SAM SAX: the right kind of glasses

Mon Jan 17 11, Tortas Los Picudos

(Evan Karp)

This is the first in a series of interviews I’m doing in conjunction with a new column to profile authors over at SF Weekly.

Sam Sax graduated from Oberlin College with a BA in Social Change and Identity Performance—a track he created himself to get credits for the community performance organizing he was already doing. Find out more: check out the profile over at Weekly.

EK: What does it mean to be a writer? What makes someone a writer?

SS: Some of my favorite and least favorite writers say they write every day. It sort of makes it seem less authentic. Authenticity is sort of like a weird thing, when it comes to that. For me it’s pretty useful to write every day. It’s sort of a defense mechanism as well, because it’s like I’m kind of anti-social sometimes, and I can escape into my notebook in awkward situations, which are most situations, and then I can write things about people in the room. …

For me, there aren’t really other options. I’m not really good at anything else. I don’t know. I’ve got some organizing experience, so I could do that. You know, I could work serving food somewhere. But as far as anything that makes me blush in my belly …

If you identify yourself as an artist, then however much work you need to put into it to make that identification feel real is how much work you need to do. For me, as far as other people judging you as an artist or defining you, that has to do with your output and how people read your work. I have friends who call themselves geniuses; I have friends who call themselves visionaries; these aren’t labels you can put on yourself—they have to be ascribed to you by people who get things from your writing or your art, who are moved by what you do. And I feel like that is more important than your output or your identification. The affect of it. The affection. The effect.

EK: What do you hope people will get out of your writing? Does that change every day?

SS: That changes. … I guess the nutshell thing I’ve been taught to say is: “Writing the poems that I wish I had heard, and things that I would have found useful like if I had read them a year ago or like a month ago or tomorrow.”

I guess that’s kind of pretentious, right, assuming that I can fill a need out there that hasn’t already been filled, which I also don’t believe in—I guess there’s a contradiction there … There’s that Audrey Lord quote that does it for me: “There are no new ideas, only new ways of making them felt.”

The book I put together [Hella Gay Notes from Underground] has a bunch of monologues and some short stories, like persona poems, short pieces, formal poetry … You know it’s all there; it’s all been done for you before you get to it. I think it’s just how you try to interpret that. I think continuing to read new people is always expanding why I write and who I’m writing for.

EK: Do you think your experience with slam will enable you to push the boundaries of the forms that have been laid out?

SS: Slam’s the shit, man. [chuckles] I mean it’s fucked up in a lot of ways … You know it was born out of this critique of capitalism; like let’s get five people to judge poetry, which is obviously ridiculous, but then people started taking it seriously so that’s how it developed. But it was born out of a kind of noble idea. An idea that let’s make poetry engaging and kind of be competitive as a way for people to be vocal about their admiration for poems, which is badass I think. As far as slam and performance poetry, there’s like this weird divide between literary scenes, definitely in this city, which is also really weird because there aren’t that many good writers, and so I think if they came together in sort of one literary community it would be more interesting.

That’s what I’m interested in doing with this Poetry Mission project. But as far as slam, most people in a lot of the literary scenes here—some of their favorite local poets are slam poets, you know, and they don’t like slam for a variety of reasons that most of them don’t understand—you know, they think it’s too performative or too fake or too formalized in some weird way … but I think that knowing how to read your audience in a format that acknowledges you’re not reading off of a book but they’re listening to you speak is a pretty important distinction that in most literary events you don’t see. Most folks read their poems like they’re written by somebody else, you know, wearing glasses that aren’t their prescription, like they’ve never spoken the words before. It’s all performative in my head.

EK: I know that after The Rumpus the other night that you and Bucky and Andrew Paul Nelson were talking about David Lerner and how he used to throw peanuts at people.

SS: Love it!

EK: I know you said that you felt that maybe you needed to take that role.

SS: Yeah. It’s hard to be the asshole in a literary scene. I think that’s a role that needs to be played. There’s somebody who’s doing it in Berkeley right now—he’s not an asshole, but the role that he fills now for the community is to make people think about what they’re writing before they decide to get on stage and share their bullshit with people, which I think is an important thing to do. Right? Because you’re getting on stage and you’re speaking to people, so you’ve got to … I think a lot of folks don’t think about that. You know, they just go up and they’ll say a bunch of racist or sexist things on stage and nobody wants to hear it, but also they haven’t thought about it so when they get reproached for it they don’t know how to deal with the criticism. So the asshole is a way to check people in your community; it’s not just racism or sexism; it’s also just bad writing.

Is your writing bad? I don’t know, I feel like I always get checked constantly by people who think my poems are whack, and I’m like alright, what does that mean: are they just dumb, or do they have merit, and if they have merit you know I’ve got to investigate what’s wrong with that piece. Lerner’s poetry is also the shit. There’s like this history of the Mission poetry scene I’ve been thinking about, and it’s probably as true as most other histories—so like not that true—but this just badass literary scene where if people didn’t like you they would throw bottles at you and if they liked your poems then you would be part of this community. And that’s really appealing in a lot of ways—to have that type of visceral and violent response from your audience I think is really sexy.

EK: What makes it worth it then?

SS: I mean those things aren’t that hard. [chuckles]

EK: Sacrificing friends for—

SS: Fuck it, dude. [chuckles] I think there are always new people. Community is something that turns over for me every few years, regardless of where I live. … What makes it worth it? There are so many reasons. … I guess like that moment on stage when you see somebody responding to what you’re saying, or like seeing someone cry or laugh because the way you constructed your own story, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.