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An Interview with ITALIC's Sam Sax

An image from the front of Sam Sax's book of a pig
An image from the cover of Sam Sax's Pig (2023)

Our colleague Sam Sax is a lecturer in ITALIC, the first-year residential arts program based in the Burbank dorm, as well asa talented and accomplished poet. Sam is the author of Madness (winner of The National Poetry Series), Bury It (winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets), and most recently Pig, published this year by Scribner.  They are the two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion, with poems published in The New York Times, Poetry Magazine, Granta and elsewhere. Over lunch recently, near our ITALIC classroom in Stern, I spoke with Sam about their work as a writer. 

Alexander Greenhough: What would you say are your beginnings as a poet?

Sam Sax: Thank you for that question. I was pretty interested in an expansive and interdisciplinary art practice, even as a child, so I did a lot of theater things. I made music, I played in bands, I did a lot of horrible filmmaking projects, I was a really terrible rapper for a bit, but really dedicated to it. And I think for me poems as the central focus for my creative practice began in college – not through any classroom space, but I was part of a small community of writers that existed outside of creative writing classrooms. I was interested in how poems could accompany other gestures, like text alongside an installation piece, or with puppets, or passing soap around and having people smell it as I read something.                                          

Image of Sam Sax in a green sweater with flowers

After college I went on this poetry tour [with the poetry collective We Are the Unreal], because I didn’t have anything else to do (I made up my own major, which was “Social Change & Identity Performance”), and in the car I brought all my accoutrements and props and exterior performance gestures the poems would accompany, including a little speaker and loop pedal I looped sounds with. So there was a lot of scaffolding around the poem. And then in a town outside of Dallas, Texas, in a motel, half of which was a bombed out former meth lab – we woke up and all of our clothes and additional performance objects had been stolen and all we had left was our voices, and all we could do was say the poems without filigree or ornamentation. I think after stripping away all that scaffolding I realized how powerful and transformative the human voice is, how it has the lowest barrier of access of all creative forms – all you have to do is have some form of inherited language to be able to work with it as a material. And so I think my origins as a writer really started there, traveling with this sort of weird, culty group of writers around the country and seeing how writing can be individually transformative but also transformative on a structural or community-based level.

AG: After that event, were you writing poems during that trip?

SS: Yeah. So this was a year-long tour with a collective called We Are the Unreal. Based loosely off the outsider artist work of Henry Darger. The whole process was a collective, creative gesture. We were constantly writing, we were doing a lot of collaborative poems. We had a game of remote control, where we orchestrated and played one another, like a symphony of poets. I say it was “culty” because we spent all of our time together, and developed these weird performance constructs within which to say poems. We’d “lock” – not actually! – people in a basement, and the structure of the show was that the world had ended outside and “here are the stories that have survived our species,” and our poems were those things, very hubristically. Both writing and collaboration like that was really formative to my writing life, but also getting to go from city to city. This was before the flattening of voice that happened with the Youtube era of spoken poetry and I got to see how different communities wrote and were in conversations with themselves, and how that was affected by history and geography (the dynamics of a city), was all really compelling for me, just to track how voice shifted from region to region.  

AG: You also did slam poetry. Was that later?

SS: We competed in a lot of poetry slams on that tour. We featured at a couple. I don’t think we were that good, tbh and we weren’t particularly well liked. But at that time, there was a pretty wide slam touring circuit, so you could go to a city and do, like, three or five shows for fifty bucks each and then get on a bus and go somewhere else. I think my rooted investment in slam maybe began on that tour, but it mostly developed for me afterwards here in the Bay Area. I was on the San Francisco city slam team – that was my first team. Then I hosted the Berkeley Poetry Slam for a while. I was on both of the Bay Area unified teams and the Oakland Slam team.

AG: Had you attended slam events prior to that trip in We are the Unreal?

SS: Yeah. I went to the Women of the World poetry slam in Detroit when I was in college. We’d driven up from Oberlin, Ohio to go, and I was so deeply transformed by so much of the work I got to see on finals stage – including my current press mate, Airea D. Matthews, who also has a book out with Scribner this year. She’s a real force to be reckoned with.

