Coming Up @ RADAR: SAMUEL ACE
I’ve been a big fan of Samuel Ace’s since finding his book Normal Sex years ago and devouring it. I then devoured he next, Home in Three Days, Don’t Wash, and again was all lit up from his sort of dreamy/sad, obsessive, sex-y poems that were filled with longing and the everyday in this great, energized way. He has since then published a collaborative work, Stealth, with Maureen Seaton, and throughout it all picked up awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lambda Literary Awards, Astrea, the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Fiction, and the Firecracker Alternative Book Awards. His poetry has been published all over the place, and I am very excited he’s be coming from either Tucson, Arizona or Truth and Consequences, New Mexico – where he splits his time – to read at RADAR December 12th. We had a chat via chat this weekend, take a peek!
Michelle Tea: Hey!!!!!
Samuel Ace: Hey Michelle! Happy Saturday!
MT: Happy weekend! Are you a weekend person, do weekends mean anything to you?
SA: Not sure it’s really happy – being World AIDS Day. A day of mourning.
MT: Are there any memorials happening in your world, or are you having a private moment with it?
SA: More private here today… although Facebook seems to make everything (falsely?) a bit local. Because I still work a full-time job, I love the weekends. I want every one of my days to be a weekend.
SA: Well yes… I make coffee. I take an extra long walk with Jack. I go to meetings. Saturday morning. Sunday morning. I spend the days reading a collection of things I could not read during the week. I see friends.
MT: I have been so moved by and inspired by (if inspiration = a sense of urgency, which it can) by the sudden emergence of AIDs documentaries and histories. I’m thinking in particular of Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, which totally annihilated me. But also the ACT-UP documentary, the How to Stop a Plague film and another one about the response in SF in particular, We Were Here. Have you seen any?
SA: I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen the documentary yet… but I so want to. I just got a copy of Sarah’s book… it’s on the stack to read. I find it odd to talk to my younger queer friends… how a sense of history seems sometimes so murky to them. I suppose anyone who went through a war feels this when talking about it.
MT: That is exactly the sort of punch it gave me. I participated in some ACT-UP demos in the 90s, but the really brutal years had already happened, people were on meds and not dying in such waves, so I didn’t have the traumatizing experience of people even a few years older than me. Taking in these new works really is an incredible reality check – any queer person in their late 40s/50s are survivors of a massive trauma that no one acknowledges or speaks of. I must feel really devastating. I have younger friends and was saying to them, after reading Sarah’s book – it’s as if everyone we were out with last night just DIED. And I was about to die. It is really incomprehensible.
SA: Yes. yes. I got sober in NY, in the 80’s at the height of the crisis. Michelle – almost every man in the rooms was dying. And yet I learned more from those dying friends than I can possibly say. They saved my life. They brought me awake.
SA: Early 30’s.
MT: It must have been such crazy overwhelm to be getting sober, which is a weird sort of death, and be dealing with actual death.
SA: I don’t want to risk a parallel here Michelle, between actual death, the end of life, that was happening all around me – to the slow-motion feeling of suicide that addiction creates. What I felt so strongly though in those men, was their life, their desire to live, and to stay sober. Somewhere that got through to me in the early haze of those days – and it gave me the strength to not drink.
MT: I wanted to ask you about the impact of getting sober on your writing and on your writing process.
SA: Thanks for asking that! When I first started writing seriously – I wanted a reach a state of connection to something bigger that myself… I was drawn to the incantatory, the unconscious, the roar of language unmediated by idea. I still am drawn to that reservoir. But back then, I would write for 15 minutes and be so freaked out by what I let loose, that I had to have a drink. And more, and more… until I would pass out and the writing would stop. After getting sober, I would use other entrances to write… lust, for one. It took me years to trust that I could go to that deep well by just creating a place inside to do it. Now it’s part of my daily practice.
MT: That’s so amazing. I love hearing how people’s writing get better when the get sober, because I really believed that my writing came from the alcohol, not me. So that was a very frightening part of getting sober. What is your daily writing practice? Is it daily?
SA: I too thought I needed alcohol to get me through, over the edge of my anxiety and fear. What a relief not to feel that anymore! I do have a daily practice. I take time to sit almost every day with my keyboard. I’ve always loved keyboards over paper and pen – my body remembers what it was like to play music at a piano. To use the whole body. I find that the energy is most fluid for me with a keyboard. Most days too, my writing is in the fabric of everything I do. I feel like a camera, or the eye behind the camera. I don’t mean this in any way to say that I’m out there “capturing” anything. I could be writing while at a work meeting, or at a reading… I feel as if I’m writing in parallel to the event, rather than simply listening. Like a duet maybe…
MT: I love that! Do you narrate in your head? I’ve done that my whole life. I remember having a really dull job as a bagger at a giant grocery store in high school, and getting through my shift by narrating everything around me. It changed everything! Also, interestingly, I switched to keyboard from notebooks when I got sober. Part of that was the time – computers were a part of my life by then, but also, my thoughts were so much faster sober it was frustrating to write, my hand cramped, etc. I love that you compare it to playing piano. I love the noise of typing.
