Boys and Bridges
sam sax has a heart-rending way of finishing a poem and walking away from the microphone, seemingly on the verge of tears. Sometimes, he lets the poem do the work, he tells me, while other times he has to puzzle through how to support the poem best “so it can sing in the air.” His words sing on the page as well.
sax’s new collection, Bury It (2018), is the follow-up to his acclaimed debut Madness (2017), which Terrance Hayes chose for the National Poetry Series. Bury It was actually finished before Madness, and had the working title Gay Boys and the Bridges Who Love Them. sax wrote its first poems after several well-publicized suicides of young gay men, including that of his close friend, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. sax calls both of his books queer coming-of-age narratives.
Many of the poems, sax says, compare “the isolated, quiet deaths of queer people” with the social and political implications of mourning those deaths in the news. He cites, for example, the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate shared hidden camera footage of his intimate encounter with another man. Despite the grief in these poems, sax calls Bury It a book “about life and surviving repressive structures.”
This fall, sax, who recently won a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and was twice voted the Bay Area Grand Slam Champion, returns to the West Coast to start a two-year Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford University. We talked at a Williamsburg coffee shop where his boyfriend was working. The interview has been edited and condensed.
I’m fascinated by this year-long poetry walkabout you did in 2013, in which you and three friends performed at pizzerias, crystal shops, and sculpture warehouses, couch-surfed, passed the hat, and saw the country from a 16-year-old turquoise Saturn sedan.
I didn’t have anything to do right after college, and no real drive or direction or prospects. We drove around the country a couple of times. The car broke down a lot. Also, people broke into it all the time. There’s something about having a shitty auto with out-of-state plates. We had to invest a lot of money into the automobile as well, often in smaller towns. Those were not great negotiations.
Did you ever have to sleep in the car?
We would go to shows and see if anyone had room to crash on the floor. Most of the time it worked out. Sometimes we’d sleep in the car or sleep in parks. We pooled all our money into the tour at first and had to make $50 a day to sustain it. We made chapbooks and mix CDs, poetry CDs. I think that’s a dying art form, the poet’s CD. We split a lot of Subway sandwiches. I got swine flu in Pittsburgh. This was before smartphones, so we had to map it all out on an actual-ass map. Now it’s a bit bougier.
There was something about the delight of being a writer in a small town where people don’t have access to writers. There was a big difference in our reception in Seattle compared to Clarion, Pennsylvania. I think it helped me recognize that poetry was becoming a path I could follow. I hadn’t really had one before then.
All of that time on the road must have given you so much to write about. How did it shape your work?
We wrote a lot of poems together that we’d say together and perform collaboratively. That investment in community and conversation—in the idea of a poem not being a static thing on a page but necessarily being part of a room with other people—that’s been part of my writing life ever since.
How did you come back to reality after the trip was over? It must’ve been tough.
I ended up moving to the Bay Area. For about a week, I stayed on my buddy’s couch, and I was very, very drunk and depressed the whole time. It felt like a place I needed to live. There was an open mike at the BART station, and every Thursday people gathered around to say their poems. It helped me realize how vast poetry is.
I never really studied poetry in college. It was more of an obsession for me outside school, from the love of poems. I’d see something in a poetry book, and I didn’t know how it worked, so I began to investigate. It was a self-directed education, through delight. Other art forms would sort of collapse and get small the more I studied them. The more I learned about poetry, the field grew wider. It’s its own mystery. It keeps expanding, and I could dedicate my whole life to it and still not know a damn.
Also, there’s almost no barrier for entry. You don’t need to buy anything to make poetry, you don’t have to have access to classes, just a library card and you can get a pencil for free, and some paper. When I travel, I can take it with me wherever I go. I love the compression of it, and how it’s a way to speak more clearly, and a way of recognizing that language is faulty. And you can deconstruct language and make it a bridge at the same time. I like the song of it, I like the spell of it, how it’s entirely changed my life. There’s something about hearing someone’s life written down and made tenable in a poem that radically changed how I think about the world, and gave me permission to be my braver self in a poem.
You have this line in Madness, “thank you for reading my poems.” That’s so nice, and it’s weird to think how seldom anyone says that. What’s behind that?
I’m grateful whenever anyone reads my work. I want to hold that and not forget it. I think it’s a real privilege to have people actively engaged in your writing. It’s dangerous whenever anyone takes that for granted. I want to stay in a state of consistent gratitude and exploration in my reading. I can’t believe people are reading my books. It’s wild.
Bury It has so many bridges in it. Why do they fascinate you?
I began to write about the queerness of the bridge into grown-ness and adulthood, how bridges connect people and keep them separate. And how they can be leapt from.
A bridge is something that connects and separates and requires infrastructure, that can be burned. A metaphor is a bridge, the way we speak is, the language itself is, how we connect. The metaphor was an entry to this collection, and I think as I worked with it over the years, it became a bit more elastic. I was able to see the way the internal and the structural and the architectural, and violences and connections and love and kissing, are all part of the same conversation.
There’s a quote from “Objectophile,” a poem in Bury It, that’s really clear about that.
everyone knows the poet fell from the bridge because he jumped.
no one cares there’s nothing left for us but his poems
not even a simple plaque drilled into the bridge’s throat reads:
this is where the man livedthis is where the man brokethis is the manthis is the man stretchedbetween two cold citiesyou are standingon his back.
