Poet Sam Sax is a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow and a Poetry Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin’s 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 and author of the chapbooks A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters (Button Poetry, 2014) and sad boy / detective, which is out now from Black Lawrence Press.
Rebecca Marino: I was struck by how poignant and genuine your live readings are (and hell yeah— from a two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion). How did you get into slam poetry?
Sam Sax: Thanks! i started performing poems in college when i was also attempting to be a rapper & a playwright & an organizer & you know—a student. After graduating i didn’t have anything much to do, so i got in a car, a ’97 Saturn, with some buddies who were all writers & we started a group called the Unreal & toured the US & Canada performing poems for a full calendar year. Mostly we performed in bars & basements & pizza shops & if we didn’t sell chapbooks or CDs we often didn’t eat. The slam, on the other hand, is just the competition, what gets folks into the room: five random judges who judge folks’ poems based on their own personal taste. That year-long tour, i was a featured poet at plenty of slams but didn’t start competing until i moved to the Bay Area & began attending the various venues in San Francisco, Oakland, & Berkeley. That’s how i made most of my friends & from there i got involved in organizing various literary events & leading writing workshops.
RM: Do you feel like the performance aspect influenced your writing at all?
SS: i’m interested in sound & voice forever & always. each poem i write starts with a line & i let the sound of that line drive the poem forward. Every poem i make i want to be devastating on the page, in the ear, and in the mouth of the reader.
RM: I know you don’t compete in slams quite as much anymore, but do you think you’ll come back to it again at some point?
SS: i love performing poems & reading poems in community & am in awe of its capacity to transform & probe & gospel & destabilize & question. i still am quite active in the slam; i coach the college UT spitshine team (2013 national champions) & i sometimes coach teams for the National Poetry Slam. i’m sure i’ll compete again at some point; it’s been a really formative & generative process for me as a writer & person & i think the performed poem, the necessarily embodied poem, is an important reminder of the urgency of the work we do. These aren’t just experiments in language; our language comes from our life & must be accountable to it.
RM: Your work speaks a great deal to coming-of-age, specifically queer identity and desire, and the poems do so honestly and without shying from darkness. The emotional weight and vulnerability that comes with that seems daunting. How do you wrestle with that? Or do you at all?
SS: i think in general i lean into what terrifies me most while writing. A poem’s alive to me when there’s a creature in need of exorcising, when the poet can’t avoid writing that poem. i’m drawn to materials i don’t understand that produce some kind of physical response, pleasure or disgust, etc. & i put my thumb on it & twist & that twisting is the poem. Also, the work i choose to perform has to function as an entirely oral gesture & must hit on a single listen, so i often choose work that is more graspable in image & personal narrative.
RM: Can you tell us a little about sad boy / detective, your chapbook that’s coming out this month from Black Lawrence Press?
SS: After a long-term relationship ended in a pretty awful way, i started to write dreadful transparent poems about my sadness. This isn’t going to work, i thought, so i invented the character of a boy detective & let his exploration of the world guide me through my own loss & melancholy.
RM: Why didn’t you feel like those first sad poems were going to work, and what does creating the character of the boy detective do for you as a poet? Did you find this helpful in terms of the loss and sadness you were dealing with?
SS: i think there’s a way, for me at least—when i’m too close to an emotional material, it can sometimes bloat, become a bit too saccharine, its sentimentality overwrought. This certainly isn’t always the case; i think many of my best poems are written frantic & crying in the twilight hours. But in this particular instance, with a stimulus as well-trodden as a breakup, it felt like all the poems i was making had all been made before in more interesting shapes & to greater ends. i think making this avatar of the boy detective & directing him through a fraught, comical, & horrible coming-of-age story really helped me channel a lot of the intensity i was feeling & make something completely different & beautiful with it. Which functioned as a kind of healing, although i don’t think that shows up visibly in the book.
RM: What made you choose the sonnet form?
SS: At first they were sonnets purely as a way to follow some formal element to crank out more poems, but the more i worked in that shape the more i realized what a delight it was to follow a queer weirdo through a bildungsroman & pervert that odd canonical form. The chapbook won Black Lawrence’s 2014 Black River Chapbook Prize & is out this September (now!)
RM: What projects are you working on/do you have coming up?
SS: i’m working on my second full-length poetry manuscript, a book called Madness, which looks at the history of pathology & desire & queerness through the lens of antiquated medical practices & quack diagnosis. i’m also sending my first full-length poetry manuscript, boys & bridges, around to publishers; i began writing that book after the slew of gay male suicides in the summer of 2011. & i’ve got a chapbook coming out in the summer of 2016: All The Rage (Sibling Rivalry Press). & i guess always working on the next poem.