The Cover of Pig (2023)

AG: You’ve now published your third book of poetry, Pig. Over the span of your three books, was there a point where that move from an intense, collaborative period – the work in We are the Unreal and with the slam teams – to where you were the sole author? 

SS: I’m still pretty deep in conversation with my community of writers, which is a different one from the folks I outlined above. We share work with each other, we write back and forth against and across each other’s ideas. I started publishing when I was deep in slam; I made a lot of zines, and handbound books, put together an anthology with my friend that were all dead animal poems, called Dead Animal Handbook.

AG: Do you think that prefigures your most recent book?

SS: Oh sure, yeah! I think I’m generally interested in the figure of the animal as it shows up in the poem – like, what it does, how it speaks back to ourselves in relationship to the natural world and to our sense of what it means to be a human. 

The cover of Bury It (2018)
Sam Sax's Bury It (2018)

AG: Even the cover of Bury It. 

SS: Part of me was sad that I didn’t save that for this most recent book. Definitely interested in the animal, and the human animal in writing. 

AG: Do you think there’s a formal and/or thematic line that connects the three books?

SS: Voice and perspective feel pretty uniform. There’s an autobiographical thread that runs through them, as much as I appreciate the distancing framework of “the speaker.” They’re not all autobiographical poems, but primarily it’s taking my experiential lens and mapping it onto thematic materials. I think the first and third book are a little more research oriented. My second book I wrote first, but published second, because of the difficulty of publishing first books, and getting work into the world like that. 

AG: With the research-oriented aspects of Madness and Pig, the former strikes me as being about what I’ll call a “condition” – like a way of being, almost – whereas the latter is about a specific animal. With the research, how did that shape the course of the writing of the respective books? 

SS: The biggest difference was time. I wrote most of Madness at a writing retreat at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks over the course of a month. I went up with some Freud, some Foucault, and the DSM-I, and banged out a structure for the book and most of the poems. 

AG: How would you characterize that structure?

SS: It’s braided through with a slow erasure of the historic diagnostic categories in the DSM-I. I think there’s a thread of questions of how diagnostic categories inform where we are now, and how we live today inside and against those categories. And then an autobiographical impulse interested in my grandfather, who was a psychoanalyst for many years, and a really amazing and complicated man. So, looking at the familial and the larger structural questions around how mental health and neuro-typicalness are constructed, and not necessarily an innate lived thing. I think I was particularly interested in the moment that homosexuality was taken out of the DSM-I, in a political move; and what does it mean to have an identity that’s built around pathology? With Pig, it was just six years of living with pigs. Not literally, just reading a lot of texts, hanging out with pigs, having friends send articles, really orienting myself to the pig in a different, lived way. 

AG: It seems with Pig that the historical scope is different, in that the first, introductory poem gestures to something quite vast in terms of timescale. 

SS: That poem is trying to hold the vast scope of the interspecies relationship that humans and pigs have. Both the figuration of the pig and the mind of the human, which has changed dramatically over the course of human civilization. But also that pigs will, in theory, outlast us. That ties into a lot of the larger questions I’m thinking through around species extinction and climate catastrophe. 

AG: Was there a specific moment that you can remember where you decided you wanted to write about the pig?

SS: After my second book, a lot of my obsessions surrounded the pig in one way or another. I was interested in writing about men/constructions of gender, and queerness, and policing, and Judaism and Kashrut law, and Jewish law in general. I was living in New York, and would have my morning coffee in the back of a hardware store, where this pig, Franklin, lived, who is Instagram famous. I was spending a lot of time with the animal – both the physical animal, but also thinking through the symbolic resonances of the animal. From there, I focused down my research a bit, and then wrote, probably, hundreds of poems around pigs, over the past six years. 

AG: How did you decide which ones would be in the book?

SS: A lot of accordioning out, and then compression. Some sorts of things were intuitive. I had four poems about the pigs from the trailer for the Fyre Festival. I don’t know if you remember it. 

AG: Sure. Good sandwiches. 

SS: [Laughing] Oh yeah, apparently! So there were pigs on this island, that you can swim with…Anyways, I was really struck by them as a sort of marketing device for this failed music adventure for the wealthy. Wrote four poems about that, and then felt like it didn’t have much staying power, so pulled those out. Mostly I overwrote, and then I pared it back to the arguments the individual poems were making.