SA: Wow that’s so interesting. I love hearing about your process – and it makes so much sense to me knowing your work. I love the image of the younger Michelle bagging groceries with a text streaming out all around her. I bet some of the milk containers ended up on top of the eggs!
I, on the other hand, don’t so much narrate. It seems that I have been drawn over and over again to chipping away at the structures and grammars of language, and subsequently how those structures create a narrative. I have an image of myself when I’m working, of holding a chisel. It’s the physical act of the arms, shoulders, hands, banging the hammer down on the chisel, and watching the chips fly around, gather or erase themselves. Bits of narrative appear, disappear, but I hope an emotional whole comes together where there wasn’t one before.
MT: It seems that poetry in particular is about minimalism. I love the idea of whittling away the narrative to the essential story, or elements.What obsessions do you find yourself returning to again and again in your work?
SA: Sometimes poetry is about the minimal, but sometimes it seems riotous and rococo! Not sure that my essential process has changed. I do find that I am losing more and more inhibition, finding more places that the writing can take place, exist, participate!
I’m constantly interested in the fluidity of identity. I’m interested in questioning the our conceptual frame. I want to keep looking behind the veil of what we think we are seeing, hearing, perceiving – I’m not sure there is a “behind” – but I do find a universe of energies back there, swirling around.
MT: I want to ask you about how you interact with your pre-transition self (if that’s what to call it) in your work. I imagine you have a complicated relationship to your past, and you directly invoke and communicate with it. What was the impetus behind that series?
SA: I have been thinking a lot about this. Recently, when I do a reading, I’ve been showing video of me, as Linda Smukler, reading older work. I started doing this in order to integrate the history of myself, and the history of my work. I also want to challenge the audience to think about gender. About what assumptions they might bring to seeing a man reading a poem, vs knowing the same poem was written by a woman. I want to create at least the acknowledgement that we all bring certain frameworks to what we are hearing and reading. Not only that, but we bring those frameworks to people we meet on the street. I’m saying – it’s all so much more complicated than that. I’m also saying that those frameworks and masks often get in the way of a deeper knowledge and connection.
So the recent epistolary series I’m working on (I think that’s what you are referring to?): They are “letters” from Sam to Linda and vice versa. Letters in only the most general sense. I’m writing to see what is revealed. They are taking me on a wild ride!
MT: That is so so awesome. I’m very excited for your reading! I would like to keep chatting with you for like another hour at least but I have to go! Can we end with you sharing what you are currently feeling inspired by, and what you are reading right now?
SA: Thank you so much Michelle! I have a huge stack on my desk… and so much to read online. Right right now – I’m reading Myriam Moscona’s “Negro Marfil” translated by Jen Hofer. It’s amazing. I’m also reading everything I can get my hands on by Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer. Also Andrew Solomon’s new book – “Far from the Tree”. So grateful to have this time to talk!
Catch Samuel Ace at The RADAR Reading Series, Wednesday, December 12th with Jan Richman, Harris Kornstein and Lydia Daniller! San Francisco Public Library, 6pm, Free. And, before you leave – two poems.
Subject: ahhhh samuel I said with the trace of corners the crown of needles the peg of temples ahh samuel I said to herd matchsticks and oil ahh samuel the crevasse of bodies the crescent of tails my tremble my corset the eyebrows of descendants the coats the coattails the blue shirt of love I take off without regret and hand to you I lift my arms for you to kiss the drain scars of towers ahhh samuel we are carried into the treble the eyesight the sweet balance of corners the corrals of graves my hatter’s haven for you a cross ahhhh samuel shiv ahhh Samuel
Date: August 4 5:03:15 PM EST
I said with
just a trace
a (small) crown
a model of
I said to
and oil beneath
a short crescent
my corset’s corset
my coats and
blue shirts of love
I take off without
regret and hand
you my arms
to kiss the scarred
drains of towers
carried to a treble
with the eyesight
of sweet balance
to the corrals
a knuckle for you
a tiny shiv
Box of tv
Subject: box of tv box of screen box of sound box box of keys box of phone box of notable persons box of silence I stand I stand box of print box of sudden rain box of surge box of swim today trial sent it was sent it was silent box of prisoners box of day old bread box of water box of surge box of crate and board and slab and slab box of notes box of face so lap so leaven box of car no car box of wave so float box of fluff and margin box of river box of crates box of milk some milk box of river and rods box of scissors box box
Date: November 2 6:39:58 AM MST
Box of sudden rain box of swim silent box of prisons box of day old bread box of water box of surge box of crate and board slab and slab box of notes box of face so lap so leaven box of car box of wave so float box of fluff and margin box of river box of crates box of milk box of river and rods box of scissors box of box
Sudden box box (my traitor my sudden wave) crust of crusts a scented sound of keys waves of milk