Addiction and Queerness in Poet Sam Sax’s ‘madness’

By Christian Arthur 11/03/17

"Some of the best advice I ever got about writing was to always write into what scares you most, and from that difficulty will come the bravest and most necessary poems."

Sam Sax

“Published” may be too quiet a word to describe how Sam Sax’s poems sit on a page. Too resting.

Instead, his poems cavort and shimmy, smolder, or preen their wings. They’ve lived inside prominent platforms such as The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, BuzzFeed, Poetry Magazine, and more. Sax is among a now-wide group of poets who cut their teeth in slam competitions, while steadily building successful careers on paper. Earning fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and after writing three chapbooks, his new collection madness has been chosen as a winner of The National Poetry Series.

Appearing midway through this scalpel-sharp book, the poem “Klonopin,” opens with “a doctor names the chemical imbalance in my brain / & suddenly there’s an infant wailing up there. / i swear the cradle appeared concomitant / with the diagnosis, a migraine-white mobile wail.” Madness often considers the power that category has over consciousness; how once named, we may become or fulfill that name. A thistly and fervent study of the intersection of addiction and queerness, and so much more, the collection excavates history both societal and personal, and speaks new skulls into old stories.

On the eve of his book release, The Fix sent Sam Sax some questions and he replied with characteristic candor and brilliance, and echoing madness, complicates medicine and the recovery experience. Sax says he uses poetry to organize the chaos of his world, and that this art form is well-suited for navigating the domain of subjectivity. At the bottom of the interview we’ve included links to his work.

The Fix: You have experienced the intersection of queerness and addiction, an overlap that is “doubly” marginalized, unheard, and erased. What should people know about this intersection?

First off thanks a lot for your questions, this was really fun to answer & thanks for reading my book so thoroughly!

In my experience, addiction has been front and center to a lot of the discourses of being a homosexual. Not unheard or erased, but used to further pathologize. In cinema, television, books, or targeted promotional materials there’s always some messy homosexual fucking up the party. So for me it felt more like a hyper-visibility. Both becoming a writer and reckoning with my gay ass self as a young person was negotiating substance abuse. Also, these stereotypes are rooted in real things. Most gay male spaces revolve around alcohol or partying and drug use. Also drugs and alcohol are a common and almost prescribed way of negotiating familial homophobia and cultural alienation. I think that my bumbling on about this intersection speaks more toward variance than anything else, that there are infinite kinds of queers with various ways of negotiating substance abuse, like Whitman’s (proto-homo), we contain multitudes.

The back cover of madness describes the book as “attempting to build a queer lineage out of inherited language and cultural artifacts.” What does it mean to build a queer lineage? Why is this action politically important?

I think making an ulterior history in response to capital H history has been an important political project to all folks left out of dominant cultural narratives. If you don’t see yourself in media or textbooks, you can get the sense that your people never existed, which isn’t the case. So for queers in particular, there’s been a debate about claiming historical queer figures before the advent of turn of the century terms like homosexual. So my initial project was to look at the DSM-I to see in what ways homosexuality was medicalized and made into a disease and how that informs our understanding of queerness today, then I was amazed to see all the other ways early misguided diagnostic practices haunt our culture today.

In madness you contemplate that to name something is to open a door at the expense of closing others. Madness cuts holes in the boundaries of categories, identities like sexual orientation and gender, but also diagnoses, like addiction and depression. What motivated you to do this writing?

Most of what you’ve listed above is a fiction, right? But a fiction with real ass history & consequences. Like one day science was just like, this is an illness, and then it was. I remember when I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it made me rearrange how I thought about how my brain functioned. Even though, nothing materially had changed in my head, but someone with power telling me I was in X category now had a felt impact in my body. Similarly I overdosed four years ago, and then started thinking of myself as an addict, took on the language and personhood of a sober person including all the cultural trappings and movements of that identity, and then started drinking again. Each of those moves required me to buy into particular category of an identity, when I started drinking again what happened to my identity as an addict or a sober person. All these categories have power and history and a real felt impact. To explore this further the book opens with a page of now way outdated DSM-I, a list of mostly retired diagnostic categories. This page functions as a section breaks in the book, and as it repeats the language fades out from break to break so in the end it’s just a page of punctuation. To me this shows how language and the past are always ghosting our present, how it’s unavoidable and the only way forward is to look at what was and the material limitations of what’s been, in order to find a way forward through the mess.

