Grief, Ritual, and Estrangement: An Interview with sam sax




BURY IT, THE NEWEST COLLECTION from poet sam sax, opens with a poem that looks like a fishing line cast into the sea. In it, a fisherman “feels something bite below river and pulls up boy / after boy / after boy / after boy / after boy…” The words repeat 50 times, taking up a page and a half — signifying a long line of gay youth who have committed suicide. This act of reaching out in active, sorrowful, earnest motion guides sax’s collection.

The poems grapple with the deaths of boys on the news, the deaths of boys who aren’t on the news, the death of a relationship, a lover, a poet — as well as with missing persons, and a neighbor who felt a bullet tearing through his brain “like a nail / through a fig.” Meanwhile, the living are still living, trying to make sense of death and how to live within the confines of grief. Through attention to news and social media, reimagined burial rituals and elegies, as well as carefully crafted first-person origin-story poems, sax examines the beauty of a young, male queer life while never letting up on the threats to its existence.

The poet joined me in conversation via Skype from Oakland, where he is in residency for the Stegner Poetry Fellowship. It was November, just a few weeks after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and we spoke about the role poetry can have in response to tragedy. We also discussed how Judaism and research inform his responses to inherited trauma and his desire to trace lineage through language.

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EMILY SERNAKER: How are you liking the Stegner Fellowship and being in the bay? You’ve mentioned that you like to write in public — have you found your spots? 

SAM SAX: It’s been lovely. A lot of folks I love are still here, and I’m doing work that interests me so that’s been beautiful. There’s time to write and lead workshop. Once a week I get to speak with a lot of really smart people who are poets and educators, so the conversation in workshop has been respectful and intelligent in ways that haven’t always been the case in poetry workshops I’ve had before. 

I’m writing on the train a lot because it takes two hours to get down to Stanford — something about writing in transit and around people has been generative.

And you’re working on a novel … and a book about pigs?

The novel I haven’t really touched in a little bit. It’s just fermenting in its drawer. But the pig book has a been a slow and steady slog. I just finished a poem in Pig Latin for the project, and then an ode to Miss Piggy, and a poem about — well this is a bit upsetting — it’s about how the US military field medics train on pigs in agricultural fields. So, the more I look into both the physical animal and the way the animal exists in culture and literature and history, it seems to be a project that keeps opening itself up to new resonances.

Was there a catalyst for that project? Like a moment when you thought — it’s definitely time for a pig book.

Well, yes. Around the corner from me in Brooklyn there was this pig who lived at the hardware store named Franklin. I think he lived in the apartment upstairs, and they would bring him down. So I would go hang out with him. And he was very sweet. And that in part led me to stop eating pork. And then no pork led to me being kosher for the last three or four months, and that sort of historic dietary religious and spiritual practice has reinvigorated my appreciation for the pig as symbol and the pig as metaphor.

But I also just looked at the poems I had and they were all about shitty men, or being slutty, or fascism, right? And those are called pigs. I also went back to read some of the iconic middle school readers that go into pigs. And I’ve been doing erasures on Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies and playing with these early formative texts.

As a queer, Jewish writer, what topics are you most interested in examining? Is your exploration connected to a history of exile?

My work is deeply invested in Jewish storytelling, culture, language, and my family’s history. My work attempts to recontextualize us as a historically diasporic people, who’ve become beautiful through our movement and adaptation. Exile is a tricky word for me. Exile for some reason rings of the desire to return, of entitlement to land, to birthright, which led to the creation of that violent settler colonial nation-state. My work instead revels in estrangement, in the strange; it wants to live in what’s queer about being Jewish.

And that’s where unpacking things like the word “Feygele” and the Yiddish epigraph come in with bury it?

The epigraph is to me sort of a prayer. It speaks to an idealized community and readership I would like to be a part of. I think it’s also holding myself accountable to how I want to write and who I’m writing for and the heart and politic behind the writing. Feygele came from an investment in etymology, and a move I use in general when I feel stuck: I look toward the historical movement of the word in the poem and see if that can open any doors. And so when I found out it comes from the German word for little bird, I got so gob-smacked full of wonder it had to become a poem — what could be a more perfect and strange description of queer people than little resilient winged things? What could be more powerful than flight? Since this is a book largely about bridges, I had to write about the one that lattices through my blood, that moved my people from Eastern Europe and Russian shtetls and brought me here to the page. I attempt to refigure and reclaim feygele, an often derisive slur, as a site of power and play.

So I sort of unearthed and untethered my relationship to it. So yeah, Judaism, queerness, whiteness, masculinity … these are sites for exploring and unpacking our relationship to history and power.

