Sam Herschel Wein Interview, with Davon Loeb
Sam, I am so incredibly proud to do this interview with you. Connotation Press published some of your poetry in January of 2017, and I remember being kicked in the gut, the heart, and the ears then, when reading your work. Maybe it’s fate. Us editors read through however many submissions, and in there sometimes are these gems—these poets who are so special that you send an acceptance letter before getting through the whole submission—because you just know that there is something here, something unique. I hate to call it voice, but it is your voice, and it carries like a whisper and also, like a scream. Sam Herschel Wein, my fellow writer, you are that poet that we need to read, a voice echoing through a megaphone that blares in some town square—on some main street—listen, we need to listen to you.
Since publishing your work, your poems have been featured in numerous lit. magazines and journals, as well as, Split Lip Press selected your chapbook, Fruit Mansion, as the winner to the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook prize. And what a debut Sam! This poetry collection comfortably and uncomfortably examines what it means to be a young man in all its multitudes—coming of age—into love, loss, family—into finding one’s identity in a very broken America.
That being said, can you tell us what led you to this collection? I know that’s a very round question, but maybe focus on something specific about Fruit Mansion that you want readers to know.
If you were ever trying to make me cry in a coffee shop, congratulations, you just won the make Sam cry in public Olympics!! Oh goodness. Your words about my work are unbelievably touching. Connotation Press is a journal I’ve always admired, actually, because it was my best friend, Chen Chen’s, first publication. And Chen taught me everything about writing, submitting, editing, so I had always hoped to one day have work appear with you as well. And then I did! And it was completely magical!
Fruit Mansion, as a collection, really didn’t hold together very well until I had written the final poem, “What the Mansion Could Look Like”. I wrote this poem in a space of true wonder, thinking about the ways we could build a community, no, a mansion, no, a galaxy, a solar system, that was made by queer folks, for queer folks, and with our needs and wants in mind. I also wrote the poem spending a lot of time with a close friend, Ian, who was getting sick, and dying, and thinking about how much they created that space for me, and the ways we as queer folks jump in, take care of one another, act as family with such little basis, because we know what that support and encouragement means for one another, and Ian knew what it meant for me. So, losing them, I was thinking about my upbringing, my fruitiness, my femme, caretaking energy, manifested in a society that wasn’t made for a person like me to be the way I was, and what I wanted to build instead. What it could have been. And I hope Fruit Mansion helps push us all to continue the work of building our society to do that, in whatever way we can. It could be a call to action. It could be a call to hug-tion. It could be a bushel of lemons constantly dangling above your head, like a cloud you take with you, a cloud that’s your personal xylophone player, that’s singing you into existence.
There is an intimacy about your work, a real sense of rawness in each poem, as if a scab just torn or some entries in a diary meant for your eyes only. I confess—I am so damn envious of how you can write through vulnerability. I often turn off that little inner voice in me, and listen to the other that says, “you cannot say that; do not write that; it is not for the world to see”. But you write it, and write it well—making each line, image, word, and sound feel like it belongs to you and that poem.
So, how do you write through vulnerability? And how important is it for you to share the intimacies of your life?
I’ve been going over the responses to a recent poem of mine published with Glass Poetry, about butts and how I struggle to have anal sex, which my parents called me, upset about, asking why I share things people really shouldn’t know about me. And I was really thinking, why did I publish this poem about these specific trials and tribulations? Is it because I have a nice ass? I mean, yes. Is it because I’m going for shock value, or to be an “edgy queer poet?” That’s what I felt like my parents were telling me, though that felt totally not the case, not true.
And I considered the other responses, queer poets who said, yes, I’ve had trouble with sex or bottoming or poop, and I was so incredibly thankful to read about that, to see it on the screen. I guess what I’m trying to say that, as queer folks, our stories aren’t getting told, and I feel a need to do this, so that we can see each other, remind each other that we are human. And I think about so many of my experiences as a young queer person, getting bullied, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, finding love, and loss, and so many chosen families, and how these experiences exist every day with so many of my community members, but I only hear about it as we talk, or text, and rarely ever in the literature I read or the movies I watch or the tv I binge in my occasional depressive episodes.