AG: With overwriting, did that occur with individual poems?

SS: Definitely. I think I often overwrite, and then have to pare back. I usually find my endings are two or three stanzas above where I write – a lucky patten to acknowledge. Mostly, I have a maximalist impulse for accretion. I have one poem in there which is an anti-Zionist abecedarian, and I wrote ten of those.  One of them made its way into the book. There were a bunch of other cultural pig references that didn’t make the cut. There was this epic to Porky Pig that didn’t make it in, and now it’s just the “That’s all folks” that concludes the book. 

AG: With that ending, it visually evoked the character for me. I was struck, throughout the book, by very strong images. Not just in terms of what the words, together, evoked, but also typographically. There seemed to be a lot of variety when it came to ways of laying out a poem. 

SS: Poems have any number of shapes, that can perform any number of functions. When I’m working on a poem, it’ll often move through multiple formal iterations. So I’ll take it though couplets, or tercets, or whatever, and see what that does and use that as an editing tool. Working on a computer makes that really easy, just to shape and reshape the object until it sings in the way it does in my mind, or creates the most internal complexity in the enjambed line. The formal shape of some poems are uncovered through making them, and for others they’re more structurally built. There’s one poem that asks the reader to write down the name of the person they love most, cut out the bottom half of the page and then eat it. I wonder if anyone’s done that, or will. 

AG: Have you done it with your own copy?

SS: No. Not yet. 

AG: Will you?

SS: Probably not. [Laughter] It’s a hard ask. I don’t know who that person would be, to be honest. That poem was a six-page treatise on discourses around cannibalism, that centered on the pig, and that was the final page of that poem. After working on it for three to four months, I was like, “I guess this is what I was writing toward this whole time.” 

AG: One thing I came away thinking about, after reading the book, was this complicated relationship between language and embodiment, through experience and identity. 

SS: That’s what draws me to poems in general. It’s offering language to not make sense of, but to articulate the shifting experience of being inside a living, complex, disgusting, oozing body within a world that’s highly structured, inherited, and historically violent. What happens when the messy experience of being alive inside these sweating and weird wet bodies abuts all the sterility and structures of the world? How do we use language to articulate, or move through, that?

AG: Going back to the structure of Madness, with the three-part structure of Pig, what determined the order of those parts?

SS: The tripartite structure of a poetry book is quite common, in a way I bristled against when I fell into it for this book, because I wanted to do something different. But it just made sense. 

AG: Do you think you fell into it in the same way that, with certain poems, the form emerged out of the process of composition?

SS: It asserted itself through working on it for many years. It’s broken into these three bits, and there are thematic inquiries that are particular to each section, but then braided ideas that move through, like poem sequences; poems you’ll see iterative versions of across sections, poems that share an expanding title. I’d say the second section is more focused on Judaism, and Kashrut law. I think the first section sets up a lot of the larger questions of the book, and final section offers up not exactly a lift, not a catharsis either, but it’s doing something that in my mind offers a little more optimism. 

AG: The address to the reader in that final poem is guardedly optimistic. It has a wonderful final line. 

SS: There’s a pivot that I made when thinking about species extinction and climate devastation that sloughed off the desire for permanence which I think a lot of my writing teachers were in favor of; like, the poem was the way you transcend death, or the poem is how you speak back to a long tradition of writing and speak into the future. I think there’s something really beautiful in that, but I also think in the context of the eradication of human life on earth there’s a radical shift to the present that needs to happen, or needed to happen for me: how do you speak to other living people now? And how can that conversation be both grounding and activating for folks? Love the future, love the children, but trying to wrestle with the improbability of our continued life here. I needed to make a pivot about the way I thought about the future, and futurity. 

AG: With reference to the future, you have a book coming out next year, which is, funnily enough, about death, I think.  

SS: That’s a book I started writing right after Trump’s inauguration. It’s really a book about alienation, and is a queer coming of age story that’s also centered around a political self-immolation that happens in a demonstration in New York. The world of the book unfolds in these lyric fragments that catalog this person’s life, loves, and loses as well as some of their diasporic family history. This is my first novel and will be out in summer 2024. 

Thanks so much for this conversation! 

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