How did Bury It evolve as you were writing it?
I don’t want to delve too deep talking about it, but there were a couple folks who I was close with who ended their lives, and it was not a national news story and outcry. It’s difficult to understand why certain losses are more valuable than others. I was trying to make this a book of grief and elegies, and it became a coming-of-age narrative. That moment was pretty interesting and transformative for me in the writing process. Here I’m focusing on this grief, and it’s a book about life and surviving repressive structures.
You’ve said that poetry saved your life. How so?
Poetry offers for me the interior experience of another person, what makes someone else’s life possible. In reading poems by other queer people, I could see a possible future where I could inhabit my desires and not be destroyed by them. It also provided me a path in my life. Otherwise, I was kind of a shithead, having an unhealthy relationship with addiction, drugs, and alcohol, and with poetry I was able to have not just a path for myself in a career sense, but a way of writing into a history of writers, a longer literary conversation. It gave my life direction and focus.
So, looking back at that history, what was your genealogy, who were your poetic forebears?
Coming down through the ages, they were flawed and untrustworthy. They were family in the way you don’t trust family—they could steal your money or say awful things. Ginsberg talked about how his history moved from Blake to Whitman to himself. I don’t know if Blake was queer, though probably. He was a weirdo. For me, I think of Ginsberg, Lorca, Crane, and a little bit of the more talky O’Hara school. I think I prefer the sadder homosexuals, where sorrow is part of their aesthetic sensibilities.
How do you hope your poems fit into the lineage of people coming after you, maybe people who you mentored, or the ones who sent you pictures of lines of yours that they tattooed on their skin?
I can’t really presume to make a legacy for myself like that. Although someone being moved by a piece of my writing, that left my body, and someone wanted to it put indelibly on their body, that is beyond my wildest dreams for my work. I hope the poems are of use in conversations that are outside of my hands.
There’s this line in one of the two poems called “Bury” that really got to me:
“i know everyone / i love who’s dead didn’t actually / become the poem i wrote about them. / their breath a caught fathered / object thrashing in the white space / between letters.” How did the word fathered come to you?
The “fathered object thrashing”—I think it was an accident, right? A perversion of that Dickinson line “hope is a thing with feathers.” When we think of inherited form and patriarchy, both two obsessions of the book, there’s the practice of elegy and how all these things are inherited from the masculinist tradition. It’s both like a cage and a way toward freedom and memory.
You’ve also been working on a book you described at first as “queer joy in the face of species extinction—delight and pleasure on a dying planet.” How is that going?
Well, it’s shifted a little bit. Now it’s just a book about pigs.
How’d that happen?
Well, it’s called The Pig Book, and it covers the multiple ways we think about pigs and culture, about the idea that men are pigs, the history of policing in the country, a long section on cannibalism, and the pig as pleasure object. In the queer community, to be a pig is to be thirsty for sex. And it’s tied to species annihilation and factory farming. And also, they’re brilliant.
There’s also the issue of kosher or not, right? Did your family keep kosher when you were growing up in Mamaroneck, New York?
My family never kept kosher, but I’m looking at the issue for this book. I went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed and confirmed, and that was a big part of my early education.
I sort of stopped going to temple for a while, and stopped identifying as a Jewish person, until there was this expectation that I would have an investment in Israel. That sort of led me to a reawakening to the beauty of diasporic Judaism.
It was important to me to be outspoken in my anti-Zionism. It started as a political gesture, in that I ought not to have a say in another landscape. I came to appreciate our adaptability, our immutability, and how we move from country to country picking up elements of the culture and also preserving our stories. That folkloric element of Judaism is most important to me. If it wasn’t something I was engaging fully, it would be something I was actively ignoring, and it was better to address it intentionally.
Has your poetry changed since the 2016 election?
The utility and function of a poem, to me, is shifting, especially in the context of species extinction. There may not be a readership in 50 years. I saw an article about the ice caps not refreezing ever again, and I don’t know how to cope with that. So, there’s a radical refocusing on the present. There’s a poem by Catherine Pierce in American Poetry Review describing climate change: “In the beginning, the ending was beautiful.” I had a poetry professor who was always talking about how poetry leads us to immortality, which is a pretty white masculine concern. I think anything that will alleviate suffering now, that helps radicalize people now, is of utmost importance immediately.
Where do you see all of this going? Do you have any shape in mind for your poetry and your career?
I want to keep making books. I don’t know if there’s more than that. And each new book is going to add another word to the title, a one-word title, a two-word title, a three-word title. I want to constantly reinvent and understand what is exciting to me about poems. I want to let how my life shifts, and how my interests change as I age, and how I move around, affect my writing. I want to keep it honest though. Who’s to say what the future holds? It feels impossible that any of us are going to survive another five years. I guess I want to make as many books as possible in that time.
Tina Kelley is the author of Abloom and Awry, Precise, and The Gospel of Galore, winner of a 2003 Washington State Book Award. She coauthored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, and she reported for the New York Times for 10 years, sharing a staff Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 coverage.