And it’s not easy!!! To bare my soul the way I do somehow, and also, I am reaching for something, hopefully, that we can all unlock, together. Maybe that’s a lofty goal. And also, it is everything to me. I’ve thought about hiding so many of these poems away, never to be seen. But I remember, with all my conversations with all my eight million friends, that these stories are happening to us, are alive in us. And we deserve to share our experiences and have them be lifted up.
In regards to editing, you and poet, Chen Chen, are running the journal, Underblong, which I believe, is publishing some of the most active, powerful, and resonating poetry in the literary sphere today.
This is obviously a different role, from writer to editor, but what do you think of the change? What challenges do you experience? What are some of the joys?
Our blongy online space! What a wonder it has been to begin the journey that is Underblong. This question is interesting because I have never thought of the roles as writer and editor as being that separate. I think, for as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve also been wanting to highlight the writers whose work I believe in, that I want sparkling from every tree and river, on the backs of every jumping toad. I value community and connectedness above pretty much all else, so my transition to co-editor of Underblong felt very natural. Chen and I are constantly stunned at the brilliance and blongness and gusto of the writers who understand the space we are trying to create, and who electrify our inboxes with their zany, often stunning, seldom sleepy poems of true majesty.
I think, also, I don’t believe in individual success, really, as a concept. If you find yourself in a place of heavy external validation and financial or commercial support, to me, that means nothing if it was done in a vacuum, or without others that you are rising up with, lifting up, together. Ideally, our whole community, as queer writers, would all be valued and appreciated the way artists should, as an entire ring of Saturn, slowly gliding beyond the planet. That’s what we hope to do, with Underblong. To continue to highlight the voices we believe in. To build an entire beautiful movement, together.
To talk a little bit about craft, your poems are a real marriage between the narrative and the lyric. You tell stories as easily as you could sing them, like in “Instagram photo, hoop earring”, where you detail to readers a piece of the story, and then pull back and almost hum the next details, like a whisper to the ear.
Bringing me to my next question, in what ways do you intentionally write auditorily, as well as, write as a storyteller—as opposed to it being a more natural writing process?
I do sing a lot, actually, writing and not-writing. I dance, I spin, I juggle (my emotions), I bounce and bounce and the words come out this way, too, an extension of me, my kooky ideas of art, my late night angry political phone calls with my mom, my obsession with overthrowing men’s fashion and really gender altogether. I’m a lofty speaker, a lofty reader, a lofty writer. I like to hang on to the sound of something, I want it to swirl around the room, catch every ear, before it lands. Growing up, I had incredibly good hearing, and used to be able to listen to full conversations of the neighbors, could figure out where everyone was in the house based on their walking patterns and steps, and heard way too many comments from adults that they thought were out of our ears. So, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to how things sound, to how the squirrels traveling across the roof patter, and stop, and finish their jog, to how the nuts clank on the windows, the wooden fence, in a windstorm, the disappointing “oh” of someone who did not get what they wanted, but did not feel in a position to speak up, to say, hey, no thanks, hey, anything else, please. And I think this rings true in my poems, my focus on a lyrical journey, my endless desires to have a better singing voice, to be a pop sensation. But I’m not a pop sensation, and so I try to work in the songs where I can, they show up almost everywhere, in everything I do.
Last, and I hate how cliché this question is, though it’s an important one, what are you reading? What poets are shaking the feet you walk on? What are these stories that reverberate inside your head after reading them? Who is inspiring you?
Davon, you know I am a very avid reader! I have a 25-minute bus ride to work, and every day, I read crammed between people, it’s the only thing that gets me through those mornings and afternoons. I do struggle to read poetry on the bus because my hand bounces a lot and it is hard to focus, so a lot of what I’ve been reading is fiction: like Kei Miller’s Augustown, like Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, like re-reading Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. But I am inspired, constantly, by the poets around me, who are writing poems so incredible I can’t think about anything else, for months. I read Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang and it was like I had never read a book of poetry before, in my life. I keep reading There Will Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza over and over, I can’t put it away. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s first book, A Cruelty Special to our Species, just came out, and I have cried at least 17 times. And I’ve been re-reading an old friend, Jacqui Germain, her chapbook When the Ghosts Come Ashore, which reminds me what first made me fall in love with poetry, and language, as she was the first poet I ever remember being inspired by. And what a feeling! To still be inspired, nearly 8 years later. What a treat. I love poets.