You do that in “Kaddish” — breaking down the history of the word “dose” in overdose (from the Greek root “to give”). Why do you let the reader in on that process?

I like to be transparent with the reader. Offering that kind of transparency of showing how the mind moves on paper is really interesting to me. Sometimes the writer [comes across] as this researched and indelible site of knowledge and not someone who is working through something and trying to learn — and failing on paper.

And in the poem “Bury,” you share about research.

With the poem “Bury” in particular, I did a lot of research on various burial practices thinking that would be a structure for the book or a long middle section. And all of that research ended up being two lines. I didn’t know how to use it in a way outside of just saying I’ve done this research and I don’t know what to do with it. It’s also connected to a scholarly, archival impulse for research and documentation. Research to me is finding guide posts through the wilderness and the bewilderment of writing.

bury it was a book born out of tragedy. I am wondering, while also reflecting on the shooting at the synagogue, what you think poetry’s role is in response to tragedy.

I think it’s a way to articulate a feeling of grief and having a way to share it with other people. It’s having that shared interior experience and being less alone with grief. And I also think it’s a way of harkening back to a history and putting your grief in context — which is something Jews in particular are remarkable at. So much of our literary history is documenting inherited trauma and negotiating how to move though that. That is how poetry operates to me. A poem can be really useful in radically reorienting us toward a present filled with history. It can let us hold all the tragedies of the current moment while also being able to live and thrive in the current moment.

When did you realize in addition to being a book about suicides, bury it was also a coming-of-age story?

This was technically my first book. I started working on it before madness. So there were poems in the collection that felt, trope-wise, “first-booky.” Poems of introduction, of articulating an artistic sense and sensibility. And I think that often manifests as “where I am now and how I got here.” I think there’s that element that made it a queer coming-of-age narrative. And the sort of elegiac impulse — especially toward young queer people who have died — is looking back at childhood and early identity formation. And looking at how we got here through our various histories and structural violences — bullying, erasure, exclusion — and at quite literally how we came of age.

It shows how a poem about a boy being shamed for trying on his mother’s clothes can connect with boys jumping off bridges.

Yes, that’s right.

You talk about the performative nature of grief with that Robert Hayden line, “I grieve. Yet I know the vanity of grief.” Why was that important to touch on?

That comes up in a few poems, including “Politics of Elegy,” which looks at the history of the elegy as a form and how writing about loss and the newly dead is for the living and how complicated that power can be. I think it also connects to the epigraph of the book — how rendering in language any loss is always a performance. And so I think that’s another instance of me trying to be transparent about my process, and about writing. To write an elegy is to memorialize, and it is a ceremony of ritual, but it is also a performative text.

Technology has a big presence in the poems. Did you realize that would be such a strong thread? So many connections between men in the book couldn’t have happened without technology, yet isolation and disconnection come with it too.

Absolutely. I think so much of my queer identity came through mediated social technology through finding other queers online, or making another idealized self on hook-up apps. Most contemporary queer writers I know engaged with sexuality through technology and it’s affecting how the poems look on the page. I think we’re at a really pivotal moment for the way these little machines we keep in our pocket are affecting lyric architecture. In the same way that a typewriter influenced O’Hara’s lines and the speed at which thinking in O’Hara’s poems happens, I think we’re beginning to see what’s possible both textually and image-wise in terms of the screen shot — there’s no limit to what we’re about to see happen in the lyric landscape.

Was Ginsberg a big influence?

Ginsberg was for sure a catalyst for me. He was the first time I ever saw a queer Jewish writer. He wrote at what’s difficult about desire and the body and figuring out how to celebrate it. His poem “Sphincter” was really formative for me and led to a lot of work on anal pleasure and queerness. Also to thinking about ways that what’s rendered disgusting culturally or discursively violent about the body is also a place to be celebrated. And thinking about how pleasure or the desire for pleasure has been so often what’s made people want to die — as queer people. [Ginsberg’s] celebration and analysis of queerness was really formative, and helped me form a new language and politic.

What writers are you reading these days?

I just had a dream about While Standing in Line for Death by CAConrad so I had to read it, and the semiotic exercises leaping between the prose and the poems themselves have been really disorienting and lovely and inspiring. So there’s that book. I’ve been turning back to Lucie Brock-Broido, her books. I’m also reading Jews and Words by Amos Oz and his historian-daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger. That book has been messing with me and showing me what’s possible.

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Emily Sernaker is a writer and human rights professional. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesMs. magazine, McSweeney’sThe SunRattleNew Ohio ReviewGOOD MediaThe Rumpus, and more.


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