the poems I write that have the most fervor and import, it always begins with a question my body has that my brain doesn’t quite understand or know how to answer. A throb of desire, disgust, hunger, exuberance, elation that comes, and I can’t name it; the poem for me is a way to try to order that question. Not to answer it, but to put it alongside other questions and try to make sense of what my brain doesn’t have the language to map out.

Rumpus: There is a kind of clinical lyricism to the medical terms and lists you employ in Madness. Is there a conscious effort on your part to demystify the experience when you’re writing about topics like addiction and mental health?

sax: I went to this residency at the Blue Mountain Center armed with books, including an original copy of the DSM-I, but found that I couldn’t write. The manuscript began to take form only once I realized my only way into this subject was through my own lens. I began to write poems with my emotional and bodily knowledge as its own material. I began to mine my family’s archive for their experiences as mental health patients and practitioners, and tried to explore the culturally coded and historically constructed ways we think about the brain and how the brain works in the world.

Rumpus: Madness has a nuanced critique of privilege.

sax: For me, a poem is the place where you can make the interior world of a life felt to another person; this kind of intimacy makes personal and social transformation possible. Everyone has multiple identities happening at once, all the time, and they inform how we see the world and the choices we make, the poems we write. Often, privilege is invisible to the privileged and leads to shallow and violent poems, institutions, and relationships.

I come from a long line of white queer Jewish writers who do a lot of work avoiding writing about the parts of their identities where they hold power. So it feels important to me to be intentional about all my various identities, to write honestly about whiteness and queerness and gender and class and mental health and addiction and Judaism at once, recognizing that I’m bringing all that to the page whether I address it or not; to try to historically and politically situate myself within my poems.

Rumpus: There are some religious allusions in Madness to prayer, to masses. There’s something almost liturgical and stylized in the way you describe illness and the failings of the human body. Did you grow up in a religious family?

sax: I grew up Jewish in a Reform congregation. I was bar mitzvahed and confirmed. Then, for a time, I renounced Judaism, and was a strict atheist, mostly throughout my early twenties and college. I’ve now returned to Judaism, at first sparked by the obligation I felt as an American Jew to be vocally anti-Zionist and then I rediscovered my interest in diasporic Judaism. That what’s most amazing about my people is our multiplicity and how, through forced and elective migration, we’ve carried our culture with us and our culture has mutated and transformed in relation to where we’ve lived. Our food, our music, our stories. Jewishness to me is a lot like poetry, rooted in an unfixity, in questioning, in wonderment and the unknown, that socratic ideal of the only true knowledge being recognizing you know nothing. What is most Jewish about my poems, I think, besides maybe an exhaustive cynicism, is the impulse toward fragment and movement, the idea that a home or a people is not a place so much as the language and stories you carry with you.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of talk now about artists and public engagement, even though it seems antithetical to the private act of writing poetry. How do you reconcile these two modes?

sax: I don’t think of writing as private act. When I’m writing, I’m often in public spaces, in coffee shops or libraries. When I’m writing, I’m always in conversation—either with a news article, with memory, or other writers living and dead. I began my writing most seriously in community, either going to a regular slam (open mics), or facilitating a literary event, or living in a car for a year with other writers touring the continental United States. A poem, for me, isn’t alive until it leaves the privacy of my notebook or computer. It takes another’s ear or eyes to animate the thing. Poetry is necessarily a community and collective art form. I know a lot of writers who prefer the model of the lone tortured poet, and, sure, loneliness and isolation can be generative. But even in those spaces for me whether mad depressed, or at a residency (not isolated instances) I think of isolation too as a kind of companion. I don’t understand work that doesn’t respond to the world. Similarly, I don’t understand work that claims it doesn’t come from the body. At the end of the day you’re writing poems from within your body out into the world that your body must survive, play, thrash, dance, fuck, sorrow, and eat in.

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Author photography © Hollis Rafkin-Sax.


J. Mae Barizo is the author of The Cumulus Effect. A prize-winning poet, critic and performer, her recent work appears in AGNI, Bookforum, Boston Review, Hyperallergic and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from Bennington College, the New School, the Jerome Foundation and Poets House. More from this author →