Sam Sax: Writing Gay Body

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Who is Sam Sax? A new American poet of our times. He is young but has already published two books in 2014 and 2015, and a third one is coming this year. According to his personal website, he’s the ‘2015 NEA Fellow and finalist for The Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation’ and the current editor-in-chief of the annual literary journal, Bat City Review based in Austin, Texas. A Google search would lead you to his numerous poetry performances available on YouTube, where these performances have attracted hundreds of thousands of views.


I cannot say for sure if ‘Sam Sax’ is a pen name or not. This name is very much in accordance with his poetry, which is mostly based on his experience of being gay in America. His poems never get too politically explicit (though sometimes sexually explicit), but they still usually address the political issues, such as discrimination, surrounding the gay community. Especially I found the way Sam Sax addresses body politics is worth noticing. By ‘body politics’ here, I mean the semiotic struggles over the meanings of one’s body. This struggle, because of its very nature, is personal and intimate to Sam Sax. Namely, in the context of heteronormativity, what does his body ‘mean’? How is his body perceived? What is his body compared to? How does the author address his visceral feelings?


What is interesting is that in Sam Sax’s poetry, he has not only one but multiple bodies. Specifically, there’s one carnal body and other semiotic ones. While the carnal body is the physical, visceral and vulnerable flesh, the semiotic bodies refer to what his body is compared to. The latter ones are symbolic and explicitly constructed through the author’s usage of metaphors. On one hand, Sam Sax seems to stress the ‘carnalness’ of his carnal body very much and keep it at a distance from political struggle. On the other hand, he makes the semiotic bodies the true battlegrounds of semiotic struggles. It may be interesting to compare this way of approaching body politics with the feminist artist Barbara Kruger’s famous statement in 1989: ‘Your body is a battleground’. While Kruger implied there was only one body, which was carnal in nature and subject to semiotic struggles, Sam Sax creates multiple bodies in his poetry. He seems to be making such a statement: ‘Render unto the carnal body the things that are the carnal body’s, and unto semiotic bodies the things that are semiotic bodies’’.


Let’s first look at one semiotic body Sam Sax constructs in It’s Alive. At the beginning of the poem, the author invites his audience to imagine being the monster in a horror movie. Then Sam Sax insightfully suggests how society, due to homophobia, may view the gay body just like a monster’s body. After exposing the unjust suffering of gay people due to this discriminatory misconception, near the end, Sam Sax points out the semiotic nature of this body: ‘You are reminded this is a movie. You die on screen every night’. By saying ‘this is a movie’, the poet means this is not the reality. This is only the semiotic body on the screen, not the ‘real’ carnal one which is excluded from any corner of this poem. It is only the monster body that is the subject of semiotic struggles. Sam Sax successfully explores and contends this negative representation of the gay body ‘on the screen’ in the main part of the poem, but leaves the carnal body ‘under the screen’ unaddressed. He doesn’t subject the latter one to body politics.


Another more obvious example where Sam Sax constructs a semiotic body is When My Grandfather Explains the…. In the poem’s very beginning, ‘when my grandfather explains the difference between love and anal penetrative sex’ (Dear editor: if necessary please feel free to rephrase it into something less explicit), the author tells him that his same-sex desire is ‘more literary’ than ‘what you imagine when you imagine it’. Then the whole poem is an elaboration of this literary same-sex desire. Being receptive in gay sex, Sam Sax compares himself to ‘the ocean that Melville jumped ship into’. It’s a reference to the American novelist Herman Melville, his love towards ocean and sailor experience. In this poem, the constructed semiotic body (‘ocean’) is a positive one, contrary to the monster body in It’s Alive. In order to contend his grandfather’s homophobia, the poet first creates a distinction between his two bodies: the carnal body and the semiotic body, the ‘ocean’, as if the semiotic body, because it’s ‘more literary’, has more legitimacy to be discussed in this poem. Indeed, though his grandfather’s words are directly targeted at his carnal body, to retort, Sam Sax only resorts to his semiotic body and its value, as if he does so in order to avoid mentioning the ‘less literary’ carnal body in this struggle.


The final example that shows how Sam Sax constructs his carnal body can be Miracle. This body’s ‘carnalness’ is very much highlighted. In the poem, the poet remarks that life is a miracle because it overcomes so many obstacles. He loves the simple fact that ‘what does not kill us does not kill us’. To illustrate this point, Sam Sax shares his experience of a failed suicide attempt after his first same-sex partner died. After he ‘swallowed an entire medicine’, he emphasised the experience of feeling something ‘through my body’, ‘inside me’, in one word, visceral. Miracle’s key idea is praising survival, and it presents the author’s body purely as carnal, perishable and in turn cherishable. Though the author stresses his gay identity by referring to his boyfriend, such a carnal body in the poem is irrelevant to body politics. The only thing that matters is physical survival, and semiotic struggles have nothing to do with it.


To sum up, when Sam Sax writes about the gay body, he creates the distinction between one carnal body and other semiotic bodies. Only the semiotic ones are battlefields where we see body politics and semiotic struggles about gay rights going on. The carnal body seems to be deliberately kept away from this field to preserve its ‘carnalness’. I regard this as Sam Sax’s personal literary strategy.


Paul Ax

Undergraduate student