Poetry plays with language, splicing words and stitching them together, transplanting metaphors, hacking the brain into considering new ideas and perceptions. In medical science there's a need for clearly defined terms, to standardize treatment and prevent chaos during collaboration, etc. Yet, what can the mental health system gain from poetry’s experimentation with language?

Poetry for me is the only medium I’ve found that can accurately mimic how the brain moves. It’s necessarily liminal, imagistic, traffics in metaphor, in metanoym, rooted in language but shifts through associative leaps. So, sort of to my point above, I think there’s a lot of interesting tension in poeming one’s way between how the brain works and how the world tries to set it into rigid categories.

For this project you did a lot of research. Your poems reference case studies like plagues, or focus on specific medical practices like lobotomies. What can poetry learn from medical science and its history?

I don’t know what poetry can learn. I mean poetry’s the oldest artform on the planet, also many early medical practitioners were poets. Many doctors today are also writers/poets. This is a conversation that’s been going on since maybe the beginning of poems. Through the process learned a lot though, learned about the space between a poem and a document, and the ways in which archival information of the past can inform how we think about the present, or how we can complicate & disrupt the rigidness of the past with the flexibility of the lyric.

Does making poetry keep you healthy, either healing or relieving trauma?

Poems for me are a way to order the impossible chaos of the world. I don’t usually use poetry as therapy, I use therapy as therapy. To illustrate that distinction for me, when I was feeling a lot of shame in my early gay life around bttming and anal pleasure, I didn’t understand how to name it until I wrote a suite of poems analyzing anality (suite ass) and setting all those poems side by side I learned about both the problem, the shame, and heterosexism, anti-pleasure, gender essentialism that were tied to that issue, and I was able to see it all more clearly and address it in my life, and hopefully that offers folks a way to think differently about these issues if it’s something they’re struggling with. I shared only what felt like it would be of use in the world, the poems that were just for me were the therapy. Sometimes it’s illustrative to see someone’s learning process on the page, but often I think that’s the process a writer must go through before they can write the truer poem.

Why are you so candid about your substance use in your poetry?

Well, I try to be candid about everything. Some of the best advice I ever got about writing was to always write into what scares you most, and from that difficulty will come the bravest and most necessary poems. In general I try to make that my consistent practice. Who’s obfuscation for? There’s a lot of romanticizing addiction in poetry, and literature in general, either looking at famous dead writers and musicians or otherwise, and that’s not my writing project, that aesthetic is part of what cosigned some of my most dangerous behavior in the past and something I’d rather not reproduce in my own writing.

How does madness fit alongside your chapbook STRAIGHT, which tackles similar subject matter?

Straight is a contained project. An ex boyfriend died of a drug overdose and I found myself writing sonnet after sonnet. There was something about the compression of the form and the inherited stricture of it that felt like an appropriate vehicle to grieve through. After making that poem I started to think through my own history of drug use and made a catalogue of sonnets that explored certain experiences with drugs, whose form mimicked the experience of being on that drug. Madness, has the same urgency and tension, but it’s a much larger project. Both are interested in the space between the external structuring mechanisms of the world and how one’s subjectivity must shift to fit inside them or resist.

Your second book Bury It is already written, and has won the James Laughlin award from The Academy of American Poets. Congrats! Tell me more about Bury It. Does it ever engage the subject of substance use? 

Thanks! I started writing Bury It in 2011 the summer where there were a lot of highly publicized young gay suicides. I lost a friend that same summer, and began to write elegies for those who died, and then started to think more about what bridged those queer coming of age narratives. I began to think about bridges, how they both connect two foreign bodies and how they are what’s leapt from, how you can cross a bridge to bring wheat or disease, water or war. The original title of this book was Gay Boys & The Bridges That Love Them, but that got chopped in later edits.

Have any news for me? What’s next?

Right now it’s mostly all book and touring stuff. Also I’m teaching a couple classes in new york in the fall, one at Poet’s House, the other at The 92Y. Writing wise I’m working on my first novel and a new book that’s all apocalypse post election poems.

Some poems by Sam Sax:

#Mania,” The Southern Review

Prediagnosis,” The New York Times

On Alcohol,” Poetry Foundation

Relapse,” Poetry Society

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Christian Arthur is a poet and macro social worker currently pursuing his MSW at Boston University. This past spring he taught spoken word at Ostiguy Recovery High School in Boston, supported by a Poetry Foundation grant. Christian has been in recovery from substances since June 2016. He also likes talking to you on Twitter: @lobstersketches.

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