Instagram photo, hoop earring
My mother, listing. Out loud, not on a sheet
of napkin, or envelope. It’s usually grocery
lists, to-do lists, but today, it’s a list of all
the gay men she knows, telling me, after
each of their names, “and they don’t wear
lipstick! I’ve never seen them wear lipstick,
not even one time!” and she’s referring to
me, my supposed sin, the instagram photo
someone showed her where I had on a
hoop earring, purple lipstick. And I said
to my mother, “well, you see them during
the daytime, at the lunch spot, on or after
work. Do you see them out late, dancing
past 2 AM? You see them slip and stumble,
kiss strangers at the bus stop?” And she
shrugs only one of her shoulders, not to
say that’s valid, or makes sense but to say
I have done something wrong and nothing
I say will change that, but mother, the book-
shelf dust continuing its work of swirling
our shared treasures, the few last items I
think we could both hold, listen, mom, maybe
I won’t grow to be like the other gay men
you know, and maybe when you tell me to
resemble them, I feel like a lumped laundry
bag, or tables of same-colored hand towels,
I’m trying to say that I am your child, and only
yours, and only the boy with gripped hair as I’m
pressed against their apartment walls, and only
Sam W. at work because there are too many Sam’s
for me to just be Sam, and there are too many
gays for me to just be a gay, that I’ve spent too
many years resisting the urge to listen when
people tell me to be what doesn’t feel like me,
and will we have to talk about this again,
when I don’t marry, don’t prioritize monogamy,
wear a dress to the function, let my shoulder
strap slip down my arm, showing off my overly
hairy armpits, awkwardly long but few outer arm
hairs? I’m eyeing bracelets at the check-out counter.
I’m buying red rings with every dollar I have.
Throwing the Book
They say my poems are the most honest
forms of me, of my expression, though I
don’t feel that way, trickster and spinning
and wet, language a convulsion of snow
and rain, I’m a sleet monster! I say to the
handsome grocery store man, deciding
between extra spicy salsa and regularly
spicy salsa, asking to anyone who is
listening, which one could give him the
kick he really needs? or, in retrospect,
starting a conversation with me, a boy
I guess he found cute. I’m still getting
used to the idea that other boys could find
me a delectable little treat, a mid-afternoon
snack, most days I’m crouching and sneaky
and shy, but today I say the extra spicy,
s’il vous plait, hold out my hand like I’m
ready for whatever world I could taste and
what I am trying to say is this, put the poem
down and talk to a person, knock the book-
shelves over, watch the vine-plants and family-
heirloom menorahs topple from their wooden
seats like unlanding dragonflies, buzzing,
put the music down, breathe in the train
noises and go up to that boy, the one you
make eye contact with for thirty-three counts
of your breath against the book, you know
you sustain yourself most on what it could
mean, and you find that in books, too, don’t
get me wrong, you have jumped from the
couch, knocked over tables and water cups
and startled three dogs with one line of a
poem, the indecency of an adjective, the
ferocity of a good verb, but it will never,
ever, be written, if you can’t have some
courage, can’t say, hey, I think I like you,
I think together we could be something totally
rad, even if just for a day
I read the articles, gay men with significantly higher rates of depression, of suicidal ideation
and I know that they are about me, though I’ve never been surveyed,
or interviewed. So it’s not about me specifically, but it feels like my
experience, I latch onto it, cherish it like childhood toys, freshly born
sons. Such treasured gifts, passed to me from so many directions:
not seeing myself represented, no character like me on the screen,
no future to dream of, told over and over by family, friends,
and lovers that we are sick, I am sick, wrong, corrupt, how I’m
glanced over, not looked through, for lack of muscles, no flatness
of navel, how I’m told to have community but always told what is
required of me, of my looks, to be included, how my supposed leaders
don’t fight for me and my friends, but battle for our oppressors
to have more voice in the ways we are told to reform ourselves,
staring as close to the sun as can be
listen, the sun will kill me, queers get set on fire every day, our skin
is always glistening, in fear, in the sweat of needed release, in dance
in sex in held down crying in three prescriptions from the psychiatrist,
in none of the psychiatrists talking to their straight friends on how to
make us feel a semblance of safety, yes, I’m depressed, no, it’s not
just mine, this one time, this is something we share, but separately,
see, no one is talking about it, I’m not reaching for the sun, but if
someone could grab my hand, help remind me I’m not alone, I really
really think we could shine